This week’s poetry spotlight column features Rick Barot, whose third book, Chord, was released by Sarabande Books this summer.
Rick Barot has published three books of poetry with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002), Want (2008), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize, and Chord (2015). His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the Civitella Ranieri, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer. He lives in Tacoma, Washington and directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the poetry editor for New England Review.
We were thrilled when Mark Doty selected your poem “Child Holding Potato,” which originally appeared in issue 17 of Memorious, for Best American Poetry 2012. And now, of course, the poem appears in your new book, Chord. Can you tell us a little about that poem?
A few years ago my sister was very sick, and part of the struggle I felt was between the desire to avert my gaze and the desire to go fully into the experience of being present for her. I remember getting the phone call from her and then, a few clicks later, feeling the great need to be surrounded by art. And so, without questioning the logic of my own need for art, soon afterwards I bought an airplane ticket to New York City to look at things in museums, instead of buying a ticket to the Bay Area, which is where my sister was. I got to New York and everything I looked at was, of course, completely inert and without meaning. What I felt instead was guilt—a sourness in the mouth and mind. For a long time I had believed in art as a source of powerfully positive things—solace, beauty, depth, complexity—and here was a moment when art could do nothing at all. This was very instructive, learning in a very real way that art has its limits, even to those for whom art is life. Art as avoidance, as escapism—this was the lesson. Ironically, I wrote “Child Holding Potato” during that same trip to New York, late at night, in a hotel room, in one very fast draft that required virtually no revision afterwards.
Several of the poems in Chord engage with works of art, and one of the most striking ones is “Black Canvas,” which examines poetry and art together: “Art in its intention/wants to be in the condition of poetry, /but most art is in the condition of prose./This is not a slander to prose.” What role does art play in your poetry?
As I suggested above, art—especially visual art—has been a central part of my way of being for a long time. Responding to the art produced by others is something that I’ve done as a poet from the very start. One reason I do this, I think, is to celebrate the way someone else has crystallized an idea or image that has been in my own mind—my response is a way of noting the resonance. Another reason is to critically think about, maybe even disagree with, the argument or significance that the artist presents in the artwork I’m looking at. Surrounding all of this is the constant, low-fever questioning that many artists probably have about art itself: is art useful at all? is it valorous or foolish to be an artist?
For myself, I don’t have firm answers to the two questions posed above. My answer to each question changes each day—depending on whether I’ve had a good day as a teacher, or whether I’ve written something that says something true, or whether the state of the world puts into relief the radiance or frivolity of art. One thing I do know is that my posture towards my own poetry has changed over time. When I was younger, I thought of poetry primarily as a means of transcendence, as a means of aesthetic pleasure. A little later, I thought of poetry as a way of recording personal experience and story. Now I’m invested in poetry as a form of disruption—as a way of disrupting my own complacencies, and perhaps my reader’s, too.
In “Black Canvas,” I was ostensibly thinking about some beautiful all-black paintings by Robert Rauschenberg. However, that mode of appreciation kept being interrupted by the other images that appear in the poem—a dying rat, a sick uncle’s birthday party. As a younger poet, I would have segregated those different things into different poems, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that the task for me now as a poet is to create the poem that allows everything to inhabit the one poem. Whether the juxtapositions are ugly or harmonious doesn’t really matter—what seems to matter to me these days is that the juxtapositions are there.
So much of this book is an investigation of grief, not only in terms of immediate personal losses, but also of larger family and national histories, such as in the tremendous “On Gardens,” which opens with this stanza:
When I read about the garden
designed to bloom only white flowers,
I think about the Spanish friar who saw one
of my grandmothers, two hundred years removed,
and fucked her. If you look
at the world colony far enough, you see it
travelling back to the Latin
of inhabit, till, and cultivate….
How did the personal and the global emerge or merge together for you within these poems and across this collection?
