This is a two-part interview: Today is about Justin Barrett and his poetry, the second part will be tomorrow talking about the Guerrilla Poetics Project. Enjoy!
1. Let’s start with your chapbook, The Genealogy of Me. What possessed you to write it and then distribute it amongst family?
It began simply with two poems about my paternal grandparents. I'm a big believer in mining your past for material, and what part of our lives is more fertile for poetry than our families? So, I wrote those two poems, wrote another about an uncle and it kinda snowballed from there. I wrote all the poems in a 4 or 5 day period. Tweaked them to fit the format and voila. I visited Philadelphia for a work conference and was able to stay over the weekend, whereupon I visited Bill Roberts of Bottle of Smoke Press. In the two days I visited him, we printed a ton of stuff on his letterpress, including the covers to Genealogy. The distribution amongst family portion wasn't the easiest decision. In fact, it was only distributed to my parents and my sister. No one else received it (partly because I haven't seen or spoken to most of them in decades, and partly because less-than-flattering things are said about most of them), but it was still a difficult decision to come to. My mother took it well, ever the supportive figure in my life. My sister was kind of pissed that I would be willing to air out our family laundry, and my father was pissed, too, because his family was hit the hardest (and that's only because they are the craziest). He got over it, but we never mentioned it again.
2. Since the poems often describe family dysfunction what reactions came out that you had not expected as a result of distributing them to relatives?
Well, I pretty much got the precise reaction I expected. Though, I was a little surprised my sister got so upset. She's the family defender, so I shouldn't have been so surprised, I guess. My father's reaction was typical and expected. My mother's disappointed acceptance, even encouragement, was also expected. Otherwise, no surprises. But, the poems weren't really for them. It was for those outside the family. We all have our dysfunctions and skeletons. We all have our Uncle Richies and Nanas; our Grandmothers and Uncle Johnnys. It was more of a flare being shot up into the sky letting people know that I, too, have a fucked up family and maybe I can help you come to terms with yours by you understanding a little bit of mine. Maybe.
3. There are several poems concerning Nana, your grandmother, who lost her only daughter who died at the age of three. The poems describe Nana as being heartless towards her six sons and that she finally comes around when there are grandchildren—both boys and girls. However, Nana is finally described as becoming heartless again in later years with the ghost of her lost baby girl hanging over her and the rest of the family. Even though you mention having only met her once amongst your book of poems, she seems to have made a huge impact on you; can you explain Nana’s prominent presence in your book?
I was very close to my Nana was I was younger. Very close. I'm a mama's boy by nature, and that easily flowed in Nana's boy. My father was in the Army until I was 17, so I didn't really see her that often (not nearly as often as she saw her other grandchildren, my sister excluded) but that might have only helped strengthen the bond. Nana, however, was not a nice woman. To her husband, nor her sons. This is the truth. Thing has since progressed between my father and Nana such that we (my immediate family) are not on speaking terms with her. As for the impact on me, it's not just me. She's featured prominently in the book simply because she is THE central figure in my father's side of the family. She is queen. It is important that she play a pivotal role in any biography of our family. My five uncles are all "messed" up in some fashion because of her. The family is unbalanced and the effects are still being felt by my generation (my sister and I are the only two grandkids to have graduated high school so far, out of some 14). Her change over the years, too, was subtle and slow. We only saw it because we were at a distance, only saw her sporadically.
4.Often family dysfunction is great fodder for poems and one of your poems in i was a third grade genius is hilarious in that it says so much in so few lines. That poem is titled “like family” and could you tell me how it came about? Also, may I feature it in its entirety at the end of the interview?
Yes, you may feature it. That poem came about simply off of a TV commercial. It is a true commercial for a local Utah car dealership. The thing about Utah is that family is first, and ALWAYS good. Dysfunction, if it exists at all, is to be ignored and never acknowledged. It's a weird cultural thing here. Anyway, they were proud of the fact that they would treat you like family, but I couldn't help thinking that I might not want them to do that. And, I certainly wouldn't buy a car from someone who would. It struck me as funny that they would instantly assume that being treated like family is a quality to value. Lucky for them if so.
5. How do you decide which poems to put together in your books?
Honestly, I have no rhyme or reason to it (pun intended). I pick whatever poems I like that haven't previously been collected. I try to make sure half of them have been published in magazines or journals, and the other half haven't. Those that haven't are almost always ones that are favorites, yet just haven't made it by an editor for some reason or other. Those of you who are writers know what I mean. Those poems eventually get retired, but they are still special to me. Like ignored or forgotten children in the back of an orphanage just hoping for someone to notice them.
6. What inspired you to write poetry as opposed to fiction or non-fiction?
It wasn't inspiration so much as laziness and an inability to write dialogue. I'm a lazy man, and sustaining a narrative for more than a page gets tiresome. I don't have ADD, but I do get bored easily. I love reading fiction, however (go figure). I have tried my hand at short stories, but can't convincingly render human speech. I'm simply able to write a wry, sometimes-witty, often trite poem of 6-20 lines in the first or third person narrative. That's it. Fairly limited talent, I must admit.
