"...the more I write and teach, the more I realize everyone comes to things in different ways at different times..."

More Perihelion:

BobSward's Writer's Friendship Series


Needto Know



Issue9: The Missing Body

Issue8: The Lily

Issue7: Passages

Issue6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Quan Barry

Cal Bedient

Joshua Bell

Nadia Colburn

Carolina Ebeid

Odysseas Elytis

Nathalie Handal

Connie Hershey

Timothy Liu

Drago Stambuk

Franz Wright

Featured Poet:
Quan Barry

Quan Barry was born in Saigon and rasied on Boston's north shore. she received her MFA from the University of Michigan and was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University as well as the Diane Middlebrook poetry fellow at the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Creative Writing. Quan Barry's work has appeared in such journals as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and The New Yorker. Currently she is assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Following is a conversation Perhelion's Beth Woodcome had with Quan Barry about her poetic development.

Can you share a bit of your journey so far? Where did it start and where are you now?

As a child I dabbled here and there a bit writing and illustarting stories (mostly stuff about a dog possibly named Hermann Biff (tho' if I really pressed myself to remember, I think I'd recall his name was probably (unimaginatively) Spot)), but I didn't start writing poetry until my first year at the University of Virginia. There were two girls in my suite (a New Yorker and a hippie chick from Mobile, Alabama) who kept journals, and I would come home from class and see them out on the on the balcony writing away (and also possibly drinking vodka in broad daylight! (very Anne Sexton-like)). Anyway, after a while, I began to notice other people in the dorm who also wrote poetry--some shaggy-haired guy from Connecticut, a farm boy mathmetician, some aerobics girl from Long island etc.--and for some reason, I thought that just seemed really inordinately cool, the idea of writing just for yourself, not for a grade etc. In our suite, we started holding informal poetry readings in the bathroom (there were no windows there, so we'd turn out the lights, light some candles, and have instant ambience); to make a long story short, I guess I got hooked. Virginia has some great poets on staff--Rita Dove and Charles Wright being the most famous--and as undergrads we were always clamoring to get into their classes. Although I wasn't an English major (my BA's in liberal arts), I did take a few workshops, and after I graduated I took a year off before heading to the University if Michigan for my MFA. Then after Michigan I was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford and eventually the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Creative Writing where eventually eventually I was lucky enough to land my current job as an assistant professor of English.

How would you characterize the kind of poetry you write (lyric, dramatic narrative, etc)?

Hmmm, although I know my own work pretty well, I have a hard time characterizing the poems in ASYLUM. For a while while I was out at Stanford, I used to think of them as confessional, and my friends were always telling me, "Uh, no." I definitely recognize (especially in the epilogue poems) just how lyrical the work can be, but something about the subject matter in ASYLUM gives me pause before claiming they're simply lyric. When I say confessional, there's absolutely nothing strictly confessional about the poems (obviously I never have been nor will I ever be, say, Steven Seagal), and yet I recognize the part of me that's fascinated/motivated by violence so that I almost feel that I am confessing something in a poem like "The Glimmer Man". Anyway, my second manuscript titled CONTROVERTIBLES is definitely much more meditative in voice; while I was out at Stanford, that was my goal, to become more meditative, yet I ended up writing most of ASYLUM which isn't that at all. My first year here in Wisconsin I sorta stumbled onto a meditative voice and a form, and I ended up writing CONTROVERTIBLES in about a year. Currently I'm working on a book about Vietnam, but I'm not sure how it's going--I don't want it to be a travel log, and I'm also trying to change my voice, do something different, so the writing's coming much slower than I'm used to.

Who are your major influences?

Hmmm again. I'm always telling my students you can be influenced by many things, not just poetry. I'm really into this idea of things being just what they are. For example, every day walking home from class in California, I would pass this huge tree that took up an entire front yard, and I remember always thinking I could learn more about poetry by studying that tree than I could by taking literature classes (does that sound pretentious and strange? I hope not). Anyway, as far as poets go, some of my first loves were W.S. Merwin and Robert Bly's LEAPING POETRY (which introduced my to Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo), but more recently I find myself into Anne Carson, Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, novelists like Martin Amis, Haruki Murakami, filmmakers like Terrence Malik and the Wakowski (sp?) Brothers, TV shows like Nova etc. I guess in some ways I'm not talking about influences as far as style goes but maybe more where a lot of my ideas come from. Finally, I should mention I'm a Bardolator, and also (fortunately? unfortunately?) I read the Bible for its poetry; I just finished reading a couple of books in Richmond Lattimore's translation of the New Testament (I'm way into Lattimore).

Which poets do you have your eye on now?

There are some really great first books out there. I'm really into Olena Kalyiak Davis'AND HER SOUL OUT OF NOTHING, Tessa Rumsey's ASSEMBLING THE SHEPHERD, Maurice Manning's LAWRENCE BOOTH'S BOOK OF VISION,lots of books by friends from the Stegner program, a book by a friend named Glori Simmons called GRAFT. I'm sorta starting to get into Carl Phillips, and I'm also a big fan of Lucie Brock-Broido and Li-Young Lee. I also read a lot of short fiction, mostly a lot of manly man fiction; have recently gotten heavily into Barry Hannah--the stories in AIRSHIPS are linguistically stunning.

