As the Rilke Prize winner, Barot traveled to Denton from Tacoma, WA where he teaches at Pacific Lutheran University and serves as director of The Rainier Writing Workshop. He gave a craft talk to students about Susan Stewart’s collection The Forest and her influences on his own poetry. During his visit, Barot sat down with ALR poetry contest coordinator Sebastián Páramo and talked on topics ranging from ekphrasis, poetic process, the role of the poet, and the contemporary scene.
Rick Barot: Well, my process is one of constant gathering of material. An analogy is how birds make nests, and their nests are made of all kinds of detritus: pieces of foil, pieces of string, pieces of hay, pieces of cellophane. Imagine that obsessive gathering but not knowing that you are going to make a nest. I think that’s what my process is like. I gather, without the immediate understanding that I am making a nest. In fact, I might be making a truck, or a balloon, or a tree. At a certain point, after I’ve gathered enough seemingly random and junky things, I get a spark of an idea that tells me what the things might be for. Then I start to compose. I wait a really long time. I don’t begin to write until I have that spark—almost like a seizure that brings the mind’s different parts into one earnest posture. Otherwise, I bide my time.
SP: I’m curious about the use of ekphrasis in your work. I read an interview with you in which you say that art and art history have heavily influenced you, and I get the sense that there is not only ekphrasis but also imitation at play in your work. This is also curious because I’m currently reading Susan Stewart’s critical work, and she talks about distressing objects and relationships to objects in her memory. I also see some of that here in your collection. Could you speak more about this?
RB: There’s a lot in what you just said. One place to begin is to bring up the questions that seem to be behind every discussion that I have with anyone regarding art: What is art? What are its functions and roles in a civilization? These are big questions, obviously, and my answers have to be filtered through the relationship I’ve had with art over the decades.
Like a lot of people, my relationship with art began with me being a consumer of art. I loved the focused experience that art could provide. You encounter a painting or a photograph, a movie or a song, and these are things meant to generate a response in you. My responses were always one of intense pleasure—that paradoxical pleasure of being taken out of yourself and also deeper into yourself. Then there’s that moment when the consumer wants to become a creator or producer of art. I’m not sure when that happened for me. It might have been in high school, when I was told over and over that I was a good writer, without understanding what that meant, because it was like being praised for breathing. In college, when I consciously chose to take writing classes and literature classes, it kicked in that I enjoyed writing and wanted to study it at the technical, granular level. I felt challenged by writing, even though I knew I had a natural proclivity.
In the years afterwards, as I committed to being a writer and eventually committed to teaching, my sense of what art was, what it could be, and what the artist’s role and responsibility were—this deepened and broadened at the same time. My sense of art as a pleasure-generating thing got inflected by the sense of art as having ethical imperatives. So, that’s a rambling way of responding to your question about ekphrasis and how it fits into my poetry. In my early work, when I engaged with other artworks in my poems, it was often just to record the sugar-high that I got from encountering those artworks. I wanted my poems to say yes to those artworks. These days, because I’m so much more cognizant of—even worried by—the historical, social, and cultural contexts that surround any work of art, my ekphrastic work is more about capturing the mixed feelings that I have when I interact with a work of art. The poems want to say yes, but.
SP: Your idea for the first poem, “Tarp,” seems connected to these ideas. Do you consider that an ekphrasis? What’s the role of this image in your piece?
RB: For a few years I was noticing tarp everywhere, and it was a pure visual delight I was feeling when I saw them. I was, like, “Isn’t it cool that there are green tarps, orange tarps, yellow tarps, blue tarps, black tarps, and white tarps?” It was a playful observation about something that is all around us, and I wrote a Post-it note that said “poem about tarp.” The Post-it note sat on my bulletin board for a long time. When I got to the end of writing the poems for Chord, the tarp poem was the one remaining idea on my bulletin board. So I said, “OK, it’s time to write this poem.” I sat there, describing things in a desultory way, until I felt that turn towards something else in my thinking. Thinking about tarp and all its functions, I realized that there was a conceptual weight that lurked within the object. And so I followed the poem into that lurch from the descriptive to the metaphoric.
SP: Could you speak to the genesis of “The Poem is a Letter Opener”? It seems there is a lot of gathering in that poem that builds and builds on this idea of what a poem is. How do you bring the reader from one moment to the next?
