Interviews July 2006

Poet in Residence

David Barber, The Atlantic's poetry editor, talks about the writing and teaching of poetry, and about his new collection of poems, Wonder Cabinet
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book cover

Wonder Cabinet: Poems [Click the title
to buy this book]

by David Barber
Triquarterly
112 pages

Editing poetry for The Atlantic is one of the most venerable responsibilities in American letters. Taking it on, one inherits a long tradition of distinguished contributions to American poetry—poems by Emerson, Whitman, Frost, and Robert Lowell, among many, many others—as well as famous flubs like editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s rejections of Emily Dickinson (“The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me,” he wrote in 1891, when prompted to comment on her posthumous success). The Atlantic poetry editorship is an especially sensitive post; not only does it require the recognition of good writing in whatever strange and innovative forms it might take, but it also comes with the amorphous assignment of meeting the poetry needs of a general interest magazine.

David Barber, The Atlantic’s current poetry editor, has been at the magazine since 1994. For ten years, he performed the Herculean task of reading and considering every one of the 75,000 poetry submissions that pour into The Atlantic’s offices each year. In this capacity he worked closely with the man who previously held this post, legendary poet and editor Peter Davison, who shaped the magazine’s poetry offerings for more than thirty years. Following Davison’s death in December 2004, Barber took on the position of poetry editor, and on his watch the world of Atlantic poetry has remained true to its longstanding philosophy: rather than defining an ideal Atlantic poem or endorsing a particular House aesthetic, he has aimed to publish poems, in any style, that, as he puts it, strike him with their “inflected intensity… ideas, originality, verve.”

From Atlantic Unbound:

"A Life's Work"
Remembering Peter Davison. By David Barber.

Peter Davison (1928-2004)"
A partial collection of Peter Davison's essays, reviews, travelogues, and poems for The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

In Memoriam
Peter Davison (1928-2004). By Cullen Murphy

Barber also applies this omnivorous appreciation for variety to his own poems, which combine deep erudition with a magpie eclecticism. In his new book, Wonder Cabinet, he takes as a model the late-Renaissance curiosity cabinet, an object described by Francis Bacon as a “goodly huge cabinet,” useful for exhibiting any combination of items produced by man, nature, or “singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things.” In this curatorial spirit, Barber displays a kangaroo, the library at Alexandria, a lewdly named flesh-eating flower, a reality TV show starring falcons, the La Brea tar pits, and a hunchbacked tennis whiz. He conscripts Houdini, Louis Armstrong, Babe Ruth, Audubon, and the Flying Wallendas (“the ‘first family’ of high-wire aerialists”), and quarters these luminaries alongside equally alluring minor figures: obsessed Dutch tulip-traders, Kyrgyzstani eagle trainers, and Luther Burbank,  “the most celebrated horticulturist” of the late nineteenth century.

Wonder Cabinet provides a surprisingly inclusive picture of human experience and approaches its subjects with humor, fellow-feeling, and a rueful appreciation of the predicament of being a strange creature in a world of strangeness. Along with empathy toward underdogs, the poems profess an infectious admiration for unusual achievements, and an implicit faith in their importance. Upon learning, for instance, that a 98-year-old beekeeper “bobbed to the top of Kilimanjaro” looking for a particular strain of insects, Barber writes “It buoys me simply to think of it”—and it’s impossible not to concur.

David Barber’s first book, The Spirit Level, won the Terence des Pres prize. His poetry and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Poetry, and he has taught at MIT and Emerson College. He lives in the Boston area.

We corresponded by email last month.

—Sarah Cohen



David Barber
David Barber

In many of the poems in Wonder Cabinet, you’re writing about people with very specific, esoteric interests. In one poem, for example, you directly address Williams Wells, a Victorian scientist who wrote a treatise on dew. You write: “There’s a touch of the sublime in your arcane fixation.” What is it about arcane fixations that you find sublime?

One man’s arcana is another man’s manna, I suspect. Now that you mention it, I suppose that line from “Ode to William Wells” verges on an artistic credo: I have a thing for unearthing stray historical facts and occurrences, and I’m convinced there’s something rewarding and perhaps even redemptive about the effort to recover relics and remnants of the past that might otherwise vanish into the dust-bin of history. There’s a catchphrase going around these days for certain kinds of topical docudramas and the like: “ripped from the headlines.” That may help put my own penchant in perspective: a good many of my poems might be described as ripped from the footnotes.

Then again, isn’t it one of the touchstones of modernism that it’s the particulars that matter at the end of the day? To be fixated on anything implies an abiding devotion to exacting detail, and trusting in the details to deliver the goods. That’s true of modern prose as well—think Flaubert, think Chekhov—but lyric poetry is a particularly fitting medium for that impulse because of its distillation of perception and concentration of expression.

