Interview: Kelly Barnhill Talks About How She Writes

Juliet Patterson interviews Kelly Regan Barnhill, two of whose poems were chosen by the judges of our Poem of the Week program. Both interviewer and interviewed find insights into the process of writing in this exchange. You'll like it.

Kelly Barnhill

Kelly Regan Barnhill has been writing steadily since the early nineties,
though she has discovered a number of methods of
supporting herself. She has been a bartender, a wild-land firefighter, a
waitress, a church janitor, a middle school teacher, a forest ranger, a
coffee jerk, a wild-eyed radical activist, an office lackey, a kosher meat
slicer, and a purveyor of baked goods.. Her work can be seen in
Thin Coyote, The Heartlands Today, The Flow, INTHEFRAY.COM
and Ariston.

Q: How does a poem begin for you? Can you talk a little bit about your
approach to the blank page?

KB: This is actually a two-part process for me. I usually start longhand on
unlined paper, without a clue as to what I’ll be writing about. I begin
with free association, then playing with images or words that strike me in
that moment, and from that, something more substantial emerges. I write in
blocks of text, and it isn’t until I come back to that page later (sometimes
an hour later, or a week, or even years) and start poking around (a process
I call “mining”) that I start to know what, if anything, it wants to be. A
poem. a children’s story, a bit of a novel, who knows? I never do until

I haven’t always written this way. I used to plan out what I wanted
to write, how I would write it, etc., but that changed for two reasons:
I became a parent. When you spend all day running after high-energy
children, you learn quickly that no matter how hard you try, it is useless
to plan anything. So you might as well let the spirit take you where it
wants. And I spent a number of years complaining that every time I sat
down to write a poem, a story came out. Every time I wanted to work on my
novel, I could only write poetry. This, of course, was a big problem in
graduate school. Despite my earnest reasoning, my profs refused to accept
narrative poetry in lieu of research papers on educational theory.

Q; Many writers talk about a process of free association as one that opens up doors between the conscious and the unconscious. Mark Doty talks about this in relation to wave theory– I think he says something about “writing a poem is like following a wave, you never know when it’s going to break.” Do you think that’s true?

KB: Absolutely. I remember learning in high school physics that all particles are waves, and all waves particles, and being utterly blown away by that notion. The entire universe is simultaneously matter and energy, just as the human person is simultaneously flesh and spirit. For me, sitting down to write longhand is like being part of an energy that is larger than myself, or at least I have the opportunity to utterly give in to that energy, to ride with it. And then, suddenly, and gracefully, I find that it has changed. It is not energy anymore, but it is a thing. Then, I look around, and try to figure out just what that thing is.

Q: Many of your poems use a lot of natural imagery to convey their
atmosphere. At the same time, your poems often also have some sort of urban
quality. There is a roughness to their syntax and/or a grittiness in some of
the stories being told. Do you have any thoughts about this & can you
comment on the importance of place in your poems?

KB: Part of this, I think, comes from being a hybrid fiction writer and poet.
My poems read like stories, and my stories sound like poems. In fiction, a
sense of place is key. Physical surroundings have a profound effect on the
development of a human being, how they make choices, what their relationship
is to the world around them, the people around them, and the various
political and economic forces that play on them. My poems have always had a
strong narrative arc at their core, which means that the influences of place
and time help to push the narrative along. Or buoy it up.

But so much of my experience, too, is wrapped up in all of this. I
encountered some of the nastiest aspects of human nature when I was
teaching, and when I was working at the battered women’s shelter. And I’ve
been brought to my knees at some of the most beautiful moments in nature
while backpacking or canoeing here in Minnesota, as well as in the Smokies and out
west. That being said, beauty surrounds us as city dwellers, and often
exists in tandem with human apathy, and loss, and violence, and
self-centeredness. I guess it’s that juxtaposition that interests me . . .
our experience with landscapes and our experience with cityscapes
are secretly the same experience, in my opinion. Humankind needs beauty, we
seek it, but we also destroy it. That’s what we have always done, and we
will keep on doing it.

Q: Right, the juxtaposition seems to be an important element of your poems. Is this something that has developed over time or has always been present in your work?

KB: It has always been present in my work; however, it has taken me a long time to be able to really pull my writing into those – let’s face it – very uncomfortable moments and places in the human experience, and stay there long enough to look around.

As a younger writer, I thought it was enough to simply point out that such juxtapositioning, and incongruency, and ambiguity existed, and then just leave it at that, allowing me to wax on about stars being god’s daisy chain, and other such nonsense. Now, I understand that the reason why those elements are uncomfortable is because they are the real story, or the poem’s beating heart. And everything else is just chaff.

Q: So what do poems bring you that stories can’t?

KB: Poems delight in the obscure, while still having the freedom to make explicit that which must remain implicit in fiction, because of the constraints of timing, plotting, rate of revelation, etc. Poetry represents utter freedom for me. When I am stuck in the novel, I will often spend some time channeling my various characters’ voices, and these typically come to me in poems. I can’t really explain why, except that perhaps our internal language is, I believe, naturally rhythmic and visually charged. We think in poetry, though we do not always realize it, nor do we fully understand it.

Q: Who are some of your influences?

KB: That’s a tricky one. I’ve always been fond of Rita Dove, Gerard Manley
Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, and others. I guess,
though, that I never learned much in reading, because I can’t see much of
them in my own strange scribblings.

Q: When did you first start writing poetry?

KB: I started a little in high school, but that was just, primarily, a ruse to
keep from paying attention in class. If you’re writing a poem, people think
you’re taking notes. Which might account for the C- I received in
Government, but never mind. I started writing poetry seriously in college,
and have off and on ever since.

Q; Are you working on any particular projects with your writing? A manuscript?

KB; I’m working on a novel right now that’s set in northern Minnesota called The People Who Lie in Bed, and I finished a short novel last year set in East St. Paul, called Love. And Other Heinous Crimes, which is currently resting – – fermenting, really – – as I decide what it currently needs. I also am in the process of re-examining a collection of poetry and flash fiction, called The Confessions of Prince Charming.

Q: What does the Prince have to confess?

KB: Prince Charming has been on a life-long quest to find true love and
a sense of meaning. Sadly, he has thus far found neither. This is his
fault, of course, though he cannot see it. Structurally, it is short
fiction, poetry, and letters that follow this person in his ambivalence and
general confusion from story to story, but primarily examining the aftermath
of well-known fairy tales.