Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Rick Barot has published two books with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002) and Want (2008). His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including New England Review, The New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer. He lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and at Pacific Lutheran University.
I think about the mornings it saved me
to look at the hearts penknifed on the windows
of the bus, or at the initials scratched
into the plastic partition, in front of which
a cabbie went on about bread his father
would make, so hard you broke teeth on it,
or told one more story about the plumbing
in New Delhi buildings, villages to each floor,
his whole childhood in a building, nothing to
love but how much now he missed it, even
the noises and stinks he missed, the avenue
suddenly clear in front of us, the sky ahead
opaquely clean as a bottle’s bottom, each heart
and name a kind of ditty of hopefulness
because there was one you or another I was
leaving or going to, so many stalls of flowers
and fruit going past, figures earnest with
destination, even the city itself a heart,
so that when sidewalks quaked from trains
underneath, it seemed something to love,
like a harbor boat’s call at dawn or the face
reflected on a coffee machine’s chrome side,
the pencil’s curled shavings a litter
of questions on the floor, the floor’s square
of afternoon light another page I couldn’t know
myself by, as now, when Socrates describes
the lover’s wings spreading through the soul
like flames on a horizon, it isn’t so much light
I think about, but the back’s skin cracking
to let each wing’s nub break through,
the surprise of the first pain and the eventual
lightening, the blood on the feathers drying
as you begin to sense the use for them.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
For over twenty years now I’ve kept a diary, sometimes writing in it every day, and then going for weeks without writing in it at all. One benefit of having a diary is being able to check up on certain things. To answer your question, I found this notation in my diary entry of Friday, January 30, 1998: “Wrote, in a couple of hours yesterday, ‘Reading Phaedrus on a Flight.’ I think it flies, though it could use some tuning up here and there. I showed it to Mike, who liked it. Had coffee with Cate this afternoon. And I’m exhausted, my head in pieces.” On this date I was in my second year as an MFA student at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa. The “Mike” and “Cate” mentioned in the entry are Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, who were also students there at the time. This is almost ten years ago now.
The germ of the poem was reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” during the flight back home to California in December, for winter break. There was this one passage that I liked, and which gave me the ending of the poem: “For by reason of the stream of beauty entering in through his eyes there comes a warmth, whereby his soul’s plumage is fostered, and with that warmth the roots of the wing are melted, which for long had been so hardened and closed up that nothing could grow; then as the nourishment is poured in, the stump of the wing swells and hastens to grow from the root over the whole substance of the soul, for aforetime the soul was furnished with wings.”
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
As the diary entry says, I wrote the poem in a couple of hours. At that point, I was still writing everything on a typewriter: a beige electric Brother that hummed and clattered when I used it. What I remember of those two hours, from this far distance, is that I would write a stanza or two of the poem, then pace around the apartment for a spell, then go back to the typewriter and write another stanza or so, then do another round of pacing. I have a manila folder with the drafts, and there are in fact only a few drafts. There’s a first draft that has the whole poem pretty much structurally complete. The subsequent drafts play around with stanzas, lineation, and have lots of nitpicky cross-outs. A couple of weeks after I wrote the poem, it was workshopped. That semester, I was in Marvin Bell’s workshop. I remember that the poem fared pretty well—when so many of my other poems, during my time at Iowa, just crashed and burned. The title was deemed too fussy, and so I changed it to the simpler “Reading Plato.”
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in “inspiration,” but not in the struck-by-lightning, perhaps facile connotation that surrounds the word these days. I realize that the etymology of the word comes from a spiritual register: that one is breathed on by a sort of influence, and one is then moved. But I want to imagine that one isn’t given the gift of that breath without having prepared for it, even if inadvertently. In the case of “Reading Plato,” I had been collecting bits and pieces of the poem’s images for months before I wrote the poem, not knowing that I was collecting for any particular poem. That collecting was a kind of preparation. When I read the “Phaedrus,” it gave the things I had gathered a galvanizing coherence. Writing the poem felt like “taking dictation,” but its materials were already near at hand. The “Phaedrus” itself weighs in on this very question of inspiration, as quoted above: “For by reason of the stream of beauty entering in through his eyes there comes a warmth, whereby his soul’s plumage is fostered”...
