A Rage for Wildness
An Interview with Tony Barnstone
by Wilda Morris
Tony Barnstone, the Albert Upton Professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College in southern California, often writes with humor and attitude. He experiments with forms and looks for ways to break—or expand—them, so as to meet the needs of modern readers. Barnstone has published four collections of poetry, including Sad Jazz: Sonnets (almost a novel in verse—about courtship, marriage, breakup, divorce and its aftermath), and The Golem of Los Angeles (winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award). He has also published five books of poems and prose translated from Chinese, and has edited anthologies of literature from various parts of the world.
Barnstone's latest book, Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. In the introduction, Barnstone describes this book as "a love letter to the World War II generation." Over a period of fifteen years, Barnstone studied memoirs, letters, and historical documents related to the war in the Pacific, and conducted interviews. He lets soldiers and civilians—Japanese as well as American—speak clearly and bluntly through these persona poems (often in sonnet form). He also takes on the persona of victims and observers. Through these contradictory voices, he deals not only with Pearl Harbor and the atom bomb but also with the Bataan Death March, prisoner-of-war camps, and even cannibalism.
Wilda Morris: What poets, if any, did you enjoy when you were a teenager?
Tony Barnstone: William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, Federico García Lorca. Because my father [Willis Barnstone] had edited a book called Modern European Poetry, I especially enjoyed European and Latin American poetry, especially Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda. In fact, early on, when I was probably fifteen, I met Jorge Luis Borges when he came through Indiana to speak. It was a powerful experience—an early encounter with a writer I admired a lot.
WM: Do you have one or two very favorite poems you keep going back to?
TB: "Archaic Torso of Apollo" by Rainer Maria Rilke. And I would also say, "At Pleasure Bay," by Robert Pinsky. James Wright's "A Blessing." There are so many!
WM: Who nurtured your interest in poetry? And how?
TB: I was raised essentially in my father's library and surrounded by my mother's art. All through my childhood, my parents had dinner parties with opera singers and composers and artists and intellectuals of different sorts. And so family and the artistic and literary community were, very early on, intertwined. My father is a retired professor. I was raised in a university town. When I'm in a university, I feel I'm in a place where learning and the arts matter. Bookstores and universities feel like my homes outside of home.
Also, when I was a child, my parents every summer went to Vermont, where we lived on Long Swamp Road. And we were surrounded essentially by farmers, mountains, wandering cattle, with no television, and we didn't even have a telephone for years. So we would go every week to the public library and pick up twenty or forty books and read them and take them back the next week and get more. It made reading a game. We—my sister and brother and I—played the poetry game, an exercise where we all wrote poems together using common words. My brother Rob is a professor of Architecture, and an architect and artist. My sister Aliki is a poet and translator and has twelve books published. You can find all of us at Barnstone.com. My sister published her first book, The Real Tin Flower, when she was just twelve—and it was published by Macmillan with a foreword by Anne Sexton! She got quite a start as a poet.
WM: How and when did you start writing poetry?
TB: The game I described started me writing poetry. I tried writing poetry in college, but it took me a long time to develop as a poet. I think it has to do with the fact that in those days Creative Writing workshops were sort of hands off, with no writing assignments, and no books assigned. Groups got together and read each other's works, but without benefit of direction, or being immersed in literature. Maybe those early workshops were just not as directive as I needed. I actually think that was a good thing in the long run. The progress I made was the product of my own reading and thought and hard work, so I have a pretty strong sense of self-confidence. I feel that I turned myself into a poet. Every poet does to an extent, but I don't feel that I'm the product of my mentors. Probably the exception to this is the influence Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass had on me when I took their courses in grad school. I read their books very carefully and studied their techniques. That helped me a lot, particularly in learning how to write the long poem, and the poem as a vehicle for philosophical thought.
WM: Who are your favorite contemporary poets?
