“The role of the writer is to keep us awake, to startle us into insight,” opened Walter Bargen, First Poet Laureate for the State of Missouri, at his presentation The First Line is the Poem, for the St. Louis Writers Guild. After his June 7th reading and lecture, we had a chance to take our esteemed friend out to lunch and talk about his personal technique, his thirty-year-long “overnight success,” and about the importance of stories.
An easy-going, soft-spoken guy, Walter Bargen is the first to admit he’s a bit shy and really enjoys the quieter life, living in his rural Missouri home with his wife and “a lot of cats.” In addition to being Missouri Poet Laureate, he works a full-time administrative job for the University of Missouri-Columbia, and explains the addition of fast-pace of days of interviews and public appearances on behalf of poetry can be exhausting. “Who knew there were so many causes to have literature represented?” he says, both happy and surprised at this fact.
Walter Bargen did his undergraduate work in Philosophy, and got his Master’s degree in education, but much to our astonishment, doesn’t teach poetry—or anything else. No fine arts degree for a man with 11 books and two chapbooks to his name? No years of group workshopping?
“No. None at all. I’ve never had that MFA kind of experience. Sometimes I think it would be helpful. I would love someone to dissect my stuff. But, to be blunt, I have no one to share poems with. I work in total isolation. No one sees my work until it’s done.” (This method has obviously been working out pretty okay).
So—let’s talk technique. What does a Poet Laureate do differently in his workday? Is there a secret ingredient that the average poet is missing?
Bargen says every poem is different, with regard to how many revisions and drafts he does. “Sometimes a first draft can be basically complete. Although I don’t think I’ve ever written any poems without some revisions. And sometimes revisions can take time. Sometimes I don’t work consistently on one and return to it much later. It could be days, weeks, months or even years later. But I throw nothing away.”
“I don’t have a regular writing schedule,” he continues. “With my job, I just write when I can write. To write something that you don’t know, and know it then, for the first time. It’s really very exciting. That’s when you know it’s good.”
His last book, The Feast, “was really pushing the edge of form,” he says. He calles the book a “poevella,”: prose poems that, when read together, become a novella. Bargen says that The Feast took ten years to be published, due to the fact that it just didn’t fit in any easy genre.
Bargen’s newest book, Theban Traffic [WordTech Communications], was supposed to be available for purchase by the reading date, but as is typical with publishers, the release date has been pushed back several times. He sighs with exasperation, and talks about the beautiful cover, by artist Michael D. Sleadd, who’s done a number of his other covers.
It’s exciting and sort of unfair at the same time, to depend on a flashy cover to sell books, we comment. But Walter doesn’t see that as a bad thing: “Think about it. That’s what gets people to pick it up. But when you think about how fickle the poetry audience is, just to get anyone to pick up a book, you have to take advantage of whatever strategy you can.”
“I have a pile of wonderful letters from editors during that time [I couldn’t get The Feast published]. They are rejections, but they almost read like acceptances—full of praise. They tell me how they wish they could publish it, but it just didn’t fit into anything they were doing,” he says.
While Walter Bargen is often called a “narrative poet” for his stories, he stresses that he has tried and will continue to try many and every different form that inspires him. “I try to take advantage of every strategy available,” he says. “The more variety you can bring into it, the more you can say and the more people will be able to feel it. And you know, if I’m not interested in it, if I get bored by it, then I want to try something else. I don’t want to ever get stuck in a rut.”
There've clearly been no ruts, to date. With each book Bargen publishes, there is a new style, a new premise or theme throughout.
“Take The Body of Water, for example. There are moments where I’m trying to evoke the movement of water. There are stories written into that. A harmonic balance, you know? Many of the poems are personified. In Remedies for Vertigo, it’s not water, it’s air. The breath. In West of West it’s an entirely different landscape. And Theban Traffic is kind of a follow-up to The Feast, prose poem sequences.”
With no regrets or wishes for rewrites on early poems, Walter Bargen says when he looks back at old work, he wishes he had that old sense of imagistic theory and his connection to nature. “How can I explain?” he says, pausing. “When you look back over time, you see that man has had this need to differentiate himself from the animal world. I think that’s an unfortunate thing to do. If we recognize we’re a part of it all, and echo it, we might be a little more kind. To each other and ourselves.” He muses on animal stories of the African Parrot in Illinois that demonstrated great proven intelligence and emotion, and other news items. “I think when you strip everything away, there is one thing that makes us alive, that makes us human. It’s that we tell stories. Can you imagine yourself without the stories you tell yourself about who you are? If poetry is to be seriously read on a mass level, we need to start telling stories again.”
On our way to lunch, against the bustling noise of traffic, street musicians and conversation everywhere, the quiet-voiced Walter Bargen tells a story of an ancient people of the Sahara. These people traveled across the desert with water stored in hollowed-out ostrich eggs, corked at the hole. They buried the eggs in strategic places in the desert, somehow knowing how to find them as they traveled across. The nomads traveled light, carrying as little as possible, in the grueling heat. When they were asked what was the most important thing that they carried, next to water, they said, “their stories.” A great smile spreads across Bargen’s face.
This story is important to Walter Bargen, it’s clear. All stories are. And stories are probably more important to the world at large than most people realize. Like the poem he read in public earlier that day, an ars poetica (poem about writing) about a man holding a bird; the surprise in its weight and lack of it. How like a poem this afternoon of conversation with him is! And suddenly, it’s a moment--a story-- there, standing on a crowded street in the University City Loop with Walter Bargen, to feel connected, to hold and fully understand the weight of his stories and words.