The first time I read a poem by Barrett Warner was in 2012 when I was sorting through submissions for drafthorse literary journal. Accepting Barrett’s poetry for our journal was an easy decision. Soon after, I met Barrett in person while we were both attending the Bennington Writing Seminars. Speaking with Barrett, I was immediately struck by the way he connects one idea to another—almost always in surprising, wonderful ways—just as he does in his poetry. Recently, Barrett agreed to answer my questions about the creation and publication of Why Is It So Hard To Kill You? and much more.
DL: Congratulations on your collection, Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? I love how C.L. Bledsoe in Coal Hill Review described your work as being about “moments in which the world breaks.” Will you explain how this collection evolved?
BW: I was born without the empathy gene. Empathy in poetry is something I’ve had to work hard at my whole life and at some point I just gave up and went the natural way, writing from a place of antipathy. It was terrible, but it was peaceful too. Like sailing around the room only to crash the boat into the dock. Well for me, the crashes are more exciting than the sight-seeing. Some electricity gets released, and for a few minutes I get a glimpse of empathy until the sparks fade. I mean, like love, you take your empathy where you can get it, right?
DL: Many of these poems speak to the complexity of marriage, such as the collection’s first poem, “I Thought Pigeons Were Vegetarians,” and “Maine is Not the Place to Grow Bougainvillea.” The latter poem speaks specifically to the exceptions from normal behavior that we make for the people we love.
BW: Rage, rage, rage, love, love, love. And I used to think, “Divorce. That’s the whole reason I’m not getting married.” Sure, I got my restless bones, and a special place in my heart for the literature of migratory sociopaths from Huck Finn to the Beats, but I’m also a homebody. I love my routines, falling in love with that same tree every time I go into the woods. That “Maine” poem I wrote 25 years ago, so for me “evolution” is pretty much a nonstarter.
DL: Does being married to another poet (Julia Wendell) make it easier to write what may or may not be a confessional poem?
BW: Since we’re both confessional, we have to call “dibs” every time the gray horse dies. Like, who gets to be the one to write about a common experience? But it’s not just that she’s a poet so much as she’s a good one. Iowa Workshop and all that, and eight or nine books. I guess we differ in where we meet our muse. She meets hers in the lobby. I meet mine in the alley.
DL: Do you have a favorite poem from the book? If so, which one and why?
BW: “Sleeping on Sand While Dolphins Swim Past Bethany” wasn’t one of those that made me “famous” on Twitter, and wasn’t published, but it gave me a way to transform the poetry of ego into one of witness. In this case, the Arab / Israeli quarrel. One of the reasons I’m such a fanatic about gathering up the recycling is that it makes me feel better about tossing a beer can out the window. I love cleaning up so I can be a little bit dirty, and writing a political poem lets me feel better about not being political at all.
DL: Are there other writers that you feel your writing is in conversation with? Either in terms of style or inspiration?
BW: I’m as plain spoken as they come, but I tend to be thrilled by writers who aren’t so plain spoken. I cut my teeth on Rilke and Ginsberg, and lately, Keith Douglas who many years ago had fired up Plath and Hughes with his Simplify Me When I’m Dead, but increasingly I’m drawn to women poets…Elizabeth Robinson, MK Chavez, Jane Hirshfield, Elle Nash…where the poetry is not only about you going into the world. It’s also about the world coming into you, where “otherness” is more a two way street.
DL: You develop the most beautiful and interesting literary crushes. Some of these are revealed in poems, such as in “Tanya” in your newest collection. And recently, you told me that you’ve started referring to other writers by their first name only, as if they were once your lovers. What writers are you crushing on now and why?
BW: Shy Watson and Pamela “Jody” Stewart are from very different eras. I carry their books around like relics. The writer who most excites me is the trans queer poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. I taught one of her poems in my Icarus class two years ago, and I see that she just won a Pushcart Prize. To me, some of the best confessional writing is coming out of the LBGTQ community where self and other are two dreams which keep attacking and loving each other.
DL: When you aren’t writing, you raise horses on a farm that is twelve miles from where you were born. What’s your average day look like there, in terms of working with horses and writing?
BW: There’s only one line on my curriculum vitae: “Check for trouble.” Most of my time is spent dealing with the basics. Nothing is easy when you weigh 1,200 to 1,400 hundred pounds. Eating is not easy. Shitting is not easy. Fucking and dying and giving birth is not easy. Then there’s the land. Working with it, talking to it, gentling with it. Since I work with my hands I tend to compose poetry aloud as I work. When I write, it’s more like just writing down what I already wrote in my mouth.
DL: How did you decide to name your home “An Otherwise Perfect Farm?”
BW: Julia’s first book was called An Otherwise Perfect History. We met each other at a poetry reading we gave with Moira Egan in 1993 and started discing the following year.
DL: Before Why Is It So Hard To Kill You?, you recently published a chapbook called My Friend Ken Harvey. But back in the 1980’s you started out more as a fiction writer. While you still write stories, as well as essays, you eventually pursued an MFA in poetry, and it seems that your focus has been to write poetry. What do you prefer about poetry over prose?
