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Catherine Barnett talks to Sasha Alex Z about what makes a good reader, Greek yogurt bars, and keeping oneself from knowing too much

Catherine Barnett’s fourth book of poems, Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space, will be published by Graywolf Press in May 2024. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Sasha sent Catherine a series of questions via email. Catherine responded via email. At the time, both were mostly in New York City.

Sasha Alex Z: I remember last semester you were writing while watching an eagle cam and I was wondering if you still do that? Since this interview is about collaboration, I'd be curious to hear how it felt to be writing while watching these birds through your screen, where you are in two completely different places. What brought on the initial need to write while watching an eagle's nest, and what did you find yourself thinking about during those writing sessions?

Catherine Barnett: I was just looking for a good way to respond to my own prompt! For our last class, I'd asked each of you –– my wonderful NYU MFA workshop members –– to write the portrait of a two-hour stretch of time and somehow I ended up with cocktail hour –– 6-8pm. Since I don't drink, I entertained myself by watching the Cornell Ornithology Lab's webcams, just noting what was happening during those dusk hours in different places: I watched an osprey in Missoula; a petrel on Nonsuch (!) Island. I was tending to a very sick friend at the time and had no access to an inner life so I thought I'd just pay attention to what was happening in other dimensions.

We met, I think briefly, over Zoom in one of Geoffrey Nutter's Wallson Glass sessions and then I was your student last semester, where we did a lot of fun writing prompts. Seemingly, you are no stranger to writing with other people, or helping people write as much as they can. Going off the previous question, what role has collaboration played in your life and poetry? Where does it fall into your writing routine?

CB: I believe in freewriting –– I love what Adrienne Rich wrote in "When We Dead Awaken": "... [P]oems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.” Freewriting is a good way to get to what you don't know you know, and I often freewrite in the company of others. When I'm feeling blank I'll meet a friend in a cafe and we'll give each other a writing assignment and write together in R/T. I think it's helpful to read your work aloud in those instances, because it can so often feel like the dregs but someone else can usually find at least something of interest. I love hearing what my friends have written with the same prompts. Geoffrey Nutter is a wonderful poet and a wonderful teacher, as you know. His workshops go entirely too fast for me, though I marvel at what others –– including you!!! –– can do in them. Mostly I use prompts with myself and with my students just to keep us from knowing too much; to keep us off-kilter, surprised, and capable of surprise. There's so much to unlearn.

One thing I have struggled with is finding a "good reader" for my work. I have struggled with this primarily because I don't really know what I am looking for in comments or critique. What does it mean for someone to be a "good reader" of your work? Do you primarily rely on one person, or do you go to different people for different readings? Do you have a poetry Best Friend for Life who you go to first?

CB: This is an excellent question. It's a sad question for me at this moment because my best reader and dear friend Saskia Hamilton died this summer. She was an exquisitely attuned reader. What made her so good? Her ear, her kindness, her ethics, her refusal to intrude or overstep. Often her way of commenting was simply to say she was sure I was still working on the poem and that she was excited about seeing where it would go in the next draft. (She said this even when I'd hoped the poem was finished, insofar as a poem can ever be finished.) The only thing she was inflexible about was having a single line as its own stanza at the end of a poem. For some reason she thought this was very ill advised and I was unable to convince her otherwise.

When I read other people's poems –– as a colleague, friend, or teacher –– I'm happiest if my comments make the writer excited to return to the poem and keep working. For me a good reader is someone attuned to the subtext of your work, someone who gives you the courage and curiosity to keep exploring. A good reader can also challenge one's assumptions, one's habits, which are so often invisible to the self. When I read, I think I'm using many of the same social skills I use when I'm in conversation with someone, trying to understand what's really being –– or wanting to be –– said: what the words are saying and what all the other gestures ––the hesitations, repetitions, leaps, formal shifts, temporal shifts, shifts in diction, sudden plunge into or away from figuration –– are saying. I write in very faint pencil so the comments can be easily erased if they're not useful.

I feel like in every writer interview, there's always the question of "What are you reading?", which I do want to know, yes, what are you reading? But also, just to try to be a little more interesting, what are the best and worst foods you've eaten this week? Why were they so good or so awful?

CB: Truly all I have enjoyed eating this week and last are Yasso greek yogurt bars (coffee chocolate chip). I had covid and somehow the bars healed me. Just today I made some fresh applesauce with grated ginger for a friend who's not feeling well, and that was delicious while it was hot. I used apples that were a little worse for the wear and they somehow rose to the occasion.

In terms of reading: I just finished Elisa Gonzalez's
Grand Tour and Ben Lerner's The Lights, both of which were wonderful and made me feel like writing again. (Have been on an uncharacteristic pause.) I also loved Lauren Russell's What's Hanging on the Hush, Michele Glazer's Fretwork, and Clare Keegan's novella Foster. If I need to remember that writing can be a joy and is kin to dreaming, I reread Matthew Rohrer's The Sky Contains the Plans. If I need to remember that writing can continue in the face of mortal illness, I reread Saskia Hamilton's All Souls. I'm in the middle of Richard Deming's This Exquisite Loneliness, a compelling prose meditation on the creative force of loneliness. This summer I returned to Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son": is there a better essay anywhere? Baldwin's sentences are so beautiful it can sometimes be hard to keep reading. (This also happens to me with Beckett and Woolf.) I'm also reading some Adam Phillips and am trying to understand metaphor. I read the news obsessively and feel a sense of helplessness and distress.

Ever since I read Rachel Zucker's Poem, where you have a feature, and a line of dialogue, I have been so curious about your sentiment that, "Life isn't about being happy, it's about helping other people." That's such a badass moment and I can totally see you saying that, plus it seems to fit in nicely with this conversation about collaboration, so I'm wondering if that's something you've always felt or if it just popped up in the heat of the moment? Can you talk also how it feels to be featured in another poet's poem and how it came to be? I hope this isn't too prescriptive, but how do you think it's best to help other people, either in poetry or outside it, though I'd think it would apply to both?

CB: Honestly, I think that line makes me sound kinda ridiculous. But I do think the question of happiness is the wrong question. My new book is a study of loneliness, in part, and it turns out that caring for others is an antidote to loneliness. (A few years ago, right before the pandemic, I gave a lecture on the importance of both solitude and loneliness –– and the difference between them –– in a writer's life.) Teaching poetry is both collaborative and filled with caring, so it's been a perfect profession for me. I feel wildly lucky to be in the classroom with students like you!

About showing up in someone's poem –– I don't really like it. It makes me feel powerless! And unknown. On the other hand, it's awfully nice to show up in someone's love poem. I think there are probably hundreds, maybe even thousands, of love poems out there that are secretly (unbeknownst even to the writer!) about me. I keep looking for them.

Catherine Barnett is the author of three poetry collections, Human HoursThe Game of Boxes; and Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2022 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She teaches graduate and undergraduate students in the Creative Writing Program at NYU and lives in New York City, where she also works as an independent editor. Her fourth book of poems, Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space, will be published by Graywolf Press in May 2024.

Sasha Alex Z runs les pétroglyphes, a micro poetry press, and STONE AGE, a sewn goods laboratory.

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