Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday Muse: Oklahoma's Poet Laureate

. . . No art is more important to me than poetry,
for poetry makes everything happen.
~ Jim Barnes on His Appointment as Oklahoma Poet Laureate 

Oklahoma's Poet Laureate is James (Jim) Weaver McKown Barnes. His term began in January 2009 and runs through the end of this year.

The honorary position of Poet Laureate was established by statute (Oklahoma Statutes, 1995 Supplement, Sec. 25-98.4) in 1923. Each appointment has to be made by January 1 of every odd year (beginning January 1, 1995). Selected by the governor from a list of nominations submitted to the Oklahoma Humanities Council by writing groups, poetry societies, and various cultural organizations, the Poet Laureate is appointed for a two-year term. The council is charged with coordinating activities and appearances of incumbents. 

Barnes is Oklahoma's 17th state poet. He succeeded Pulitzer Prize-winner N. Scott Momaday, Oklahoma Centennial State Poet Laureate who served from July 12, 2007, until January 1, 2009; and Nimrod editor Francine Ringold, who held the appointment from 2003 to 2007. The first Poet Laureate was Violet McDougal, who held the position from 1923 to 1930. Following the completion in 1945 of Bess Truitt's official term, no Poets Laureate were named until 1963, when Delbert Davis was selected. A list of past Poets Laureate is here and here.

The primary objective of the position is to promote understanding and appreciation of poetry and engagement with poetry. Barnes told an interviewer just after his appointment that he wanted to "bring poetry to Oklahoma in a way that it hasn't been done before; that is, to emphasize that modern poetry has something to offer. . . ."*

In addition to fulfilling residencies in writing, Barnes travels throughout the United States and abroad (including Czech Republic, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Korea) giving readings. He is a particularly active reader on American college campuses.

* * * * *

Of Choctaw and Welsh ancestry, native Oklahoman Jim Barnes, M.A., Ph.D., is both a nonfiction and short story writer and a poet. His published prose includes On Native Ground: Memoirs and Impressions (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997; paperback, 2009), which was awarded an American Book Award in 1998. Barnes' poetry collections include Visiting Picasso (University of Illinois Press, 2007), On a Wing of the Sun: Three Volumes of Poetry** (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Paris: Poems (University of Illinois Press, 1997), and The Sawdust War: Poems (University of Illinois Press, 1992), winner of the 1993 Oklahoma Book Award. Barnes also is an award-winning translator of the poetry of German Dagmar Nick. In addition, he has published a critical literary analysis of the works of Thomas Mann and Malcolm Lowry (Truman State University Press, 1990). A collection of Barnes essays, The Salt Companion to Jim Barnes (Salt Publishing), edited by A. Robert Lee, was published earlier this year.

I'm a writer first of all. My blood doesn't talk to me,
my head talks to me. I am a child of my environment.*

Thematically, Barnes ranges widely over culture, history, and art, as well as the human condition; his specific subjects often encompass time and place (both the physical place and that held in the mind and memory), and especially loss as hauntingly underscored by acknowledgment of joy received. A master of many poetic forms, Barnes composes Alexandrines, villanelles, sonnets, and rondeaux, as well as blank verse; he may or may not use punctuation and capitalization, and on the page he experiments with presentation (for example, pyramids and diamonds or, in the case of "Zen" from Visiting Picasso, the shape of an arrow). His language runs from the allusive, to the tender and elegaic, to the philosophical and spiritual. His imagery is strong. His craft — the attention to structure, sound, tone, sequencing of words, the particulars of details — is superb.

In this excerpt from "Homage to Nabokov", from Visiting Picasso, Barnes displays his sharp eye for evoking place and landscape:

The day is sharp with blades of wind thrown down
from the Bernese Alps, the glinting sun cruel
in its insistence upon an icy shine.
Today nothing happens above Montreux
except the roiling clouds and Norway pines
whose heavy limbs speak of memory in lieu
of snow. . . .

Here, again, in this excerpt from "Autobiographical Flashback: Puma and Pokeweed", from The American Book of the Dead, place and time occupy the poet but notice the shift to a deeply spiritual meaning of "home":

I've spoken of home before and spotted crows
older than my hair. I generalize: home
is where hard is. And know it true. The crow
is constant color: his caw can crack a stone.

