An Interview with Dorothy Barresi
by Janine Hauber and Mary Hood
Dorothy Barresi is the author of three books of poetry: Rouge Pulp (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2002); The Post-Rapture Diner (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), winner of an American Book Award; and All of the the Above (Beacon Press, 1991), which won the Barnard College New Women Poets Prize. She has recently completed her fourth collection of poems, American Fanatics, which is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her essays and poems have been widely published, and she is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, the Emily Clark Balch Prize from the Virginia Quarterly Review, and Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. She is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University Northridge where she has taught for twenty years.
Q: History (personal and cultural), pop culture, and American identity are consistent themes in all three of your books. Yet in Rouge Pulp and your poems recently published in West Branch, private concerns like motherhood, grief, and aging seem to have grown more prominent. Can you talk about that shift in focus?
A: You're absolutely right; that shift in subject came about very naturally through the "accidents" of life that drove my poems inward: my mother's death, my son Dante's birth, and my father's death—all the things that move you rung by rung up your own personal mortality ladder, like it or not. Ready or not. And my own aging, of course. The responsibilities of family and the grinding toll work-life takes on the imagination.
I still love pop culture, and I'm an unapologetic consumer of it (when there are teenagers in the house, it's hard to escape!) because it brings me pleasure—sometimes perverse pleasure, I'll admit—but also because it allows me to keep engaged in a conversation with what America is always becoming. America used to manufacture durable goods; now it manufactures itself and images of itself! Fascinating.
I was born in 1957. My generation is no longer at the center of popular culture, but at the edges looking in, attempting to make meaning of the new. The idea of America will always be important in my poems, but now I see it through a lens of change--personal and public change. I just wrote a long essay for Prairie Schooner called "Baby Boom Poetry and the New Zeitgeist," and it talks about how Baby Boom poets are reframing what America means in order to write about private issues of spirituality or hope in their poems. Ideally, I think, those outer and inner worlds collide beautifully.
Q: You mention the idea of mortality. The first two poems in Rouge Pulp elegize the tragic female figures of Grendel’s mother and Lily St. Cyr (a popular stripper from the 1940’s). You open up their stories to provide new perspectives on these characters and on your own society in relation to them—for example, the idea that “every mother is a monster” and that St. Cyr’s audience of veterans were “ghost boys newly back from hell.” What attracts you to these figures, and what makes them interesting to explore from the vantage point of the present?
A: First, a quibble: I don’t think of Lily St. Cyr as a tragic figure in my poem. One of the things I still like about “Glass Dress”—and God knows I don’t always like my poems after the fact!—is that it overturns some expectations about the “undressing” of the sexual female body. In the poem, stripping (especially the relatively tame, even charming stripping of the great burlesque era to which St. Cyr belonged) is infinitely innocent compared with the degradations and violence of war. St. Cyr herself is portrayed as a potent female figure, a potential figure of sexual healing, so to speak, but even she can’t save “the ghost boys newly back from hell,” who have been ruined by war. Because of what they’ve seen in battle, they can’t really see St. Cyr—that’s the tragedy. I was also thinking about what was revealed as the European theatre of WWII ended—the concentration camps—as well as what was to come—the atomic bomb. The scope of that destruction is almost unfathomable, right? We are all destroyed by it.
I think, like most writers, I’m fascinated by death, even morbidly so, but I don’t think I fully sensed my own mortality until I became a mother fifteen years ago. Here’s a story from real life: on the first flight I took after my son Dante was born, a red-eye from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh for an Associated Writing Programs Conference, I developed a sudden, devastating anxiety. I looked out the window at all the blackness below me, and I just curled up in a ball in my seat and wept. And the fear of flying still plagues me to this day. Recently I read that motherhood is often the trigger for a woman’s fear of flying. That makes perfect sense to me: the blood bond, the responsibility for another life, raises the stakes beyond all rationality (and what’s rational about being that far above the earth, anyway?) Love in extremity is what I wanted to write about in “Grendel’s Mother.” The fact that Grendel’s mother is a monster was a perfect way to talk about the otherness one feels in the grip of such love. One is truly alien, but ordinary, too: she was the mother of one son, and he has died.
Women’s experience is image-wealthy, that’s for sure. Between the biological imperatives and the historical place of women in various times and places, there’s no end of tension to explore.
But ultimately I want a poem that is going to grab readers and shake them up a bit. For better or worse, I don’t think my strong suit as a poet is subtlety! And if a poem is going to work, it has to engage lots of readers, male and female. It has to say something people recognize from the life they’ve lived and observed. In the forthcoming book, American Fanatics, I re-train my focus a bit to explore more socio-political stuff, and religion.
