Anne Barngrover

February 19, 2018

 

Anne Barngrover is the author of Brazen Creature (University of Akron Press, 2018), Yell Hound Blues (Shipwreckt Books, 2013) and co-author, with poet Avni Vyas, of the chapbook Candy in Our Brains (CutBank, 2014). Her poems have been published in North American Review, Copper Nickel, Ecotone, Third Coast, Crazyhorse, Mid-American Review, Blackbird, and others, and her nonfiction has been published in River Teeth

 

Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Anne earned her BA from Denison University, her MFA from Florida State University, and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from University of Missouri. She has taught at various colleges and universities in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee, and she has served an integral role in the summer Reynolds Young Writers Workshop for high school students at Denison University since 2008. Currently she is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University, where she is on faculty in the MA Low-Residency Program in Creative Writing. She lives in Tampa, Florida among gators, sandhill cranes, and wild hogs (heard but not seen--yet).

Well, I just finished re-reading your Brazen Creature, forthcoming from University of Akron Press, and texting you about it with tears in my eyes, and I'm thinking about the lines from "Erasure | Phenomenon," "For years and years all I did was say / the hard things / and say them again. But you don’t / know how winter / is quiet and loud here.” Is that a bad place to start, asking you how you manage to be so unflinchingly honest in your work while still maintaining that elegance of language and line that is so characteristically you?

 

That's a great place to start! You know, over the years I've heard people disparage personal or, dare I say, Confessional poetry with the same phrases: "No one cares about your journal entries" or "A poem isn't your diary." But more and more I think people with this attitude are often the same ones who've never felt real fear of speaking their truths in a public, vulnerable way. As someone who's naturally shy and highly sensitive with an intense inner world, my diary often felt like my refuge, and my books were genuinely my friends (nerd alert). It's hilarious to look back and read all of the anger I expressed in my diaries during elementary and middle school; sure, most of it was melodramatic to the extreme, but even then I was picking up on who was being allowed to speak and whose voices were being hushed, made fun of, or not believed. At one point I literally wrote, "Aaaaaaa! If I can't scream out loud then I will with my pencil." That angry feeling of not being allowed to speak my truth--for whatever reason--has only grown over time.

 

To your second point, I think that playing with language and line helps me be more in tune with my emotional truth when I'm writing poetry. Like all poets, I love words--their roots, their shapes, their mouth feel, their histories. Sometimes a word can feel more honest simply by the way it looks on the page or the way it sounds when read aloud. I also have fun adding layered meanings by figuring out where I can break the line to tell more honest stories, but in an indirect way. For instance, in that passage you quoted, the line "and say them again. But you don't" can add a double meaning by placement--that the "you" doesn't know how winter is quiet and loud here, but also that the "you" doesn't say the hard things. The second meaning feels like something I want to declare but also something that's muttered with an eye roll. And look at all these "open secrets" bursting into the bald light of day right now; that's how women communicate with each other when they can't freely speak out loud--through whispers, dark humor, murmurs, a raised brow.

 

That passage from your diary reminds me of the poem "If I Start Talking About It Now I Won't Stop Hollering." This is one of my favorite instances in the book of you as a poet connecting a personal narrative with a larger one, with those "open secrets" that we see now bursting into bald light.  And you handle that beautifully, juggling the exhaustion of being kept silent with the brazen call to be silent no more. It's strangely invigorating how true-to-life that feels, what knowledge in the poem is traced "into silt or wet snow, / each letter erasing itself as soon as it's exposed." What "rusted rivers" burst forth after that.

 

Thanks for saying that. It is exhausting to always have to choose between self-preservation and speaking out, and not just once, but continuously over the course of a lifetime, over generations. And it's even more exhausting when you realize that this choice is actually a false binary, because as Audre Lorde reminds us, "My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you." Who do these silences protect, after all? Certainly not you and me. I remember physically feeling as though a dam was breaking in my chest as I was writing that poem. Sure, if I smile and nod, then I’ll get called sweet, and if I say what people don't want to hear, I’ll get called Trouble. But who cares? Sweetness never served me anyway. Sweetness did not protect me.

 

Right, absolutely. I love Audre Lorde, and also, yes, give ‘em hell. Would you say that that's poetry's role right now, to be Trouble? And, that dam breaking in your chest, is that in reference to your writing process? What's that like? Did all poems in your book come like "If I Start Talking About It Now I Won't Stop Hollering" did?