The global—and I take this to mean the political, the historical, and the social—couldn’t really help but appear in the poems in Chord, many of which are personal poems. A big chunk of the book was written during the 2000’s, a period of turmoil and violence that has extended into the present. If you’re an artist and you’ve been half-awake to the things going on around you in the last fifteen years, your work has been inevitably stained by those things—even if only in the sense that you’ve tried very hard to keep the political and the social out of your work, because your notion of art adamantly doesn’t include those things.
And so, for me, the personal and the political were unavoidable elements in the poems I wrote for the book. Given these two elements, the problem—which I didn’t know was a problem until I was years into the problem-solving—was how to bring these elements together in a poem. A big part of the solution was understanding what it meant to write political poetry. For many, including myself, “political poetry” means poetry that responds directly to some happening in the world. There’s certainly great value in writing these poems of immediacy, but because it’s nearly impossible for me to write poems like these, I’ve had to figure out how my poems can somehow participate in these larger energies and conversations. This has meant enlarging what the political means to me as a poet, so that the political includes the daily, the personal, and most importantly, the notion of justice, which I think undergirds the political. In practice, this expansive view of the political has translated into an embrace of juxtaposition, which I noted earlier.
In the classroom, I tell my poetry-writing students that each of us often writes from a couple of default identity positions, and we write from those positions for years and years without knowing that we’re doing so. But what would it mean to write poems out of the other selves whose voices we neglect or avoid or deny? If you’re interested in writing “political poetry” but don’t know how to begin doing that, maybe writing towards these other selves within yourself is one way of writing a political poetry. In my own case, I have all these constituencies within myself—the male self, the queer self, the writer-of-color self, the privileged self, the social-justice self, the American self, and so on—and they don’t necessarily get along. Trying to write poetry that brings these various selves into some kind of consonance is, to me, very political—because it means writing out of difference and wholeness.
The imagery in this collection is so striking and precise, such as in the “Virgin of Guadalupe,” which has this opening image of the Virgin: “as though my heart/were a cabinet with another cabinet in it,/a wooden box the size of a small safe,/and the Virgin within in a white tunic,/blue cloak, a sash the pink of a pencil eraser.” Where do your poems begin? Do you start with image?
I’m probably no different from other poets: I’m always gathering bits of stuff that I hope will end up in poems. Images. Phrases. Overheard language. Riffs of emotion. Riffs of sound. Random facts. And I keep these things in notebooks. At some point I’ll get a notion for a poem—a poem about tarp, say, or a poem about seeing a lighthouse—and this compels me to look at the gathered-up things and find the materials that belong to the poem I’m hoping to write. The process feels both very specific and very abstract. I love the gathering and collecting part of being a poet because it’s the part I can control: I read, I look, I listen, and material naturally accumulates from those acts. The other part of the process—coming up with a good idea for a poem—is dreadful. Months can go by without a good idea to tell you what to do next, which basically means having a house full of materials and not knowing, for months, whether you’re supposed to build a clock or bake a carrot cake.
This next question has been so popular, that we keep bringing it back: If you were to draw yourself a poetic family tree, which poets do you see yourself descended from?
This is an awful question, mostly because I can’t imagine a linear set of influences that would look like a reasonable family tree, or that would resemble a tree at all. The better metaphor for me might be a big party with all my favorite poets filling the room, and I among them like some child wandering around, eavesdropping on everything, too little to be noticed. I could list a few dozen poets who would be in this fantasy party, but I’ll go with this line-up, which I’ve intentionally made an all-women line-up: Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Lucille Clifton, Deborah Digges, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Cate Marvin, Susan Mitchell, Adrienne Rich, Susan Stewart, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, and Monica Youn. And in another room would be a couple dozen prose writers who have been very important to me, including John Berger and Virginia Woolf. And in still another room, a couple dozen visual artists, including Vija Celmins and Richard Diebenkorn.
What’s on your reading table, your turntable, your writing table, and your kitchen table right now?
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm. Made in Heights, Without My Enemy What Would I Do. Carl Phillips, The Art of Daring. Figs.
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