Online Edition: Winter 2004

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The Writer as Discoverer

an interview with Dennis Barone

by Richard Deming

photo by Bruce Barone

Dennis Barone is the author of numerous books of prose and poetry. His collection of prose pieces, Echoes (Potes & Poets, 1997) received the America Award for most outstanding work of fiction by a living American author. Some of his other works include The Returns (Sun & Moon, 1996), Forms/Froms (Poets & Poets, 1988), and the newly released collection The Walls of Circumstance (Avec Books, 2004). He has also edited two important works: a poetry anthology entitled The Art of Practice (Potes & Poets, 1994), and Beyond the Red Notebook (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), the first collection of critical essays about the novelist Paul Auster. One novella, Temple of the Rat ( Left Hand Books, 2000), has already appeared and two more are forthcoming: North Arrow (from Green Integer) and God's Whisper (from Spuyten Duyvil). Barone lives in Hartford, Connecticut, where he teaches at St. Joseph College and runs over 60 miles a week.

Richard Deming: In the introduction to The Art of Practice, which you edited with Peter Ganick, you describe the literary work as "a way of research for what will come next." This echoes, and I'm not sure if this is conscious or not, Emerson's claim in his essay "The Poet" that "Art is the path of the creator to his work." I'm wondering if you would say more about your thinking on this because it might be taken as a claim for reading literary texts as procedural, yet that isn't how I would characterize your work, generally speaking. Additionally, there's an interesting tension to your use of "research," which implies a belatedness, since research means going back over texts and archives, and yet you suggest this belatedness is the means of discovering rather than the more expected "uncovering" or "recovering" research usually implies. Do you mean this as revelation (for the reader and the writer) or as innovation, in terms of form and genre?

Dennis Barone: Although the initial idea for the anthology came from Peter, I wrote most of the introduction. I'm taking responsibility here for that sentence you quote partly because I don't know if it was right of me to attach it to all the contributors in the anthology. I guess this is one of the dangers of an introduction. I think it has been and is still true for me. And I do believe it is true for contributors in the anthology, too. I just don't like dictating rules for the group precisely because I do see the work as discovery. Growing up in northern New Jersey, I became interested in William Carlos Williams. As I read more of his work during college years, what attracted me was his urge to try to do something new with each new work. I did become aware of Stevens's comment on Williams regarding "the sterility of constant new beginnings," but recall that in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" the poet lists as one of his three principles: "It must change." There is a sense, too, of the centrality of the art in one's life (if one chooses this path) and therefore the Emerson quotation makes complete sense to me. How could it be otherwise?

I wouldn't, however, make the same distinction between research and procedure that you do. Research is procedural and both research and procedure can lead—probably always do—to surprise. One enters into research with some sort of plan but the uncertainty of the task is always there and hence so too is discovery. Discovery is uncertainty's outcome. Composition as procedural, too, tends ever toward the unexpected. One can't be sure until completion and then that sureness is little better than an opinion. For example, my working procedure for "Biography," the longest piece in Echoes, was to write as soon as I got up in the morning until I filled a page in a composition notebook, with the page size determining the unit of composition. Additional rules were to accentuate the negative and to write in the second person: "you." I thought of so many poems in the American Poetry Review where some "you" does this and some "you" does that and I thought I would just push that as far as I could. As in other works that begin with such rules in rewriting, in revising I alter the general frame a little bit and particular lines, sentences, and words a lot. Some pages that I wrote at the end I moved to the front. Some pages I cut entirely and some I edited and then combined with others. On one or two occasions I added in an "I" and I ended it with two paragraphs that develop the same sub-narrative rather than continue with the abrupt juxtaposition that runs throughout the rest of the work.

RD: In your introduction to Beyond the Red Notebook, you cite Auster's essay on Celan, where he writes: "The poem then is not a transcription of an already known world, but a process of discovery, and the act of writing for Celan is one that demands personal risks. Celan did not write solely in order to express himself, but to orient himself within his own life..." Because this is a way of thinking about writing that seems akin to what you say in The Art of Practice, I'm wondering if it might be how you characterize your own stance about writing and risk.

