JULIE BROOKS BARBOUR
The Body, the Water, the Mind
I woke out of a dream but kept
its low noise, its slow movements.
In the shower, my mind followed
no particular train of thought,
the waking mind still far away,
my body on autopilot.
The water like warm linens,
the bathroom dim.
I concentrated on each notion
as one wound itself into another,
but none tightened.
I neither stopped those words
nor began to spiral.
No reason to rush
though there was a meeting
which mattered and didn’t.
The reality of it fell into
the lines of thought,
progressed, and vanished.
The tub slick, water patting
the curtain. No light
from the window.
Steam and an imprint
of shadow in fog.
I find my grandmother’s dog rooting in her vegetable garden
after her death. I take him into her quiet house and call him
by the name she gave. In her closets I find mannequins made
of cloth with stitched faces, each a sleeping family.
My own family members filter in and search through
what she left. They cook and eat the last of her food.
I check on the silent families in the closets then wait
at the front door where my grandmother tacked advertisements
from local businesses to the door jamb. In the garden,
the dog digs up wilted lettuce. Voices roar from inside the house.
Standing in the doorway, I read tattered signs, the names of men.
The American Dream Visits While I Clean
It wasn’t part of me, only something I listened to,
like radio music or dialogue on the evening news.
I was cleaning the bathroom. I thought of nothing,
really, while I watched my hands move. It spoke
from the paint peeling on the bathroom ceiling
and the moisture on the windows turning
the wood black. It spoke through the stains
I couldn’t clear and caulk loosening at the tub’s edge.
It sat on the edge of the tub and recalled my past:
a broken down car that couldn’t get me home
and meals of hot dogs every night of the week.
Sunlight sharpened the room and revealed
spots on the fixtures. A cat waltzed in
and threw the light back on itself, his hair
clinging to the wet tub. The dream didn’t
notice that I wiped the surface clean again.
It stayed where it was and talked of nothing,
really, like dreams do.
*“The American Dream Visits While I Clean” previously published in The Rumpus April 2013.
All night my husband
has turned among the sheets,
rising every hour
to gulp cold water or watch TV,
anything to mute the ascending pain
he will later describe
as a tearing in his skull.
Roused by his groans,
I click on the lamp and gasp
at the sight of blood on his pillow.
Punctured eardrum, we later learn
in the emergency room,
though he’d been waiting
for the ache to explain itself
before he could recognize it,
wanting to answer
a list of symptoms,
thinking it would be certain
as sunlight or snow.
He never noticed the signs:
the first rays of light marking
clouds above the horizon
or gray sky eclipsing blue.
Talking About Practice, Persistence and Play: Julie Brooks Barbour
(Interviewer: Ashley Maser, Poetry Editor, SPACES)
Ashley: First, thank you so much for letting us share your work. How did you first come to poetry?
Julie: In 11th grade, I had a fantastic teacher, Dixie Dellinger, who introduced me to American Literature and the first poets I read: Longfellow, Bradstreet, and Whitman. One day, she mentioned Sylvia Plath’s name to me and I remember rushing to the public library right after school to find one of her books. I don’t think I read much else for a few years because of Plath’s strong voice. At that time, I had been writing poems for about a year which resembled rhymed diary entries. I realized, through reading Plath, that I could write in my own voice while playing with line length, imagery, and sound. Of course, I did the best that a 16-year-old could do, but it was a starting place.
Ashley: Do you believe voice is the most important component of good poetry?
Julie: I think voice is an important component of good poetry but it’s certainly not the only one. It is, however, one of the first things that draws me into a poem. A strong voice lets me know that a poet will not be swayed from his/her own vision. I may be drawn to the poem by its presentation on the page, but voice keeps me there. Ultimately, the poem has to follow through on what it sets out to do. If I’m not satisfied by other components of the poem, such as imagery, figurative language, and sound, then voice won’t matter quite as much. It can’t be the only thing holding the poem together.
Ashley: Your lines and stanzas are very diverse in structure and length, which makes for an interesting read. How do you find the right structure for your work?
Julie: The type of structure I use depends on the type of poem I’ve written. I might use long lines in a narrative poem to give the reader the sense of reading a story. I might work in unrhymed couplets to slow down the pace of a poem especially if I’ve used images that need to work on their own as well as connect to others. If there is a significant movement from one moment to the next, I’ll break the stanza at a certain place to create suspense. For me, playing with structure is one of the most enjoyable elements in writing poetry. I don’t usually decide on structure until after I’ve written the poem and can figure out what it needs.
