Barbara Hamby's fourth book of poems, All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her third book of poems, Babel, was chosen by Stephen Dunn to win the 2003 Associated Writing Programs Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and was also published by Pittsburgh. Hamby received a fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1996. She has also received three fellowships from the Florida Arts Council. Her work has appeared in many national publications. She is Writer-in-Residence in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.
Superstition Review Poetry Editor Haley Larson had the enjoyable opportunity to interview poet Barbara Hamby. She says of the interview, “The minute I landed on Ms. Hamby's website, I knew I was in for some exciting research. Poetry aside, the lime green backdrop to her photography collections, soup recipes, and film favorites served as a small intimation of the vitality to be found throughout each of her artistic mediums. As a fellow travel fanatic, I was captivated by the sense of place Ms. Hamby weaves into her work. Demonstrated even by her third book's title, Babel, I can tell she treasures words and languages, as they blossom into surprising potential in the setting where she places them. Jazzy rhythms lift her words and settings into motion, creating a perceptible sense of life in her work that is most apparent in her new book, All-Night Lingo Tango. I sincerely appreciate the time and animated answers Ms. Hamby has shared with us.”
Superstition Reivew: You have a new book coming out this year, All-Night Lingo Tango. In what ways do you approach writing differently since your first book, Delirium, or even your most recent book, Babel?
Barbara Hamby: In some ways my process is the same and in other ways it is different. I'm much more confident in my voice now than I was when I was writing Delirium, which I never really thought would find a publisher. I still have doubts with every book, but it is not so all consuming as it was then. It think all writers live on a continuum between hope and doubt. Sometimes I jump between the two like a meth addict, and at other times it's a boat ride on a sunny afternoon on the river.
When I was writing the poems in Delirium, I came up with a process that works so well for me that I find it scary. Before I discovered this way of working, I would work on one poem at a time, and when it didn't work out I had a hard time letting it go, because I'd put so much into it. Now I work on poems in groups of twenty or so at a time. Usually they have some kind of formal or metaphoric connection. For example, the first time I tried this method the poems were tied together by a bee metaphor. In Babel I did the same thing with the mockingbird. I've also written two abecedarian sequences and three sets of odes. Sometimes the poems don't have a formal connection. I simply collect notes for a while and when I have material for 20 or so poems, then I start writing.
This might not work for everyone, but so far it has worked for me. I have a niggling fear that hovers in the back of my brain like an especially vicious wasp that this break down. I suppose I will either quit writing or come up with a new process. I have fine tuned it over the years. At first I didn't trust it, so I wrote a lot of bad poems. Now I try to wait until a poem is ready to be written-when it is begging for me to put words on the page, not the other way around.
I collect images, notes, ideas in notebooks I carry around with me. Then when a notebook is full I transfer the notes to the computer. Then comes the hard part: I have to wait for the different images to speak to each other. When I begin to see them come together, it's like cosmic dust giving into a gravitational pull that will one day form a planet or at least the minor moon of a minor planet. To wait until the words are pouring out instead of trying to squeeze them out like a dried out tube of prussian blue.. But at first it's hard to talk yourself into not writing as writing. I like to check my notebooks every day, just to make sure that something hasn't happened in my absence.
So I'm not writing all the time, but I'm thinking about poems all the time and gathering images, ideas, lines, words, overheard conversations, magazine articles, newspaper headlines, anything that catches my fancy. My husband, David Kirby, says, “The Poetry Store is always open,” and I think that's a brilliant way to put it. I never understood the Christian dictum “Pray without ceasing” until I became a poet. I think about poetry all the time. I write poetry without ceasing, even though I don't have a pen in my hand all the time.
SR: What are your thoughts when you finish a book? What sort of satisfaction stems from a poem's completion versus an entire collection's completion?