 

"If I Start Talking..." was more of an exception in that I got myself really worked up and mad and it all sort of busted out...but of course you know when that happens you've really been "writing" that poem in your head for a while, just too afraid to actually write it down. Usually my process is slower and more methodical. I keep a blank Word document or notebook where I squirrel away little scraps or fragments--an odd or striking image, something I've heard on the radio, found language from Wikipedia or road signs, a funny line of conversation--and once they're all physically together in one space, I start to notice my obsessions crisscrossing and overlapping and speaking to each other--sometimes agreeing, sometimes arguing. It's almost like these little pieces are various ingredients of a recipe--the broth, the chives, the cream cheese, the lemon juice (I just made shrimp 'n grits so that's clearly still on my mind, haha)--and then I have to put them all together to change them into something whole.

 

Poets are the Trouble, yes!!! Or at least they should be. I always tell my students, "You know who gets killed off first in fascist regimes? Always the artists and the poets. How come?" Isn't it interesting how poets and other artists often are trivialized as having cute hobbies, yet those in power are still so scared of us? I find it extremely telling when any institution seeks to undermine those who create art.

 

I agree that those poems which bust out have been writing themselves for years. Sometimes I need that reminder, that I'm not writing into a vacuum, that poets are significant enough to be trouble, and that art is a form of resistance. So thank you. To that end, or speaking of doom, I guess, I wanted to ask about the line that first appears in your poem "Egg and Ash," and then in at least three others. "Sometimes a ghost is not a ghost / but..." Would you say that's an obsession? Do you find yourself clinging to ghosts or exorcising them from your life (or both, simultaneously)?

 

I think that insisting on beauty, too, can be a form of resistance against the status quo. Or maybe "beauty" isn't the word I'm looking for, but rather the divinity in ordinary things--to spend hours honing a sentence or line amidst sloppy and ignorant language, to notice the subtle change in seasons while our planet is under attack, to learn the names of salamander and tree species though we're being trained to only stare at our screens, and to actually look one another in the eye. I’m basically a nineteenth century Transcendentalist during my writing process. Actually, I was re-reading Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" when I was living in Missouri during the campus protests, and it struck me how crazy relevant that text still was today. He'd connect all of these acts as resistance for sure (although part of me thinks he'd also be a Libertarian, whomp).

 

Haunting is definitely an obsession of mine. In undergrad I did a whole summer research project in Spanish about the Mexican legend La Llorona (the weeping woman) and learned about how ghost stories are often a culture's way of making sense of ideas or memories or traumas that won't shake from us no matter how hard we try. My first book, Yell Hound Blues, is about being haunted. I think that's a fascinating question about both clinging to ghosts and exorcising them at once, and it's so true that we (or at least I--I can't speak for everybody) tend to do that. Being haunted can often feel like safety or love.

 

Oh yeah, haunting as love. Or haunting as something you refuse to let go of. I love that about your work, that it's both fearless and tender. Lines like the one from "Thief Hallow Branch, Arkansas" specifically, where a ghost "is not a ghost / but a column of light." That's wild about reading Thoreau in Missouri during those protests. What are some other relevant things you're reading right now? 

 

There's so much amazing work out there right now, I can barely keep up with it all. In terms of poetry, I loved Erika L. Sánchez's Lessons on Expulsion, Kendra DeColo's My Dinner with Ron Jeremy, Melissa Range's Scriptorium, Tommy Pico's Nature Poem, Donika Kelly's Bestiary, Jennifer Maritza McCauley's Scar On/Scar Off, Marcus Wicker's Silencer, and Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal, among others. Melissa Febos' essay collection Abandon Me was the best creative nonfiction I've read this year. They're all the Trouble! 

 

I've also been trying to re-educate myself on our country's dark history and untangle the roots of where bigoted ideas come from. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America took me about six months to read, but I think about it almost every day now. The March graphic novels about John Lewis' story were also so good. This is about a decade old, but Michael Kimmel's Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men was terrifying and made my head explode (the photo on the front cover alone chills me to the bone). As Hermione says, it's good to know what the enemy is saying (but also bad for my TMJ).

 

It was you who turned me on to Sánchez, Range, and Febos, specifically, and I can't wait to read the rest. That's a dynamite Hermione reference, too, because it's so fitting. You have a poem in Brazen Creature called "In Defense of Not Getting Over It, At Least Not For Now" where you mention building things by breaking them down. Do you want to talk a bit about that concept? Is that what you're doing with form, with the poetic line, with the book, with however these poems inform your own narrative?

