-Walter Bargen (Amazon bio)
has published 25 books of poetry. Recent books include: THE FEAST (BkMk Press at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2004), DAYS LIKE THIS ARE NECESSARY (BkMk Press at the University of Missouri- Kansas City, 2009), TROUBLE BEHIND GLASS DOORS (BkMk Press at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2013), Too Quick for the Living (Moon City Press, 2017), My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes (Lamar University Press, 2018), Until Next Time (Singing Bone Press, 2019), and POLE DANCING IN THE NIGHTCLUB OF GOD (Red Mountain Press, 2020). His awards include: a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Chester H. Jones Foundation Award, and the William Rockhill Nelson Award. He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009). He studied philosophy and anthropology at the University of Missouri, receiving a BA in Philosophy and a Masters in English Education. He currently lives outside Ashland, Missouri, on eleven acres of reclaimed pasture where he feeds a rowdy gang of raccoons, too many feral cats that have decided a bowl of food is enough to declare themselves tame, and all the usual birds: cardinals, mourning doves, humming birds, and many more.
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
In the middle of your life
You cast aside the brittle flame
– Brenda Hillman
It is through fire that all the gods and spirits are reached.
First there must be fire.
I think the first thing I learned after being appointed as the first Poet Laureate of Missouri was to expect this exact question from newspaper, magazine, and television, journalists: When and why did you start writing poetry? What I didn’t have was a solid, interesting answer to the question. I had to search my memory for something that was both interesting and believable. I recalled an 8th grade English teacher who one day reached the limits of his patience and tolerance. He instructed the class to clear off our desks and leave out one blank piece of paper. We sat there staring at a white emptiness floating on a tired wooden desk. His instructions were simple and exceedingly brief, “Write an adult sentence.” Almost all thirty students were mystified by this assignment because none of us knew what an adult sentence was. After a few minutes, he collected the papers, read silently through the stack, and then unexpectedly threw them into the air, expressing his frustration as much as riveting out attention on him. He was like a statue in a fountain only the falling water was falling 8.5 x 11 inch papers. He wanted authentic observations, honest engagement, insight into the world around us, etc. What he received was simple elementary school level sentences—SVO: subject-verb-object. The teacher might have attempted to shame us into performing at a higher level. I don’t think I was bothered by that because I was more interested in what he meant by an adult sentence. As a result of that incident, I began to wrestle with the written word but poetry was still out of my reach, in part because poetry was hardly presented in the classroom and when it was it was often very poorly understood by the teacher who was presenting the poem. That is at least one beginning.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
This is another half-mystery to me: who introduced me to poetry? There were very few books in my parent’s house. They did invest in The Book of Knowledge for me which I quickly came to love. Reading anew articles 60 some years later, was fascinating. It contained so much that has been disproven, anachronistic at best, often overshadowed by its bias and prejudice. So I want to say it was the metal spinning book stand next to the magazine and newspaper rack displays in the local Dryden’s Drugstore on main street in Belton, Missouri. As I previously mentioned poetry in middle and high school was poorly presented and poorly taught and was represented with poems from mostly the Modernists or something syrupy and sentimental. Never more than one poem from any poet so the poems often lacked context and felt like fragments. I don’t know why but this small spinning book stand to one side of the magazine shelfs held books by contemporary authors that I had not heard of but I was willing to spend my weekly allowance on them. Simic, Wakoski, Frost, Williams, were there staring me in the face. Poets I would not be exposed to in middle and secondary school.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I guess I haven’t been very aware of the age of the poet and that age has a dominate presence. Age translates into decades of practice and training one’s ear and attention. It’s the quality of the poetry written that should shape/dominate our perception, our experience of the poem, and our appreciation of it.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
At the moment, my writing routine is fairly fractured, fragmented, and at times overwhelmed by current events around the world. For maybe 35 to 40 years, my one routine was to try to write a poem each day. This has resulted in a stack of notebooks that is taller than I am. I thought I would find the time to go through them and pull out images and poems that had potential but needed a little work. Every time I open up a notebook, I’m somewhat overwhelmed because there seems to be so much that I could work on. I would like to write perhaps 2 to 3 hours each morning but that doesn’t happen with any kind of regularity.
