A Brief Interview with Jennifer Barber

Weston Cutter
September 18, 2012
Comments 1

The author of recently-released Given Away and 2003’s Rigging the Wind (both from the excellent Kore Press) and the founder and editor of Salamander, Jennifer Barber’s been making some form or another of literary magic for a good while now. “What throats are we,” she observes in “Stood” from Given Away, “what listening / what latticework of nest // and need taking in / the rain before we hear / a path branching at our feet.” What Barber’s poems do is partake again and again in the beauty and mystery that transpires at the intersection of human consciousness regarding both humanity and the larger world—natural and spiritual. “Lord, deliver us / if you want / these praises” is how she begins “Scroll,” before listing what “our fear” has turned us into: “a bull’s blood / on the altar, / on our hands, / the fat flames / crackling, the smoke.” I could go on and on: Given Away is a welcomingly quiet book in its ways—the lines are short, the language clean to the point of occasional spareness, and the targets or aims of the poems as thick and rich and lofty as any others, anywhere. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book, well worth some autumnal reading hours. Ms Barber awesomely answered some questions recently over email, the results of which are as follows.

In the most general way, where do the poems in Given Away start? It seems (maybe this is incorrect) that this is a book which tracks a year from August to August (given that that month makes an appearance in first and last poem), and it also emphatically is a book that is not just *considering* but actually deeply set in/within the natural world—there’s *nature* here, everywhere. I guess this is ultimately a process question.

I wrote the poems in Given Away over a period of seven years. I hadn’t thought of the book as tracking a single year, though I’m intrigued by that idea, and also by a comment from a friend, who said that she sees the whole book as a single poem. By beginning and ending with poems about August, I wanted readers to feel as though they had passed through time and an inward search to arrive at late summer again but in an altered frame of mind. And, to touch on your observation about the natural world: season, for me, is the natural world in one of its most palpable forms; we live inside seasons, we can’t separate ourselves from them.

During the seven years of writing the book, I’ve been part of a group that meets weekly to read and discuss texts from the Hebrew Bible (in translation). Many of the poems in Given Away began while I was thinking about these texts, though I definitely didn’t set out to write biblically influenced poems; it only gradually became clear to me that some poems were heading in that direction. I hoped to understand how the lives of the writers in the ancient world both resemble and differ from our own.

Is there some aesthetic community of writers at present with whom you feel aligned? Or some aesthetic lineage you feel/see your work looking back to, or being grounded in? I’ve got guesses (Ammons for one), but I’m curious about how it feels for you, inside of things.

I am happy to have several long-term friendships with poets who began their writing lives around the same time I did, many of them publishing their first books in the 1990s or the first decade of the new century. Over the years, we’ve shared and critiqued one another’s poems, talked about the poets whose works we’re reading, and passed poems in translation back and forth. We’ve been first readers of one another’s manuscripts, helping to winnow out the lesser poems and put the stronger ones in the best sequence. When I think of these friendships, I don’t think so much of an articulated, shared aesthetic; it’s more that each of us responds to the specific intention of the other to help that intention reach its truest expression. It would be hard, though, to sustain such poetry friendships if our individual aesthetics were diametrically opposed, so in that sense, there is enough common ground to work from.

As for the poets I read over and over, some of the books on the shelf behind my desk are by Jane Kenyon, Elizabeth Bishop, Adam Zagajewski, Louise Glück, Ruth Stone, Seamus Heaney, Jean Valentine, and David Ferry. And, somewhat closer to or within my own generation, recent books by Pam Bernard, Sophie Cabot Black, Andrea Cohen, Martha Collins, Carol Dine, Patrick Donnelly, Valerie Duff, Nick Flynn, Rita Gabis, Jessica Greenbaum, Marie Howe, Frannie Lindsay, George Kalogeris, Katia Kapovich, Fred Marchant, Philip Nikolayev, Jacquelyn Pope, Vijay Seshadri, Don Share, Chase Twichell, Afaa Weaver, and Rosanna Warren—too many to name, but these are some. And I do admire Ammons!

This might be impossible to get at, but I’m curious: how much does the noise of editing get to your own writing? Are there generative and detrimental aspects to the practice of getting Salamander together? This is as much just out of curiosity and for the sake of edification as anything else.

