Archival & Elegiac Mourning: An Interview with Rick Barot  – Michigan Quarterly Review

Archival & Elegiac Mourning: An Interview with Rick Barot 

Rick Barot lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University.  He is also the director of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at PLU.  His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, The New Republic, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and The New Yorker.He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer in Poetry. In 2020, Barot received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.

His fourth book of poems, The Galleons, was published by Milkweed Editions in 2020.  The Galleons was listed on the top ten poetry books for 2020 by the New York Public Library and was on the longlist for the National Book Award. Also in 2020, his chapbook During the Pandemic was published by Albion Books.

Rick Barot and A. Shaikh, a second year MFA poet at the University of Michigan, discuss his latest collection The Galleons in the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and length. 

A.Shaikh (AS): Thank you for meeting with me, I’m so excited to ask you questions about your amazing book, The Galleons, which I felt so lucky to read! 

Rick Barot (RB): Thank you so much for reading the book and for coming up with questions, hopefully not too hard of a task. 

AS: No! Not hard at all. For my first question, I would love to just hear you describe The Galleons for our readers.

RB: Well, the book has, from my standpoint, a couple of subjects. The first one is a personal subject, which is that it’s an elegy for my grandmother, who died in 2016 at 92 years old. Then, as I was thinking about her life, a long span that encompassed a lot of human history, I started to think about her life in relation to history as a large, ongoing, unfolding thing. And that started to become the second subject of the book–juxtaposing the personal subject with this larger one, which included history and colonialism and capitalism. So those two things coming together, the personal and a constellation of macro-scale ideas, that’s what the book is about. 

AS: You clearly have the influence of the archive and history merging with personal memory, which I thought was so beautiful.

You use the word elegy, especially starting from elegy. In my reading, it felt as if the personal elegy unfolds into a large almost archival mourning of the history of the galleon trade itself. Can you talk more about the research that went into this book? I love it when I read a book of poetry and I can feel the presence of an archive within it. 

RB: First of all, I love your phrase, archival mourning, because by the time I finished the book, that’s what it felt like –– that the elegiac impulse might have begun with my grandmother, but it ultimately enlarged to encompass other stories, other histories other than her own.

The book, as elegy, began with a challenge that I gave myself. I knew I wanted to write an elegy, but I didn’t necessarily want to write in a conventional, sentimental mode of elegy. As a poet who has been reading and writing poems for almost thirty years, I’ve encountered so many elegies–a lot of it beautiful, but a lot of it also only focused on the singular, personal loss. I didn’t necessarily want to enact that for myself. Bringing in larger ideas was a way of reconfiguring the elegy for myself. And that’s where the archival work started to be crucial. I knew things about my grandmother’s life, but the contexts that informed her life, I needed to look into those. That’s what led to the research into the Spanish galleon trade. 

In the first “Galleons” poem, there’s an image of my grandmother on a boat in the 1940s, when she was in her 20s, crossing the Pacific from the Philippines to the United States. That image of her on that ship was very iconic to me. The more I thought of it, the more it echoed with the image of the galleon ships traversing the Pacific over hundreds of years, carrying goods and people in the colonialist pipeline from the Philippines to Mexico to Spain. Those resonances between the personal and the historical were a spur for me to dig more into what the Spanish galleon trade was all about – as a mercantile mechanism, and also as a mechanism for historical trauma. When these ships traveled from the Philippines to Mexico to Spain they carried things that had been extracted from the colonies of Spain. That included people, slaves. There’s a romantic way of thinking about that galleon trade and the sense of adventure in being on a months-long journey on the high seas. But from another standpoint, it’s also a journey that is a result of plunder and violence. So I wanted to look into that. 

AS: Thank you for that answer. I love the first “Galleons” poem, and how you say, “history is a galleon in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” Just again, linking the word galleon to history, in such a newfound way, because when I came to this book, I was aware of that history in the way that you’re taught in school, but I’ve never looked looked at it from a creative perspective, or like a poetic mode of interrogation, which I found so rich in this book.  Not only do you present a history, but you’re constantly questioning it.

