“My Tribe” Interview with Emily Bludworth de Barrios

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). 

splendor+front+coverWhen 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.

Flash fiction piece “Jack and Gustav” published by Tahoma Literary Review

Today I had a short story published in the second issue of Tahoma Literary Review. This was my first fiction publication, and I’m very excited about its release! Anyone interested in reading my story, “Jack and Gustav,” can download the issue for free from the Tahoma Literary Review website. The PDF and Epub versions are available for free, and the Kindle version can be downloaded for $1.

Thank you for your interest, and happy new year!

Imitation Assignment

For their fourth poem assignment, I had my Introductory Poetry Writing students write an imitation. A copy of the assignment prompt is below:

In chapter 1 of The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser argues that “we teach ourselves to write the kind of poems we like to read. The more poems you read, and the more models you learn from and imitate, the better your writing will get” (9). In this poem assignment, you will pick a poem of your choice from Best American Poetry or the supplemental poems on Blackboard and write a poem that is stylistically similar. Your poem must include at least three similar traits, which you will explain in a reflection that will accompany the poem. There is no length requirements for the poem, but the reflection should be about a page long (double-spaced) and explain what you like about the poem you chose and the “writing tools” you utilized in imitating it.

To prepare my students for this assignment, we dedicated one day of class to practicing close reading. We wrote a list on the board of all the literary devices we had studied over the past five weeks, then looked for examples in the poem “Difference” by Mark Doty. I asked students to be specific about how the use of that literary tool contributed to the meaning and the reading experience.

After the discussion, I distributed the assignment sheet you read above. I also showed them a poem of mine that was inspired by a poem by Noelle Kocot. I explained what aspects of Kocot’s poems I imitated and pointed out these literary devices in my poem.

Lastly, I asked them to complete a close reading of the poem they chose to imitate as a take-home assignment. This assignment was simple: print a copy of the poem and turn it in to me with a substantial amount of specific notes in the margins.

I know that imitation assignments are far from new in Creative Writing pedagogy, but the student’s poems were so fantastic, I decided this was worth sharing. I almost enjoyed reading the reflections as much as the actual poems. I was so impressed by how quickly and eloquently they incorporated these words into their vocabularies. I felt like this assignment helped students realize how important reading with an eye for craft is, and how we can find inspiration from the poems we read.

I’ll end on a quote from a student reflection that made me especially happy:

The first time we read “For Jane,” by Stephen Stepanchev, I was very confused. However, the more I read over it, and the more we learned in class about literary tools in poetry, the more the poem began to speak to me.

 

 

 

Teaching Stanza Breaks

Building off of the previous lesson I posted, here is a summary of my lesson on stanza breaks for my Introductory Poetry Writing course:

1. Last class we talked about line breaks. Let’s review what we know about them (paraphrase on board).

  • There are two kinds: end stop & enjambment.
  • Line breaks indicate a pause, similar to punctuation.
  • Enjambment emphasizes the word at the end of the line or the phrase it is cutting in two.
  • End stop draws less attention to itself (allows other aspects to be prominent).

Today we are going to continue on a similar vein and talk about stanza breaks and punctuation, and how all of these tools contribute to a poem’s rhythm.

2. First of all, what are the functions of stanza breaks? They function much like paragraphs do in prose writing: they represent a jump of some kind, often in time, setting, or content. They signal to the reader that one thought or image has been completed.

3. All of the things we said about line breaks also apply to stanza breaks:

  • Stanza breaks utilize either end stop or enjambment.
  • A Stanza break also represents a pause, though a longer one than a line break.
  • Using enjambment at the end of a stanza emphasizes the final word of the stanza.
  • End stop breaks still draws less attention to themselves than enjambment.

4. Let’s look at some poems and talk about how the breaks influence our reading experience.

  • For Jane” by Stephen Stepanchev (ask for a volunteer to read aloud). What type of stanza breaks does this poem utilize? What did the breaks signal, or how did the breaks affect your reading experience? (Example of end stop line breaks).
  • Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa (ask for another volunteer). This poem doesn’t have stanza breaks. How did this affected your reading experience?