Editing Salamander these past twenty years has been a great way for me to get exposure to the work of new writers, writers I might not have come across otherwise. In that sense, gathering work for the magazine has been a continuous education and a source of delight. Putting together a magazine, though, at least for me, is an amazingly time-consuming occupation that also takes up large amounts of psychological space. So there are times when I’d like to grab Salamander by the lapels, give it a shaking, and tell it to leave me alone so I can have more leisure to get lost in my own poems. Maybe all poets feel that way about whatever jobs they are doing; it can be hard to surface and refocus when you’re in the middle of writing, when you want several hours in a row to work out a particular line or moment.

How did you begin writing poetry to begin with? I apologize if that’s a silly-ish question or anything–I was just reading interviews with you online, and none that I found touch this.

I think it’s a good question because it gets at one of those mysteries in life: we can speculate, but we don’t really know why one person is spellbound by music, another by numbers, a third by poetry. I was in first grade when I fell for poetry. One day my usually very strict teacher, Miss Stevens, brought in a jumbo-sized sheet of lined paper and attached it to an easel. She told the class we were going to write a poem together. She had a topic picked out for us—apple blossoms—and had preselected the rhymes. Apple blossoms, she said, were pink and white and bloomed in May. We started brainstorming lines and wrote a group poem and then individual ones. I knew poems from nursery rhymes and other children’s books, but it was revelation to me that we could write our own. The fact that I had never given apple blossoms a second thought didn’t bother me at all: in my poem, I was passionate about their beauty.

Why’d you fall in love with Spain? The person asking, by the by, is someone who loves the place deeply, and so the question’s as much about seeing if you can provide something like an answer to my own reaction to the place’s tug.

I spent seven months in the first year of my married life in Galicia, in northwest Spain. My husband, Peter Brown, is a fiction writer, and we left our entry-level jobs in Manhattan to spend some time writing. Rural Spain was affordable; we ended up in the village of San Miguel de Reinante, which has since grown considerably as a summer destination. When we lived there, though, its population was declining. We got to know many older people—the younger generation had mostly moved elsewhere—and we heard about their experiences during the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent years under Franco’s regime.

One couple in particular, José and Angelica, treated us like family. They helped us with our Spanish—José had been a school teacher and principal—and helped us to understand the country. I began writing poems set in San Miguel. We have returned many times to Spain, to Galicia and other regions, and it’s been important to my writing: my previous book, Rigging the Wind, has poems about the legacy of the civil war as well as some that explore Spanish medieval history, and this latter strand is also present in Given Away. I became interested in the poet Emilio Prados, a contemporary and a friend of Lorca’s; my translations of five short poems by Prados appear as “Variations” in Given Away.

Given your straddling of editing a lit journal + writing, I’m real interested in what your thoughts are on lit journals at present and where you can imagine or see them going. If this seems like a dry or bloodless question, it’s not intended as such: I’m fascinated by the coming stages and can’t even a little imagine what things’ll be like; I imagine if my view was more insider-y, from an editorial position, I’d have maybe more interesting things to say than what I’ve got at present. Who knows. If you’re remotely interested in entertaining the q, I’d welcome it.

There are, I believe, about 2,000 literary journals in this country, including both on-line and traditional. This is an impressive number, and represents a large increase over earlier decades. The scene is very vibrant: excellent new journals are constantly appearing. As a country, we are, of course, at a crossroads in terms of how we read—in printed form, online from websites, or via Kindles, iPads, phones, and other devices. Journals, which are often understaffed and hard-pressed for both time and money, are in the process of figuring out how to best use these different modes of content-delivery. Although we’d like to wave a wand and have our content ready to go in all possible formats, the reality is that there is some labor involved in preparing a journal for each separate format. At the same time, submissions have increased exponentially, and traditional journal distribution in outlets such as bookstores as decreased dramatically. So editors find themselves dealing with all of these various factors, and it’s a challenge. I’m very curious to see what journals will look like and how they will be operating in another decade or so. In the meantime, journals are doing what they’ve always done: presenting new works by known and not-yet-known writers to a readership, and it is a privilege to be part of that process.


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