TB: I have so many. Among the Americans, I like Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, B H. Fairchild, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland. I like James Tate, Russell Edson, Arthur Sze, Rodney Jones. Philip Levine, of course; he is getting only better. He's so good right now! Then I like Wislawa Szymborska. I would throw in probably Yannis Ritsos. Oh god, there are so many. Among the great poets of the twentieth century, I should mention Jorge Luis Borges, R. M. Rilke, Constantine Cavafy, Vasko Popa and Tomas Tranströmer.
WM: What about Willis Barnstone?
TB: [Laughs] Well, of course!
WM: What do you see as the important trends in poetry today?
TB: I think what's happened is that the firm dividing lines between formalist poetry, Language poetry, and postmodernist, neo-romantic, narrative-lyric poetry have broken down. So now you have, for example, my poetry, much of which is formal poetry with a free verse aesthetic, often written through an experimental method. A number of sonnets in my book The Golem of Los Angeles, for example, were written through the application of Marcel Duchamp's notion of the "assisted readymade" work of art to poetry. And it's not just me; a lot of people are breaking down those barriers.
WM: Who do you see as up-and-coming in the poetry world?
TB: Neil Aiken; his first book is quite wonderful. Matthew Dickman is quite interesting. There are a lot of new poets. There are Jamie Ross—his book is quite good—and Peter Ludwin. Brian Turner's Here, Bullet is a marvelous book about his experiences fighting in the Iraq War. There are some wonderful Los Angeles poets with recent books out, Sholeh Wolpe, Lynne Thompson, John Fitzgerald, Hélène Cardona, Sarah Maclay, Brendan Constantine, Caley O'Dwyer, Elena Karina Byrne, Richard Beban, so many others. For mid-career poets, Kevin Prufer's book National Anthem is just genius. Alan Michael Parker, wonderful.
WM: Emily Dickinson wrote, "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant." What does that mean to you? Do you agree?
TB: My belief is that, as Nietzsche said, the poets all are liars. What Nietzsche meant is that the poets of his time tended to talk too much about God. He of course didn't believe in God. Fiction writers give themselves permission to lie, but do it so well that it feels like truth. Poets need to give themselves the same permission to lyricize, fantasize, and dramatize. If you have too many characters in your poem, cut one out. All writing is translation. We translate from our lives and from our dreams and from our reading and other poets and whatever happens to be around us in our realm of consciousness. Although the trick of a translation is to appear to be a window onto the truth of the original, it is really more of a painting. It is its own original. It gives the illusion of transparency. Truth is a shackle.
WM: Could you say something about your new book on World War II, in relation to telling "all the truth" and telling it "slant"?
TB: Here's the thing. In that book I was telling visceral stories about combat, rape, cannibalism, the atom bomb, about PTSD and alcoholism, stories that the extraordinary men and women of that generation lived through and recorded through thousands of oral histories, diaries, and letters. In working from that material, I had to find a voice that felt 'authentic' and yet was still poetic. I had to find a form for the poems that gave them order, while allowing the dialect and idiom of the speakers to come through. Most of the poems are representative of a general experience, but they draw from many specific historical texts, so that the man who tells the story about surviving the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, four days floating on the ocean's back while sharks attacked and killed so many of the men, is a composite of voices and stories from ten different oral histories. But I have to make this composite voice and story sound like it's one man's story, or one woman's story, or all the drama goes away. I will say that although I created composite characters, almost nothing in the book is invented. I see the book as a form of poetic journalism, with a responsibility towards the truth of the lived experience it draws upon.
WM: What distinguishes a mediocre poem from a good one? A good one from a great one?
TB: There can't be any thumbs or elbows sticking out; there can't be any place-holder lines which were said in that way because it was 'good enough'. If you have a poem that says what you want to say dramatically, has something lyrical or extraordinary about it and has no thumbs or elbows sticking out, that is a good poem. 'Great' is all about surprise and nuance. Robert Frost says he wants the poem to reveal itself like ice melting. He doesn't want to know where the poem is going when he starts to read it. "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," as Frost said. Pinsky says he wants the poem to have a turn; he doesn't want to know where the poem is going. When you look down the road, the bend is what you can't see around, and then when you go around the bend it reveals that new world to you. In a poem it may be a narrative turn, or it may be an emotional turn. That is what gives the poem emotional nuance, moral nuance, nuance of character. The best poems turn at least twice.
