WG: Barbara, you have had a lot of success as a poet, publishing a number of books including Radiance and Line Dance, which won awards. You've also done a lot of speaking around the country as a writer. Can you talk a little bit about what first led you to begin writing poetry?
BC: I was in my late 20's. I had taken one creative writing class as an undergraduate, but now was a single mother with a small child, and going through a divorce. One day I picked up a copy of a little magazine from Mansfield State Teachers College in northern Pennsylvania that had some poetry in it, and it blew me away. These poems were written by Diane Wakoski, who I thought, in my ignorance, was an undergraduate there. I was fascinated both by her and her words: How did she do that? How did she say so much in so few words? Perhaps if I'd realized she was a famous writer, I'd have been intimidated, but I read her work over and over, trying to figure out how she got from point A to point B, and then I thought to myself, "Well, maybe I could do something like that." So I wrote a couple of poems which pleased me when they were done. And then I kept on writing, one poem following another for about a year, when I met my second and current husband. When we decided to get married, he asked me if I would like to go to a summer writing conference or get an engagement ring. I chose the conference.
I had already published a few poems at that point, but I was a seeker, wanted to know how to get better, and I also wanted to study with one of the writers there, someone who shall remain nameless. I was ready to begin learning about craft. It turned out that this nameless writer was there for a vacation, and only wanted to socialize. In the workshop itself, there was very little critical attention; in fact, the rule was that writers could read their work aloud to one another for appreciation, but there was not to be any feedback. Which wasn't very useful.
Another writer at the conference, an accomplished fiction writer named Asa Baber, knew how disappointed I was to not have my manuscript critiqued, so he said, "Why don't you give it to me and I'll take a look at it?" After he had given it some thought, we sat under a tree and talked. He said, "I'm afraid I can tell you aren't reading anybody contemporary. I don't want to discourage you, because you've done some interesting things here. But what you really need to be doing is reading what's being written today." Boy, was he right. I had lots of influences, like Yeats, Hopkins, Dickinson, people from the past, but I didn't know much at all about what was being currently written. The class I took in Contemporary American Literature only included Dead White Men. What he said was, "Keep going, but throw away what you've written, and start doing a lot of reading." He was very kind, and somehow, I wasn't crushed. It was the best advice I could have gotten. I had no idea what was out there in magazines of the mid-1970's, so it was a real eye-opener. It was as if I'd just stumbled through the underbrush onto a path that wasn't really clear, but I was going to walk on it anyway.
WG: Which poets are you reading now? Are there any poets that have particularly impacted your own writing? Who would you recommend to new writers or writers who are still stuck back at Yeats, Hopkins and Dickinson?
BC: In no particular order, Mark Doty, Jane Hirschfield, Philip Levine, Maxine Kumin, Julia Kasdorf, Christopher Buckley, Ted Kooser, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn, Alicia Ostriker, Betsy Sholl, Charles Wright, Ron Wallace, Brigit Kelly, Harry Humes, Fleda Brown, Liesl Muller, Dorianne Laux, Stephen Dobyns, Mary Oliver, Linda Pastan, Albert Goldbarth, David Kirby, Tony Hoagland. They've not only impacted my writing, but I would recommend them to new writers as well.
WG: I want to return to your earlier remark that when you first read Wakowski you were trying to figure out out to get from A to B. How do you get from A to B when you write?Remember the movie, "Shakespeare in Love?" It's a mystery! I think one of the things you have to do is become a reader, and a critical one. Develop your own personal aesthetic. Whose poems move you, and why? And then set your standards, and set the bar high. Measure your own poems against the very best, and if/when they don't come up to snuff, see if you can figure out why. Wordsworth said, "Poetry should bring you pleasure," and so should your poems, when they're done. If they don't, try and figure out where you need to push yourself some more.
WG: Will you walk us through the process that you use by discussing how you composed a specific poem?
Several years ago, my husband and I took a trip to France to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary, which, for second time-arounders with a severely disabled child (he has autism), seemed momentous to us. We visited the Dordogne, where we were astonished by prehistoric cave art at Font-de-Gaume. In this poem which I will discuss, I tried to capture some of this awe, and also commemorate our journey (both literally and metaphorically).
