Getting To Know Jennifer Barber and Her New Book Works On Paper
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
My mother read to us as children—the Golden Books, Mother Goose, fairy tales and folk tales—which meant that early on I was excited by patterns such as rhythm and rhyme, and the sound of spells and chants. With other kids in the neighborhood, I spent hours and hours skipping rope to rhyming songs passed along from somewhere. The idea was to get through the whole song without tripping over the rope. Some of the jump-rope songs were several verses long but I don’t remember consciously trying to memorize them—they were just there. We also played hand games with a partner, going through a sequence of gestures, including clapping, that went along with rhymes. It’s hard to explain how satisfying these games were.
Wanting to write poetry came later. From adolescence on, there were things I thought about and hoped to describe, but I wasn’t drawn to the idea of spinning out a story as such. It was more about trying to convey an impression, something I’d seen or felt.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
Often I’ll begin by writing down in my notebook a poem by someone else, a poem that I’ve been thinking about and have already fallen in love with. It’s a way to get a closer look at what the poem is doing and to savor its individual moments. Then I’ll write down some random thoughts on the next page of the notebook. It doesn’t matter how mundane they are, or how they’re phrased, or whether or not I harbor any future plans for them, or whether they’re sketchy or detailed. If more occurs to me after that, I’ll grab the nearest legal pad and write things that are broken into lines. This happens in the early hours of the day. My body clock is set anyway for me to be wide-awake around 5:30.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I used to start with an image in mind and work at the language that might manage to convey the image. That has changed over the years. I’m now more likely to generate a first line and see what follows. An example is a poem of mine called “Source,” which begins with the line, “The sound of rain arriving before it arrives”—I had no idea what I wanted to say next. But the concept of a sound that doesn’t yet exist as a physical sound seemed like a paradox worth exploring.
Frequently my poems use a short line of two or three beats, and in those instances an initial formulation, rather than being contained in a first line, will play out over a stanza or more. Other poems are set in motion by imagining myself as someone else, existing in a different historical moment, setting down the specific circumstances unfolding in that time and place.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I tend to go on reading jags where I can’t get enough of a certain writer, and those jags can last for weeks or months or years. The experience has so many dimensions to it, and feels so personal, that “influence” almost seems like the wrong word. It’s more like influenza, in the sense that someone’s voice in a particular set of poems hits hard, and there’s no escaping it. Something shifts in me during the reading process and ultimately adds to my ideas of what’s possible in a poem. It’s hard to summarize, really, but some of those writers include William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Dickinson and Whitman, of course, Frost, Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, Yehuda Amichai, Jane Kenyon, Robert Hayden, Louise Glück, Adam Zagajewski, so many others…
And then there’s the joy of reading poems and books by writers I’ve come in contact with via Salamander, or whom I’ve met briefly or have become friends with, the way their art both embodies and transcends what I thought I knew about them beforehand—this has been an important and ongoing influence on what I write.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book?
Works on Paper consists of recent poems, most of them written between 2011 and 2015. I didn’t have a specific project in mind, but the poems reflect a certain period of life—my children growing up and grown, my parents well along in old age and thinking about or directly confronting their mortality. During my father’s illness—he died in 2014—I needed to write in order to focus my thoughts and impressions and to mitigate a feeling of helplessness. Usually I write about things long after the fact, but the poems in this book are more of a current record.
The collection originally had a different title, but the Word Works Tenth Gate Prize series editor, Leslie McGrath, wasn’t fully satisfied with it, and neither was I. As I visited artists’ websites to look at possible cover art, I kept seeing the categories “Paintings,” “Mixed Media,” and “Works on Paper,” and the last category struck me as being true of poems as well as drawings or watercolors. I like the idea that paper is inherently fragile, even as it accepts the marks that record what otherwise might go unseen.
Read and View a sample poem from Works on Paper here:
The sound of rain arriving before it arrives
has no sound to speak of it, but it does
say something to the leaves, something the leaves
know how to take; they’re leaning toward
the place where the rain is about to begin,
drawing nearer together but widening
the surface of their urgency, their need
to register each shifting of the air.
The sky darkens; the leaves have darkened too.
The waiting is hard to bear, resembling
other kinds of waiting, waiting to hear
in a waiting room, in the afternoon,
in the moments that seem to move apart
before they become whatever’s to come.