The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show: Rick Barot
Rick Barot was born in the Philippines, immigrated to the United States with his family when he was ten, and considers the urban shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland, California his home habitat, even though he now lives in Tacoma, Washington, which is, according to Mapquest, 767 miles away from Oakland. He earned an MFA from the University of Iowa before heading to Stanford for five years, where he was first a Wallace Stegner Fellow and then a Jones Lecturer in Poetry.
Sarabande Books has published three volumes of Rick’s poems: The Darker Fall, Want, and Chord, which appeared this past summer. Rick teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, where he directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA at PLU. He is also the poetry editor for New England Review.
Rick’s turn-ons include beaches in Hawaii, electronica music, house-porn magazines, Open Books, actual letters that show up in the mailbox. Turn-offs: middle seats, tardiness, one out of every three Kickstarter campaigns that he receives, “curating,” and selfies with no irony.
The Rumpus: America, now isn’t the time to shimmy into your pajamas. It’s time to shotgun a 5-hour energy shot!
Our next guest is the cuddliest poet we’ve had on Late Nite, the only poet I know who can rock the sweater-over-a-starched-shirt look. Please fill the studio with love for one of our brightest literary luminaries, Rick Barot!
Rick, come on out here and charm our midnight crowd! What’s going on?
Rick Barot: Hi, Dave. It’s excellent to be here.
Rumpus: Are you feeling okay? I hear you’re nursing a cold.
Barot: Just a little bit of a cold. Apparently it’s fall. My students have started to come in with sniffles and the like, and I’ve caught something from them.
Rumpus: Well, we appreciate you making it over here despite those circumstances. I’m your number #1 fanboy, by the way. I don’t know what “fanboy” means, exactly, but it feels right to say that to you.
Barot: I’ve been a fanboy and I know exactly what you mean. I have a frayed little shrine in my house for Jordan Knight, and so believe me I know what being a fanboy is all about!
Rumpus: J.K. is the tastiest New Kid, no doubt about it.
Speaking of tasty, congratulations on the new book. Let’s get Camera #3 to zoom in on this stunning cover of Chord. Rick, where did this cover image come from?
Barot: Isn’t the cover fabulous? It’s a photogram by an Oakland-based artist named Vanessa Marsh. Don’t ask me what a photogram is, but it’s a process that’s more complicated than a photograph.
Rumpus: All of your book covers are striking—they feel essential to each book’s content. Does Sarabande involve you in those decisions?
Barot: Absolutely. I’ve chosen all the artwork for my three books, and this is only because Sarabande was generous enough to give me that kind of say. The people of Sarabande are writers themselves, so they know how much writers care about everything that goes into the books. If you’re going to be fussy about your commas and periods, you’re going to be fussy about your fonts and covers—and Sarabande honors this.
Rumpus: There’s a lot to love about Sarabande. They’re one of my favorite poetry publishers.
Have works of art—like photographs, sculptures, and paintings—always inspired your writing? It seems like this is a recurring theme in your poems.
Barot: My love of art has been there from the very beginning—in fact, even before I was a writer. I took a lot of art history classes in college, well before I figured out I was going to write and make art myself.
Rumpus: Here’s a good example—your poem “Looking at the Romans,” which the audience can link to here.
What strikes me most about this poem is the tension you create between the personal and the historical. I’m also still trying to decide if there’s a touch of comedy present in the situation you describe here, in addition to the deep pathos I feel when I reach the end.
Does that sound dumb? I’m really just a dumb talk show host, you know.
Barot: Colliding the personal with the historical was definitely the point of the poem—mostly because my previous notion of art had tended to keep the personal separate from the political or historical. I wrote the poem pretty early in the process of writing the book, and it became a kind of thesis for everything that followed.
Rumpus: The poem certainly seems central to the book.
Barot: And about whether the poem has any comedy in it or not—if it does, it’s pretty bitter comedy.
You’re not a dumb talk show host at all! You have me using multi-syllabic words!
Rumpus: Whew. I’m glad I didn’t blow it. I’m impressed by how slyly the poem illustrates the dichotomy of empire. There! That sounds smarter.
Barot: The multi-syllabic words might also be the Nyquil/Merlot cocktail speaking…
Rumpus: What might a poet name that cocktail? You and I could serve it at some book festivals and make a mint!
Barot: The “dichotomy of empire” sounds sexy. And it’s definitely smart because I’m not quite sure what you mean by it.
Rumpus: Merquil doesn’t sound very poetic.
Barot: We can call the cocktail “The Roman.”
Rumpus: Much better than mine. I was just about to dub it the Plathapocalypse.
