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Quan Barry


 Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Essay - Interview


Quan Barry


This is the journalist's mission from the Old French
for to carry back somewhere deep in the Congolese jungle
over the blond bridge sewn from sticks the green hills
with the twisting stalks of their serrating grasses each
fibrous blade pointillistic murderous historical quotidian

by pointillistic I mean the luminous rendered
from the individual by luminous I mean
the full shedding of light by quotidian I mean
the fragility of organisms or even systems
this is the journalist's mission to go there now

a full decade after and see what he sees anniversary
from the Latin for year and turning explication
from the Latin for to unfold then the carrying back
via satellite and fiber-optics cf. the mercantile ship
with its ragged flag waving its news hoisted in the sunlight

hundreds of nautical miles off-shore back through

time and space back through the universal nothingness
cf. the indifference of the ocean to us
who complete the broadcast by viewing it
within the context of our knowledge cf. a white flag

means the goods were sold at a profit a black flag
means pestilence a red flag means someone is dead
this is the journalist's mission to carry the thing
back to us how the word also derives from the Latin
for gate or door here the story he wants

is to find the rebels ten years after the physical annihilation
of eight hundred thousand to compare and contrast
lessons gleaned the journalist's heart is a klieg light
his white hair lustrous as ice now sitting in a chair
in the network's Washington bureau he tells the anchorman

that he the journalist has failed that the story
the network broadcasts tonight is all camouflage
for the failing the fact that he and his crew didn't get
the story they wanted over the blond bridge sewn
from sticks deep in the hills with their pointillistic stalks

in a voice-over a man is singing the melody delicate
like a bird made of paper someone is floating
face down in a body of stagnant water cf. a white flag
means the goods were sold at a profit a machine
rakes the earth open and countless frayed corpses

are bulldozed into the gash everywhere people
are sifting down a broken road the people
stretching all the way to the horizon the people
beyond the curvature of the earth many of them
with the agony gouged into their bodies

the head split like something ripe in the chaos
a toddler falls screaming in the road and the river
of people smoothly parts around the small stone
of his writhing as the cameraman judging from the angle
of the shot falls down to the child's point-of-view

the feet surging on like irrelevance by quotidian
I mean the fragility of organisms or even systems
again the African man is singing his voice
like a bird made from paper his song the story
of his Tutsi wife and the men who killed her

how the singing man himself Congolese paid them
to shoot her rather than dismantle her
with their machetes during the genocide the human
not even butchered like a calf its jugular slit first
for a minimizing I give money to have my love shot

the translator says in the background the man's song
fragile as a paper bird its green iridescent throat
overhead it looks like rain cf. the indifference
of the ocean this is the journalist's mission
I don't know when they buried you the man sings

I don't know where you are resting now in the studio
the journalist sits in a chair his white hair
lustrous as graft an old man who has seen
and come back the journalist's heart a gate
a door in the hills the rebels and the army

buy colds drinks in the same village though each in turn
is outfitted for the destroying of the other
this isn't a story of hope but rather of dormancy
I turn toward you but you are not there the journalist
stands on the edge of a small settlement many

of the locals evincing the disfiguring keloids
of the event here and there a glistening scar
twisted around a neck like a charm the journalist
is told a raid is coming but the raid never comes
cf. a black flag means pestilence and the no-justice

continues night falls orphans become adults
generational complication adults with guns
by a clay hut there is a square hole filled
with Hutu bones one with a small hole
straight through its frontal plate vengeance

is mine sayeth the Lord this is the journalist's mission

the disregarding of time in the service of narrative
eight hundred thousand murdered then the atrocity
of the refugee camps the killers slipping
over the border hidden among the fleeing population

ten years ago the journalist is a younger man
his unlined face smooth as gold this is his mission
in the last month eight hundred thousand dead
and hundreds of thousands more huddled
by the lakeshore the water septic as a graveyard

though there is nothing else to drink
in my thirty years as a reporter he says looking
into the camera from the Greek for upon and people
epidemic the journalist's heart is a flag
tonight the journalist and his crew have walked up

