Brian Barker interview, with John Hoppenthaler
In more than one interview, you talk about how many of your poems are lyric/narrative hybrids. To me this seems like one of the major poetic projects of the last twenty or so years, to somehow wed—and this happens in different ways with different poets—narrative thrust with lyric intensity. Could you speak to this in your poems and in the poems of others? The three poems featured here are prose poems; how does that dynamic function in these?
When I started writing poetry as an undergraduate, I naturally gravitated towards narrative, as I had read more fiction at that point in my life and had grown up hearing stories from the Bible. Many of the poets that were my first loves—Philip Levine, Norman Dubie, and Rodney Jones, for example—I read for their ability to tell a good story. What I didn’t detect as a young reader was the lyric pulse of these poets and how important lyric maneuvers were to their narrative endeavors. Because of this, my own early tries at narrative poems turned out wooden and one-dimensional, and it wasn’t until I learned to pay attention to and manipulate different lyric techniques that my poems gained some kind of texture, complexity, and depth.
Good poems vibrate with energy, and I believe that energy in poetry comes from points of tension. It might be a tension between form and subject matter, or a tension between shifting tones. The simultaneous pull of the lyric and narrative modes also creates tension. A tension between the linear movement of story and the stillness and meditative stance of lyric. A tension between the direct language that conveys narrative and the embellishment of song. I like to feel a poem pull taut between these two different impulses. They complement and complicate one another in ways that delight me as a reader and challenge me as a writer.
In regard to the prose poems: I like Charles Simic’s definition of a prose poem. He says somewhere that a prose poem is a lyric poem disguised as a narrative. I think that’s true, for me anyway. In the prose poems that I admire, there are narrative elements presented in a form that we recognize as a story-telling form. But they resist forward momentum for the most part. They’re all about concision and stillness (lyric qualities) and creating a sort of brief hypnotic or oneiric state.
You appear uneasy with keeping with one sort of poem and prefer to keep stretching the idea of what your poems might be or look like. You cover a lot of range. There is risk in this, as there is risk as well in singing the same song. Readers and critics can be difficult. Your thoughts on this? What new ground are you thinking about now?
I think this is a fair assessment, though I wouldn’t characterize myself as uneasy so much as restless. I admire many poets who have a fidelity to one style and/or subject matter, who seem to have made careers at writing one type of poem. Perhaps I’ll be that poet one day, but at this point of my life, my obsessions seem to always be changing, and I like the challenge of trying to teach myself how to write a different kind of poem. I get bored easily, and I don’t like the feeling of putting something down on paper that might just be going through the motions. So, I change things up, try to get myself lost in my approach to see where it leads me.
When I sit down to write, I’m first and foremost trying to entertain myself. I’ve never really thought about critics, as they’re not paying attention to me. (Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to draw the ire of William Logan! Then I will have made it!) I only think about audience in the late stages of composition, when I find myself asking if I’ve been clear or overindulgent—trying to gauge how a reader might react or understand something I’ve written.
I’m sure that there will be readers who admired my first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, who won’t like my second book that’s just come out, The Black Ocean. And vice-versa. But I can live with that. I mean, there’s risk in just putting words down on the page, regardless of style or range, etc. You have to accept that you’ll never please everyone and just be true to your self.
The poems that are published here are from a group of prose poems I’ve been tinkering with. After writing The Black Ocean, I wanted to do something completely different. Many of the poems in that book are long and have a headlong momentum. They’re dark and ecstatic. The concision of the prose poem seemed like the opposite of what I had been doing, and I wanted to play around more with humor and irony and image. And as a teacher I’ve never really felt like I possessed a good definition of the prose poem for my students when they asked, so I figured what better way to learn than to write a bunch. I’m not sure yet if this is a book-length project or a palate cleanser. Only time will tell.
In an interview with Bob King, you say, “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.” As a teacher of creative writing, what strategies do you use to help allow your students to achieve this “release?”
I teach undergraduate students and most undergrads are Godzillas of self-consciousness. They’re young and in a new kind of social environment, and for most of them the workshop experience is very new, so they have tremendous anxiety about having their work critiqued by me and their peers. They’re obviously thinking about this during the composition process. On top of this, many undergrads have ill conceived notions about what poetry is. They come in thinking that poetry is pure self-expression of their deepest feelings. This creates a different kind of self-consciousness—their poems are too willed and void of discovery, simple delivery vehicles for their raw emotions.
Thus, my workshops are exercise driven. I try to give them poem assignments that encourage play by having them integrate a particular number of similes into a poem, or a set of strange words, or a line from a famous poet that they’ve stolen. Likewise, many of my assignments ask them to look outward for their subject matter, instead of inward, so that they are researching an odd animal to write about, or finding the voice of a persona from a stack of old photographs.
