An Interview with Catherine Barnett
Jen Levitt, Maya C. Popa, and Dana Isokawa, Issue 32
Catherine Barnett is a poet and a teacher, as opposed to a poet who teaches. Both disciplines offer opportunities for play and improvisation, which we were lucky to find out this spring as students in her course on revision. Each week we examined drafts of established poets and engaged in writing exercises for our own poems, from trying out a new move to assuming the temperament of one of the writers we were reading. As a teacher, Catherine is generous and humble. As a poet, “she’s fearless enough to be a mother,” as one of the “Chorus” speakers in her new book, The Game of Boxes, declares. For this interview, we met at the 92nd Street Y, where Catherine talked with us about poetic process, the influence of games on her work, and how changing a poem’s point of view can create possibilities. Then, like a true teacher, she led us in a writing exercise.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In describing your first book, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, Robert Creeley said the poems record “the response of witness” and Jean Valentine called the voice “classical and ego-less.” The new book is just as personal but in a very different way—the self feels much more present, and there’s a nakedness there, literally and figuratively. How was the process of writing your new book, The Game of Boxes, similar to or different from your first?
CATHERINE BARNETT: The first book was mostly written while I was in grad school at Warren Wilson. When I came back after a difficult semester off and didn’t think I could write poems for anybody, my teacher, Ellen Bryant Voigt, told me that all I had to do was show up at the desk for three hours a day. You can just look at the wall and describe the wall, she said, it doesn’t matter. You just need to be there for those three hours and do something. So that’s what I did, and I showed her whatever piece of earth I was tilling—whatever piece of dirt I was in. She just removed all expectations, as did another wonderful teacher of mine, Ruth Danon (who teaches in the Paul McGhee division here at NYU). I try to do the same for my students.
Then, as now, I sit down every day and read until I get that feeling you are all probably familiar with, the feeling that you can write—and then I just track the mind, trying to depict what Bishop calls “a mind thinking.” I try not to worry at all about what I’m making in this first generative rush. Then, sometimes days or weeks later, I try to shape—to carve or juxtapose or cut- and paste—my way toward a poem. I’m lucky to have people who know me and my work well enough to help me begin to see when I’ve made something worth keeping, though I don’t show my work until I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own. I tend to throw most everything out.
So I’d say my two books were written in the same way, in terms of process. It depends mostly on what I’m reading and on whatever mysteries and obsessions and sorrows are keeping me company.
Both books took a long time to find an order and in both the poems lean on each other, so in that way the books are similar though the subject matter is different. With both books I just told myself, I’m going to write whatever, and I wasn’t thinking about publishing at all. In fact I was actively not- thinking about it (as opposed to not thinking) in order to give myself the greatest freedom to take risks and say anything. Later, what to put into the world became a big question, for both books. You know that whole argument between Bishop and Lowell—“Is art worth it?” I don’t think art is worth trespassing. I tried to negotiate writing as ferociously and fiercely as I could without trespass.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you typically like to have many voices in your head—a variety of texts—before you sit down to write, or do you prefer to read one thing intently?
CATHERINE BARNETT: Neither, actually. A book appears at a certain moment and it’s helpful at just that moment. With the middle section of The Game of Boxes, I was reading the Four Quartets and I was really interested in the way Eliot incorporates contradictions and extremes. I tried to take a feeling or an image, or a sound, and push it hard in one direction and then explore its opposite, with equal force, in the same poem. And then there are the poets I carry around, like Dickinson—the poets who always help me. Right now I’m reading a book on forgiveness by Charles Griswold, a professor of philosophy at Boston University, and though it’s not leading to any good poems, I’m interested in it, and sometimes stubborn, often hopeful: so I keep reading.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Our class this semester has been devoted to revision, the definition of which has broadened and expanded throughout the term. We’ve talked about revising as a different way of addressing poetic influence. What poets do you feel you’re “revising,” and who inspires you?
CATHERINE BARNETT: After I asked you all that question, you turned it back around and asked me, and then I realized what a difficult question it was! “Revising” in this sense can almost feel like a trespass, though not the kind I just mentioned. It was just a spontaneous question, but it’s come up so many times since then, even with our guest speakers, the composer Richard Einhorn (talking about Bach and Beethoven) and Christopher Ricks (talking about Eliot). I don’t think I’m actively trying to revise anybody. It would be like revising a sister! It might be more accurate to say I feel that the poets keep me company, and they help me. I try to get them to help revise me.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: At one point in class, you said Plath.
