Books In Conversation
CATHERINE BARNETT with Tony Leuzzi
“So much depends upon the kindness of questions,” Catherine Barnett quips in the first of four lyric prose intervals appearing throughout Human Hours, her most recent book of verse. This obvious allusion to William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” suggests satire, as does Barnett’s decision to title each of these prose sections “Accursed Questions.” Pronounced “Accurs-ed,” the poet’s ironic use of the archaic pronunciation “subvert[s] any notion of grand inquiry into a smaller scale where human foibles play out.” If the origin of every poem begins in a difficult question, Barnett often explores this truth with self-effacing humor. Such humility doesn’t mean her poems aren’t smart. They and their poet are sharp as hell. Time and again in Human Hours, Barnett’s attempts to “salvage the present” (“Central Park”) are managed not only through memory and observation but rigorous self-examination and philosophical rumination. To this end, Kant, Heidegger, Richard Rorty and others are called upon to assist, but Barnett reaches her own conclusions, often pondering imponderable abstractions while embracing concrete detail: “Sometimes after sex” she writes in “Origin Story,” “my mind wanders / and the clock resets and I’m supposed to explain / into someone’s armpit why I’m laughing.”
Concurrent with her interrogation of the nature of questions are Barnett’s anxieties about current cultural and political landscapes. “No matter how hard I push,” she explains in “Another Divine Comedy,” “I can’t outrun the news.” The poet often confronts these anxieties head on and chooses to counter injustice with vigilance. “Don’t let me sleep on”—the final line of “The Humanities”—is not only a clever allusion to Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961) but a directive quite similar to “get woke.” In “Calamity Jane on Etsy after the 2016 Election” Barnett insists “It’s not too late to fight back. / Calamity et al! // Get up, we love you!” Thus a wake up rally cry is wryly supported by an allusion to—of all things—Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!).” Surely one of many reasons why Catherine Barnett’s Human Hours packs such a powerful punch is that its creator has synthesized her sources without straining for effect. Barnett succeeds through understanding and sympathy.
The ensuing conversation initially occurred in April 2019 and was edited heavily over the following months. Whereas most poets would welcome the editing stage as an opportunity to expand their answers, Barnett chose to pare down her responses, would often rephrase whole paragraphs in a sentence or two. While economy of language is something all writers should aspire to, Barnett’s insistence on occupying less page space may be connected to her modesty, a rare asset in someone possessing such sparkling intelligence.
Tony Leuzzi (The Rail): In “Origin Story” (perhaps my favorite poem in Human Hours) you cite Groucho Marx’s assertion “The only real laughter comes from despair.” Although this insight is attributed to Marx, it functions, I think, as an accurate principle for most of the poems in the book. Just one poem earlier, in “The Sky Flashes,” you begin: “Often when I’m in despair I turn to the back page / of The New Yorker and try to think of something / funny to say...”; in “O Esperanza!” you confess “my inner clown is full of hope”; and so on. It appears much of the impetus for the book’s trademark comic turns comes from your admission in “Another Divine Comedy”: “No matter how hard I push, / I can’t outrun the news…” Would you agree that your embrace of humor is a way to balance the unassailable “facts” of our “candid world”? More broadly, could you discuss your propensity for comic scene-setting and turning as it relates to your vision and aesthetic?
Catherine Barnett: I’m sad to say that I’m basically an elegiac poet and that much of my humor is inadvertent, deriving from a general sense of bafflement, which I allow onto the page. I think the human mind is brilliant at coming up with ways, yes, to “balance the unassailable facts.” Because poetry can be an art of the jumpcut, of juxtaposition, it can allow for the kind of humor I most love: incongruity, the pleasure of contradiction. Baudelaire said laughter “is the expression of a double, or contradictory feeling.” Our lives are filled with expectations that go unmet, and I think this has something to do with our human vulnerability, which can lead to both humor and tragedy. I hope I’ve learned something from my son, who is able to laugh with without laughing at. His humor doesn't come at anyone’s expense, and I so admire that. I just found out there is a self-measure test called the “Coping Humor Scale”—this could perhaps better answer your excellent question about how some of us rely on humor to endure the “unassailable facts” and their accompanying anxieties, stresses, outrage, and sorrows. (Thank you for those kind words about the poems.)
