I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The poet on his new collection, language as resistance, research as a starting point, and how the intimate suggests the epic.
The Galleons (Milkweed Editions), Rick Barot’s most recent poetry collection, moves through the marrow of a family’s journey from the Philippines to the Americas—simultaneously widening and pinpointing the trauma of colonialism. Rick’s work has always been a space of visceral listening. These poems remind me of scientists pressing their ears against the ice, listening for whale sounds. The layered love of listening to intimate connections, generational stories, and silenced histories that are in constant danger of being lost—from his maternal grandmother’s tapes to a war veteran sharing photos of his dog.
Deep listening becomes a kind of somatic writing: “I listen to her with my skin and my eyes…” Throughout The Galleons, the thunderous sound of galleons departing and arriving between 1564 and 1815 rings in our ears. In my conversations with Rick over the years, we keep coming back to what poetry can do in this whirling world of beauty, cruelty, inheritance, and uncertainty. As Rick notes below, “all the things we try to do with language, is one form of our recalcitrance.” To listen is to write is to resist. This is Rick’s most vulnerable and gloriously recalcitrant book to date.
Jane Wong In “The Grasshopper and The Cricket,” you write about what the world is losing: “Waiting, I am at the food court, reading a magazine / article about the languages the world is losing. // The languages spoken only by the few remaining / people.” When reading The Galleons, I keep coming back to this—to what is lost and what remains. I can’t help but think about my slowly deteriorating Cantonese (at this point, I hold the language of a five-year-old). I actually tried to write a poem in Cantonese once, and it was eerie. Can you speak more about what is being lost and what remains?
Rick Barot I’m not sure that I have a direct way of answering this question, but here’s one way of answering. One of the things that I often remind my creative writing students is that if you are a sentient being, you are constantly generating content. Psychological content, emotional content, semantic content, physiological content. What makes a writer different from others—not special, just different—is that we have a need to create shapes and vessels that capture some of that irredeemably lost content. And so, what we do as writers, in trying to preserve the vernacular of the everyday in the things we write, is predicated on that loss. Loss is the given, and language, and all the things we try to do with language, is one form of our recalcitrance.
JW That makes me think of how poets try to preserve. Research—especially familial research in the ache of colonialism and migration—is a complicated and layered thing. Simultaneously heavy and porous. In “The Galleons 1,” I’m obsessed with your use of “or” here—a kind of admittance of uncertainty. I was also struck by this idea of history as “the net through which // just about everything passes.” And in another poem, you write: “Research is mourning, my friend says.” In my own personal and collective research on China’s Great Leap Forward, I keep running into holes that I desperately want to fill. Tell me about your research process for The Galleons and how it felt to open that “black seam of time.”
RB In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” there’s a beautiful line that goes, “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’” That line pretty much summarizes the research method—if you can even call it a method—that informed my work on many poems in The Galleons. When I noticed something—a bit of information I came across, say, or a bit of visual vividness occurring in front of me—I used that as a starting point to look closer and to look wider, knowing that the trail of connections from one thing to another, from one and to another and, can be intricately strange.
One night, reading in a chair in my house, a flea jumped onto my forearm. This led to me to look up fleas online, which somehow led to re-reading John Donne’s “The Flea,” which then led to some self-pitying thoughts about my shortcomings as a poet. In terms of research that took place on a grander scale, I had the good fortune of getting a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 2016, and this funding made it possible to do research on the galleons and the Spanish galleon trade that I could only have dreamed of without the funding. I went to the Naval Museum in Madrid, to the incredible silver galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and to the National Museum in Manila. In all of these places I came across astonishing things that ended up in the poems.
JW Tell me about one particular astonishing thing as you moved through these museums.
RB The most aching experience during my travels was seeing a portrait of Ferdinand Magellan at the Naval Museum in Madrid, in an exhibit that celebrated the three-hundred-plus years of the Spanish galleon trade in the Pacific. Magellan “discovered” the Philippines for Spain in 1521, which led to Spain’s centuries-long control over the country. The painting of Magellan was not contemporaneous, so it was a speculative portrait of the man, showing him looking grand and wise and triumphant. Still, seeing the ersatz portrait gave me a wave of nausea anyway. I thought of how this one man’s errand set so much in motion—a history that was still rippling five hundred years into the present, with me standing there in front of him, one more speck in that long and painful story.
