by Isabel Gomez
“How I’d like to buy flowers, how I’d like to place a sterling
silver bowl of peonies or cut-glass vase of tulips and irises
on the laminate seminar table in this windowless room,
and I’m thinking how I’d like to arrive before the one student
always a half-hour early, how I’d like to greet each of them
at the door, inquire after their sisters and cousins, their tíos
and abuelitas, and comfort the one who’s been fired
from his job.”
— Wendy Barker, from “Teaching Mrs. Dalloway I’m Thinking”
Wendy Barker is the author of six books of poetry, most recently, One Black Bird at a Time, a collection of poems about her experiences teaching. She was born in New Jersey and grew up in Arizona. She is a long time resident of San Antonio and teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “One Blackbird at a Time,” Alan Shapiro, author of Reel to Reel and Night of the Republic, comments, “is one of the most personable, entertaining and moving books of poetry I’ve read in a long time.” I had the pleasure of being in one of Barker’s classes last semester and see first-hand how much she loves her job and cares about poetry as well as her students. She was kind enough to answer my questions for this interview via email.
IG: There are poems in your new book, One Blackbird at a Time, that are inspired by your job, classes you’ve taught, and your students. Are the names or things you mention in your book real and true or did you fictionalize a lot of it?
WB: Most every incident in the collection happened, and happened exactly as I describe, though I changed names throughout. For instance, I quote exactly the Anti-Semitic comment made by “Heather” in “Waking Over Call It Sleep,” but changed the name of the student.
IG: How was writing this book different from writing your other poetry, if at all? Has your process changed much over the years?
WB: I don’t think my process has changed considerably over the years, if you mean when and how I write. I’m always composing a poem, in my head, on little notes, in my journal, at the computer, at least if I’m not ground down by other tasks. And I don’t write by a schedule, but simply whenever I can. This collection of poems, however, is certainly unlike any of my other books. One of the ways these poems differ from earlier poems of mine has to do with the form. The staggered indented line seemed to fit these “talky” poems, and the form was often really tough to get right, especially since I was concerned not only about the rhythm of lines but also the visual pattern they create. And I don’t know that until writing these poems I’d woven together so many different elements in one poem. Often in the poems of One Blackbird at a Time, I’m discussing the literary work, the students’ reactions and discussions, and my own observations and comments along with memories that are called up from my own past.
IG: Do you decide what you are going to write about and go in knowing what you want a poem to be about or do you just start writing and shape the poem and what it is about as you go along?
WB: The poems of this collection most often began from either remembering an incident from a class or from a current situation in a class. But they all were shaped as I went along. Often I had no idea how a poem would end until I’d written numerous drafts without an ending. “Coming to Cather,” for instance, took a long, long time until I felt I’d found the concluding lines.
IG: What does the title, One Blackbird at a Time, mean to you? Where did it come from?
WB: The title comes from a passage in the poem “Arriving at Wallace Stevens in the 13th Week,” when I say that, even though the student’s reading of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” is entirely off base, maybe I should let him have his own interpretation: ” … and maybe I’m the one who’s deaf to songs / along the shore, to hymns that buzz beside my ears. Maybe / I can follow only one blackbird at a time. . .” These lines refer directly to Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and the blackbird reference is of course to his even more famous poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” So my statement is one of humility, of admitting my own limitations as a teacher.
IG: There is a poem in the book titled, “I Hate Telling People I Teach English.” What is, in your opinion, the funniest or most interesting response you’ve gotten after telling someone you’re an English professor?
I think I cite those in the poem! And, I must add, those examples are not exaggerations!
“…oh, they say, I hated English, all that grammar,
you won’t like the way I talk, you’ll be correcting me, and suddenly
they need another Bud or Merlot or they’ve got to check out
the meatballs or guacamole over on the table and I’m left facing
blank space, no one who can even think about correcting
my dangling participles. Once when the computer guy was at the house,
bent over my laptop trying to get us back online,
he asked what it was I wrote, and when I told him “poetry,” said, “Ah—
fluffy stuff,” and I wasn’t sure whether he was kidding
or not, but I figured at least it was better than his saying he hated poetry
or that he had a manuscript right outside in his Camry and
could I take a look, no hurry, but he knew it would sell, could I tell him
how to get an agent for his novel…”
— Wendy Barker, from “I Hate Telling People I Teach English”
IG: Do you pick a title for a poem after you’ve written it or is it the first thing you think of?
WB: Usually the title comes after I’m immersed in drafts of a poem, although sometimes the title comes first. That process varies enormously from poem to poem.
IG: What do you hope people take away from reading this book and your poetry overall?
WB: I hope that people who don’t teach come away with an understanding of how complex teaching situations can be, even at the university level. I hope that readers realize that teaching college English is hardly living in an “ivory tower,” as is often assumed.
And I hope that, even if readers aren’t familiar with the literary work that is the subject of a poem, they will still respond to the human elements involved in the discussion of the novel or poem. But of course, my ideal reader is familiar with the literary work that forms the nexus of each poem and sees how often I’ve tried to echo the language of the novel or poem.
But overall, I hope that readers will recognize that this is a teacher who cares deeply about literature and the lives of her students, and who has gone through much (often painful) exploration of her own relationship to the literary works she is teaching.
Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, One Blackbird at a Time, received the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry (BkMk Press, Fall 2015). Her fourth chapbook is From the Moon, Earth is Blue (Wings Press, 2015). An anthology of poems about the 1960s, Far Out: Poems of the ’60s, co-edited with Dave Parsons, was released by Wings Press in 2016. Other books include a selection of poems with accompanying essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (co-translated with Saranindranath Tagore, Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. She is the author of Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor (Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), as well as co-editor (with Sandra M. Gilbert) of The House is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996). Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she serves as poetry editor of Persimmon Tree: An Online Journal of the Arts for Women Over Sixty. She is the Pearl LeWinn Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she has taught since 1982.