Rail: And thank you for introducing me to a word I had not known before: geworfenheit, which figures as a pivotal concept in your poem, “Origin Story.”
Barnett: Did you look it up?
Barnett: Did I get the word right?
Rail: Yes, at least as far as the internet told me: it means thrownness, a term invented by Heidegger to describe how we are thrown into an arbitrary or inscrutable world. There’s also an added layer in which the past is connected with the present. But the way you use it here is the way you often use words in Human Hours. You inhabit the word so much that it becomes the way you choose to use it. This is apparent also in the poem “Epistemology,” where you cite and extend “inosculation”—which strictly has to do with tree roots and branches growing into one another—so that the word also becomes “to unite by openings.” Are you a word nut?
Barnett: Well, a word like that I only learned walking by trees and noticing that amazing way they grow into one another. I even tried to organize my second book on that principle. You have one kind of living thing and another kind of living thing and what if you slowly blended them? It is a word that seems so rich, a little bit like the word spiral or the French verb bouleverser. The actual definition differs from how I use it. I think of it as when your head is totally turned upside down and you don’t know quite what has happened. It’s not quite like geworfenheit, but upset in an explosive, not-only-terrible way. Those words feel like ars poeticas. They are larger than just words; they are touchstones. You can build a book around such concepts because they are so enormous.
Rail: One of the reasons I find “Origin Story” such a key poem in the book is that it’s one of the places where you directly address laughter. I looked up the Groucho Marx stateroom scene allusion and was floored by how funny the video-clip was.
Barnett: It’s also one of those cinematic moments that has dated itself so much. Not that it isn’t funny, but it can also be shocking, how naïve it is to concerns of great importance to us today. In Laughter, (1900) Henri Bergson connects humor with cruelty. I just don’t agree with that. The humor I appreciate is not built on cruelty.
Rail: By contrast, your poems often connect humor with sadness.
Barnett: Sadness and the subverting of expectations. That’s the kind of humor I appreciate more than sarcasm. Sometimes I’m sarcastic and I wish not to be. There’s a poem that didn’t make it in Human Hours because I felt it was too sarcastic. But I don’t mind sarcasm against power.
Rail: Bafflement is a recurrent theme in Human Hours. Not coincidentally, many of the poems in the book address our current political situation. Did those poems come later in your process of writing?
Barnett: The poem “Calamity Jane” about the 2016 election was written while I was writing and revising many of the other poems. “Metaphor on the Crosstown” was initially written for Obama, his first hundred days, then revised. The Declaration poem got revised at the very last minute. My understanding of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence has changed so much since my growing-up days of unabashed admiration. Now I can see the problems in those texts. In a way, over the years, I’ve learned to question things I once held so dear. I thought the Constitution and the Declaration were purely good documents, and they are good, but they are also troubling documents. That’s a new kind of bafflement for me. I used to feel, “Oh, the Constitution, that’s a great thing. It protects us,” not realizing that written into the Constitution are forms of racism and other kinds of prejudice. It has tried to adapt and change but it’s so flawed. Whereas before I would have just felt our Constitution was beyond criticism. I no longer think that.
Rail: It’s hard to accept that certain forces in power might abuse or distort a document we hold dear. It’s harder still to realize that document’s very assumptions are problematic.
Barnett: Yes, that realization is a significant part of the book.
Rail: I was awed by “The Humanities.” In this terrific poem, there is a literal pendulum that inevitably alludes to political pendulums. Your representation and understanding of the concerns in the poem seem so thoroughly internalized. Were you carrying the idea for the poem with you for a while before writing about it, or did that ingenious allegory spontaneously emerge?
Barnett: I know every poet says this but I try not to know for as long as possible. I might try to track the mind and all the ways a gesture or word or an image stands out like spokes from a central image. The initiating image of the poem came from a scene from high school. A friend and I were literally swinging—albeit in a very different context—and trying to figure out the problem of pendulums. Some details are made up but the central image. So there were narrative facts that aren’t true but the one image—of the two bodies suspended—comes from real life. I presented it very differently in an earlier draft. But in this poem, the speaker recognizes her own complicity in the questions the poem raises.