Back to the poem. The central conceit seems to be a person of color seeing his family resembled in ancient magisterial figures—iconic symbols of western empire. When the speaker studies these family resemblances, they’re tainted by the ravages of empire.
Here are some examples: “the retired accountant whose mind, like a conquered country, is turning into desert, into the dust of forgotten things,” the “citizenry of keening” observing the grandmother’s death, the mother who, “in the clear pale face of a Roman’s wife,” moves “among flowers and slaves.” I guess that’s what I mean when I say “the dichotomy of empire.”
Thanks for the sip of your Roman, by the way. I’m suddenly sounding less dumb.
Barot: I see now what you mean about that dichotomy. For me, the poem was about reminding myself of all the personnel that make up an empire—the masters, the slaves, the ones whose faces are memorialized in art, the ones who are erased.
Rumpus: That’s it right there, in a nutshell.
Barot: The Philippines, which is where I was born, was a colony of Spain for 300 years, so it definitely got the Roman Empire treatment. When I saw the art exhibit that triggered the poem, I saw one of my uncles in the face of a Roman noble. It was funny at first—that recognition. And then I played with the conceit as I looked at all the other busts, imposing the faces I knew on these thousand-year-old marble faces.
Rumpus: Yes, I feel that powerfully. The poem is a monument to these ordinary family members. The disempowered and empowered figures are inverted to great dramatic effect.
Is there a touch of humor or comedy to the scene, like the grandmother resembling “the white head of an old man”? It’s bitter humor, of course, but subtly present—at least in my reading.
Whew… this is one intense poem. I need another sip of your cocktail!
Barot: Maybe we should add one more thing to the cocktail to give it a boost. What goes with cold medicine and red wine?
But about the bitter humor: history is bitter. It’s that bloody seam running through time. Don’t you think?
Rumpus: I do, yes. I wonder too if the carefully measured tone—which is so sure of itself—maybe also operates to suppress anger on the part of the speaker. Does that seem right to you?
Barot: The poem is a cocktail—pardon the pun—of tonalities. Anger is in there, sadness is in there, wonder is in there, cool calculation is in there. And the measured veneer you see is just one way of keeping all those tones in some kind of control. Just a few days ago I was telling my poetry students about what you get when you keep your poem cool and restrained: it makes the reader want to lean in and listen more carefully. And “Romans” is just me trying out my own medicine!
Rumpus: That’s a great anecdote.
Ronnie-boy, our new intern, told me that your rider demanded we have the work of five poets on hand… so on my desk here we’ve got a stack of books by Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and Pablo Neruda. So, here they are, pal.
Barot: These five are big on my list of favorites, but the list is long. And I wanted to send you a modest rider.
Rumpus: I’m glad we at least procured you the right cough syrup and vintage.
We’ve invented a little game specifically for you. It’s called the Dead Poet Rapid-Fire Bonanaza? Or DPRFB. Want to play?
Rumpus: First let me tell you how the game is played. I’ve got 7 ½ questions for you to answer in less than a minute. I’ll pick a contemporary context and you tell me which poet most belongs there. If you nail every answer, maybe we’ll arrange for a dinner date with Jordan Knight. How does that sound?
Barot: Sounds good. And we’re talking Jordan Knight circa 1990, right?
Rumpus: We’ve got a time machine backstage. Ready to go on the clock?
Barot: I’m especially eager for the ½ question.
Rumpus: Oh, it’s a doozy. First question: Of these five poets, who would be most likely to write a poem about Uber?
Barot: Whitman! He was a man about town. He loved strangers!
Rumpus: Great. Which poet would most likely post non-ironic selfies on FB?
Barot: That would have to be Bishop.
Rumpus: Oh stop it now! Bishop? Wasn’t she a shy little thing?
Barot: This is true. She’d post pictures of her cat instead. Though I can’t remember if she was a cat person or not. Well, she loved animals…
Rumpus: We’ll give you a pass on that one. Who would be the most likely to attend and dress up for a Star Trek convention?
Barot: It would have to be Clampitt. I could totally see her being a Trekkie. She loved science.
Rumpus: Clampitt. Excellent. Question #4: Which would be most likely to fall in love with a corpse flower?
Rumpus: Don’t you think Clampitt might fall in love with one too?
Barot: Who wouldn’t fall in love with a corpse flower? Maybe Stevens. The corpse flower is probably too earthly, too real for him. His metaphysics would be distracted by the reality of it.
Rumpus: Ready for another question?
Rumpus: Which poet would most likely become enamored with the tiny house movement?
Barot: This is the best question of the evening, Dave. Take a sip and reward yourself!
