May 25–31, 2020
Rick Barot was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published four volumes of poetry: The Darker Fall (Sarabande, 2002); Want (Sarabande, 2008), winner of the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize and a Lambda Literary Award finalist; Chord (Sarabande, 2015), winner of the UNT Rilke Prize, the PEN Open Book Award and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award; and, most recently, The Galleons (Milkweed Editions, 2020). His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, the New Republic, Tin House, Kenyon Review and the New Yorker. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University. He lives in Tacoma, Washington, and directs the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University. He is the poetry editor for New England Review. On Thursday, May 28, Barot will read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with José Olivarez and Aria Aber.
A Poem as Long as California
This is my pastoral: the used car lot
where someone read “Song of Myself” over the loudspeaker
all that afternoon, to customers who walked among the cars
mostly absent to what they heard,
except for the one or two who looked up
into the air, as though they recognized the reckless phrases
hovering there among the colored streamers,
their faces suddenly loose with a dreamy attention.
This is also my pastoral: once a week,
in the apartment above, the prayer group that would chant
for a sustained hour. I never saw them,
I didn’t know the words they sang, but I could feel
my breath running heavy or light
as the hour’s abstract narrative unfolded, rising and falling,
sometimes changing in abrupt turns
of speed, as though a new voice had taken the lead.
And this, too, is my pastoral: reading in my car
in the supermarket parking lot, reading the Spicer poem
where he wants to write a poem as long
as California. It was cold in the car, then it was too dark.
Why had I been so forlorn, when there was so much
just beyond, leaning into life? Even the cart
pushed against a concrete island, the forgotten melon
in its basket like a lost green sun.
And this is my pastoral: reading again and again
the paragraph in the novel by DeLillo where the family eats
the take-out fried chicken in their car,
not talking, trading the parts of the meal among themselves
in a primal choreography, a softly single consciousness,
while outside, everything stumbled apart,
the grim world pastoralizing their heavy coats,
the car’s windows, their breath and hands, the grease.
If, by pastoral, we mean a kind of peace,
this is my pastoral: walking up Grand Avenue, down 6th
Avenue, up Charing Cross Road, down Canal,
then up Valencia, all the way back to Agua Dulce Street,
the street of my childhood, terrifying with roaring trucks
and stray dogs, but whose cold sweetness
flowed night and day from the artesian well at the corner,
where the poor got their water. And this is
also my pastoral: in 1502, when Albrecht Dürer painted
the young hare, he painted into its eye
the window of his studio. The hare is the color
of a winter meadow, brown and gold, each strand of fur
like a slip of grass holding an exact amount
of the season’s voltage. And the window within the eye,
which you don’t see until you see, is white as a winter sky,
though you know it is joy that is held there.
—From The Galleons, Milkweed Editions, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote “A Poem as Long as California” in June 2017 while doing a residency at the Whiteley Center on San Juan Island, which is on the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington State. I’ve been to the Whiteley Center many times, and it’s a beautiful and peaceful and, yes, pastoral place. Being immersed in the quiet and solitude of the place, however, a part of me sometimes gets contrarian and longs for the grit and busyness of the city life that I left behind. The poem is a kind of celebration of that distant clamor, the seemingly paradoxical joy that I feel in the fragmentary textures of modern life.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on poems for my fifth book of poems, which is currently titled Moving the Bones. I’ve just finished a substantial part of the manuscript, a sequence comprised of thirty very brief prose poems called “During the Pandemic.”
What’s a good day for you?