5. What motivates you to write?
Rarely do I know what I’m going to write. Maybe it’s more nuanced and multifaceted than that. Often a snippet of overheard conversation can inspire me to write a poem. Perhaps a provocative quotation will encourage me to explore something I hadn’t thought about. Or the news can thrust me into shocking moments of realization. Or some odd fact, such as a city that has had three different names over the last three centuries or all the techniques that insects use to fly that are not part of our daily experience makes for an interesting poem. Nature motivates me to write. I don’t remember who said this, or exactly what they said, but it was something like if nature metaphors/images were removed from English poetry, over 50% of the English poetry would disappear. These days most of those poems about nature that I write have to do with extinction. Also, I focus on conflict. The disaster of Ukraine has become an obsession for me.
6. What is your work ethic?
I would like to say I write four hours a day and then read four hours a day. That would be far from the truth. When I was in my late teens I picked up a small spiral notebook that would fit in a shirt or jacket pocket. I started writing down whatever caught my attention. I’m not sure what motivated me to do this. Did I already have a desire to be some kind of writer, I’m not sure, but it did prepare me for that possibility. My goal was to write something in the notebook each day. And if the observation, idea, image, was interesting enough, I transferred it to a larger more permanent notebook where I could expand upon what I’d written in the pocket notebook. By the time I graduated from the university with a degree in philosophy and a minor in anthropology, I was attempting to write a poem a day, no matter how weak it might read. I learned early to ignore the editor who would tell me I have nothing important or good to say. The result of all this writing is a stack of notebooks that’s equal to my height, most of which I have never gone back to but I do dive into one occasionally trying to make sense of all that has come to pass, looking for some clue that might add something to who I am, which remains a mystery to me. Another side effect of so many notebooks, is that I have some of the material to publish 25 books of versed and prose poetry.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
Since there has been a paucity of poetry classes in my life, reading has been critical to my understanding of what a poem is and what it can do to affect a reader. Charles Simic was probably the most influential for me. Reading Dismantling the Silence (Simic) taught me something about the importance of images in a poem. In my first book, Fields of Thenar (1980), my sense of a successful poem was that it was a rhythm of images. That idea also shaped my second book, Mysteries in the Public Domain (1980). And though, I discovered the importance of narrative in my poems, clearly present in my trilogy gathered under one title, The Body of Water (2003), image played an important role. Now where did narrative come from? I think I started feeling boxed in by my early definition of a poem as a rhythm of images. It’s too self-limiting and slips too easily into becoming hermetically sealed off from the reader and maybe a little cold-feeling. But really, I think narrative came to me because I wanted to write something different. I try to make each book different from all the previous books that I’ve written. I think Robert Bly is a fairly good example of achieving that distinction with his own books from Silence in the Snowy Fields to Morning Poems (1997). Robert Bly with his deep-image and leaping poetry was important to me when I was young and is still important to me today. He taught me much about the prose poem, along with James Tate. Diane Wakowski, her many books include: Inside the Blood Factory (1968) and The Magellanic Clouds (1970). Her vision of a poem was personally expansive. Then there’s Allan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sharon Olds, Louis Gluck, Silvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Charles Bukowski, Ted Hughes, all of which revealed new worlds to me. And there are so many European poets: Herbert, Milosz, Pessoa, Popa, Symborski, Transtromer, and Latin American Poets: Neruda, of which there are too many to mention but I have not forgotten them and I am carried by and write sitting on all their shoulders.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Kevin Prufer: he is the near perfect melding of dark narratives with apocalyptic images in books such as National Anthem and Churches. His narratives drag the reader over and through the growing rubble of our times. There’s Cory Van Landingham with her book that focuses on drones. I almost cannot imagine a book of poems whose theme is drones. Christopher Buckley writes brilliantly of the ocean as subject and backdrop for his philosophical wanderings, always looking for a way out and finding that there isn’t one. Clarence Wolfshohl and his book, whose main character is Chupacabra which is also the books title, follows the mythic wolfish character that inhabits the imagination the Southwestern United States. Ken Waldman in his book Nome Poems describes his experiences living in northern Alaska with both humor and resignation. Joey Brown, in her books Oklahomagraphy and The Feral Love poems, exquisitely captures both the deflated spirit and joy of living in the Midwest. There are just so many profoundly good poets writing today. It’s the one thing that gives me hope.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Well, maybe it’s because it keeps me curious, keeps me alive, keeps me engaged, and excites my imagination. I think it was Carlos Fuentes who said that when he was young he survived to write and when he got older wrote to survive. I don’t think the distinction is quite so clear but I know what he meant. At this point in time, I write to survive. It’s a reason and justification for living. I don’t know if there is anything that’s more exciting than coming up with exactly the right metaphor. It’s akin to what Mark Twain wrote that the difference between the almost write word and the right word is the difference between a firefly and a bolt of lightning. Admittedly that bolt of lightning is rare but when it happens it’s an illuminating/transcendent experience. I think it was John Crowe Ransom who said that a poet only writes that type of poem maybe half-a-dozen times in his or her life and it’s like sitting in your backyard at night and having a meteor fall in your lap. That’s why I write.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Be persistent, be disciplined, be prepared to read and write every day. You can’t be a writer, or especially an author, without reading and writing.
