Jul/Aug 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Conversation between Judith Arcana and Judith Barrington

by Judith Arcana and Judith Barrington

Judith Arcana and Judith Barrington are friends who've done several "Two Judiths" readings in Oregon, where they both live. They are prolific poets, writers and educators.

Judith Arcana's poems, stories and essays have appeared widely for over thirty years, in print and online. Her books are the now-classic motherhood studies Our Mothers' Daughters and Every Mother's Son; Grace Paley's Life Stories, A Literary Biography; and the poetry collection What if your mother. New is her Ash Creek Series, which includes 4th Period English, a chapbook of poems in the voices of high school students; POEMS, a signed/numbered edition folded broadside; and Family Business, a chapbook manuscript in a cartoon envelope. She was a teacher (from kindergarten to PhD) for forty years, and now she isn't.

Judith Barrington is the author of three collections of poetry: Trying to be an Honest Woman; History and Geography; and Horses and the Human Soul. Recent publications are chapbooks, Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea and Lost Lands (Winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Award). She is also the author of Lifesaving: A Memoir (winner of the Lambda Book Award and finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir); and of Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and in the Old Olive Press Program in Spain.

In this recent e-mail conversation Judith and Judith discuss poetry, writing, politics, sexuality, the classics and their experiences as women, teachers and poets in a culturally diverse and changing world.


JB     Our cultural backgrounds, at first glance, look enormously different, and in many ways they are. I'm a middle-class Brit, and your roots are quite different from mine. But culture has a way of opening smaller doors off that main, broadly-defined chamber—smaller doors that lead into narrow corridors, some of which intersect with the narrow corridors of a person who may seem entirely "other." What I mean is that leading off my "middle class Brit" chamber is, among others, the lesbian corridor, and this corridor, somewhere in the rabbit-warren of the cultural maze, intersects with your "omnisexual" corridor. This gives us, in fact, a large overlapping cultural area. To say nothing of other cultural things we share, like living in the world as U.S. citizens, working in a particular corner of the poetry culture, and so on.

As far as the "Brit" part of my cultural background is concerned, I am undoubtedly still part-English. When I teach in Spain in the spring, my students are usually about half Brits and half from the U.S., which is very comfortable and satisfying to me, and which has made me realize how much I am still half and half. But the "Brit" in me is also complicated by having had expatriate parents who lived abroad (in Spain) for many years. My brother and sister were born into an ex-pat culture and I, too, would have been, if it were not for the Spanish Civil War, driving them back to Britain. Ex-pat British culture is recognizably its own thing (so many novels are set in it), and I suppose a bit of it rubbed off on me.

The place, I think, where your culture and mine meet and merge really strongly is in the feminist culture of the 60's and 70's, and, indeed, in feminism through to the present time. That culture was and is enormously important to the western world and to those of us who moved within it, and I think sharing that culture is a profound connection. It transcended national boundaries and has attempted to transcend class and race. In many ways I picture it as the "second wave" that it was—one that caught us up in its fast-moving, sometimes dangerous body, like water.

Finding cultural connections, though, doesn't mean that we agree on everything; it does mean that we are recognizable to each other, and that our poems have an affinity with each other, too, despite major differences of form, voice, style, etc.

JA     Yes—we do share a "culture," broad and fluctuating as that culture may be. A dear friend thirteen years my senior, an artist, once said we were actually in the same generation because we'd become conscious at the same time, sparked by the same social, cultural, political influences.

I like your corridors and mazes, with their connections and overlaps and transcendent impulses. They work well for me, as I'm a mongrel, mestiza by class and ethnic/national location. My grandparents were Russian and Polish Jews, communists and socialists, working class and self-educated intelligentsia, immigrants who came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, fleeing pogroms and the Czar's army. My parents, including my middle class stepmother, climbed up and fell down the class ladder repeatedly, and my family moved many times in my growing-up years—from one town or address in the Great Lakes region to another. (I'd gone to thirteen schools by the time I graduated from high school.) None of the elders went to college (that hefty chunk of the weighty American dream), but all their ladder-climbing energy was expended to make sure my brothers and I did. My sexual identity, happily-but-not-openly expressed and understood though certainly never mentioned in my first twenty-five years, is organic, was enlarged by that great wave of women's liberation movement, and has been expanded more recently by energetic education from the trans folks, who've made it possible for me to see that bisexuality is not my tag.