RB: The poem is actually a good example of what I said earlier about gathering and waiting. A number of years ago, I did a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and I’d gone there having gathered materials that I hoped would turn into poems. One of the books I read there was an amazing book by Bill Knott called The Unsubscriber. I’ve forgotten the title of his poem, but its first line was: “the poem is a letter opener.” Encountering the line from Knott, it gave me a glimpse of how I might organize some of the things I’d gathered—images, ideas, phrases—into a poem. Also, for a long while, in a lazy way, I’d been asking myself this question: What is a poem, exactly? So, seeing Knott’s answer to the question gave me permission to come up with my own sprawling set of answers. I think I wrote the poem in a couple hours. I knew I wanted to use Knott’s line as my title—a kind of homage to what instigated the poem. Earlier today, in class, we talked what it means to read as a writer—we read to steal.
SP: Your book is organized into sections. There are some autobiographical poems in your book, and a later section seems to have a political bent to it. Is this something you did deliberately? I’m curious to know how you planned your book’s organization.
RB: I spent about seven years writing the poems in Chord. My previous book, Want, had a very strong theme that organized it and I wrote the book quickly, propelled by the theme. After I finished that book, I swore that I would explore a different way of being a writer. I wanted to write things as they came along, without worrying if they belonged to something bigger.
Over the course of six or seven years of your life, different things happen all around you and to you. I didn’t want to edit what kinds of poems I wrote out of the life I was living, so I just wrote all sorts of poems. Then, at a certain point, I realized that I had a good number of pages and had better look at what I had. I always try to go for a manuscript of 50 pages, and by then I had about 60 pages. I put everything out on my living room floor and started to cluster poems according to various themes that I could see. The sections seemed to come together on their own, which was pretty surprising to me, because I’d worked so hard to not think about the organizing principles that would eventually inform the book. The poems seemed so haphazard to me—the by-products of a life moving through experience and time, instead of the result of some thoughtful project. Putting the book together became a kind of claim for how the poems did in fact cohere, in spite of the willful disregard I had for coherence as I wrote the poems.
SP: I feel there is an obsession here with experiment and play, which again reminds me of Stewart. Many of your poems felt very playful, yet confident—they were willing to experiment, but at the same time, they still speak to each other.
RB: I think you’re referring back to our earlier conversation in class about how, in The Forest by Susan Stewart, the poems look different on the page from poem to poem. Clearly, Stewart had subjects that she urgently wanted to write about. But she was also just as urgent about challenging herself to come up with new shapes for the poems. And that’s definitely something I took to heart after reading the book, which I’ve now read dozens of times. If you’re writing a book of poems, wouldn’t it be interesting to aim for a new shape for each poem? Not in a gimmicky or forced way, but in a way that’s both organic and technical at the same time. The Forest is one of the most morally earnest books of poems that I know, but also formally playful, even exuberantly playful. I still don’t know how she did it—the poems are so full and also so chiseled.
SP: In particular, one of your poems where this play figures heavily is “Exegesis in Wartime,” which you briefly talked about in class. I like how “meta” the poem gets, but you interweave other things. I’m curious about the genesis of this poem. How does play figure into it? Does it speak to the collection as a whole?
RB: So, we talked earlier in the class about my admiration for “The Arbor, 1937” by Stewart, which utilizes a call-and-response structure. I had always been intrigued by that formal project in the poem, and always wanted to write my own version of that two-part structure.
When I was thinking about “Exegesis in Wartime,” I’d originally thought I was going to write two separate poems. One would be an explication of a sentence in a story by Hemingway, a sentence that I find continually fascinating. And then, I was going to write another poem about the Iraq War, one that focused on the bombing of a street in Baghdad that was the hub of literary life in the city, a street that had a lot of bookstores, an area where writers and publishers were centered. I knew I wanted to write those two poems—the Hemingway poem and the Baghdad poem. But, at a certain point, I started to playfully wonder what it would mean to put the two subjects together—subjects which, on the surface of it, didn’t belong together.
When I remembered Stewart’s poem and its two-part structure, I realized that there might be a way of bringing the two poems into one space. So, I began to play with the idea of juxtaposing the two subjects using Stewart’s formal structure. I don’t know if the poem really succeeds, but I thought putting the two together created a better poem than two separate poems.
SP: I still find it interesting. I like going back and rereading it and seeing what’s happening in there. I feel like there is something worthwhile in that it teaches me something, the same way that Stewart taught you. I wonder: Does your process influence the way that you teach? What kind of ethos as a poet do you encourage your students to have?