How was your experience publishing poems, publishing your first book Asylum?

As a grad student and a fellow at Stanford, I held off submitting work to journals; in both places I always felt there were some people who were more interested in getting published than they were in polishing their voices. However, the more I write and teach, the more I realize everyone comes to things in different ways at different times, so I would never tell someone to hold off publishing. To answer the question, I guess I've been in the right place at the right time for most of my writing life, and I've been fortunate to be published as much as I have with a great press and good journals. I will say on the journal front that I try not to believe that a poem is any better or worse than it is based on where it ends up. What I mean is the poem is the poem; an okay poem of mine in THE KENYON REVIEW is still an okay poem while a great poem in THE MADISON REVIEW is a great poem--just because the journal is smaller or better known etc. doesn't add or detract from the work.

When reading comments, reviews, and descriptions of your poetry you are often described as a poet who is adeptly and passionately able to convey struggle, physical and emotional horror, dysfunction. However, in many ways I feel consoled while reading your work. Can you tell me about your relationship with poetry as a healing art -- if you can identify it as one?

I don't think of my writing as any kind of cathartic experience, although I can definitely see that for other writers this might well be the case in their work. Maybe this will sound weird, but I guess I mostly started writing because I wanted to read the kind of poems I would write. Similarly, I don't write my poems in an attempt to work out issues in my life but rather (and this may seem like a small distinction) to see how said issues physically linguistically narratively etc. work out on the page. In other words, I'm not trying to resolve anything emotionally, I just want to see what the ideas I've got going in my head will look like in the medium of poetry.

You are a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Did you always want to teach? Did it seem a natural profession to mix with the profession of being a poet? Do you identify more with being a poet or a professor?

I definitely see myself as a poet first, prof second. I don't want to sound like a gunslinger, but initially I looked at teaching as a way to pay the bills so that I could keep writing poetry. This is going to be my third year here as an assistant professor, and more and more I find myself drawn to teaching. Specifically as more and more of my students go on to think about MFA programs, as their writing gets better and better (NB: the kids I started teaching back in 2000 who were sophomores etc. have just graduated), I see the role I play in their creative lives, in helping them have full well-rounded undergraduate experiences, and I realize in some ways what an honor it is to be so important to these kids in this way. Many of them want to live artistic lives, and I'm maybe the first person who's not a million years older than they are who they could possibly see themselves becoming. All in all, it's a great life and I know I'm very lucky to have it.

Your poetry seems to focus on such a spectrum of subjects, from field hockey to philosophy. How do ideas come to you? How does a poem come to you?

For ASYLUM, I was really in the process of finding my voice etc, so those poems came from wherever they came from. I listen to a lot of NPR, mostly FRESH AIR, and quite a few of the poems are from segments I'd heard either there or on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Because I'm the kind of person who's really interested in making connections, in getting really into topics, for ASYLUM, I researched a lot of the poems (for example, the poems about syphilis), but for my other manuscripts I haven't done any real library research. I have to say most of the stuff I researched for the poems in ASYLUM didn't make it into the poems but I liked having that knowledge to draw on if I needed it. With my second manuscript CONTROVERTIBLES I had an idea for the way the poems should look and read, then it was simply a matter of coming up with the kind of subject matter that would lend itself to the form and voice. Again, a lot of it comes from what I was listening to, reading, watching etc. PBS and NPR are wellsprings for me.

You received an MFA from the University of Michigan. I know many people struggle with the idea of an MFA, of the benefits of getting an MFA. How was that experience for you -- the deciding and the actual studying and writing?

I needed an MFA, no question about it. My writing was young and unformed and I didn't know much with respect to issues of craft or as far as the contemporary landscape of poetry was concerned. I always tell my students that you go into an MFA to learn your craft; it's not like Harvard Law School--you go there, it's a career move, ie. you're probably going to be a lawyer. But you go to an MFA, there's no guarantee you'll be a poet or a writer of some kind, so you can't go in for professional reasons. Having said that, more and more very accomplished younger writers are going into MFA programs not so much to study craft but because they need an MFA to teach, to make a living. I think the academy needs to rethink its hiring practices in this sense; if someone has a good book should it matter whether or not they have an MFA? I think if these accomplished oftentimes thirty-something writers felt that they could land jobs without an MFA, they might not get them, which for people who don't need to learn craft might not be a bad thing. However, that does bring up the idea of the MFA as a place to get writing done without real working world considerations.

All in all, I think an MFA can be invaluable for the right kind of student, but I do worry that for too many young writers, more and more having an MFA is the only road to becoming a writer.

What are you working on now?

Again, I'll send my second manuscript to my press this fall and see what happens. As far as my third book goes, I'll keep writing it and see what happens there too. As I mentioned before, up until this point, I wrote fairly quickly--I could write and pretty much finish a poem in a day. Now it takes me much longer, and while I'm not crazy about the change in my process, I'm hoping that the work also reads much differently from other things that I've written.

Thanks, Quan, for sharing your experience and insights with Perihelion.

Quan Barry's poetry can be found here.