5. In-class exercise: Now we’re going to take the poem “Grief” by Matthew Dickman (a poem we had previously read and which consists of a single stanza), and we’re going to add some breaks where we think it could be appropriate or effective. (Copy and paste the poem into a word document, read it aloud, and add stanza breaks where students suggest them. With each suggested break, ask how that alters our reading experience.)

6. So, in our discussion, we’ve mentioned often how line and stanza breaks affect the speed we read a poem by showing us when to pause. In poetry, we call this rhythm. Rhythm has the same meaning for poetry that is has for music; it is the pattern of speed the poem establishes.

7. Along with line and stanza breaks, another tool that contributes to rhythm is punctuation.

  • “Proverb” by Kenneth Koch. Koch uses punctuation consistently in some parts of the poem and omits it in others. Let’s point to the punctuation in specific sections and talk about how they affect the rhythm.

8. However much punctuation you decide to use, I suggest being consistent. Set rules or patterns that you will follow through out the poem, so that your reader isn’t thrown off. For example, decide you are only going to punctuate at the end of sentences and stick to that rule.

Teaching Line Breaks

This fall, I am teaching Introduction to Poetry Writing at Oregon State University. I excitedly planned my lessons, assignments, and exercises during the summer, many of which I feel proud of and want to share. Here’s the first one.

Summary of my lesson on Line Breaks:

First I introduced the terminology of the different types of breaks:

  • End stop: when the end of a line coincides with the end of a sentence or clause.
  •  Enjambment: when a line ends mid-clause, and the clause continues onto the next line.

Line breaks function somewhat like punctuation in that they indicate a pause for the reader. Therefore, using enjambment brings emphasis to the end of the line. However, if you use enjambment haphazardly, it can become confusing and put off readers. Ted Kooser gives a great example of this in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (which is one of the required texts in the course):

Mother and I went down to the shoe

store and she took along her white

purse so she could get a pair of

shoes to match (117).

Kooser explains that line breaks are a huge part of what gives a poem rhythm, and “the closer your writing gets to the pacing of conversational speech, the less it’s likely to call attention to itself” (118). Just like any other decision in a poem, it depends on the poet’s intention.

I added my own thoughts:

It is absolutely fine to not want your line breaks to call attention to themselves, to let other aspects of your poem take the spot light. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with using line breaks to create an interesting, more interactive reading experience. Whatever choice you make, take a step back and look at the poem like a potential reader, approaching the poem for the first time. Do the line breaks seem purposeful?

After looking at a few more example from The Poetry Home Repair Manual, we turned our attention to the poems they were assigned to read from Best of the Best American Poetry, the anthology I chose for the class.

The assigned reading for this lesson was “Dharma” by Billy Collins and “A House is Not a Home” by Terrance Hayes. After ask for volunteers to read each poem aloud, I asked them to look for specific breaks that they found especially effective, and I asked them to articulate how the break affected their reading experience. (I believe this was an effective angle to approach discussion, because participation was excellent.)

After all observations were noted, I added that I often don’t know what line breaks I will use until I try breaking the line at various points to see how the effect varies, then I passed out the in-class assignment, which students worked on until the end of the period (about 15 minutes).

In-class Activity

Finish this block of text by filling in the blanks:

In the dream, I woke up to find myself stuck on a boat with ___________________. It was a tiny boat, barely larger than ________________. Out of nowhere ____________________________, I ______________________________________. That’s when it started raining. Then I saw lightning. Then I saw ________________________. Then I saw a lighthouse. But the lighthouse looked more like a ____________________.  That’s when I realized I was dreaming.

Now take the text and break it into lines. You will do this twice. The first version should utilize primarily end stop line endings. The second version should utilize primarily enjambment.