CATHERINE BARNETT: I would feel safe to say Plath because I don’t think she’s my kin spiritually, though I love her work. So maybe, yes, in trying to borrow her ferocity and her precision, you could say I’m almost revising her.
Dickinson, Plath, Bishop, Stevens: these poets are especially helpful to me. And Hopkins I love, and Mandelstam, Celan, Beckett, Jean Valentine. Poets like Larry Levis, who say more, are helpful to me, too. They help me spin out longer, so that I can push against my natural reticence.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s so interesting—that you’re influenced by poets who are very different from you aesthetically.
CATHERINE BARNETT: I was teaching Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems and book of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey last fall, and she helped me (and my students) because she says so much, and she’s insouciant about it, and she’s smart and funny. [Matthew] Zapruder helps me in that way, too. I’m trying to say more.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Recently, an undergraduate student was commenting on the end rhymes in a classmate’s poem and said that rhyme always has the effect of simplifying an idea—it shuts a poem instead of opening it. In the long sequence, “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk” and specifically “xi,”—where lust, must, and trust line up—the rhymes definitely don’t shut the poem down, but they do have the effect, perhaps, of proving an argument. How does rhyme, especially at the end of a poem, work for you?
CATHERINE BARNETT: Creeley has said rhyme is an engine, it keeps the poem going. I think the echo, the reverberation that rhyme sets in motion, is an ongoing-ness that fights against closure. But those poems are tight, they’re tied up a million different ways.
Rhyme is also a way to get to a word or idea you wouldn’t have thought of. Someone came to my office hours recently with a poem that ended in a predictable way. I had just been looking at drafts of Langston Hughes’s poem “Ballad of Booker T.” By about the fifth draft, Hughes took lines from early in the poem and repeated them. The phrase had a rhyme but he repeated and inverted it at the end, to make it a song.
I think my poems do end up having little formal echoes and eddies but I’m not focused on form per se—I just try various formal experiments to see what possibilities they might lead to, what new solutions.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Sharon Olds recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent collection, Stag’s Leap. Do you have any opinions as to whether the pendulum in contemporary poetry is swinging back toward more autobiographical, even confessional work? Does the conversation about poetic movements interest you at all?
CATHERINE BARNETT: It’s irrelevant to me except that I want, especially as a teacher, to read as broadly and open-mindedly as possible, which was why I loved bumping up against the revisions of “The Waste Land,” a poem that is and always will be challenging for me. With my own work, I’m not thinking about “movements” at all, I just love the making. I love the initial rush of making and then the usually slower work of shaping. Putting my work into the public sphere is much less a part of my game plan. I should probably do it more than I do, but I don’t want to be stopped, and that way of thinking—about what’s popular, about one’s own status, about pendulum (pendulai?) and movements—can be destabilizing for me and doesn’t seem to lead to better—riskier—work, which is ultimately what I care most about.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Some of your poems, like “Hangman” and the titular poem “The Game of Boxes,” enact the combination of rules, organization, and play found in games. The poems are restrained but make surprising and strange turns. Can you speak to how the idea or form of games figures into your work?
CATHERINE BARNETT: I should be able to speak to that very well, because I just gave two panels on this topic! I became interested in the subject while reading D. W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality. He was a British psychoanalyst who worked with kids. He describes a child playing near the mother but the mother isn’t intruding, the child is free just to explore and make and invent, but in the maternal presence. Writing, for me, is like that even though I’m totally alone: I try to go far away or far down somewhere while knowing—hoping—I can touch back into something safe. I want to go to places that aren’t safe and be able to return. Hzuinga calls play “serious strife and erotic application.” And the first American board game was called The Mansion of Happiness!
I also think a great deal about the tensions between order and chaos. Rules can be seen as a kind of order within which you’re free to respond. In my book, games became a real landscape of communication. They’re places of great but often restricted intimacy. I don’t play poker, but I like poker because you can look a person in the eye for a long time and no one thinks you’re strange. I don’t actually play many games—I’m not interested in strategy but I like the interpersonal.
