And now, dear reader, Part II of the interview with David Barber:
AH: There is such a perfect randomness to the book, it gives the impression that really anything could have been your subject. This suggested to me a sense of fate, that there was something a little more magical to the assembly of Wonder Cabinet. As a finished work, does the book inspire a similar feeling for you? Do you think this sensation might just be the consequence of this varied a collection?
DB: I was definitely aiming for variety and abundance. If you look at the old etchings of wonder cabinets from the early Enlightenment period, they often appear to be an inspired hodgepodge or giddy jumble of stuff, and so perhaps it’s only fitting if my collection has a similar feel. Less can be more, but sometimes more is more.
AH: Research on these poems must have led to you to any number of curious topics, and the people, places, and things you ultimately chose were surely buried in more intricate texts, again, riddled with strange and interesting things. In their original contexts, what would strike you most often—an entire chapter of a botany book or a sentence, one character or one characteristic? Did you find you were disentangling one inspiring element, or replicating a framework into which you could imagine the poem?
DB: Serendipity has a lot to do with it. There’s no formula or recipe I follow. More often than not, I’d say the germ for a poem begins with something very particular or quite peculiar – if the tradesman’s mantra is location, location, location, then the poet’s version might be details, details, details. I’m an omnivorous reader by nature, and a literary packrat by design: I guess I’d describe my method, such as it is, as a cross between armchair archeology and plain old intellectual curiosity. I love fossicking about in eclectic archival ephemera – things like medieval bestiaries and illuminated manuscripts, explorer’s journals and captain’s logs, field guides and technical manuals, daguerreotypes and antiquarian maps – and ferreting out images and ideas that might be the grit for a pearl. My primary source for “Thumbnail Sketch of the Tulipmania,” for example, was this fantastically eccentric compendium called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written by a not-so eminent Victorian named Charles Mackay. Titles like that snare me like flypaper. Frequently what gets my juices flowing is some quirky or bewitching piece of language: there are poems here occasioned by a Puritan epitaph, an obituary headline for a monastic beekeeper, the etymology of the Venus flytrap, the legendary mapinguari (the South American cousin of the yeti), devices like the funicular and the zoopraxiscope, an old term for ship’s fever called “calenture,” weird wordy stuff like that. Those Anglo-Saxon poets I mentioned earlier thought of the language of poetry as their “word-hoard,” and often enough what kindles a poem for me is some strange or obscure scrap of the mother tongue that gets under my skin.
AH: In certain poems, such as “Falcon Channel,” you seem to write close to the reality of the situation, in this poem, the birds on screen and the act of watching television. What sparked my curiosity, or in other words, what makes it a wonder, was the sense of how other-worldly this mundane experience can be. But in “Shades of Alexandria” the poem is largely imagined, and the wonder here seems to exist in all the possible characters a place might have held, in other words, anything that remains an unknown about the lost library. How would you describe the differences (obvious ones aside) between what drew you to these subjects, and how and why each have this particular balance of fact and fiction? Do you think, as the first poem is written about a far more modern subject, there are more facts available, and therefore they are less fanciful than “Alexandria”?
DB: Well, like I said before, I seem to be drawn to the crossroads between fact and fancy, those realms of perception where empirical evidence leaves off and wild surmise begins. Or you might call it a subjunctive state of mind: reflecting on what might transpire, or what we wish were true. It’s my general feeling that a good deal of what goes on in our heads—our consciousness and perhaps our sense of conscience to—is inescapably subjunctive anyway, whether we like it or not. I do happen to like it. I think it’s the lifeblood of poetry. What we know, or what we think we know, has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves about experience and emotion, piecing things together into some sort of provisional narrative coherence. That’s why myths and fables are so powerful: they give emblematic expression to the inner workings of our hearts and minds by transforming them into storylines. And lyric poems can do that too, through instilling thought and feeling with figurative and metaphorical resonance. There’s a passage in Aristotle’s Poetics where he asserts that poetry is a superior art to history because historians only tell us what happened whereas poets tell us what might or could happen.
With regard to those two poems specifically, I don’t know if I see them as polar opposites. Like a lot of poems in Wonder Cabinet, they’re both trying to capture the sensation of time by way of ironic juxtapositions of the past and the present, the actual and the archetypal. The streaming video feed is a very modern contraption, of course, so “Falcon Channel” might be considered the more current or topical poem. Then again, falconry is an ancient art, and what I hope is provocative and poignant about the poem is the idea that our presumed dominion over earthly creatures is rife with moral complications and consequences that only grow more freighted over time. And as I’ve already suggested above, the prevailing conceit behind “Shades of Alexandria” to some degree revolves around the old saw that the more things change the more they stay the same.
