Writers on Writing, Volume 7: Rick Barot
Rick Barot was born in the Philippines, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and attended Wesleyan University and The Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. He has published three books of poetry with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall, which received the Kathryn A. Morton Prize; Want, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub
Street Book Prize; and Chord, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and received the 2016 UNT Rilke Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. Rick has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer in Poetry.
Rick is the poetry editor of New England Review. He lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the director of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at PLU. His fourth book of poems, The Galleons, will be published by Milkweed Editions in Spring 2020. This month he’ll teach “The Personal and the Political,” a two-day poetry workshop at Left Margin LIT.
Your fourth book of poems, The Galleons, will be published in Spring 2020. How would you describe your experience writing the book?
Writing the book felt like a gift in that I completed the book in about three years. The poems came at a steady pace, sparked by the themes that I’d been obsessed with by the time I started writing the first poems of the book: the history of the Philippines, which is where I was born, as a colony of Spain; the galleon trade, which was active in the Pacific for over 200 years, delivering goods and people between the Philippines and the Spanish colonies in the Americas; the ugly political realities of our current moment; and my grandmother’s recent death at 92 years old, and the way her life encompassed the personal and the historical.
Writing is hard, and writing a book is hard, but writing the poems for The Galleons felt like the rarest of flow experiences that one gets as a writer, wherein the idea or impulse gets transformed into language without a lot of fretting.
Chord came out in 2015. How has your writing changed between that project and The Galleons?
I’m not sure that there’s much difference between the two books, except in the strong thematic cohesiveness of The Galleons. Chord, which was written over 6 or 7 years, is more of a loose gathering of poems that were written without an eventual gathering in mind. One thing that interests me in the two books—and which, I think, they have in common—is the “voice” of the poems in them. Compared to my two earlier books, the voice in the later books feels more plainspoken, conversational. The earlier voice seems hard at work. Maybe the lesson here is that it takes time to get to a place where you can speak about complicated things in a simple way.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part of the process is when I’m in the very middle of drafting a new poem—when the poem has gotten going, and so it feels like I’m solidly onto something, but I haven’t finished it yet, and the poem could swerve into any number of directions. During this point in the process, the poem feels alive and open, and everything around me seems to have a possible role in the poem’s unfolding. That intense focus on the poem’s littlest moving parts, and also, at the same time, a large awareness of the world around me—this is the exhilarating place I’m always trying to get to.
You’ll be teaching a poetry class, “The Personal and the Political,” at Left Margin this month. What is something you’d like to say to potential students who are undecided about taking the class?
If the topic of the workshop caught your attention to begin with, you’re probably already wrestling with the questions that we’ll be discussing: How do you create a space in your poems where the intimate and the ordinary are together with the big energies generated by the news, the social, the political, the historical? How do poets who have successfully written what we think of as “political” poems craft their poems towards that success? The workshop will hopefully give you some newly alert ways to go deeper into those questions.
What’s your workshop approach? Workshop participants are particularly interested in knowing how workshop leaders balance criticism with encouragement.
The first thing I try to emphasize is the importance of a careful description of what the poem at hand is presenting in terms of its content or subject matter and its formal elements or its craft. I mean description as opposed to interpretation or evaluation. It’s usually the case that when the writer hears others describing his/her poem, the writer will see what further work needs to be done to bring the poem closer to his/her intention—or he/she learns what the poem is actually about, notwithstanding the original intention. The descriptive part of the discussion can take a long or short amount of time, depending on the poem in front of us.
After that descriptive work is done, then the discussion can shift to a different one about the poem, depending on what the writer might need to learn from others in order to move the poem forward. This can be a discussion about the poem’s thematic elements, or its formal choices, or its overall meaning. In this secondary discussion, there’s more room for the participants to voice evaluative or interpretive claims that the writer can absorb as needed, knowing that this feedback is filtered through each speaker’s preferences and biases.
The final point I want to make is that the objective of the workshop is not to fix the poem or to give the writer a laundry list of specific things to do for the poem. Instead, the workshop should give the writer a sense of renewed eagerness to return to the poem and apprehend the beauty and potential that’s alchemizing there.
You’re on a sabbatical from your teaching responsibilities at Pacific Lutheran, which is one of the reasons why we’re able to host you this fall. Can you tell us how else you’ve been spending your time away from the classroom? Indulge us!
Working on The Galleons felt like being on an expedition where my mind was always hyper-vigilant for what might come next, what might spark the next poem. This sabbatical is the recovery from that. I’m giving myself lots of time to be quiet, to read the books piled up around my house, and to listen to the parts of my mind that got neglected while I was intent on finishing the book. So, lots of down-time at home. I’m also doing some traveling—to see family and friends in various parts of the country, to plug into literary communities like Left Margin LIT, and to look at art. Next spring I’ll be going to New Mexico to see Walter De Maria’s “The Lightning Field,” then to Venice to see the Biennale. Sometime during the sabbatical, I might write some new poems, too, though I really am trying to live by the directive I gave myself after I finished The Galleons: “Now, relax.”