Ashley: As you’ve matured as a poet, do you think the ways in which you experiment with form and language have changed?
Julie: Most definitely. I try to find the best structure for the poems I’m writing at the time which always encourages a little experimentation. I consider it a form of play, and if I don’t play, I can’t figure out what works. I think I’m more willing to experiment now with form and language than say, 10 years ago, when I was trying to discipline myself as a writer while working full-time and raising an infant. At that time, I felt satisfied if I could write a poem from beginning to end. Now that I’ve had practice at multi-tasking and feel more disciplined, I can play a bit more.
Ashley: I know revision differs for every poet. What process works best for you? Any revision advice for aspiring writers?
Julie: Not to sound like a broken record, but, for me, this also depends on the individual poem. I usually try to revise a poem within the first few days of writing it. I try to notice where it trips itself up, where it sounds dull, or where it might need more detail. I usually spend a few days on a new poem then leave it alone for a while, a week at least (sometimes longer depending on how much I’ve been writing). When I return to the poem, I might like it as is and only revise a few words for clarity. If the poem needs significant revision, I’ll work on it for a few days, cutting or adding lines, changing verbs, working on enjambment, then let it breathe again. It might take me months or years to get a poem where it needs to be. Writing is a process as much as our lives. One day, I’ll have an experience or read a poem or have a conversation with someone, and the poem I’ve been struggling with will open up again.
Advice? Be patient. Don’t force the poem in a certain direction. If you listen to the poem, it will tell you where it needs to go.
Ashley: In an interview with The Paris Review, Charles Simic once stated that “There’s no preparation for poetry. Four years of grave digging with a nice volume of poetry or a book of philosophy in one’s pocket would serve as well as any university.” How do you feel about this?
Julie: I agree wholeheartedly. A writer can have all the degrees in the world, but unless that writer is reading and paying attention to what he’s reading, really engaging with it, really noticing how the poet or author says what he’s saying, then he won’t learn much about writing. That’s why it’s so necessary that, as writers, we read. Reading helps us learn about our craft. I remember in graduate school I would read a single poet for months and my poems would, at times, end up sounding like the poet I was reading at the time. But if I had not been reading, I would not have been learning how to use imagery more effectively, or how to make my poems more exact and concise. I would not have had the courage to try something new. Each poet or author I read teaches me something different and opens my eyes to new possibilities for my own work.
Ashley: What poets are you reading at the moment?
Julie: Currently I’m reading Lucille Clifton’s Collected and Mary Biddinger’s most recent collection, O Holy Insurgency. I tend to read poets who write in different styles to keep things interesting, but also to keep myself aware of what poets have done or are doing in American poetry. At the moment, I’m tending toward poets who connect me to my own poems. For instance, I’m reading Clifton for her perspective on womanhood as I write about the domestic lives of women, and Biddinger for her use of surrealism as I write from a dream-like state. I see poets as spirit guides, so to speak, who lead me through certain territories in my own work. However, I also read for fun. For instance, the twists and turns in Biddinger’s poems always surprise me, and her wit is so perfect that I find myself laughing aloud at times.
Ashley: When you first began “Rooting,” did the poem come to you as a single line or image, or did you begin with the overall concept? Is this how your poems usually arise?
Julie: “Rooting” came to me as a series of images that I had to figure out how to sequence so they would make sense. After I was able to create a narrative from the images, I worked on the overall concept of the poem. This isn’t always how my poems arise; I feel very lucky to have this poem arrive as it did. Most times a few lines will come to me and I’ll work out the rest of the poem from there.
Ashley: Your final lines pack quite a punch, but this can be a struggle for many poets. What is it that entices you to construct your final images as you do?
Julie: For me, the ending is what a poem builds toward. I think of the ending of my poems as a resolution. I’ve set up a problem or a situation in the poem and follow it through until it comes to an end. Usually the poem is resolved with an image, but this image has to make sense to the poem overall. It can’t veer off from the concept or the other images in the poem. It has to speak to the poem as a whole.
Ashley: Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
Julie: Persist, practice, and play. Persist in doing what you love whether it be golf or music or knitting or woodworking or writing. Practice those skills so you don’t get rusty, but don’t forget to be creative. Play opens the door to possibility.
Julie Brooks Barbour is the author of the chapbook Come To Me and Drink (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Waccamaw, Kestrel, UCity Review, diode, Prime Number Magazine, Blood Lotus, storySouth, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and on Verse Daily. She teaches at Lake Superior State University where she is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing.