Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Angel in the Mirror: An Interview with Jenny Barber

Trembling, unseen,
I stayed there in the air
like clear
water in a glass,
transparent angel in a mirror.

        From “Variations” after Emilio Prados

GL: In her introduction to your first book, Rigging the Wind, Jane Miller credits your poetry with searching for and revealing “essences,” oftentimes in “landscapes haunted by suffering.” Do you think Miller’s characterization of your of poetry is correct? Does Rigging the Wind look for redemptive essences in places of pogrom and disapora? And if so, why does your poetry so frequently travel abroad to look for these essences?

JB: I was very appreciative of Jane Miller’s introduction to Rigging the Wind. In the book, I wanted to inhabit certain landscapes, many of them in Spain, in order to penetrate moments of history, especially the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. I love Spain, where I lived for a spell back in 1987, and I felt a lot of sadness when it was time to leave. This, along with a growing interest in medieval Jewish history, got me interested in researching the stories of those forced to leave Spain by historical circumstances. I was also, as you suggest, looking for a redemptive aspect in places of pogrom and diaspora. The endurance that people show in living through such times is, for me, proof of the human capacity to begin again after disastrous loss.

GL: You begin Rigging the Wind with a translation of Amrita Pritam’s “Conspiracy of Silence.” The poem tells us that “someone has broken / into a human ribcage” and stolen “our dreams.” No one can tell where this thief has gone to, except for “someone’s / poem [that], like a chained dog, barks” in warning. It is a complex and beautiful poem that, due to its reuse of the pronoun “someone,” makes the thief and the guardian of our dreams seem like the same thing, or person. Why did you choose to open your collection with Pritam’s poem? And why is the loss of dreams so pressing a concern for you and your work?

JB: I had been translating poems from Punjabi with the Pakistani writer Irfan Malik, and Amrita Pritam’s poem was especially resonant for me. There are many forces, both external and internal, that array themselves against the artistic process, so the artist has to be adept at finding ways to break through the “conspiracy of silence.” The conspiracy is not only about the difficulty of making art, though; it is also about the tendency we all have to shut down, to live life in a routine way. The existence of a piece of music, a painting, a book of poems, or a novel, with the worlds that they provide, can help us avoid that fate. Zagajewski says that “Only in the beauty created/by others is there consolation/in the music of others and in others’ poems,” and I believe we’re in need of such consolation. And, as for dreams or aspirations in life, those are fragile for all of us, and have to be nurtured by whatever means possible.

GL: The last poem in Rigging the Wind is the somber and understated “Notes.” In this piece, the speaker describes a lurching trolley and plastic sheeting “on the scaffolding / [blowing] into ripe sails” before she and another (“We”) “sit down on the steps / of the temple with its Moorish dome,” and listen to the “small dark notes / of night begin.” These notes, “like so many sparrows,” are compared to “a sparrow diaspora” that is “choosing this time to call their own.” It’s an ambitious metaphor with which to close the book. The notes of night (sensed, evaluated, but not described directly) turn into sparrows (that aren’t actually or at least necessarily there before the speaker) that disperse in diaspora (a human term for, in this case, either mere dispersal or migration); and the birds “choos[e]” to “call” (as in assign) this time as theirs. There are many levels that the speaker sees (she could even be said to see through or past immediate reality here), and yet the speaker herself is nearly anonymous, invisible, accompanied a nameless other (perhaps the reader). With so many personal acts of imaginative projection happening here, why did you choose to employ such an anonymous speaker about whom we know almost nothing? And why does the act of imagining diaspora (in the night sparrows) rather than an act describing the Spain-at-hand close out this collection?

JB: Thank you for this perceptive reading of “Notes.” The sparrows in the poem, in addition to being themselves, are, as you point out, meant to represent human migration, and I also meant them to stand for the survival, and even the ability to thrive, that is possible after catastrophes such as exile. Your question about the poem’s speaker is an interesting one, and is relevant to the book as a whole. For Rigging the Wind, I wanted a speaker or speakers who were relatively effaced, so that they might better reflect the landscapes they were describing or the historical moments being explored. My hope is that the speaker of “Notes” provides the means by which the reader can occupy the center of the poem, be directly affected by its atmosphere. Incidentally, “Notes” describes a block on Beacon Street in Brookline, which is close to home for me; the poem was a way of returning from the geographic travel and time travel that occupy much of the book.

GL: In your new manuscript-in-process, Given Away, you use an epigraph from Celan’s “Psalm” to welcome the reader into the world of your poems. Celan’s poem is a sublime prayer to a kind of post-war anti-deity, a presiding nothingness. According to this poem, there will be no resurrection: “No one moulds us again out of earth and clay.” And thus all human beauty “flower[s]” for the “sake” of “no one.” This is about as starkly an anti-essentialist, nominalist, nihilistic poem as you can find. So why did you choose this almost devoutly hopeless (or post-hope poem) to inaugurate your book?

