In Conversation with Triplopia, Judith Barrington Reveals the Art of Recording Memory
Scientists divide memory into two camps, the implicit and the explicit. Implicit memory revolves around things we remember to do without thinking such as riding a bicycle or breathing. Explicit memory is also broken into two sections, the short term and the long term. Short term memory helps us to remember certain things or ideas, for example where we placed our keys, or where we parked our car. Long term memory involves things that are important to us which we may remember for decades. It is the long term memories that make up our lives, our stories.
Judith Barrington has made a career out of explicit memory. A memoirist, a poet and a teacher, Barrington often draws on past experience as she engages writing. The author of three volumes of poetry (the most recent being, Horses and the Human Soul), an award winning memoir (Lifesaving, A Memoir) and a text on writing the memoir (Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art), Barrington believes in "taking risks, facing the unknown, etc. for the possibility of discovery." As writers know, the ultimate risk in any life may just lie in the uncovering and the telling of our personal memories.
Triplopia recently had the opportunity to catch up with Judith. We invite you to enjoy our discussion.
Triplopia: I'm always intrigued by that moment in which a writer identifies their self as a writer, and the circumstances that surround this realization. Can you tell us a little more about those first moments? Who or what first compelled you in the direction of writing?
Judith Barrington: Well, I always loved writing, though I didn't consciously think of myself as a writer until I was in my twenties. I went to an all-girls private school in Brighton, England, where I grew up. It was a pretty good education, though not what you'd call "rounded" since I pretty much never took any kind of science. We were "streamed" at 11 into arts or sciences. In the arts, and other subjects such as geography and history, all our exams were quite hard and required essay answers. So we had to write a lot. I liked essays. I liked literature, although again it was not a wide curriculum. I read nothing of American literature until I came the US except for Moby Dick which someone gave me as a present. I learned a lot of Shakespeare, and can still quote chunks, which I think is useful for the ear of a poet. In particular I had two English teachers, rather like the good and bad cop. The bad one returned essays I wrote about the set books with red lines through many pages. She wrote things like "this is rubbish" on them. The good cop was encouraging and appreciative, and I recently got in touch with her and thanked her for helping me become a writer (I would have written to the bad cop too, but she had died). I think the combination of these two really propelled me well towards serious writing. I gained confidence from the good one and learned how to be critical and revise from the other.
T: You’ve done work in a number of forms, including collaborations with sculptors and musicians. Do you have a preference for collaborative work, or work that is more solitary? How important is community to your work, in your view?
J.B: I loved collaborating with musicians for the few years I did it, but nothing like that has come my way lately. I didn't love some of the practices of performance artists -- the last-minute craziness, lack of time to revise, and so on. I'm a slow writer, so the haste was difficult. But as a writer, I don't feel overly solitary. I belong to a peer group of poets (we're known as "the poultry group") and we've been immersing ourselves in obscure poetic forms. It's a wonderful small group and keeps me writing pretty constantly. I'm also involved in many writing "projects" as president of the board of a writing retreat and someone who gives a lot of readings, often with others. Community is of vital importance to my work. I came to writing through feminism (in London) and have always seen myself as a woman writer emerging from a feminist community and then moving out into a wider literary world.
T: When you say you came through writing through feminism, how did you understand this word at that time? Has that understanding changed in the time since, and how has this expressed itself in your writing?
J.B: I stumbled upon feminism in 1970 through an unlikely discovery of the "Women's Liberation Workshop" (an office) in London. I knew nothing of feminism and had grown up in a pretty conservative family. But I had recently begun to learn about radical politics, beginning with mild participation in groups working against the Greek Junta. Because I immediately met radical feminists who were organizing many kinds of protest, my initial understanding of the word was that it meant actively working against the second-class status of women and against sexism in numerous arenas. There were no women's studies in Britain until much later, so I only discovered academic feminism with all its particular language, in about 1979 when I taught part-time in the Women's Studies Department at Portland State University. I came to writing through feminism quite specifically by joining a women writers' group in London -- a group that I found listed in the Women's Liberation Newsletter. Although I had been writing on and off, particularly poetry, it was the first time I met other writers. In that group, I was able to identify my serious intent and also to publish in a chapbook we put out as a group.