Before the pandemic, a good day for me meant being at home, reading and writing, completely unbothered and undistracted by other things. Now that I’ve been stuck at home for nearly three months, a good day would be the opposite: spending a long part of the day outside, just being in the sunshine that’s finally here in the Pacific Northwest, and checking out the lilacs blooming for their moment in the various unexpected places of my neighborhood.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
My hometown is Oakland, California, but I’ve lived in Tacoma, Washington, for fifteen years. The two cities are a little bit alike—they’re port cities, mostly post-industrial, and strongly defined by blue-collar communities. Tacoma, like Oakland is to San Francisco, is defined by its proximity to Seattle. It’s also a former hub of the lumber industry. And like Oakland, it is steadily gentrifying. I live in the southern part of Tacoma, its less handsome part. Just a mile or so from where I live is an Air Force base, which means a military presence in this part of the city. This part of the city is also complicatedly diverse. In my local supermarket, there’s a whole aisle devoted to Filipino food items. On a Saturday afternoon in the market, there are Koreans and Samoans and African-Americans and Vietnamese in the store. But then again, a block away from where I live is a house that has a Confederate flag on the flagpole on its front lawn. For a while now, I’ve been trying to write a poem about all of these intersecting energies.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
In thirty years of regular sojourns and visits to New York, I’ve spent a lot of that time in Brooklyn. For the last decade, I’ve spent a week or two each year at an Airbnb in Brooklyn Heights, on Pierrepont St, just a block from the Promenade. A number of my friends live in that neighborhood or nearby. A really happy Brooklyn day for me is grabbing lunch at Lassen and Hennigs on Montague St and spending the afternoon reading at the Promenade. Actually, when I think of Brooklyn, I think mostly of long meals with lovers and besties at Junior’s or Al Di La or the now-gone Grocery on Smith Street.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
There’s a half-dozen or so poet friends that I’ve known for decades, all of them living in different parts of the country, but I keep in passionate regular contact with them through texts, emails, visits and AWP meetups. Mostly we gossip. And, to be honest, that long conversation built on gossip is a deep form of camaraderie to me. It’s the necessary opposite of the necessary solitude of writing. In Tacoma, I have other kinds of camaraderies, grounded in other interests and affections. If anything, the undergraduates I teach are my regular poetry community here. It’s amazing to be in conversation with them week after week about poetry and art and the world.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
For most of my undergraduate life I was a creative nonfiction writer, and my mentor was Annie Dillard, at Wesleyan University. I started writing poems very late in college, so I didn’t really study it as a writing practice in college. But Dillard took my writing so seriously that she made me think that I should take it seriously, too. When I went to the University of Iowa for my MFA, the mentor who was most transformative for me was Jorie Graham. She took poetry more seriously than anybody I had encountered. Every poem that was workshopped got an enormous amount of rigorous care from her. She was the one who showed me how seriously I should take poetry as an art form, as a form of consequence to civilization.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
There are probably a dozen contemporary poets who live in Brooklyn that I could list here. But I will go with the classic: Whitman. Over decades of being a reader and writer of poems, he keeps returning to me, like a punctual comet. I’ve written a whole essay about his beautiful and scary poem “This Compost.” And I’ve written a poem about a truly scary episode in his life, as recounted in David S. Reynolds’s biography.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Here again, I could list a half-dozen or so books of poems published in the first months of 2020 that have dazzled me. But the one nearest to my mind right now is Victoria Chang’s Obit, which is a devastating book-long elegy. But maybe it’s better to call it an anti-elegy, because it dismantles the conventions of the elegy and reworks the rewards of reading the elegy. From one angle, the book seems utterly bleak and depleted in spirit, but from another angle, from the perspective of cunning craft, it’s exultant.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
In my twenties, as an undergraduate and as an MFA student, I read a lot of long and challenging poems that I went through with a kind of studious patience, without really enjoying them very much. I’ve been thinking that it might be interesting to go back to them and see what’s there, now that I’m a grown-up. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Pound’s Cantos. But who knows? Maybe reading them now will be the same sort of joyless but vaguely wholesome experience that it was back then.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
When it comes to prose, I’m always reading four or five books at once, novels or books of creative nonfiction or short stories that I rotate through. When it comes to poetry, I read one book at a time, with intense prolonged attention, spending a day or two per book from start to finish. Then I move on to the next book. I only read actual books. And I take two kinds of notes. I have a commonplace book where I write down quotes from the things I read, and a journal where I write about the things I read.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love my place and do a lot of reading and writing here, but before the pandemic there was also a regular circuit of places where I would go to read and write. Every week or so I would spend a whole afternoon at the local branch of my public library, setting up camp at a table and just doing my reading and writing. Same thing with a couple of coffeehouses that I love here in Tacoma. Best of all, I love reading in my car, while it’s parked in various places: at the beach or at some strip mall parking lot. That last bit sounds creepy when I describe it that way, but it’s actually not!
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I’ve mentioned some places above, but I want to give a shout out to the bookstores. Berl’s. Books Are Magic. Greenlight. And what about a moment of silence for BookCourt.
To quote my friend Salvatore Scibona, a fiction writer who lives in Brooklyn: “All the streetlights come on at once.”