DB: Just this morning while reading a contemporary book of poetry I put it down for a moment and in reaction took up a pen, grabbed my notebook, and wrote: "What are the terms of its challenge, its risk?" In addition to an art of practice, of continuation and commitment, I also have been concerned with writing that takes on large terms—or tries to. I am reminded of the oft-cited Creeley quotation about writing from deep necessity. Now, one can't take risks and go off in another direction at every moment. Perhaps the whirling dervish can, but I think I am trying for communication of some sort, too. So every couple of works maybe are different.

When I write, I think that I think first off of a central problem. Here is research of a sort again. So art is a problem solving activity. In considering the problem to be solved, any possible reader is not in my thoughts. Later on, though, I do think of readers; try to orient myself to a possible listener and think of what he or she might hear—and the emphasis is very much on ear, on sound. My writing, in its centrality to my life, does orient me to this life, but so does my reading. I think someone who read something of mine may have its words become as a directional signal, but I am not in charge of the direction or the volume.

RD: We should talk specifically about form since your writing generally occupies liminal spaces. Although you've certainly written poems in verse, your work predominantly falls along the lines of either flash fiction or prose poetry. You've also written novellas, which are also hard to think about in terms of conventions. Yet the prose poem is perhaps the most fraught. Charles Simic, who writes prose poems himself, has remarked, "The prose poem has the unusual distinction of being regarded with suspicion not only by the usual haters of poetry, but also by many poets themselves." What is behind this suspicion, and why are you compelled to write this way? In fact, can we also establish whether the prose poem is a form or a genre? Is this something you consider when sitting down to work on verse or a prose piece?

DB: I would say that the prose poem is both a form and a genre, and yet I am most interested in it when it is neither. I came to prose poetry through the essays of Emerson. Emerson's sentences dazzled me in college and in graduate school. That is what I'm after, partly, when I write these things: plural, indeed, yes. For example, the long piece "Biography" in the book Echoes is very different from the short pieces that make up the chapbook The Disguise of Events. For "Biography" I did set some procedural terms and after the notebook was full and the time for the generation of a draft had finished, I then revised it a lot. So, I'm not sure if "Biography" is a form or a genre or a kind of resistance to both. What I don't like is the sense of the prose poem as one short paragraph of surreal incident that comes to a clever close. My new book does have, I think, what would be considered some pieces that typify the present style of the prose poem, but I hope it has more than this and that it does things to draw out that form, to make it so very explicit, and to undercut it in someway so that other work can come forth.

RD: The prose poem, of course, has a history and a tradition and yet it feels like its tradition needs to be asserted anew by each prose poet. In essence, its foundation seems always to be recapitulated. What do you see as a genealogy that, as Robert Duncan might say, "gives you permission" to write prose poems, or gives a sense of continuity? Are there other poets you look to as guides or interlocutors in terms of negotiating its protean form and genre?

DB: Duncan also said that responsibility means to respond. So if the prose poem is an important form in our time, then it is my responsibility if I am to be poet in this time to respond to that form in some way that is my way. Forms / Froms is a response to that formalistic urge and to others as well and out of the odd mix that is the Forms/ Froms combination there comes a rather unique, I think, result.

The other way to think of it is this: I have been interested in a prose that is poetic, never a poetry that is prosaic. As Stevens put it: "a prose that wears the poem's guise at last." I think I said that right. Aaron Shurin's writing, for example, or Lyn Hejinian's My Life. Some of Brian Evenson, who I think is an extraordinary writer. I have never written a long work of prose, a novel. I'm not sure I ever will. In fact, I doubt it very much. And a shorter work, it seems to me, must maintain a poetic intensity. Every sentence has to be good enough to exist on its own. I don't think this is the case in a novel. In a novel, the author must be skilled at modulation, sometimes moving the story along and at other times elevating the language. I think one example that does this so well is John Fante's great Los Angeles novel Ask the Dust.

RD: You also often blur together different modes within one book. For instance, Echoes has prose poems and flash fiction; Separate Objects combines verse and prose poems. Of course, others have done this, notably Elaine Equi's most recent book The Cloud of Knowable Things, a book I know that you admire. Could you speak about the kinds of formal issues this blurring of modes and forms offers?