BH: I find finishing a book very depressing. I imagine it must be like seeing a much loved child go off to college. You want her to go, but at the same time it leaves a hole in your life. I want my books to be published, but at the same time the work that has been my constant companion for five years is no longer there to chat with, contemplate, or fool around with whenever I want. When I sent the final version ofDelirium off the publisher, I was unprepared for how desolate I felt. This was what I'd been working for; this was what I wanted, but I missed my poems. I had nothing to absorb my poetic energies. It took me a while to figure out how to start on my next book, and when it was published I had the same reaction. Finally, I realized that when I saw the end of a book in sight, I had to start thinking about a new group of poems. I had to write poetry without ceasing. I finally did that with my new book All-Night Lingo Tango. By the time I sent the final draft off, I had a completely new group of poems in the planning stages. So I've been very happy with the publication of this book. You'd think I could have figured this dynamic out a little more quickly, but I suppose each of us works at his or her own pace.
On the other hand finishing a poem is lovely, like solving an intricate mathematical problem or baking a cake or making a delicious meal. And having a magazine take a poem is lovely as well. I love looking at proofs. I've just received the proofs of a poem that is coming out in APR. For some reason seeing the poem on a page makes me very happy.
SR: Your forthcoming book of poems will center on the connections between dreams and film. What led you to explore these connections? How much did your own dreams serve as research for this book?
BH: Oh, you read something I said about the book a couple of years ago. I thought that's what it was about, and I suppose some of the poems are, but it is really about how we make our worlds out of dreams and language, which is kind of like making a movie. However, I could be wrong about that. I often am wrong about almost everything. I began the book writing a lot about movies, but it changed as I worked on the poems.
I have a very active dream life. In fact, it's almost like watching a movie, a chaotic movie. I sometimes dream until the very moment I wake in the morning or that's how it seems to me. And I think that connection between the conscious and unconscious worlds is essential in poetry. Poetry that is made entirely from the conscious mind seems limited, cold and only about half of the human experience. And by the same token, poetry that comes entirely from the unconscious mind is unsuccessful in a different way. Anyone who has done automatic writing or transcribed a dream knows this to be true or anyone older than sixteen. Our entire lives are made up of an interpenetration of the conscious and unconscious minds. If art has anything to tell us, it must take this basic fact into consideration.
SR: In your poem "Cinerama" from Babel, you write with such stunning candor: "because no matter how beautiful we are, inside we know ourselves to be bloodsucking vampires, zombies, freaks cobbled together with spare parts from the graveyard...." How does this idea play into your poetry, particularly your new book? Discuss taking on personas as a writer, such as Cleopatra as a flower child. How does poetry serve as a way to "play parts" and explore who we are?
BH: I feel very strongly that we look to art in the same way we look to religion‚ to discover how to be a human being living within the constraints of time. This was what I think Lorca was getting at with his idea of duende. Any piece of art must express this basic truth of mortality. It is the central fact and mystery of life. The Hindus have a concept that all life is a vehicle for God to experience himself. What ever you believe, it is true that every person experiences life in a different way. We go to art for many things—entertainment, escape, stimulation, knowledge‚—but we also want to experience another human being's take on consciousness. It is how we refine our own consciousness. I'm not religious any more, but I do think about my place in time. For me art is a divine enterprise, but with out the gods.
When I write from my own point of view, in a sense it is a persona poem. My poetic persona is certainly much wittier and much more quick on her toes than I am. She's more optimistic and knows a lot more. So writing from the point of view of Cleopatra or Leda or Lysistrata is much the same as writing from my own voice.
SR: Having picked up a bit of the German language from my father, "The Mockingbird Invents Writing" includes a couple lines I am particularly fond of: "Charming language German: Schadenfreude, Übermensch, Scheissbedauren, regret that something's not as bad as you'd hoped it would be." How has your exposure to other languages molded or influenced your regard for the English language? In another interview, you said you tell your students they are lucky to write poetry in English. Can you expand on this a bit?
BH: I suppose all poets are in love with their own languages, just as all painters must be in love with color or all musicians with sound. Language is our medium. The strength and beauty of English is in part its huge and omnivorous vocabulary. It also has a flexibility that comes from its mongrel background. Anglo-Saxon is concrete. Norman French is cultivated, and Latin is abstract. All three together make for a rollicking good time. Of course, I'm not saying that English is the best language. It certainly has limitations. There are some emotional gradations that we have a hard time expressing. Our word “love” is so inadequate to the task that it must be one of the reasons English has created so much love poetry. I find other languages give me what English sometimes cannot, and they are also a mirror to hold up to our own expressions.
