Dara Barrois/Dixon (née Dara Wier) is the author of Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina (Wave Books, 2022). Other titles include In the Still of the Night, You Good Thing, Reverse Rapture, and two chapbooks, Two Poems from Scram Press and Nine from Incessant Pipe (2022). Forthcoming from Conduit Books & Ephemera in March 2024 is Extremely Expensive Mystical Experiences for Astronauts. Her poems have received awards and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, American Poetry Review, The Poetry Center Book Award, Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives and works in western Massachusetts.
I have previously interviewed Barrois-Dixon for her book, Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina, from Wave Books. Since then, we have kept in contact. When I received Nine, her handsome chapbook of nine poems from Incessant Pipe, I was delighted by the texture of its raised cover image. Flipping through its pages brings a smile to my face because it is voiced by a speaker who pays “attention to what it is people are doing when they say they are thinking.” Poems of great beauty and insight emerge, followed by prose which extends the influences and real-world issues surrounding the poem’s creation.
What follows is an edited transcript of the Zoom interview:
Tiffany Troy: Why nine poems?
Dara Barrois/Dixon: My first thought is I’d done a chapbook with a small press, Scram Books, called Two Poems. I like how that little chapbook is almost a bridge between a broadside and a longer chapbook. When Incessant Pipe asked if I’d like to do a chapbook, I thought to call it Nine. Nine’s my #1 number; I like how it comes in threes. I like it being the novena number, how it’s the last lone digit before double digits begin, and so on. I chose 3 sets of 3 poems each from a collection of numerous poems I’ve written since April 2020. I’m just now beginning to shape a full-length book made up of those poems. The word nine looks good as Incessant Pipe’s Clay Ventre designed it.
TT: Are you going to do a whole series of these: Three, Four, Five, etc.?
DBD: Ha, I’d like that.
TT: I imagine how forms will be testing out what you’re thinking about. Maybe in the next one, you’ll put dates in the prose.
DBD: Yes, the mix on one page of traditional-looking poems with conventional-looking prose has an effect, though I’m not sure I can articulate it in a general way. The first part, in 14 lines, mainly has the effect of keeping me having to make choices that a less constrained form might not.
To let one’s thoughts run on through associations, sound effects, meanings, emotions, paradoxes, contradictions, tones, images, voices, and all else words carry, with nothing to guide them other than your own experiences and maybe your curiosity about what combinations new to you might bring, shines a light onto the light of poetry’s mysterious beauty. Perhaps a way of showing us something we think we’ve never thought before, and maybe we haven’t— this is, most of the time, exhilarating. You don’t feel you’ve caused it. You feel as if you’ve found it. If you’re lucky, when you wake up from its outpouring you recognize there’s something there to hold on to, something worth paying attention to, and to be thankful to poetry for giving it to you.
TT: Yeah! Compared with poetry collections, chapbooks often have a lot more focus. With full collections, oftentimes, there are different themes across different sections, with a trajectory. With a chapbook, there’s this sense of testing out a singular idea.
DBD: I think you’re right. I wonder if a certain number of books being put through similar restrictions prompted by various schools’ requirements create books whose shaping is done not by poetry’s wild abandon but by habits of mind requirements brought about. I wonder if books begin to be too homogenized by the institutions they pass through. I don’t believe this is fated so long as everyone involved maintains a healthy skepticism as they participate in institutionalized rituals of engagement. It’s dangerous though.
How many poems do you have in your book?
TT: Oh, I should know this better, it’s probably 20 poems or so.
DBD: Let’s count. I can count in the table of contents. It’s 17, and I would say this falls within a reasonable length for a chapbook. It’s so pretty, too. Thank you for sending it to me.
TT: Thank you for your beautiful chapbook, and for your friendship.
What was the process of writing Nine like?