into the hills over the blond bridge sewn from sticks
in the studio the journalist sighs tries to formulate
a conclusion his hair lustrous as blood diamonds
the anchorman asks for the moral this is a story
of dormancy cf. a red flag means someone is dead

the journalist says it could never happen again
because the army is et cetera the world community
is et cetera though he is not immune to the fact
everyone hates everyone else he has come here
to see the rebel leader but in the end

the rebel leader will not talk to him will not
allow them to film overhead it looks like rain
a few parting shots of squalor men with machine guns
and it's back over the pale bridge sewn from sticks
and down out of the hills a square hole filled

with remains scraps of clothes in the studio
the lights are hot the journalist's white hair
shines like bone footage is forever
a small child lies screaming in the road
the singing man sings he will teach his children

not to hate he sings that if and when he sees
the men who shot his wife he will kill them
he sings that there are shards of beauty in the world
this is the journalist's mission he sings he will not


Black cricket in the doorway, on the ceiling, in

the air. Black cricket on the lip of the honey jar.

Black cricket like backwash up through the drains.
Black cricket the longest length of a finger, the pistons
of its cocked legs like stringed instruments bleating.
Black cricket there when I open the window,
black cricket on the high thread count sheets
like a mint. Black cricket like a fuse in the blood,
black cricket with all its ventricles pounding.
The hard rain staccato and pocking the fields.
Trochee and iamb. The heart's only note.
Cricket dark and perpetual. Cricket that shatters
the world. See? Taste the sky fall. See? Touch
the moon rise, the moon as if smashed with a hoe.
Black cricket with its black cricket mate,
their crickety copulation caterwauling all through the night
far away from the human with its human oils,
         far away.
What went on here? Which staircase is this?
Black cricket the only refrain in the dreamscape.
Black cricket semaphore, black cricket punishment.
Black cricket the proof of all this summer, us.
Black cricket ubiquitous, the sexual impulse.
Black cricket, don't leave. Black cricket, mon dieu!
Sing as you enter. Oviposit me in your arms.
Swarm the autumnal room with your black cricket love.
O black cricket on the lip of the honey jar!


 Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Essay - Interview

Born in Saigon and raised on Boston’s north shore, Quan Barry is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she recently directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing. The author of three books published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (Asylum, Controvertibles, and Water Puppets), her work has appeared in such journals as the Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, Ms., and the New Yorker. Among her awards are an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Her first play The Mytilenian Debate was a 2011 finalist for both the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and the Lark Play Development Center’s Playwrights’ Week. She is currently at work on a novel.


 Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Essay - Interview

A "Mini-Review" of Quan Barry's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Aaron Bauer

Language can be a damn slippery thing.

We don't have to be well-versed in Lacan or Žižick to understand this. I think most people instinctively know it, especially poets or people who are interested in reading poetry.

When I was a kid "around four or five years old" I remember a game I used to play with myself. I would say a word over and over until I was just listening to the sound and any meaning that was possibly connected to the word disappeared. (Any word would do, like "cookie, cookie, cookie cookie cookie cookiecookiecookiecookiecookie). I wasn't the first four-year-old to discover how bizarre words began to sound void of their context in language, as if a word were a waterlily in an impressionist painting, if you look too close, everything dissolves into dots, but if you step back and try to ignore the minutiae, an image emerges. I am sure there are kids still today annoying their parents/siblings/teachers with this very same game.

Poets too.

In "reportage" and "Black cricket in the doorway, on the ceiling, in" from her book Water Puppets, Quan Barry shows her keen awareness of the inadequacies of language, yet she attempts to overcome them. She has an urgent need to do so. Because, even if it will inevitably fail us, language is all we have. Because the very fact that language is a nebulous thing has been used to do terrible things.

