Conversation with Catherine Barnett

Catherine Barnett is the author of Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced (Alice James Books, 2004), The Game of Boxes (Graywolf Press, 2012), which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and Human Hours (Graywolf Press, 2018). Her Honors include a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a member of the core faculty of New York University’s Creative Writing Program, a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, and an independent editor in New York City. Barnett is known for her luminous lyric poems and sequences that are as moving and compelling as they are insightful. For this conversation, she has agreed to discuss her writing process, as well as her general take on poetry and poetics.

Robert Frost once said that if there are 37 poems in the book, the book itself should be poem number 38. I always think of these words when I read your work, Catherine. Starting from your debut, and now again in Human Hours, there is a panoramic vision taking place. The poems are beautiful and necessary each on their own. But when placed together, they also create the world of a book. It is not one of those “project books” that are so popular these days, and whose plot seems to be predictable 7 pages in, but instead a kind of soul-journey, where each poem is another stage in understanding of self, understanding of others, of this space we live in, which you call human hours. 

Can you please tell us more about your process of composition of a book manuscript? how does it come together for you? at what point do you begin to see the arc of the book taking place?

Putting together a book of poems might be something like being up on a trapeze. You’re in the infinite air contending with a finite body; you’re contending with the vertical pull of gravity and the horizontal swing propelling you sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards. You want everything to look effortless. Falling can be as beautiful as performing the trick perfectly. From the trapeze, there’s a kind of fly over, a larger view, which in itself is also vertiginous. 

Each of my three books has been made very differently, but I was revising each right up until the very last moment. The poet Saskia Hamilton has helped me organize my last two books. You might have seen us in the Barnard halls laying the poems out along the long wooden benches. And Jericho Brown, another excellent poet, had the courage to tell me, on the eve of the final due date for my second book, that it wasn’t yet a book because it wasn’t yet in the right order. That’s a real friend. It takes courage to tell that kind of truth. I so appreciate it and strive to be that kind of friend for my writer friends, though of course some people only want affirmation. 

Yes, I agree with Frost. I love that idea of the book as another poem, and use it when I work with people putting their manuscripts together (both students and non-students). My main organizing strategies have to do with movement, with “link” and “leap.” 

I think of a poem as a very hinge-y thing and a book as an even more hinge-y thing–each line or each poem is somehow connected to what comes before and after but there is still some functional movement, development, journey going on. Doors open and close because of hinges. Imagine a series of doors hinged to other doors, opening and closing in a kind of dance. I guess that’s what I’d like to think a book could be. 

This book was especially dicey to organize because of the lyric essays, which came out of a wonderful experience of writing daily to the poet Matthew Zapruder. We were both working on prose and feeling a little stuck, so we made a pact to send each other 500 words a day, without commenting on what we received. It was very liberating. Sometimes I even wrote as I was falling asleep, moments before the midnight deadline. Most of the material did not make it into the book but the process gave me lots to work with and enlivened the mind. 

The Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky has famously coined a literary form, ostranenie, which has been translated into English as “defamiliarization,” though it could also be translated as “estrangement,” making something strange again, new again, fresh again. You seem to have a particular gift for this kind of thing. I find it everywhere in the pages of Human Hours. For instance:

“As the writer signed his name he said the drug / was taking away his nouns, but his name is a proper noun / and there he was signing it. And his face is a proper noun’s face, / and I was looking into it”

Or, here is an image of a speaker  considering “the light from across the fields”:

“Past the laundromat and the empty church / down Cedar Lane to where the road peters out, / I drove into the woods and there it was, / shining like the human mind.”

Here, something ordinary is made strange and thereby revealed. Can you speak a bit about this? About the way you, as a lyric poet, *look* at things?

I am devoted to Shklovsky’s idea of defamiliarization, which has been made accessible to me through Charlie Baxter’s essay “On Defamiliarization” (published in Burning Down the House) and which I always bring to my students. I guess I think the poetic frame of mind–which I feel lucky to inhabit on those lucky days when metaphor is keeping me company–is a mind of mistakes. I am thrilled when I misread signs; I like to watch one tv at the gym while listening to the soundtrack of the other, to put the incongruous together. Or I just try to pay close attention–the world is so strange, it’s just our discomfort that tries to normalize it. 

