Q: You've just published Incivilities, your first collection of poetry. What would you like prospective readers to know about it?
A: That's a great question because it allows me to go straight to the heart of what most motivated me and the challenges I set myself. I wanted to forge links and alliances between socio-historicial and archival discourses; contemporary political and economic realities; and the inscription of a certain tone, a tone that would allow "me," the speaker, to communicate affect and emotion. Well, that's an awfully packed sentence which I'd like to try to elaborate upon...
Q: Ok, but could you begin by saying something about the function of emotion in the book?
A: Thanks for focusing on that. The answer is complex and kind of autobiographical, but perhaps worth trying to detail. You probably know that I'm 65 and came rather late to poetry as I only began to write it really intensively three and a half years ago. Among other things, that I'm so old means that the poetic influences I grew up with were confessional poetry on the one hand and beat poetry on the other. But people, especially women who were into poetry whether or not they wrote it, were heavily influenced by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Poetry was a place where one "confessed," celebrated, and kind of invented a version of oneself.
The process of becoming a contemporary, albeit aged, poet has, among other challenges, entailed learning how to resist a tendency to write "confessional" poetry (even if enacted through the guise of various personae). I certainly don't give credence to the modernist notion of the self as a consciousness existing independently of socio-historical constructs and constraints, nor do I want that notion to infiltrate the poems I write. That said, I still want to write poems that carry passion and affect and that confront readers with emotionally laden registers and issues. This is part of what I mean by the inscription of tone. As a consequence I set out to write a book both about and from within the perspective of the collective/the polis/the social, about what we as citizens of the United States necessarily share with one another. But I tried to do so by deliberately using the kind of affect/passion with which I'd written (or was brought up to write about) the so-called "personal" lyric. Put another way: I tried to use affect as an impetus or goad through which to write about our collective past and present. Does that make sense?
Q: Yes, I think so. Do you want to say more about your use of archival and historical materials? What drew you to include those kinds of documents? And what does their inclusion have to do with "emotion"?
A: At the risk of over-simplifying: one of the strategies for avoiding ego-driven work was to immerse "myself" in the archive, in the syntax of other centuries, archaic dictions, and sentences. Using historical sources insured a certain impersonality (but not T.S. Eliot's kind of "impersonal"). Trying to include different discourses from United States history actually allowed and enabled emotional tonalities I wouldn't otherwise have been able to, uh, get away with. For example, at the end of "Hurricane of Independence" (which, incidentally, was the name of a real hurricane that happened in the Southeast right before the Declaration of Independence, from which it took its name) the poem's speaker says: "I wanted to tell the story of my country, how it became, what it began." I don't know if I could have included such an emotionally laden line if the rest of the poem hadn't been so grounded in history, in events that happened in other centuries, even while they might seem to prefigure the twenty-first.
Q: Can you give more examples?
A: I'll try. As a literary theorist and professional scholar I'd never been interested in history, except to theorise about "the historical" in the tradition of Althusser, Jameson, et. al. It's really strange to me that, as a poet, the reverse was true: I got absolutely fascinated by American language as it was used throughout U.S. history. To be concrete: slave's petitions and discourses addressed to the government, the Journals of Lewis and Clarke, Inaugural Addresses and presidential speeches such as the Gettysburg Address. Also: memoirs and histories of Westward Expansion, in particular, the Gold Rush -- especially the autobiography of George Hearst, miner and entrepeneur par excellence. For a poem such as "Man of Gold" I actually read about thirty books on the history of the West, technologies of mining and engineering, the settlement of the Gold Rush towns that later became ghost towns. I wasn't trying to be accurate or scholarly. I just wanted to have the poems not be about "me": I wanted to use language that carried and transmitted moments in U.S. history and to give the reader a sense of the collective. Which is not to imply that the poems achieve the overly ambitious goals I set myself....
Q: Just go on....
A: OK, thanks! It's also important that readers know how much I wanted to "escape," for lack of a better word, habitual word choices and syntactical/semantic patterns. To my surprise I discovered absolutely gorgeous syntax in historical documents such as George Washington's speeches and letters, and I tried to collage them so as to create sentences and shapes I wouldn't otherwise have been able to invent. Historical languages presented both a way into language and a way out of "myself."
Q: And what else?
A: Just one more thing, which returns to the discussion of "tone" I didn't really address at the beginning. I wanted to explore questions about what it meant, and means, to be a citizen of the United States at this particular historical moment. For example, the poem "Where The Moon Comes Up" was constructed so as to allow a question that seems to me to be crucial: "Can you imagine not having to apologise for the United States?" I wanted to re-present moments from our past when being a U.S. citizen was something the populace was proud of and excited about, when there was the possibility, if not expectation, of a limitless future: the possibility of—well, of possibility. And I wanted the poems to perform a certain work of mourning for a kind of hope that I, for one, experience as unavailable, for a kind of citizen-ship or polis I don't believe is an option today -- at least not an option I, for one, experience. Rilke writes about the lyric as being a form where the poet can push lament so far that it becomes a kind of praise. I certainly can't claim to have achieved that. But I damn well want to try.
Q: Would you like to add...
A: No, nothing, that's it. Thanks for asking. And thanks for listening.
Come see Barbara Claire Freeman read with Jenny Drai, Zachary Schomburg and Emily Kendal Frey at 7:30pm at Studio One Art Center, Friday Feb. 19th.
Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. She is the author of The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction (University of California Press, 1998, pbk. 2000), among many other works of criticism and theory. Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing for the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her poems have appeared in A Public Space, Beloit Poetry Journal, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, Modern Review, New American Writing, Sycamore Review and Parthenon West Review. She is a recipient of the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Award, the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize (Sarah Lawrence College, 2007) and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Incivilities, her first book of poems has just been published Counterpath Press (November, 2009). A chapbook, St. Ursula's Silence, is forthcoming from Instance Press.