Hope, Hypervigiliance, and Human Hours: A Conversation with Catherine Barnett

Catherine Barnett is the author of three poetry collections, Human Hours, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced and The Game of Boxes, winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her honors include a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a member of the core faculty of New York University’s Creative Writing Program, a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, and an independent editor in New York City.


Heidi Seaborn: In your new collection of poems, Human Hours, there is an intimacy of voice that is utterly engaging, beguiling. How did you arrive at this voice?

Catherine Barnett: In these new poems, I tried to let the pleasures of tracking the mind in its circles and leaps enter the poems as vividly as possible. My tendency has been to compress my work; in this book I tried to give it freer range, trust it more. “Add add add; cut cut cut,” Anne Sexton advised. I then practiced the “Add add add” whenever I felt my inner critic threaten to take over, and I tried to take the reader into confidence.

HS: The notes forHuman Hours are a found poem of their own. I was fascinated to read all the influences, borrowings and references. What tends to be a catalytic influence versus an informing or even factual influence on a specific poem or series?

CB: There’s no distinction for me between these kinds of influences. Last spring I taught a class on literary influence, a subject that’s enlivened and vexed by questions of tradition, appropriation, theft, originality, etc. Everything I read keeps me company and if others’ work shows up in my pages, I’m thrilled and honored. I try to note where the borrowings come from. I love “borrowing” in all its forms. I borrow my clothes from the thrift shop and will return them to the thrift shop; we’re here on borrowed time; anything we think we own we are really just borrowing.

HS: What role does metaphor play on the page and in your life?

CB: I don’t think metaphor can be willed, but since language is inherently metaphoric, it can’t help but show up on the page, the wilder the better. And yet often I side with readers who want a metaphor to work at a literal level, too. I direct my students to that wonderful 1926 exchange of letters between Harriet Monroe and Hart Crane, in which Crane reprimands Monroe for her desire for more “logic” in his metaphors. I hate to admit that I, too, am a sucker for logic, but I like especially logic that undoes itself or undermines itself or goes to an extreme.

I’m always looking for ways to figure out our absurd existence: what else is this like? Metaphors leap to help us. I guess this search for likeness is also part of the pattern-seeking mind of the poet.

HS:  In David Biespiel’s new book, The Education of a Young Poet, he describes metaphor as hiding “in random visible experiences like a dark suit pulled from the back of a closet found to still fit.” Your poem, “Idée Fixe,” opens with the line, “No woman wants to be low-hanging fruit,” a metaphor that you turn into something very literal. Which came first, the metaphor or the literal fact?

CB: The poem was triggered by that phrase, “low-hanging fruit,” which I honestly hadn’t heard before and which sounded like a good thing to me, though I could tell by the way it was said that it wasn’t a good thing. I took the mistake and ran with it. I love mistakes, to tell you the truth. When I was a journalist working at an art magazine, I wrote an article on the painter Willem de Kooning, who painted sometimes with his left hand so that he wouldn’t know quite what he was making, so that he could find or make or invent a “mistake.” I look for ways to do this kind of thing, or to find it in the world—and I think it does have something to do with the gap or the disruption that leads to metaphor.

When I was trying to dream up a possible cover for this new collection, I thought of this poem, “Idée Fixe,” and asked my mother, who’s an abstract painter, if she could make a painting of a peach. She sent photos of her work-in-progress, accompanied by brief notes that could themselves be poems. This is one of the many emails I received from her as she painted: “A bit of a sad peach. Brave, independent, worn honored. It just wanted to be seen. If I could I would take it to a color lab and make it a warm and fuzzy peach tone, which would be nice but not very true. Black and white would make it a literary peach. Maybe it really is an apple.”

And before that she wrote: “I will try. I will be as free as possible. It is very, very hard to create a beautiful line. I don’t think I have ever done it in my work.” In poetry, too, it is very, very hard to create a beautiful line!

Back to metaphor more explicitly, the poet Ed Hirsch says “Poetry is made of metaphor. It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things.” It’s a pleasure to collude and collide in these ways.

HS: Do you believe in the “muse” or is that just a metaphor for inspiration? If you do, who or what were your muses for Human Hours? If you don’t, what else inspires you?

CB: I’m embarrassed to admit that I do kind of believe in a muse—a muse that can be a little bit withholding because she believes simply in hard work, in writing even when words or ideas or feelings are recalcitrant. I try to show up every day so that the muse will know I’m serious even when I’m flailing. I tell myself that I can’t worry about not being able to write until I’ve written every day for three weeks straight. This is a good strategy for two reasons—firstly, because it’s hard to make it through three weeks, so I always have an explanation for why I’m not writing well; and secondly, because the muse seems to take pity on me if I show up every day with nothing.

Other inspirations? Café con leche. Beckett’s Happy Days. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. Kathleen Peirce’s poems and her chicken and dumplings. Dickinson’s letters. Keith Johnstone’s Impro. My inner agitations. Hope. Mistakes. My watch.

HS: Speaking of watches, time functions as both subject and method in this book. It’s both a constraint and a motivation. How would you describe your relationship to time? What has become urgent?

CB: I think I’ve always been in a rush, all my life. I live on the east coast now and I feel I’m always three hours behind, still living on west coast time. I ride a kickscooter all up and down NYC (wheeling it even into the subway car) because it saves me ten minutes on every commute.

