What the Lyric Means to Me: A Conversation with Rick Barot

Rick Barot was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the author of The Galleons, as well as three previous collections of poems: The Darker Fall; Want; which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize; and Chord. Chord received the UNT Rilke Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. It was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, the New Republic, Tin House, Kenyon Review, and the New Yorker. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Stanford University. He is the poetry editor for New England Review. He lives in Tacoma, Washington, and directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University.


Jordan Nakamura: Congratulations on your gorgeous new book! In this work, there seems to be a resistance to a certain kind of final moment of epiphany or at least one type of “traditional poem epiphany” structure of description that leads to an on-theme revelation at the end. At times these feel like they nearly go in the opposite direction and end in a list of details. It’s successfully disorienting, confusing, and wonderfully challenging and fruitful. It seems you’d already begun this exploration in your older work. “The Man With the Crew-Cut” and “The Wooden Overcoat” from Chord for example. How did you arrive at/respond to the avoidance of that presentation of epiphany?

Rick Barot: I don’t know that I have intentionally avoided climactic or epiphanic endings for my poems. What I know is that over the course of four books, I’ve been working out—sometimes consciously, oftentimes not—what the lyric means to me. In my first two books I took for granted poetry’s status as a kind of heroic genre, a genre that could render the complexities of personal experience as well as larger political, social, and cultural complexities. Because of that, my first two books are in a kind of high poetic mode. This started to change with the poems in Chord, which I wrote in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when there was so much anxiety in our national psyche. Of course, in retrospect, that period now seems like a fire drill compared to the noxious moment in history where we have arrived. I wrote the poems in Chord with an increasing distrust in what poetry, and art in general, could do in the face of so much political and social distress. This resulted in poems that were hesitant in delivering the kinds of poetic goods that my poems had aimed for—like epiphanic closures or gestures. I wanted the poems to be more direct, plain, expository. That continued in the poems in The Galleons.

JN: The Galleons subtly interrogates the intersections of immigration and colonialism and how both are haunted by the other. We hear politicians talking about how the U.S. is a ‘nation of immigrants’: a phrase that undermines indigenous people or people brought to the U.S. against their will through the slave trade or forced labor. All these histories are accompanied by the specters of large ships. The image of the galleons keeps reappearing in so many different forms: from image to actual poetic formal constructions. There isn’t anything that explicitly articulates the device of the boats, and I wanted to ask, what went into the decision to keep that as unspoken as the colonial haunting they seem to represent?

RB: Very early in the process of writing the book, I knew that The Galleons would be the book’s title and that the galleon itself—both as a historical phenomenon and a metaphoric one—would be a defining motif in the book. Writing the poems was my way of discovering the different permutations that the galleon could take in my imagination. The whole book, then, is an articulation of the “haunting” that you mention. Taken together, the “Galleons” sequence is my effort at speaking into and out of that haunting. Sometimes the haunting has an explicitly informative manifestation, as when, in one of the poems, I list the things that would have been in a typical cargo hold of one of these galleons as it traveled across the Pacific from the Philippines to Mexico. In still other poems the haunting manifests as an echo—in one poem it’s the strollers pushed by nannies on a summer day in New York City, in another poem it’s the big-rig truck that criss-crosses the country carrying consumer goods.

JN: I’m really interested in the way you are approaching the address of colonialism in mundane settings and forms while also working toward a speech that feels as clear and unobscured as possible. Is there a kind of impulse to not do the same thing (hiding behind abstraction) as what you might be trying to think through (colonialism masquerading and hiding in the everyday)?

RB: In the classes that I teach, one of the things I talk about with my students is the ways which we might engage in decolonization, especially in regards to the structures and constructs that are inextricably a part of our everyday lives—sexism, homophobia, racism, economic inequality, and so on. Fundamental to the practice of decolonization is seeing, with critical clarity, how the structures and constructs that I’ve mentioned are all around us, oftentimes obscured and at times bright as day. The “clear and unobscured” speech that you’re identifying in my recent poems is me trying to put into action some of the clarity that I try to teach to my students. I should also mention that, to my mind, clarity doesn’t mean being simple or simplistic. It’s about inhabiting a perspective that can encompass a lot of painful and complex things.

JN: The poems in this book are all comprised of couplets. How did you arrive at that decision and what did that formal choice produce or incite?

RB: Because a lot of the subjects I was writing about in The Galleons were so heavy, I had the notion early on that it would be good to have a contrasting formal shape for the poems in the book. The couplet stanza—given the lightness generated by the white space that surrounded each couplet—seemed an apt contrast. As I committed more and more to the couplet as the only stanzaic form I would use in the book, the more I worried that this regularity would lead to either laziness on my part or monotony for the reader. To address those possible problems, I started to come up with other formal gambits that could be deployed within the confines of the couplet stanza. And so, one poem doesn’t use punctuation. Another poem uses just one extended compound sentence. And still another poem has closed couplets, sort of like in a ghazal. It seems paradoxical, but adhering to the couplet stanza actually made me more formally inventive. During the period when I was writing the poems for The Galleons, I also had an obsession with Agnes Martin’s work. I’d like to think that my couplets are a kind of homage to her own obsession with grids, horizontal lines, vertical lines—a vocabulary of order.