T: The Greek Junta was the military rule of Greece from 1967 to 1974, a period that is marked by multiple violations of human rights within Greece. History seems to suggest that the U.S. administration was, if not exactly supportive, certainly tolerant of this regime, and that this tolerance was extended largely as a result of the view, on the part of the U.S. government, that the regime was providing an important buffer in the Cold War. Although you describe your own participation in work against the Greek Junta as mild, what were some of the strategies adopted by those groups working against it? To what extent would you compare those strategies with those used by present day activists interested in human rights?
J.B: Sorry to tell you, I have nothing intelligent to say about the Greek Junta. It was my very first experience of political involvement and far more connected to the fact of standing up against mainstream thought, as well as the slightly romantic notion of protest, that got me there. I think the group I signed onto was mostly involved in public education, petitions, and fundraising to help the resisters in Greece. I know people in London who have remained stuck (as I see it) in the sixties and seventies. Their notion of political work seems outdated to me. What I'd like to think we learned back then was to stand up against the forces of reaction (for some of us, embodied in parents or teachers, etc.) and take the power of protest into our own hands. While that attitude was essential to learn, probably the strategies are pretty useless now. The internet seems a far more effective tool for organizing than does standing on street corners. Even demonstrations may have outlived their usefulness, though I do still take part when moved to do so. Fundraising has become a profession in which political activists need to participate. I also think that those of us who were shouting in the streets in 1970 have probably moved into fields where we can more effectively influence people around us. For me this is at readings, in my writing, and so on. I hope that a secondary affect, after some sense of poetic achievement in the words, might be to make people think about the world which we humans are destroying. For me, the poetry always comes first, but there are many secondary motivations along the lines of education, influence, political statement, etc.
T: How are those concerns different from the work of poetry, in your mind?
J.B: I think it's a question of what leads the way—where the writer's passion lies at the time of writing. When I teach memoir, I talk about the need for the writer to have a complete allegiance to the writing as a story. Not as a piece of therapy, or a means of growth, etc. It may, secondarily, give the writer benefits, new insights, a certain progress in her own understanding of events, but if that is the motivation, then it's a private journal, not a piece of literary writing, as far as I'm concerned. I feel that a poem cannot be successful in my terms unless my allegiance is to it as a poem first. Recently, for example, I wrote a little villanelle about a clear cut I drive past every time I go to Soapstone. I was outraged at the devastation of a hillside that looked as if a bomb had gone off there. But the poem wouldn't work until I put the outrage aside, or at least made it secondary to the work of shaping the villanelle.
T: Do you see yourself as an environmentalist?
J.B: I think it would be hard to live in the Pacific Northwest and not become something of an environmentalist. I've written a fair amount about logging, clear cutting, etc. ("Great Tree Falling" in Horses and the Human Soul). And for so many of us, moving to this part of the country, and putting down roots here, had a great deal to do with the natural world around us. Opposition to environmentalists seems to me to be entirely economic. Here, it's a question of salmon versus cheap electricity: to moderate the dams on the Columbia in order to help the dwindling fish... or not. There's a big case about this in a Portland US court right now. Or, selective cutting of trees, "way too expensive," to allow for forests to renew and remain diverse, versus cheaper clear cutting which not only devastates the hills, but ruins the watersheds for fish, and so on. The environmental movement, I think, is having a hard time holding its ground under the current administration, just as most progressives are.
T: What other writers might you suggest for someone interested in learning more?
J.B: I have a friend named Elizabeth Woody, who is a member of the Warm Springs Tribe. She has a couple of poetry books out, and she works for an organization in Portland called Ecotrust. They have put out several books. The only one I remember now is Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge.