In some strange way, then, I see part of my job as getting them to take their selves less seriously, but not their poetry. I find myself reminding them all the time that poetry, like baseball, is an art of failure: even the Pulitzer winners are failing two-thirds of the time. If over the course of the semester you write three good poems out of ten, hey, you’re an All Star.
Tell us about your career as an editor, now for Copper Nickel and previously at Gulf Coast. Do you find that the editorial work compliments your work as a poet, or does it interfere?
Despite the time that editing takes, I’ve always found it exciting work that helps me stay up to speed with what’s going on in the literary world. I like finding those poems that really speak to me, that are doing something I’ve never seen before. It’s also incredibly rewarding to publish someone for the first time. I also like the collaborative act of editing, which is a nice counterpoint to the solitary act of writing poems.
As is the case with Connotation Press: An Online Artifact in an online format, Copper Nickel strives to do some things that differ from the print norm. Can you speak to what the journal is all about?
Copper Nickel is bi-annual journal of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Jake Adam York, our fearless leader and chief animator, started the journal with UCD students about ten years ago. We still publish the journal in collaboration with our undergraduate students and in the process teach them the ins and outs of literary editing.
Copper Nickel has always been, first and foremost, a print journal. We favor the object, something that can be hefted in the hand, and Jake’s design vision for the journal has turned it into one of the most beautiful publications out there, I think. However, we have always talked about starting a companion web reader and have recently launched Coin. In this companion, you can find samples of work from the print journal, but also a lot of other good stuff such as interviews, conversations, and audio and video presentations. It’s a burgeoning new arm of the whole Copper Nickel enterprise and we’re excited to see where things go next.
One industrious young man has built a life-sized replica of a Model T out of tin cans and popsicle sticks. Slumped over the steering wheel is a legless mannequin dressed up like Ford himself: a mothballed wool suit, a bowtie stapled on just below the Adam’s apple, a thin, brown wig leaking little curds of glue. From the abyss where the engine would be, a set of red jumper cables creeps out like an invasive vine, winding through the cafeteria, twisting around chairs and tables, snaking behind the high stainless steel counters, over the kitchen tile scalded with ammonia, and out a backdoor propped open so the mice can escape. A group of children and their teacher follow the cables out into the desert dusk, climbing a steep slope of scree to a plateau above the school. Here, a feverish Audubon in a bathrobe, his face pixelated with sweat, circles an eagle chained to a perch, jotting down measurements and notes. The cables disappear into a crude surgical incision in the center of the bird’s chest. John James Audubon, the father of modern ornithology, the teacher intones, wiping his spectacles with a dirty hankie. Haliaeetus Leucocephalus—when Ford cranks the switch, it’ll light up like a pinball machine! The children nod, wide-eyed, open their notebooks and poise their pencils. In one pocket of Audubon’s robe, the heads of nesting fledglings bob up and down like hot pistons. Their bald, pink cries keep filling in the blanks.
When the dust settled, the villagers were dumbstruck to find the mountain gone. Nothing remained but a wide ribbon of ash running westward like the cold contrail of a rocket. A blur of jays and starlings zigzagged overhead, shrieking, desperate for their nests. The women pulled their shawls tight around their shoulders and hugged themselves. There was something obscene about the horizon, and when the sun sank behind it, a few of the men, overcome with vertigo, held up their hats and vomited discreetly behind some bushes. The men left at dawn in a search party and never returned. Now, the widows live together in a rambling Victorian on the outskirts of our desolate town. They keep the curtains cinched shut and burn old books and furniture to stay warm, passing most afternoons by cleaning a small cache of firearms. Some nights, when the devil drums his painted nails against the picture window, they can be glimpsed chasing him back across the wasteland to his hole, running barefoot over the cold, powdery cinders where all sound perishes. Their long, white gowns trail behind them, flapping against the black arc of the universe, like so many moth-eaten sails.
The last catfish known to man drifts across the bottom of a lake, dozing in the shadow of a hydroelectric dam. She’s as big as a Soviet submarine. The whiskers on one side of her face were sheared off by the propeller of a pleasure boat and never grew back. Though divers say she is docile and melancholy, her skin looks like a relief map of Mars and burns like dry ice to the touch. She trolls the streets of a town drowned years ago in the name of rural electrification, nibbling on chimneys, picket fences, shingles, gingham drapes, doilies, long strips of flowered wallpaper. On endless winter nights, when the loneliness is unbearable, she pokes her cudgel-like lip through the steeple window of the North Star Baptist Church and rings the old bell. Seconds later, the pealing jolts the surface. The gaggle of geriatric geese huddled beneath the bridge strain a few feet skyward into the darkness, then drop back to the half-frozen lake with a soft thud. The feathers on their grey necks stand straight up.