JN: In a commentary of your poem “The Names,” you mention an analogy you thought about involving an Albrecht Dürer painting: firstly how you imagine you’d be looking at the painting for hours if you were able to see the original in person. You note specifically how in the eye of the hare, Dürer has taken the time to paint the reflection of a window, nearly imperceptible, which becomes a figurative window into the context of the painting’s creation that includes Dürer’s body, and how similarly in the poem there’s a line about people in a family photobook, a “toddler” and an “old man” who share your name. A secret, that leads back to the history of the speaker’s own life/body/identity.

In “UDFJ-39546284” the speaker talks about a photograph of their grandmother’s hands, “I looked at them/ until I had to stop. This is foreground.” In the same poem, a link is made between the concepts of the present and foreground, as well as the past with context.

It’s frequently considered a ‘failure’ when something intentionally placed in a poem doesn’t come across clearly right away or might get passed over. There is an understandable unease at the impulse to conceal, at the willingness to let a detail be subtle enough to easily miss without long observation. You wrote, however, that you want your poems to contain such secrets. Secrets that seem perhaps more acceptable in mediums like painting or photography.

Could you talk about your relationship to other forms of art and how those modes of looking and making further inform and expand what it means to make a poem?

RB: Like a lot of people, my relationship with other art forms—by which I really mean visual art—begins in my being a consumer of those other art forms. I have always loved the focused experience that a painting or a photograph can generate, and the paradoxical pleasure of being taken out of yourself and also deeper into yourself. When I started writing and started to think of myself as an artist, that sense of pleasure informed the things I wrote and how I imagined my reader experiencing the things I wrote. Around the time that I matured as a teacher, when I had to introduce my students to the complicated contexts that surround every piece of art, my sense of art as a pleasure-generating thing got inflected by the sense of art as having ethical imperatives. In all of my books there are ekphrastic poems, but the posture of ekphrasis has changed over time, from book to book. In my early work, when I engaged with other artworks in my poems, it was often just to record the sugar-high that I got from encountering those artworks. I wanted my poems to say yes to those artworks. These days, because I’m so much more cognizant of how art relates to questions of history, society, politics, and culture, my ekphrastic work is more about capturing the ambivalences that I have when I interact with a work of art. The poems want to say: yes, but.

JN: Across the collection, I sensed a connection between sex/desire and violence and the way reflection and remembrance can link the two. I’m thinking of the line in “The Girl Carrying A Ladder” where the speaker writes “When I think of a punching bag, I think of sex” or the part in “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick” where the speaker says “I know it’s a violence to sense and sequence” which makes me think of “sensual” and the quote by Lorca insisting that a poet must be “a professor of the five senses” and how that thought in the poem launches into a recollection of reading sexual portions of a book to an unrequited love, or in “Dragged Mass,” where the poem draws a comparison between the tendency to have the reader see granite pulled across a construction site as “what time does to the body, / which is to scour it, which must have something to do / with why I am looking at you now, asleep,” and the poem again turns toward what seems like the image of a beloved.

The poems communicate these connections, but I was wondering if you could comment on the problems inherent in such associations, and how you’ve been wrestling with them in writing, perhaps wrestling because of the act of writing?

RB: The different kinds of associative leaps that you refer to are a result of the intentional juxtapositions that I was interested in making in the poems. The problem that I encountered as I wrote the poems was the one of making the leaps or connections viable. In “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick,” I have the lines, “Looking around // at the things that surround me, I have come to understand / that the test of how well a thing is made / is to look at the places where its parts come together— / joints, seams, corners, folds.” These lines are an explicit acknowledgment of the difficulty of making the leaps that I wanted the poems to enact. When I encountered those difficulties in each poem, I had to come up with various solutions, poem by poem. As suggested by the lines quoted above, one solution was to gesture at the problem and then proceed to make the leap I wanted to make. In other poems, I made the leaps or turns through sharp, unexpected pivots, sort like the knight piece in chess making L-shaped swerves. In all cases, finding the technical strategy for making the leaps or connections was the thrill in writing the poems. In “Dragged Mass,” for instance, I knew that the image of Michael Heizer’s gargantuan rock being dragged across a dirt lot was somehow related to the image of the beloved sleeping on an ordinary winter morning—how to move the poem from one image to the second was the problem I faced. The solution I came up with was syntax, which kept hypotactically extending, insisting on proximity between the rock and the sleeping body.

