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