In "reportage," the failure of language to convey a precise meaning from one individual to another constitutes a professional, as well as physical, threat. The poem focuses on a journalist who has the task to describe real events to those unable to experience those events first-hand. The speaker makes attempts to overcome this danger in several ways, one of the most apparent being an etymological proclivity to trace a word's history. Barry writes:

      This is the journalist's mission from the Old French
      for to carry back somewhere deep in the Congolese jungle
      over the blond bridge sewn of sticks

And later elaborates on this same thought:

      This is the journalist's mission to carry the thing
      back to us how the word also derives from the Latin
      for "gate" or "door"

In this poem, a journalist's story is not an abstracted experience he has had and that he verbally regurgitates in front of the camera ("camera" which is also defined later in the poem). The story is something physical, with literal weight, that needs to be "carried back," that will be hurled out to all who will listen as soon as the bearer of th story reaches the door. Through this process, the speaker and the reader of this poem develop shared definitions of language. We go through together and place words in a historical perspective so that true communication can occur.

Furthermore, the manifestation of a journalist's story into a physical object works directly to undermine the premise that language is ultimately doomed to fail. To understand, one only needs to look at the object carried back, but that does require an active participation by the onlooker. The heavy enjambment and lack of standard punctuation in "reportage" is so extreme as to be, at least at first, rather unsettling. However, Barry uses her keen writing abilities to imbue this poem with a lyric quality that, through repetition and meditation, engages and sustains a reader. Meanwhile, the disjunctive presentation allows a reader to shed his or her preconceived ideas about any particular word's meaning or intended usage, and instead, work to form new ones based on how a word appears to be used in the poem. As a result, the form reinforces the poem's theme that, in order to communicate, language requires active engagement from both a speaker and a listener.

In the second poem that we have from Barry this week, "Black cricket in the doorway, on the ceiling, in," we take make another investigation into language, but this time, sound takes the driver's seat. The words "black cricket" keep on hitting the reader like a slap. The anaphora, like the child's game discussed earlier,works to strip these words of their meaning, forcing us to focus on that harsh, alliterative "ck" and the sensuous way our lips move when "bl" slips out.

This duality of brutality and sensuality underscores the entire poem. After the title, which functions as the first line of the poem, we are greeted with this image: "Black cricket on the lip of the honey jar." We return to this image in the poem's last line. As if the tension between between the pest and the food and the visual contrast between the dark insect and the golden liquid were not enough, the anthropomorphizing descriptor "lip" brings this image almost too close to home.

We could reasonably assume that the lip of a honey jar is an unwanted position for a cricket "the length of a finger" to occupy; however, the speaker's attitude toward the insect is not so simple as outright disgust. In fact, it evolves to something resembling love: "Sing as you enter. Oviposit me in your arms." ("Oviposit" means to lay eggs, especially referring to insects¡ªto spare you from looking it up like I had to.)

If the cricket we are looking at, so stripped of meaning as to exist only on the level of sound, is not in fact a cricket at all, or maybe not only a cricket, then what, could we say, inspires this level of attraction an disgust? Our clearest hint comes at the middle of the poem:

      black cricket with all its ventricles pounding.
      The hard rain staccato and pocking the fields.
      Trochee and iamb. The heart's only note.

Connecting the cricket's heart beat to meter, allows us, at least on some level, to examine this poem as a poet's view on poetry.

Quan Barry's poems are personal without sentimentalizing. They are political without being preachy. They are complex and raise some difficult questions yet invite readers to take an active role. These poems read to me like a conversation with one of the most interesting people I know, a conversation that I am too dumbfounded to say a thing but too awestruck to let a syllable slip by unregarded.


 Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Essay - Interview

A Review of Quan Barry's Water Puppets by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, first published by On the Seawall

Quan Barry's second collection of poems, Water Puppets, fixes its gaze on the various ways in which those with power abuse those without in beautifully and fully-controlled verses of constantly evolving syntax, structure, and scope. Refusing to settle into any particular mode, structure, or setting, Barry creates an environment that persistently shifts beneath the reader's feet, which keeps us on our toes in a way akin to the worlds and characters in the poems themselves.