Here's the first draft, which I wrote fairly quickly (my "usual" method, if I can be said to have anything as orderly as a "method," is to meander through page after page on sheets of yellow lined paper (with a black roller ball pen; hey, we all have our little obsessions) writing some of the worst stuff possible, until a line or an image starts to emerge that I think is worth pursing. Here, I had the image (the last part of the poem) in mind already; my assignment, as I saw it, was to create a beginning to lead up to it. Now, let me be clear that I go along with Robert Frost, who said, "If you know where a poem is going, start there." But I didn't really know where the poem was going, only that I wanted to have this emotion, these images. Also, I had to work fast, as I had a deadline (our anniversary - we took the trip during the school year, so we could find a respite sitter) in mind. I went out to our wooden swing with a glass of wine, and this is what I "caught":
(note: Where you see slashes, that's where I couldn't decide between two words in the beginning.)
It's evening in the garden, love
In the next draft, I'm still working on yellow paper, but now I have a title. Strangely (or maybe not, the way things are going these days), I put the wrong number of years in the epigraph. Already, I'm starting to "clean things up" and make some word choices.
It's evening in the garden, love
For the next draft, I moved to the computer. I get a surer sense of line breaks on the typed page, but typing, for me, also "sets" a poem, and I find it harder to add layers, texture, emotional shadings, etc. so I try not to rush to do a typed version. I pushed on farther to clean things up, adding "the" to the second line ("the shadows," these specific shadows)(I often do this, spend a morning putting in articles, then the afternoon taking them out again)(there's our old buddy Flaubert again), cutting "that" from line nine, and finally realizing, duh, that it's only our 30th anniversary and not our 40th. (What a typo!)
Then I showed it to my writing group who just loved it (which is not always helpful), and then to my e-buddy, Geri Rosenzweig, whose good eye and ear I rely on (we have been showing each other everything we've written for the last 4-5 years). E-mail makes this handy and convenient, plus you can't fall back on your reading voice to cover up those little glitches. She suggested taking out "love of my life" and making the fireflies more active ("rise" or "spiral."). She also really liked the rhythm established in the first few lines, which made me feel good about "being on the right track."
Here's that draft:
It's evening in the garden now
and shadows are starting to fall [what did I tell you? Now I took "the" out][because "shadows" without the "the" is more metaphoric.]
I put it away for a few days ("Let it rest in a dark desk drawer for a year or so," Donald Hall says.) Then on re-reading, I felt that I'd put as much pressure on the language as I could, and that there was nothing left that could be taken out or tinkered with.
And so, here it is:
It's evening in the garden now
I pushed myself to finish it quickly, because I wanted it done for our anniversary, and gave it to my husband along with a travel coffee mug (he's always losing them), while he gave me a lovely pearl bracelet, and kindly said it was an equal exchange. After sending this poem out just a couple of times, Poetry International took it. Despite what might look like a pretty good publishing record, it still takes me on average 3-5 years to publish each poem. But that's not the goal of art, is it; like the cave painters, we're trying to make something that lasts. Whether this extends beyond our lifetime, or thousands of years, is outside our realm of knowledge. All we can do is put pen to paper, and try, try, try again.
WG: Thank you for such a detailed example, Barbara. I think that for writers who sort of wait for "inspiration" to strike, just reading the through the process that you yourself went through in the composition of "Anniversary Song" shows just how much real work is involved. When you began to explain the genesis of the poem, you mentioned your son, who has autism. In fact, you have written quite a few poems about him. Can you tells a little about the impact that your son has had on your poetry?
BC: Faulkner said, "I write only when I'm inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning." You've got to show up at your desk.
What impact has my son had on my poetry? It's a huge paradox to live with, having some facility with language myself, while having a child for whom language isn't necessary. It's certainly made me more aware of the nonverbal ways we communicate, as did living with the failed Seeing-Eye dog that we adopted who became David's best friend. It's also made me attuned to both the power and limitation of language. In some ways, having a person with autism in the family is the perfect training for a writer. We in the autism community talk about "stereotypic repetitive behaviors" (which we try to extinguish), but what could be more stimmy than the bizarre badminton game we writers play of sending poems out, having them rejected, batting them back out again, etc. etc., ad infinitum? I also have to say that besides the day-in, day-out stuff which admittedly isn't easy (like fixing parallel meals, as he's been on a gluten and casein-free diet for fourteen years, dosing out meds and vitamin supplements, running an in-home behavior program, tuning out —or trying to— the constant interruption, and our concerns for his future, the one where we're not there. (Social services are no longer available in this country, for those entering the system--all the money has gone to fund the war. Don't believe me? Find a copy of Newsweek, November 2007--adults with autism was the cover story). He's one of the most tender-hearted people I know, and also one of the funniest.