WM: I see that kind of emotional turn in the poem "Revenant" in your new book. The Japanese officer is shocked at the way he is forced to kill Chinese prisoners, then forces his underlings to do the same thing. He sees that he lost his humanity, and that those under him lose theirs also. Yet, in the final turn, he says those who did not kill were a disgrace. Is this an example of what you mean by "turns"? How hard is it to make two turns in a sonnet or other poem of only a few lines?
TB: Ah, well, that's the great thing about the sonnet. The sonnet, constructed as it is out of lines, then couplets, then quatrains, then octave and sestet, lends itself to modular thinking, with the turns happening between the structural blocks. The poem that follows "Revenant" is by the same speaker, by the way, and it talks about how he rehumanizes himself while in solitary confinement after being captured by the Chinese communists. That's the other great thing about the sonnet: it lends itself to sequences, and so the turn in the poem is reflected in the turn between the poems.
WM: Tell me about your writing life. Do you write every day?
TB: No. I tend toward feast or famine. I go through periods when I'm working very intensively, eighteen or more hours a day, and other periods when I don't write much at all, especially during a very busy time during the semester when I'm teaching. I usually can write when I want to write, because I'm working on multiple projects. I'm working on fourteen projects now. Poetry, translations, short fiction, screenplays, literary criticism. I can usually write on at least one of them.
WM: Feast or famine—is that one reason it took you fifteen years to write Tongue of War?
TB: Well, in part. Remember that over those fifteen years I published ten other books! The other reason is that research-based poetry is a slow, slow process. For example, I researched the experience of African American service men for two years before I was able to find the voice and story that became the poem "White Fear." I kept trying to write the two Indianapolis poems off and on for four years and only managed to do so a few months before the book was published. The research makes the material available to the unconscious, but it won't become a poem until that mysterious power fills you and overflows onto the page.
WM: How do you jump-start a new poem? Or do they just come?
TB: There are many ways. Sometimes I use writing exercises that I give my students. Sometimes I use very experimental methods, but the most common is simply to have a topic or have an image or a feeling and sit down and try. And then, in addition to that, I always have a poetry project that is based on research going. If I knew I wanted to write a poem and I didn't know what to write about, I could just sit down and do some research or do an interview, and I'd have material to write about. A fourth way would be based on really quite radical experimental methods, such as random generation of images through Google searches. I might take two words or phrases, such as 'vasectomy' and 'bell pepper', and put them in a search engine and see what websites pop up. I use the world mind to create a metaphorical link between categories. I would work from that to get an image for a poem. Google is the Hindu god Brahma, the world soul permeating all things, what Jung called the Universal Unconscious, what Emerson called the Oversoul. Search engines are our way of accessing the neural network of all of humanity.
WM: Where do you get most of your inspiration?
TB: It depends on the project. For my more research-oriented projects, I read for the poem, so I'll read an oral history, letters, or whatever I'm researching until there is a phrase or an image or part of a story that might start—or end—the poem. You have to keep reading until your brain says "the poem is here." For other poems, it could be a phrase, something very abstract, such as a technique like chiasmus [inverse parallelism between lines]. For example, here is the use of chiasmus at the beginning of a poem by Marvin Bell, "To Dorothy": "You are not beautiful, exactly. / You are beautiful, inexactly."
WM: What do you do when you feel blocked?
TB: I exercise. I go swimming, or I go for a long walk. If you are trying to do too much by force of will, it doesn't work. It's good to get your mind off of it and focus on walking up the hill. Then your subconscious can solve the problem. Sleeping is also good.
WM: From what fields of study other than literature do you draw material and inspiration?
TB: History, clearly, with the World War II book. Movies and comic books for a project I've been working on for a couple of years, "Pulp Sonnets." Those are fun. They are based on the genres of horror, action adventure, hard-boiled detective, space opera, and Cold War spy fiction. Right now I'm doing research based on the tarot cards. I usually have a research project going. It depends on what gets my attention somehow.