In the opening poem, "lion," for example, the dynamic between a male and his harem is the unnamed speaker's initial focus: "In the Serengeti sun, the male's harem / like solar system... / ...throughout evolution the cat's barbed penis / nicking his breached mate as he dismounts." "lion" takes a radical turn, however, when the male's face is described as "crucified" and we discover that he and his pride are caged by the American forces interrogating our speaker:

   ...Unhooded and naked

   we are pushed into their presence
   and for a shining moment the animals study us,
   these fabulous aliens.

Even though "lion" utilizes fairly simple, enjambed tercets, this sudden shift is easy to miss. To miss this shift is to miss the deeper meaning of the poem: that our tendency to abuse our power over others is scribed into our DNA, is simply part of who and what we are.
The fourth poem, "reportage," is more complicated on the surface, opening:

   This is the journalist's mission from the Old French
   for to carry back somewhere deep in the Congolese jungle
   over the blond bridge sewn from sticks the green hills
   with the twisting stalks of their serrated grasses each
   fibrous blade pointillistic murderous historical quotidian

These densely-packed quintets cycle through repeated symbols and images sans punctuation in order to tell the story of a journalist who returns to Rwanda ten years after the genocide. Hoping to report on a renewed and enlightened society, the reporter instead finds that

   ...the rebels and the army
   buy cold drinks in the same village though each in turn
   is outfitted for the destroying of the other
   this isn't a story of hope but rather of dormancy

Such brutality, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself, Barry argues; such slaughter is always just beneath the surface. Barry doesn't bang the reader over the head with this message in this five page poem; rather, she implies it with her use of repetition and the lack of punctuation.

Similarly, "meditations," a sixteen page poem at the center of the collection, takes us from the incarceration of Nelson Mandela to the massacre of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese government to "the existence of WMDs" and beyond in tercets that leap from subject to subject with little to no indication. Once again, form meets function; the reader has to hold on for dear life much like the speaker, travelling this vast landscape of manipulation and cruelty.

Later, a sequence of six prose poems all titled "poem" walk us through everyday life in postwar Vietnam where stillborn babies deformed by napalm are preserved in jars and the faces of the dead are "everywhere...in the polished stone" walls of a museum. "Know," declares Barry, "that the United States considered using nuclear weapons against these people. Close your eyes. Imagine the guilt-free life you might live someday, then remember why you don't deserve it." In the next poem, "history," Barry meditates on the nature of pornography in which men almost always dominate women in single-line stanzas that extended in ecstatic and unpunctuated near-prose lines across its seven pages:

     how did I end up here what was I searching alabaster skin like a dinner plate

     a her 24/7 lover come rain or come shine literally some kind of oil derrick

     all stainless steel and mechanization cold struts and gleaming www

Luckily, embedded within these difficult verses are poems of less complex design. There's the second poem of the collection, "learning the tones," which meditates on the six "diacritical marks used on certain vowels" of Vietnamese in six sections of eight couplets each. "lament," similarly, describes a city built on a fault that sacrifices a member of its citizenry each time an earthquake strikes in a single, ten-line stanza. "different location, same outcome" uses colons to link each image/idea to the next:

     everywhere an army:
     twenty thousand father sand sons

     equals a rookery: what comes down:
     the black wing with its fused bone:.

It also helps that these poems are so beautifully written. No matter their complexity, Barry rewards the reader with her masterful use of metaphor, image, and diction. In "arsenal," for example, the Antarctic Peninsula becomes "the shattered kneecap / at the bottom of the world." In "ode" she personifies "the shorn [that] moon picks its blue path / across the night valley." Any poet would wish they'd written the following lines in "Sunday Essay": "Someone's soul is pooling out of their body though the staff / is attempting to ram it back in", "The body is self-programmed to die.", "the blond moon wears its hair shirt of light." And who could forget this description in "If only I had been able to form the idea of a substance that is spiritual"

   Once I saw a pod of sperm whales sleeping

   in the long night of the sea, their bodies
   vertical like a forest, tails to the surface,
   the massive trove of their heads
   like stopped pendulums trained down straight

   toward gravity.