Mark Doty gave a lecture—years ago!—on the difference between “lyric” and “narrative” time (terms I borrowed for the title of a poem, “Lyric and Narrative Time at Café Loup”) and I realized then that the biggest source of tension between me and my then-young son was that I had to live in narrative time, where the clock is operative and has power, and he wanted (as did I) to remain in lyric time, where the clock disappears. Writing, and working on a poem, is one good way to enter lyric time. Reading, too.

HS: There’s a line in the title poem from your last book, The Game of Boxes, that could be a precursor to the poems about your father in Human Hours: “I draw all night / to distract my boy / from life’s greater deletions.” In your new book, poems seem to hover ahead of loss—on the wavering edge—yet they never dip over into the sentimental. Can you talk about holding that edge in your writing?

CB: Mostly I live in a state of hope bumped up against hypervigilance, which sometimes takes the form of anticipatory grief. In fact, I became a writer because I thought writing might help me deal with the loss I knew was built into the human condition.

I’m all for true sentiment, which is not the same as sentimentality. It’s a kind of bliss to be able to access real feeling—so often it’s diluted or distracted away. On the other hand, sometimes—often—it’s too much to bear or to handle, and the shaping and making of art is a powerful container both for the maker and the reader. Maybe some related questions, which I like to think about but can’t answer, are: how and when does feeling usefully challenge restraint? and how and when can restraint give us access to true feeling?

HS: And yet, in this collection, your poetry has an exposed, vulnerable quality that often approaches what little remains of what is considered taboo. Do you ever feel the need to self-censor?

CB: I wonder what you’re seeing that seems close to taboo? I might like to be someone who breaks taboos but I don’t think I’m that kind of writer, not here in this book and not in either of my other two books. Vulnerability, yes, I believe in making oneself vulnerable. I think it’s a kind of strength, actually. But even art that feels vulnerable has been made. It’s made out of aesthetic decisions, and it’s not the transcription of a diary by any means, even when it might approximate that. Beckett said, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist….” What is it Rimbaud says? “I is an other.” Yes, the I in these poems often resembles me; but she is also very other, a collage, a made thing looking for a “form that accommodates the mess.” It’s true that I try to leave interpretation and judgment behind when I’m writing but the poems go through endless revisions. The question of self-censorship seems pretty much beside the point. Of course there’s self-censorship! Writing is not life, it’s art, which has a shaping force to it. A transformative and transforming force.

HS: The reviews forHuman Hours highlight the tragic-comic quality of this collection. We are living in a time where humor is not just a pleasure but a survival technique. What brought on this shift in tone?

CB: I went to lots of improv shows, I tried out some improv classes, I let myself be more prolix and discursive and wandering. The material in this book is different from the other books, so it allows for different ways of saying. My first book was a book of elegies and there was certainly no room for humor there. In this book I wanted to attend to the possibilities in language itself and to the absurdities of our human situation. Right now I feel the absurd has slipped right into the dire, and humor is both a little more of a luxury than we can afford and more necessary than ever. Francis Bacon says, “The imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” And recently I just heard someone say that humor gets people to laugh, and once their mouths are open you can slip in some truth….

When I went back to a college reunion years ago, someone told me to “turn around”—he wanted to check out my ass to see how I was faring…. That was the last time I ever went back. And yet that was the culture I was raised in. The speaker knows she’s long been confused and disappointed by the expectations and demands placed on girls and women. The poems try to chronicle the ways a woman might feel both constrained and free, afraid and courageous, lonely and eager for solitude. I think at least one of the the artist’s jobs is to question the status quo. Certainly to pay attention and to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

HS: Do you think of the four “Accursed Questions” sequences as prose or poetry or lyric essay? Each is comprised of questions, answers, statements and the artful dodge. For me, they capture the muddle of human experience, what we know and the limits of what we can know. Can you share how this series came into being and its relationship to the rest of the collection?

CB: I think of these sections as lyric essays, with lots of connectives rubbed out. Some of the material was drawn from pages of daily notes I wrote on the subject of questions. A friend and I were both hoping to write prose books and so we made a pact to exchange 500 words every day on our respective subjects. Matthew Zapruder finished his wonderful book—Why Poetry—and rather than a prose book, some of my late-night explorations made it into these brief lyric essays. I’m still taking notes because I am still questioning questions. I love them. I’m addicted to them. I think they more than anything can help us empathize, understand one another. Now the trick is to listen.

HS:Catherine, it’s been a pleasure to listen to your answers in response to these questions. I also want to personally share my gratitude for the last stanza of “Accursed Questions, i”—it captured my whole childhood (yes, the red speedo) in a few lines.


Heidi Seaborn

Heidi Seaborn is the author of [PANK] Poetry Prize winner An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe (2021), the acclaimed Give a Girl Chaos (C&R Press, 2019) and the 2020 Comstock Review Chapbook Award-winning, Bite Marks. Recent poems and essays in American Poetry Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, The Cortland Review, The Financial Times, The Greensboro Review, The Hunger, Hobart, LitHub, The Offing, The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith, Tinderbox, Washington Post and elsewhere. She’s Executive Editor of The Adroit Journal and holds an MFA in Poetry from NYU.