RB: I should add something that might be interesting about my research strategy. You’re a poet, I’m a poet–and I believe the way we poets approach research is very different from, let’s say, a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer.  I think the priorities that writers in different genres place on research varies from writer to writer and genre to genre. As a poet, I did a lot of research while working on the galleons poems–online research, book research, travel research. But as I engaged in that research I didn’t necessarily try to take everything down, in terms of information or knowledge. What I did was look for information, story, and detail that struck me as being encoded with poetic value, even if I didn’t necessarily understand in the moment what those things were.

So, on a given day of research I might have encountered a dozen really important things, but I would write down maybe a couple of those things, knowing that those two things would lead me to a deeper poetic inquiry later, when I started to write. And that’s a very different mode of research than, I imagine, a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer. They want to know everything, whereas my method was a lot more opportunistic.

AS: Yeah, I completely agree. I love that you mentioned this distinction, because when it comes to research for a medium like fiction, you’re trying to capture reality, versus poetry where there’s more freedom in what a reader comes to expect. There’s also the possibility of fragmentation in poetry. You don’t have to cover everything, but just the things like you said, that have “poetic opportunity”, and then let the reader do the beautiful work in their minds of linking those thoughts together.

One of my favorite things about this book is the “Galleon” poems. I love books that have sequence poems, and especially when the sequence poems are the title poems, because that isn’t very common. 

I can imagine it’s a huge project. Could you talk about the decision to have these numbered “Galleon” poems and expand on where that sequence arrived from, as well as how you worked with them while building this manuscript? 

RB: Well, the image of the galleons came to me very early on, when I started to think about my grandmother’s story in relation to history. The galleons motif generated a lot of different associations for me. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t encompass all of these associations or ideas into just one poem. So I started to think about maybe a sequence of poems that took one facet of the galleons motif, and then explored it. And then another poem that explored another facet. I didn’t know in advance how many of these I would write, I just wrote them as they came. I didn’t know that I would have ten. 

In fact, I didn’t even know how many I had until I finished writing the whole book. I didn’t write the “Galleons” poems in order or with a sequential intentionality. I titled each poem “The Galleons” as a way of marking that they belonged together, but I didn’t really think about how many I had until I’d written all the poems I could write for the book, which totaled about 50 pages. That’s when I looked at the “Galleons” poems and noticed that I had ten of them, then I made some decisions about how to integrate them into the flow of the whole book and in what order they would appear. One possibility I entertained early on was to put them all together in one section. The second possibility was what I eventually chose, which was to interlace the poems through the book. When I decided to do it that way, I had to decide which poems would go where, knowing there would be other poems surrounding the poems of the sequence. At that point, it became an exercise in modulating the thematic and emotional intensities of the book as a whole. After I had laid out the order of the “Galleons” poems through the book, that’s when I assigned the numbers to them.

AS: I love to know that you wrote them as they arrived, I think that’s so beautiful. For my reading of the book, they were obviously the throughline. You’ve got poems that talk more about the personal narrative, but then you’re brought back with those “Galleon” poems that serve as a constant movement and reminder of this larger presence of history in the collection. 

I wanted to talk about the form of the book. Just flipping through, you have such focused and gorgeous form.  All the poems in the book are in couplets. Could you talk about that choice as well? I found it so beautiful. Couplets are my favorite form and I love longer line couplets. Did the poems arrive that way? Or was it a decision later when formulating a manuscript to have another through line with a consistent form?

RB: I love the couplet form. It felt like such an accomplishment to me to have a whole book of the couplet, because I’ve always loved that stanza. In terms of how I got to that decision, it happened very early on, and I stuck to the decision stubbornly. I knew it would be a risk in having a book of poems that all look the same, that this might lead to monotony or uniformity, or just a blandness from a formal standpoint. However, what I learned is that using only the couplet form activated all of these other resources that I could put into play in terms of form. Knowing I was stuck with a limited set of parameters for how the poems could be laid out on the page, I had to find other ways of creating formal variety or texture. That included doing things with punctuation, or with syntax, or with things like lists.

