A Mind in Action: Catherine Barnett Interviewed by Maggie Millner

The poet on the virtues of improv, the cost of solitude, and having deep conversations with other texts.

Book Cover

A week after I moved to New York, I saw Catherine Barnett read her poem “O Esperanza!” at an event in the West Village. In the poem, which appears in Barnett’s third collection, Human Hours (Graywolf Press), the speaker’s “inner clown” diagnoses herself with a near-pathological sense of optimism. Two years later, after getting to know Barnett as her student in the MFA program at NYU, I read Human Hours in its entirety and was struck again by her work’s singular combination of earnest feeling and droll analysis. In many ways a book about mortality and solitude, chronicling a son’s departure from home, a father’s dementia, and a country in crisis, the collection is also a commentary on the life-sustaining pleasures of reading, sex, and laughter. A winning, guileless curiosity propels the poems, which include four lyric essays on the nature and structure of questions. While Barnett’s first two collections—which earned her many honors, including a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship—were hailed for their precision and economy, her third unspools in a conversational, free-associative idiom, as if transcribed directly from the musings of that same exuberant inner clown. Even in our darkest hours, the poems insist, company and comedy are never far away.

—Maggie Millner

Maggie MillnerIt’s funny to be asking you questions about this book because so much of it is about being an asker of questions. How did questions become a central theme for you?

Catherine BarnettI think it’s temperamental. I have been told many times, either in praise or critically, that I ask many questions. I used to be a journalist, where it was totally acceptable to walk around the world doing that. So I got curious about the form of questions; what kinds of questions elicit what kinds of possible responses? I’m hoping to write a prose book on questions, and that’s where a lot of this material came from. I also taught a semester-long class on questions and poems: questions as a formal gesture—as a speech act—and also the kinds of questions that are underneath every poem. It’s a very fun way to read.

The book was actually going to be titled “The Accursed Questions”—though now I love “Human Hours;” it’s so quiet, and maybe a little disquieting. The nineteenth-century Russian novelists all wrote about the “accursed questions,” the huge questions of humanity. I learned the term from the poet Ilya Kaminsky and decided to use it as a title for each of the lyric essay sections instead.


Those sections feel like they’re as much about jokes as they are about questions. Part of the work of the lyric essays seems to be collapsing the distinction between those categories, and ending up with riddles, which are sort of both jokes and questions.


That’s a beautiful reading. That was not intentional. I was thinking a lot about the virtues of improv: how can you subvert where you think you’re going? That’s what a joke is. I’m not a funny person in real life, but there’s pleasure in trying to ask, as you might in improv, “If this unusual thing is true, then what else could be true?” Those sections used to be longer and there was more research in them about questions. Then for the reader’s sake, I wanted to make them less think-y, more lively.

I also read that in stand-up comedy, you start with some real, true weakness or real, true desire. Someone once called me “chronically hopeful,” which they meant as an insult and which seemed true enough. So if you were chronically hopeful, what would you say? What would you be able to say that you don’t say when you’re behaving in an expected way?

Photo Credit Jacqueline Mia Foster

Photo by Jacqueline Mia Foster.

MMThere’s so much comedy in the book, so many bathetic twists that made me laugh out loud. Most of the poems are really funny, on top of being earnest and emotive.

CBI’m happy to hear that. But as it says in the poem called “Comic Morning,” there’s a parallel between pathos and humor.

MMRight. Which is echoed later by Groucho Marx, who’s quoted as saying, “The only real laughter comes from despair.” But it seems a lot easier to write a despairing poem than a funny one. Were you consciously trying to make the poems humorous?

CBNo. I think the speaker of the poems is so baffled. She’s kind of a baffled goofball—which is true to the human experience. It’s certainly true to my own experience, but I think it’s true to the larger human experience if you’re paying any attention at all. It’s ridiculous.

Which is why I sometimes have improv teachers visit my classes, too. Once, I had a clowning teacher, Sarah French, visit a poetry workshop; she passed a piece of cloth around the room, and you couldn’t know what you were going to do with the cloth when it got to you. If you had an idea as you were approaching it, you had to get rid of that and start from absolutely nothing. At every moment you couldn’t know. And I think that’s just a great practice—it’s so close to both humor and tragedy. How little can we know, when we sit down at the page?

MMRight, cultivating negative capability.

CBYes. Which is why I haven’t yet finished my prose book. Because I guess I’m better at asking than answering….

Can I ask you something? What I’m concerned about, with this book at this moment, is: what does it matter? I don’t think the poems are bad poems, but the world is in such bad shape. The book is basically a portrait of a mind in action. And in this moment, I just feel that’s not what we need, because the world is so changed—maybe we need action, not the mind in action. I guess I’m wondering if it seems inessential.

MMI feel strongly the opposite. It feels like a book about what it means to live at a sort of fulcrum. There’s the personal fulcrum of being caught between the adult son and the dying father, but there’s also the historical fulcrum of living during a time of profound political and ecological disaster. And the whole middle section feels to me explicitly very socially-minded—it’s explicitly about feeling called to civic action. The book also makes a case for humor, empathy and thinking as antidotes to violence and intolerance, I think. And then there are the specific people you invoke, like Rorty and Levinas, these philosophers whose work is all about the ethics of living among others. The questions in the book are actually almost exclusively social, ethical questions.


I think and hope that’s true. But I couldn’t find my way to see it, because I’m still so close to the act of making.

MMSpeaking of ethics, I’m wondering about the combination of strangeness and intelligibility in these poems; on the one hand, you take these unpredictable leaps between images and references, but on the other, the train of thought is always easy to follow. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to make things clear for your readers?

