Poetry often exists at the intersection of intellect and emotion. But what happens when those two worlds remain strictly separated? Catherine Barnett’s sharply rendered poems present a study of a self divided, an estrangement as wrenching as it is human.
This poem, from her latest book, Human Hours, describes an unforgettable encounter between two Catherines, the speaker and saint. When I met Barnett in her third-floor West Village office, on the campus of New York University, we talked about a range of revision strategies she employs in her work. Our conversation led us to many of the greats—Celan, Plath, Bishop, Eliot—and also, more surprisingly, to the Paradise Resort in the Poconos.
– Ben Purkert for Guernica
Guernica: Do you often start with prose and then convert it into poetry?
Catherine Barnett: Well, this poem began with these notes lifted from the notebook I kept when I visited Siena. I became obsessed with the separation of Catherine’s head from her body. It seemed crazy to me! I was walking around the city alone and I heard a tour guide talk about it, so I went in search of her head.
Guernica: I feel like the relationship between mind and body is central to Human Hours. Elsewhere, you write “I’d like to feel a little less, know a little more.”
Barnett: Elizabeth Bishop says poetry is thinking with feeling, a definition I love and try to practice. The separation of mind and body is so interesting to poets, and to philosophers, actually to all of us since we’re here at the mercy of both. In Saint Catherine’s case, the division is literal. I wasn’t too familiar with the Catholic tradition of these relics, so to encounter body parts turned into objects of worship was a little unnerving to me. I found the basilica and then saw Catherine’s head in a small side chapel. I kept thinking about how priests had literally stolen her head from her body, which was buried in Rome.
Guernica: You added “Alone” to the start of the poem. Why?
Barnett: It came from a rhythmic need. “Alone in Siena” had a music that I liked more than “In Siena.” And solitude–its pleasures and challenges–is another preoccupation that wanders through the book. I think the fact of being alone is as important to the poem as the fact of being in Siena. When I can—when the poem allows it—I try to give a sense of scene, place, time to help carry the reader into the experience with me.
Guernica: It’s also interesting that, in the final draft, a man appears “running his fingers / through his hair.” The speaker both is and isn’t alone.
Barnett: Right. And you’d probably laugh if you saw all the intervening drafts—sometimes it was a woman beside me, sometimes the encounter with others happened when the speaker leaves the basilica and walks outside into the streets where everyone is slicing their melon and shooing flies. And even once I’d settled on having a man beside me inside the church at the moment of encounter with Catherine’s head, the man was doing different things in different drafts. Touching his hair just seemed to me a very plain, factual gesture, something heartbreaking, too. I hope the man might signal this idea of our collective transience, our temporary passage in a body. The two of us, we’re standing there like death isn’t going to happen to us, as if we’re going to be here forever.
Guernica: That “little lamb” line is a quote from William Blake. How did it come to appear in the original?
Barnett: Probably what I was doing was listening to whatever was rolling through my head. I guess it makes sense that that line came up. Blake’s “The Lamb” is a poem of spiritual questioning and also maybe a poem about making, both. It’s also such music, pure song that gets stuck in one’s head. In the notebook it just shows up, it’s an intuitive leap, the kind I love, the kind that helps me feel and think more strangely—and who’s better at feeling and thinking more strangely than Blake?
Guernica: In your view, should poetry provide more questions or answers?
Barnett: I’ll answer your good question with more questions. What are poets trying to not answer but find a shape for? What is propelling the speaker to speak? I often think of Celan, who describes poetry as “desperate conversation.” And questions are essential to any real conversation. I used to be a journalist, that was my first training as a writer—did I like journalism because I liked to ask questions? or did I learn to ask questions because I was a journalist? I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in trying to understand other lives, other problems. Can I stop for a moment and ask you about you and your poems? Do you have any sense about the questions that spur the lines you write?
Guernica: That’s a good journalistic tactic, turning the question back on me! Funnily enough, many of my poems end with questions. It’s not something I do intentionally. It just happens. It often feels truer, rather than trying to resolve everything. Now back to you. You used to teach a graduate class on revision, yes?
Barnett: Yes, and in that semester-long craft class we’d look at drafts and discuss different poets’ revision strategies. It’s thrilling to see how poems evolve, which is why I’m so glad to see this new section of Guernica. So useful for all of us students of the art. In my class I had each student choose a poet they were interested in and then immerse themselves in a study of that poet’s process, looking at the drafts. One student even went down south to look at Larry Levis’s drafts. This was similar to what I did as a graduate student at Warren Wilson, where to graduate we had to give an hour-long craft talk. I looked at the drafts of Plath and Bishop and compared those. I got good at deciphering indecipherable handwriting. I even went to a specialist to ask what she could tell about the poets from their handwriting.
