Dylan Riley in Conversation with John Barger

Dylan Riley: The first things that jump out from your bio are the divergent locations — but maybe that’s two questions. First, what’s Finland like? What brought, or continues to bring you, there?
John Barger: I fell in love with a Finnish woman! This summer we lived together in Tampere, in the south, for four months. The whole country is eerie and gorgeous. So much dark. So much light. We visited a birch forest in Lapland, in the Arctic Circle, with five others in a cabin beside a frozen lake. It took two days to heat it. We chopped a hole in the lake for water, cut wood, had saunas at night. One night there were northern lights that looked like green flamenco fingers. The eternals (Väinämöinen, the eternal singer) and demons (Hiisi, the goblin who drowns children in lakes) you read about seem very close up there.

DR: I’m from the Maritimes myself, and I noticed a bit of a pattern. Young people seem to move from an obscure, small, Maritime city to Halifax, then from Halifax on to Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver. How do you feel about this, and do you plan on living permanently in Halifax?
JB: I did that: moved to Vancouver at twenty. I love Halifax, but I’ve always felt separate from it. I’m envious of "regional" writers like Faulkner or Margaret Laurence, who can write about a community and have it stand for the world. I don't feel like I'm from anywhere. My first book, Pain-proof Men, mostly takes place in Halifax, but my next book, Hummingbird, does not have a single poem set there.

DR: But do you feel regionalism can be a trap sometimes, that in a way you're better off as a writer without it?
JB: Maybe it's a case of the grass always being greener — because I lack it, I want it. But I love [Charles] Olson’s Maximus poems, and his connection with Gloucester, Massachusetts. It seems like knowing where you are from is a beginning point, rather than an end. Like, once you have place, then you can jump off into the cosmos. I know most of the world lacks this sense of place these days — I'm not unique for this.

DR: “Beautiful Rodney” strikes me as a prose poem. Is this a form you think highly of? One you use often?
JB: I don't mind if it’s prose or not, if it works. I love some prose poems, like Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. I like to try to disarm the reader by presenting an accessible (maybe non-academic?) voice and form and (sometimes) narrative. Then once you are inside the poem — feeling comfortable and at home — something shifts.

DR: I like that. Sometimes you do have to trick a reader into reading something.
JB: Do you know James Tate, the American poet?

DR:  I don't, but fill me in.
JB:  I found reading him really liberating. Returnto the City of White Donkeys is an amazing book. He writes poems that don't seem to worry about metaphors or line breaks, a bit like short stories, like micro-novels...you enter one of his poems, and feel lulled by the familiar voice, and then the scene shifts, like a dream. Like, you're driving on the highway, getting sleepy, when the roadkill suddenly open their eyes, and you don't know when it all changed.

DR: Do you have any new writing — or other projects — on the go?
JB: After visiting Cambodia this last winter and being blown away at the effects of the Khmer Rouge on that culture, I’ve been writing little hegemonic allegories, like dioramas of imaginary colonized villages. Truthfully, I don’t know how to write about the world falling apart without being zeitgeist or didactic or boring. A revolution seems to occur somewhere in the middle of each poem. At least one is called "Year Zero."

DR: Are you following the Republican nomination?
JB: I would vote for Michele Bachmann as head of the Shark Eyes Coalition.

DR: Perry or Romney?
JB: I’ve wondered — why do people vote for Republicans? I mean regular, smart, non-rich people. Then it came to me: the Republicans are the fantasy party. We vote for them if we want to join in the fantasy that the American dream is still possible and relevant. That is, the illusion that we can all get as rich as Schwarzenegger; that consumerism works; that this democracy doesn't guarantee a certain part of the population must be out of work and destitute; that the environment is not falling apart; that everything is all right.

DR: I guess we’ve lost your vote. But who are you reading right now?
JB: Joshua Trotter’s All This Could Be Yours, and Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People. The Best American Poetry 2011. And King Lear, to teach.

DR: What are you avoiding right now?
JB: I'm tempted to say I've been avoiding nothing, but the truth might be that I’ve been avoiding tranquility. I've been in a confrontational phase, as if I'm wearing a small sign around my neck saying, "LET'S FIGHT ABOUT BS!"

DR: What are you avoiding reading right now?
JB: Novels. DeLillo's Underworld. The second book in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

DR: I know the feeling — I read the overture to Swann’s Way and now I talk about it like I’ve read the whole thing. Have you read much DeLillo, or any of the other postmodernists? Is this something that could come up later in your poetry?
JB: I think I've read every DeLillo besides Underworld. His characters sometimes have a kind of clairvoyance, or second sight, which is fascinating.
I've spent years trying to shake off the postmodern cleverness I learned at university. Now I think that a poem should involve heart, or empathy — not just speak in codes that only academics and other writers could understand.

DR:  How do you feel about David Foster Wallace? He seemed to genuinely try to bridge the postmodern cleverness/heart gap.
JB:  I'll keep that in mind. I haven't got to him yet. Although, Julian Barnes goes too far, I think. And Jeanette Winterson. John Fowles tries to bridge that gap, too. And Joyce tries, too. Proust is the shit.

DR:  I guess it's a hard thing to do; to be honest but also keep up a self-reflexive stance.
JB:  I think the self-reflexiveness will not last — a footnote in 20th-century literature.

DR: Any final thoughts?
JB: If anyone is able to use the phrase, “Nights like this always make the neighbors come around,” in a poem, I’d be very grateful.


John Wall Barger's second book, Hummingbird, is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in Spring 2012. Barger divides his year between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Tampere, Finland.