Maybe my mirror neurons are too active; I can’t help but imagine into–without meaning to–what it feels like to be that shard of fingernail left on the sidewalk step, the set of keys in that man’s hand. It’s a source of pleasure, discomfort, vulnerability, knowing and not-knowing all at once.

Which is to say I think defamiliarization has to do with paying more attention to all the points of view–perspectives–one can have. I love Celan’s “Backlight” for this reason: “Spring: trees flying up to their birds.”

I am very interested by your relationship to language in this book. I already quoted the lines about a man’s face becoming “a proper noun’s face” that the speaker was staring into. But I can’t quite resist quoting more. For instance, I love how in this passage Frank O’Hara’s “Get up, we love you” comes to live in a completely different landscape, and how you marry it to the kind of music one might find in Lorine Niedecker or Mother Goose, all the while keeping the attention on how the language works, how we live in it, sometimes all of us in a single word:

“Hey, you there, Calamity, wake up! / It’s not too late to fight back. // Calamity et al! // Get up, we love you! / I solicit you! // Calamity ends with amity, / amity save us all”

So, with this in mind, I wonder if you could speak a bit more about your–very special, very personal–relationship to words, to language. We all love Mallarme’s assertion that a poem is not about an event, a poem is an event — but in your work this seems to take place even on a deeper level; it is not just an event, it is a spiritual recognition; it can be funny (as in many poems in this book) or it can be tragic (as in many poems in your debut) but it is always there. Can you speak a bit more on this?

Language is (to borrow Marilynne Robinson’s term) a “mysterious other” to me. My relationship with and to language is one of my deepest and most vexed and most stable and least stable relationships. Mostly I love the possibilities of syntax, which were introduced to me by my MFA teacher Ellen Bryant Voigt. This goes back to the idea of link and leap–language seems to link us and to separate us. Children coming into language experience a loss of the oceanic merging with the world but they also gain a seeming (partial) mastery of the world. Learning the names of things, oh that is such a pleasure. 

I come by it honestly. My mother, who is a painter and a model of pure creative energy, has assembled a series of 92 vocabulary words drawn from the reading she’s done. For each word she made a small painting, a definition, and a sentence, some of which are funny, others heartbreaking, others wry observations. Her five children loved the project so much we inveigled her to make multiple copies so we could each have one; she figured out a way to reproduce it ( She got her passion for vocabulary from her father, who, before running was popular, used to go out jogging with a little notebook, memorizing words and their definitions. He’d send my mother a letter every day: “work work work, diet diet diet” and three new vocabulary words. He was a harsh man, a man of another era, from an immigrant family, who showed his love in complicated ways. Many of us inherited his love of language.

Sometimes when I’m writing I have the shape of the word, the shape of the idea, in some part of my brain, but I have to wait, in a kind of passive beseeching searching desolation, until the actual language arrives (if it ever arrives).  

I admire people who can speak so fluently, off the cuff–my mind is a branching of branchings–it’s not always easy to get from A to C, and I like the detours. Sometimes syntax can allow you to move in so many directions at once, which is a great pleasure.

There is a deep work of wonderment about the world in your book. The work of those “accursed questions,” the work of asking not just our stories, but how we come to be here on this planet, how the planet comes to be here on this axis that it seems to endlessly swing on. As in these lines:

“A classmate and I chose pendulums, / what happens when a pendulum // hangs from a pendulum? / How does gravity work then? // We were studying invisible forces”

And I love how among such questions, often a revelation arises. Something like: “Time is one part of the body that never gets washed.”

I love that your question is not a question! And you are the source of the idea of the “accursed questions.” I hadn’t heard the term until you mentioned it, and I loved it immediately. You told me it came from nineteenth-century Russian novelists and their inquiries into the human condition. 

For a long time my book was going to be called The Accursed Questions but two beloved friends said I couldn’t name it that because all poems are asking and addressing and investigating such questions. Fair enough. I was trying to use the term seriously and also in an ironic playful way. Because as you can see in the poems, the speaker is addicted to questions. I just read that questions are what distinguish us from the other animals. The author claims primates can answer questions but can’t ask them. (I’m not so sure.)