No doubt, the poems of Quan Barry's Water Puppets challenge the reader to adapt to Barry's almost violent shifts in structure, style, and subject matter from poem to poem, and, often, line to line. Readers must also accept that these poems are serious ones, poems that have something to say about or world and our country that they may or may not agree with. America isn't exactly portrayed as the land of the beautiful and free. Individuals are not exonerated for their actions. These poems place the reader's face in front of Barry's various mirrors and demand they accept what we find there or leave.

Quan Barry's Water Puppets reviewed by Michael Martin Shea, first published by the Iowa Review

Water Puppets, Quan Barry’s third full-length collection and winner of the 2010 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, is anything but puppetry, striking a forceful blow against the idea of poetry as naïve navel-gazing. It takes as its motivating question, “What does poetry have to do with the real world?” and throws an emphatic response, as Barry builds a narrative at once personal and political, reflecting on her own past as an immigrant from Vietnam as well as the current state of world affairs. Even in the seemingly innocuous start, “lion,” which highlights Barry’s lyrical skill, we fall into an unmistakably politicized world: “When the American unlocks the hinged door / our shackled hearts contract.” From here, the narrative delves into questions of gender, war, and the way our sense of being is indexed to our place in time, as n an early poem, “learning the tones,” in which Barry explores in six short segments the way in which the tones of the Vietnamese language shape the speaker’s idea of self:

Imagine water traveling back up
into the sky, the sound of it

climbing like a question. Má?
Who would I be if I had stayed?

But Barry’s most forceful pieces in the collection come when she releases her grasp on the lines, allowing them to veer from topic to topic, drawing parallels across continents, attempting to unlock her own place in the world, which gives rise to forceful poems such as “reportage”—a broken meditation on the life of a journalist after witnessing acts of horror in the course of covering the Congolese conflict. Barry’s poem is obsessive in its pacing, circling back on key phrases to highlight the haunted nature of the reflection:

the anchorman asks for the moral this is a story
of dormancy cf. a red flag means someone is dead

the journalist says it could never happen again
because the army is et cetera the world community
is et cetera though he is not immune to the fact

As the poem progresses and the syntax blurs ambiguously, the reader can no longer identify where the voice of the poet stops and that of the journalist begins, which subtly advances the idea, confirmed elsewhere in the collection, of poet-as-journalist, actively engaged in the history-making events of our world.

Of course, dedicated readers of Barry’s work know that she does not shy from the political—some of the more gorgeous moments in Controvertibles, her previous book, found her crafting delicate comparisons from grisly news, as in the heartbreaking, “Emmett Till’s Open Casket as La Pietà.” Yet in Water Puppets, the political has taken the center stage—it seems Barry can no longer deny the citizen aspect of her role as citizen-poet—and with that comes a blunt honesty and a clear perception of her place in the world. The collection is marked by the sense of living in America in the early 21st century, in the shadow of two wars in the Middle East, and repeatedly, Barry admits that she, “was in favor of the war and now look what’s happened.” To call it guilt would be incorrect, but the poems are certainly haunted, if nothing else, by the speaker’s survival, her ability to continue to exist amidst grotesque acts of cruelty, as she writes in the standout poem “Thanksgiving:”

At the end of the road the man driving the truck will eat
the deer. If I had to watch someone be torn apart by motorbikes

I would still be me, which is the horror of it all.

None of which is said to suggest that Barry’s poems are merely topical—above all, this collection refuses to choose between the pointed and the poignant, suggesting instead that there is as much poetry, and tragedy, in our global world as in all the great works of the canon. Nor is her work shackled by ideology or the advancement of a specific agenda; her focus is on the human response to the inhumanity. Above all, she never forgets the role of the poet in the construction of the poet-citizen: the collection is held together by her impressive ability to wed moving images with rhetoric, as in “Sunday Essay,” in which she writes:

                                    On the way home the late spring moon a scythe
and the night a net closing. The body is self-programmed to die.