T: Earlier, you made the distinction between activist and academic feminism. What do you see as being the difference between these two forms of feminism?
J.B: I think a very quick response would be: theory and practise! Academic feminists have done very good work in analyzing overt and subtle sexism in all kinds of arenas. I read those analyses from the beginning. In London, the women I worked with at the Women's Liberation Workshop devoured the work of early feminist writers, many of them American: Gerda Lerner, Kate Millett, Gloria Steinem, etc. And Gloria Steinem was truly an activist as well as a theorist. But many women's studies people in full-time academic jobs, were leery of participating in active protest of any kind. Their place in the Universities was fragile at the beginning. So there were the marchers and shouters, whom some of the academics found rather frightening, I think. When I taught women's studies at Portland State, I was not liked by the full-time tenured people, having come there by way of the "rabble"! But over time, teaching feminist theory and women's literature, etc., I moved into the fringes of academic feminism. I believe we needed, and still need, all of these kinds of feminists.
T: I’m interested in understanding the divide you’re describing here, especially as it might manifest itself in terms of a fear of the "rabble." Do you think the fear you’ve noted there solely a matter of concern for one’s sense of the fragility of their positions within academia, or do you think there’s more to it than that?
J.B: I think that was, at least back in 1980, when women's studies was precarious within the academy, a big part of the fear. Getting tenure, not being seen as a troublemaker, and of course being busy with the demands of an academic job, helped create a divide. In Portland, there was a huge community of feminist activists, very few of whom knew women's studies people. I think that divide became less severe over time.
T: Do you think there is a reciprocal fear of academic feminism held by those who would describe themselves as activist feminists, or does that fall largely on one side of this divide? What do you think is at stake here, in maintaining or attempting to bridge this particular divide?
J.B: Again, I'm referring to the past when, yes, there was a reciprocal fear—or perhaps a disdain on the part of activists for the academics who had good salaries and never showed up at any practical event.... But again, this has changed considerably and I'm not too comfortable characterizing such a divide in this present era, since we've all become, in a sense, more of a community. That's apparent on the WOMPO list, which has a preponderance of academics, but a good sprinkling of independent writers and feminist activists. And I'm not really much in touch with the women's studies world any more.
T: How central to your own understanding of yourself as a writer do you regard feminism to be?
J.B: I think it informs some of my subject matter, but certainly not all. I think it informs my approach to literary events in the wider community, in terms of things like mutual respect, lack of destructive competitiveness, egalitarianism at readings etc. I know it's what helped me get started.
T: Do you see community as being an important component of feminism, and if so, how do you see this manifesting itself in the writing community?
J.B: I see community as central to my vision of feminism, a feminist world, and a humane writing community. I spent 18 years creating, with my partner, Ruth Gundle, and directing, and teaching at, The Flight of the Mind, which was a hugely successful summer writing program for women, held on the McKenzie River in Oregon. It was a residential program of two weeks, each week having five classes taught by nationally important writers. We held it in a Dominican retreat center which we took over: we catered it and took care of 90 students and faculty per week with a staff of eight. The whole purpose was to inject feminist notions of community, high standards of writing, and empowerment and egalitarianism into the workshop situation. When we started in 1983, there was still a lot of sexual harassment at some summer workshops. Many women were put off by experiences of being ignored while a few students were highly favored by the mostly male faculty. Things improved a lot during our years, and we take some credit for sending out students who demanded more of the workshops they attended.We also treated our teachers rather better than they were being treated in the eighties, giving them private cabins and lots of time to do their own work, as well as paying them well and feeding them, and all the students, fabulous food! Teachers such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Ursula K. Le Guin, and British poet, Mimi Khalvati, begged to come back! We had Lucille Clifton, Grace Paley, Rosellen Brown, Cathy Song, Poi Derricotte, and many many others. It was a real community project and the community of students still exists in many forms, even though we "retired" in 2000 to do other work. We now run Soapstone, a writing retreat for women, which takes much less time away from my own work.
