Interview: Brian Barker
Friday, 2 September 2011
Often a poet becomes overly comfortable with a certain mode of expression; lending his voice too-often to a style or method of conveyance that quickly becomes over-used. The freshet poets, then, are those who renew their language with each iteration of their art.
Brian Barker is such a poet; his work constantly employs new forms, encouraging a range of artistic and potetic enterprise to be enjoyed and savored. Check out his site here, and some of his poems here, here, and here.
Brian holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Ploughshares, Quarterly West, American Book Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Indiana Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, fugue, and storySouth.
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What is the function of poetry today, in a culture of efficiency and hyper-mediaization?
I’m not sure the function of poetry is any different today than it was 100 or even 500 years ago. It is—as my old mentor, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, used to say—a quest for a very rich truth, whether that truth be intellectual or emotional or both. It’s trying to teach us something about living on this earth, what it is to be human or animal.
It’s trying to shake us from the sleep walk of our lives and have us stand present before a moment or an idea. I don’t think our world of the 24-hour news cycle and smart phones and social networking and the Internet changes what poetry has always tried to do. If anything, it makes poetry more urgent and necessary. It commands our attention, something we all have a deficit of these days.
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Your childhood features strongly in your poetry. Did you become interested in a poetic venture in your youth?
I was an avid reader as a child. I have fond memories of going to the public library weekly during the summer months and leaving with a fat stack of books. When I was eight or nine, I also wrote short stories for fun, little narratives full of talking animals. Somewhere along the way, in high school probably, my love of reading was put on the back burner for sports and trying to escape the nerd I was born to be. What a folly!
Poetry was never on my radar until my junior year of college. I was majoring in biology and thinking about med school or physical therapy. My English courses were what I enjoyed the most, though, and on the last day of a required Advanced Composition class, my instructor brought in two poems—Roethke’s “Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz” and T.R. Hummer’s “Where You Go When She Sleeps”—as a way of advertising a contemporary poetry class he was teaching next term.
Well, I didn’t know contemporary poetry existed. I really didn’t. It was never taught at my high school, and I hadn’t yet taken any contemporary lit classes. I was blown away by these poems and immediately knew I wanted to try to write something like them. I changed my major the next day, signed up for my first poetry workshop, and never looked back.
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With the advent of Internet self-publishing ventures, critics claim that literature will be inundated with a flow of unchecked, mediocre writing. Is this a new age of openness or blandness?
Perhaps there is more mediocre writing than ever floating around out there because of Internet self-publishing ventures, but then again, there’s always been a glut of mediocre writing. The problem with any present moment is that we don’t have the long view of history.
The mediocre writing—whether it’s published on the Internet or by a legitimate publishing company—will pass into oblivion eventually, just as it did, say, in the 1800s, and the Keatses and Shelleys and Wordsworths rose to the surface and keep on keeping on.
I think, in general, that we are in a new age of openness in American poetry that has little to do with the Internet and everything to do with the wide variety of poetry that’s being written at the moment. No one type of poetry is dominating, and that, to me, makes this an exciting moment to be a reader and writer of poems.
I do believe, though, that the Internet is a mostly positive force in the poetry world. There are a plethora of quality online literary magazines now—Blackbird, Memorious, and Diagram, are a few that come to mind—and such journals are reaching a record number of readers, both because they are free and because issues are archived online indefinitely.
Similarly, there are a bunch of blogs and review sites that reach new audiences and raise our awareness of writers. How a Poem Happens, First Book Interviews, On the Seawall, Poem of the Week, and, of course, this site, Pages to Pixels, are all good examples. So, ultimately I see the Internet as a friend to poetry and literature, a democratizing and broadcasting force.
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Much of your poetry from your book The Black Ocean focuses on worldly tragedies. Is yours is a poetry of politics, or did you choose these events for their gravity alone?
Good question. I don’t choose events for their gravity alone. I find doing so can lead to poems that are dogmatic and overbearing, poems that seem to be (mis)using the event for poetic gain. In order for me to write about something, I have to become obsessed with it for one reason or another.
It might be figuring out how some public moment in history fits into my own history, or it might mean just trying to understand something that doesn’t make sense to me, no matter how often I roll it over in my mind.