SR: Fitting in with the concept of Babel—your most recent book's title—what makes a foreign word memorable or deemed worthy enough to appear in your poems?
BH: I really am a magpie. It just has to be bright and shiny and I'll love it. If I can play with a word or it sounds weird or has an oddball connotation, then I'll use it.
SR: In your poem "Ode to American English," our dialects and linguistic mannerisms, all of their colorful oddities are revered. Discuss where you have lived in the United States and how these places brought out the musicality of the English language for you.
BH: My father was in the Air Force, so we moved around quite a bit, and it gave me a love of travel. Growing up in Hawai'i, where I lived from the ages of ten to eighteen, was perhaps the strongest influence. The local pidgin is wonderful-hilarious, cruel, efficient, inventive. Hearing it in school was a revelation on how language is made and a product of the world around us. Before Hawai'i I thought all words were in my dictionary, but there was no dictionary in the sixties in Waianae, a small rural town on the leeward side of O'ahu. There I experienced a living, growing language that I used in conjunction with standard English. It gave me a sensitivity when I moved to the South and came into contact with African-American and Cuban English. And my husband comes from South Louisiana with its Cajun spices. American English is a wonderful gumbo to work with on the page and out loud.
SR: How do you create the sense of place in your poems? Explain the development of setting when you begin a poem.
BH: I have just been realizing that sometimes when I'm reading a poem that isn't moving me, it is often because it has a lot of air and water or mental and emotional energy but no earth and fire or materiality or passion. I think place is an earthy element, and must be given its due for a poem to be successful. You don't have to be Frost, but this world is important. Flesh is important. The body and the senses are essential to the human endeavor. I think young people want to pretend it isn't, or at least that was true for me. I wanted the mind to be everything. Even my most word-drunk ethereal poems have their orientation in the world.
SR: You've traveled to and lived in many places. Is there a particular country, state, or town that has most influenced your writing—a place that each new place tries to live up to? What sort of differences in inspiration do you detect between "just visiting" different locations as opposed to residing somewhere? Discuss the unique view of a place that is allowed from being more detached—a traveler rather than a resident.
BH: I've lived in the South for a long time, and I love the wackiness of it. The American South is profoundly weird, which is very nourishing to a poet. It has resisted the homogenization that television has forced on the rest of the country. There must be something in the water. It's also hot where I live, which gives one a connection with the body and the outside world. You don't have to wear as many clothes. Summer in the deep South is a very sensual experience.
That is my reality, but I think that growing up in Hawai'i is a paradise that I carry with me everywhere. I think everyone has certain pieces of luck, and living in Honolulu from the ages of ten to eighteen has to be one of the biggest pieces of luck in my life. It's hard to be depressed when you've experienced so much sunshine and beauty. And the people are so open and relaxed. No matter how dark the world becomes, I can always go to the Hawai'i I carry inside me.
SR: Discuss writing abroad versus writing at home. How are your processes different?
BH: They are no real differences. David and I travel to write. There's no telephone or not as much of it. You have acres of uninterrupted time, which is so necessary for writing.
SR: You teach at Florida State University. As a teacher, what do you find to be the most difficult idea to teach in poetry? Which poetic concepts do you find most exciting to teach? What has been a rewarding moment in your teaching career?
BH: I love teaching and I love my students. For the most part they are such a joy. Every once in a while I encounter a young man or woman who is trying to disengage from a strong mother, and that's a potentially weird mix. But 99% of the time it's a love fest. They are in my classroom for the thing I love most in the world, and that is a gorgeous place to work and a place of continual discovery. I can't think of a better job.
The most difficult idea to teach is the primacy of the image and writing from the senses. All students are in college because they are good at abstract reasoning and writing using abstractions. That kind of writing doesn't work in poetry where we are creating a world where we felt a certain emotion so our reader can enter into it and feel it as well. This is that air-water problem again. They have thoughts and feelings, but the trick is to breathe life into them.
And central to any poem is that there is a central voice or a central self that speaks to the reader. We go to art to learn how to be a human being. Of course, a lot of people seem to have perfectly satisfactory lives without art, but for those of us who want deep interior lives, art is essential. That central self is expressed in sense images creates a world on the page, a world that the reader can enter into and experience what the poet has experience. It is communion on the highest level.