7. How many poems are doomed to while away the hours in the desk drawer as opposed to seeing the lamp light of the editor’s desk? How do you decide which ones to send out?
This second question is pretty much the holy grail of questions, isn't it? It's the "meaning of life" question for all writers. But, first things first. I would guess that nearly 4 out of every 5 poems I write is unfit to publish. Maybe less, maybe more, but it's a pretty good approximation I think. 4 out of every 5 is unpublishable for various reasons (see: triteness, cliche, lack of profundity, etc.). The harder question, though, is how is that decided? I certainly can't (I suppose I can, but I shouldn't) send off each and every poem I write to every editor. I must cull them myself. This is a difficult task. The Sophie's Choice of the poet. I suppose we can only g o by our gut, which is honed against the whetstone of experience. Each rejection and acceptance tightens our inner critic's ability to choose what is good and what isn't; which editor likes what; what works and what doesn't. I'm sure I've missed out on having a few published here and there because I never sent it out, or even sent them to the wrong place, but that's the game. I've also sent some to places that never had a chance, but I didn't know it at the time. It's very difficult to figure what to send, and where; and it's something one never becomes an expert at.
8. I know your chapbook, i was a third grade genius is named for the title of one of your poems, how do you decide on titles for all of your chapbooks/books?
Pretty much the same way I decide on the titles to my poems: by what sounds good. I liked that title. It seemed to say so much in so little; to sum up my life in so many ways.
9. You had mentioned being a Pushcart Prize nominee, which poem was nominated and what did the nomination mean to you?
No specific poem was nominated. A poet who gets two nominations to give out every year was kind enough to give me one for my chapbook, i was a third grade genius...
10. How did you react when you didn’t win and has the nomination had any effect on your writing?
Luckily, we don't find out if we don't win. We only find out if we win, so if you don't hear anything then you can assume you lost. So, I may have still won for 2003 but just never heard. Seriously, though. It had no effect on me. I didn't expect the nomination, I didn't really think much of it other than to be honored that this fellow poet felt moved enough by my work to nominate me. It didn't have any effect on my writing, either, thankfully, except that I am now exclusively writing odes in trochee. I've also begun wearing ascots. They complement my wide nose and weak chin just so marvelously.
11. Some people know that you have taken a hiatus from poetry and I was hesitant at first to ask to do an interview as a result. How long has your hiatus been so far and what are your reasons for suspending the writing and publication of poetry?
My hiatus has been about 9 months now. The reasons are varied, but mostly due to some sudden medical issues my wife and I experienced. As I sat by her side in the hospital, not sure if she would live or die, I wrote some 15 poems about it, and haven't written more than 10 since. I needed some time away. I had been growing more and more jaded with the poetry "scene" leading up to that point, and like the dinosaur extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, it's hard to say if I would've quit writing had the meteor not hit. As it is, things are better and looking up. I've begun "dabbling" in the literary arts again and hope to make a most unheralded and unnoticed entrance back into the small press scene where I will quickly pick up where I left off: as an unknown poet struggling to get one past that next unknown journal out of Boise.
12. How has this hiatus affected other parts of your life with poetry, such as your press (Hemispherical Press) and your involvement in the Guerrilla Poetics Project?
Well, it's been a pretty complete break. My press has all but shut down. I needed the time to attend to my wife and myself, and I couldn't honestly keep the press going. I dropped a few projects and lost a few friends because of it, but keeping a marriage -- and a wife alive -- is more important than keeping a few internet friends happy, you know? I regret having to have to do this, but not having done it, if that makes sense. I wish it didn't come to this, but it did. I not only quit writing, but I quit submitting, quit reading, the whole deal. It was a fairly total break. My only real connection to the outside world of poetry was through The Guerrilla Poetics Project. It helped fill in whatever gap may have existed, yet gave me enough time to do what needed to be done with my personal life.
13. Do you plan on returning to write and publish more of your poems later in the future, perhaps in the next two to five years?
I initially assumed that I would never return, but lately I've been thinking I probably will. Maybe never as in-depth as I initially was, but in some way I will. The dabbling I mentioned before comes in fits and starts, but it's there. Slowly it'll build (I hope) and maybe one day there'll be enough to send out a submission or two. Maybe.
14. Justin, what would you like to see happen for the genre of Poetry?
I would love to see it opened up so that all of us can make a living out of it, and not just a few professors from some liberal arts colleges in the northeast. I would love for it to become popular in the way the YouTube is popular, or Facebook. I would love for it to become "hip" again. I would love for poetry to touch everyone deep in their being the same way it has touched me.
15. Finally, any advice for poets and poetry readers?
For poets: write often, read more or else quit now.
For readers: branch out, don't be afraid to explore; and support your favorite writers.
Below is the featured poem and I thank all my readers for dropping in, hope you enjoyed the interview and will visit tomorrow for the second part discussing the Guerrilla Poetics Project!
the Murphy brothers
are on TV
letting me know that
me like family
but that’s exactly what
i’m afraid of.
By Justin Barrett from his chapbook i was a third grade genius… printed by Bottle of Smoke Press.