JN: The sequencing of this book is really well-crafted. For example, the way “The Names” leads its meditation on the mysteries of carrying names into the long and relentless list poem “The Galleons 6,” which is followed by what might be one of the shortest and most vivid elegies I can think of, “The Galleons 7.” It just feels so quietly operatic, varied, and the power of the book grows exponentially in ways that can dawn on the reader at a deferred time.

Ordering is always such a hard part of the book making process, but especially considering the resistance to traditional narrative in this collection, I’m curious how you went about deciding on the order of the poems?

RB: Like every poet who’s ever had to order a manuscript of poems, what I wanted to create in The Galleons was an experience of dynamic unfolding for the reader. Once I was sure I had written all the poems I would write for the book, I went on a weekend retreat to put the poems into an order. Early in this process, I knew that I wanted to start with “The Grasshopper and the Cricket,” because I wanted the book’s first image to be of my grandmother. I also knew I wanted to end the book with “Ode with Interruptions.” The ending gesture of that poem—to go back to your earlier question—is a kind of anti-epiphany, and this felt like the right way to close the book. Ordering everything in between just meant figuring out modulations of rise and fall from poem to poem. The sequence you mention—“The Names,” followed by “The Galleons 6,” then followed by “The Galleons 7”—is probably the heart of the book, especially in the juxtaposition of the long list in “The Galleons 6” with the brief glimpse of my grandmother’s death in “The Galleons 7.” That juxtaposition in scale—between the grandly historical listing of the galleons’ names and the devastatingly intimate death—is what the book is about, at least to me.

JN: Yes, that juxtaposition in scale feels really true to life: how what we live through gets warped and folded in to other things we misjudge the scale of, or hold in tension simultaneously with things of vastly differing scale. It seems like a fundamental question of poetry: how do we pay attention truly, if we can’t pay attention to everything at once? How do we attend…

In the phenomenal closing of the book, “Ode with Interruptions,” it feels very much like the speaker is working to examine the realities of other lives, the relation between those lives and the speaker’s. It’s this communal gesture of sensory awareness of other people, which feels like one way toward engaging the intimate with the global.

The speaker declares that they don’t have to get to this highbrow place of what some might call universality “where poems were supposed to succeed.” Was there a point when you knew fully that to “transcend the prosaic elements of the self” wasn’t the ideal way to make a poem, and where do you think that disdain for specific self-articulation comes from that the speaker needed to overcome?

RB: One way I might encompass all the rich questions you’ve raised is to focus on the poem you mention, “Ode with Interruptions.” The poem is ostensibly an ode for the house in Oakland where I grew up, and where my parents continue to live. It’s a house that’s about a hundred years old, and our family has owned it for almost forty years now. The people mentioned in the poem are myself, my sister, my parents, and all of our earlier selves. By inference, the people in the poem are also those who lived in the house in the decades before my family lived in it. The poem, then, is in praise of those layers of people and time. The “interruptions” in the poem—the vignette about religious paintings in Italy, the vignette about wandering in a hospital, and the final statement about what it means to write poetry—are meant to indicate the disruptions that can trouble a life, whether it’s spiritual trouble, physical pain, or uncertainty about one’s purpose. The ending of the poem comes from my realization that poetry isn’t in service to the transcendent, but rather it’s in service to capturing the bittersweet realities of lived experience. All of this relates to what I said earlier about my continuing interrogation of the lyric and what it’s supposed to do. If I once thought that poems could lead to grand concepts about the meaning of life, I certainly don’t think so now. Poems, I think now, should help you to see—with complex clarity—the things in front of you, the things around you, the things within you.

JN: Among other roles, you are a teacher, an editor, and an author. I’m wondering about how you maneuver within those roles, how does each stretch and challenge you, how do you find they inform one another, and do you feel more comfortable or gain special meaning from any of those?

RB: It’s hard to parse out each role that you mention and measure its specific value in my life. They’re all woven together, inflecting each other, in tension with each other, and also supporting each other’s imperatives. There are many days when my role as a teacher is almost wholly who I am. There are also many days when I’m the program director of an MFA program. And then there are other days—those blissfully solitary days when I have a day or two for my own reading and writing—when I’m wholly the writer. For a long time now I’ve lived by this motto: live to capacity. What this means to me is that I passionately commit to the things I have said yes to—under the assumption that living this way will lead to the most complicated art that I can make. I don’t mean that I say yes to everything. Instead, I mean being completely present for each thing I’ve committed to, having said no to a lot of other things in order to get there.

JN: Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses! And thank you for the care you poured into this book, which for me has become such an important collection. I know it will resonate with lots of other readers deeply. Again, congratulations and I look forward to seeing how others engage with The Galleons in the future!

RB: Thanks for spending time with the book—and for the careful, hard questions!


Jordan Nakamura

Jordan Nakamura is a poet and MFA candidate at Antioch University LA. He was born and raised in Hawaii and lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Zócalo Public Square, The Curator, Lunch Ticket, and Tupelo Quarterly.

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