What I learned from Plath is the freedom to just write. In the Ariel poems, she seemed to write freely in her drafts without always having a predetermined stanzaic form, and then she’d go back and bracket out her stanzas. She did lots of cutting and pasting, juxtaposing one part of a line with another line in beautifully surprising ways. With Bishop, it’s a little different. In her revisions, Bishop often made her poems more objective and less personal, which is true to her aesthetic and also very moving to witness.
Guernica: In your Washington Square interview, you talk about literary influence in a really interesting way. You say that poets revise, in a metaphorical sense, the poets that come before them. Can you elaborate?
Barnett: Eliot, in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” talks about how when you are influenced by something, you must transform it. And in transforming it, you have forever changed the precursor text. I’m very interested in this whole idea, and I also want poets to engage in a kind of imaginary dialogue with their influences. If Stevens were reading your poem, what would he tell you? What would Brooks tell you? What about somebody who’s not even a poet? Zadie Smith says that you should make yourself an unfamiliar stranger when you go back to look at your work. It’s not easy to do, but it’s essential in revision. How do you make the poem strange to you? One strategy is to carry the poem on the bus, take it to a ballgame, take it to different places so you’re not just at your desk thinking about poetry. The change in ambience can help you see more clearly its limitations. For example, I go up to the Poconos a lot and there’s a place called the Paradise Resort, and as you drive by there’s a billboard advertising the entertainers who are going to come in and sing to the lovers. I often think that if that were my audience, what would I even be able to write? How would I revise my poems to speak to lovers in the Poconos? I’m not saying that that’s my audience, but it’s interesting to cast the poem through different eyes.
Guernica: To that point, do you share drafts with other people?
Barnett: I have a few readers whom I trust a lot but I wait as long as I can before I share my work. And of course, my editor, Jeff Shotts, who has a light touch and is both endlessly encouraging and endlessly patient. He’s also brilliant in his strategies, sometimes offering suggestions that I’m pretty sure even he knows are far from the mark but that might move the poem or the book towards new possibilities. His combination of attentiveness and his willingness to risk being wrong–which is itself a good risk for a poet to take—is brilliant. But I only share the poems at the very late stages, almost too late, because I will have been working up to the last moment. I don’t want to be influenced too early by anyone else’s ideas.
Guernica: Much of this book seems to include real stories about you and your family. I’m curious if this complicates revision. Is it harder to revise poems about things that really happened to you and your loved ones?
Barnett: I don’t think so, partly because what looks like a real story has so much else in it, so many other kinds of making and gathering and shaping. Autobiographical truth is rarely what I’m interested in or worried about. For me, revision has more to do with emotional truth and discovery and, technically, with structure, tone, music, and especially syntax. Revising is about the hope of finding or making a poem that has an emotional charge of its own, outside of my control and even outside of my knowing, often but not necessarily outside of my own particulars. In Human Hours, there’s a poem about my father that had been very short. I knew it wasn’t finished but I was attached to an image, a feeling only hinted at in the poem. Then one day I was re-reading Levis, and his long lines and extensive syntax gave me a new music, a new way in; he gave me the propulsion I needed to go back into that poem and crack it open. I borrowed some of his syntactical moves, which are also musical moves, to keep my sentences going and then to see what came next. In “En Route,” Apollinaire and Hardy also helped me revise.
Guernica: Did anybody teach you how to revise? Can it really be taught?
Barnett: Ah, the essential question about teaching poetry, period! I’ve been very influenced, and helped, by Ellen Bryant Voigt, and her brilliant ideas about structure—she always speaks about the order in which information is released. With this in mind I go back and see what might want to come first, and then what, and then what might follow that–in a line or a sentence or a poem or the whole shebang. Sadly we can’t do this in life! But it’s fun to play around with it on the page.
Guernica: It sounds as if you revise without knowing where the poem is heading.
Barnett: Yes, I think that’s true, I try to know as little as possible. I work every day in a notebook and then later I go back and try to find something that interests me. Then I have to think, okay, what shapes could I make around this or for this, or what could this lead to, what could this be combined with? The thing that was special with “En Route” was that there was this haunting fact in the world about this literal head, and I was trying to articulate my own anxiety about its separation from its body. All day I walk around in my own head. In this poem, I wanted to bring head and body closer together.
To read more interviews from our Back Draft archive, click here.