Kick the editor out of your room. When that voice says you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, write on. Don’t believe that voice.
You must learn to write through what you know into the realm of what you don’t know and know it for the first time.
If you think you have nothing to write about lower your standards. There’s always something to write about and you make it worthwhile by attending to it.
Writing is a form of attention. The more attentive you are the better writer you will be.
Don’t fight with your writing. The more you try to control your writing the less interesting your writing will be. Let your writing flow.
Remember: On the crest of each wave/the day dances/with white tap shoes.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
.1 – I completed the manuscript, Seabound, that has been sinking on a publishers desk for 6 months followed by the refrain, “We are interested.” It’s about 40 days of radiation therapy. The poem is at the beginning:
We are all hope, desperate for certainty,
Believing to know is better than knowing,
Not knowing out of the question,
That there is room for planning and planning means
Control and a prescient foresight, and then spending
The rest of our lives running from any such scheme,
That is to know is to know too much, and not enough.
That the destruction of beliefs and construction of deceptions
will outlive us but even then we have our doubts
to keep us warm, whether running fast is enough
Or running at all will not alter the end, turning to face
What’s coming, but not the other cheek,
Even that gesture too late, though an elegant flourish
Might be remembered fondly, bravely, the coming,
The going indistinguishable, impossible to know
Where and when to turn, a doppelganger talking to itself,
And when Wilhelm Röentgen’s wife, Anna Bertha
Ludwig, declared, “I have seen my death,”
It was enough, and not enough,
To see and to know, or better not to know in the seeing,
This light that did not behave like any known light
As though any light was a spotlight on the living,
Followed by the living dead, then the dead living, then the cold
That she felt even as the skin on the back of her hands
Reddened, lesions that scaled, peeled, and no way for Wilhelm,
Discoverer of the X-ray, the Röntgenstrahlen,
To know all the breakage to come, exposed
So deeply, and still it was breakage, the pain undeniable,
The carpal and metacarpal disjointed, the phalanges knotted,
The digits finally unaccountable for their inactions.
.2 – A second manuscript, Ozarkitude, could be complete but I think I would like to make some changes. I’m thinking I need to bring the Missouri Ozarks more strongly into focus. Here’s a poem from the manuscript:
Adam In The Rain
The distant highway weighted with sad traffic,
quieter than expected.
In the nearby parking lot,
rain spreads its voice,
a widening sheen over asphalt.
On the roof, it tip-toes
Trying to leave or enter a room
Depending on the story:
Thief, affair, unpaid rent.
Where the walls stand alone
There is no closure.
The landlord left to stare
At what remains.
Over puddles rain draws thousands
Of circles that intersect circles
Until there are no longer circles.
Proclaiming the perfection of gravity
the echoing tangle of arcs.
Chapters are thrown out of passing
Car windows to outline the edge
Of shoulderless roads that offer forever.
Pages of regret flutter in the passing
Wake of traffic.
The windshield is perforated with droplets.
Weeping lens repeatedly lay
The sky on its soot-spectacled back.
A hand reaches out to move a side mirror
To adjust the past. The cold dance of rain,
Sparks against the skin of the other life
But only for a sad moment.
.3 – I have a stack of over 100 poems, all published in literary magazines, that I need to massage and shape into a book. Not a hint of a title yet or a direction to head in. Here’s one from the unnamed manuscript:
Circus of Stares
So much slipped past without a yes or no,
without the italicized moment of memory,
but once long ago in another age,
which was only my own, a few years past
the beginning, this idle dreaming
when dreams had a future,
and the dialogue beyond words,
the setting unexpected, set around pasture
ponds and small lakes, the honing strap
of cattail blades sharpened on a breeze,
grass catching bracelets of summer fog.