DB: Well, I think The Walls of Circumstance is a work, to use Robert Venturi's phrase, of "messy vitality" rather than "easy unity." In a sense, beginning with a problem to be solved provides an "easy unity" at least to start with—except that it's never so easy to solve. For example, in the sequence of forty-nine sonnets that make up the bulk of Forms / Froms, I began with various rules outlined in the back of the book. My execution of those rules necessitated more thinking and a willingness to bend those rules in some way.

At first, I hesitated to include the rules for the sonnets and the other compositions, but Peter Ganick, my friend and the book's publisher, thought it would be a good idea. I think part of the bending of rules or their change and growth comes out of friendship. I have an idea. I discuss it with someone. I change it a little bit. I originally wrote just seven, the first seven of those forty-nine sonnets. At that time, James Sherry was publishing chapbooks and I sent them to him. He said he liked them and suggested that I should write more. So, I had a question posed for me then. I do believe that art is like science in this way. As I mentioned before, I see art as a problem solving activity. In this case, how could I take this series of seven and make it a long series? I came up with my answer, but since I'm not a photocopier, the result had to wander and the revising and the reworking had to wander, too. Here's where I can fit in a lesson from Charles Olson: "curious wandering animal." That's me.

RD: What different kinds of problems do you take on with the longer fiction?

DB: In the two forthcoming novellas, I began with specific questions or challenges. For North Arrow, I wanted to try to write a story about something I knew nothing about—veterinarian medicine. Now I had my knowledge of the Netherlands to hang this inquiry on. In addition, I wanted to write a story of sweet seriousness with very traditional themes or oppositions: youth/age, city/country, and male/female. Lastly, I knew from the very beginning of writing that I would not explain the title until the very end. With God's Whisper the question was can I write a story about something I know very deeply, something from which I have no distance? And so this fiction is about road racing, distance running. It is the opposite of much that comprises the other novella. In God's Whisper the explanation of the title appears often. This story is silly, funny, I hope. Whereas North Arrow is one continuous narrative, God's Whisper has brief scenes separated by quotations from Emerson's essay on friendship, for I also mean this work to be a story of friendship and what that means.

In a new story called "And Also With You" I wanted to write a personal family saga of a sort, but one that would be larger than just any single family. I wanted to cross centuries in mere pages. The title, of course, comes from the Catholic mass. Here, though, it is not the glory of God that may also be with you, but curses, the dark side, a perennial favorite of authors. One ancestor, Domenico Barone, was the founder of the Naples opera house. But at the time I started writing this story I was reading about the painter Guido Reni and so that's how the protagonist of the first part emerged and this returns us to the first question about writing and research. My great-grandfather was a Protestant missionary and the protagonist of the second part of the story comes out of that inheritance. Heredity in this story is more a matter of twitches than of traits. For me, there has been a fortunate relationship between historical study and innovative writing.

RD: Over your career, editing has been a constant or at least recurring activity for you—from the journal Tamerisk to the collection of essays on Auster, two half-issues of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (one on Toby Olson and the other on Auster) and, of course, The Art of Practice. You have even edited William Smith's 1760 lectures on rhetoric. How is editing a part of that "research for what will come next?" What is the motivation for you in these various editing projects and what discernable effects come from it? I'm wondering how editing has shaped or informed your understanding of possibilities available within or as the process of writing. Has it shaped a sense of community for you?

DB: One editing project in a sense led to another, although they tend to be very different. Tamarisk came about while I was studying American literary magazines for a project that became my senior project at Bard College. When I began that journal, I wanted to know what the possibilities for a magazine could be. What was the tradition and how might I fit into it? I did like the idea of magazine and press as adding to the formation of community. After Bard, when my wife and I lived in Philadelphia while attending graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I knew a literary community like I never have since. Gil Ott was, of course, instrumental in this, but there were so many others as well. Additionally, some of these others may not have been physically present in that geographical space but were located by way of our currents of interest. For instance, Gil and I both had lengthy correspondence with Cid Corman and John Taggart, although I'm sure the nature of our correspondence differed. We had community, but also space and encouragement to find whatever it was we were about to find. I think I like the William Dean Howells model of a writer: that a writer should contribute to the world of letters in many different ways. I do hope that this kind of work keeps words well in a time when some seem to want to lock words up or infest them with various ailments such as Patriot Acts.

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Winter 2004 Table of Contents