Interview with Wendy Barker, Winner of John Ciardi Prize

Photo: Wendy Barker

Photo: Wendy Barker

Brief Biography:

Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, winner of the John Ciardi Prize, is One Blackbird at a Time (BkMk Press, 2015). Her fourth chapbook of poems is From the Moon, Earth is Blue (Wings Press, 2015). An anthology of poems about the 1960s, Far Out: Poems of the ’60s, co-edited with Dave Parsons, was released by Wings Press in 2016. Among her other books are Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of co-translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your book, One Blackbird at a Time?

Wendy Barker: I’ve taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio since 1982. During the fall of 2007, I was assigned an unusually rigorous course load, with three heavy-prep literature classes, including two dealing with 19th Century British and American novels. One of these courses I’d never taught, and another I hadn’t taught in many years, so I didn’t have a spare moment for poems of my own—it was all I could do to keep up with the reading for these courses. Though I enjoyed reading the novels and preparing for class (and I always love meeting with the students), I was starving to get back to my own work. In December, as the semester finally came to an end, the poem that became “On Teaching Too Many Victorian Novels in Too Short a Space of Time During Which I Become” just burst out. And from then on, between 2008 and 2012, the poems came burbling forth. Of course, they all took enormous amounts of revision, even after the manuscript won the Ciardi Prize. It was as though my experiences of teaching for all those years insisted on being voiced. Sometimes a poem would come from a recent incident in the classroom (as with “Waking Over Call It Sleep“) and sometimes a poem would deal with an experience from earlier years (as with “Why I Dread Teaching The Sun Also Rises“).

Geosi Gyasi: Were you surprised when One Blackbird at a Time was chosen for The John Ciardi Prize?

Wendy Barker: Flabbergasted! I was in the Dallas airport with my husband Steve Kellman on our return from a week in Belize, during which I hadn’t once checked my messages. But at DFW, I finally checked my Blackberry (yes, in 2014 I hadn’t yet changed over to an iPhone) and couldn’t believe what I read. I showed the message from Ben Furnish, Managing Editor of BkMk Press, to Steve, to make sure it was real. Needless to say, I was elated. And honored. And thrilled!

Geosi Gyasi: At what time of the day do you write?

Wendy Barker: Whenever I can. When things are working, poems are always wandering around in my head, phrases, images, and I try, whenever I can, to write notes. Sometimes a word or line will come when I’m driving—so I’ll wait till I’m stopped at a red light to jot it down on the notepad I always keep handy. Sometimes when I’m watching a movie an idea will come, and even then, I’ll try to write down at least a word or two so I don’t lose the notion. So I guess I’d say that, unless what Emily Dickinson scathingly called “Real Life” is too demanding at the moment, I’m always writing. However, I do try to carve out good blocks of time when I can concentrate at the computer, try to save as much time during the week as I can to focus on developing and fine-tuning a poem.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?

Wendy Barker: From the time I learned to write letters, I was always jotting things down. Kept diaries as a girl. Wrote what I thought I’d develop into short stories in my teens and twenties. Always writing. Kept little bits of notes in the drawer beside my bed. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, in my late twenties, early thirties, that I realized those little bits were germs of poems. And that I wasn’t wanting to write fiction, but poems.Took a couple of poems to the brilliant Sandra M. Gilbert at U.C. Davis (where I was working on my Ph.D.), and she was most encouraging. I began taking her workshops. She brought visiting writers to her classes: Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, and Alicia Ostriker. Later, both Ruth and Alicia became nourishing friends, and Sandra has continued to be an enormous help. Ruth, of course, is now gone, and I miss her. But Alicia is there, and I cherish her incredible example and generous, big-sisterly support.

Geosi Gyasi: What books did you read as a child?

Wendy Barker: I was a lucky kid in that one of the few interests my parents shared was poetry. From the time I was a baby, they read A.A. Milne’s poems out loud to me (from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six). Also Babar, and others. By the time I was three, I was reading on my own. Loved Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and a series of novels my English granny sent by the British novelist Grace James, centering around a little boy and girl growing up on a farm in England. And later, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the books of those series.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about From the Moon, Earth is Blue?

Wendy Barker: Somewhere between 2003 and 2007 I was writing poems about colors—where they came from before we created them chemically, what we associate with them, what metaphoric significance they’ve had in various cultures. And I was also writing ekphrastic poems, poems meditating on a work of art. Most of these poems had seen publication in journals. Around 2014 I began thinking that they might work together as a chapbook, along with a few other miscellaneous short poems I’d published in little magazines. So—I organized them into a chapbook manuscript, and was delighted that Bryce Milligan, the indefatiguable, wonderful publisher of Wings Press, was happy to publish the collection. He did a gorgeous job, too—hand-stitching the chapbook with brilliant blue thread.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe your work habits or routine?

Wendy Barker: I work on poems whenever I can. I’m unlike many other writers in that I don’t have a set time I sit down at the computer. I try to cross chores and miscellaneous professional demands off the list so I can clear the decks to work on poems. I might be in the middle of folding towels and a line will come—and I’ll leave the towels and go to my study and write. The towels can wait. But, as I mentioned earlier, I do try to make sure that I have several good long blocks of time during the week to concentrate on developing and revising poems. However, at times, ensuring those luxurious blocks of time can be tricky.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do many drafts on a single poem?