Nowhere is this melding of thought and beauty as prominent as in the collection’s centerpiece, “meditation,” a sixteen-page unraveling of narrative threads as diverse as Nelson Mandela, religious tolerance in France, and the speaker’s own history as an emigrant from Vietnam until we are left with the final image, one which can be said to encapsulate Barry’s entire collection: “In Mongolia there are singers / who can sing two notes at the same time. // One phrase deep and rich, ice moving downhill. The other / like birds flying.” In a later series of prose poems, all austerely entitled “poem,” Barry enacts this notion of cognitive dissonance, so pivotal to her collection, in the tradition of Vietnamese water puppet theatre, from which the title is derived:

Close your eyes. Imagine the guilt-free life you might live someday, then remember why you don’t deserve it. Eventually the puppets whirl down into the obscuring blue water.

This final line, spoken more as desire than description, collects the central need of the collection—for what haunts our lives to fade away. It is this unattainable thirst for peace that underscores the acts of horror, and it is what gives Barry’s poetry its emotional force. Above all, Water Puppets forces us to remember what we don’t want to see, to hold our inhumanity up against the “shards of beauty” in the world, so that we may not forget what it is that gives our lives meaning.


 Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Essay - Interview

Parlor Games by Quan Barry, first published by P.S.A.

Recently I sat on a critical panel titled "How/Should We Study Lyric." After I got over the fact that there was no modifier in said title, I began to think about the lyric in more critical terms. For example, what exactly is the lyric? Is it an a historical set of reading conventions one projects on the text (i.e. we as readers bring certain expectations—e.g. sound, compression, a heightened state of voice, emotiveness—to poems we consider lyric), or is it something else? Also, what is now meant by the term high lyric? And finally, what is the role of language poetry in expanding the lyric's domain? Needless to say, these are just some preliminary questions (others currently stuck in my craw include, What is the role of the irrational in the lyric and does the image function differently?) Sadly I don't have too many answers to these questions (as my silence on said panel indicated), but as someone who's been described as a lyric poet I'm tremendously interested in such discussions on the state of the contemporary lyric and its fantastical sister the high lyric (the latter which the poet Rick Barot wondrously described in an email to me as, "A beautiful voice unmoored from the ground."). True, I often think the lyric is like pornography— something one recognizes when one sees it, but more and more I've been discussing with other poets just what they consider a lyric poem, and I've found their answers to be as fascinating as they are varied. So. Maybe give it a go. Ask your friends what they consider the lyric to be—e.g. is "The Waste Land" a lyric? Why or why not? Discuss! (Personally, I'm completely taken with lines like, "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" and could, despite its length, be convinced). And finally, if you figure that one out satisfactorily, maybe move onto the lyric and its emanation in movies —e.g. Terrence Malik's The Thin Red Line and David Gordon Green's George Washington.
A Converation Between Quan Barry and Beth Woodcome first published at Perihelion

Beth Woodcome: Can you share a bit of your journey so far? Where did it start and where are you now?

Quan Barry: As a child I dabbled here and there a bit writing and illustarting stories (mostly stuff about a dog possibly named Hermann Biff (tho' if I really pressed myself to remember, I think I'd recall his name was probably (unimaginatively) Spot)), but I didn't start writing poetry until my first year at the University of Virginia. There were two girls in my suite (a New Yorker and a hippie chick from Mobile, Alabama) who kept journals, and I would come home from class and see them out on the on the balcony writing away (and also possibly drinking vodka in broad daylight! (very Anne Sexton-like)). Anyway, after a while, I began to notice other people in the dorm who also wrote poetry--some shaggy-haired guy from Connecticut, a farm boy mathmetician, some aerobics girl from Long island etc.--and for some reason, I thought that just seemed really inordinately cool, the idea of writing just for yourself, not for a grade etc. In our suite, we started holding informal poetry readings in the bathroom (there were no windows there, so we'd turn out the lights, light some candles, and have instant ambience); to make a long story short, I guess I got hooked. Virginia has some great poets on staff--Rita Dove and Charles Wright being the most famous--and as undergrads we were always clamoring to get into their classes. Although I wasn't an English major (my BA's in liberal arts), I did take a few workshops, and after I graduated I took a year off before heading to the University if Michigan for my MFA. Then after Michigan I was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford and eventually the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Creative Writing where eventually eventually I was lucky enough to land my current job as an assistant professor of English.