Q: We look forward to reading your next book. The idea of "re-training" your focus in American Fanatics suggests a deliberate concentration on these issues. When writing a manuscript, do you start with a concept or do you write poem by poem and look for patterns that emerge organically in your work?
A: I think that for me, a book—like individual poems—is the result of happy accidents that I’m always trying, with various degrees of success, to court. If the poems cohere at all, and I always hope that a book creates an arc of thematic concerns that keep emerging with variations throughout, then that’s ultimately due to who I am as a person at the time of their writing. It’s always about obsessions, right? The things that are eating away at us at the time. Or the things we are reading about.
For the last ten years or so I have been a constant reader of non-fiction, and those books, about a bizarre range of topics, form an important part of my source imagination. But I have tried to force that a bit by doing specific research, then setting out to write poems about various topics or people. It doesn’t always work!
In the new book (forthcoming in 2010 or early 2011 in the Pitt Poetry Series), I was very interested in writing about American spirituality, and I wrote poems about Aimee Semple McPherson and Mary Baker Eddy, for instance, that I am still trying to make work. They haven’t made it, so far, into the manuscript. But I did write a long poem, “A Selective History of Los Angeles in Seven Turns,” about the role Los Angeles has played in the formation of some rather exotic strains of American religious belief, and that’s in the new book, as is a poem that plays against a Scientology backdrop, and another poem about the literal birthplace of American Pentecostalism—a tiny house here in a Los Angeles barrio that just celebrated its centennial in 2008. I also knew I wanted to grind some poetic axes against the Catholic priest sex scandal, particularly L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahoney’s role in covering it up, so that made its way into “Seven Turns.” And during the writing of the book I read some fantastic books about the post-Civil War phenomenon of Spirit Photography and knew I had to write a poem about that as well. The book is also about life after 9/11 and during the Bush regime, so there is that enormous subject to approach, directly or glancingly.
I mentioned that the name of the book is American Fanatics; I’m fascinated by the notion of extreme belief, especially as an aspect of American rugged individualism, and about the problem of how to “read” fanaticism. Timothy McVeigh makes an appearance in the title poem. But ultimately, I write what I can, when I can, and it’s always an uphill battle for me, so I would definitely hesitate to say a book of mine comes together “organically.” That sounds like a zen state of sustained writerly calm and concentration I can barely imagine, given my current hectic life. But I would like to visit the organic book–writing place from time to time, like a spa, if that could be arranged!
Q: You've talked about the impact non-fiction reading has on your writing. In addition to being a poet, you write essay reviews for literary magazines such as The Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, and even West Branch. What effect does working in a critical mode have on your own poetry?
A: I have done quite a bit of critical writing over the years, and I have a love-hate relationship with the whole business. I love the challenge of saying something worthwhile, maybe even something fresh, about contemporary poetry, and I enjoy the creative challenge of finding new ways to frame my aesthetics. And in the end, I know that I’ll learn something as a writer from the experience. I always do. But the start-up costs are high! Once I’ve accepted a project, I begin to dread it. It hangs over my head like some terrible homework assignment, right up until the time I start writing. Then, as I’m writing it, I begin fretting that I should really be writing poetry. But once an essay or essay-review is finished, I always feel enormously satisfied: I feel more grounded intellectually, if not artistically. It’s a push-pull. Critical writing has made me a better teacher, certainly, and it draws me into a larger dialogue about poetry, but poetry-writing time is a rare commodity; if I’m not working directly on poems, I worry. That’s the monkey on my back, I guess. Then again, I’m a worrier. I worry about everything.
Q: Which of your contemporaries in poetry interest you at the moment, and what do you find exciting about poetry today?
A: I do think this is an exciting time in contemporary poetry. There are wonderful stylistic collisions, maybe interplay is the better word, going on between the poets of my generation—the baby boom poets—and the younger writers just coming into prominence. When I read younger poets’ work now, I’m finding the marks of influence, but also the kinds of linguistic or syntactic innovation that makes its way, altered, into the work of more established poets. So it’s a fascinating reciprocity, and it keeps poetry new. Lately, I’m being wowed by Jeffrey McDaniel, Claudia Rankine, Bob Hicok, Franz Wright, Marie Howe, Charles Wright (always), Patty Seyburn, Harryette Mullen, Bruce Weigl, Kevin Young, some posthumously published poems of Jason Shinder, Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith, anything by Stephanie Brown. And Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Gilgamesh. That’s a partial list!
Left, Janine Hauber ('09); Right, Mary Hood ('11).
Interviewees are chosen from recent issues of West Branch by our interns each semester, and are conducted via e-mail. To read past interviews, please visit our Contributor News and Interviews page.
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