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INTERVIEW with Walter Bargen

Frank Santo

The narrative style of a lot of your work blurs the line between poetry and prose. Is this mostly a stylistic / aesthetic decision, or do you believe that freeing your poetry from conventional structure allows you to explore certain themes or ideas more effectively? If yes, how so?


There are so many poetic styles and ways to write a poem.  I can hardly say that I’ve consciously chosen a particular style, but more that I’ve just found myself writing and then started accumulating reasons why I was writing the way I was.   Overtime my writing style has evolved in part because I try to do something different with each book. My first book, Fields of Thenar, (1980) and the second, Mysteries in the Public Domain (1990), is clearly indebted to the “deep image.”  One way to look at “Deep image,” is to think of ice, 10% floats on the surface and that would be the print on the page and our most immediate response to the reading of a poem, while the other 90 % is below the surface, under the page, the reader deeper long term response to image and meaning. When I started writing, I found that I composed poems as a rhythm of images. I think the style was a little too hermetically sealed from the reader.  From there I gravitated toward narrative.  I found that narrative allowed me to be more expansive, more inclusive, and was much easier to write a poem that told a story.  But narrative didn’t always allow me to use my imagination as freely as I was prone to do sometimes, so I found myself writing prose poems with an intensity I hadn’t experienced before.  I wrote the book, The Feast, in 4 months.  It is 8 sequences of prose poems.  It took me 10 years to find a publisher, but it went into a second edition, and won the William Rockhill Nelson Award (2005). The Feast became a melding of narrative, sometimes thread thin, with deep image.  It was very liberating.  I attempted to coin the word “povella,” a hybrid of novella and poetry, to describe the sequences.   In 2008, a second book of prose poems, Theban Traffic, focuses on a couple, Stella and Jake, living in the present-day town of Thebes in the Midwest, though there is a trip to Egypt and many references to ancient Greece.  Currently, I have an unpublished manuscript, Tintinabula, of prose poems, prose poem sequences, and what I’m calling creative-nonfiction prose-poem essays.   I have three other unpublished manuscripts that are free verse: Dying of Strangers, Sky Yet to Weigh, and  Whiplash.  All of them are free verse. Not to be too dogmatic, I don’t believe there is anything such thing as free verse, as long as the poet is using language, the poet can’t break enough rules to escape and still be understood.

Some of your poetry collections read almost like vaguely connected short stories. Have you ever delved into fictional prose? Why is it that you choose to write 
poems as opposed to, say, novels?


Yes, a “povella” is something close to a short story but with much of the connective tissue stripped away, leaving enough to allow the reader’s imagination to take flight, but not so much that it’s anchored down.  I feel a “povella” is poetry with both the rhythm and density of language that is found in poetry, and usually with images that quicken the story that quickly electrify the reader.  I think it’s easy to see with the existence of these forms, the intermixing of prose and poetry, that they are really two sides of the same coin and that one doesn’t do well without something of the other.  Prose falls flat on its face without incorporating the dance of poetry and poetry has no voice without the narrative touch of prose. Charles Baudelaire recognizes this sanguine relationship when he wrote: 


Which of us, in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose—musical, but without (conventional) rhythm and rhyme, and supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of the psyche, the promptings of the unconscious?


There’s a couple of reasons why I write poetry more than anything else.  I have written a few, what could be called short stories, something longer than flash fiction, but after about 6 pages I found that I’m desperate to figure out how to get out of what I’ve created.  Using that many words overwhelms me and I feel like I’m drowning.  These short stories always sounded more like a poem to me because I wanted each word to have the room it needed to breathe. Each word had its own thread and I wanted to follow it, find out where it would lead, and I would begin loose all semblance of a story.  This feeling may come about because when I begin a piece, whether it’s sparked by an image, a phrase, an idea, a storyline, I try to write through to the end in one sitting.  Novels are out of reach for me as long as I write in this manner.  I’d like to think that a stanza is a chapter and the finished poem a novel, then again, not always.

You have been publishing poetry for over twenty years, what makes you write? Have your sources of inspiration evolved over the years? Have you ever gone through stretches where you wanted to give up writing poetry?