JW I remember, when I was working on my “Poetics of Haunting” project, that we spoke about archival tapes and interweaving intergenerational stories. And each time I see “The Galleons 5,” I’m haunted by the direct quotes entangling with your lines—the way in which storytelling speaks across time. Tell me more about these tapes, about “the glow” of the stories that stay with you.
RB The idea for the form in “The Galleons 5,” wherein my voice alternates with excerpts from the interviews I did with my maternal grandmother, came to me after hearing you discuss your “Poetics of Haunting” project. So, I’m grateful to you for that inspiration. Thinking about your project, I wondered, “How can a poem formally represent haunting?” The interweaving in “The Galleons 5” was the answer I came up with, especially when the poem’s two strands become so entangled that the text nears illegibility, with that illegibility enacting the disorientation of being haunted. Eventually the reader figures out how to separate and read the two strands, though the form always keeps the reader on the verge of losing track, of losing understanding.
My grandmother died at ninety-two years old in 2016, and The Galleons is partly an elegiac consideration of her long life. Some years before her death, I taped several hours of interviews with her, without knowing what I would do with these interviews. When I began The Galleons and thought of how I would represent her life, I knew that I didn’t want to write reconstructive narratives about what she experienced. I didn’t want to write persona poems that inhabited her being. I felt a kind of ethical restriction, and wanted to write only of the things that I knew were facts, and the things she disclosed in the interviews.
I suppose that if I were a fiction writer I could have written a whole novel about the dramatic arc of her biography—her early life in the Philippines, a world war, immigration, five children, being a woman in the twentieth century, a century full of historical and technological change. But as a poet I was drawn to representing what was intimate—the glimpse, the fragment, the image, the anecdote—knowing that the intimate could suggest the epic.
JW I think this is why this poem stays with me—there’s a deep level of respect. Something about knowing this is your grandmother’s actual voice, her intimate accounts. This poem feels like an altar.
RB I love the idea of a poem as an altar. This reminds me of your beautiful exhibit of art and poetry at the Frye Art Museum last year. I still recall the altar-alcove that was in the opening section of the exhibit, and the first lines of a poem that was projected on the wall of the altar: “I told the earth to settle back / down, to lay deep in its mud.”
JWThank you, from one altar to another. There’s also a lot of empathy in this book—akin to reaching an arm out to touch another. In “Cascades 501,” you begin: “The man sitting behind me / is telling the man sitting next to him about his heart bypass.” In “The Galleons 3,” you begin the poem with talking to someone on the plane and what unfolds in this sharing. Tell me more about this poem, about these immediate intimacies, and how you arrived at the stunning last image: “the other eye marbled gold / and green, like the weather on another planet.”
RB What happened in “The Galleons 3” really happened. I was on an airplane heading back to the Seattle-Tacoma airport, and I got into conversation with the man next to me, just as described in the poem. He served as a Marine in Afghanistan, he was a long-haul truck driver, he was flying back home for a quick visit to see his parents and his dog—and I, in turn, told him about my teaching, my writing, and the galleons project that I was in the middle of and couldn’t stop thinking about. At some point, not at all anticipating that his answer would mean anything, I asked him about the goods he carried in his truck, and the things he named sounded so much like the latter-day version of the goods carried in the galleons that I opened my notebook and started writing everything down.
It was at that moment that I understood something I’d only intuited—that colonialism and capitalism weren’t just related; they were the same thing. As for the dog, that was a couple of beers into our conversation. The man had such unabashed affection as he swiped through his phone and showed me the photos of his dog. The fact that the dog’s eyes were two shockingly different colors—this was otherworldly punctuation to an encounter that was, in retrospect, as moving as it was fleeting. The poems in The Galleons are full of these fleeting experiences—things overheard, things seen from the corner of the eye, the state of being in transit.
JW I’m in love with that unabashed affection—that shared tenderness for what is fleeting. It’s everywhere if we’re porous enough. I feel this in your form too, with your couplets throughout the book. For me, it creates this sense of interwoven connection, of linked lineage, of paired movement, of intimate proximity. Can you tell me more about your couplets here? Also, within a consistent and composed form, I’m curious about your moments of rupture via enjambment, punctuation, etc.