WM: What got you started writing poetry about World War II, the poems which make up Tongue of War: from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki?
TB: Basically what happened is this: fifteen years ago, I had dinner with Brigadier General Paul Tibbets. Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Over dinner I asked him how he felt about those who were saying we should not have dropped the bomb on a civilian city, and that it wasn't necessary because the Japanese had already offered to surrender. He said, "In total war, everyone is guilty, even babes in arms. They all deserve to die because they are all part of the war effort." Tibbets also said, "I'm the man who saved a million lives." That was the official story. At that time I was married to a Japanese American woman. I became interested in finding other points of view. I wanted to know what civilians on the ground in Hiroshima would say about this. What would scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer—who had a change of heart about the dropping of the bomb—say about it? What would Gandhi say about this? I began gathering perspectives and writing a group of poems about Hiroshima, and then I expanded the collection outward to talk about the whole war in the Pacific. The speaker in one of the poems says it seems that "everyone has a point of view, but no one has perspective." I wanted to present multiple points of view to give the reader perspective on controversial aspects of the war, such as cannibalism, the atom bomb, medical experiments, torture, and the rape of Nanjing.
WM: What three guidelines would you suggest to someone wanting to improve their poetry?
TB: The same thing everyone else says, probably. First, read everything. Not just American poetry; read poetry from other parts of the world and ancient as well as contemporary writers. The things they are doing in other parts of the world, translated into American aesthetics, can create quite wonderful effects. In the early nineteen-teens in London, Pound and others were reading ancient Greek lyrics and Chinese and Japanese poetry, and from them they brought across an aesthetic which was purely visible, short and pithy, and in which the images told the story through rhetorical parallelism. Through this they developed the school of Imagism, which they would never have done reading only English poetry. Kenneth Rexroth says "translation saves you from your contemporaries."
Second, when you are editing your poetry, don't just cut it back. Often the problem with poems isn't just the standard thing that there are words that need to be trimmed, or you should cut off the first or last few lines, but rather a failure of ambition or imagination, to see that the poem opens spheres much more than the short lyric can encompass. Study the long poems of Hass and Pinsky, and you will see extraordinary techniques for weaving together profound thoughts, thoughts that come together in an argument. Hass's earlier work tended toward the short lyric. In his later work, he seems to see that every lyrical ending has within it the seeds of its own destruction. For every insight or epiphany, there is a little voice that says "however," or "nonetheless." Listening to that "however" voice leads to stanza two. And the end of stanza two has its own "however" that creates stanza three, and you can create a larger structure with turns and nuance.
Third, be here, now, when you write and when you read, which means slow down and be aware of every syllable in terms of sound, of every image as it enters the mind word by word, line by line and sentence by sentence. Then you will examine your syllables, your words, your lines, your sentences more carefully and see how they unfold in the mind, with surprise, with interest and with epiphany.
WM: Are there personal disciplines which make someone a better poet?
TB: It is really important to force yourself to become an interesting person. To read widely. Not just poetry and in world literature, not just contemporary American literature. Also read religious and spiritual texts from around the world. Read history, philosophy, science. I think it's important, if you have the impulse to write a poem, not to always write a new poem, but to revise and revise and revise, even if you just change a comma, to make the poem better. To have a sense of professionalism about revision, not to let 'good enough' be good enough.
WM: I was about to ask you about revision. When revising your own poetry, what are some of the things you look for?
TB: I revise in many different ways. Here are a couple. One thing I do is to think about the shape of the sentences. How far does the first sentence of the poem take us? I want the first sentence to grab the reader's attention, and on the other hand to be an envelope which presents the first problem or the first image or the first rhetorical device of the poem, so as to set up the poem in some way. Another thing I'll do is I'll examine the entire poem and think about every adjective. Then I'll think about every verb, and then every noun. I think about the balance between them. Is the poem too adjectival? And whether each one is fresh and interesting.