I love Robert Bly's idea of the leap and Lorca's duende. For me, these two concepts can supercharge a poem. They are jet fuel. Bly defines a leap as movement from the conscious to the unconscious and back again. For me this is true to the way the human mind works. We are continually moving between the reality and dream, daydream, memory, fantasy. And duende is that acknowledgment of mortality—the shadow of death. So for me these concepts are central to the poetic process: the self or voice, sense images, moving from the conscious to the unconscious, and duende.
The most rewarding part of my career is to see a student blossom in front of me. It is especially exciting when that student has given no indication of any ability and then suddenly writes a real poem. I do everything I can to encourage that kind of breakthrough. I had a very negative experience with a teacher in graduate school. She told me I was smart, but I'd never be a poet. I keep that experience in mind when I'm dealing with a hopeless student, because I can't know what that person is capable of in the future.
SR: Your work contains quite a blend of cultural references from both present day and the past: films, the Dodgers, Caravaggio, a Singer sewing machine. How are these items and cultural icons incorporated into your work and/or daily life?
BH: I read two newspapers every day and I travel as much as I can. I love the multiplicity of existence.
SR: The characters in your poems range from Moses to the guy at the office to the dancing romances of films old and new. Who is most difficult to write about or take on as a persona—historical figures, literary figures, film characters, or actual acquaintances? What are the challenges of writing these characters into poetry?
BH: I think the most difficult poems are the ones about people who are close to you. Because you know them so well, it's difficult to really get them. I wrote a poem about my mother in Babel that I was very happy with“Ode on My Mother's Handwriting.” That was a bear. My mother is a very complex woman, and I'm crazy about her, but we have so little in common. She's a fundamental Christian and a right-wing Republican, and I'm not. However, I know no one will ever love me the way she does. My whole relationship with her is a language problem. How do I talk to her? Politics and religion take a backseat to love. In the time I have with her I want her to know I love her, respect her, and am filled with gratitude for bringing me into this world and caring for me when I couldn't care for myself. It is a huge gift and my task more challenging given her world view.
SR: Your poems pack so much punch into every line. Images and diction—there is a momentum there. Can you discuss your writing and revision process? Which poetic elements, for example rhythm or imagery, are most difficult to revise? Can you explain how you form the associations within a line or phrase?
BH: I revise by reading a poem aloud. The line also gives the poem a certain rhythm. When I change a word or image because of sound or meaning, then I often have to change the line as well. As for the associations, they really come from the moment of writing. When I am in the zone and everything is clicking, one word will trigger a memory or a rhyme or an image or a metaphor. It's like improvising with music. I think that's why I really loved working with end rhymes in All-Night Lingo Tango. One rhyme would lead to another. I often work with lists of words. I use them to improvise.
SR: You have an absolute gift with figurative language and imagery.
From "Ode to My 1977 Toyota," you write:
as we drive home from the coast, the Milky Way
strung across the black velvet bowl of the sky like the tiara
of some impossibly fat empress who rules the universe
but doesn't know if tomorrow is December or Tuesday or June first.
Discuss who or what has influenced how you approach imagery in your work.
BH: Actually teaching has helped me with imagery. It's something that I emphasize to my students, and concentrating on images in my teaching has helped me to see how powerful they are on the page.
SR: In another interview, you spoke about a form that you created concerning letters of the alphabet. Discuss the role form plays in your poems. How does form challenge or liberate your work?
BH: Form has been miraculous for me. When I started writing I was a free verse poet all the way, and after All-Night Lingo Tango I am writing free verse again with renewed relish. While I was writing Babel, I wanted to write a more formal kind of ode. The transition from free verse to a highly structured verse occurred while I was writing the poems in that book. I started that book as a free verse poet and ended the book counting syllables and using end rhymes. I found that the structure was a conduit to more exciting language. I was forced to really dig into my vocabulary, which for me was a discipline I needed.