My writing, whatever the subject, is always that of a fairly queer white woman, a mother, a Jew, a U.S. citizen seeking consciousness. I want, classically enough, to know myself, and I need always to place myself in both history and geography (like you, with your book of that title). One might say I've written a collection of poems about immigration because my people are immigrants, or I've written three books about mothering because my mother died when I was a baby, or—perhaps even more obviously—that I wrote poems about abortion because I'd worked in the pre-Roe Chicago underground. As influential as such raw facts may be in the making of anyone's art, even more definitive are the forces shaping those raw facts, forces that are, essentially, the politics of our lives.

And that's something else we have in common: we've both paid attention to the politics of poetry, the politics of being a poet/writer—particularly as women, one lesbian, one omnisexual. We've talked about the repeatedly fought battles over politics-in-poetry in the U.S.A. as well as our own choices about when and how to make (or allow) our own poems be overtly "political."

JB     Yes, you've chosen some very clear examples, such as your whole book of poems relating to motherhood decisions, What if your mother, and also your recent chapbook of poems set in a classroom, 4th Period English, which reveals a lot about your political views around immigration. For me, the consistent political thread has been telling the truth as a lesbian. I created a persona I named "The Dyke with No Name," which harks back to my years of being afraid to name myself lesbian, and used this persona to write about various things from a lesbian perspective. The first one was just titled "The Dyke with No Name," and was in my second full collection (History and Geography), and then she (the persona) showed up in each subsequent book, thinking about various things from landscape to religion to the ocean. More recently, my environmental politics have focused on the sea, and I was invited as poet-in-residence to the Mark Hatfield Marine Science Center, in Oregon, where I learned a lot about the work of oceanographers as well as the way humans are degrading the oceans and sea bed. This led to a chapbook focused on sea poems.

JA     I could argue that all poetry is political; indeed, I could argue that damn near everything in human comprehension is by definition political because we filter everything through our necessarily-political location/consciousness. But I know that's not what all the shouting's about in po-biz. What everybody gets all worked up about in the U.S.A. (and pretty much nowhere else) is whether poets ought to engage overtly any political themes/issues, i.e., whether by doing so they render their work not-poetry because class and race and unemployment and farm labor are not lyrical—or something like that. Happily, I see this latter perspective is on the wane in the current spread of public awareness, no doubt because of what American schoolchildren in the 20th century grew up calling "current events" and the ongoing/growing complexity of form—rap, slam and hip-hop being perhaps the current obvious and global influences.

Though Forché's colonel and his bag of ears were shocking to those who hadn't paid attention to what the big guys—Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, et al—were actually talking about, very fine poetry everywhere, including the U.S. of A., has always been put to use (despite Auden; like Marge Piercy). But in this country we have not yet dumped the soggy leftovers of the New Critics' long lunch hour, their politically motivated insistence that poetry should have no politics. Basically, I'm with Toni Morrison, whose words on this subject I've posted on my website: "The problem comes when you find harangue passing off as art. It seems to me that the best art is political and you ought to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time."

JB     That makes me wonder if the leeriness in the U.S. about political poetry is related to a woeful lack of knowledge about poetry over the long haul. When I've been a poet in the schools, it's clear that students read very, very little from the literary past, and even students in MFA programs seem very focused on contemporary work rather than the foundation from which it grows—or should grow. If the schools aren't providing it, the best thing poets can do is design a course for themselves! Not long ago, I realized that I knew virtually nothing about Old English alliterative verse—the kind of form that Beowulf was written in—so I started reading very early poetry. One of the great things about poetry, which I've always understood, is that you could dig into it for your whole lifetime and only scratch the surface.

One thing that came out of my exploring that form—in addition to the joy of the poem itself—was the discovery that the form was perfect for a poem I was trying to write about Philippe Petit, the guy who wire-walked between the twin towers. I wanted a way to address the loss of the towers and, thus, 9/11, and I kept looking back to his amazing performance up there against the sky. The alliterative form is often divided visually with a space in the middle of each line at the caesura, so the poem that I eventually wrote, looked, on the page, just like two skyscrapers side by side.

JA     Lovely! Maybe even karmic, given that Beowulf tells the story of deadly attacks on a despised culture.

You know, with all we've talked about over time, I don't think Beowulf has been on our list, so this must be the moment to tell you I've fallen in love with it twice. I first encountered the poem in translated fragments when I was a fifteen year old high school student, and then again in a required graduate school seminar, where we translated the whole poem. I was already forty-three then, but must've gained ten IQ points, so much learning did my love engender. Hwæt!

