AN INTERVIEW WITH RICK BAROT
Craig Beaven: This is Craig Beaven. It's January 25th, and I'm in Washington D.C. on the campus of George Washington University talking with poet Rick Barot for Blackbird.
Thanks for meeting with us, Rick. I really appreciate it.
I guess I wanted to begin by responding to something you wrote to one of the editors of Blackbird in an email. But before that, I wanted to just give our readers a little bit of history. Your first book is The Darker Fall. It won the Kathryn Morton Prize. It was published by a highly reputable press, Sarabande Publishing. It was selected by the esteemed Stanley Plumly, and you've held the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. But when the review came out in Blackbird, you expressed surprise at seeing the review, and you said something to the extent that you thought that it had been published and then disappeared. And I was wondering if you could talk about that because it seems to be a pretty common thing in the art form. There's this anticlimactic . . . there's this build-up of years of toiling, and then publishing sometimes can just be like dropping it in the Grand Canyon or something. It just disappears.
Rick Barot: Right, and you don't get the echo. I think it's become a trend that a lot of books, whether first books or second books or third books, don't get reviewed anymore, and so you wonder, how are these books getting out there? I know that the book is selling well enough, and so it makes me wonder, how's it doing that if it's not being reviewed? So in many ways, in terms of the usual reviewing channels, the book hasn't had much of a life. But it . . . what I said was perhaps a little bit facetious because the book has had a life in terms of a readership, but that readership hasn't been accessed or they haven't accessed the book through reviews. That's interesting to me. I don't know what that means, necessarily, about how the life of a book proceeds without the review.
CB: So the book is out there living and breathing and having a life, you think.
RB: I think so.
CB: That's good. That's reassuring because often you hear poets lamenting there's no readership.
RB: It is out there. I think part of the reason why it has, it's had a life of its own is because I've been giving a lot of readings in the last year. That's one of the things that Sarabande is so great about. They help their [writers] get out there and do readings and promote the book. And so . . . I would say that I've given at least twenty-five readings all over the country in the last year, and so that has really helped.
CB: I was reading through the book and I was thinking that the most pronounced motif in the book is the evocation of, not landscape, but something much more specific, like street corners, rooms, apartments. And the listing of place names becomes almost incantatory by the end of the book. If you read it all the way through you get all this geography. I was wondering if you could talk about that as a poet, like what about landscape, or what about these places that seems to hold kind of a mythic power, if it's mythic at all.
RB: Maybe this is a high-minded answer, but this is something I've been thinking about. The idea of the romantic lyric has to do with an "I" that's situated in a landscape of some kind, whether that's urban or natural. And so in many ways, the "I" of the book is undergoing some sort of post-romantic journey through the poems of that book. Therefore, the staging is very important and very foregrounded in terms of the urban spaces or the natural spaces or even those in-between spaces. I'm not really sure why I've been enamored of those places, but perhaps it's one way of thinking about it, that in the lineage that I find myself it's a post-romantic world.
CB: So it's sort of like how the self of the poet gets expressed is going to be via this landscape or via this . . .
RB: A lot of it gets displaced onto the landscape. If you're trying to figure out or imagine an interior place, the coordinates of your interior life, what do you have? How do you map that? You go out there and see what the world has to offer you as mirror for those things. It is a narcissistic activity, looking at these things. But what happens is that the self becomes effaced in the delineation of objects which are outside of itself.
CB: There's a line in your book from the poem "Battersea Bridge," and I think this sort of sums up where you write, and I'm paraphrasing: "Is there a more human habit than this, to stand here looking out, letting our natures yield to all we see, so that the streets . . . begin to stand for our longings?" So it's the landscape and self relationship?
RB: Absolutely. That poem, which is a sonnet, has two sort of ghosts behind it. One of course is Whistler and his nocturnes, but the other one of course is Wordsworth. I'm forgetting the title of the poem, but he's got a wonderful poem, a sonnet, about standing on one of the bridges in London and looking at it ["Composed Upon Westminster Bridge"]. He's got that other great sonnet, "The world is too much with us; late and soon." I'm not thinking about that one, but it's another vision by him, standing on another bridge. That was in my mind somewhere when I was writing that sonnet. Wordsworth was in there, and that line seems to me . . . it's a romantic line.
CB: You seem to be using the word romantic quite a bit already in the interview and . . .
RB: I should stop.
CB: One of the questions I was going to ask you about, who you see as your models, or who you read or how you conceive, what you've read that has sort of informed your conception of poetry? In Plumly's introduction he says—I think of the poem "Battersea Bridge"—he says, "postmodern but romantic," and I was wondering, do you see yourself situated in that way as a romantic or in the vein of?
RB: You know what? I would love to say yes, but attached to my saying yes, I am a post-romantic poet, attached to that is a whole lot of baggage that I would be uncomfortable with.
RB: Which is the baggage that you're a strictly conservative, traditional, un-ironic writer or perceiver of the world.
CB: Right. That's certainly not the case with the poems in The Darker Fall. I guess getting back to the idea of place, obviously you're here in Washington, D.C., as a visiting writer, and that's a long way from home. One of the poems in the book is called "The Exile" and the stance of the speaker is of the exile. Can you talk a little bit about that, your relationship to place and its . . . the idea of loss or desire of place? That seems to be the driving emotion.
RB: You know, Anne Carson has that great book, Eros the Bittersweet, where she talks about the triangulation that happens between the beloved, the lover, and then the third leg being the thing that keeps those two people apart. For me, I wonder if place has some part of that, that idea of triangulation where it's the self and then there's a perceived ideal of the self and then there's the issue of place having to act as a kind of fulcrum for those two things. Once again it's that romantic thing where the place becomes the source of difficulty, and yet because it's an objective barrier perhaps between you the earthly person and you the ideal, perhaps platonic person slash poet, and place gets in the way of that because you have to navigate through the objectivity of that . . . I feel that I've gotten away from the question.
CB: I was going to ask about place, and then you sent me some of your new work, and you have poems titled "West 16th Street in Iowa," and it's like place is coming back, and again it doesn't go away. So it seemed to be such a resonant part of the book or of your work, so I wanted to . . .
RB: I'd never thought about that, the idea of place. Maybe place is just another word for reality. You know, it's one way of putting a frame on a particular reality that I'm trying to describe in my poems, whether it's Iowa or New York City.
CB: Moving along, I guess I wanted to respond again to something you'd written in an email to me. You said that you're "trying desperately to finish a new manuscript." And I was wondering about that, when the composition becomes desperation or something. where it becomes like it's no longer fun or inspired? Like I'm putting a thesis together, and it seems more mechanical than contacting the muse or anything. How does that work? Does it become a job, does it become business or . . . ?
RB: No, it's never a job because when I write a poem it never arrives when I want it to. It always comes unexpectedly. It is always sort of like being visited by the weather—you don't it's going to come. When I wrote you that, I was basically talking about the fact that the second book is predicated on a theme, the Echo and Narcissus story, and I'm writing a lot of the poems with Echo as a muse behind the poems. And I've been writing this book for more than two years now. And I'm getting impatient with the theme. Not with the work, because it's not finished yet. The reason why I said I'm desperately trying to finish it is because I want to finish it before I get really tired of it, the work and the theme. And I don't want to be repeating myself. That's why I just want to finish it and move on to something else.
CB: Something fresh . . . I was wondering if you could take us through the process of a poem, from the moment the idea is received to completion. How long does that usually take you? Is this a long process? Do you take years on poems or do they come quickly? How does that work?
RB: It really depends. I'll give you an example of both. The poem in the first book that took the longest to write was a poem called "The Gecko," in which I describe a friend getting a tattoo. And the poem is in three stanzas, and altogether I would say the poem took about five years to write. I wrote the first stanza and then I put it away. And then a couple of years went by and I wrote the second stanza, and then I put it away again. I knew what the poem was going to be about, but the issue I had there did not have to do with not knowing what it was going to be. It was more I was grappling with the issue of narrative. How do you write a narrative poem? That poem taught me a lot about how to . . . just the issue of information. How do you give information in a poem and still have it be partaking of a lyrical aura? In a lot of the poems that I had written before that poem, the lyric stance had always sort of taken care of the writing. I wasn't interested in doing a narration that was A plus B equals C, but in that poem I was describing a scene in a tattoo parlor, and so the issues of narration were very important to me and very difficult. So that's one poem that took a long time. It's not quite "The Moose," but it's my moose. It took about five years. On the other hand, there's a poem in the book . . . the last poem I wrote in the book is a poem called "Aubade," which is a pantoum, and that poem literally wrote itself in five minutes. I had all of these lines written down already on a bulletin board that I have over my desk. And these lines, which were discrete from each other, suddenly cohered into this pantoum form. They all just funneled into this poem in one go, and I didn't have to change anything. I think that all poets would recognize those two extremes, the poem that takes you forever and the poem that comes, you know . . .
CB: So did you really celebrate when you finally finished "Gecko"? Did you charge through the streets cheering?
RB: No, because I had already lost so much blood along the way I didn't have the energy for that celebration. And the fact is it's not even that good of a poem. You write these poems even if they take forever, learning something from them as processes. And that's something that I learned from that poem: How do you write a poem that's narrative, that has a real narrative grid underneath it, and make the lyrical push out of the narrative instead of the lyrical constructing a shadow narrative out of the stance that it's created for itself.
CB: More of an overt narrative.
RB: Yes, an overt narrative.
CB: Something also noticeable about the work in The Darker Fall, beyond just place, the evocation of place, is the use of sequence. Half the poems . . . of the twenty-four poems, exactly half are comprised of numbered sequences, and I was wondering if you could talk about the poems' need for that kind of space and the poems' need to just go on thinking and speaking, even when sections seem full and finished?
RB: Right. The book is basically a sort of transcription of my apprenticeship as a writer. And the reason why so many of those poems are in sections is because I didn't know, or I didn't think I knew, how to write a poem by itself in the sense that it could stand by itself. And so a lot of these . . . some of these, a good number of those poems in sequences were written individually without the thought of the sequence, and what would happen is that I would write a short poem and think that it wasn't good enough to stand on its own. Therefore, I would play around with putting it with two or three other poems, just to see if the accumulation in the sequence would somehow give these poems a weightiness that they didn't have on their own. That's true of a sequence like, let's say, "Passage Work" or "Blue Hours." Those are two sequences where those poems were written years apart from each other, in very different moods, and yet they had enough of the same, perhaps atmosphere, that I could put them in a sequence and call the whole thing a sequence. And then there are other poems of course where the sequencing was very deliberate, like "Eight Elegies."
CB: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that one.
RB: Or "Bird Notes," where I knew I was working with a lot of material that I couldn't encompass into one poem, and I needed the sequencing as a kind of . . . as an aid to myself.
CB: "Eight Elegies" seems like it really riffs. They're not overt elegies, or they don't seem to be overt elegies, but you have that kind of echoing in the title when you go through and read. It almost seems like the speaker is . . . the use of sequence there seems almost like the speaker's just trying to say all this stuff to get it out and be released from a burden. That seemed different than the way some of the others, some of the other sequences work together.
RB: Well, "Eight Elegies" was written very late in the manuscript, and at that point I knew exactly what I was doing in terms of the sequencing. All the sequencing I'd done before then was just me fumbling around trying to fill a canvas with very different things. "Eight Elegies" was a very deliberate canvas that I knew I couldn't fill just in one go, and so I made these little pieces and patched it together.
