2016 Rilke Prize Winner: An Interview With Rick Barot 

Interview conducted by Sebastián Páramo

Rick Barot has published three books of poetry: The Darker Fall (2002), Want (2008), and Chord (2015). With Chord, Barot earned the 2016 University of North Texas Rilke Prize, a $10,000 award recognizing a book of artistry and vision written by a mid-career poet. Chord also received the PEN Open Book Award and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for Poetry.

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.

Sebastián Páramo: How did you engage in the creation of these poems? I read that you keep a diary, and that you compose some of your poems on a typewriter. What is your process for translating your experiences to the page?

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 TheNew 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 po