Last spring Michael Morse, a poet I very much admire, and I met every week at a local Dominican café for a café con leche and to write together. Very informally. We’d been asked to write some poems for an art opening. One of our many game-experiments was turning some of Dickinson’s lines into questions and then answering them radically yes, and then answering them radically no. Just to make material and to practice different ways of saying, feeling, thinking. It was terrible! I never made anything out of those notes, but it was a really interesting way of working.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How are work and play related in your mind?
CATHERINE BARNETT: I work with games as a prompt, made-up language games, role-playing games. Last week at the Children’s Museum, where I teach writing to homeless mothers and for the most part teach through improvisational games, we played a game and turned it into a group poem, or you could say we played a group poem and turned it into a game. One woman started by saying, “I opened the boot and out came X,” just filling in the blanks. Then the next woman said, “I opened X and out came Y.” And the women just kept on going, filling in the blanks. It’s a game that’s good for writers and mothers, it loosens and gives access to the mind. It makes you laugh and laughing’s good for your organs. It surprises you and maybe surprise is good for your organs, too. With a child it’s a way to pass time, and it’s moving because you’re together. It opens the door between you.
Every week, I watch the moms, many of whom have very little or no formal education, make something. I watch the women wrestle with words and be changed by that act. Over and over, even in the impossibly difficult circumstances they’re in. It’s humbling and moving. And I think this kind of emotional hard work can happen most naturally through play.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Again in “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk” you use words like “forlorn” and “tarry” and “thou.” While the diction is clearly elevated, the poems still feel flexible and contemporary. There’s one example in particular where “forlorn” appears right next to a pharmacy name, and the effect is so pleasurable! In revision do you tinker with these juxtapositions so that they feel natural?
CATHERINE BARNETT: That’s funny, because “forlorn” is a word I say all the time! In poem “xix”—“I could tarry a man like him / warily”—I was looking for a specific sound. At some point the word was hurry, and then it was marry. I didn’t want the meaning of marry, but I got used to the sound of it. We also talk about this kind of discovery revision-invention in class, revision based on a sound analogue that might be more interesting. I was happy to find a place for “Acetaminophen.” I often read that poem aloud, because I like to say “Acetaminophen.” Fiction writers have these vast landscapes of action and emotion while us poets, we make ourselves happy with individual words. The Mansion of Happiness!
Sometimes I revise by trying to make a rhyme, a sound; as often as I can I look for something out of my usual lexicon to liven up my nouns and verbs. For example, I just heard someone talking about “polyurethane” and I got a little frisson.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your poems occasionally borrow the rhythms of nursery rhymes, but unlike Plath’s “Daddy,” for example, the voice is not purely sinister—it evokes a kind of vulnerability. How were the poems crafted and ordered, and how did the motif of the nursery rhyme or lullaby emerge?
CATHERINE BARNETT: I’ve recently been rereading Roethke’s “The Lost Son,” thinking about nursery rhymes and nonsense that seem so beautifully expressive of an early childhood eros. When I was working on “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk” I was interested in getting at what you can’t say, trying to find a way to express pleasure or fear—before language, almost preverbal. Probably I was also reading Dickinson, and Dickinson puts me in these little boxes, musically speaking. Which sometimes I can’t escape! Some of those poems, like the one that starts, “Borrower thou,” must have taken a hundred drafts. I wanted to figure out how to make things rhyme and how to get out of the box I was in. I was also reading a lot of Beckett, who makes reversals and inversions, which I tried to borrow, especially in playing with the line “sweet talk, double-talk, cry.”
In terms of putting that middle sequence together, that poem was its own book originally—it’s been whittled down. I couldn’t figure out the pronouns. One thing you all should read is The Lover by Marguerite Duras. It’s fascinating for its pronouns. For example, where it’s most intimate she goes into a third- person past tense, and where it’s most distant I think she uses a first-person present, which doesn’t really make sense, right? It should be the opposite. So I tried doing that with that sequence: where could the poem speak directly to, where should the poem speak about? The poems let me talk about and then just turn and talk to, a shift that’s more difficult or disconcerting in prose. In the sequence, “I/he” bored me after while, as did “I/you,” so I had to try and figure out another solution. Switching point of view, while maybe obvious for some writers, took me a long time to come up with!
Once Beckett said something about looking through a keyhole, and I understand that as a figure for his poetics: what can you see and know when looking through a keyhole, without editorializing or explanation. That’s what I was interested in: just observing without understanding, without even trying to understand.