On the simplest and most practical level, I haven't had the time that others might have had to devote to my work. In the beginning of our journey, my writing time ratcheted down to his naps, which were short (and he didn't sleep much at night, until we discovered melatonin). I used as a mantra Eavan Boland's words about herself as a writer with small children, "Some days, I only wrote an image. Some days, I only wrote a word." When he went to preschool (Project Connect), in the beginning, I had to literally stay in the classroom, or he screamed. I faded gradually, first behind a screen, then out into the hall, where at least I could work:
UNDER THE CLERESTORY OF LEAVES
We drive to your special education preschool
When our two hours are spent,
I've now come to refute this poem in some ways, as I no longer believe "the architect who made these trees," (i.e. God) made him autistic; I believe he is one of the half a million vaccine-damaged children that our own misguided health policies have created, and we have rubella titres to prove this (the numbers for a vaccinated person would be around 20; his are in the high 200s, indications that he has a current rubella infection).
Anyway, besides the special diet I referred to in a previous question, we tried (i.e. I drove him to and stayed with him at ) the following therapies: speech therapy, occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding), music therapy, adaptive gymnastics, adaptive swimming, Challenger League Baseball, vision therapy, biofeedback, went to Portland, Oregon for Auditory Training, which consisted of listening to distorted music through earphones, Facilitated Communication, tried placing him in a Hyperbaric chamber, . . . . All of these not only failed to improve his speech and behavior, but took up a huge amount of time, time that I could never get back. But what this also did was teach me the value of peristence, as, in the end (after much work on my part) he participated in a full Inclusion program and received a regular Pennsylvania High School Diploma, and now has two jobs (one a competetive one, in a department store, one in a sheltered workshop), plus he sings in the church choir and studies at a regular karate school.
This persistence served me well, not only in the 15 or more year long odyssey to find a publisher for my first book (I was a finalist so many times I stopped counting, so near, and yet so far), which, in the end, won a first book contest and was one of seven finalists for a "best book of poetry" contest, the 2006 Paterson Poetry Award, but also when I went to check into the hotel at a conference where I was one of the presenters, only to find my reservation was no longer in the system. I stood my ground, polite as pie, and kept saying, "I made a reservation in January (it was June), and you need to find me a room," over and over, until magically, a room appeared, even though the woman who said she was in charge of reservations said it would be impossible to find one closer than an hour away.
Another presenter, who was standing nearby, came back to find out if I was all right. "I can't believe how calm you are," he said, not knowing how many years I stood my ground, saying "my son has a right to a free and appropriate public education (a FAPE) with his non-disabled peers" over and over, until one day, the room to the third grade classroom opened up to him, and his education finally began. He was in an IU-run class for the severely behaviorally disturbed, which meant that they were not going to start anything with academic content until his behavior was "normal" - which was never going to happen.
So it's been a journey, and one that I wouldn't trade for someone else's life even if I could. It's just that sometimes, when I'm applying for a grant or a colony residency, I wish I could raise my hand and ask to put an asterisk beside my name. Yes, I've got some of publications and a few awards, but mainly, I'm "outside the loop"--no academic post, no MFA, no mentor, no one showing my work around to editors. . . . This asterisk would read, *And she raised two fine daughter, and one fine son, who has autism.
WG: I'd like to seize on your comment about stereotypic repetitive behavior for a moment. One of the things that disability poetry tries to do is to capture the language of the body in the form and language of the poem itself. When writing poems about your son, have you tried to capture the feel of repetitive behavior in the language that you use? Can you give us an example?
BC: This is a great question. I have several examples that show this. If I were a different type of writer, I might try and create a poem via the actual use of disjointed, unconnected, or repetitive language, but my gifts lie in the lyric, so that's what I've used:
Last night, the owl woke me;
And my compulsive son asks questions without answers
Monet said, "Each day, I discover things I didn't see
Of course, in this poem, I'm also reflecting on the positive aspects of obsessive behavior; I think all artists (painters, writers, etc.) have some of this.
Here's one on echolalia:
ECHOLALIA AND THE MOCKINGBIRD
The echo of the mockingbird resounds in our chimney
This one focuses more on repetitive motions, both his and mine:
HOW MANY TREES HAVE DIED FOR THIS POEM?
Someone on my poetry list says publishing a poem
And then in this one, I used one of his seemingly meaningless phrases as a focal point in the poem; having it to use was a real gift from him:
OUR LADY OF ROCAMADOUR
We have climbed these two hundred sixteen steps,
the Black Madonna, where she has brooded
I pray for my damaged son, rocking
Keep walking, one foot
Part of what's behind this one, is, as I mentioned in the answer to one of your previous questions, the huge weight of his future, the one without us, the one we're not able to save enough money for (private placement in a group home would run, conservatively, to two million dollars), the one our government, that of the richest country on the planet, is no longer able to provide.