DBD: I’d finished Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina. It’s all couplets. I’ve always been helplessly drawn to couplets. I gravitate toward their illusions. I’ve always loved a loose sonnet form, too. I grew up on Shakespeare’s sonnets and so I have a natural kind of feeling and understanding and love for them. At 13 and 14, I preposterously tried to imitate Shakespeare’s sonnets. Right on down to their language! Even if my imitation was ridiculous, getting to know the form is not ridiculous. You learn some things. For instance, the urgency of realizing all of a sudden you will soon have to end the poem! You have to take a deep breath and do something about it.
Once I start writing, I have a tendency to keep writing, which means an abbreviated form can be good for me to have to work within. I was thinking of that earlier today, because I was reading something about Ashbery’s love of esoteric forms, and it listed pantoums, centos, etc.
Maybe a default form for me is etc.
TT: So that’s what you call the bottom prose form in these new poems, etc.?
DBD: Ha, no, but that sounds like a good idea.
About the form, etc., once you start writing, if it’s feeling alive, why would you want to stop? You’re not necessarily going to be cognizant of the sometimes sensible choice you can make to stop, that you’ve done enough. A 14-line limit guarantees you’ll be stopping and thinking about stopping. Etc. might be a good form, too.
There’s a lot about this new book I haven’t decided yet. Maybe you have an opinion about this, or can at least speculate along with me. I’ll have to decide to keep the prose on the same page as the poem or, if I want 2 halves to the book, where one part holds the poem and a second part holds the prose. I don’t think I can think about this without trying it out. I’ve asked others for their advice and I do like how just about everyone I’ve asked has a strong opinion about it.
TT: I know exactly what you’re saying. Nabokov’s Pale Fire (I think) did it the latter way, where it’s almost like footnotes…
DBD: Does Pale Fire have titles? I can’t remember.
TT: I’m not sure, but I don’t think there are any titles.
DBD: I haven’t read that book in a while.
TT: Me neither, not for 10 years. Recently, I interviewed the novelist Xu Xi who spoke of how she wanted footnotes rather than endnotes in one of her stories. With footnotes, the reader will be in the same space in the prose as the poem, and read the gloss.
As the reader, I felt that the prose in Nine, which works similarly to footnotes, gave me context for each poem as I was reading it. It provided a gloss on the location or situation from which the poems arose.
Endnotes, on the other hand, allow a reader to experience a poem for itself before reading the prose. Then maybe you can put all the prose in the second half of the book. But then that would be similar to what poets do with the Notes section, instead of being part of the poem.
DBD: And I don’t think that effect would be anywhere near close to why I have the prose alongside the poems to begin with. Nine exists as it is and so I do experience how the form in which the poems were written might seem in a public place. More and more I need to keep the poems as they originally came into being. I think what I’m speculating about can rightly be called over-thinking.
TT: You know how in a museum, there’s the art, then underneath there’s a description of the art? It feels like that when I’m reading the prose to Nine.
DBD: Those have a pretty negative name.
DBD: No, wait. I’m glad you brought it up because I think about wall didactics a lot when I’m looking at things in museums.
They’re called wall didactics. There’s likely a more precise meaning for their appearances in museums, and are usually written by the exhibit’s curator. In other use, didactic reflects negative judgment.
In the poems we’re talking about, prose acts differently in different poems. Sometimes it is a continuation of the poem by other means, sometimes it juxtaposes, sometimes it contradicts, sometimes it goes off on its own trajectory, sometimes it goes on for a very long time in opposition to its 14-line partner. I don’t want the prose to be explanatory or propping up.
TT: Turning our attention to the visual aspect of Nine, can you speak a little bit about the cover of Nine? The cover is really nice, with its raised surface.
DBD: Yes, Incessant Pipe’s editor and publisher, Clay Ventre, also does the design and artwork for the design. I know he hand-pasted the artwork on each booklet. I love the effect, especially with its 3 squares.
TT: The cover features three frames, the three by three, the idea of that.
DBD: There’re probably at least 9 big black lines through there! In any case, he made a beautiful book. I just read from it recently for a Wave Books reading in Seattle, and I made a few changes to it for the reading.