Rail: What I admire, too, is how the poem, which reads so fluidly the first time through, gradually reveals its subtle sense of craft. Your use of couplets in this regard is impressive.
Barnett: Couplets are a kind of way station for me. Coming at poetry as a prose writer, I often use couplets as a way to see formal relationships. Other poets’ drafts show that their instigating force is form. For me that is not the case. I like a tercet for its freedom but I do wind up with a lot of couplets. I have to be mindful of that when putting a book together.
Rail: Jeanne Marie Beaumont once told me she liked writing in couplets because she couldn’t hide in them.
Barnett: Yes, that is the case for me, too, but I do ultimately like to have formal variation in the book.
Rail: There is a lot of formal variation, yet I see a tonal consistency, a Catherine Barnett voice. One of the ways your voice is established so forcefully is through the “Accursed Questions” interludes. Each section of Human Hours is bracketed or framed by them, as if they serve as transitional passages between two movements of a longer orchestral work. Yet each of these interludes has its own character and distinction as well. By the way, is it “Accursed” or “Accurs-ed”?
Barnett: “Accurs-ed” because it is meant somewhat ironically. As a friend of mine pointed out, every poem is about accursed questions.
Rail: What were some of your reasons for structuring the book this way? And why the insistence on questions?
Barnett: I wasn’t quite sure what to do with those brief prose entries, which had been written for another purpose, not as poems but as thinking about the beauty and failures of human communication. I tried turning the entries into poems; I tried combining them into one long essay. These strategies didn’t seem to help the book as a whole. I was looking for forces of both unity and disruption, and I was (and am) terribly interested in questions, perhaps because I started my writing life as a journalist. Or perhaps it’s the reverse—I became a journalist because I started my life as a questioner. The term ‘accursed questions’ came to me from Ilya Kaminsky; it refers to the big philosophical questions that drive the best nineteenth-century Russian novels. My own use of the term is meant to subvert any notion of grand inquiry into a smaller scale where human foibles play out in asking and answering/not-answering/not-being-able-to-answer/not-knowing-how-to-answer.
Rail: The irony is obvious. These are not high-flown primal screams. Rather they feel like wry yet lyrically effective meditations. What made you decide to intersperse these sections throughout the book?
Barnett: One of my friends suggested putting all of those sections together right up in the beginning or immediately after one opening poem, but then they became a road block. The original material was a hundred times longer but I didn’t want to numb the reader to the question of questions. At one point I tried to put some of the material into poems but then there seemed too much of a formal sameness to the book. I also like what’s happening in the world with the lyric essay, which allows for the most exciting ways of thinking. I have the training of a prose writer.
Rail: Do you see yourself as a prose writer first?
Barnett: I was a prose writer first but I love writing poems. And I love what poetry can teach us about prose, especially in terms of leaping, not explaining too much.
Rail: And the prose here is, as you say, lyric prose, even if it doesn’t constitute a lyric essay, per se. The language is dense, compressed, richly juxtaposed, full of leaps.
Barnett: Oh, they weren’t even sections yet. They were just parts, and I built the parts out of the parts. I’m glad they work for you. The aesthetic I cleave to is to find a way both to link and leap sections. They were just parts, and I built the parts out of the parts. But it was not obvious to me what to do with that material as a whole. I did want more thinking but I didn’t want the prose to be too academic. The essays even comment on those dangers.
Rail: After reading Human Hours several times, I began to notice a number of thematic sub-groupings to which poems might belong, including, for example, a number of powerful poems (“The Sky Flashes,” “Lore,” “Central Park,” “Prayer,” and “The Art of the Security Question”) about your father’s dementia and, more specifically, how his struggle informs and colors an archetypal father-daughter relationship. I’ve read a number of poems, memoirs, and fiction where writers try to dramatize the struggle sons and daughters encounter when interacting with and/or taking care of parents with diminished cognitive capacities. However, yours are especially moving, perhaps because they take his condition as a matter of fact and move from there. Could you discuss some of the challenges and rewards you experienced in writing this grouping of poems? What would you want readers to take away from them?
