After years of having her work published in anthologies, magazines, and various poetry publications, Barbara Barnes has written her debut poetry collection, Hound Mouth. Intern Alex DiMarco interviews Barbara Barnes about her experience writing the book and how she made it to this point as a winner of the 2021 Collection Competition.
Alex DiMarco: What is your writing process like?
Barbara Barnes: I’m working out, on a daily basis, how to learn to live with the impulse to write poems. Donald Barthleme talks about ‘that true account of the activity of the mind’. It seems for me, the next poem that needs to be written presents itself quite strongly. Sometimes it’s not even the poem I’m expecting to write, but I just have to just write the one that is there waiting to happen. That poem often starts as a phrase I’ve read somewhere, or that pops into my head out of nowhere, or something I’ve scribbled into a notebook at some point. It’s kind of like the urge to have some chocolate even though it’s almost mealtime, but you can’t stop thinking about that chocolate. Finally, you just give in and take a bite. I think writing a poem can be like that, a break away from daily routines- a kind of anti-discipline. The poem just insists that you recognise it, like a dog that tries everything to get your attention and finally jumps up on your lap and licks your face! You have to play with it before you can get anything else done.
Once I start writing a particular poem, things become more disciplined. I get a draft usually in one sitting. Then I go do something else. Then I come back to it and make changes, some of which occur to me when I’m doing that something else. Then I go away again. I read the poem out loud lots of times. I start at the beginning of the poem and comb through it, querying the intention behind each line, the way an actor would study a script. Finally, I take the poem to my tried and trusted workshop group. I’m forever indebted to their close reading and feedback.
AD: Where did the inspiration for my collection Hound Mouth come from?
BB: This is my first collection and therefore a herding together of many different poems into one enclosed pasture.
Although not everything I’ve written belonged, and some poems were left to roam free, or maybe they’ll appear in future gatherings of poems!
It became clear that I often write about Canada (where I grew up), performance (I’m an actor) and a strange fusion of both those subjects. That gave me a basis for selecting poems. Then other poems nudged their way in and there were overlaps and a melding of themes. For example, ‘In 1988 I Go Home For A Visit’ is in a form that is quite performative, though it isn’t about performance.
David Mamet’s comment to actors was ‘How do you know what to put in the suitcase? The answer is you pack for where you want to go.’ I found this helpful in deciding which poems to include.
I’m utterly indebted to Tammy Yoseloff who read my manuscript and offered brilliant direction which I followed to the t!
AD: What advice do you have for writers?
BB: For me, it’s essential to read lots and lots of poems – not as a task but because I want to and I’m curious about how they’re made.
If a phrase comes to me, either in my thoughts or I see it written somewhere, I try to make a note of it then and there. Kind of like walking along a beach and finding which pebble out of the millions catches your eye. I pocket it, even if I let it go later.
Also, for me it’s necessary to take risks – to operate on adrenaline at times. Although I don’t have a first degree, I applied to the MA programme offered by the Poetry School and Newcastle University. That brought an amazing structure to what I’d been dabbling in for years. As an actor I’m used to taking direction. I found myself in a new rehearsal room!
AD: Which part of Hound Mouth did you have the hardest time writing, if there was one?
BB: Writing about my family was probably the hardest. It felt intimate, yet public.
It’s not fact. It’s a poem. August Kleinzahler talks about ‘this need we have of tying language to experience…. giving it a shape and tune to carry it in the air.’
AD: Which part of Hound Mouth did you have the most fun writing?
BB: It’s fun writing poems that are a tumble of sounds. ‘Mic’ is one of those.
For me, it’s a joy when writing feels like the best rehearsals where you’re playing and improvising with a script, gradually choosing what works for the scene. Trying stuff out and putting the poem on its feet as it were.
AD: How long did it take to come up with the title of your book, and do you ever have difficulty titling your poems?
BB: I used ‘Hound Mouth’ to introduce my collection since it’s about a raconteur, a stranger who sits down beside you on the bench and dazzles you with language.
It’s also a kind of howl and I love dogs.
I often start poems with a working title- maybe it’s the phrase that was the spark for the writing of the poem. On the other hand, I was in a workshop led by Inua Ellams where he said he sometimes knows what the final line of a poem is, and he writes towards it. I was so relieved to hear that. Conclusions can be a surprise, but they can also be the one thing you know from the start.
AD: Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?
BB: I often re-read Donald Barthelme, W G Sebald, the theatre maker Joseph Chaiken, Lorrie Moore, Kenneth Koch, Karen Solie, Marianne Boruch and many, many more. People who whether they write poetry or not, open up possibilities in my head. The list is always growing.
AD: Has writing and publishing a book changed the way you see yourself?
BB: Many of my fellow actors, friends and relatives didn’t know I write. Inviting them to the launch of Hound Mouth was my way of telling them. Also, I’m very grateful to Live Canon for giving these poems a home. Now I can write new poems – it feels like the moment just before inhaling a fresh breath! I’m also really enjoying figuring out how to present my poems to an audience. That’s the actor in me!
Barbara Barnes began writing at the Poetry School, London, in Roddy Lumsden’s Wednesday group. That led to an MA in Writing Poetry from Newcastle University/Poetry School, which she completed in 2018. Her poems have been published in Butcher’s Dog, Ambit, Poetry London, Magma, South Bank Poetry, Under the Radar and the Brixton Review of Books. In 2016 she won a Troubadour Poetry Prize. Barbara has poetry and a blog for the Southbank Poetry Library’s WS Graham Residency.