So in a way, having one major formal decision made for me challenged me to come up with other formal elements that would work in tension with that fundamental choice. It turned out to be a lot of fun having to make all of these complementary decisions about form, knowing one part of the form was non-negotiable. 

AS:  The “Galleons” poems really show the diversity of what you did with couplets, for example in “The Galleons 5”, every other line is italicized. I literally have never encountered a poem like that and I love what this formal choice did for the poem, the way it played with the twoness of the narrative, and the possibility of two voices. 

RB: I love that we’re having this discussion about form because it reminds me that all of us are generating content all the time as conscious, sentient beings. We’re just  relentlessly generating all kinds of content, in our minds, in our bodies. But what makes us different from other people, as writers and as poets, is that we’re really interested in creating forms or shapes or containers where some of that content can be stored or preserved. 

So, this discussion about form is really about the fundamental work of poets and writers–the work of creating shapes that are beautiful and durable at the same time. The fact that we’re geeking out about form right now just means that we’re talking about the core of what it means to be a poet, which is to be invested in what form does to capture and to safekeep the content we constantly generate as human beings. I think every poet should care about form because, in a way, that’s what it means to be a poet. 

AS: Absolutely. And I love the word durable that you used, I think that’s the perfect word. You’re trying to balance the weight of the content with the best shape, and how to share, explore, and reveal that content. 

RB: Poets are makers, poets are builders. The notion of creating forms and shapes that are durable and lasting, as well as aesthetically pleasing–that’s the basic goal for the poet.

AS: Since we’re talking about the durability of form, I would love to talk about your decision to write “The Galleons 6,” which is just a list. I’m not sure a list of what. I didn’t look it up because I wanted to ask you about it first. But I was curious about the decision to just declare by presenting a list? 

RB: “The Galleons 6” is a list of the two hundred or so ships that were involved in the Spanish galleon trade over the 250 or so years that trade route was in place. I had the good fortune of going to Madrid to do research there, and I went to the Naval Museum. For an exhibit celebrating Spain’s naval history in the Pacific, the historians at the museum had compiled, through what I can imagine was really arduous research, the names of all of the ships involved in the galleon trade. When I encountered this list at the museum, I had an immediate urge to write down all the names. Each entry in the list is the name of a ship, and the year the ship embarked as part of the galleon trade. I wrote down the names not knowing what I was going to do with that material. Just feeling the great impulse to capture the names. 

When I was back home, I asked myself, what do I do with this big chunk of material? Do I write a narrative about this list? Or do I write some kind of meditation on what these names mean? It was so ironic to me that the names of the ships are gorgeous, melodic, poetic. And yet, what these ships’ names actually represent is colonialism, violence, and historical trauma. I decided in the end that to do justice to the magnitude of this knowledge and this history, I needed to put the list into the book as a raw mass of material. Instead of processing it, instead of framing it, instead of creating some kind of narrative around the list, I figured it would be interesting for the reader to encounter the list as this monumental, archival material. 

It’s also important to mention  that the list is immediately followed by “The Galleons 7”, which is a four-line poem––a description of the moment of my grandmother’s death. It’s the shortest poem in the book, right next to the longest poem in the book. It was important for me to create that juxtaposition between the dramatic historical material and the very brief account of a personal loss. That became for me the core meaning for the book–that juxtaposition. 

AS: I love that. I can’t believe I didn’t put the connection of the longest and the shortest poem right next to each other until just now. But yeah, I love “The Galleons 7”. 

You’re a master of the couplet in this poem. To offer us such sparseness but still the writing pools endlessly in the mind. Could you read “The Galleons 7”? I think it’s short enough that we could actually share it with our readers. 


The Galleons 7

We had left the room to make a quiet

for the nurse to wash her in. 