RB: That’s a really great question. I want to preface my answer by saying that I try to keep my writer-self and my teacher-self separate from each other. Because I think they are actually two very different selves. The writer-self is often predicated on uncertainty and lack of knowing—failure, vulnerability. That’s the side of myself that’s just a whiner: Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I make better poems? It’s a selfishly emotional being, that writer-self. I think that emotional volatility is where a lot of poems come from. You want to keep rescuing yourself from that vulnerability. On the other hand, my teacher-self is predicated on other things, which might be the opposite. Things that have to do with understanding, critical thinking, and an investment in making people know certain things. So you can see those are two very different selves.
I would not want my students to write the way I write. Or to inhabit the kind of being that I am when I’m writing, because it is a very messy self. So when I’m teaching poetry writing or any kind of writing, I don’t actually instruct my students on how to be. I don’t think that you can teach that. You can certainly teach values that have to do with reading carefully and with revision, but the process of composing and making the poem is best left to each person to craft for himself or herself. I don’t necessarily tell my students how to write, though I want them to have as many technical and conceptual tools as I can give them when they write.
Practically speaking, in the classroom I give a lot of assignments, but they tend to be loose so that the student can grapple with that assignment and discover something of himself or herself from the prompt. The assignments can be subject-driven or form-driven, usually one assignment a week. But I am not the kind of teacher who tells them that this is how you’re going to compose your poem. I believe that some people like to write in a doggedly organized way, so they might write a first draft the minute they get the assignment and then revise it as the week goes on. There is another kind of writer that might think and think and think for six days, then the night before it’s due, he madly composes and revises. I’m not one to evaluate whether one is better than the other. The poems could be equally good. One objective of teaching is to help develop the student’s technical poise, without giving the student a bunch of rigid, prescriptive rules. The other objective is to inspire, without getting in the way of the student’s imagination and energy and creativity.
SP: You’ve mentioned the writer-self and the teacher-self, but I’m curious about the editor-self. In terms of editing not only your own poems but also as the editor of the New England Review, how do you see yourself as an editor?
RB: In my writer-self, the revision and editing process are so integrated into my overall composition process that I can’t parse how the various strands of the whole thing work separately. It’s happening all at once. In terms of my students’ work, I’m both hands-on and hands-off. I like to provide detailed comments about things that they are doing, to let them understand how I’m processing their poem at the word level, at the sentence level, at the line level, and at the conceptual level. I want the writer to overhear me as I mull over their work, describing it, evaluating it. And I try never to prescribe. I think that any reader’s work, in relation to the poem that is being workshopped, has to do with giving the writer a sense of how it’s coming across in the current version. It’s a writer’s job to take in the comments or notions about how the poem is coming across, then have a conversation with himself or herself about where the poem should go next.
The workshop shouldn’t be about getting a laundry list of corrections. Rather, it’s a chance for the writer to listen to committed readers having a conversation—maybe even a debate—about his or her poem. Some of that conversation will be useful to the writer; a lot of it probably won’t. The writer has to listen carefully, and also evaluate what’s been said in order to figure what’s worth pursuing in his or her own mind, in his or her own further work.
One thing that I care about as a teacher is to give as many comments about the things that work in a poem, and why. I don’t think it’s not enough to just say, “That’s really good. That’s working.” I think it’s important for the writer, the student, to get a sense of why. Because it might be working differently for different readers, articulating that text-reader dynamic is an important thing for the writer to hear, from as many people as possible.
SP: Can you discuss your role as editor of The New England Review?
RB: It’s not editing per se. It’s curating. We get a lot of amazing work, and it’s just a matter of putting together a selection of work, issue after issue, that’s a broad representative of different aesthetics, of the different kinds of beauty in poetry. The poems are already finished when I receive them, so it’s just a question of orchestrating a grouping of poems—poems that are high in accomplishment but different from each other.
SP: What kind of poetry are you interested or invested in?