You keep your crows alive as best you can:
. . .
. . .

Your memory is rocked by things you have
neglected: your stoned eyes are hard with world
you are late to see. And even now you know
the facts are wrong, as random and whorled

as fingerprints on records you've tried to keep
or the circling crows that blot your inland sky. 

Barnes' many literary awards include, in addition to those mentioned above, include a Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Award (St. Louis Poetry Center), and National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio, and Camargo Foundation fellowships. 

Founder and formerly editor of the international literary journal The Chariton Review (1976-2010), a publication of Truman State University, Barnes has published hundreds of his poems in scores of anthologies and at least 100 literary magazines and journals, including Black Moon, Georgia ReviewSycamore ReviewSewanee Review, The NationPoetry, Poetry Wales, Prairie Schooner, and Kenyon Review. His work will be featured in the anthology An Endless Skyway: Poetry From the State Poets Laureate of America (Ice Cube Books), to be published in March 2011.

Barnes is professor emeritus of comparative literature at Truman State University; he was writer-in-residence there in 2003. He also was distinguished professor of English and creative writing at Brigham Young University.


Photographic Credit: Jim Barnes by Roberto Celli

All poetry excerpts © James Weaver McKown Barnes

* Quoted in "Getting It Right", Oklahoma Humanities, May 2009. (This brief interview, which begins on page 24, is an excellent introduction to Barnes and how he regards himself and his poetry. Barnes has rather harsh words for poets he describes as "I-sayers". He also addresses the importance of reading and emphasizes the need to put in the time and effort to make a good poem. I deeply appreciate his description of his muse.)

** Barnes' On a Wing of the Sun consists of three collections: The American Book of the Dead (1982), A Season of Loss (Purdue University Press, 1985), and La Plata Cantata (Purdue University Press, 1989).

Jim Barnes' Poetry Online: at The Hypertexts: "Ithaka 2001", "Heading East Out of Rock Springs", "Feria de Paques, Arles 1996", "Deputy Finds Dean's Tombstone on Highway", and "The First Feria of the Third Millennium, Arles East Monday"; "Fourches Maline Bottoms", "Crow White", "Anasazi Rocks", "Finding Oscar Wilde", "Word" (all via Barnes' Website); "Looking for Hemiway's Ghost at the Crillon" (scroll to page 25); "Directions" at The Writer's Almanac (audio also available)

Library of Congress List of Jim Barnes' Published Work

Jim Barnes, Sound Recordings, Pickler Memorial Library, Truman State University: New Letters on the Air Radio Program 

Sound Authors Transcript of 2007 Radio Interview with Jim Barnes (audio follows post)

Oklahoma Arts Council

Oklahoma Center for the Book, Oklahoma Book Award Winners

Oklahoma Humanities Council (OHC on Twitter)

Videos of Barnes reading at the Mark Allen Everett Poetry Series, Oklahoma State University, are available on YouTube

Jim Barnes on FaceBook


Kathleen said...

I always love learning things from you. I like Oklahoma's process. Illinois has its poet laureate again now, too, but there was none for many years after Gwendolyn Brooks died. I like the idea of short, renewable terms, a built-in process, and various sources for nominations.

Unknown said...

What an excellent post. I started writing a year ago and never really read poetry before that, so I know very little. Thank you for this wonderful lesson.

hedgewitch said...

Thanks for this, Maureen. I live in Oklahoma, have for forty years now, and had no idea we had a poet laureate, let alone who it might be. That poem about home was excellent.

Brian Miller said...

nice. i enjoy his words and descriptives...i too am learning poetry..started writing a little over a year ago and started reading it shortly there after...he uses great descriptors to paint the picture...

A. Jay Adler said...

"Your memory is rocked by things you have
neglected: your stoned eyes are hard with world
you are late to see."

It's good to see Oklahoma's laureates have reflected its history a bit.

Louise Gallagher said...

You are such a gift -- as are the poets you bring to our attention.

aubunique said...

In the 1960s I shared an office with Jim Barnes at Northeastern State in Tahlequah. He taught me many things but perseverance and the recognition that content always trumped form and style made me realize that I would never be a poet, but would always admire and appreciate my friends who could be! And he is the best!
Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, Arkansas