CBI’m interested in what kinds of hinges you can make between parts, whether they’re sonic or syntactic or through repetition or song. I like things to have a kind of flow, a feeling of connectedness. Some of that comes from reading Kathleen Peirce’s The Oval Hour and watching how her syntax (some of which is borrowed directly from Augustine’s Confessions) asserts its own argument; the words filling that syntax are sort of unrelated to the argument that the syntax itself is making. I find that thrilling to the brain, those two systems in a kind of tension. And looking at drafts helped me learn how to do it—watching how Plath moves in her drafts, for example.

MMIs it right to characterize this as a book about loneliness?

CBIt is definitely a book not about but of loneliness. Sometimes I say to myself, “How many more days alone do I get?” I mean it in a positive way. I know people are afraid of being alone, and I probably am also, but when you are writing, you really aren’t alone. There’s such an other there. And then all of these other voices: my beautiful students, and my poet-friends, and lovers, and my family, of course—and these other texts. There was something that I read that Marilynne Robinson said about Dickinson and loneliness: “And of course, loneliness by itself is not sufficient. But on the other hand, when you have no contingency of that kind [contingency of relationship], you actually find out what you think. You become aware of your consciousness as a mysterious other.” Isn’t that great? It explains so much of why I love solitude and am not afraid of the kind of loneliness that’s in the book, which is just being alone. Marilynne Robinson is talking about Dickinson, but it also feels like a comment on the fact that we lose a lot by needing to be alone to work. We give up so much. It’s a wonderful feeling, that kind of studious solitude—but it is at a cost.

MMEspecially thinking about people like Rilke, who neglect their families in the pursuit of art.CBRight. And the question of “contingency of relationship” is interesting, because I didn’t actually start writing poetry until the night my son was born, and now he’s just moved into his own apartment.

MMDid you literally start writing poetry the night he was born?

CBI think I literally started then. I had been a journalist, but I didn’t really love the authority you had to have to be a good journalist. I actually love the opposite kind of authority. So then I tried to write fiction, but I can’t tell a story to save my life. Around that time, I had a teacher, Ruth Danon, who was very Winnicottian and would lead improv writing exercises, gently watching her students at a distance, not intruding, simply trying to witness and then reflect back the autonomy of the self at play. I met her when I was pregnant. She said to me, “I think maybe you’re a poet,” and I said, “Oh, I couldn’t be a poet. It’s so arrogant,” because of the way we’re taught to study poetry. And she said, “Then don’t call it a poem. Call it an aardvark. Call it something else.” It was so brilliant. After the writing exercises, she would sit by my side—the same way now I sit beside my students—and she would show me what I had made. I had this great photography teacher at Princeton, Emmet Gowin, and he would see in your photo what wasn’t even there yet. But he would see through to the not-yet-visible and describe it back to you. And you’d see what could happen. Ruth was like that.

I think it was partly also the fact that when you’re a new mother, you only have little fragments of time. So that’s what probably helped me start writing things that were more like poems. I started writing the poems in my first book during my son’s first four years, which were followed by a terrible family loss—and poetry was one way of trying to make sense of both the birth and the deaths.

And it’s an interesting moment for me as a writer, because my son is really on his own now. So much of the drive to “make” was also a drive to have a life both connected to and separate from him—because otherwise you can get subsumed. So in some ways, I feel without a subject right now.

MMThough it seems to me a danger to have a subject, sometimes. This top-down approach of deciding on a subject and then just sort of doing due diligence to it—it can feel overdetermined.

CBYou might have a point. It probably wouldn’t work. Any time I’ve had a project, it hasn’t worked. Sometimes when people have an idea, it gets too willed.

MMI felt like this collection was actually about so many things. There were more subjects in this book than in your other books, maybe because you allowed your mind to roam and did less paring down. But the threads all eventually braided in a way that made sense.

CBPart of that might just be because it was written by a single mind. And part of it might be the making and shaping of the book: cutting away and adding repetition and making small, as well as enormous, changes. The preoccupations are all sort of the same, in a way, but they were not top-down. I’m glad it doesn’t seem like a limitation, my lack of a particular subject—but in one’s life it does feel like a limitation. Right now I really feel like I have no other thoughts. I think the world is so distressing, and I can’t find my way in to talk about it.

MMBut these poems also confront all sorts of writerly problems by asking other writers for help. The book is profoundly intertextual; you just throw James Baldwin up next to John Locke and go from there. How did you figure out you could do that?

CBThat’s a good question too. I think we’re in deep conversations with other texts, so it’s just a consequence of doing all this reading, and then I sit down to write without knowing what I’m going to do and that’s what happens to come in. There was even an anxiety of, Am I leaning too much on other texts? That’s why there are these extensive—maybe too-extensive—notes. For example, I just saw my teacher Ellen Bryant Voigt the other day, and she wanted me to read her a poem from the book. Eventually I read her “Lyric and Narrative Time at Café Loup.” But there’s a line in that poem that is 100% stolen from Szymborska: “The most pressing questions are naive.” When Ellen heard it read aloud, her eyebrow went up, because she recognized the line. I had to tell her, “It’s credited in the notes, don’t worry.” And in the poem “Son in August,” when I wrote the line “some archaic something of something,” I genuinely felt accompanied by Rilke. I feel like these writers save us from terrible solitude. They keep you from pretending like you’re in it by yourself. Because you aren’t.

Maggie Millner’s recent poems appear or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Tin House Online, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University.

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