RB Because a lot of the subjects I was writing about in The Galleons were so heavy, I had the notion early on that it would be good to have a contrasting formal shape for the poems in the book. The couplet stanza—given the lightness generated by the white space that surrounded each couplet—seemed an apt contrast. As I committed more and more to the couplet as the only stanzaic form I would use in the book, the more I worried that this regularity would lead to either laziness on my part or monotony for the reader.
To address those possible problems, I started to come up with other formal gambits that could be deployed within the confines of the couplet stanza. And so, one poem doesn’t use punctuation. Another poem uses just one extended compound sentence. And still another poem has closed couplets, sort of like in a ghazal. It seems paradoxical, but adhering to the couplet stanza actually made me more formally inventive. During the period when I was writing the poems for The Galleons, I also had an obsession with Agnes Martin’s work. I’d like to think that my couplets are a kind of homage to her own obsession with grids, horizontal lines, vertical lines—a vocabulary of order.
JW Yes to all of this! You know, just when you said that, I remembered you posting your washi-tape collages on Instagram. Bright colors, lines, grids. “A vocabulary of order” indeed!
RB Another thing that I tell my students is that writing a poem is about harnessing the forces of order and the forces of disorder that can converge in a poem. Finding a meaningful equilibrium or proportion among those forces is often what the work is about, along with the other things that each poem demands of us. When I make the collages that you mention, I feel like I’m engaged in little exercises for my work in poetry. Writing a poem is often scary—each poem is from the ground up. It’s conjured out of mind and air. At least with making collages there’s paper, colored tapes, a ruler, a cutting mat, and the coolest of all things, an X-acto knife.
JW To keep talking about form, there are so many litanies in this book featuring objects, galleons, creatures, places, someone doing something, etc. Tell me more about how you envision the litany form. Oftentimes, it feels like litanies can go on forever—the weight of all it carries within.
RB In the undergraduate poetry workshop that I just taught, I gave students the assignment to write a prayer or a curse. In just about all of the example poems we looked at, there was an obsessive, litany-like music in the poems. As we discussed in class, this music can be traced to poetry’s origins in orality, in song. It also refers to poetry’s roots in prayer and all of the postures that prayer can embody: praise, entreaty, rage, argument, fear, and so on. My own use of the litany is tied to the trance-like state that I often find myself in when I write. Writing a poem, for me, feels like a summoning of things that are deep or far away, and which need the posture of invocation to express themselves.
JW An invocation, yes! I’m enamored by this “trance-like” state of writing. That makes me think of simultaneity too. And what it means to honor and pay attention to all that is happening simultaneously. This is especially felt in “Ode to Interruptions.” I absolutely love that moment with the wallpaper peeling. And how that leads you to an ars poetica—toward what it means to “transcend the prosaic elements” and then declare: “I was wrong.” I must have underlined this section so many times, my pen ripped a hole in the paper. What, then, is writing poetry for you?
RB For decades now, I’ve loved these two lines from a poem by Agha Shahid Ali: “Each statue will be broken / if the heart is a temple.” I think writing poetry is, for me, grounded in Ali’s sense of the brokenness that the heart carries. I said earlier that poets, as a vocational requirement, have the desire to make containers that might preserve the things that make us human. Our brokenness—which encompasses our imperfect love and our certain mortality—is probably the most bittersweet of those things.
JW That’s really beautiful. That reminds me of kintsugi—repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer. To see the seams, the history, the love. Thank you, Rick. I’m beyond grateful for you as a poet—what your heart carries forth through language. I feel it deeply as a reader.
RB Thanks so much, Jane—for reading the book so deeply, and for the good, hard questions.
The Galleons is available for purchase here.
Jane Wong’s poems can be found in places such as Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Agni, Third Coast, and others. Her essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Black Warrior Review, Ecotone, The Georgia Review, The Common, Shenandoah, and This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships and residencies from the U.S. Fulbright Program, Artist Trust, the Fine Arts Work Center, Willapa Bay AiR, Hedgebrook, the Jentel Foundation, and the Mineral School. She is the author of Overpour from Action Books, and How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which is forthcoming from Alice James in 2021. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee