Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #12

The Animal Gospels: An Interview with Brian Barker

Bob King: The title of your book is The Animal Gospels and it certainly seems appropriate, as eight of the seventeen poems use that as a title--“Dog Gospel,” “Guinea Pig Gospel,” and the like. What’s your understanding of your use of the word “gospel” in these poems?

Brian Barker: Good question. The first poem that received the “gospel” moniker was “Dog Gospel,” and others naturally followed after it. For me, the notion that a poem might be a type of gospel is, first, a very personal one, and by extension one that should be universally understood.

Brian BarkerModern Evangelicals use the term to describe the doctrine of salvation solely through the trust in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. I grew up in a very Christian household and ultimately rejected this doctrine as a young adult, not because I was unable to accept the mystery of that sacrifice, but because of the exclusionary idea of truth propagated by those who preached it. What about the teachings of Buddha? Of Mohammed? What about the tribal myths of the Inuit or Chippewa? What about the Egyptian poetry composed during the New Kingdom period 3,300 years ago? What about the stories we tell each other every day in an attempt to order our lives, to guide our actions, to make meaning of our conditions and experience?

Poetry, like all art, is an anecdote of the spirit. “A poet’s word,” Gaston Bachelard writes, “because it strikes true, moves the very depth of our being.” I grew to believe, then, that in its fidelity to the truth of human experience, poetry is a kind of gospel too.

BK: You utilize childhood experience as a basis for a number of poems here-- I’m thinking of “Elegy with a Mute Bell” dedicated to your great-grandmother or the several poems which focus on your father--and yet they end up as something more than just a biographical memory. Can you speak to the use of one’s past experience with family as material for poetry? Are there dangers or advantages?

BB: think there are several risks of using childhood experience as a basis for poems. One that I see often in my students’ poems involves trying to capture a voice that is “pure” child. It rarely works, as the poem comes out feeling flat and lacking complexity. You have to try to negotiate the adult consciousness and the child’s perspective by allowing the mature, reflective voice of the adult poet to shape the poem behind the scenes. My model for this has always been Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”

Another risk is the desire to stick too closely to the way things happened in trying to honor the biographical memory. I believe pretty strongly that the poet is not a memoirist or journalist who must write “the truth.” The poet’s only fidelity is to the poem itself and not to facts and how things truly happened. I try to pay attention to the larger intellectual and emotional truths—what the poem is trying to show us about living on this earth. Approaching these often requires deviating from actual events, or going even further and getting lost in the world of myth and imagination. As William Stafford famously said, “You must revise your life.”

BK: There are several poems in here I’d call “long,” including “Flood,”  “Crow Gospel Coming Down from the Mountain” and “Monkey Gospel Floating Out to Sea” that run several pages with sections separated typographically. What are your thoughts on the ‘long poem’ as a thing that requires different skills or patterns than the short poem?

BB: I think the subject matter has to warrant the length and with all three of these long poems, I was exploring some pretty large ideas—a natural disaster, racism and murder, and the transience of being. Every time I tried to approach the subjects head on, it felt like I was running into a brick wall; the material felt stiff and one-dimensional, and I didn’t feel like I was doing it justice.

I started working in the long form with sections as it allowed me, in my mind, to circle the subject matter and come at it from different angles and perspectives. In each of these poems I tried to challenge myself to do something new in each section. For example, if one section consisted of a narrative splice of the larger story being told, I would try in the next section to write something more lyric or meditative. One of the great joys in writing long poems, I find, is that they can sustain you for days. For me, the hardest part about writing poetry is getting started, and when you’re working on a long poem, you can ride the momentum for weeks, even months.  

BK: One of the elements of your poetry that really strikes me is your use of simile and metaphor. I’m thinking of phrases like “locusts, those tin blossoms,” the “blue breath of mailboxes,” and “dusk like the soft mouth of a lion” but I‘m also thinking of  vivid verbs and synesthesia as in “the “smoky rasp of a chain saw/ Flares up and ricochets” and “Christmas lights twittering in windows.” Do such comparisons seem to come naturally to you, that that’s the way you think in poetry, or do you have to work on them to find the vivid way to put it?

BB: Thanks very much. I think I’m a naturally visual poet; my approach to the poem is often imagistic. So, yes, this is the way I naturally think in poetry, but it doesn’t mean that such similes, metaphors, and descriptions come easily. I think, though, that this kind of making of figurative language is part of the serious play of poetry, and one of the great joys of writing poems, in my opinion. Even when you’re tackling serious subject matter, there has to be this sense of play, this sense of fooling around with words that releases you from the grip of self-consciousness. For me that play begins with the magic of metaphor.

BK: For students and other readers, how do you like to think of, or how do you experience, the process of writing a poem?

BB: Poems for me often begin with reading something that inspires me, something that gets the juices flowing, whether it’s poetry, fiction, history, etc. I can look at just about any poem I’ve written and tell you what I was reading at the time. I’m a great believer in influence and embrace my influences, literary and other, whole-heartedly. I often begin poems with a particular subject matter or idea or historical event or memory in mind. I begin by writing in long hand in my notebook, often free-writing and brainstorming, until a scrap of language or a line or an image begins to give the poem direction or shape. I should say, though, that it’s not unusual for the poem to end up being about something other than what I had originally intended. You start off writing about your cat and end up with a poem about nuclear war. Or you start off trying to write about nuclear war and end up with a poem about barbecue. The poet Tony Hoagland likes to say that the poem is where the accident happens and you have to be aware and ready to let go of your original intentions when the real subject of the poem announces itself. It’s sometimes easier said than done!

BK: Your teachers included Mark Doty, Eric Pankey, and Edward Hirsch, a fairly illustrious lot. What was your experience as their student? What kinds of things did you gain?

BB: When I started my MFA at George Mason, I was writing narrative poems in the plain style. Eric Pankey taught me a kind of musicality that my ear had never been tuned to, and I started to try to incorporate a richer language into my poems.

Mark Doty, at the University of Houston, had an uncanny ability to hone in on what was working in a poem and helped me to think on a larger scale about aesthetics and style.

Edward Hirsch, also at Houston, introduced me to poetry in translation—Lorca and Milosz and Montale and Szymborska—poets that had a tremendous influence on my work. He also encouraged taking risks and having ambitions for our poems. They were all generous and large-hearted teachers that encouraged me and were never stingy with their time. I feel incredibly lucky to count them as mentors and friends.

BK: The Animal Gospels won the Tupelo Editor’s Prize in 2006. What have you been working on since then?

BB: Since then I’ve written a new book of poems, The Black Ocean, which won the Crab Orchard Poetry Series Open Competition. It will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in May 2011.
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