CB: When you're composing, are there certain things you look for, certain conscious places you want to take your poems? The book seems so unified, like such a coherent whole, that I wondered if you sought out things, and are there poems that maybe you love, that didn't make it into The Darker Fall? Does that happen, you leave a lot out?
RB: Yeah. By the time I put the book together it had gone through about three or four permutations, and I would always take things out, even stuff that I had just written very recently, before I had finished the manuscript, because I was thinking of the book as a whole at that point. I wasn't thinking of individual poems anymore. So if a poem, even though it was okay, didn't quite fit the flow that I had in mind, I would . . . I got rid of it. But it's interesting because the earliest poems in the book were written when I was an undergrad, and so there is a full range of poems in there from the eight or so years of my life when I was writing that book. Then there are a lot of poems from the middle period, let's say, where I didn't include it.
CB: So when you say eight or so years, do you mean from when you began writing or from when you began sort of consciously sitting down to think of a manuscript, or how does that work?
RB: I'm talking about from the very first poems I wrote.
CB: From the first poem you ever wrote.
RB: Which were in an undergrad class I took with Annie Dillard when I was a senior. Those were some of the very first poems I wrote.
CB: What drew you to poetry suddenly your senior year? Were you always an English major or. . . ?
RB: I was conflicted. I started college wanting to be a lawyer. I took a lot of poli sci classes my first few years, and then I started taking more English classes. At some point, I started to understand that just because I was good at something and it was something that I enjoyed didn't mean that I could take it for granted as being, you know, mere pleasure. Because I was always good in English all through high school, I was always told that I should be . . . I should pursue or think about writing. But it just came so naturally and easily that I didn't think, so why should I therefore study that? But the minute that writing and literature started to speak to my emotional life as a person and not just something that I could do skillfully, where it did seem to mirror what was happening inside, that's when I started to take it seriously as something I could perhaps do and study more seriously. Annie Dillard was very crucial in that. I took a creative writing class with her when I was a sophomore, and as a sophomore, who's a good writer? No one probably is. But she was so encouraging, and also forceful, that she had me beginning to think that perhaps I could do something with that. At that point I was just writing prose, but the encouragement was everything.
CB: So when do you start thinking of a manuscript? I mean, you're writing poetry, and then when do individual poems, I guess, become a collection? Do you know like at what point in the process?
RB: For The Darker Fall it happened, I would say, three or four years after I started writing poems. What happened was that I got a title for myself, a book title, and it seemed to galvanize all of the elements which were already there and helped me, gave me a sort of prescription for how to proceed. And the working title of the book for about three or four years was "City Entries," which is the title of one of the poems in one of the sections. I think it's "Blue Hours." Having that phrase in mind for years on end helped me to write the latter half of the book. The idea of the notational quality of the poems, having all of the sectioning, I got permission for that from the idea of "City Entries," writing a diary. The idea of the city itself became a big informant in the writing of the poems. You had asked earlier about urban spaces. Having the caption before the picture, it helps you to construct the picture. Eventually, of course, I understood that the title wasn't the best title. "City Entries" wasn't the best title, so I got rid of it. But it had helped me move through the journey of the book as a sort of scaffolding.
CB: How did you come up with "The Darker Fall," then? Was it sad to let go of "City Entries"?
RB: It wasn't sad because it was like a marriage that was very old and very boring, and to somebody else it might have sounded good, but I was just tired of it at that point. "The Darker Fall" was suggested to me by a friend who read through the manuscript after it had been accepted by Sarabande and by Stanley Plumly. I had an intermediary title. I had submitted the manuscript as "Night in Hydrangea," which is a very florid title, and Plumly wasn't too happy with that title. And once he started not being happy with it, I started not being happy with it. And so I gave the manuscript to a few friends, and a friend of mine, Brian Teare, who's also a poet, picked out the phrase from the book, from one of the poems in the book. And that's how it came about. I have to say that if I had more time, and more guts, frankly, I would have stuck with the title that I had then, which was "Night in Hydrangea."