I’ve been writing for 40 years.  It took fifteen years before my first book, Fields of Thenar, was published.  There are so many explanations for why I started writing and it’s difficult for me to select one and say this is the main reason.  What was my original source of inspiration, besides birth, perhaps it was shame, when my eighth grade English teacher asked the class to write an adult sentence without any further instruction, and none of us knew what he was talking about, but we wrote a sentence, most of us spending about half-a-minute at most on the task.  After quickly reading out mini-masterpieces, he tossed the papers into the air and began ranting and raving about our childish sentences. He wanted more than S-V-O. He wanted phrases, clauses, emotional engagement, etc.  I was shamed into wanting to know what language could do.  Do I believe this story, I don’t know.  Or was it that I had a propensity to think in terms of images. Or was it because my family moved around so much, writing was my closest, long term friend. Books weren’t necessarily left behind. Or was that I had this desire to create something and writing worked for me though the apprenticeship was longer than I ever imagined. It never stops.


Have I ever wanted to give up writing poetry?  Maybe for the length of a day., and it’s not that I wanted to give up on writing poetry so much as I’ve wanted to write it differently, and by writing it differently discover something new about the process and the insights that come from creating a new frame of reference.  Hence, the move into writing prose poems and povellas.

What are your favorite kinds of poems to read? Who are your favorite poets, and 
do you ever strive to emulate them in any way?


Each time I think, “This is my favorite poem,” I’ll read another poem by the same or different author and think this is my favorite poem.  My path is deeply littered with favorite poems. Some of my favorite poems can be found in the works of T. S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, Mark Strand, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Louise Gluck, Robert Hass, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott, Charles Simic, James Tate, and many, many European poets.  This list is woefully short and leaves out so many of the recent younger poets who are so good, such as Kevin Prufer, Wayne Miller, Catherine Sasanov, Richard Newman, Jamie D’Agostino, etc. Ask me this tomorrow and my list will different. There are so many kinds of poems that I like but, especially, ones that carry some kind of narrative and place a high value on imagination, which sometimes can conflict with each other, but that just “poetentially” makes the poem more interesting.  Of course, I don’t think it’s possible to write a poem that isn’t telling a story.  Even random words begin to tell the reader something.  I learned how to write poems by reading the poetry books that I found in the main street grocery store in the small town where I lived in the early 1960’s.  That’s how I came to my understanding of poetry and how I learned to write a poem.  No one writes in vacuum.  Maybe each of us writes alone, but there is a society, a culture, a context and framework in which a poem finds a home.  With every poem that I read and admire, I’m learning how to write a better poem.  Hopefully, I never stop learning, because if I did stop learning, writing would become boring, and I’d stop writing.  I guess that gets back to writing as a process of discovery.  I take responsibility for my boredom and so I expect to discover something new each time a write.

You were named the first inaugural Poet Laureate of Missouri in 2008. Can you  talk a little bit about what the duties of the Poet Laureate of a State entail? Has this title been good for your overall writing career? As your two year term comes to a close, can you reflect on the experience of having your own voice stand as a sort of synecdoche for an entire state?


I think the answers to these questions could be book length.  There were 135, or so, nominees, that were winnowed to four finalists.  I spent 45 minutes in an interview with the governor and two of his assistants. I and my wife had to sign a release for a criminal background check, and a few weeks later at the beginning of January, I was appointed the first Poet Laureate of Missouri.  I didn’t know what to expect and neither did anyone else in the governor’s office.  I spent the first month doing at least one interview a day for newspaper, magazines, radio, and television.  I jokingly said that I needed to wear SPF 40 to protect myself from the camera flashes.  The demand for appearances was almost more that I could meet.  It was not unusual to have 3 events a week, and this demand hardly diminished over the two years of my appointment.  I do have a fulltime job that does not involve the writing of poetry, so it became quite a balancing act between it and being Poet laureate. One day, in St. Louis, I gave two presentations at a middle school library, rushed to an hour-long radio interview on the local NPR station, walked out the studio into the hands of a television crew for interview to be broadcast on the local educational station, attended an State Arts Council meeting, and attended a reception and gave a poetry reading to about sixty people at the Central Library before driving two hours home.   I promised myself that I wouldn’t do that again.  Then again, I found myself doing some pretty odd engagements.


