Date: April 1, 2023 Author: Artisanal Writer
Philadelphia based poet John Wall Barger talks to AW’s Sabyasachi Nag about his newest poetry collection.
SN: Smog Mother (Palimpsest Press, 2022) is your sixth collection of poetry; the same year, you published Resurrection Fail (Spuyten Duyvil Press). When you look back at your body of work – over nearly two decades since you first started publishing poetry – how would describe the shape of your craft?
JWB: I love that word, craft! Your good question sent me to my dictionaries. From Old Norse for strength or virtue. And, small boat. Craft also makes me think of a mother: that small boat we sail in on. My poetry craft feels a bit like an old ship, battered, warped, jerry-rigged, with many amateur repairs, ragged patches nailed to the side to keep the water out. And, as a wooden figurehead, maybe Toshiro Mifune—from one of those old Kurosawa films—staring out like a dragon? And García Lorca on the sail? It’s heading out to sea, away from land, toward a stormy horizon. I never know, day by day, if it’s seaworthy or will sink to the bottom and stay there.
SN: In Samovar the Trans-Mongolian train travels through a Siberian landscape of houses, towns, “tall birches”, lumber gulags, snow and remote station posts. It moves through time – from dawn to dusk – and from Jean to June to Tiina. The poem says, “It’s a mistake/ to think of the train/ (moving) on a single track …” How then should it be read?
JWB: I think poems are like dreams, so if a poem declares itself to be a dream, then it’s a dream within a dream. The information we gather from a poem is different, I think, from the reported data of a journalistic article or a Wikipedia entry or an anecdote we tell our friends, because a poem has its own logic which has the potential to transcend narrative. That is, I don’t think a poem describes things that happened in the world, but is itself a little lexical world-puzzle that occurs (solves itself?) in the mind of the reader as they read it. So—though I was on a Trans-Mongolian train with Tiina in 2010—the logic of “Samovar” is less a description of that trip and more like a Zen koan. I love Zen koans! They are, from my understanding, paradoxical or impossible statements, intended to exhaust the reader’s analytic intellect, inviting them into a more intuitive and wild mental space.
SN: How did you define the scope and the dramatic structure of Samovar? Did it come to you as one composite dream or did you refer your notes and layer it gradually during the crafting process? How did you research this piece?
JWB: I took a lot of notes, and wrote a draft of the poem on the train itself on my old PC laptop which had no battery. I ran an extension cord from across the aisle to our cabin, and if I sat on the floor by the door, I could just squeeze in and close the door. After much tinkering with “Samovar,” I found a structure: follow the train line (starting in Tampere, Finland; then Moscow; Siberia; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Beijing), and a kind of sexual history in reverse (starting with the present and moving back and back through these earth-cracking experiences, to childhood).
SN: In the Notes section of the title, you say the poem Smog Mother, owes a debt to Caesar Vallejo’s long poem “Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic,” for its rhythms and sympathies. Can you describe how that happened? Was it a deliberate artistic choice right at the start and you deliberately wanted to see the Thai military coup through the lens Vallejo used to see the Spanish Civil war when you crafted the poem or did you discover the influence and the connection later on?
JWB: I love to write long poems, and perhaps for me they all start without a plan as I write through and past the confines of a “John Wall Barger” poem. If after a page, when my poems usually end, I keep writing, the river bursts its banks, floods into unknown terrain, and strange forms grow in that new space. The context was, I spent a month alone in Thailand in June, 2014; Tiina and I were moving from Hong Kong to India, and she was visiting Finland. I watched the world cup in my guest house at night, and during the day I marched in solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters. I took many notes, and visited the Siriraj Medical Museum, or “Museum of Death,” twice. I was carrying the Vallejo book, Spain, Take this Cup from Me, with me, and at a certain point, organically, those rhythms found their way into my poem.
SN: Smog Mother paints a grim, bloody, yet hopeful picture of Thailand caught in the throes of civil war as seen by a tourist expecting something entirely different. Even though the poet observes the goings on without apparent judgement, the poem does appear to take a political stance. How must a tourist poet position her/himself vis-à-vis the political narrative unfolding in a foreign land?
JWB: This position—trapped, maybe, between human sympathy and tourist impotence—I grappled with often. I’m not an authority on politics in Thailand. So I wondered—as I often wonder, traveling in these countries where I don’t quite belong—which story among all these stories was mine to tell? Sometimes it’s hard to know if, even when something happens to us, it’s our story to tell, or if it’s somebody else’s. I use Thailand as a context, placing a living, breathing body—the speaker—in Bangkok, but how the poem moves is, I think, very personal to me. Its movement follows the individuals I saw, the details that jumped out to me, the animals in my path. A tourist lives in a space of stereotypes and generalizations and souvenirs and placeholder symbols. While always a tourist in Thailand, I felt less so while engaging with granular details, and specific faces. I tried to allow the mess of the place to roll over me without forcing it all into rigid categories.
