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?