The actors bellicose frogs waving
useless appendages, doubled torsos
as if grafted to mirrors, too many legs projecting
from backs and sides, as if one amphibian
were crawling out of another out of another,
a fearful plot.
Then I entered a darkened theater,
not to play a public role, though that too,
but not one I was paid to do, trained to do,
or resigned to do, much more a falling into place,
a fascination with falling, fait accompli,
not one that could be known until later
when the obvious turns ridiculous.
Darkly moving across the screen, real lives acting
out themselves in the 1932 movie Freaks,
their lives turned too far in a direction we wouldn’t
dare to look if we passed them on the street:
too twisted, too short or tall, old too quickly,
hair in too many places, missing this and that,
both and more, half there and less, Siamese
and hermaphrodite, all in this story of impossible
love between rich dwarf and the Cleopatra of the trapeze,
the jilted lover, the poisoning plot, the stormy night
of murder and hideous revenge, the audience
not remembering a single plot twist, only
the impossible possibilities, Human Skeleton
and Bearded Lady living happily ever after
with their hairy baby, the tragedy almost
too small to be noticed by anyone but the actors
who craved applause from the circus of stares.
I swam out of the theater into the light,
my feet on the sidewalk was yes enough.
Half-a-century after the filming, after the stormy night,
thunder and lightening electrifying fright,
in the final frame, the once beautiful Cleopatra squawks,
a disfigured, half-feathered, human-headed chicken,
turned into the freaks she ridiculed.
She’s still waiting for us with our curiosity
and revulsion, and as if the movie reel
continues rolling, the dialogue beyond words,
the plot even more horrific,
just what we fear issuing from the submerged
theaters of the world.
.4 – I’ve become obsessed with the war in Ukraine and maybe about a third of a book of poems are completed, but I don’t know if any of it works. Though I haven’t really submitted any of the poems for publication, I did send an email to “friends,” and one person is an editor and he said every ones jumping on the cheese-wagon. This was written right at the start of the war and this was the poem I shared:
The Cost of a Flower
In the beginning, three-year-old twin girls giggle
and chase each other, playing tag along the underground
Beresteiska Metro rails. They call the relentless wailing
of air-raid sirens muffled by 20 meters of earth
“the cows are mooing again.” Their mother says
she won’t tell them fairytales anymore.
This night the broad bands of blue and yellow
are blooming around the world. Niagara Falls
pounds the boulders at its base
as mist rises in the colors of the besieged.
Two stories of the Roman Colosseum’s ancient
Stones, all the way to the top of Calgary Tower,
are wrapped in blue, wrapped in yellow.
From Vilnius to Cyprus, Japan to Australia,
the Eiffel Tower to the Brandenburg Gate,
from the United Nations to the Empire State Building
petals of light shine flower-yellow and sky-blue.
With sunflower seeds in her pockets,
on the corner of an oddly abandoned
suburban street, an old woman
in the grayest of coats, her faded red hood pulled up
as if it offers protection from centuries-old stories
that have returned, stands in front of a soldier,
his arms folded over an assault rifle,
fingering the trigger, as she demands to know,
“Why are you here?
Why are you here?” and he finally says,
“I was told this was an exercise.”
She again demands, “Why are you here?”
still fingering the trigger, he begins
to half-beg her to go home. She offers him
sunflower seeds to put in his pocket
so when he lies down in this cold land
flowers will get back up.
12. How did you decide the order of the poems in two of your poetry books?
Until Next Time:
The order of poems was somewhat easy for this book. It is loosely geographically organized. The opening section and setting is the Northwest, specifically Washington and Oregon. But there is a Broighter Hoard included because of the golden ship calling forth visions of the ocean and then New Mexico and bringing a longing for the West. The second section, titled Coastal, including all the poems in that section (Coastal Fable, Coastal Risk, and so on, is the NW coast of both Oregon and Washington.3rd section – Are poems mostly to do with the effort of travel and the arrival though it ends with a political poem, Day After the Election. It continues with Treading Water and Cargo Cult. You might call these pieces Scenes along the way.4th section takes the reader randomly around a small part of our world.5 section – Brings me back home with poems such as Abject Impermanence in Kansas; A Distant Theory which is about driving across Kansas the experience of so much flatness; Point Dume Screen Test which a beach park just north of Los Angelos, and a few more poems to draw the book to a closing of sorts.
My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes:
After a little stumbling along at the beginning with the death of my father 30 years earlier than this book and a few poems that describe something of my mother and my relationship, the book settles into a somewhat chronological narrative of my mother’s journey through dementia. Along the way she is scammed by Jamaican car salesmen for at least $12,000 with their daily promise of a Red Mercedes truck to be parked in her driveway. And each time she was asked for more money for just one thing to complete the deal. And the Other Mother in the title comes from when she started mentioning my other mother.
Here is the poem that explains the title:
How to Spell Muskogee
She wants to know how to spell Muskogee, OK.
I ask her why and she repeats the question.
I spell the town’s name and know that I need
to know more. Does a friend live there?
No answer. Is she buying something from there?
No answer. Is she requesting vacation information?
No answer. Is she a fan of Merle Haggard’s
“Okie from Muskogee”?
Recently, I have called the police to ask for help
tracking down the Mercedes that has consumed
my mother’s life. Each day she waits and expects
to see a red truck parked in her cracked concrete driveway.
A month after my call, a detective tells me
what their investigation has found out.
The people who call my mother are from Jamaica
but the money is not sent directly to that sunny,
marijuana besotted, befuddled island but to an old woman
in Muskogee, who suffers from dementia like my mother,
and according to the detective has no understanding
of what she is doing. The money is forwarded
to a storefront in Las Vegas.
The detective laments that they will never stop
the fraud or retrieve the money. But he’s encouraged.
During the investigation, he is happy to report
that he busted three people working out of a trailer
who were “knee deep in stolen credit cards.”
My mother never stops being helpful.
Hopefully, these two books show a little of how I order, form, align, shuffle poems into a book. It’s a bit different with each book because I try to make each book unique, but I do find that my books do foreshadow, under shadow, and stare into the pool of each other, curious and startled by their reflections.
13. I am intrigued about your concept of the “povella”, combining narrative with deep imagism. How do you control the momentum of plot?
A very interesting question. On one level I don’t consciously control the plot. In the book, The Feast (2004), the opening povella, Belly of the Beast, is an updated story of the biblical Jonah. There are nine prose poems in this povella and I wrote the opening prose poem, Before the Beginning, last when I realized I needed to get Jonah inside the whale:
No, he won’t go to the barbarous city of Nineveh, but instead heads for Tarshish, across a storm-riddled sea where he draws the short straw and is thrown overboard for God-only-knows-what-reason, and ends up living inside a great fish. Yes, no, is the genius of the world.
Closing in on the end in the penultimate prose poem, Sun Screen, Jonah is coughed up by the big fish/whale on a nude beach north of Miami, Florida, where he drives off with a Mary Kay cosmetic sales woman in a pink Cadillac.
The final prose poem is a riff on Psalm 66, which is also its title. where Jonah laments the loss of his previous life and perhaps beliefs:
From the ends of the oceans will I
cry unto thee,
when my heart is overwhelmed;
lead me to the Fish that is higher
Jonah back in the world but longing for his Fish.
This povella won the Quarter After Eight magazine for fiction in the mid-nineties.
A one line answer to your question: It’s not so much that I control the momentum of the plot as I ride the energy of the images/metaphors until their energy runs out.
In Theban Traffic (2008), there are two characters, a couple, Stella and Jake, who are in frequent conflict with each other. They live in the mythical town of Thebes in the Midwest of the USA. Of course, they are haunted by something of the tragedies of the great Theban playwrights from 2,500 years ago. The order of the prose poems in this book was to some degree arranged according to bouncing from conflict to conflict.
The book closes with a short 4 line poem (the only versed poem in the book.):
Another Theban Day
The Black Death has set sail for exurbia.
Anthrax just another valentine blurb.
Fed-Ex is delivering smallpox to the front door.
Prairie dogs are burrowing through the floor.
Pole Dancing in the Night Club of God (2020), also a series of prose poems updating biblical character. The book has 5 Sections and the first 2 focused on Adam and Eve titled Atomized and Moses titled Mosaic. The final 3 sections, Damacus Rabbit Hoel, Under the Big Top and Revelations and ending in a slightly longer poem, Quixotic.