I was asked to a few times to write poems for particular occasions.  When asked, my first thought was I don’t have the slightest idea how to do this.  For example, I wrote a “Missouri State” poem introducing the state poet laureate, which I read during the ceremony in the capitol rotunda.  I was asked by the Chancellor of the University of Missouri to write a poem for the hundredth anniversary of the membership of the university in the AAU, American Association of Universities. I really had no idea where to begin and envisioned hours of research, so I respectfully and, hopefully, graciously declined, at least, I thought I did, only to find out two months later, a week before the event, that the poem was still expected.  The next morning I woke with the first line and a couple hours later finished the poem.  Though it’s a great challenge to stretch toward subjects I didn’t expect to include in my writing, it’s a little unnerving to make it too much of a habit.



Moon Walk Missouri


Not to forget what's important

I let the screen door slam behind me,

an alarm, an exclamation, an emphatic here,

now.  I inhale deeply, hear the flutter of wings.

My feet never leave the ground.

An awkward jump off the porch isn't flight. 

Years of humus compress under foot.


Not even a first moon step,

Nothing for mankind, at best

A kind man.  The moon double-barreling

Down light.  The intensity of cosmic reflection

Like these worked words made to feel light,

Drawing out the indelible oak and hickory shadows,

A stark ink writing toward another season.


Winter's introduction long past,

Tonight's still cold.

A barred owl opens the booming forest

Of its voice.  I enter but come

No closer to seeing it.

I have no bold moves left.

My small steps leave

Leaves little disturbed

in their decomposing dreams.


Four walls not enough.

Ceiling just another floor.

How can we live without

The belted sparkle of Orion

As he stalks forever?

The sky star-pierced.

Constellations tattooed to their stories.

Such epics the accumulated wisdom

To our ends.  The telling lives in us.

We are pierced that deeply.

We celebrate that much.


Which of your own poems do you like best and why?


I find this a difficult question to answer. It reminds me of what I went through trying to make the selection of poems to be included in my latest book, Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems.  I read through all of my books and grabbed a handful of titles from each.  I wanted poems that represented, reflected, captured the essence of each book and, of course, were well written.  I did it quickly because I didn’t want to torture myself with indecision. I tortured myself anyway.  I don’t know for certain that I succeeded because I had to leave out so many poems that I like.  Because I try to make each book more than a collection of poems, to make each book different, I find it nearly impossible to answer your question, but I’ll excerpt a few passages that by no means come close to covering my many favorites.


Elves of Katyn Forest:

So the long muddled lines drudged into a dark forest

To a strange mumbled cadence—the belch of boots being sucked in

And out of mired miles—forty thousand struggling vowels

And rifle reports the only consonants spoken over the dead.

                        From Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009)


I like this poem for the martial rhythm that marches the reader through all seven stanzas.


Sleep of Angels

Jonah gives the bed wings and arranges them like the blades of a helicopter.  Many smaller beds fly through the room. They are plentiful as whining mosquitoes, their wings creating a celestial annoyance. Whoever enters the room is driven mad by visions of perfections . . .

                        From The Feast (2004)


I like this because it sets up a very imaginative scene and the reader can’t know where he or she will end up, and, in this case, neither does the poet until the last line.


In Harmony

This is occupied country.

Aliens have landed

But no one’s listening to the radio.

Water towers are graffiti=stricken Martians

Invading on tip-toe.  

They spew forth hard water.

We drink and are overwhelmed.

Time soaks our rusting bodies.

                        From Harmonic Balance (2001)


I like the strong images and the story that’s being told here--time as Martians. This is the first stanza.


And so on and on

Any sage advice for young writers?