 

Dang, that's a really good question. What's especially challenging--and especially fun--about writing poetry is that you have to be aware of the big picture and the most minuscule details both at the same time. It may seem totally absurd to others how we'll spend hours obsessing over a line break, a word, or even a punctuation mark, but it's that level of intentionality that can make a poem feel like it has the pressure of a grenade. It kind of goes back to what I was talking about earlier with being surrounded by a sloppiness and complacency for language in our political landscape. I mean, our president doesn't use complete sentences. He speaks in literal gibberish. And I don't mean to sound elitist, because it's not like he doesn't have the ability or knowledge, it's that he just doesn't care. Words can apparently mean anything now, which isn't just goofy; it's dangerous.

 

Breaking down something big into smaller components takes time, and it can be annoying or difficult or scary. It's a lot easier to see narratives or structures at face value and not deconstruct them to figure out how they work. People in power don't like when we do that, too. They don't want us to question things or spend time on the details, because then we might start to recognize what's actually going on. I realize that I sound all conspiracy theory here, but the arc of Brazen Creature is an awakening. All around me I hear voices saying, "Don't dwell on the past," "What's done is done," "Move on," "Stop overanalyzing," "Let it go." Well, what happens if I don't move on? What happens if I pause?

 

Intentionality. I love that. The pressure of a grenade because you, the poet, dared to pull the pin. There's a huge self-awareness in Brazen Creature. I think people look down on the idea of poetry as therapy, but I think we need it to be therapy now more than ever, and that's exactly what happens in the therapy I've been to. You examine your life to find how you are or aren't complicit in your own patterns, and you figure out how to enact change. Is that something you thought about while organizing the poems in this book? What was that process like? 

 

Oh yeah, I always try really hard to be hyper-aware of my bullshit, of what narratives I'm telling myself about myself and my life, of what patterns I'm asleep to or complicit in or even actively engaged in, because sometimes dysfunction and unhappiness can feel safer than attempting to change. There are times when I wish I could be as brave in real life as the speaker in my poems. But who's to say that poems aren't "real life," too, or maybe "real life" in a parallel universe?

 

I had a lot of help with organizing the poems of Brazen Creature. I absolutely love ordering the poems in other people's books, and I learned a lot about this process from interning at Persea Books for a year during my PhD, but I'm not very good at figuring out my own. It's kind of like how you often need other people (usually a professional) to point out the patterns in your own life that you become blind to. I originally put the poems in an order that was bland and not very interesting. Then I had one of my best friends, the phenomenal poet Rachel Inez Marshall, read the whole thing and look at the order, and she was like, "Girl, this is an awakening." She's the one who noticed it first. We had a conversation on her living room floor in her apartment in Nashville--with all the pages spread out around us--that seriously changed the direction of the book and the way that I viewed my own writing. It was one of those lightbulb moments where I was like, yes, this is what I've been trying to do this whole time, I just needed somebody else who knows me and my writing to put words to it for me. 

 

I also had help with organizing the poems from other generous friends: fiction writer Amanda Bales, who helped with the narrative arc; fellow Mizzou PhD poet J.D. Smith, who has an incredible ear and noted how the rhythms of certain poems spoke with one another; and visual artist Heather McGuire, who pointed out patterns of images and seasons within the poems. And, of course, you helped me so much with every single poem in this book--not to mention every poem that I write. I'm so grateful and blessed to have these wonderful readers in my life. It may sound corny, but I guess I'm a cheesy broad.

 

My tears! They are back! I'm grateful to know that real life you isn't too far off from the speaker in your poems. I'd also like to speak for everyone and say we're all grateful that you're a fierce supporter of other strong women writers. Also, after seeing a few of your more recent poems published online, I'm curious. What are you working on now? Any new projects or new directions? 

 

Aw, thanks girl. I am writing like Hamilton these days. I will start off by saying that I need to check my privilege and also acknowledge that I'm really grateful to have finally gotten a stable job that allows me the time and resources to write--and expects me to continue to write, moreover. It's like how Virginia Woolf declares in "A Room of One's Own": "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write." (She says "to write fiction," but I'm pretty sure she'd extend that to poetry for us as well.) How are writers--so many of them graduate students and adjuncts--able to create and edit and read and teach and do all this important work that we need as a society if we do not pay them a living wage? I am absolutely able to concentrate more and create more when I have a steady paycheck and good health care. I think we as a society need to un-romanticize the notion of the "starving artist" and actually take care of our creators. 