In Babel I wasn't very skilled with the syllabics, and often I ended up reconfiguring the poems as free verse. This was the case with “Ode to Hardware Stores” and “Ode to Rock n Roll.” In the first drafts of those poems each line had thirteen syllables and thirteen-line stanzas with end rhymes. And even with the poems that ended up remaining in formal lines, I was trying to achieve a free verse feel. I didn't want the language to be stilted, which I think is a trap that a lot of formal verse falls into, especially metrical verse. It's so boring, but then you could say the same about free verse. But even in my most formal verse, I try to create the jazz of conversational English.
As for the abecedarian obsession, I can't really explain it, or I can, but I think I'm making up an explanation after the fact. I could say that the alphabet is the basis of language, and by emphasizing the alphabet I am emphasizing the primacy of language in my work However much that is true, in reality the abecedarian poem was just a form that was so pleasurable for me to write. In my first book, Delirium, I wrote one, and I just loved it. I didn't know what I wanted to say until I got to “z.” That was such a thrill for me, because I have a tendency to over think everything. Then in The Alphabet of Desire I decided to amplify my pleasure 26 times and write one poem for every letter of the alphabet. I ended up writing more that 26, because as I wrote I became more skilled and more adventurous.
Then in Babel I used the form as a technique to get at the wild associations and language that the form demanded, but I relineated the poems as free verse. “Ode to American English” began as an abecedarian, and you can see the bones of it if you look. The title poem of Babel is a double abecedarian, and “Ode to My Mother's Handwriting” is organized around the alphabet though in a more free-form manner.
I'm hoping that I've finished with the form in Lingo Tango. I worked with the beginning and the end of the line in the abecedarians in that book. The middle section is a group of thirteen-line poems beginning with one letter and carrying on with the end letters and beginning letters of the lines. The first letter of the first poem is “a,” and the first line ends with “b” and so on until it ends with the letter “z.” The second poem “Betty Boop's Bebop” begins with a “b,” and the first line ends with the word “picnic.” I wrote this whole sequence during the fall of 2004, when my husband and I were living in Italy. Actually I wrote them in a month. I was taking an intensive Italian class for four hours a day, five days a week. Then I'd come home and write. I think the language class was creating new neural pathways in my brain. I've never had quite the same kind of experience. Of course, I revised them over the next couple of years, and I made my final revision when I was reading proofs.
SR: Your short story "Mr. Manago's Mango Trees" along with your poems bring out striking contrasts: manure and sweet mangoes, youth and age, waking and dreaming, chiaro and scurro. Can you talk about this balance within your images and themes?
BH: I have to say that those kinds of contrasts are a direct result of the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind. I rarely think about them. Any gardener knows that to grow a good tomato you need compost. It's the yin and yang. I might emphasize a contrast in rewrites, but they are pretty organic.
SR: The rich images found in your poetry are mirrored in your short stories. Explain the differences in your process of writing prose as opposed to poetry. Discuss your writing beginnings in both genres.
BH: Actually the first piece I wrote was a short story. I was in the third grade, and it was called “The Magic Cornfield.” It was published in the school newspaper. Sixth graders would stop me in the hall and say, “I liked your story.” It was my first glimmering of how powerful words could be. Then in the fourth grade, I got my first dictionary. I was sunk after that. I felt so rich, when I opened that book. All those words-and they were mine. I think that led me to poetry.
For me time is the big difference between poetry and fiction. For me fiction is very embedded in time. Even if I jump around in a story, it is important that the reader knows where and when the scene is taking place. That isn't so important in poetry. For me it is less linear. In a couple of lines I might use memory, fantasy, history and the present moment. Now that I write this, I see all the holes in my argument. I think about this question all them time. My current thought on the subject is that time is more important in fiction than in poetry. Or at least in my fiction and poetry.
SR: Your poems are almost like small collections—collections of alliterations, places, characters, languages. Your photography featured on your website is very similar in this sense—collections from car graveyards, shoes, signs. Can you talk about this a bit? Is this something that results from your writing method or just personal taste?
BH: I have a very chaotic mind, which I find very worrying. I think the compulsive organizing is a way to deal with that chaos. I find sequences and series very helpful in organizing my thoughts and ideas.
It's probably an indication of some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I love to put things in order. All my bookshelves are alphabetized. Chaos makes me profoundly anxious, my mind most of all. It doesn't work out for me so well in my personal life-it drives people crazy-but I'm trying to make it work in my artistic life. However, my desk is a mess. I work in chaos.