BW: How would you characterize the kind of poetry you write (lyric, dramatic narrative, etc)?

QB: Hmmm, although I know my own work pretty well, I have a hard time characterizing the poems in Asylum. For a while while I was out at Stanford, I used to think of them as confessional, and my friends were always telling me, "Uh, no." I definitely recognize (especially in the epilogue poems) just how lyrical the work can be, but something about the subject matter in Asylum gives me pause before claiming they're simply lyric. When I say confessional, there's absolutely nothing strictly confessional about the poems (obviously I never have been nor will I ever be, say, Steven Seagal), and yet I recognize the part of me that's fascinated/motivated by violence so that I almost feel that I am confessing something in a poem like "The Glimmer Man". Anyway, my second manuscript titled Controvertibles is definitely much more meditative in voice; while I was out at Stanford, that was my goal, to become more meditative, yet I ended up writing most of Asylum which isn't that at all. My first year here in Wisconsin I sorta stumbled onto a meditative voice and a form, and I ended up writing Controvertibles in about a year. Currently I'm working on a book about Vietnam, but I'm not sure how it's going--I don't want it to be a travel log, and I'm also trying to change my voice, do something different, so the writing's coming much slower than I'm used to.

BW: Who are your major influences?

QB: Hmmm again. I'm always telling my students you can be influenced by many things, not just poetry. I'm really into this idea of things being just what they are. For example, every day walking home from class in California, I would pass this huge tree that took up an entire front yard, and I remember always thinking I could learn more about poetry by studying that tree than I could by taking literature classes (does that sound pretentious and strange? I hope not). Anyway, as far as poets go, some of my first loves were W.S. Merwin and Robert Bly's Leaping Poetry (which introduced my to Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo), but more recently I find myself into Anne Carson, Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, novelists like Martin Amis, Haruki Murakami, filmmakers like Terrence Malik and the Wakowski (sp?) Brothers, TV shows like Nova etc. I guess in some ways I'm not talking about influences as far as style goes but maybe more where a lot of my ideas come from. Finally, I should mention I'm a Bardolator, and also (fortunately? unfortunately?) I read the Bible for its poetry; I just finished reading a couple of books in Richmond Lattimore's translation of the New Testament (I'm way into Lattimore).

BW: Which poets do you have your eye on now?

QB: There are some really great first books out there. I'm really into Olena Kalyiak Davis' And Her Sould Out Of Nothing, Tessa Rumsey's Assembling The Shepherd, Maurice Manning's Lawrence Booth's Book Of Vision,lots of books by friends from the Stegner program, a book by a friend named Glori Simmons called Graft. I'm sorta starting to get into Carl Phillips, and I'm also a big fan of Lucie Brock-Broido and Li-Young Lee. I also read a lot of short fiction, mostly a lot of manly man fiction; have recently gotten heavily into Barry Hannah--the stories in Airships are linguistically stunning.

BW: How was your experience publishing poems, publishing your first book Asylum?

QB: As a grad student and a fellow at Stanford, I held off submitting work to journals; in both places I always felt there were some people who were more interested in getting published than they were in polishing their voices. However, the more I write and teach, the more I realize everyone comes to things in different ways at different times, so I would never tell someone to hold off publishing. To answer the question, I guess I've been in the right place at the right time for most of my writing life, and I've been fortunate to be published as much as I have with a great press and good journals. I will say on the journal front that I try not to believe that a poem is any better or worse than it is based on where it ends up. What I mean is the poem is the poem; an okay poem of mine in The Kenyon Review is still an okay poem while a great poem in The Madison Review is a great poem--just because the journal is smaller or better known etc. doesn't add or detract from the work.

BW: When reading comments, reviews, and descriptions of your poetry you are often described as a poet who is adeptly and passionately able to convey struggle, physical and emotional horror, dysfunction. However, in many ways I feel consoled while reading your work. Can you tell me about your relationship with poetry as a healing art -- if you can identify it as one?