In the case of William Wells, here was a figure of some importance in his day who’s now all but forgotten, like just about all of us will be. He was an American physician who had a practice in London in the early 1800s and dabbled in natural history on the side—or as it was often called then, “natural philosophy.” I happened upon a reference to a scientific paper he presented to the Royal Society in a Loren Eiseley book called Darwin’s Century—in a footnote, naturally!—and was instantly enchanted by its title: “Essay on Dew.” And I was all the more captivated to learn that it wasn’t some kind of metaphorical rubric but quite literally a research paper on condensation and evaporation, one that caused something of a stir in learned circles because it embodied what was just then becoming codified as the scientific method: drawing a hypothesis about the laws of nature based on first-hand observation and scrupulous field studies. So I hope my ode to William Wells is also an homage to certain habit of mind and a certain moment in time, harking back to a historical period when scientific research wasn’t yet the private domain of specialists and an enlightened amateur could still have a hand in revealing how the world works.

In poems about historical figures like Wells, how did you choose the people to write about, and then what was it like doing the research?

I’m tempted to suggest that they choose me, but it’s probably more accurate to say that I lie in wait for them. Something about them speaks to me, and in turn I want to see if I can speak for them. My poems have become more peopled, more inhabited, over the years, and I think that’s because I’ve gravitated toward elegies and apostrophes for the sense of narrative and dramatic occasion they provide. I guess I’ve also developed a yen for channeling tutelary spirits as a way of getting beyond the cramped confines of personal history. In his great little essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost says that poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Courting that kind of harmonic convergence between curiosity and serendipity has always appealed to me.

That’s not to say I have any surefire recipe. The germ for a poem is oftentimes something I’ve read that touches a chord and sends me off in pursuit of more facts, more details, more dirt. It can be a biography, a museum catalogue, a letter, a photo caption, a newspaper obituary, a telling quotation that seems to me to aspire to the condition of an aphorism—by and large, the more ephemeral and antiquarian the better. I’m not trying to impersonate a historian, but I do relish the challenge of appropriating archival material for my own purposes and authenticating my findings: it’s part homework, part detective work, part archeological dig. Inspiration is the natural resource we all covet, but elbow grease is a pretty good fossil fuel in a pinch. At the end of the book I’ve appended several pages of what I call “Notes and Sources,” and it’s mostly a paper trail of all the stuff I’ve assembled poems out of—an inventory of all the burrs that have stuck to me, so to speak.

In the poem “Eulogy for an Anchorite,” for example, my primary source was an obit I happened across at the breakfast table. It was the headline that grabbed me: “Brother Adam, Benedictine monk; Transformed beekeeping, at 98.” Now, that struck me as practically a found poem all by itself, and as it turned out, I wound up weaving the headline right into the measure of the lines and using it as a kind of tuning fork for the poem’s speaking voice. But I also felt the need to bone up a little on the art and science of beekeeping, so that led me to such handy items as a back number of the American Bee Journal, my field guide to hymenoptera, and a pioneering study by Karl von Frisch called The Dancing Bees. Sometimes the walk in the fields turns into a treasure hunt.

Most of the poems in this book are about historical figures or events, but some seem more autobiographical. How is it different writing about public versus private experience? Is it important to do both?

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Emily Dickinson (Un)discovered" (April 11, 2001)
In 1891, shortly after the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's poetry, Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled his correspondence with the reclusive poet and reproduced many of her letters and early poems.

It all depends. Some poets can switch back and forth without missing a beat; others seem to pitch their tent on one side of the fence or the other. But it’s not as if there’s some hard and fast boundary, is there? You might say American poetry as we know it comes into its own the moment Whitman announces, “I celebrate myself,  and sing myself,” and seeing as he’s the father of us all, sometimes it seems as if that will always be our default mode. On the other hand, it’s worth recalling the disclaimer that the mother of us all, Emily Dickinson, firmly issued in her famous correspondence with Atlantic editor Thomas Higginson: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” Was she just being cagey? Maybe, but I hear it as a kind of a declaration of independence: there are ways of writing with intimacy and authenticity that don’t hinge on self-disclosure, and there’s a lot to be said for reserving the right to employ the first-person singular as an expressive device rather than an autobiographical posture. For my part, count me among those who are more in their element when exercising the option of being a “supposed person” on the page. Where else can you do that with such alacrity and impunity? I don’t cotton to the notion that poets have an obligation to speak for collective experience, but it’s an honorable tradition worth preserving and I think it can be a welcome corrective to the claustrophobic solipsism that’s an occupational hazard of so much testimonial writing.

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