The Colorado Poet, #20, Fall 2012

Interview: Brian Barker

The Black Ocean (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Open Competition Award, 2011)

Bob King: The first poem in your book, “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods,” illustrates several of your techniques and themes but the first thing I note is a talent for vivid titles. Another example, is “Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, They Dreamed Abraham Lincoln Was the Magician of the Great Divide,” a poem about hurricane Katrina. Some titles are a bit more conventional, perhaps, but you seem to like to both startle and explain. I guess another way to ask this is how important are titles to you or how much work do they take to create?

Brian BarkerBrian Barker: I think titles are extremely important in poetry. I often see my students wrestle with titles, and I like to remind them that titles should do some sort of work for the poem. That work might be contextualization—setting the reader up for the poem’s dramatic situation, grounding the reader in a time and place, or announcing the type of poem that is to come (self-portrait or elegy, etc.). That work might be provocation—piquing the reader’s interest in some way, or creating a title that is in tension with the poem itself. I hope my longer titles do both of these things. I see them as mechanisms of contextualization. In the Lincoln poem, for example, the title lets the reader know that the poem will involve Lincoln and be set in New Orleans. It foreshadows the poem’s overarching metaphor of Lincoln as a kind of magician trying to make sense of the chaos, of the ruins of New Orleans post-Katrina. I think the longer titles also prepare the reader for the robust imagination at work in the poems. And in their vividness and length, I hope that they provoke, that they hook and reel the reader into the world of the poem.

I like the idea of the poem as a lost historical artifact—a spool of edited film, a field recording, an oral history—unearthed and speaking to us from across the distance of time, revealing something new, a deeper truth.

BK: Another thing about your titles. Several here seem to indicate a feel for, or a use of, a particular genre: “Silent Montage with Late Reagan in Black and White,” a combination of sound and color; a title that starts “A Brief Oral Account;” and two poems where the title begins with “Field Recording…” How aware were you of using the technique of, or at least the name of, a particular medium to express the poem?

B: It was definitely intentional. A lot of the poems in the book, and especially the ones you mention, I think of as alternative histories. There are documentary elements to my poetry, and research is often an essential part of my creative process. However, though my poems often begin grounded in reality, my real interest is in mythologizing history. In this regard, I abide by the words of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, “Poetry reaches the meaning of the world intuitively, deductively, with large, daring shortcuts and approximations,” and the American poet Wallace Stevens, “It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” In all of my books, but especially in The Black Ocean, I’ve tried to move intuitively and bring the boundlessness of the imagination to bear against the pressure of historical reality in order to create new myths that might give us insight into where we have been and were we are going.

In this regard, then, I like the idea of the poem as a lost historical artifact—a spool of edited film, a field recording, an oral history—unearthed and speaking to us from across the distance of time, revealing something new, a deeper truth.

BK: When we last talked (Issue #12), I asked you about long-ish poems and you said the subject matter had to warrant the length. That’s certainly the case in this book, as you combine personal experience and a lyric voice with the documents of both distant and recent American history. But I wanted to say that, despite the fact these 15 poems occupy 63 pages, they don’t feel like long-ish poems. And I think one of the reasons I react this way is your use of parallelism as a way both to control and expand the poetic voice. One example in the Lincoln and New Orleans poem is the number of lines that begin “He held out…”  (“He held out a gold medal, a fist, mule flies, a white picket fence.  / He held out a banjo full of bilge and Big Bill Broonzy / dozing in the back of a gold Cadillac…”). And there are a lot of other examples. What was your experience of the power of parallel structures in many of these poems?

I wanted the poems to have a headlong energy, to feel like they were hurtling forward with urgency towards some inevitable conclusion.

BB: Good question. Two related things come to mind. I’m interested in the wedding of the lyric and narrative modes. Poets do that through a variety of tools—tricks of form and structure, certain strategic uses of metaphor, economy, etc. Parallel structures are part of this lyricization; the power of that repetition gives the narrative a thrust even as the story accumulates through details. I think this is particularly important in longer poems. If you don’t find ways to bring a lyric force to bear on the narrative in a longer poem, then the poem will bog down, become wooden and dense and a chore for the reader. Second, I wanted the poems to have a headlong energy, to feel like they were hurtling forward with urgency towards some inevitable conclusion. Those parallel structures and other types of repetition, along with long sentences, help give the poems a speed and forward momentum that I was after.