TT: What did you do?
DBD: I taped a new poem in the chapbook’s front because I wanted to begin the reading with a poem I hoped would set the tone for the poems to come. I crossed out a couple of poems I didn’t want to read. I guess you can say I prepared the chapbook to serve as a kind of script for the reading. I also taped another newer poem in the back so I could end the reading on that poem.
TT: That’s really cute, actually. So now it’s Ten.
DBD: It’s still Nine, because I crossed out two. I wanted to have time to read the whole little chapbook; the reading included many readers so time mattered.
Anyway, I think your chapbook title is pretty amazing.
TT: Thank you.
DBD: You’re welcome. I sensed the first time I looked at it that When Ilium Burns refers to something crucial, significant. And I did think oh, she’s alluding to her name. I’m glad I finally saw it because at first I didn’t think of it.
TT: Thank you so much, especially coming from someone who is so great at creating titles.
DBD: Well, it’s funny, too, in a way, when it becomes obvious. Because when someone or something is burning, there is a lot to think about. And then I learned a whole lot about ilium bones which I didn’t know anything about. I didn’t know that name. I like it when poems get me to learn about something I didn’t know about. It’s a bonus.
TT: Oh, thank you for reading the title in conjunction with my chapbook so well.
What is so interesting to me about the form of your chapbook is how, like you mentioned, with the 13-14 lines, loose sonnet-form, there is always a sense that the poem is coming to an end, even at the beginning. “The Smell of Stale Milk Chocolate Coming Out of its Cellophane Wrapper” is a poem that I believe contemplates beauty as well as purpose in the way that you’re describing it. That’s really cool, how you felt the form itself allowed for a way of seeing to come through the set of poems.
DBD: Makes sense for the poem to end with, “Because it / has to be.” It has to end.
TT: “It has to end,” exactly. The fifth poem, “Poetry,” read to me like an ars poetica in addition to—and I may be wrong on this—a reflection on the war in Ukraine.
DBD: You’re right about what I was thinking about. In my draft manuscript, these poems have dates. Whether the dates wind up in the finished book is another question. Because of the nature of the book, dates will add another layer. Alone, a date looks neutral. Finding out more about a date can be revelatory. It tells another story.
TT: Cedar Sigo put some dates in his poems from All This Time, and it does add context, if we think of the poem, like the wall didactics, as a form or container. It allows us to think of time, and the poet as the poet moves through life, so to speak.
DBD: Well, and see, if it’s a date, there are some days that have immediate meaning good, bad, tragic, celebratory, a birth, a death, a war begins, something ends. To date or not to date seems to be a good problem. As usual, if you ask someone about this it’s possible they’ll have a strong opinion.
TT: The cool thing is, you get to decide, no?
DBD: Ha, yes, right, that’s true.
TT: And it depends on how the rest of your collection is going to be in terms of if it’s going to have different sections, with only one section having dates versus both sections without dates, or if the entire manuscript will be dated.
DBD: I think this issue could just about decide that keeping the two parts of the poems together, as they were written, is the better choice for the book to come. I thank you for this conversation as it is inclining me to stick with how the poems came to be in the first place.
TT: Yeah, because the prose is a lot more specific in terms of what I’m listening to or reading on a given year or day.
DBD: If I were choosing to split up the poems into prose and poem sections, I’d probably opt for a date being after the poem, the 14 lines.
Last fall, because I had another book I needed to edit, I wanted to concentrate on it for a while which meant I needed to stop writing the kinds of poems I started writing in April of 2020. Of course, it is not so simple as saying stop now. Because how can you say no to a poem?
TT: You can’t!
DBD: I think it’d be really bad luck to do that. So I sneaked a new one in last week. I mean, I have been writing one every day or every other day for over three years, so you can say I’ve formed a habit.
TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?
DBD: Thank you for reading. Thank you for having any kind of love, or like, or interest, or curiosity in every kind of poetry. And thank you, Tiffany. It helps to think through some of these things in conversation.