 

After finishing and defending Brazen Creature as my PhD dissertation, I did not write again for almost a year. I was struggling with depression and could not be creative when everything else was numb. I was also constantly honing my job materials and applying for every job under the sun in a very real panic. There was so much rejection. It was like poetry went away to a place where I couldn't access it for a long time.

 

I ended up using poetic forms as a way to almost trick my brain back into creation. If I had a set rhyme scheme to plug in and logical rules to follow, then maybe I could jump-start my voice again. I wrote a villanelle, an Elizabethan sonnet, two Petrarchan sonnets, and a ghazal, and I found myself actually breaking the rules of the form almost every time. I started to think of the form as an institution to interrogate as well, to challenge and subvert. Although I'm not writing in form as much these days, I am using more of the white space in more experimental ways than I typically have before.

 

In terms of subject matter, I am thinking a lot about the idea of a planet under siege from climate change and catastrophic political decisions. Moving back to Florida recently and dealing with Hurricane Irma really put this at the forefront of my life. For years I've defended Florida from outsiders who demean it or only care about it when they go on vacation. Hurricane Irma exposed this national attitude in an extreme way, and I don’t think there’s a coincidence between this condescension and the vulnerability that Florida's people and wildlife face due to climate change. Of course this is not limited to Florida. Look at Puerto Rico, Houston, and California now with these fires. Climate change is at our front door. 

 

I'm also contending with the idea of a body under siege from chemical, biological, and patriarchal forces. I was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and for years I had normalized or pushed through symptoms that were actually trying to tell me that my body was being attacked by its own immune system. I have been asking myself: what do we expect women to endure even in our own bodies, especially when sexual predators and abusers make decisions and control societal narratives? To me, there is an inherent, instinctual connection between standing up for the health of the female body and standing up for the health of our planet. Both are facing pressure to remain silent. Both must be believed. 

 

What you say about poetic forms is evident in the way you use sonnets in Brazen Creature already, and I can't wait to see what else you do with it. I have so much appreciation for how you use poetry to interrogate institutions, and I'm glad you have the time and resources to work creatively again now. There are some other ways you do that too, right? Do you want to talk about the web comic you help create or any other acts of resistance?

 

YES! I love talking about the web comic. So, this is something I collaborate on with my artist friend Heather McGuire, who I mentioned earlier. It's called Keepin' It Chad, and you can find it at keepinitchad.tumblr.com. While sexism and misogyny in all forms make my blood boil, I was really at my breaking point about two and a half years ago with these "woke" guys who post feminist articles on social media to rack up the likes and praise yet treat women like crap in their daily actions. Academia is rife with these fellas, and creative writing in particular seems to attract them like flies.

 

I would share these experiences and observations with Heather, and in response, she would sketch little scenes on scratch paper and text them to me to make me laugh. We kept having these back and forth exchanges--now adding captions, dialogue, and imagined scenarios--and after a few weeks of this, the comic was born. I mainly storyboard and she draws, but in terms of the captions and vision, it's a pretty equal collaboration. She's in Missouri and I'm in Florida, so we actually do the whole process over text messages. Really it's just so much fun. We especially like to use hyperbole and absurdism, and, in doing so, it turns these guys into a joke and takes away their power. If I can use a second Harry Potter reference, it's like how laughing at a boggart (the representation of your greatest fear) kills it. Our hope, too, is that other women can find it funny and use it as stress relief or to make fun of those who seek to exploit us or do us harm.

 

I’ve definitely found it as stress relief and as a depiction of some all too real Life-in-Academia issues, for sure. Thanks for that, and thank you so much for talking with me! To close, what advice would you offer to a young writer (like myself) struggling with depression, the job market, or anything else you've mentioned?

 

I suppose that is my best advice with all of this stuff: try to find the humor or absurdity in things--not to trivialize them, but rather to take away their power. Lean on your loved ones who will believe in you even after you've stopped believing in yourself. Make your home an oasis of peace and calm if you can. Lately I've gotten really into cooking and baking for myself as an act of self-care and as a fun, creative distraction from all the bullshit around me. Get your thyroid checked, because it's hard enough to do it all without your own damn immune system attacking you. Always read more than you write. And finally, if you're unable to write for a while, don't beat yourself up about it. Your poems will be waiting for you when you return. 

Brandi Nicole Martin’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Washington Square Review, Nashville Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Salt Hill, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, and the minnesota review, among others. She is at work on a PhD in poetry at Florida State University, where she was the recipient of the 2016 Emerging Writer’s Spotlight award, selected by D.A. Powell.

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