Poetry Spotlight: Anne Barngrover

Anne Barngrover’s Brazen Creature is a fierce contemplation on the relationship between pain and yearning. The pain of the body. The pain of loss. The pain of the woods. The collection refers to our sufferer as The Waiting Girl, whose hair is always singed, and the men throughout are varying degrees of disappointment. Despite a familiar ache, each poem contains the same anticipation as a falling knife and when it lands, it twists. What keeps this collection inspiring is its ability to return to an image and make it new. After reading, I’ve been gutted, contemplating the difference between what it means to revisit and relive, and more, if we stop reliving is that a death? In that way, Barngrover writes a haunting. 

In addition to Brazen Creature, which was a finalist for the Ohioana Award for Poetry and published by the University of Akron Press in 2018, Anne Barngrover has written another collection, Yell Hound Blues (Shipwreckt Books, 2013), and co-authored of the chapbook Candy in Our Brains (CutBank, 2014) with poet Avni Vyas. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in North American Review, Copper Nickel, Crazyhorse, Mid-American Review and others, and her nonfiction has been published in River Teeth, Grimoire, and Bellingham Review

Throughout this collection, there is a shared language among the poems even if they are not directly related; images such as trees, houses, and Missouri return. As a writer, where does the power of an image come from? How do you recycle an image without feeling repetitive? 

To me, the power of an image comes from the insistence of seeing something fully. Poetic images can teach us how to see in new dimensions. Repetition has actually proven essential to me for the image-making process. In the four years I lived in Missouri and was working on Brazen Creature, I spent a lot of time running and walking on the MKT Trail, a 600-mile-long converted railroad track that winds through forests, soybean fields, creekbeds, bridges, and towns. Some runners prefer circular routes, or to start and end in distinct places, but I’ve become addicted to heading out in a straight line then turning around and running back the same way. I do this because I almost don’t want to explore; instead, I want to see the same things over and over and over. There’s a sense of consistency but also inevitable change because, even along the same path, every day is different. I’ve seen trees bloom, ponds pollute and cleanse, animal carcasses decay (it probably goes without saying that I’m slow enough to notice all of these details). This running repetition translated to how I use image repetition in my poems: there it is, there it is, there it is, until suddenly it isn’t, and something (everything) has changed.

The shape of each poem feels intuitive and yet, outside of the sonnets that appear, each poem creates a form of its own. Looking at poems like “He Takes Her” or “He Hates What I Do,” what is the method behind the form? How do you conduct the white space in the former or the section breaks in the latter? I would love to get a peek into that process. 

When I think of how I shape a poem—or, I should say, how I shaped a poem, since it’s always clearest to me in hindsight—I start with the meaning of the word “stanza,” which is Italian for “room.” How do the rooms of each house appear? Are they neatly ordered or scattered throughout the yard? Is an entire house encompassed within a single room? And if a stanza is a room, then each line can be a piece of furniture. The furniture makes up the room, and the rooms make up the house. Each part functions on its own, but altogether, they create a home.

Houses are containers, but they can also be portals. They open to the outside world both intentionally and unintentionally through windows, doors, cracks, vents, pipes, and other holes. My Ohio neighborhood was destroyed by an F4 tornado when I was thirteen, and since then, I’ve always known the structure of a house to be fallible. While living in Missouri, a series of catastrophic events happened inside my rented house in pretty quick succession, including a break-in and a post-traumatic reaction in my brain called “exploding head syndrome” that caused me to wake to bomb-like explosions where I saw flashes of light and felt intense reverberations. I thought the house was shaking, but the shaking was actually me (a seizure of the inner ear).

The two poems you point out deal with trauma, entrapment, and a feeling of being homeless in your own body. I wanted them to look fragmented on the page—the line breaks in “He Takes Her” appear jagged to show the terror inside and outside a house that’s being used for torture instead of safety, and the section breaks in “He Hates What I Do” disconnect body and place. The “house” of that poem is literally broken. Right before writing “He Hates What I Do,” I suffered a dangerous fall down the stairs. As the dark, splotchy bruises colored my legs for a long time, I thought about how houses mark us. We’re not always safe in places that are supposed to provide shelter.

The voice throughout this collection is ferocious and incredibly vulnerable. There is a delicate two-ness in so many of your poems where there is a second voice created. Sometimes that voice is italicized dialogue but often, as in “Incident in Northwestern Missouri,” parenthesis create the sense of a second voice. How do you maintain cohesion between both? Is this fractioning a state of womanhood or unique to the persona of this collection?