SR: The second section of poems in your first book, Delirium, is largely set in Italy and references many museums and artists. How does art or other mediums influence your work?
BH: I took a lot of art history classes in college, and about ten years ago I started taking drawing lessons. I think my love of art is connected with my use of images in my poems.
SR: Your website unveils a love for soup. In what ways does revising a poem resonate with revising and perfecting a recipe? How does the creativity of cooking differ from the creativity of writing poetry?
BH: Well, there's immediate gratification with cooking. It doesn't take as much discipline, at least the way I do it. I really don't like a recipe that is more than one page. That's certainly not true of my poems.
SR: Describe a moment you first felt like a "poet."
BH: My breakthrough poem was the first poem in Delirium, “The Language of Bees.” When I wrote it, I was stunned. It was so different than anything I had written before. I had been working up to that poem for a long time, but when I wrote it, I thought, “This is what I want to do; this is my real voice.” I also used language in a more complex way than I had ever used it. After that I sat down at my desk with such a different feeling. I still had my ups and downs, but I had a new sense of confidence in my work.
SR: Who has been influential in your work?
BH: Keats, Neruda, Garcia Lorca, Whitman, Donne, Plath, Ginsberg, and so many more poets. I couldn't have written my Lingo Sonnets without Shakespeare's sonnets. I love Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer. I've come to love Rilke after resisting him for years. I've also come to love Dickinson. My first great influence was Eliot. I read his poems as a teenager, and I still hear echoes in my own poems.
SR: Your couplet poems have a very distinctive jazzy rhythm to them. How has music influenced your work? Can you discuss your New Orleans background and any connection between its music scene and this jazz inflection?
BH: I studied music as a girl, so I can read music though I'm not a skilled musician. I certainly pay attention to how the sounds of words relate to each other. I have been influenced by Keats's use of assonance to tie together his lines. We left New Orleans when I was four years old, so I don't have any memories except the ones my mother has given me. I do think that the way I write has a lot in common with jazz improvisation. I begin a poem with certain notes and images, but the actual writing is done in the moment, and that's where the music of the line is created.
SR: In another interview, you mention a need for a quick wit as a child in your household (which is very apparent in your poems). At what point did you start writing? More specifically, when did you write your first poem? Whom did you show it to? When you write a poem now, who is the first person you have read it?
BH: As I mentioned before I started writing early. It was always something that I had a facility for, something I inherited from my father, who was a clear, elegant writer. One of my sisters is also a good writer. She's a nurse, and she has always gotten raves for her case studies. I really started writing poetry in high school. I had a boyfriend who was a poet, and we egged each other on. We were both huge Bob Dylan fans. I memorized all the lyrics to the songs on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. I think I could still pull up “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” in a pinch. However, I never considered poetry as a vocation. I thought that it wasn't something that I could aspire to, because I revered poetry so much. I could read poetry and write my secret poems, but I could never be a poet. Then I went to college and complete idiots were saying, “I'm a poet.” It was then that I began to think, “Hey, I'm an idiot. Maybe I could be a poet, too.”
SR: In the same interview, you mention that learning to read was almost an escape for you as a child. Discuss the role that writing plays for you now. How has this role changed since childhood? What has remained?
BH: When I was younger, writing was sporadic. Now I'm much more disciplined, as you would have to be if you want to write poetry without ceasing.
SR: I read that your dictionary was a prized possession as a child. Discuss an instance when you "discovered" a new word as a child. From where do you unearth exciting new words now?
BH: I find new words everywhere: in the newspaper, on billboards, in overheard conversations, and, of course, in books. My husband knows what I like, and he's always finding something for me.
SR: What advice do you have for young writers?
BH: Cultivate good work habits. Create a place to work, and go there every day, even if you write two words and erase three. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it must find us working.” The more you work, the greater your facility, and the more pleasure you will take in sitting down at your desk.
Never stop reading. Reading is the way we communicate with the great minds of the past and present. Shakespeare is dead, but we can share his thoughts whenever we want. You might not be Yusef Komunyakaa's best friend, but you can commune with him on the very highest level. Emily Dickinson may be dead, but her poems and letters are alive. Make poetry a part of everything.