In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—John Wall Barger
Your poem “We Came to Dinner” in Volume 23 fuses modern and contemporary poetic styles. Can you talk through the inspiration behind this poem?
This poem started, as many of mine do, very literally, in this case describing a visit to my parents’ house. My struggle was cracking that narrative, and allowing the poem to expand and achieve some kind of liftoff beyond the literal events. Finally, after staying with it for a long time, the “I” began to slip into “we” and “my father” into “the fathers.” So the poem became something more public and shared, I hope. It’s no longer about that dinner or my father, but perhaps something broader.
One of the things our readers and editors raved about your poem is how people are yearning for guidance or wisdom, that fathers and forefathers are repetitiously woven into the narrative as some type of callback. If you could have dinner with any three guests alive or dead, who would you choose and why?
I’d love to have a veggie cheesesteak with William Blake. I read that when he first met his wife Catherine, he was apparently so mesmerizing that she fainted! I’d also like to have dinner with my parents, who live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and who I haven’t seen in two years because of COVID-19 restrictions. Actually, those three together—Blake and my parents—would be very entertaining. I’d be curious to see if Blake would politely nibble my mother’s chick pea salad, or if he’d demand blood pudding, or maybe peel off his clothes, or break out into song with my dad!
We’re still a bit flummoxed—and let’s be honest, a bit bitter—that the New York Times once claimed grape salad a quintessential Minnesota dish, forever known in our hearts as #grapegate. You live in Philadelphia; what’s a real Philly-identified dish you love and wish more people knew about?
The Philly cheesesteak seems to be the transcendent dish hereabouts. Since my wife and I are vegetarians, we order a delicious veggie “cheesesteak” at Hip City Veg, a plant-based fast food restaurant. I’m sure it’s not authentic, but it’s delicious!
Your fourth book, The Mean Game, was named a finalist for the 2020 Phillip H. McMath Book Award with fellow honorees Franny Choi and John Sibley Williams. What is one thing you would like to tell readers about this latest collection?
I seem to write poems, without meaning to, in three different modes: confessional, long form, and parables. The Mean Game is a collection of all the most disturbing parables I’ve been writing over the past ten years. Although there’s not a reliable “I” voice in the book, I think that my energy—my voice, my thoughts, my self—is in every poem.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
The idea of the twin haunts me. I’ve tried to write about it, but haven’t come close to doing it well yet. I can’t just say, “I ran into John Wall Barger on the street today.” That won’t evoke, for you, the eeriness of the Grady sisters in the hallway of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining; or Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, where Irène Jacob suddenly sees her double boarding a tourist bus; or the protagonist in Saramago’s novel, The Double, who sees, in a VHS movie, his perfect twin acting a small role.
Does this fascination have something to do with how each of us, trapped within our respective solipsisms, continually tries to comprehend the enigma of other people? Since all we really know is ourselves, each person we meet seems, to us, like an extension of ourselves. Certainly, as writers, each person we write about is a part of ourselves. We feel that clearly, for example, in Hitchcock: each character in each film acts out a small aspect of a broader thought process, which is the fantasy life of the director.
The irrational, superstitious, hyperbolic part of ourselves is, I think, seeking some kind of magical, perfect self-manifestation. Our rational self knows that we’ll never find this “perfect” twin. If we ever did, we’d know—rationally, at least—that it indicates some kind of imbalance in the world, as if we were lucid dreaming. The world would then need to be corrected, which is where the violence and death comes in.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I watch a lot of movies: amazing and terrible movies. I’ve been obsessed with the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky for years. I’d give my right arm to write a poem, or a book of poems, that approaches what his film Stalker achieves. I recently wrote an essay arguing that the process of entering the alien Zone in Stalker is akin to writing a poem.
I’ve had mentors in the past, which have mostly been a good fit. I love them all, in different ways. But, each time, I began fetishizing their opinions, and had to let that go in order to move forward. I mean, if a mentor liked or disliked a poem of mine, I had trouble really seeing the poem in any other way.
Eventually, a few years ago, I decided to step back and depend entirely on myself, my own opinions, for better or worse. There are still big gaps in my knowledge of poems, especially my own, of course. I attend workshops, take the advice of a few friends, and work with an editor for each book. For my forthcoming book, Resurrection Fail (Spuyten Duyvil Press, Fall 2021), I just finished going through edits with Erin Belieu. Erin is a wizardess. She can put her finger on the weak spot of my poem, and make me think I’d thought of it. The manuscript is much sharper thanks to her.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
My early drafts are usually straightforward and grammatical, and I have to coax them—through many drafts—toward figurative and lexical wildness. Or they coax me, I should say. For me, “first thought best thought” is disastrous. I have to stay up until four a.m. with the poem—going for walks, talking back and forth, night after night—until I win its trust.
One quirk I’m trying to navigate at the moment is, the lines in my poems are getting shorter and shorter, as if of their own volition! I’m taking economy too far. I remember learning that Giacometti’s sculptures, at some point, became so thin that they couldn’t hold themselves up—they’d disintegrate—and I think that’s happening to my poems. They’ll “thicken” again, I’m sure, in time.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’m working on a collection of essays about contemporary poetry and films. I find critical prose excruciatingly slow, but very rewarding. Right now I’m writing an essay about David Lynch, Roland Barthes, Charles Simic, and Natalie Shapero, called “The Elephant of Silence.” It tackles my lifelong aversion to silence, which came to a head at a residency I did last summer at The Hambidge Center, in the forest of Rabun Gap, Georgia.
John Wall Barger’s poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Hopkins Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem “Smog Mother” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game, was a finalist for the 2020 Phillip H. McMath Book Award. His forthcoming book Resurrection Fail will be published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in fall 2021. He teaches poetry workshops at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and lives in West Philly. You can learn more about him and his work at his website. You can also hear John read “We Came to Dinner” at our YouTube page!