BW: I wish you hadn’t asked me that. These days I look for truth and beauty one page at a time.
DL: But you had some success. Your fiction was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times in 1987. What happened?
BW: You really want to say how I rejected fiction because I was so sick? Let’s skip over the part about risky love partners who also wrote fiction. Just assume there was a lot of marginal life-styling going on. I wrote my last story around 1990, and since 2011 I’ve written about one or two per year. The essays are a new thing. My secret mentor is Jessica Anya Blau. I show her everything I write that goes all the way across the page.
DL: You won the 2014 Salamander fiction prize, and other stories were recent runners-up at Quarter after Eight and Yemassee.
BW: Those stories were unfinished poems that I put together, about ten poems per story. Look, here’s the dope: in fiction there’s the problem of sustaining clarity in the presence of unknown changes, the problem of character motivation, and plots that overwhelm nuanced speakers, and characters who dominate their own plot. What I like about poetry is how inessential concrete reality proves to be. You have a speaker. Maybe there’s a bouquet in his suitcase, but probably it’s a gun. You don’t have to say whether he’s going to Trenton or Boston, only that he’s on a train. And the fact he’s wearing a false mustache is not as important as the way his heart rate increases when the train passes over water.
DL: Your first chapbook, Til I’m Blue in the Face, was published in 1994. What was happening in your life in those two decades between chapbooks?
BW: That early chapbook had some novelty, but if you were already hungry for irony you’d be starving for it by the end of that book. Mostly I was in a dark place, and having to write myself out of the hole that writing put me into.
DL: How would you describe the evolution of your writing throughout that time?
BW: Fiction was so ingrained in me that my poems felt like outlines for short stories. So I just spent the 20 years trying to write truer. In hard times you learn to survive by developing your emotional dishonesty into an art form, but that was sort of fucking over my poetry. The key moment for me came as I began writing biographical poems…basically confessional poetry about other people. It was like ekphrastic poetry, but instead of a Grecian urn I was writing about my friend Timmy Reed, or whomever. Lately I’ve been focused on place poems, but in a similar way.
DL: You spoke to me recently about how writers should not pressure themselves to publish, feeling that sometimes we seek to “professionalize” our passion merely to make it more legitimate. You’re so widely published, yourself. Is that the kind of advice you have to give yourself sometimes, or is it something you mostly see from other writers?
BW: Well, I’m not widely published. It’s just that if you publish a few poems a year for 35 years it adds up. The internet has been an attention-getter for a lot of poets, and at some point I guess all of us love a listener. I need to write to stay alive, but I don’t need to publish to stay alive and since I’m not on an academic teaching track I’m OK with lingering, and not having credentials.
DL: Why is poetry important in the first place, especially in 2016?
BW: I’m not sure poetry is important this year, but we’re only halfway through. In 2015 it was very important. I suspect that 2018 will also be a big year for poetry. I stick to the idea that a lot of Greek myth comes down to the older generation not always being right and the younger generation not always being wrong. Am I the only person to imagine a connection between Freddie Gray eyeing up the cops and Icarus eyeing up the sun? Probably not.
DL: You published a wonderful poem recently that included a talking bear, which exemplified, for one thing, what Ed Ochester blurbed about your book, that your poems aren’t like anyone else’s. How do you include an element like a talking bear into a poem and keep it from becoming cartoonish?
BW: My publisher calls me “woodsy.” It’s hard for me to disguise that side of me what’s comfortable with wilderness. I’m a lousy researcher so I have to rely on experience for something to feel genuine. Just, always been one of those people who knew if beaver were present without having obvious clues like chewed up trees or house dams. So for me, of course bears can recognize faces. Of course they speak. Of course they make love.
DL: Besides your own creative work, you’re also a prolific poetry reviewer (for Coal Hill Review, Loch Raven Review, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Otis Nebula, JMWW, Concho River Review and Chattahoochee Review among others). You’re also an editor at Free State Review. How does editing and the critical analysis of other work help your own writing?
BW: Editing has been a joy I wish I could do more of. It pains me to only offer a 50-word critique, but I try to leave a writer with some one specific thing to explore. The book reviewing is not all that critical. I’m not so interested in explaining the mystery as I am wanting to help other readers find their way into a collection.
DL: You recently reviewed David Huddle’s new book, Dream Sender, but you decided you couldn’t finish the review until you drove to his hometown. Tell me about that trip.
BW: Huddle is very quiet about his biographical revelations and I felt like if I went to his shitty little home town in the middle of nowhere I could key into him. I’d hauled some animals to South Carolina and returned up through southwest Virginia to check him out and drive the mountain roads he’d driven in those poems. I was able to see clearly his deft touch in passing from literal to associative realms.
DL: Don’t hold me to this, but sometimes I think I love your essays even more than your poems. Is there a chance we’ll see a collection of those someday? What will we see next from you?
BW: Doubtful. I have a collection in the works, but the title essay includes a scene in which I very slowly wrest a confession from my neighbor to killing his wife seven years earlier. How he did it, the whole damn deal. I’d rather not have that book appear before he dies. He’s 75 now. So maybe just five more years.