Wendy Barker: Hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds. And hundreds. I’m currently struggling with major revisions for a poem I started in 2011. I still can’t make it work. I keep drafts in file folders—sometimes there will be two or three folders one or two inches thick with drafts. The poems in One Blackbird at a Time went through numerous revisions even after the book was chosen. In an earlier book of mine, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), I talk about the revision process in detail, and even show drafts of poems with comments.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

Wendy Barker: Of course. And although I shudder to realize how many trees have been cut down to provide me with paper, I print almost every draft so I can easily compare them. Sometimes I’ll realize that a change I’ve made doesn’t work, so I’ll go back to an earlier draft.

I also jot down notes on little pieces of paper, in my journal, anywhere there is paper handy when an idea or phrase or image pops up. I’ll place the notes in file folders as I begin to see that certain poems are “building”—and then, when I can, I can begin to arrange the notes from a particular folder into a draft for poem.

Geosi Gyasi: What makes a good poem?

Wendy Barker: How to answer this question! We all have different literary tastes, for one thing. A poem that moves me to tears may leave my close friend cold. And brilliant poems, of course, can be utterly different in their manner of brilliance. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are both among our country’s greatest of poets, but their writing seems to come from different worlds. Wang Wei, Pablo Neruda! Roethe, Plath, Rich—so different and yet each of these artists can change our lives.

As T.S. Eliot said, “If we are moved by a poem, it has meant something, perhaps something important to us; if we are not moved, then it is, as poetry, meaningless.”

But I guess one thing all great poems share is some sort of play with language, with delicious sounds, some sort of music, a particular rhythm. And imagery.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem you’re writing is not going well?

Wendy Barker: I reread and reread, let a poem sit a while. Go back to it. Over and over. Send a poem out to one friend. Wait for her comments and suggestions. Then tinker. Send the revised poem out to another friend. Wait for his comments and suggestions. Tinker, revise again. And on and on. When several of my fiercest editor/ friends (including my writerly husband) “sign off” on a poem, I’ll let it go, consider it done. Only then will I send it out to journals, hoping an editor will like it. But then I may revise a poem again even after it’s appeared in a journal. The excellent copy editor at BkMk Press, Michelle Boisseau, had dozens of suggestions for the poems in One Blackbird at a Time; it took me two months to address those before sending a final, final manscript (gulp) back to the generous, efficient, patient Managing Editor of BkMk Press, Ben Furnish.

Geosi Gyasi: Does your family read your work?

Wendy Barker: Though none of my family members other than my husband reads my work before it’s published, both my son and my sisters are extremely supportive of my poetry. They understand that my writing is my life line and are often there for me when I need to talk through problems or stages in the development of a project. My husband Steve is an excellent reader for work in progress, though I don’t show him drafts until several of my great friends with whom I regularly exchange poems have weighed in.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me something about where you come from and how was it like growing up as a child?

Wendy Barker: I was born in Summit, New Jersey, in 1942, but my parents moved our family to Phoenix, Arizona, in the late 1940’s. My mother was from England, and on the rare occasions when her parents and a cousin visited us, they seemed like exotic creatures from another planet. I was fascinated by the way they talked and the way my mother’s accent changed while they were with us—suddenly she was speaking with a British accent. (Actually, I think she never lost the British pattern of intonations, and I think, since I learned to talk from her, my speech is still somewhat characterized by that pattern.)

We moved frequently within Arizona—from Phoenix to Tucson and then later, back to Phoenix, living in a succession of cramped tract-houses in various working class neighborhoods. I attended thirteen different schools in twelve years, partly because my mother always felt there’d be a better house somewhere else, and partly because my father was moved around for his job, and partly because, though technically I don’t quality as a baby boomer, I was part of a huge population growth in Arizona in the late forties and fifties, so new schools were constantly being built—one year we’d have double sessions at an old school, then the next year we’d have to go to the newly built school, and so on and so forth.

Geosi Gyasi: Give me a brief synopsis of Between Frames.

Wendy Barker: The poems in this chapbook were written between 1998 and around 2005. In 1998, I’d divorced my husband of thirty-six years, and joined my life with my long-time colleague, the critic and biographer Steven G. Kellman. So these poems include meditations on the pain of divorce and the joy of beginning a new, healthy, nourishing relationship. Since Steve during those years was active as a film critic (now he concentrates more on reviewing books and plays, as well on his own book-length projects), we frequently attended screenings of movies, and several of the poems in the collection focus on the experience of viewing films. The final poem in the chapbook, “Wedding Crashers,” combines a reaction to the movie of that name with my joy at our own wedding.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any specific goal as a writer?

Wendy Barker: At the risk of sounding obnoxiously pretentious, I want to write poems that touch people deeply. I’d like my poems to touch poets whose work I admire and to touch people who previously may not have been poetry aficionados. I’m always overjoyed when someone comes up to me after a poetry reading and says, “I loved your poems, and I never liked poetry before!” I want to write poems that move readers, listeners, so they feel them, to quote that genius of a poet W. B. Yeats, in “the deep heart’s core.”



One Response to Interview with Wendy Barker, Winner of John Ciardi Prize

  1. To me, that doesn’t sound at all pretentious. It sounds beautiful. And I would be one of the latter group, who is often too shy to reach out for poetry to read but is frequently and happily surprised by what I find there (which does make one a braver reader as time goes by like that). I enjoyed reading this exchange!


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