14. Why are biblical/classical stories such a strong influence in your work?
Well, there’s an advantage to using characters that already have a long history that is well known. It frees up the author by not needing to repeat what is already known. In the Western tradition, who doesn’t know the story of Jonah, so I’m free to take off from what’s known and leap into the unknown. The same with Don Quixote. Their stories offer my imagination the opportunity to take their stories to new, unexpected places. It’s a convenient springboard and quick way to move beyond the familiar. Plus these characters have weighty and rich histories. I love surprising myself with what I can do by placing them in new landscapes.
Of course, I have many other books of poems that don’t follow this trajectory. And I do have books of poems that contain a few prose poems but are mostly versed poems, such as Harmonic Balance (2001) and The Body of Water (2003). And then there are books that are solidly versed, such as, My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes(2018) and You Wounded Miracle (2021).
15. How do you know when a book must be “solidly versed” or “prose poems”?
I don’t know how the book will turn out. After it’s done, or I think it is finished, not forgetting that a poem is never finished only abandoned (there are many variations on that sentiment.). I wrote the Feast in three months and it took close to ten years to find a publisher and then it won the William Rockhill Nelson Award. The prose poem in this country has had a rocky start and now years later the prose poem has become more widely accepted. Anyway, each day I wrote a new prose poem. And didn’t know that it would be a book. Though Jonah and Jessabelle, his wife, the Mary Kay Cosmetics woman, though they do reappear in some of the other 7 povellas that have different subjects. For example, Baltic Days riffs on different statements from different northern European philosophers and writers; Shadows of Troy is about a modern day Odysseus, and Sea Sea Rider is an ode to water.
Let’s say there is an accumulation of writing and the pieces belong together: are speaking a similar language and metaphor, is focused on a mandala of subjects that point to a common spirit, that are comfortable with each other, and are traveling companions with a destination in mind.
16. Do your books, sometimes inadvertently comment upon one another? If so, how?
There are the 4 primary elements in ancient belief systems: earth, air, water, and fire. One day I thought, well, I have the first three in different books that I’ve written: earth is in West of West, air is in Remedies for Vertigo, water in The Body of Water (trilogy now under one cover), but I don’t have a title for the element fire. I’ve thought that maybe it’s a part of My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes but probably not. So I could say that I’m working with representing the 4 elements. I don’t think I have a book yet for fire. So whether these books were interacting with each other, I can’t say for sure, but now maybe they are.
Does a thread from one book wind its way into another? Yes, I think so. So there was the mythical town of Harmony in Harmonic Balance and that was followed by the mythical town of Thebes. Two very different books but tied together by setting. I also found that using a character through a book was somewhat successful and so Jonah and Jezebel in the Feast was followed up with Stella and Jake in Theban Traffic.
In terms of ideas, I have found that almost every book contains poems that deal with extinction and I’ve noticed that many of my poems are focusing on the threat to the environment and generally feelings of apocalypse. The first 70 pages of Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems, cover many of the wars in the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. Such conflicts are found in almost every one of my books.
Addressing these subject across books does seem to be something that I do.
17. What is the role of your photos in your books?
Well, a brief history of my books and photographs.
The cover to Fields of Thenar, my first book, is a photo that I took of a fall field that is laced with tall dry stalks of grass combed by the wind into leaning in one direction, perhaps westward. I was an avid photographer until maybe the mid-eighties when the canoe I was in on Cedar Creek a couple of miles from my house when an inexperienced friend tipped the canoe over and all my camera equipment went to the bottom. Though I retrieved my camera and lens, they were ruined and I didn’t have the money to replace them. Maybe 20 years later, when digital cameras were available, I had a point and shoot, which I carried with me wherever I went. Then I purchased a bottom of the line Iphone and that was what I used to take most of the photos in You Wounded Miracle. I think there are 5 photos in the book that I did not take and they are attributed to others. I have thousands of disorganized photos going all the way back to slides and prints.
Liliom Verlag, a small German Press in Bavaria, asked if I had a photo that would work for the cover of You Wounded Miracle. I sent 15 images. I was asked for more, assuming that none of the first group worked. Then I was asked if I have enough photos to cover each of 60 poems. I thought no problem, but, of course there was the problem of finding the photographs that I thought would work best. Orgainzation is not my strong point. I think I’ve said that before. So the photographs and the poems interact on a number of different levels. So the photo paired with the first poem, List Beyond The Stars, I think really complements and magnifies the poem. By the way, this photo was taken by a friend who lives on the next county road east of here. It shows the comet Neowise passing visually between two planets. It’s a poem about extinction, the animals and ourselves. It ends with a reflection on Walt Whitman and references his lines that refer to each blade of grass is the journey work of the stars.