Barnett: There were no special challenges in writing these poems. The rewards were and continue to be enormous: a sense of capturing something that is disappearing, in the act of disappearing, before it has fully disappeared. My father just died a few weeks ago and I am grateful to have these poems as a record of the particulars of his inimitable presence and decline. Sometimes I don’t know how I feel until I work it out in a poem, and the poem teaches me. This is the case with these love poems for my father, whom I came to love more and more as his dementia softened him and brought out his deep dignity, grace, and love, qualities that had at earlier times hidden behind his formidable intellect.
Barnett: Yes. He had dementia for a long time but I never really wrote about him. I was surprised these poems came out because I didn’t know I was thinking about my father in this way. I wasn’t aware I was mourning him until I wrote the poems.
Rail: It’s understandable that you might not be fully aware of your feelings about him until they come out in the poems, but because the text is the first thing the reader sees it always reads like a preoccupation. Isn’t that odd? It happens to me, too. An instance of language sparks me to write a poem I discover is about, say, my dad, and I think “Oh, dad.”
Barnett: But then do you have that terrible question about what is okay to put into the world? Or maybe you don’t have that question?
Rail: I do often consider that question but only after the poem has been written.
Barnett: That’s right. Then it becomes real.
Rail: Whatever the case, I don’t really say: “Today, I’m writing a poem about my father.” The poem I’ve written reveals that to me.
Barnett: I like the autonomy that the poem has in that way. Other people might be different, but I love that whatever I’m writing about is so outside of my control.
Rail: For many, the prospect of being out of control is so scary. What appeals to you about being out of control?
Barnett: If the material were under my control I’d just strangle it. And it wouldn’t be a surprise. Writing a poem is a place where I let go of control. I like that experience of not knowing. With my students I talk a lot about this. There’s too much knowing. The speaker knows too much. But it’s not so easy not to know. I’m trying to get them to un-know what they think they know. So it makes for an interesting epistemological question, I guess. How much does the speaker know? And also is the speaker right? And who knows? Where are we in relation to that?
Rail: Reveling in not knowing is a pretty good place to be when you’re reading and writing poetry. But it’s also something most people flee from. That’s why one might be so drawn to the poem: where it has its own autonomy, its own ambiguities; it is a place where not knowing is allowed to happen.
Barnet: But I wouldn’t say ambiguity. I know there’s Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity” and I am for ambiguity in a lot of ways, but I also aim for clarity. I talk a lot with my students about theories of mind. What will the reader understand through the course of the poem? Where do you privilege or not privilege the reader’s experience once you have had that pleasure of not knowing? These concerns are developments later in the poem’s making. “I know what this is, but what will someone think of it, what will she care about, and how much control do you want then?” That’s a question of a different kind of control, I think. Does that make sense?
Rail: Yes, it does. And one can still achieve clarity while creating a space for not knowing. I ask students to think of an enormous question they might have asked one of their parents when they were little. For instance: “Mommy, daddy, where do I go when I die?” Most answers will shrink the question. A great poem retains the mystery and enormity of the very questions it explores.
Barnett: That’s beautiful. I sometimes say to my students—because I resist paraphrase—if you were speaking to a six-year-old, on the most basic level, how would you describe what the speaker is most troubled by? I think it’s a useful way to think about what is at stake, what is being explored that cannot be contained.
Rail: And yet the poem’s very formal shape—whatever it is—is one way in which language is shaped and molded into a kind of containment. So there’s always this tension between what is contained and what is not.
Barnett: I love that. That would be a poetics I aspire to. It’s probably true of any poem you like that that tension is present.
Rail: You mentioned your mother being a painter and there’s that wonderful poem about her giving away her paintings: “In the Studio at the End of the Day.” There is such a generosity in that poem that I really loved. The idea of generosity being connected with the generative, the idea that the creative drive is linked with the impulse to give the created thing away.
Barnett: Wow, that’s beautiful. It’s true. Could you write that down and email it to me so I can send it to my mother?
Rail: Sure thing. The artist’s impulse toward generosity, towards giving, not only seems to be concurrent with the creative process, but also fuels further creativity. That notion is clear when you write “tomorrow there will be another.” It’s not just the painting itself but the compulsion to create paintings—and to share them.
