Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Habitual Poet: Tony Barnstone

Installment #1

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The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to:

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

I prefer getting them new at a good literary bookstore (such as Vroman’s in Pasadena) so that the author gets royalties, but often find myself buying books at used bookstores online.

Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

I’m guessing I own at least four or five thousand poetry books. I’ve probably read 50% of them cover to cover, and read around in another 40% of them.

Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

I read whenever I’m waiting for something (doctor’s office, bus, airplane), whenever I go to the bathroom (or “the library,” as I like to call it). I read while walking down the street, and that has nearly killed me more often than I like to remember. I’ll read a really good book from cover to cover, but poetry books that bore me get 1st poem, last poem, and a few in the middle and then are thrown against the wall.

Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

I spent the last month in Greece, mainly reading fiction: The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon, and McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. I also read the poetry books I had with me in Greece: Acropolis and Tram: Poems 1938-1978 by Nikos Engonopoulos, translated by Martin McKinsey; Six American Poets: An Anthology by Joel Conarroe, and A Century of Greek Poetry 1900-2000: Bilingual Edition, edited and translated by Peter Bien, Edmund Keeley, Karen Van Dyck, and Peter Constantine.

Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

For fun, No Country for Old Men, The Road and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. For a book I’m writing about creativity, Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step and The Mechanism of Mind by Edward de Bono; Jung and the Tarot: An Archetypal Journey by Sallie Nichols; Evolutionary and Neurocognitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, edited by Colin Martindale, Paul Locher, and Vladimir M. Petrov; From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler; and a bunch of others. For a book of sonnets I’m writing based upon classic pulp fiction, I’ve recently read Fade To Blonde, by Max Phillips, The Getaway by Jim Thompson, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories by James M. Cain and about a hundred other novels and story collections. For my fiction writing workshop: Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott Mccloud.

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Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

When: I write nights, weekends, and vacations, whenever I’m not working to make money.

Where: I often scribble drafts in a little notepad I keep in a pocket, but the real writing happens on the computer, where I can quickly go to an online thesaurus, to search engines to get ideas when the poem gets stuck, and to rhyming dictionaries.

Why: I have a great belief in the humanizing power of literature. It trains us to think critically, to examine ourselves and others, to feel empathy, and most importantly to live in the world with a consciousness that is awake to the great wheeling mystery of phenomena.

Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

When I’m fallow: none. When I’m white hot and working hard from morning to midnight, I can write five or six sonnets in a day.

Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

About 30 seconds. Then about another 30 seconds. Then four or five times more that day. Then once or twice a day for a few days. Then a few times a year until the book is published.

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

It’s never done until it’s published. For example, right now I’m revising Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, a manuscript of poems I’ve been working on for fifteen years and which will be published in November by BKMK Press. By all reasonable standards, it has been exhaustively and obsessively revised. However, I’ve had three readers give me careful critiques that led to further revisions and now going through the manuscript and putting it through a series of processes to tweak it further: I’m reading each poem only for the verbs and challenging each plain and uninteresting verb. Next, I’ll do the same thing, but reading only for rhymes, only for meter, only for adjectives-noun combinations, and only for punctuation. When it’s published, it will be “done” because I can’t do anything more to it (at least until I do my Selected Poems).

Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?

Many times.

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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

When editors invite me to submit, I usually will send them something. I scan the poetry contest websites once a month or so and enter the ones that seem promising (i.e., low contest-fee-to-contest-prize ratio). When I receive rejections I try to send the poems back out the same day, if I can. Otherwise, I just send out everything that’s unpublished in a wild rush once or twice a year.

Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

An acceptance. Yes.

Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

I publish both online and in print. Print mags are seen by many fewer readers, but online mags have a perpetual life, which is not good for someone who revises as much as I do, since it presents my old and unrevised work to the world. For example, I had many poems published in a special interview/poetry feature at The Drunken Boat, a good online magazine, poems that later appeared in my last book of poems, The Golem of Los Angeles. However, over the 8 years it took to write that book most of the Drunken Boat poems were revised so radically that only one or two lines out of the original poems survived.

Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

I think the worst experience I had was with a textbook publisher whose editor contracted me to write several textbooks but then moved on to another job. The new editor was less enthusiastic about the old editor’s contracts, and ended up canceling the contracts after I and my co-writers had worked for eight years to finish and submit the manuscripts (which, incidentally, received rave reviewer reports). Her excuse? The market had changed, and big literary textbooks were not economically viable anymore.

Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

Yes, I occasionally receive fan mail. I like it.

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Practical considerations:

Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

I teach literature and creative writing at a four-year liberal arts college (Whittier College, here in Los Angeles). When I’m not overwhelmed with committee work and too many classes, I find the need to articulate the craft and nature of literature to my students to be a useful way of keeping myself grounded in the essentials of writing. When I’m working too hard, I have a choice between writing and sleeping, which means that I miss a lot of sleep.

Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

My ex-wife was a fiction writer, and that helped me to find my way to writing narrative poetry (blank verse short stories, free verse short stories, sonnet sequences that function as condensed narratives, and so on). After that, my long-term girlfriend was a multi-talented political scientist, and I found that her world of martial arts tournaments, political action, and music began to permeate my poems with a peculiar miscellany of lived experience. My girlfriend today is a quite terrific artist, and though we haven’t worked together I am spending a lot of time in galleries and museums and am currently working with another artist to do an art-and-poetry collaboration.

Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

Yes. However, I’ve always written “something,” even if I couldn’t write what I wanted to write. If I can’t write poetry, I write an essay, or a story, or a translation, or work on my screenplays, or on an anthology. It’s all literary exercise and it loosens the muscles, which makes it easier to write a poem without cramping up.

Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

Yeah. However, these days I make some of it back through grants, honoraria for readings, and even the occasional royalty check.

Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school

so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

Oh, yeah. In fact, because I got caught up in writing this interview I ended up not spending the evening with my girlfriend, who has gone to bed without me. I try to keep a balance between writing and the other parts of my life, but it doesn’t always work.

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Random nonsense:

Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

In my thirties I could tell you for every movie I’d seen where the ocean was located vis-à-vis the direction in which I was facing in the movie theater. Really.

Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address
b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed
c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)
d.) Do none of the above; instead you: _____

Write a poem about how she’s the most loving, sweet, and generous mother in the world, which in fact she is.

Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

Hmn, so you’re assuming that I’d choose to die rather than give up writing poetry? You might be right. I don’t know. However, accepting that premise, I think I would give away everything material to people in need, write a will for the rest, and spend time with my family.

Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

I think I would be “y,” just because.

Q: Finally write a couplet for a collaborative ghazal using the following kaafiyaa and radif: “said the poet”.

Such a viscous blood-dew sunset, like the vicious scar across my heart.

Such bullshit. I should be in bed with my girlfriend, said the poet.


Tony Barnstone is The Albert Upton Professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College and has a Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. His other books of poetry include The Golem of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, 2008), which won the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry, Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005) and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998), in addition to a chapbook of poems titled Naked Magic (Main Street Rag). He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose and an editor of literary textbooks. His books in these areas include Chinese Erotic Poetry (Everyman, 2007); The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2005); Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Wesleyan, 1993); Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991); The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala, 1996); and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Literatures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East (all from Prentice Hall Publishers). Among his awards are the Grand Prize of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival and a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Barnstone has lived in Greece, Spain, Kenya and China.

1 comment:

  1. Great questions! Great answers! Loved this interview!