To go from us then, to decide,

as in a courtesy.  Her soft nod away.  

AS:  I love the phrase “to make a quiet” like WOW!  I came to poetry because I realized I just love reading it so much. I think that is what made me a poet because to see what others were doing with language, it’s the most inspiring thing. 

RB: When I thought of writing about my grandmother and her dying, I thought of several ways I could do so. One way was to create a big, dramatic narrative about that moment or that experience. But I decided that this spare, elliptical rendering of that moment was really the way to capture and mourn the moment. In my writing and in my teaching, I’m always thinking about the idea that poets get to control the amplitude and the intensity of the language that we use when we’re rendering something dramatic or important to us. And sometimes it’s good to be counterintuitive, in the sense that when something deeply powerful is being written about, maybe it’s better to go with language that’s quiet and plainspoken, rather than creating a lot of bells and whistles in language. That, to me, was an important decision–to write a brief and quiet poem, rather than a big dramatic one.

AS: Thank you for sharing that. That choice really resonated greatly with me as a reader so it’s great to hear you talk about that. I think one of my favorite poems in the collection is actually the one right after that, “Adjacent, Against, Upon.” Simply because of the question that you raise when you write “when my teacher told me to use this, / instead of the, she was talking about the range between / the intimate and the conventional.” 

Not only is this such a remarkable line, but as a poet myself, reading that remark I really started to think about the range between the intimate and conventional as it resonated with the book as a whole––how you trapeze between these very real personal histories and personal inactions as well as this sense of public grief.  Could you talk more about the range between the intimate and conventional as it relates to the writing of this book?

RB: One way I can respond is to go back to the idea of the poet using form to give the reader experiences of varying intensity. So the decisions that I make, the decisions that poets make, about diction, imagery, punctuation, lineation, stanzas, syntax, the musicality of a poem, the difference between the or this–––all of the micro decisions about these things are to create degrees of intensity for the reader. And also, degrees of intimacy for the reader. You’re creating degrees of distance between the material and the reader. So, using this instead of the has an implication in regards to the reader’s proximity to what’s in front of them. The is a little bit more arm’s length, whereas with this, the reader feels like they’re leaning into the poem. That’s what we’re doing when we write our poems–we’re orchestrating the reader’s intellectual, emotional, and even physical interaction with the content of our poems.

AS: Thank you for that. There’s a poem where you talk about reading Frank O’Hara and Darlene and I wanted to ask what other writers you were reading or revolving around while working on the manuscript? If there were any that you would even recommend perhaps? 

RB: Well, there are two books that intellectually and emotionally inform the book. And though they’re not directly mentioned in the book, I feel it’s important to acknowledge them and praise them. The first book is an amazing book of poetry by Susan Stewart called The Forest, published in 1995.  I don’t think it’s read enough or is celebrated enough, but it’s an astonishing book about history and memory and the personal witness of the poet. So, Susan Stewart’s The Forest is a book that I feel The Galleons is paying homage to, in a way. 

The other book I want to mention as being a kind of mentor for the book is The Future of Nostalgia by the literary critic Svetlana Boym.  It’s a fierce book about memory and modernity, and how literature becomes a space where nostalgia is described, problematized, and illustrated.  Her work with memory in that book is really important to my thinking about memory and history. In that book, she generates a couple of categories for nostalgia that I find very important. One category is what she calls restorative nostalgia, which in her mind is a kind of desire to restore the past in the present.  From her standpoint, that’s a very toxic and conservative kind of nostalgia. It’s what happened with Trump, and it’s what’s happening now with Putin invading Ukraine. The other kind of nostalgia is reflective nostalgia, which inhabits the emotional liminality of nostalgia, without necessarily a desire to bring the past back. So it’s a kind of generative nostalgia. 

AS:  I love the idea of a nostalgia that generates because I feel like that is one of the great feats of this book. Thank you so much for this interview! 

RB: Thank you so much for the great questions, and for your time with the book and working on the interview. I’m really grateful.

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