During the last year of my MFA program, the poetry cohort was made entirely of women. For our final workshop, our leader for the term, Jennifer Richter, gave our course the theme “Our Tribe.” We read only first collections by women, including To See the Queen by Allison Seay, Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindenberg, and Fair Copy by Rebecca Hazelton. I loved supporting these women in early stages of their careers by buying their books and discussing all of the exciting things they were doing in the poems.
Now that I’ve finished my degree at Oregon State, and I’m living and working in a new community, I’ve decided to continue to build my “tribe” by interviewing emerging women writers.
My first interview in the “My Tribe” series is with the poet Emily Bludworth de Barrios, whose first full-length collection, Splendor, was published this year by H_NGM_N Books. She is also the author of a chapbook, Extraordinary Power (Factory Hollow Press).
When I started reading Splendor, I was captivated by how the poems circled around bits of personal truth, trying to define the abstract. This goal feels at the heart of Bludworth de Barrios’s collection, in which the narrator attempts, again and again, to explain–with precisely tailored diction–and therefore understand, her past and present, her actions and thoughts, the events out of her control, and what these things reflect on her values and identity.
In the Interview, Bludworth de Barrios explains her process in ordering the poems in Splendor, her struggles in the collection, her writing support systems, what she is working on now, and more.
I love that the poem titles are drawn from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Can you tell me about the role these quotes played in the crafting of the poems? Why did you choose to use that book?
Writing in conjunction with lines from Horace Walpole’s text gave me permission to write in a voice and shape that felt more in line with the contours of my thoughts. I’m not sure why.
What was the process of ordering the poems like?
I first sketched out the order of the poems with Dara Wier, my mentor and friend at UMass, who is really so nurturing of writers and writing, a kind person, generous reader, and rare thinker. We laid the poems out on her dining room table—a long farmer’s table, in a room lined with bright windows. There we looked at how poems spoke to each other (the poem preceding, the poem following), and the larger story the poems told together. It was useful to see the poems laid out across space in that way, and I used that technique again, later, on my own.
I knew that I wanted to open the book with the poem that opens it. It was the first poem I wrote for the book, and it announces the way language is used throughout the book, and its concerns—flaws, disappointments, abstract nouns: “Your failure feels treacherous inside you.” The latter poems offer various ways out of the bleakness of imperfections and uncertainty: narrative (“I am wanting to make death more like a story”), gorgeousness (“Imagining a funereal bier burning on water at night Glaze of light on water It is an orange and glossy celebration”), self-awareness (“You must needs arrange your priorities”), and love (“Get your skin-to-skin contact while you’re able”).
What were some of your struggles with the collection? How did you maneuver these issues?
Once I had written into the voice and concerns of the book, its particular set of quirks and tendencies, I wanted to write my way out of them. After a time I felt like my writing was too familiar and predictable, some poems too similar to other poems. It was helpful to use the titles from The Castle of Otranto as a unifying element to the book—so that I could vary the range of my poems, but, with the consistent titles, I felt like I was still within the same realm. It was also helpful to allow time to lapse between poems.
Once I was talking to my dear friend Lina Mounzer about self-doubt in writing. She talked about the shame we feel about our literary voices—maybe that we’re not intelligent enough, funny enough, large enough, or whatever. But that the voices we have, at the end of the day, are the only voices we have to tell our stories. So what else is there to do except forge on?
I will say—for whatever use it may be to anyone—that I wrote another book prior to this book, a book which I threw out. That book was a genuine “collection” of poems I’d written over a number of years. It wasn’t conceived of as a book; it was gathered up, cobbled together. It contained many poems I like, and liked writing. But throwing it away was liberating and allowed me to begin in a new place. I don’t even remember what prompted me to do so, now, if anything prompted me at all. I only remember thinking, “I’m throwing this out,” and I did.
What sort of support system did you have while writing the book? Were you in workshops or a writing group?
There is a small circle of people—friends, and my husband—who typically look at my writing. None are poets. Each of these are really kind and generous people who ask good questions (it’s always kind and generous to look at someone’s writing, giving attention, which takes time and focus).
I wrote maybe 40 of the poems from Splendor in my final semester of my MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I wrote the remaining 20 or so poems in Houston, while working full-time, over the course of a year.
That semester when I wrote the bulk of the book, the conditions were important: I was living alone, long-distance from my husband. I had a lot of free time—taking a few classes, teaching one or two classes. Having uninterrupted time to think was an important luxury. It was necessary in the creation of the book.