BK: I’ve added several disparate words to my vocabulary from this book, ranging from slub, crozzled, and smarl to plumose and desquamation. I take it you love words? Do these come to you from reading? And reading what?

I love ornate language and I have an affinity for words you don’t see often.

BB: Oh yeah, I love ornate language, and I have an affinity for words that you don’t see often. I like the material feel of such words in the mouth, and I like the idea of unearthing words, that sense that the raw material of the art is so vast and inexhaustible. I keep a word horde where I collect words from my readings along with their definitions. I used to do this in a notebook, but now I keep it on my iPhone. I have a dictionary app where I can look up a word then store it as a favorite. Pretty handy.

Such language comes from all over. I think “smarl” and “desquamations” are words I stole from Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares. Other sources are writers that have a similar affinity for such language—Hart Crane, Cormac McCarthy, Mark Doty, Anne Winters, and Judy Jordan all come to mind.

BK: “The last night on earth” is quite a concept (I can’t help but think of the recent Lars von Tier film, “Melancholia,” in which a planet crashes into the earth at the end).You have two poems titled “Visions for the Last Night on Earth,” as well as a “Lullaby…” and a “Nightmare…” for that night. Does this truly apocalyptic phrase signal your idea of where things stand on earth, at least psychologically?

BB: I don’t believe that the end is near in some cataclysmic event that will wipe us out in one fell swoop. It’s hard for me not to believe, though, that the human race is on a long path to an ultimate demise. Our leaders have been so slow to recognize climate change as real, and they’ve been incredibly inefficient in combating it. I worry that we’ve reached a point of no return. Our lives are already being impacted in significant and troubling ways.

In the book, I was interested in the culture of fear that we’ve been wading through since 9/11. The “last night on earth” poems carry that fear to the extreme. The idea of the apocalypse acts as frame, of sorts, within which I meditate on love and domesticity and our common humanity.

To some extent, all lyric poets confront the apocalypse.

With that said, I think to some extent that all lyric poets confront the apocalypse. In my mind, every moment is an apocalypse. This is the nature of the transience of being. Every moment is fleeting, ephemeral, escaping from us never to return. Lyric poetry tries to counter that transience by stopping time, by preserving for the ages whatever is the subject of its attention.

BK: In our last interview you said, “I’m a great believer in influence and embrace my influences, literary and other, whole-heartedly.” I thought of this when I read through your “Notes” at the back of the book. You credit a book here, another poet there, but I was struck by your saying that the last poem in the book is “indebted to the paintings of” Fernando Botero, a Columbian, and Leon Golub, an American. I have some idea of what a literary influence is but what it’s like to be influenced by visual art?

The last poem in The Black Ocean deals with torture, and both Botero and Golub have a series of paintings on torture. What struck me was how stylized their torture paintings were. They didn’t choose to depict scenes of torture in realistic paintings of witness. Instead, they’ve each been true to their own styles and trusted the truth inherent in their individual visions, even at the risk of accusations of aestheticizing suffering and violence.

So, the influence here was in spirit and approach. My poem is far from realistic, and that’s on purpose. I tried to come at the subject of torture from a weird angle, or angles, in order to cloud or subvert what I already knew. I was angry about Abu Ghraib and at America’s new policies of “extraordinary rendition,” but it didn’t make sense to write a poem simply spouting that anger, as poems, in my mind, must strive to discover something new. Thus, the poem speaks from different points of views in an attempt to create a mythic history of torture that rebutted the narrative constructed by politicians and journalists. In my attempt, then, to come at the subject slant, I write in the voices of a hood, a dog, a fly, etc.—all of these entities “involved” or witness to the act of torture. Botero and Golub gave me permission to risk such an imaginative leap.
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plumose: having feathers, plumes
slub: a soft lump or unevenness in a
yarn; to draw out and twist slightly
crozzled: blackened or burned at
the edges