Interview with John Wall Barger
On October 25, 2012
MM: Your poems have a distinct voice that comes off as quirky. What would you tell starting writers about developing a voice?
JWB: I think of the written voice as an extension of the physical voice. Our speaking tics should find approximations on the page, just as our lump in the throat must find an image. I spent many years trying to write small quiet poems like the ones I admire, but my voice would not do that. My voice is kind of excitable and jumpy and loud. Voice is where our limitations become our advantages. Do you stammer when you are nervous? A poem that stammers can command a room. But a poet who does not let his poem stammer is a dictator whose poem will be willing to die in protest against him.
MM: How do poems come to you, or do you have to work for them? What is your creative process like in terms of starting a poem?
JWB: One type of poem that I write starts with an idea or an episode (from I don’t know where) which has promise somehow but is still kind of unremarkable, like A house infested with pests. But I like to push the idea until it becomes nicely impossible, like A house infested with a giraffe. Now I can begin to see it, the eerie inevitable meeting of the homeowner and the giraffe. So there’s often an evolution from basic premises into promisingly irreconcilable forms, paradoxes on stage, which end up sounding like fucked-up fairy tales, I hope.
MM: Who are you reading, right now, and what inspires you to write about the subject that you do?
JWB: Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Simon Armitage’s Selected Poems. I was at the same bar as Armitage recently after a literary event, in Wan Chai here in Hong Kong, and I wanted to ask him how he’s able to get his gritty voice to come through while also adhering to pretty strict metrics. The Brits seem particularly good at that. Anyway, I didn’t ask—I got timid, all of a sudden. To be honest, Swans’ new album, “The Seer,” inspires me more than anything I’m reading at the moment. It’s hard for writing to hit as many emotional registers as music.
MM: Would you agree that your poems are like portraits? What is it about close attention to subject that fascinates you?
JWB: My poems are portraits, but not of people exactly. They often start out being about people or gestures, but after I tinker with the language, trying to bring that close attention, the subject usually turns out to be something ineffable, which is where the poems get weird and begin to have liftoff. I think any subject—person, animal, idea—when turned over in your hand for a period of time, becomes grey, ambiguous, ludicrous, ugly, funny, sad. No matter where we look, the world spills with all these little primordial dream tragedies!
This interview appears in FreeFall Magazine XXIII Number 1.