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The poem is thirty-three lines long and uses one continuous sentence. That syntactical decision was the organizing principle that I latched onto very early on. I knew I wanted that breathlessness, as a way of underscoring the many shifts that were going to be in the poem. Elongating the syntax was the technical problem that made the poem fun to write. On the other hand, I chose the tercets, also early on, as a way of having order along with the propulsive syntax. I wanted that balance between chaos and order in the poem. I remember trying out couplets and quatrains, but the couplets gave the poem too much air, and the quatrains were too much like bricks. The tercets seemed just the right amount of stable and off-kilter at the same time.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Not too long. The poem was first accepted by that terrific magazine, Double Take, but they returned the poem soon after, when the magazine went into a hiatus. The poem was then taken by Black Warrior Review, and was published in a 1999 issue of the magazine.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This feels like a trick question to me, because one way of answering your question is to say that the poem is both fact and fiction. The poem as poem seems to me very artificial: the meditative and discursive movement of the poem, and its use of the single sentence, seem to me fictionalizing artifices. Maybe this is just another way of saying that every piece of writing is a sort of fiction. On the other hand, the events and perceptions in the poem are facts, in that I experienced them: I was on a bus with the scratched-up plexi-window, I was in a taxi with an affable Indian cab-driver, I was in love once again and kind of sad about it, I was looking at the pencil shavings on my apartment floor, and I was reading the “Phaedrus.” Maybe another way of answering the question is to say that a poem is a performance of the truth.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Once again I can look through my diary, and I’m reminded that during my two years in Iowa all I ever seemed to do was read, and I read everything. That winter and spring I was reading a lot of James Tate, Charles Wright, Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa, Mark Strand, Brenda Hillman, James Merrill, Timothy Liu, Pablo Neruda, August Kleinzahler. It’s also probably important to mention that every week I was reading poems by an incredible line-up of poets who were students at the workshop at the time: Katy Lederer, Matthea Harvey, Julie Buchsbaum, Tina Celona, Lisa Lubasch, Max Winter, Robyn Schiff, Michael Dumanis, Erica Bernheim, Joanna Klink, Josh Bell.
Two very direct influences on “Reading Plato” were Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” and Dean Young’s “One Story.” I’d loved the Hass poem for as long as I was a poet, and I’d heard him say in an interview that “Meditation at Lagunitas” was his “rage against Plato,” which meant that I had to write my own “rage against Plato” also. I’d seen “One Story” in a magazine, I think it was in “The Threepenny Review,” and I was immediately blown away by it. I had never read anything with that mixture of sorrow and hijinks and associativeness before. It was one of those really rare poems that I felt I had written myself, if only I were a better poet than I was.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I often thought of my early poems as offerings to someone, which always made them de facto love poems, whatever kinds of poems they actually were. Then I thought of the poems as things to show to the peers whose opinions I cared about; the poems felt like statements that were meant to be part of a larger conversation about poetry and art. These days I don’t think of a particular reader at all. I’m my own ideal reader, in that I think of my poems now as extensions of my diary: the poems are records of who I am, what I’m thinking of, what I obsess over. All through my writing life there’s been a gradual ratcheting down of ambition, at least as far as audience or readership is concerned. Expecting a reader for your poems is probably a recipe for disappointment, and so I don’t hope for any readers. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I don’t try to write the best poems I can. I do. I may be my own ideal reader, but I’m not a pushover.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s like some other poems, and very unlike others. By now I have different “genres” within my own poetry, and every poem I write usually fits into one of those genres. I’ve written other poems like “Reading Plato,” poems that are associative, headlong in mood and speed, predicated on forcibly juxtaposing a lot of dissimilar things in a limited space. Then there are poems which are more conventionally narrative, and poems in sequences which try to create a whole through broken parts, and poems which have specific formal strategies as their defining characteristics. In the winter and spring that I wrote “Reading Plato,” I also wrote a prose-poem sequence, a poem about Wittgenstein, and a sequence about different birds. And these poems were all awfully different from each other, thematically and formally.
What is American about this poem?
Probably the headlong quality I mentioned above. It’s hungry. It wants to take everything in. It wants everything in its eyes, even the junk.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?