In addition to having time to write and ruminate, at UMass I was continually motivated by and surprised by my classmates and teachers—by what they were writing, and by the writers they recommended. I was part of an incredibly strong cohort of poets—Emily Hunt, Hannah Brooks-Motl, Wendy Xu, JoAnna Novak, Sadie Dupuis, James Jones, Liana Quill Camper-Barry, and Caroline Crew, among others. I was inspired by the writing and passion of my teachers Dara Wier, James Tate, Peter Gizzi, Noy Holland, and Jedediah Berry, as well as by previous graduates of the program like Rachel B. Glaser, Heather Christle, and Dorothea Lasky. At the non-profit literary organization Flying Object, I worked with poets and artists like Michael Earl Craig, Emily Pettit, Guy Pettit, Margot Douaihy, Bri Hermanson, and Heather Christle on the creation of chapbooks. In short, I was among a group of people with unique perspectives and vibrant styles, which I absorbed both intentionally and unconsciously.
I think it’s in the unpredictable exposure to new ideas, experiences, and approaches that distinctive writing is produced.
For example, in my final semester at UMass I took a fiction class with Noy Holland in which she asked each of us to consider how writing is like another art form. She specifically wanted to avoid a traditional “arc” of a narrative, to think of alternative ways a piece of writing could be structured, maybe informed by these other art forms. I thought about what visual art and architecture accomplish that words cannot. Thinking of a poem as a physical experience, as a thing to stand inside, as a place to have ideas knock up against you—this was valuable to me. I would not have written a poem like “with a mixture of grace and humility” (first published in UCity Review) if I hadn’t been thinking about poetry in that way, as a piece of architecture:
“with a mixture of grace and humility,”
Let us have a brief period of silence
During which time
you will think about nothing
and you will have the qualities of a silver coin
A period of silence
is a column with a hole at the top and a hole underneath
The second period of silence commences now
Was it difficult to start a new project after finishing Splendor?
For six months or a year—yes! I was wanting to not write in the same voice, or the same style. For a while, I wasn’t sure what that would feel like and sound like. If I wrote something that felt like it could have seamlessly belonged in Splendor, I threw it out. I made invisible rules for myself—poems should not be written in the second person, they should not be very short, they should not define abstract nouns, nor use empty intensifiers. I did not want to write so intensely about interiority. Basically I tried very specifically to trim myself of certain thinking habits that had come to feel very natural.
And—we put our house on the market, purchased a new house that had to be extensively remodeled, and I became pregnant—a lot of things were happening all at once. I didn’t write much during the period from when the book was accepted until it was published.
Splendor was published when my son was only a few months old. In a way, that made writing more difficult—it’s a druggy, surreal, difficult time—and it also made writing exciting and vital, since I had just the barest slivers to squeeze it into. It was easy to be efficient and focused. I was (and am) experiencing things that are intense and new.
What are you working on now?
I’ve written many pages of a new book called WOMEN, MONEY, CHILDREN, GHOSTS, an excerpt of which has recently been accepted for publication as a chapbook. Some of the poems from it can be read at The Nervous Breakdown, New Delta Review, Jellyfish, and Sixth Finch.
What are your optimum writing conditions?
Any little bit of time. Privacy is important, I guess. As a woman, wife, teacher, and mother, privacy always feels fiercely important, absolutely selfish. Given natural obligations and demands on my attention, I work with the forms of privacy and time I’m able to extract. (I dream of long, uninterrupted mornings, mornings of books and slanting light and a light breakfast—although I know full well that, given the gift of time in that way, I’d probably find some way to be disappointed in it or otherwise squander it. Or it would, at least, feel less halcyon and more restless than it appears to be from the vantage-point of an obligation-laden life.)
Do you have a favorite literary journal you never miss an issue of?
Too many things are clamoring for my (and everyone’s) attention for me to sit faithfully and fully relish a particular magazine with dependable regularity. But poetry is the one subject—unlike, say, music, art, or comedy—where I will patiently give attention to many things that may not be quite right for me in order to find something transcendent and shockingly good. And what feels transcendent, to me, is of course a matter of taste and mood as much as quality. Here are some of the magazines where I find such writing in higher quantities: Apogee, Prelude, The Divine Magnet, jubilat, Big Lucks, Sixth Finch, The White Review, The American Reader, Tender, The Sink Review, B O D Y, The Buenos Aires Review, and The Offing. I like literary journals that have a strong editorial voice. I love to see how styles flower in various places.