Jack’s Fork River is beautiful. Lovely limestone bluffs and water so clear you can’t see it. Perhaps this photo is a little obvious but the sutures on this deer skull meander very much like a river. Perhaps rivers are liquid bones. So there is conversation of directness and yet something more depending on the reader’s engagement.
In the years that I’ve lived in this house, I’ve caught over 15 rattle snakes. All of them released in the wildlife refuge a mile down the road. Here the photograph is directly displaying what the poem is about or what inspired the poem.
Something similar to the rattlesnake poem. The photo is of a monarch that might pull back from extinction and might not. My milkweed patch, the monarch’s main foot source, is finely expanding. In the fall and spring there were easily 100s of thousands of them migrating and now I see one or two a year. This year I saw four monarch caterpillars on the milkweed but no butterflies. And mixed in with the butterfly is my wariness of mountain lions.
I think this photo with its many surfaces, the lilies, water, and reflected sky, suggest something about the poem, Utterly Gone, and how our experience of what is real and what is illusory can be found in everyday reality.
Chain of Being is a medieval religious attempt at understanding to explain humanity’s relationship to existence/place on earth. These are ropes on a Seattle ferry between Edmonds and Whidbey Island. Just another way that we are chained or roped in.
This is a sunset reflected in the large window panes of a building in LA. I see in the top rows of panes a silhouette of a sitting Buddha, in contrast to the violence in the poem
And so on . . . .
I think most of these photographs are in dialogue with the poems. Sometimes in agreement with the poem’s sentiments, somes in contrast, sometimes in contradiction. This is really the only book of mine with my photographs paired with poems.
The Feast uses a black and white photograph to separate each povella from each other.
West of West, also published by Liliom Verlag, is a slightly oversized book containing 40 black and white photographs, paired with 40 poems that were written specifically for each poem. I worked from photocopies. Alan Berner, staff photographer for the Seattle Times for 40 years, took all the photos. He’s reluctantly retiring in 10 days. This book attempts to display the degradation of the West in contrast to the European romanization of the West.
18. By this” paired with 40 poems that were written specifically for each poem.” Did you mean “for each photo”?
Also, how would you respond to the statement: “Photographs are poems by another means”?
Sorry, yes, I meant each poem was written for a different photograph.
In a way, I think taking photographs taught me to be more observant and more curious about what I was seeing around me, resulting, I hope, in making me a more interesting poet. And still does today. One of many aspects that photography can be good at is discovering, displaying, shaking loose patterns, and catching in the moment how light plays across our fields of vision. For the past few years I have been taking photographs of clouds often without any physical references. Clouds are certainly ephemeral and a photo catches a cloud in a moment before it is transformed into something more or less in the next moment. Maybe these photos are too impressionistic but looking a sheet of cloud pictures I find to be quite inspiring, refreshing, hopeful. I think maybe I’m wandering a bit much.
Poems and photos do have much in common though it depends on the poem and the photograph. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that anything that a poem displays can just as readily be found in a photo. Poems frame an event, a subject, a feeling, a thought, an image, a narrative. And a photograph can do the same. The frame is only a focus that concentrates the attention. Though it can be argued the frame effects all that it contains. I think a poem, Toy Factory, by Charles Simic is so powerful because it is a series of images (photos) that are tied together into a bleak narrative:
My mother is here,
And so is my father.
They work the night shift.
At the end of the assembly line,
They wind toys,
To inspect their springs.
Here’s a mechanical
They point their rifles.
They lower them.
The condemned man
Falls and gets up,
Falls and gets up.
He wears a plastic blindfold.
The china doll gravediggers
Don’t work so well.
The spades are too heavy.
The spades are much too heavy.
Perhaps, that’s how
It’s supposed to be.
The poem grows more and more somber with each image and in so doing generates a narrative of despairing.
I think that the poem, Expense Account, in You Wounded Miracle (p 125) works similarly though not quite as quickly and succinctly as Simic’s poem.
I should also mention that for the past forty years I’ve written a monthly short poem based on a photograph of a farm/rural setting. Often I only have a couple of days (sometimes shorter) to compose something for the inside back cover ot Todays Farmer magazine. Unfortunately, the poems have not appeared in book form. I do not take the photographs.