RB: Well, earlier in class, I talked about a couple of values that I care about as a reader, teacher, and editor. The first value deals with the notion of risk. Different people can define risk differently, but I want to know that the poet I’m reading has interacted with some aspect of danger in order to produce the poem. I don’t mean that in a melodramatic way, but it’s about mapping terrains in the self or mapping terrains of knowledge about the world that is unknown to the writer, uncertain to the writer. That to me is risky. And that terrain can be internal or external. When I read a poem, there’s a question that tacitly informs my encounter with that poem: how is the writer generating heat in the poem? Maybe risk is my way of talking about that question. The other value has to do with the idea of shape, and a writer having a formal ingenuity, a formal awareness of the different shapes that their poems can take—whether it’s a traditional form, or some free verse form, or a truly innovative form. So, I’m interested in those two things in the poems I read. I’m always looking for that wonderful mixture—content that is moving, knowledge-making, provocative, and form that is aware that art is about making.
SP: What younger or emerging writers are you interested in today?
RB: We’re having a lively blossoming of younger poets who are deservedly getting a lot of attention. I’m thinking of Ocean Vuong. He is somebody in his twenties who has gained a lot of attention for his work. There are other poets of his generation like Danez Smith and Saeed Jones. The attention being given to this generation is intense, and I love the fact that many of them are writers of color.
SP: I saw Ocean Vuong and Danez Smith read at an event put on by Button Poetry and YesYes Books at this year’s AWP conference in LA. Both presses seem to be doing exactly what you are saying: highlighting those voices.
RB: It is a very exciting time for younger poets. I’m also thinking about Anders Carlson-Wee and Noah Warren. And Tarfia Faizullah and Jamaal May. I think many people would agree with me that poetry is in a vibrant state because the younger generations are doing energetic, breathtaking things with poetry.
SP: How do you wrestle with the interplay between the political and the personal?
RB: I think that the proportioning between the personal and the other things that can be in a poem—that’s the constant grappling I do as a poet. I’m temperamentally a shy person. I’m a pretty restrained, private person. So I’m not someone who writes poems in order to explore the autobiographical. Instead, I’m interested in how the autobiographical is in tension with, or is contextualized by, everything else that intersects with it. If you think about concentric rings, the autobiographical is the smallest ring in the middle. The next ring out encompasses other markers of identity that have to do with race, sexuality, family experience. And maybe the ring after that would have to do with education, class, and other metrics that an individual embodies. And in the next ring out, you have the country you live in, what period of history you live in, the state of the environment, and so on. These days, I’m interested in writing poems that are aware of all the rings beyond the self. The self feels like a small thing that is part of a larger thing, and I’m interested in the larger thing, which also includes the self.
SP: How do you help younger writers arrive at subjects that are valuable for them, whether that subject is personal or impersonal?
RB: I teach undergrad and graduate writers, and each writer I mentor needs a different alchemy of things that might bring his or her work to the next level of depth and density. One fundamental thing I can do—what any teacher can do, really—is give a lot of suggestions for reading, from across the historical and formal spectrum of poetry. Steering younger writers to the work of other younger writers can be instructive for the student because it shows that student how someone in the present is dealing with the questions the student is probably dealing with: What is my subject? What is my form? What is my obsession? Who am I, as a writer, as a citizen, as a consciousness? etc.
In that regard, I might refer the student to some of the younger poets I mentioned earlier. Ocean Vuong’s new book, for example, seems to be directly voicing personal experience. He’s doing incredibly interesting things with form and imagination and lyricism in his work. But finally, the subject is the self. On the other hand, you look at a book like Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, and the presence of the writer is more like a reporter looking avidly into a group of people who have experienced something. She’s writing about their experiences. Obviously she is imagining and creating what those experiences are, based on the things she has learned. The work feels rooted in the personal, but it’s not what I’d call autobiographical.
The point is, I guess, that there is no one way for a younger writer, or any writer, to write about the personal, the political, or the mixture of the two. Each writer has to discover his or her way into the self and its place in the world.
SP: I’m interested in this question in another way: Given the recent controversy surrounding the ways in which white writers deal with their subject matter, how far removed from the subject do you think the writer should be?
RB: There should be no constraints on the writer to inhabit the experiences of other people, regardless of how distant those people are in time or identity from the writer. Whether it’s a white writer writing about historical figures or people of another ethnicity, there should not be a policing of that. In the same way, writers of color should be able to write about whatever they want. That’s the ideal. However, once you actually commit to doing the work of writing about selves who are not ostensibly your own self, you then have to be responsible for the answer to this question: how are you paying attention to the problems and obligations being generated when you write about material that isn’t necessarily close to home? If I started writing poems in the voice of a Syrian refugee, I have every freedom to do that, right? But embracing that freedom also means confronting a host of quandaries and opportunities that come with writing about something I’m not directly experiencing—the problem of not knowing what it’s like to be in that mind, that body, that heart, that circumstance. And it takes skill to do it well. It is very easy to do it badly.