Another thing I'll do with the revision project, and this might be the most important thing I do, after winnowing the poem down and cutting out excess and making the poem muscular and strong, is to take a big hammer and smash it to bits. Then I'll put it back together and add new material. We can get trapped by what we have written. We might not have enough parts to make a whole, or it might make a whole that is too small in its ambitions. It has to do with something I learned from the two Roberts [i.e., Pinsky and Hass], which is that the long poem is a machine for thinking. It can be something like an essay in verse. That means that whereas the short poem can be happy to have one thought, the long poem is about dialectical thinking, something complex and nuanced. The main thing in moving from the lyric to the long poem is the process of adding material and moving to the next thought. The difficulty of doing that is an indication that probably it is something you should do. [Laughs.] Well, something I should do. I shouldn't preach to other poets.
WM: I think I've heard you say that you went through the manuscript of Tongue of War and looked at every verb to see if you could find a stronger one. Is that correct?
TB: Yes, that's true. Not just every verb. Every word! Another thing I often do is to think laterally from the main verbs, nouns, and adjectives, and create a palette of words that sound like them (from "mother," matter, mutter, utter, and flutter) and then see if I can find ways of blending in those words into the poem. It's a way of building up the texture of the poem's language. I believe that the use of lateral thinking techniques in the revision process is extremely important. We already have a rage for order, but we don't have a rage for wildness. I prefer to revise a poem to make it wilder, not just to make it tighter and tighter, like a Victorian corset. Revise not just from the conscious mind, but also from the unconscious, from dream, myth, impulse and id.
WM: What are the most common practices that weaken the work of poets in the U.S. today?
TB: For me, I would say it has something to do with writing into the three publishable modes, which is to say, the standard poem of linguistic experimentation, the standard narrative lyric of the publishable magazine poem, and the standard formal poem. I think that the poems that interest me most are the poems where there is some visceral thing going on with the language and the movement of the mind that is utterly unpredictable. I'm looking for both surprise and delight, and I don't find enough of that.
WM: What is the best advice you ever received concerning writing poetry?
TB: From Alan Michael Parker, "Write with the whole man or the whole woman." I take that to mean that poetry should be large enough to include mayonnaise and Diet Coke and reflex digital cameras and little brown bird turds and bottles of spray hand sanitizers and masturbation and all of our neurotic thoughts and the whole of life: how we live it and how we speak and the real language in which life makes itself known. In poetry, all of that can be transformed and translated.
WM: What advice do you most often give to your students?
TB: My first advice is to write from the gut first and revise with the mind. Use the mind to trim, but get back in touch with the gut again to expand the poem. You have to write with the whole mind, both the conscious and the unconscious mind.
WM: What makes for a good critique session?
TB: It depends on the writer. The main thing is that the writer should approach the session with thick calluses. The writer is willing to take all the advice that is useful and leave the rest on the table. Take it as a gift. Don't be insulted if you don't like the gift; say "thank you," and then put it in a drawer and don't use it.
Also, it's important to say what you like about the poem as well as where you think it needs work. A lot of us don't know what is working at a visceral level for the audience, especially for beginning writers who often cut beautiful lines that are making the poem interesting.
WM: What is your take on the issue of accessibility?
TB: I appreciate difficulty in poetry. I don't mind working hard to enjoy the poem, but I think with difficulty comes an increased responsibility for there to be a "there" there (in Gertrude Stein's term) once you've made the journey through the badlands. There is also an increased responsibility for the accessible poet. Along with ease of reading, there should be nuance of emotion and thought. Otherwise the poem risks sentimentality; it risks easy resolution, and it risks being platitudinous, and being a poem in which there is no surprise for the writer and no surprise for the reader. I think the best accessible poets bury treasures in the poem for readers to dig up. I teach a simple poem like "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams. In that little simple poem there are extraordinary depths. We can discuss it for forty-five minutes. The simple poem needs to have complexity. Robert Frost is the master of this. He buries little jokes and puns in his poems for the reader to discover. In "Design," for example, in his line "A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth," "snow" "drop" and "spi" all take stresses, which makes the middle one take less of a stress than the others—it's called 'demotion'. Frost chooses to do this on the word "drop," a little joke only those trained in meter can see. Then in "The Wood-Pile," he writes "The hard snow held me, save where now and then. / One foot went through." Here the joke is that he's breaking the iambic rhythm by substituting one foot for another (troche for an iamb) right where he says "One foot went through." Frost loved these little puns and jokes. In "Mending Wall" he says something that I think is key to this discussion. He is talking to his neighbor. He thinks about saying to his neighbor, "what is it that knocks down a wall?" Then he says, "I'd rather he said it for himself." Frost won't tell us what his poem is trying to do. He wants us to think it for ourselves. The interest is not in pulling out the meaning like a snail from a shell, but rather in allowing that meaning to emerge in the mind like a revelation. I could give you a summary of "Mending Wall," but that wouldn't give you any of the delight or revelation you can get from reading it yourself. For the simple poem, it is especially important that you create a little engine in the poem that, when it does its work, creates revelation in the mind of the reader.
