Thursday, March 18, 2010

Poet Walter Bargen

Every day is an inspiration for writing, 
and the best advice that I can give to any writer
is to write daily.*
~ Walter Bargen

On hearing of his selection to be Missouri's first state poet, Walter Bargen called his appointment completely unexpected after 40 years of writing. Rhetorically, he asked, "And whoever bothered to interview me then?" During his appointment, which ended in January 2010, the residents of Missouri, including "drag-along" husbands and skeptics of poetry, found that Bargen had quite a lot to say that was worth hearing. He made a huge success of the position, appearing at more than 100 events at libraries, schools, and literary festivals all over Missouri. The new State Poet, David Clewell, has said publicly how hard an act Bargen will be to follow.

Bargen's published collections include Mysteries in the Public Domain: Poems (BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1990; out of print), The Feast: Prose Poem Sequences (BkMk Press, UM-KC, 2004), Remedies for Vertigo (WordTech Communications, 2006), West of West (Timberline, 2007), Theban Traffic: Poems (WordTech Communications, 2008), and Days Like This Are Necessary: New and Selected Poems (BkMk Press, UM-KC, 2009). He released the chapbook At the Dead Center of Day (BkMK Press, UM-KC) in 1997. His books Harmonic Balance (Timberline Press, 2001), Fields of Thenar (Singing Wind Press, 1980), Water Breathing Air (Timberline Press, 1999), The Vertical River (Timberline Press, 1995), and Yet Other Waters (Timberline Press, 1990) are all out of print.

Bargen writes both verse and prose poems. With prose poetry, he says he thinks and writes more openly and broadly than verse allows; he has remarked, however, that he doesn't concern himself too much with form when he begins writing new work, sometimes later rewriting verse into prose or prose into verse. He's also of the school that considers a poem "never finished, . . . just abandoned." At one point in his career, he wrote a poem a day. Writing, he told an interviewer, serves as "a kind of centering, a kind of meditation. . . profoundly rewarding."*

In addition to mythology re-rooted in the contemporary, philosophy (Bargen's college major), history, and nature figure prominently in Bargen's poetry. Water, both physical and metaphorical, is a particular focus, as in The Feast, Bargen's retelling of the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and The Body of Water (Timberlane Press, 2003). Often, Bargen brings what's past into the present or something far away, close, re-placing events in eras in which they didn't occur or landmarks in locations other than where they exist; he does this, he has explained, to upset reader expectations or assumptions and impel discovery of "new geographies of mind and soul". (He does this extremely well.) Relationship conflicts and war (in its essence, just another more violent, more alienating type of relationship conflict) are persistent themes. His imagery — a mass of layered details, at times a wholly surprising mix — is vivid. Some examples:

She's a growing leak in the kitchen, words running
until it's a continuous stream.
The porcelain stained from the down pouring
of rust and vitriol. The month's water bill 
astronomical. The plumber never calls,
no one believes in a fixed cosmos.
~ From "Under a Bare Bulb" in Rattle #23, Spring 2005

An Asian ladybug whirs onto my shoulder.
I'm surprised to hear the dim dental drill
of its wings so late in the year, . . .
~ From "Days Like This Are Necessary" in Days Like This Are Necessary

Machine guns inhabit the rooftops
like hungry crows.
Bullets peck the library
city hall the cobble streets
Allah's forehead.
. . .
People are opening their bodies
for the world to read
the print still wet and so red
it pours out a stoplight
on Broadway and Ninth
in downtown Columbia, Missouri.
~ From "Beirut" in Fields of Thenar

In a house buttressed by books and slanted morning light
slicing across the grain of the kitchen table, Lieutenant Colonel
George Armstrong Custer's 1876 orders to pursue the Sioux
Cheyenne, Sans Arcs, Blackfeet, sits beside an emptied bowl
of Grape Nuts. The document is randomly punctuated with crumbs
from half-burnt toast, difficult to read the general's elegantly looping
Nineteenth Century signature and the limits of force
    given Custer's command.
My wife has printed over in her typewriter-meticulous style a grocery
of olive oil, cilantro, garlic, tortellini, supplies for this evening's
but not the 7th Cavalry last seen surrendered near the banks
    of the Little Big Horn.
There's also a lengthy paragraph to herself, notes on rehabbing
the upstairs bedroom and the rest of her destiny. She's scribbled
calculations, an attempt at reviving a diminishing back account,
and an addendum to the Christmas card list, and it's only February.
This morning my wife sits down to rewrite Custer's orders 
    to pursue the Sioux.
~ "Manifest Breakfast" in West of West

Another roadside bomb, another
suicide bomber. . .
it's how a Saturday explodes until I turn off
the radio and look out the east window at a tabby
crouched in explosive morning light and acting strangely.
~ From "Minor Gods" in Remedies for Vertigo

These are marvelous poems, the work of a writer with an exquisite sensibility of love, loss, the tearing apart that both can do to you.

Bargen's poems have appeared in scores of literary magazines, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Seneca Review, and American Literary Review.

A recipient of a 1991 National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, Bargen also was been awarded such prizes as Quarter After Eight Prose Prize (1996), Hanks Prize (1995), and Chester H. Jones Foundation poetry prize (1997). Bergen received the 2005 William Rockhill Nelson Award for Poetry for The Feast.

Bargen's poem for Missouri, which he wrote soon after his appointment as Poet Laureate, is "Moonwalk Missouri", which he describes as a play on Neil Armstrong's words on stepping onto the moon. A limited edition printing of the poem is available through Missouri Center for the Book. The broadsheet also is available here, as are his books for purchase. Purchase of the broadsheet supports the Poet Laureate program.

Asked what advice he'd give to his successor, Bargen is reputed to have said, "Learn to say no." Commenting more seriously, he said, "I was quite naive to the amount of interest that would be generated with the [Poet Laureate] position. Now I feel like I've been able to bring poetry out of the dust bin and back to the people in ways I never thought I could."**


All poetry excerpts © Walter Bargen.

Note: Because of column-space limitations, I've had to introduce artificial line breaks into the poem "Manifest Breakfast".

* Bargen, quoted in an interview with Karen I. Johnson of BkMk Press. The interview is here.

** Bargen's discusses his experience as Poet Laureate in this article in the Missourian (December 31, 2009).

YouTube video of Bargen reading his poetry is here.

Selections from each of Bargen's books, including those out of print, may be found on Bargen's Website.

Bargen's "Visual Appeal" is published here.

Bargen's essay about being Poet Laureate is here.

Bonus Post

Glynn Young has written for TweetSpeakPoetry his own wonderful article about Bargen's poetry, and about a conversation he had once with the poet: "Walter Bargen: Days Like This Are Necessary". His piece beautifully complements my own. (Thank you, Glynn.)

As noted above, Missouri's new Poet Laureate is David Clewell. Seach my "Monday Muse" feature for other posts on state Poets Laureate.


M.L. Gallagher said...

Oh my, he's good. really really good!

thank you for sharing. Your links will be a place to come back and visit again and again.



Glynn said...

So I feel a little state pride. (I like his poetry, too.) Great article, Maureen.

nAncY said...

His words feel like home.