So, ok, we have much in common. Looking at our differences, though, I believe one of the latter is that you seem to write, more often than not, in poetry's classic forms; and I virtually never do. This difference is made interestingly complex by the fact that both of us have framed copies of the calligraphic rendition of Gertrude Stein's words: "What has passion got to do with choosing an art form? Everything. There is nothing else which determines form."

Mind you, I don't disdain formal poetry as some do; I've loved much formal work since early childhood. I've thought about using the classic forms, seriously considered them (usually spurred by friends and colleagues who seem to be having a fine time with them, who even teach the forms and offer sterling rationales for each and all) but—with the exception of fooling around with pantoum and haiku—I continue to decide, like Bartleby, that I prefer not to. As I wrote in a tiny essay for umbrella, explaining that writing one poem ("Eight") changed my mind about myself in this regard, it took me a long time to believe that my sort of formal concerns could and should be taken seriously—by me, by other poets, by the amorphous thing that is Poetry. Because I wasn't using conventional forms, I thought my work with form wasn't the real deal.

JB     It's interesting that you think I write in classic forms "more often than not." I wouldn't have thought so, but I haven't gone through the work and counted either. It is, however, true that when I write in free verse, I still lean toward symmetry. I'd have a hard time, for instance, if I had two stanzas of eight lines each, writing a third stanza of nine! One of the reasons I think of this as useful rather than as obsessive is that the effort to make that third stanza eight lines often produces some cutting that I might never have thought of, and that is actually an improvement.

JA     I agree—that is, I often have the same sort of experience. It's also true, however, that when I find work that thrills me despite its having two stanzas of eight lines followed by one of seven or nine or two, I reconsider. And: I now think my earliest published poems were sometimes careless of form; I grow more & more serious about formal concerns. Perhaps this is evidence of growing passion, á la Stein.

Anyway, I work pretty ferociously on structure in my poetry (and prose, but I'll leave that aside for now). Each piece has a form that comes with it, so to speak, grows out of it as I write. I search for the form in each piece. This is frequently a struggle, always a quest: seeking a form that seems right for the ideas, theme, meaning, sounds, rhythm I'm working with, asking myself what's the relationship between a potential form (length of line, shape and number of stanzas, use of rhyme, other repetition et al) and the narrative, imagery, subject at hand. Also, the form of a particular piece may evolve. I may look at something I wrote (even published) long ago, decide the form is wrong, and change it.

As a visual artist might think about whether a particular subject should be done in charcoal, pencil, watercolor, acrylic, oil, or maybe sheets of cast-off metal that require a really tall ladder and some welding tools, and think about how any one of those could probably handle her father's death or the rain or the resurgence of species on Mt. St. Helens, but since each would be different from the others, has to decide how to explore that subject—that's what happens in me.

Do you run down a list in your mind, i.e., For this theme, how about a villanelle? A sonnet? What's the form that'll best serve this set of feelings I have about x, y or z?

JB     No, I can't say that I think about the received form ahead of time, except occasionally when I set myself the task of writing a new form that I've discovered—and then it's more of a learning exercise. If I'm going to assimilate a form, I like to have written lots of poems in that form so that it's easy to do—well, not easy, but the form is very familiar so I don't have to focus on the requirements of the form, but can use the form to carry the poem along. My choice of a form is more organic than running down a list. Often I'll be writing something and an ingredient—perhaps three-line stanzas, or a certain kind of rhythm just beginning to emerge—will suggest to me that I should try it as a villanelle or in terza rima. Trying out a form or two is part of digging into the heart of the poem as well as a step in the revision.

JA     I recently had this experience with a poem: after I'd written three raw stanzas and was into a fourth, I saw that I'd begun to alternate seven and eight line blocks of text—so I had to ask, do I want to keep this? I noticed, too, that in those first few stanzas I'd used a particular punctuation mark and a particular word—and I decided to write both of those into all the stanzas (I knew there'd be at least five, maybe six or seven). Why? For pleasure, I suppose.

JB     Well, I think there's a lot of play in writing poetry. It has this reputation of being a deadly serious, often painful, occupation leading to booze and suicide, but actually there are days when to me it simply feels like the privilege of being allowed playfulness for a few hours. And there's the jolt of discovery when you find that the particular punctuation mark you decided to put into every stanza really belongs where you placed it—it can almost feel like a miracle. There's a huge chasm between the pain inherent in some subject matter and the joy of finding the right form in which to communicate it. I'm always surprised when people are afraid to read, say, Sylvia Plath, whose craft has been a huge influence on me. She certainly writes painful material, but the language is so vividly alive that I can't wait to get back to it.


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