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"Many Kinds of Deterioration": An Interview with Dara Barnat

Dara Barnat’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in diode, Poet Lore, Salamander, Crab Orchard Review, Flyway, The Collagist,and elsewhere. She has been a poetry work-study scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Dara’s chapbook, Headwind Migration, was released by Pudding House Publications in 2009. Dara’s PhD is from Tel Aviv University, where she teaches poetry and creative writing in the faculty of English and American Studies. 

Her poems “Highway” and “Grief’s Language” appear in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Dara Barnat talks with interviewer Amber L. Cook through topics of intuition, memory, and instability. 

1. What made you sit down and write both “Highway” and “Grief’s Language?”

My motivation to write these poems was at first intuitive, unarticulated. However, I’ve come to realize that there was a strong urgency behind them (and other poems), to confront, personally and poetically, my father’s illness and death. For a long time I wasn’t ready to talk, let alone write, about these painful experiences. In retrospect, I believe “Highway” and “Grief’s Language” were important breakthroughs in finally examining and somehow writing through the fear, anger, and sadness. I hadn’t expected other types of sentiments to accompany this reckoning, such as joy, grace, and empathy. Lucky me, I found those, too.

2. I sense that the speaker’s father in “Highway” perhaps had a disease like Alzheimer’s that affected his memory. Does the form of this poem (couplets) help you to write to this subject?

That is a very discerning reading of “Highway.” Certainly I had in mind that the father displays signs of mental illness, although not specifically Alzheimer’s. I do think that in terms of form, the couplets create white space, which can represent gaps in memory. I was actually more conscious of using enjambments to echo the instability of the father’s mind, as well as the destabilizing effect of the father’s condition on the speaker, like in the line: “I know / this, because someone told me / they saw my father on / I-84…” That said, while the poem autobiographically relates to mental illness, my hope is that it also speaks to experiences beyond my own. For instance, I heard someone explain it as about old age. Walking “to nowhere” might be read as a metaphor for many kinds of deterioration.

3. In “Grief’s Language” we see a shift from a speaker trying to do anything to avoid grief to one who eventually accepts it as almost a friend. One line that I’m especially drawn to is: “I’ve started speaking to grief in every language possible.” How does the speaker earn this shift? Do the indents help the speaker to reconcile with this change?

That’s an interesting way to explain the shift. I’m not totally sure (in my own reading of the poem) whether the speaker earns the shift in attitude toward grief, as much as she (or he) is forced to accept it. My idea is that grief follows you, no matter how far you run to escape it (even, as in my case, as far as the US to Tel Aviv). I think the indents represent the speaker’s transition from resisting, to accepting, and then, as you suggest, almostcelebrating grief.

4. What’s something you’ve read lately that you got lost in?

For several years I mostly read poetry that was connected to my dissertation, Walt Whitman and Jewish American Poetry. I spent a lot of time in the library with every edition of Leaves of Grass, and work by Charles Reznikoff, Karl Shapiro, Muriel Rukeyser, Alicia Ostriker, Marge Piercy, Gerald Stern, and C. K. Williams, among others. When the dissertation was finished, I entered a phase where I read a lot of memoirs, short stories, and the occasional chick lit novel. After a while I started to miss poetry. One beautiful book I recently read (and reviewed) is A Messenger Comes, by Rachel Tzvia Back. It is an elegiac collection, filled with stunning, prayer-like poems. I also just ordered several new books of contemporary poetry, though I like to forget what I ordered and be happily surprised when they show up.

5. These poems to me feel very connected; are they part of the same project? Is there anything else you’ve been working on lately?

Yes, absolutely, these poems are part of the same collection, which has a title I’m still keeping to myself. The poems in the collection arise from the life circumstances I’ve described, and grief that is confronted after a period of being delayed, deferred, or repressed, because of fear, shame, and/or stigma. The writing process – truthfully my way of mourning my father – has been simultaneously devastating and uplifting. I’ve been keeping a sort of journal about the writing process at a blog: mybookandi.wordpress.com. Writing a post every few weeks has made me more accountable to myself, in terms of getting the book done, and tracking its (very non-linear) progress.

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