Barot: I would have to say Bishop. Don’t you think that the proto-dream-house she describes in “End of March” is kind of like a yearning for her version of a tiny house? I can see her in that tiny house, drinking grog.
Rumpus: I had Bishop for this one too. But hey, we’ve got to call this game because clearly it’s too easy for a rock star like you. Back in the day, you would have been a splendid contestant on the $100,000 Pyramid!
Let’s stop playing this dopey game and talk about more serious stuff. Are you into tiny houses?
Barot: I’m American and I like stuff, so a tiny house is probably going against my American-ness. Didn’t your interns tell you that house-porn magazines were also listed on my rider?
Rumpus: They did. The riders of our poet-guests are one of the reasons we can’t hold onto any of our interns. Ronnie had to run down to the newsstand for the last copy of DWELL. Wasn’t that enough house-porn for you?
Barot: DWELL was a nice touch.
Rumpus: Speaking of magazines, do you want to hear Questions #7 and #7 ½?
Rumpus: Which poet would be the most likely to subscribe to People magazine?
Barot: Whitman, probably. He’s probably the biggest people-person person among my favorite poets.
Rumpus: Better yet, who might appear in People? Whitman again?
Barot: Whitman on the cover—yes!
You know, your people sent over this Logan Paul clip and explained it’s a metaphor for your writing process. Let’s roll the clip.
Barot: Clearly my people are deranged.
Rumpus: Are you copping to this? Or are you trying to make a mockery of my show?
Barot: I’m not opposed to the vision of Logan Paul doing splits. When he does the arms, isn’t that the best thing ever?
Rumpus: That’s one flexible dude. Funny too. Seriously though—can you talk about how poems develop for you? What’s the early part of the process like? I’ve heard you talk about your poems before, and you speak about your process as if there’s some kind of alchemic mystery involved.
Barot: So much of my writing involves the part before the writing actually takes place—that period when your mind is just a piece of flypaper attracting, in a kind of random way, all sorts of things from the air, from your reading, from the static of emotions and thoughts in your brain.
Rumpus: So that’s like a pre-writing activity, a priming of sorts.
Barot: The alchemy takes place when some idea comes to mind and gives coherence to some of the random things I’ve gathered. Once I have the idea, the writing usually comes quickly. I wait and wait, gather and gather—and when the galvanizing idea comes, the poem is usually written within a day or two or three.
Rumpus: I like hearing you talk about this. Because there are poets who think having an “idea” beforehand is inimical to writing great poetry. You’re sort of debunking a common take on poetic inspiration.
Barot: Well, when I talk about the “idea,” I’m referring to a bunch of ideas that the act of writing the poem helps me to understand as a singular constellation. You know how Hugo talks about the “triggering subject” and the “real subject”—the idea I’m talking about is the triggering subject, usually. The idea helps me discover other ones as the writing proceeds.
Rumpus: Beautiful. There are poems in Chord, too, that speak directly to certain elements of poetry. They’re basically poems about poetry, which are very difficult to pull off. I’m thinking specifically about “Syntax,” which is one long, sinuous 42-line sentence. And “The Wooden Overcoat,” which examines the difference between a detail and an image. When you’re writing poems that make these sorts of claims, do you feel like you’re taking a risk in doing so?
Barot: I didn’t realize how self-referential the poems were until I’d finished the book and got to see the totality of it. There are many poems about poetry because, without being conscious of it until far into the process, I was interrogating poetry and whether it was up to the task of containing the messy things I was feeling and experiencing. In a way, I was suspicious of poetry and its ability to speak to the complicated things that I was seeing all around me.
Rumpus: Well-said. Another element that has struck me about your work, in Chord and also your earlier books, is the color palette we find in your poems. No surprise, maybe, since you’re often inspired by the work of visual artists. There’s such extraordinary clarity in your use of colorful details. Here are a few samples from Chord:
“a sash the pink of pencil eraser”
“the heart a putty-colored folding chair knocked to the ground”
“the lion-gold hills along the central valley”
“water as gray as a breast-plate”
“smoke boiling gold and gray”
By the way, did you know that gray was the most prominent color in this book? More generally speaking—when you’re writing or putting together a book, how aware are you of this color palette?
Barot: I’ll call on Stevens here and paraphrase something he said: “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.” I think my poems try to live by that sentiment—that is, they try to be about the wealth of things that our senses can apprehend.
Rumpus: That’s maybe the wisest thing an insurance salesman has ever said.