I doubt that there’s anything that I could add to the volumes of advice that’s already been written and spoken.  But, if I must:  1 – Read every day.  Read a minimum of one book of poems a week, including memorizing a poem or stanza each.  Reading is the best teacher of writing. 2 – Write everyday even if it is only one line. Even better, set a goal of writing a poem everyday. I know that can be hard to do and, if it in any way generates pressure that opens the writer to writer’s block, don’t do it.  I tried to write a poem everyday for the first three decades of my writing life.  Sure the garbage pile grows but there are gems to find in it. The result is thirteen books published and too many manuscripts searching for a publisher. 3 – Writers write, authors revise.  But we’ve heard all this before.

Upon a first reading, a lot of your work has the affect of seeming accessible, yet closer readings reveal more and more layers of complexity. Is this a purposeful decision you make, or just the natural result of your writing style? 


That is a refrain that I heard in the beginning of my Poet Laureate appointment, “accessible but complex.” It was used to describe my writing style.  Also, surreal and folksy was used.  How about folksy surrealism?  Wonder why that didn’t catch on. It just depends on the poem that you are reading.


Anyway, this almost seems to be a chicken-egg question, which came first, accessibility or complexity. For me, accessibility and complexity evolved in tandem.  When I first started writing, my understanding of a poem came from my reading Charles Simic, Diane Wakowski, and Dylan Thomas. My style was to write a poem that was a rhythm of images.  I would say that complexity trumped accessibility at this point.  I’m glad this is where I began with poetry because when I discovered narrative, the image and the metaphor were already deeply rooted in my writing, and rather than accessibility trumping complexity, they became wedded in my writing. One or the other is never far behind.  My prose poems tend toward being a torrent of images.  My versed poems tend toward being more contained. In the poem, Poet’s Room in a Museum, Franz Wright writes, “Lastly poem should always be completely clear, completely concrete and completely inexplicable, . . .”  I like that.

Do you ever feel any pressure to make your work more accessible in the interest 
of book sales? It seems that it is becoming increasingly difficult for poets to 
make money -- do you see the internet as a help or a hindrance to poets looking 
to gain exposure.


Yes, I do, although book sales and poetry is a little bit of a joke unless you’re Billy Collins.  The issue of accessibility became especially obvious to me when I was giving frequent readings as Poet Laureate of Missouri.  Here was a chance to expand the audience for poetry and presenting something that was highly complex, heremitically sealed, filled with arcane references, that privileged language over the narrative, would be something that the audience could not open up to, and I felt was a disservice to the cause of poetry and to the audience.  After a reading at an assisted living home, an elderly man said to me, “I’m eighty-years old and no one ever introduced me to poetry before today, and I regret that.”  I can’t tell you how many times in public libraries I’ve heard some version of this, “My wife dragged me to this reading, I didn’t want to go, and now I know that I like poetry.”  Yes, I have felt this pressure, and have bowed to it, but I do not think that I have sacrificed the quality of the poems that I write in any way.

What are you working on these days?


I have four manuscripts that I’m working on:

Tintinnabula, which is a mixture of prose poems, povellas, flash fiction, and short essays;

Dying of Strangers, which is all versed poems;
Whiplash, versed poems unified by their focus of line length;

And Sky Yet to Weigh, which is versed poems set around the world.


Tintinnabula and Dying of Strangers are finished but I haven’t found a publisher for them.  I should mention that I never stop revising, so even when I say they are finished, I keep going back and making changes until the proofs are in my hands, and even then . . .

Who are your favorite active poets?


There’s a short list of poets in a previous question but it could be much longer.  There are so many stellar poets writing today:  Stephen Dunn, Christopher Buckley, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Rodney Jones, Molly Peacock, Charles Harper Webb, Bruce Bond, Wislawa Szymborska, T.R. Hummer, Lola Haskins, Yusef Komunyakaa, R.T. Smith, Andrea Hollander Budy, Ted Kooser, Frank X. Gasper, Marcus Cafagna . . . there are so many my head spins.

How has your writing process evolved over time?


My writing evolved from deep-image, to narrative, to prose poems, and all of it now can sometimes be found in a single poem. (I think I’ve answered this in a variety of ways in a previous questions.)





Frank Santo is a member of the editorial board at CLC.

A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. - Henry David Thoreau


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