WM: You write free verse, as well as in forms. What do you consider the advantages and disadvantages of each?
TB: My first and third books are mostly free verse. I'm always writing with both hands. Free verse is faster. It's like free writing. You can get your ideas down on the page when an inspiration is hot and creating large hurricanes of emotion and tidal flow, like Gerald Stern and C. K Williams do. The disadvantage of free verse is that there is no set thing to make it poetry. You always have to invent, for each poem, the thing that makes it extraordinary. That is also its advantage. In formal verse, you have to have a vision, even if it's just a vague feeling of what you are working towards, and you have to hold that in your mind as you slowly build the road to it. Especially in the long formal poem, it takes a solidity of imagination to hold in mind a general idea or some sort of emotion that you are slowly building the road toward. You have to have a sense of the destination. The disadvantage of formal poetry is that the moment it ceases to be extraordinary language, it turns into doggerel. The advantage of it is, if you can make it as fluent as free verse, it has more authority, more gravitas, more solidity. Every syllable is in its place. Which doesn't mean that it can't be revised [laughs].
WM: How far can one break the rules of a traditional form and still be said to be writing in that form? For instance, can a sonnet have just twelve lines and still be a sonnet? Is an hourglass sonnet, such your poem, "Antonyms," which you call an "Amazing Shrinking Sonnet" in your article in the Courtland Review or the fourteen-line poem in Karen Volkman's Nomina which has only two syllables in each line, really a sonnet? Is a poem haiku if it has four lines and twenty-one syllables or if it has two lines and twelve syllables?
TB: That's a question that's answered in the mind of the reader. In Gerald Stern's book, American Sonnets, they're not sonnets. They are sixteen to eighteen lines of free verse. But he is saying, "I want you to read my poems in the tradition of the sonnet, in the tradition of Petrarch and Shakespeare, with some kind of turn. I want you to read them in conversation with that tradition." Even when you say, "It is not a sonnet," you are reading in conversation with the tradition. T. S. Eliot said that free verse is poetry in which you can still glimpse the ghost of form. You can still hear the echo of the music of the lost form. It is like coming upon the ruins of a lost city in the desert; you can still trace something of the city. Poems that open up formal poetry to the extent that they become free verse are still in conversation with the form they are breaking. It's like the child in rebellion with the parent; the child is still defined by that relationship. It is like Nietzsche; he doesn't say there is no God; he says God is dead. He was in conversation with Christianity.
WM: Are there two or three books on the poetic craft that you would recommend as being especially helpful?
TB: For people interested in learning to write formal poetry, I recommend William Baer's Poetic Form. For someone just starting to write poetry, Steve Kowit's In the Palm of Your Hand, The Poet's Portable Workshop is helpful.
This interview was published in another version in Warwick Review, Great Britain.
Wilda Morris is President of Poets and Patrons of Chicago and former president of the Illinois State Poetry Society. She has received a number of awards, including a Prairie Poetry Award from College of DuPage and a Pushcart Prize nomination. Her first book is Szechwan Shrimp and Fortune Cookies: Poems from a Chinese Restaurant, published by Rockford Writers' Guild Press, 2008. Her blog, Wilda Morris's Poetry Challenge, may be found at wildamorris.blogspot.com.