Barot: I didn’t realize gray was the dominant color in Chord. Maybe I can draw on Stevens here, too: “The world is ugly and the people are sad.” But that line is probably just Stevens having a bad day. There’s a lot of visual beauty and exuberance in Stevens. Of all the different kinds of Stevenses, my Stevens is the Stevens of “The Man on the Dump.”
Rumpus: The third stanza of “The Man on the Dump” contains a phrase that might’ve come from one of your poems—“the elephant-colorings of tires.”
Rumpus: William Matthews wrote somewhere about pushing himself toward a new style by dwelling on a particular color over a long duration of his writing. So one book would be a “blue” book, his next would be “red” or “green,” etc. He thought each new color would catalyze new tonalities and gestures so that no two books were alike. I always thought that was a cool idea. Maybe Chord represents your gray period.
Barot: I really love the idea of a color scheme helping to define a book!
Rumpus: We’re coming full circle here because we haven’t really talked enough about the relationship between poetry and visual art, and specifically the ekphrastic poem—a poem that is inspired by art. “Looking at the Romans” is an ekphrastic poem, obviously. I’m wondering if there are ekphrastic poems that you deeply love, that may have served as early examples for you when you were a younger writer. Can you share one or two?
Barot: I can think of two ekphrastic poems by others that help me to define my own relationship to art and the ekphrastic gaze. First is “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which is the ekphrastic poem that pretty much defines the genre of the ekphrastic.
Rumpus: Oh, for sure.
Barot: The poem beautifully describes the object and then discovers a piercing piece of wisdom about the human condition from that act of description. Then there’s Brenda Hillman’s “Styrofoam Cup,” which puts the ekphrastic—and all its tropes—into an ironic light. These days, I’m probably most aligned with the irony that Hillman’s poem operates from. Did that answer your question?
Barot: Maybe “Looking at the Romans” is my “Styrofoam Cup.” It’s got that mocking gesture in it, along with everything else.
Rumpus: Yes. I like how Hillman’s throwaway cup tears down the formality of Keats’s urn. What a fun poem!
Barot: Yeah. That poem must have been a good time to write.
Rumpus: Well, Rick, you’re under the weather and traveled all the way here under difficult conditions and yet you’ve still been a stalwart, gracious guest. I’ve got one more question for you.
Barot: Let me add a dash of cayenne to my drink; then I’ll be ready for you. Okay, go for it.
Rumpus: Speaking of which, here’s my last question. When I give you your Three Obstructions assignment, can we head back to your dressing room and stir up a few more of these cocktails? I’m just on the cusp of a buzz here. And I’ve got a long limo ride home tonight.
Barot: Buzz is good.
Rumpus: Are you a little nervous about the poem challenge?
Barot: Are you kidding? My Styrofoam cup is running over with its medicated beverage. I’m not nervous. I’m fortified.
Rumpus: There’s some California mettle right there. Here are your obstructions, mon ami:
- The poem must be either seven or eleven lines, because we’re thwarting your desire for symmetrical stanzas, another element we often find in your poems.
- The poem must include at least one sentence fragment.
- The poem must include the words cola, mosquito, and selfie-stick.
Barot: Good god.
Rumpus: Hmmm… Worried about something, sir?
Barot: I’ll survive.
Rumpus: Off to your dressing room! Sit tight, people. We’ll be back after this message.
The Soul Would Rather Go to the Pawnshop
than go to heaven. Things. It loves things.
Things with the residue of their owners’
hands. Things with bodies aspiring to last
but not lasting. The soul wants the tender
dark found only in the pawnshop, where it
can dream like the mosquito rising above
the pond that’s the color of cola in the dusk
dreams of touching everything in the world:
the drunk girls on the sidewalk taking a shot
of themselves with a selfie-stick, the couch
left in the night in the middle of the Target
parking lot, dirty and wise as a professor.
Rumpus: Uh, nailed it.
Barot: Glad you think so, Dave.
Rumpus: But wait—wait! My soul for sure “wants the tender/dark found only in the pawnshop,” but it also asked for eleven lines. Are you another one of these poets who can’t freakin’ count?
Barot: Let’s put it this way: overdraft protection is a phrase that’s dear to my heart.
Rumpus: Ugh, I get no respect. What was the toughest of these obstructions?
Rumpus: Really? I thought selfie-stick was the tougher draw.
Barot: Cola is one of those great but tough words that I’m always trying to slide somewhere into a poem. Another word is greasy.
Rumpus: Next time we have you on the show you can expect something greasy on the menu. Thanks so much for giving us some of your time, Rick. You’ve been a studly guest!
Barot: Dave, you’re a delight and half!
Rumpus: Ah, if only that were true…
Read more about Rick Barot at his website.
Stay tuned for Episode #14 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with another special guest!