JB: Yes, I intended for the excerpt from Paul Celan’s poem “Psalm” to set the stage for the poems in Given Away, some of which struggle with spiritual questions that have no ready answers. I’m struck by the fact that you describe Celan’s poem as “nihilistic” because of its proposition that there will be no resurrection, and that no deity exists. I see it somewhat differently. The lines “Praised be your name, no one/For your sake we shall flower” (trans. Michael Hamburger) to my way of thinking express an extraordinary human stubbornness: even doubting the existence of a deity, even recognizing that we have no ultimate salvation, we still “flower,” we still are. So, although “Psalm” confronts nothingness, I don’t see it as conveying hopelessness; I see it as a modern psalm, an act of witnessing as well as the embodiment of great need, a need that in and of itself causes the urge to speak.

GL: The first poem in Given Away, “Away,” the title of the book suggests, is something that the book gives to us (as readers) in several senses: it is the poem that welcomes us to the book, says hello, or makes appropriate warnings on our behalf; it iterates the book’s theme or preoccupation with departure; it prompts the reader to think about otherness and elsewhere not just as emotionally and/or intellectually burdensome absences but as things that can be given and received as a kind of (albeit dark) blessing. But it could also suggest that the speaker of this poem (and perhaps of the book as a whole) is almost gone from the beginning. The poem begins ominously with a countdown of sorts: “I count to twenty / and back” and ends with images both seasonal and apocalyptic: “Past the old blast furnace, / the wheel of August touches down.” In between, the speaker is often haunted by both what’s missing form the immediate scene (peace, sustaining quiet, a clear view of the world) and by what transcends it (blighted histories, “cities…destroyed”) as well. What I’d like to know is: to what extent is the speaker away, or spiritually or psychologically exiled from her experience of reality? And to what extent does she mourn what’s missing from her world, that is, what’s away from her?

JB: I was thinking about several different things while working on that first poem. One was the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought, the ease with which the hurricane and subsequent flooding destroyed the city. Another was Isaiah, who follows up prophecies of destruction with prophecies of restoration. Finally, some of my despair about human harm to the world’s environment—what Chase Twichell calls “negligent worldicide”—though largely unspoken in the poem, underlies it. In other words, I’m afraid for us, afraid for the world. I experience this fear as a kind of spiritual exile, in the sense that fear removes the speaker from a certain trust in the ongoing nature of the world. An apocalyptic attitude creeps in, not in the sense of a religious reckoning with predetermined end times but in the sense of an impending disaster of our own making. We will need the deepest kind of change in order to avert this disaster. I do want the poem’s speaker to be a kind of witness to events that are happening in the world rather than an entity that has withdrawn itself; I would like the reader to feel accompanied by the speaker’s thoughts, even when these thoughts are dark.

GL: The poems in Given Away sometimes return, perhaps, even more bleakly than the poems of RTW, to Spain. “The Train to Malaga” is filled with passages that suggest ennui. Here, from the poem’s opening: “Nothing, / only olive trees / observing their slope,” and here from the second section of the poem: “Afternoon. / More afternoon.” There is a dialog later in the poem that enacts futility, or perhaps even biblical suffering: “When we get there—/ but we won’t, / not the place we thought.” These lines showcase a greater despair than any in RTW. So, does this poem record an evolving bleakness with regards to your view of Spain, or travel, or the world at large? Or does it simply it portray a momentary lapse in spirit? In other words, are the depressions here more circumstantial than representative of a larger shift in your perspective?

JB: In the third section of Given Away, where “The Train to Malaga” appears, I am exploring Celan’s lines that say, “How much, O how much/world. How many/paths” (trans. Michael Hamburger). Thus the section includes travel, one way to follow the world, to follow other paths, and the richness and discovery those paths might provide. With that said, though, “The Train to Malaga” can be seen as a fairly bleak poem. The key to it is the four-month drought mentioned in the second section. The last time I was in Spain, there was a severe drought in the south, and the olive trees, responsible for a significant share of the economy, were at risk. As in “Away,” a fundamental aspect of our existence—the physical world that supports us—is in question.

There are other poems in this section of the book, however, where I intend to counteract bleakness or despair by positing spiritual presence rather than absence. Among these poems are “nefesh” (the Hebrew word for “soul”); “Arriving When It Does”; and “Orchard,” which is about the way the biblical psalms still unfold for us in all their immediacy and beauty. In “God Doesn’t Speak in the Psalms,” toward the end of the book, I want to examine how sorrow and praise can exist side by side, how both are essential to the fabric of the psalms, and, of course, to our experience of our lives. Overall, Given Away is about wrestling with one’s angel, whether that angel is loss, despair, absence, or presence, or all of those elements at once.

GL: So now that you’re nearly done with Given Away, what new projects, if any, are on the horizon? What are you reading and thinking about these days? Where does Jenny Barber’s poetry go from here?

JB: In terms of new projects, I’ve written some poems toward a next book. It’s too early to say what the shape of the book will be, but I am continuing some of the themes in Given Away while also reaching into other areas. Overall, I’d say that the new poems exist in a space that is more “here” than “away,” more centered around local geography than places at a distance. While the poems in Given Away are very much about an individual in spiritual crisis, the more recent poems are closer to finding ways of resolving that sense of crisis, one moment at a time.

Jennifer Barber’s new collection of poems is Given Away, forthcoming from Kore Press in 2012. She is the author of Rigging the Wind (2003) and Vendaval (1998). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Orion, Bellevue Literary Review, Zeek, the Jewish Forward, Upstreet, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Cerise Press and the New Yorker. She is founding and current editor of the literary journal Salamander and teaches at Suffolk University in Boston.