Sometimes it’s too dangerous to ask a question, or pointless. Asking a real question requires trust that the addressee will answer truthfully, which of course cannot be legislated. I’m still curious about all the questions we don’t or can’t or are too scared to ask.

The poet and memoirist Honor Moore once suggested, as a way to start writing a poem, that you write down three questions you’d ask if they were the last questions you could ever ask. I just gave this assignment to my students and tried to do it myself, in my notebook this morning. Did I want to ask about the past? Not so much. I wanted very much to know what’s going to happen. I am a  little afraid. More than a little. 

Curiosity is one of the great forces in and of the human condition. 

This work of lyrical knowing, Hesodian in its nature, seems to circle through the book. Lines such as these, for instance: 

“I learned how trees communicate, / the way they send sugar through their roots to the trees that are ailing. / They don’t use words, but they can be said to love. / They might lean in one direction to leave a little extra light for another tree. / And I admire the way they grow right through fences, nothing / stops them”

This kind of lyrical knowing, lyrical learning, happens on many different levels through the book. On one page, it is trees, on another the speaker admits: “I studied the faces of malefactors and conmen,” and on the next page, we watch the speaker approach a mirror:


But it’s in perfectly fine shape, the face in the mirror said–

When I first acquired you, yes, ok, years ago,

on a lark, and you were just something to wear then,

to the story or the park, not alone in the dark.

I am fascinated by these lines, by what they do. The knowing here is married to music, to imagery, and the overall effect is far more than just the image of a person looking into the mirror. It is also one of the person looking at the world. 

What is an act of looking for you? What is an act of learning? How does the poet learn her craft, her world?

I truly can’t understand how eyes work. How is it that what we see is given to us upside down?? I’m hungry for looking. A poet-friend of mine once called herself “a pair of eyes on a stick.” That’s at least a partial description of me, too. 

Your question calls me back to something I just mentioned–“mirror neurons.” These are the neurons (in a gross oversimplification) that get activated when you watch something; they make it so it’s as if you yourself were performing the action; witnessing something makes us feel it. So seeing is not simply a sensory activity but one that triggers realms of physiological response, too. 

This morning I was also thinking about the connection between memory and attention. On my way here, to my cafe, I was trying out the assignment I just gave my students–looking out at the world for responses to my questions. “The gps in your head isn’t working too well today,” I overheard as I walked. What was my question? “Where are we headed?”  

And if that overheard quote didn’t exactly work–or worked too well–I would do a search, a switch-and-bait, a collage–to see how to allow the “answer” received from the world to teach me what isn’t yet known, or even thought. 

Reading of course is the most electrifying and direct way to learn the craft, and I have so much more to do in that regard because more is always being made and thus transforming and reinvigorating what’s been written in the past, books I swing from and cling to.

And, finally, a broader question: your book is so full of fun things of the world, of humor, or laughter; it is also full of darker changes that seem to be happening in America today, of the political crisis, turmoil we find ourselves in, and yet on each page, you are able to hold a perfect balance, a lyric poet’s balance. The situations that trigger your attention might be very much of this moment, yet your response goes beyond that moment, takes on something much larger. Can you speak a bit more on this?

Your question is a gift to me–thank you for saying so. Reading Beckett–that’s one answer! 

The writing and shaping of this book spanned the Obama and then the early days of this next presidency that is so determined to undo all that Obama did. My son was raised under Obama, and I’m so grateful that he had that kind of figure as a model for his idea of leadership. My son is very funny and his humor doesn’t hurt anyone. I marvel at that. So often humor is biting, sarcastic. I’m more interested in humor that carries us into the pathos, where I–melancholic soul that I am–dwell. I adore improv performances because I love the movements of mind they demonstrate–how we think we’re heading in one direction and then we leap to another. The world is all improvisation. And it requires resilience and flexibility and a zillion new perspectives and responses, especially now.


–interviewed by Ilya Kaminsky

(photo credit: Jacqueline Mia Foster)

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