19. Intriguing. Constable, Turner and Ruskin all painted clouds devoid of physical objects too. Often to understand how they developed, and to bring “realism” into their paintings. The photos in the books are of real things, rather than abstract photos?
I gave the publisher many photos of clouds along with the ones you see in the book. He would make a selection of photos that interested him and then I would work with pairing up the photos and the poems. I had wanted to make at least one section in the book to be cloud photos but it didn’t happen. Actually, I originally thought the whole book could be clouds. I will try sending you a few cloud photos from my phone. There are a few cloud photos in the book: Pages 24, 62, 70, 86, 98, 106, 116. A couple of these have some reference to more than clouds. I probably need better/more expensive cameras to really capture what I see in clouds.
There must be a better name but these seem to be closing in on luscious abstraction.
Everyone has a place in history. Mine is clouds. Richard Brautigan
Clouds and Lenin photo by Walter Bargen
Walter wrote of this photo “Thought you might like to see what I just wrote last night, call it a first draft, to go along with the picture of Lenin.”
Fremont’s World War
It was found half-submerged in a drainage ditch
shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the pulling back of the Iron Curtain.
At least, that’s the story I was told
though I can’t remember who the teller was.
And so, a Peace Corp volunteer was driving
from Krakow to Warsaw wondering if he still
had a job, an assignment, a duty to finish
what he started. He stopped on the shoulder
of the road a little uncertain what it was
he was seeing. He knew it was a bronze
statue and from the size of the head,
the cap clearly belonging to the working class,
his mustache and goatee perfectly trimmed,
his eyes staring, no fixated on the future,
confident that nothing will delay or stop him,
that his victory was guaranteed.
He hired a Polish crew with a crane and flatbed truck
to retrieve what turned out to be twenty-feet
tall statue. He called back to Seattle
to convince friends to invest in a work
of social realism. He was convinced
that a museum would jump at the chance
to own this statue with such historic significance.
With a quarter million dollars in donations,
crated, it was shipped halfway round the world,
unloaded on the docks of Puget Sound.
When no one would buy the statue of Vladimir Lenin,
and the original owner died in a car wreck
before it could attract business to a Slovak restaurant
in Issaquah, the city of Fremont, a suburb of Seattle,
offered a low concrete pedestal at a hind-leg bend
on Fremont Avenue where two tangled side streets
intersected. It stood there for decades
in front of Taco del Mare. Soon Lenin was attacked
with strings of Christmas lights and Styrofoam snowballs
placed in each hand, a Santa hat to cover over his own.
Capitalism sent Taco del Mare sailing into bankruptcy
to be replaced by Psychic Journey offering Tarot Readings
and Chakra Balancing, spelled out in neon lights
below the Doric Lodge No.92 with the Masonic Symbol
painted on the brick wall above and behind the new business.
And Lenin unperturbed in his ever present first bronze step,
until splashed with a gallon of yellow paint
that ran down the wrinkled furrows on the right side
his trench coat and a gallon of blue paint
running down along the furrowed fields on the left side
his coat. His pace uninterrupted, fingers dripping dried red.
Then it comes back to me the teller of this ancient tale
of conquest and maniacal expansion of empire
was a photographer taking a picture of a man
pissing on a giant leg of Lenin. When the man was asked
if this was a political statement, he answered with a thick,
Eastern European accent, No comment.
20. Once they have read your books what do you want the reader to leave with?
I would hope that the reader falls more deeply in love with language. That I have succeeded in Frost’s famous and cliched statement: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. I think when we are surprised we are most open to new experiences. That the poems have wrestled with some of the more pressing problems that humanity faces and that the reader finds some solace in what is written:
A Line from Dogen
These clocks are useless.
They only measure themselves :
early, late, later still.
How long can they go on chanting
this one tick before you walk
out the door.
Room upon room
you continue on uncertain.
What is it you hope to find ?
Calendars can’t keep track
of the days.
Vast seasons come and go.
You follow the geese
who follow the stars.
Departure and arrival unspeakable.
Knowing, an illusion.
Not knowing, ignorance.
We measure the timeless.
Where do we turn ?
Where do we turn ?
Into the turning.
Everyone comes to poetry for different reasons. I think the final stanza says it all.
3 thoughts on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Walter Bargen”
Some years ago, I met Walter at a “writers and paper” event in St. Louis, when we was Missouri’s poet laureate. He writes wonderful poetry.
Great interview! He was most generous with his vision, thoughts and poems. I highly recommend his books.
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