The first premise for the writer is always freedom, isn’t it? But soon after, once you actually get going, there’s nuance and limit that you have to grapple with, things which probably set you up for inevitable failure of some kind.
SP: This speaks to something you said earlier. There exists the idea of embracing difficulty in poems to a certain degree, and I’m wondering if you see the issue of what a writer can write entering the conversation about difficulty.
RB: Earlier, I was celebrating the idea of difficulty in poetry as a resource for poets. I was referring to Reginald Shepherd’s brilliant essay on difficulty in poetry, an essay where he creates a useful taxonomy for different kinds of difficulty that you might encounter in poems: lexical difficulty, allusive difficulty, formal difficulty, and so on. What I take from Shepherd’s essay is the excellent idea that difficulty is something a poet can deploy in his or her poetry, rather than something you edit out or simplify in order to please the reader. If there are parts of a poem that need to be challenging because the things you’re writing about are complicated, there is a reason then for the difficulty. But you have to be clear whether you’re creating difficulty—or whether you’ve generated something that’s just obscure or badly written.
SP: How do we translate difficult subject matter into a resource for our poems?
RB: So if you’re attempting to write a poem that has complicated subject matter, complicated for any number of reasons, the technical decisions you make should be about honoring those complexities. So that, instead of cleaning them up or simplifying the complexities, you’re figuring out a way of translating those complicated things through form and through language, so you have both a sense of control over that complicated material while also allowing the reader to inhabit the chaos of that material. It’s a hard balance to create: making the reader confident that the art-making is good, even as the reader feels that the poem’s emotional and intellectual experiences are dynamic. So it’s that tension between dynamic content and confident form. And, by the way, when I say form, I mean the whole range of technical things at your disposal as a poet: diction, syntax, lineation, image and metaphor, stanza, sound, structure, tone, semantic modality. All of it.
SP: This speaks to an idea about poetry that you had: What do you mean when you say you should be suspicious of poetry and its capability to speak and complicate things?
RB: When I was writing the poems in Chord, I was suspicious of poetry’s ability to carry the weight and texture of the things happening around me—personal things, political things, social things, historical things. I kept wondering to myself whether poetry could do the job of grappling with the challenging notions that I hoped to write about. And the poems in Chord reflect that ongoing negotiation that I’m having with the genre’s ability to do its job. So that’s why there’s a lot of self-reflexiveness in the poems. It keeps cropping up, and that’s just me talking to myself about whether it can be done. Of course it can be done—because poetry is capacious enough and cunning enough to describe virtually any human experience. Maybe the anxiety had to do with me doing it well, doing it without falling into simplification or sentimentality or banality.
SP: Is there a particular poem that was difficult for you to write?
RB: The hardest poem to write in the book was the longest poem in the book, “Some Roses & Their Phantoms,” which is about four pages long. It begins as a meditation on a painting by Dorothea Tanning, but then it spins off into talking about half a dozen other things, none of them really related to each other. And so, the poem felt like driving a car downhill without brakes. The challenge was in encompassing all sorts of things into the poem’s momentum, while keeping the poem’s integrity as a poem. The poem drove me crazy, but in the exhilarating, nerdy way that writing can drive you crazy.
SP: I think that what you just said reminds me of a particular image in one of Stewart’s poems: “The way the foot hits a brake / and a right arm flails out, ready, able / to save what needs saving.”
RB: There we go. I was alluding to Susan Stewart without even knowing it. See. It’s all about what you can steal.
SP: What are you working on right now?
RB: The first thing I’m trying to finish is a collection of essays about poetry and art that I’ve been working on for ten years now. There are about 12 or 13 essays in the collection. I have been dragging my feet with finishing this project. Mostly because I know that no one out there is holding their breath for a collection of essays about poetry. But I would like to finish it very soon. I just got a Guggenheim Fellowship, and it’s going to give me the opportunity to take some time off. Hopefully, that will be one result of getting a Guggenheim: I will finally finish this thing.
The other thing I’m working on is new poems for a fourth book of poems. I’m still fairly early in the manuscript, but I’m enjoying the poems I’m writing—as much as you can enjoy writing poems, which are impossible to write.