AH: At times, you simultaneously play poet and historian. I think my favorite instance of this occurs in the last stanza of “Eulogy for an Anchorite:” “Brother Adam, I’m no believer./ When I’m not bedeviled, I’m beleaguered./ But consider your bees, in clover season—/ Didn’t they seem possessed by demons?/Let me grapple, let me fumble./ I may yet become your true disciple.” With your subjects, and, as you write here, in the approach of questioning after the curious and unknown, I found room to imagine you as both—do you feel you played both parts? Did you see a relationship between the two roles as your wrote the poems for Wonder Cabinet? Or do you see yourself more of a poet with historical tendencies?
DB: I hold historians in too high esteem to try getting away with impersonating one! But I won’t deny that my tendencies often run in that direction. In all honesty, I think it stems from wanting to escape the hothouse confines of personal history and private memory, which ever since the Romantics has largely been regarded as the poet’s principal domain. I have no particular bone to pick with poets who persistently mine their own lived experience for their poems, but I don’t feel I have much of a gift for weaving that kind of straw into gold. I’m much more drawn to modes of self-expression that aren’t predicated on self-disclosure. I guess I don’t see the two “roles” you cite as all that clear-cut: in the ancient oral tradition, poets were considered the keepers of collective memory, or to pinch a phrase from Ezra Pound, “the tale of the tribe,” and some of the most essential poems by some of the most essential modern poets like Yeats and Auden and Lowell are conjured out of a profound historical awareness. To my mind, “Eulogy for an Anchorite” is more of an elegiac poem than a historical one: it’s an homage to venerable monastic who took vows to renounce worldly ambition and yet turned out to be one of the world’s foremost breeders of honeybees. As I say in the poem, I found that “a parable to savor.” On the purest level, you might say that poets and historians are soul brothers in the sense that they’re dedicated to remembering what otherwise would be lost or forgotten, particularly individual lives that were exemplary in some small but stirring way.
AH: In the third section, several of the poems center around more personal experiences. Looking back through your own past, do things like the funicular and the tar pits fascinate you in the same way now as they did then? How has your curiosity about them changed? Do you find that with these poems, much of what was wonder has become more like insight over the years?
DB: I don’t go in much for straight autobiographical writing, and that’s probably because I’m persuaded that most autobiography that’s worth the candle has a way of shading into mythology anyway. I’m much more interested in the uncanny workings of memory, which as the ancient Greeks divined, is nothing less than the mother of the muses. By my lights it’s usually an illusion to think of memory as a sort of documentary home movie: it’s more inscrutable and mercurial than that, and I don’t think we can ever be too sure where memory ends and imagination begins. It’s true that a number of poems in that third section of the book draw on childhood experiences that may have been my own, but I don’t want the little revelations or epiphanies they call forth to be just about me. I want them to evoke a time and a place, a mood and an atmosphere and a state of being – functioning more along the lines of a prism than a mirror. To the extent that those poems have a Proustian or Wordsworthian element to them – the search for lost time, the growth of a poet’s mind—I would hope that the sense of self or self-reflection that emerges from them doesn’t merely come across as a private drama or solipsistic exercise but also as an exploration of memory and perception as force-fields we all move through. Those tar pits and that funicular are a case in point. Yes, they belong to the Southern California of my childhood, but the truth is they captivate me much more now than they did then. They’ve become emblematic and mythic now that they hark back to a lost world. Childhood itself is a lost world, no less than our distant ancestry is.
Another example of what I’m getting at here is the first poem in that section, “Lullaby in Steerage.” Is it an autobiographical poem? Yes and no. Like most of us, I can trace my ancestry back to the Old World, but only in a very sketchy way. Lots of us know of forebears who came to this country as part of the great wave of immigration around the turn of the last century, but how much can we really know about what it was like for them and what accidents of fortune made things turn out they way they did? The word “steerage” is all by itself a relic of that bygone age: it was the common term for the accommodations on passenger vessels for those traveling at the cheapest fares. Steerage class usually amounted to getting stuffed into cargo holds below decks—in unlit, unventilated, and perilously overcrowded spaces little better than cattle-pens. Yet that was how the greater share of those “huddled masses” Emma Lazarus refers to in her sonnet “The New Colossus” made the voyage to the New World, leaving their pasts behind and in the process erasing a lot of the family history of our bloodlines. So part of the impulse behind this poem was the chastening realization that certain things we’d dearly like to know about our ancestors in that period is all guesswork and hearsay. At one point the mother singing the child to sleep says “Listen to them make us up / And tuck you into my shawl”—it’s a gesture toward all we can’t possibly conceive about where we came from except by way of speculation and imagination, telling ourselves stories about ourselves that come to have the power of fables and parables because the hard facts are so few and far between.
Tomorrow, our final installment of the interview, which takes us from Wonder Cabinet to wonder, The Atlantic Monthly, poetry, and beyond. - AH