The poems in The Black Ocean that deal with Katrina, torture, the genocide of Native Americans, the Chernobyl disaster, etc. are overtly political. I have felt for some time compelled to write with a social consciousness.
One of my mantras comes from Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Campo dei Fiori”: “Those dying here, the lonely / forgotten by the world, / our tongue becomes for them / the language of an ancient planet.”
But politics and poetry is a risky marriage. Poetry’s power comes from mystery and discovery. Politics are all about hardened stances and belief systems. When poetry simply becomes a mouthpiece for those stances, then it sacrifices its depth, its vitality, its mystery, its power to move us to awe, delight, or tears. It becomes an artistic endeavor with a short shelf life, something built for the moment instead of eternity.
My solution to this over the years has been to find ways to get myself lost and put myself in the dark so that I’m not quite sure what the poem is going to say or where it’s going to go or what it’s about. For example, I knew exactly how I felt about America’s policy of torture under the Bush administration. I was pissed off! But it didn’t make sense to compose a poem that spews that anger and, in a sense, preaches to the choir.
So, I started trying to imagine ways to reframe the subject so that I could understand it better, and in order to do that, I had to find a way to address torture that that clouded or subverted what I already knew. The result was the poem “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind” that speaks from different voices in an attempt to create a mythic history of torture that that stood over and against the narrative woven by politicians and journalists.
In my attempt, then, to come at the subject slant, I write from the viewpoint of a hood, a dog, a fly, etc. In doing so, I hope I’m able to get beyond simple notions of good or bad and delve into something more complicated and complex.
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As a young poet, maybe you can speak to this: Many believe that as the audience for poetry diminishes, writing becomes an act of economic futility. Is there anything enchanting or romantic about the notion for art for art’s-rather than money’s—sake?
I’m not sure I see evidence that poetry’s audience is diminishing. In fact, I might argue that it’s actually more robust than it has been in years. There are a record number of creative writing programs, and no matter where one stands in the tiresome debate about their efficacy in making writers, there’s no doubt that they create an audience for poetry and literary fiction.
There are scads of websites devoted to poetry and poets, and poetry shows up more and more often in popular media. The News Hour has a poetry segment each week and Terrance Hayes was interviewed on CNN after winning the National Book Award for Lighthead. And there are more independent publishers of poetry than ever, hawking their books at festivals and conferences across the nation. So, I think the state of poetry’s audience is strong.
Does that mean poetry is an economically viable enterprise for writers and publishers? Definitely not. But it never has been. Poetry has always been an act of economic futility. There are very few poets today that can make a living off their poetry. Most have day jobs as teachers or translators or editors or waiters or factory workers or doctors. And before poets had day jobs, they had patrons.
There might be something enchanting about the economic futility of poetry, but a if young writer wants to endure as a student of the art for a lifetime, he or she has to have a better reason to write than just a romantic notion.
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In reading your work for this interview, I was floored by your poetic range. You’ve written everything from prose poetry to clipped couplets; what inspires this poetic variability?
Thanks. I’m a restless poet. My obsessions are always shifting, and I like the challenge of trying to teach myself how to write a new kind of poem. That unknown territory is stimulating to me, and I’m wary of putting something down on the paper the same way as I did before, and the same way as I did it before that. Doing so leads to going through the motions, and, I think, flat, tensionless poetry. So, I like to shake things up a bit, try to get myself lost in some new approach to see where it leads me.
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Do you write poetry every day?
I don’t write every day. I envy people who can. I’ve tried a couple of times in my life to sit down and write every day, but it’s just not very fruitful for me. There tends to be a lot of fallow time between poems when I’m reading and thinking and waiting for the next obsession to take hold, waiting for the creative cisterns to refill.
Once one of these things happen, then I can have months long stretches where I write almost every day, but eventually that momentum ends. I’m OK with that. When I’m not writing, I’m always trying to put myself in a position to be open to what might come next.
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Who’ve you been reading?
Here are the five books of late that have floored me: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; Landon Godfrey’s Second-Skin Rhinestone-Spangled Nude Soufflé Chiffon Gown; Carsten René Nielsen’s The World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors; Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.