Thanks so much for saying that. I’m thinking of a line from Sappho: “This way, that way, I do not know what to do; I am in two minds.” Speaking of form, I love to write in couplets because I feel they speak directly to this two-mindedness, to a push and pull or a conflict between the head and the heart, “this way, that way.” I can’t speak for all women, but this doublethink has been something I’ve personally struggled with for a long time, I guess since I started thinking about it seriously. Maybe it’s a byproduct of how women are forced to be one thing or another, never allowing for nuance, and so can become fractured, like you said. In this book, I was interested in exploring this duplicity of thought and, ultimately, in breaking it down. I have always yearned to be seen wholly and fully, to embody “both/and” instead of “either/or.” White men traditionally get to contain multitudes. I also want to encompass many different things at once. 

In the poem you bring up, the italics were actually direct quotes from an online article I read while researching the Daisy Coleman story. They came from the initial reports and the reactions of her townspeople. I was struck by the aloof savagery of their responses. Were these people just monsters, or could there be something deeper going on? I challenged myself (and it was definitely a challenge) to try to feel empathy for them even as I was furious with them. I reasoned, people act ultimately out of love or fear. So what were these violent bystanders so afraid of? The poem ends with me trying to figure that out, by positioning Daisy as the only one with agency, the one who knows the truth even those around her literally call her nothing. But she isn’t nothing; they are. She’s everything.

Trauma is at the heart of so many of these poems. Underneath every poem, whether the tone is angry or melancholic, we see the aftermath of trauma (and unfortunately, we live in a world where this is the reality for many women). So often, in television, in visual arts, and the occasional read, we see the abuse of women as beautiful or that women are beautiful because they suffer. Did you ever struggle with the way you write trauma? Where is your focus when you approach the topic?

I definitely struggle with how to write about trauma and its aftermath, which we could argue is the real trauma, the never-ending repetition of it. My job as a poet is to make the beautiful ugly and the ugly beautiful, to find those sparks of magic and humor even in the darkest, loneliest places—but then, what to do with them? There is danger, like you said, in glorifying violence and suffering. Ultimately, I just try to make the experience of trauma feel true to me. I don’t know that I always succeed. Just because something’s beautiful doesn’t mean it’s right.

In Alice Bolin’s fascinating 2018 essay collection Dead GirlsBolin points out that, so often in these TV shows or books that center around the spectacle of murdered women, the issue arises when the “[female] victim’s body is a neutral arena on which to work out the male problem” (19). This is perhaps the direst example of the binary where men are considered active and women passive. Though the reality remains that women do experience male-inflicted violence, trauma, and pain, I will always write from girls’ and women’s—or, rather, from my—perspective instead of submitting female suffering to the male gaze. The women and girls in my poems will always speak, even when they are pointing out their enforced silence.

In many titles, you refer to the persona as The Waiting Girl. What or who is she waiting for?

There’s a lot of waiting in this book because I think I was really interrogating the passive/active binary I brought up earlier—in this case, the woman (passive) waiting for a man (active) to grow up or make up his mind or choose her. So many fairy tales or romantic myths reinforce this binary: just offhand, there’s Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Penelope in The Odyssey, Ophelia in Hamlet. But what if I flipped the script; maybe the man is actually the passive one because he’s spinning in circles and not really going anywhere, and maybe I am the active one because there’s nothing holding me back. I can do anything. I can go anywhere. I am not a patient person, but my life has sort of forced me to become one in so many ways. It’s taken me a long time to realize that, in the act of waiting, I was granted an opportunity to locate my power. Why did I always insist on giving it away?

The way that you have crafted each poem is deftly intimate. Are you a poet who clings to a persona and there is a clear voice you are trying to portray? Or are there poems that may be, however loosely, autobiographical? 

I’m so glad you felt that way. Every poem in this book is born out of my life stories. I say stories instead of experiences because in writing about my life and memories, it almost doesn’t matter what actually happened—what matters is my reaction and point of view. These poems employ persona in that they’re me but not me, or me at a certain moment in time, a me who’s trying really hard to say something that I feel in that moment which I may not feel a year or even a day later. My feelings sculpt my world much more than my reality does, for better or for worse. 

For my new manuscript, I’m writing more traditional persona poems in the voice of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, women and girls, and, weirdly, cereal grains. The voice of the poems is still me, though; I can’t escape it. I’ll start out writing about the sixth mass extinction, and before I know it I’m channeling my feelings about a personal betrayal. Persona isn’t so much a way for me to hide as it is a way for me to open up more, to find new avenues of expression.

When I was younger, I tried to cling more to this speaker vs. writer distinction as a way to distance myself from what I said in my poetry. But I don’t want to do that anymore. My imagination is a deeply vulnerable thing, and I’ve had to learn that without true vulnerability, there can be no intimacy. Without intimacy, what do we have left?

Interviewer Sherrel McLafferty is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Requited Journal, and Notre Dame Review.

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