CB: "Night in Hydrangea," you like that better than "The Darker Fall"?
RB: I do like it. It was mine. One thing that I have learned, actually, having published that first book and working it out in a second book now, that is, that's coming along fairly well, is that you need these necessary illusions to finish the book, but the minute that The Darker Fall, I saw The Darker Fall in between covers, I stopped understanding why I had put things the way they were in terms of the sequence of the poems, the ordering, or even the title of the book itself—it stopped being material. What became important to me was the fact that I had these three or four or five poems in the book that I thought had really spoken truthfully about particular emotional and aesthetic and formal problems that I'd been having, and so you know what, I'm writing poems, but during the time that I'm trying to finish a book, I'm writing a book. But the minute the book is finished, I forget that the book exists. I only care about the four or five poems that I love. And it's always surprising to me—well, it's surprising to other people—that my favorite poems in my first book are not necessarily the poems that people would think of as being, let's say, the most ambitious or being the big poems. It's never about that. It's usually the smaller poem where I felt as though I had totally captured what was in my mind and in my eye.
CB: So it's the few, as you see them, the purest expressions . . .
RB: The happy few.
CB: Yeah, those are the ones we have to hold on to, right?
RB: But you do need the illusion. For those five or six years when "City Entries" was the title, I had it all in my head. The title was "City Entries" . . .
CB: Yeah, you're like getting shirts printed up, right?
RB: Absolutely. And the cover art was going to be one of those Ocean Park paintings by Richard Diebenkorn.
CB: Yeah, those are great paintings.
RB: But it didn't happen that way, and I feel no loss.
CB: I was noticing that there's really little personal autobiography revealed, and I was wondering if that's a conscious decision or if that's . . . or if that comes out of just sort of a theory of poetry, or if that comes out of just hitting the delete button sometimes and just taking personal things out? Was that a conscious decision, or how does that work?
RB: You're talking about the first book. The fact is, I, you know, I'm an Asian American person. I was born in the Philippines. And anybody reading that book is not going to find anything of that in there. The way I've been able to explain that to myself has to do with the fact that it's a very important content, that the issue of this Asian American identity, and I didn't feel worthy of addressing that as yet. I feel as though my work is going to move into that content a little bit more as I begin to be more confident of my skills as a writer. But the first book, it's really just an exercise book in formal issues and in issues of visual and descriptive acuity. That's the way I think about it. This is not to belittle the book, but it's a book where I'm learning how to write a line, how to write a stanza, how to write sentences which are long or short, how to do those formal things. And so I wasn't interested, frankly, in content in that book. I was interested in exercising the writing muscle in as many ways [as] I could. It was not a conscious pushing away of content by any means. I was just more interested in the gestures that you could do with language, with the writing. The issue of content had to do with form in that first book for me. There are all kinds of things happening in that book that have to do with long lines and short lines, and couplets and quatrains and tercets, because that's what I was discovering when I was starting, when I was teaching myself how to write poems. I would read, let's say Seamus Heaney, his book North, and I suddenly understood what it meant to write a short line. He was working with, I think, trimeters in a lot of those shorter poems, and I started to ask myself: What does it mean for you, Rick, to write a short line? And so I would write a poem in a short line. Or I went through a phase where I was reading a lot of Wolcott, and all of these wonderful pentameters were happening in his work, and so I became interested in writing these pentameter lines. Virginia Woolf is a huge influence in me, and she has this wonderful thing in her diaries where she talks about how writing is putting words on the backs of rhythms. I really lived by that when I was writing that first book. I was interested in the formal aspects, in the visual aspects. The liability, of course, is that there's a lot of sensibility in the book, and in my 3 a.m. moments I wonder, where's the content?
CB: Well, thanks for doing this with us. I really appreciate it.
RB: Sure. My pleasure.