Barnett: Just so you know, that’s a line stolen from Beckett. I have so much Beckett in the book.
Rail: Well you do have a (welcome) preoccupation with Samuel Beckett and his texts throughout Human Hours. Can you talk about why he makes such a noticeable appearance in a few of the poems?
Barnett: I had the amazing good fortune to work with the actor Dianne Wiest as she was running lines for her outstanding performance of Happy Days, a play that has accompanied and haunted me for all these years. Even before this fortuitous event, I was obsessed with Beckett. I remember the exact moment when I fell in love: I was in a poet-friend’s guest bedroom in Tucson, admiring the wall of books. I happened to pull out a collection of Beckett’s short prose and that was that. I could copy each text over word for word for the rest of my life and be fulfilled. My aunts, however, worry about my love of Beckett. “Is she all right?” they keep asking my mother. Anyway, I make a distinction between stealing and borrowing. You’re reaching out, borrowing, and giving it right back. Beckett himself was borrowing from everybody.
Rail: Even when you take his exact words, the way you’re using them, curating them in your poem is entirely different than how he used them. The borrowing is a kind of generating, but in a very personal way.
Barnett: Yes. I believe in that 100%. I encourage all my students to transform what has been borrowed in that way.
Rail: And then you have all these notes in the back of the book that are often as amusing as the most amusing parts of your poems. You also appear to use some of the notes as a way to provide a greater window into your mind and sense of humor. Were you intentionally challenging the expectation for the purely informative yet dry and impersonal notes one often sees at the end of books?
Barnett: I teach a class on literary influence and one of the main questions we wrestle with—and which people have different opinions about—is how to credit the texts and sources that give rise to one’s poems. I believe that it is the highest compliment to borrow rather than (Eliot be damned!) to steal; wherever possible, I use the acknowledgements to return the materials to their rightful owners. I wasn't really trying to change anyone's expectations about end notes but simply to give credit and thanks wherever possible. Writing poems can be a solitary endeavor; having all these other conversations and voices and sources and echoes keeps the lovely necessary solitude from becoming loneliness.
Rail: Another sub-group I noticed was a handful of poems about aging and the body’s inevitable corrosion, which is made beautiful through the poems themselves. This group coexists with an equally powerful handful of poems about either erotic encounters or at least a sex-positive imagination. Taken together, these two themes seem to balance a stoic acknowledgement of the inevitable withering of the flesh alongside a continuous, perhaps even increased erotic hunger. Am I off here? Or do you see the coexistence of these themes as one of the ways in which our complicated lives are potentially comical yet also wonderfully vigorous?
Barnett: I love the Latinate phrase “sex-positive imagination”! We should all indulge in such a thing. I’m all for the body's ways of knowing, saying, feeling. Throughout the collection there’s a kind of battle between the mind and the body, so I’m glad that at least in some poems the body and its desires come across. We remain animals, no matter how hard we try to think ourselves out of such a fact.
Rail: Finally, there are these moving mother-son poems. Perhaps the most stunning of these is “Son in August” in which, at some point early in the poem, the mother bidding her son farewell at college sees herself divide into two selves, one of which is likened to a “marionette” whose strings are governed by something or someone unknown. This divide is dramatically effective and psychologically accurate. How does this description connect with the Rilke-inspired gestures in the second half of the poem, in which the bag of frozen breast milk becomes “an archaic something of something”?
Barnett: “You must change your life,” Rilke writes at the end of “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which was one of the first poems that stunned me. In my own poem, the speaker is both self and other, participant and observer, which I learned, in a way, from Rilke (and from living in a mind/body). In his New Poems, (1907) Rilke went out into the world and tried to describe his encounters, shuttling back and forth from the interior to the exterior. A recent essay in The New Yorker suggests that, in a lifetime, each of us will spend “roughly six solid months looking for missing objects.” That doesn’t seem like such a long time to me—I spend most of my life looking for missing objects! (Or I spend much of my life missing, speaking transitively and intransitively.) And I guess I think that writing and reading poetry can be another way to find (write it) what you need to find.