QB: I don't think of my writing as any kind of cathartic experience, although I can definitely see that for other writers this might well be the case in their work. Maybe this will sound weird, but I guess I mostly started writing because I wanted to read the kind of poems I would write. Similarly, I don't write my poems in an attempt to work out issues in my life but rather (and this may seem like a small distinction) to see how said issues physically linguistically narratively etc. work out on the page. In other words, I'm not trying to resolve anything emotionally, I just want to see what the ideas I've got going in my head will look like in the medium of poetry.

SW: You are a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Did you always want to teach? Did it seem a natural profession to mix with the profession of being a poet? Do you identify more with being a poet or a professor?

QB: I definitely see myself as a poet first, prof second. I don't want to sound like a gunslinger, but initially I looked at teaching as a way to pay the bills so that I could keep writing poetry. This is going to be my third year here as an assistant professor, and more and more I find myself drawn to teaching. Specifically as more and more of my students go on to think about MFA programs, as their writing gets better and better (NB: the kids I started teaching back in 2000 who were sophomores etc. have just graduated), I see the role I play in their creative lives, in helping them have full well-rounded undergraduate experiences, and I realize in some ways what an honor it is to be so important to these kids in this way. Many of them want to live artistic lives, and I'm maybe the first person who's not a million years older than they are who they could possibly see themselves becoming. All in all, it's a great life and I know I'm very lucky to have it.

SW: Your poetry seems to focus on such a spectrum of subjects, from field hockey to philosophy. How do ideas come to you? How does a poem come to you?

QB: For Asylum, I was really in the process of finding my voice etc, so those poems came from wherever they came from. I listen to a lot of NPR, mostly Fresh Air, and quite a few of the poems are from segments I'd heard either there or on All Things Considered. Because I'm the kind of person who's really interested in making connections, in getting really into topics, for Asylum, I researched a lot of the poems (for example, the poems about syphilis), but for my other manuscripts I haven't done any real library research. I have to say most of the stuff I researched for the poems in Asylum didn't make it into the poems but I liked having that knowledge to draw on if I needed it. With my second manuscript Controvertibles I had an idea for the way the poems should look and read, then it was simply a matter of coming up with the kind of subject matter that would lend itself to the form and voice. Again, a lot of it comes from what I was listening to, reading, watching etc. PBS and NPR are wellsprings for me.

SW: You received an MFA from the University of Michigan. I know many people struggle with the idea of an MFA, of the benefits of getting an MFA. How was that experience for you -- the deciding and the actual studying and writing?

QB: I needed an MFA, no question about it. My writing was young and unformed and I didn't know much with respect to issues of craft or as far as the contemporary landscape of poetry was concerned. I always tell my students that you go into an MFA to learn your craft; it's not like Harvard Law School--you go there, it's a career move, ie. you're probably going to be a lawyer. But you go to an MFA, there's no guarantee you'll be a poet or a writer of some kind, so you can't go in for professional reasons. Having said that, more and more very accomplished younger writers are going into MFA programs not so much to study craft but because they need an MFA to teach, to make a living. I think the academy needs to rethink its hiring practices in this sense; if someone has a good book should it matter whether or not they have an MFA? I think if these accomplished oftentimes thirty-something writers felt that they could land jobs without an MFA, they might not get them, which for people who don't need to learn craft might not be a bad thing. However, that does bring up the idea of the MFA as a place to get writing done without real working world considerations.

All in all, I think an MFA can be invaluable for the right kind of student, but I do worry that for too many young writers, more and more having an MFA is the only road to becoming a writer.

SW: What are you working on now?

QB: Again, I'll send my second manuscript to my press this fall and see what happens. As far as my third book goes, I'll keep writing it and see what happens there too. As I mentioned before, up until this point, I wrote fairly quickly--I could write and pretty much finish a poem in a day. Now it takes me much longer, and while I'm not crazy about the change in my process, I'm hoping that the work also reads much differently from other things that I've written.

SW: Thanks, Quan, for sharing your experience and insights with Perihelion.

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