SN: The voice in Samovar / Dukkha (Baseline Press, 2016) is prophetic, oracular, visionary. In large portions of the rest of the title (particularly poems included in the chapbook Dying in Dharamshala (Alfred Gustav Press, 2018) the seeing can be described as voyeuristic and you have described it as a kind of “cryptoscophilia”. Do you see that as two sides of a similar mimesis? Or a shift? If latter, how would you describe the shift?
JWB: I was delighted to come across that unwieldy word, cryptoscophilia, which is defined as the urge to look into a window when you are passing by. That notion of the curious outsider looking in describes my voyeurism as a tourist and as a poet. But the voyeur, however real, is just one part of me, one psychic realm. And there are many sides to all of us: lover, friend, scholar, daughter, mother, zealot, and so on. What you’re identifying, generously, as visionary might be an airier, less bodily—but equally important!—side of us. I hesitate to use religious language, because I’m not religious, but I do think there’s a spiritual component to poetry, or there can be. In section six of “Song of Myself,” Whitman moves quickly from a body (“A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands”) to a collective voice (“Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same”) to a kind of prophetic exclamation of the soul (“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves”). And I think a good poem will change registers this way, to enact the big scope of human experience.
SN: The collection includes several travels –“east, east, east” to Casara, Vicenza, Italy; a Trans-Mongolian train ride from Moscow to Beijing (Samovar); Bangkok, Thailand (Smog Mother)and Tibetian parliament-in-exile, Dharamshala, northern India? It includes (among other things) “Dying” and “Dukkha” and “Cryptoscopophilia”. How would you say are the sections of the title thematically connected?
JWB: If it’s all right, I’ll steer clear of trying to explain the thematic connections I see in the book. But I can talk about why I think these poems fit together, and why I put them together as a collection. First, they are poems from a particular time, roughly 2010 to 2017. And, as you say, they are poems that take place out in the world, away from North America, in Asia and Europe. The back of the book says that Smog Mother grapples with questions of home, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Aesthetically, I was looking for a balance between dark and light, while trying to remain honest. Seeking the same balance of dark and light that nature has.
SN: Can you reflect on a specific performance, song, painting, film, or other non-written artwork during your travels that generated or strongly influenced any of the pieces in Smog Mother?
JWB: I’ve been strongly influenced by films. I love Italian and French films from the 50s and 60s especially. The epigraph from Smog Mother is from Hiroshima Mon Amour, the 1959 French New Wave film directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras, which begins with one of the most powerful sequences I’ve ever seen. It shows a man and woman, lovers, naked, from different angles, in black and white, juxtaposed by images from the bombing of Hiroshima, and the brutal years that followed. That extreme balance between dazzling beauty and white-hot grief was the symmetry I was seeking.
SN: What stories do you have (perhaps generative, perhaps constraining) about yourself as a poet? (i.e., What you’re good at or bad at, where you are in your writing journey, etc.)? How have these stories changed or remained the same over time/across different experiences?
JWB: Yes that’s interesting. We are made up of so many stories! And especially poets seem to be fabricated out of stories like a great web in the air. Aside from the literal stories I tell, my obsessions become, in part, the stories that define me. I’ve been obsessed by one thing after another—William Blake, circuses, Russian literature, the Halifax explosion, tragic plays, epics, old films, etc, etc—and then leave each one behind. Lately I’ve been obsessed by Italian language and literature and film. But perhaps what’s most important is that we remain restless, and don’t get stuck in an inflexible definition of self? We must remain liquid. It’s the same for all artists, maybe. “Hold on tightly, let go lightly,” as the Clive Owen character says in Croupier. And hopefully we retain something, a little tic, from each thing we’ve held onto.
SN: Could you name a source that served as an inspiration earlier but is no longer an inspiration, rather something you are currently conflicted with or even hostile towards?
JWB: Bullfighting might qualify. After reading Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, which explores the ceremony and traditions of Spanish bullfighting, and wonders about the nature of (masculine) fear and courage, I romanticized bullfighting for a few months. I read that it involves respect for the bulls, that it’s a fair fight. I read Lorca’s poem, “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” about his matador friend, and loved Lorca’s notion of duende, which sees the matador in his suit of lights as a symbol for a vital life source. Then in 2004 I went down to Plaza de Toros México, in Mexico City, to an actual bullfight. People were puffing on their cigars as each beautiful creature was eviscerated and dragged across the sand out of sight. The romance ended abruptly!
John Wall Barger’s poems and critical writing have appeared in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review Online, ZYZZYVA, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His sixth collection is Smog Mother (Palimpsest Press, 2022). A contract editor for Frontenac House, Barger teaches Creative Writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.