WG: You stated that if you were a different kind of poet you might create a poem via the actual use of disjointed, unconnected, or repetitive language to give expression to autism. Do you know of any poets who are doing this? Do you know of other poets that try to capture the experience of autism?
I was thinking of the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets, like CD Wright and Rae Armantrout, who are more concerned with sound and pattern than meaning. But as far as I know, no one has tried to capture autism, in poetry. In the novel, there's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, which is, I think, a brilliant rendering of the world of Asperger's, which is considered by some to be the "high end" of the autism rainbow, or spectrum, and by others, to be an entirely different disorder that shouldn't be lumped in with autism at all. My thinking is that because people with autism tend to be either non-verbal or with limited verbal skills, that this is a pretty difficult task, because even when you've written something, how do you know it's "right"? When I had my book party for Radiance, Dave was there, and I asked him if I could read a poem about him, which I did:
AUTISM POEM: THE GRID
A black and yellow spider hangs motionless in its web,
After the reading, I asked him which poem he liked the best (we always ask, "Which part of the movie did you like the best?"), and he picked that one, but did he like it because I "got it right," or did he like it just because he was in it? We'll never know.
WG: Many of your poems relating to autism are among your older writings, but you have had a lot of recent success with work like Radiance and Line Dance. In fact, I believe that Radiance is the subject of an upcoming review by Rebecca Foust. I'd like to give you a chance to talk a little bit about your work in these books. Do you see it as differing from your work in the past?
BC: Well, I had a small collection of autism poems before these two called Ordinary Life, which won the ByLine Chapbook contest some years ago, but alas, is sold out. It has all of my earlier autism poems in it, and is sometimes available on ebay for ridiculous amounts of money. I may reprint 2-3 of my earlier chapbooks together, including this one, at some point. Anyway, Rebecca Faust's review of Line Dance is out, in Appalachian Heritage. I think the only thing that differs in this work is the chronology; Dave is older, and our concerns are different. We're not as concerned about helping him to talk as we are about his future--my husband is retired now, although parents of children with disabilities can never retire; his "job" is driving Dave two/from work. One of the mornings, when the truck comes in to the department store where Dave works in shipping and receiving, this means getting up at 4:45 so he can punch in at 6 (that's AM, folks!). There is no public transportation, nor anything viable for people with disabilities--the van service a) won't come to our house, and b) won't guarantee a reasonable ride time (i.e. a 20 minute ride could take 3 hours), nor getting a worker to his/her place of business on time, so this is not an option for an hourly worker who has to punch in and who, after three warnings for lateness (5 minute leeway), would be fired. New people coming into the system are not being placed in group homes. Oh, there's private placement, at $35,000 a year, but we've failed to put aside the two million dollars I figure we'd need, as he's only in his early twenties now. So, those are my concerns in this new book, and I jump up on my soapbox every time someone invites me over to read. Because I think the only thing we can do is vote in a new government, and November is rapidly approaching. If you recall, the Bush administration wanted to start dismantling both Medicaid and Medicare as "costly entitlement programs," for those slackers, like my son, who, although he works two jobs (the other is in a sheltered workshop), won't ever find a full-time job with health insurance, and can't make enough money to ever fully support himself, either. But he's a registered voter, and has been volunteering on a local candidate's campaign, and will work, with us, to help get Democrats to the polls in the fall. It's time for a change, and I feel hopeful.
WG: Subject matter aside, can a reader of Line Dance expect anything different from your previous books? Anything new with style or technique, for example? Put differently, perhaps - do you feel that you are essentially the same writer that you were several books ago, or do you see your writing as having evolved in some ways?
BC: That's an interesting, but difficult to answer, question, partly because my full-length books aren't chronological--it took me so long to get there (to book publication) that I have a lot of work that spans three decades, so it's more a question of arrangement--which poems go best together, rather than "this is the best of my newest work." Some poems in Line Dance are quite new; others are 15-20 years old. The poems are more narrative than the ones in Radiance, which is a more lyric book. I was especially concerned with/thinking about connections when I put Line Dance together. If my writing's changed at all in the thirty-plus years I've been at it, I would hope it's more complex, richer, more multi-layered. . . . At least, that's what I'm aiming for. Those are the kinds of poems I like to read, less surface, more texture. It's complicated, this dancing with words, and I'm just happy to still be here, out on the polished wooden floor under the glitter ball, still trying to get things right.
WG: Barbara, I really appreciate the time you've taken to talk about your writing in such detail and with so many examples. Is there anything else that you would like to add as we conclude the interview?
BC: Thank you for such thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.