T: What are your primary duties as President of Soapstone? Is the program limited only to the retreat itself, or are there workshops involved, as well? Are there multiple residents at any given time, or is the residency limited to two writers?
J.B: As President of Soapstone, I attend Board Meetings, go down there to figure out problems or supervise work people, and generally engage in thinking about the program. I also meet with donors as it is very much a grassroots, small operation, supported by many people. Tomorrow, I have a breakfast with a regular large donor. The residency is set up for just two writers at a time and we do not run workshops there. Occasionally, a group of writers might use it for a weekend, and once in a while a class of my own might go there. But it's not really set up for groups. It's very much designed as a retreat and works well for that.
T: Do you find the balance between individual effort and community engagement a hard one to strike? Would you characterize your overall development, "emerging from a feminist community and then moving out into a wider literary world," as being at all relevant to this point?
J.B: I think I had to make a shift from my inclination to participate in a feminist community to make my writing the greater priority. I don't think the kinds of "brotherhoods" of the literary past were very helpful to women except for a very select few, but I also can't imagine becoming a writer in complete solitude like, say, Mary Barnard, whom I interviewed back in the eighties. I'm not solitary enough to have emerged from a lonely attic.I should say that in my early years of publishing my work, I had a following among feminists: my readings were popular and attended by many women who considered themselves political. But I was also clear that I did not want to write or publish in a ghetto. While still appreciating and supporting women's publications, it was important to me that my work move into a wider realm.
She hangs there holding one full breath,
Soon her eyes will
adjust but tonight it's not
How will her
small ears, pressed to her skull
tune to a thousand wavebands,
pick up the songs
all who like
crickets saw and scrape
It isn't until her
third descent that she starts
and mandibles, millions
of crabs and prawns
they all stop
mid-phrase. Silence falls
There's a soft
snap like a sheet in the wind
She closes her eyes in
the mask. Her bones and flesh
tenths of her
that is water to ebb and flow,
And now she hardly
needs her ears:
the steady drone and
babble, while faintly below—
the distant whale
song: sirens calling her home
she's almost forgotten who she is:
a mother or left
a country; no longer the one
opinion, no longer
the one with the talkative mouth—
Waves of sound reflect
off rocks and the shelving
where tubefish hide.
The grunts of toadfish
of a ship and
skitter towards the coral reef.
a fish's lateral
line along her flank
It's a stingray
that jolts her back-a great explosion
and a cloud of sea-bottom
swirling into her face.
but she tells herself
to go limp because she knows
Up through a stream of her
own breath's bubbles—
she rises, each fathom
bringing her closer to air,
but who she'll
become, now that she's heard the songs.
T: I've been reading "Night Dive" over the last couple of weeks, and I'm struck, primarily, by the manner in which it uses the sense of sound, which drives the piece, not only in terms of how sound changes, in the two worlds described, but also in that sense of adjustment between the two. In terms of the piece itself, there are two major conceits that bear investigation. There is the sea, which, as I gather not only from this, but also from your previous writings, is an important one for you, personally. There are, of course, any number of associations the sea has come to be aligned with, but in your case, there are fairly practical reasons why it might factor heavily in your writing. How do you understand the sea functioning in "Night Dive"? Is it merely a literal backdrop, or is some of its weight symbolic as well?
J.B: I may have mentioned that I've written a number of poems about the sea recently: specifically the world under the sea. Of course it's significant to me because both my parents drowned in the Atlantic and on some level I'm aware of that when I look at, or think about the ocean. But I was already very sea-oriented before that happened. As a child, I spent a lot of time in it, and my school looked out over the sea (Brighton, England). In summer, for swimming class, we walked down either to an open-air freezing cold pool, or to the beach where we would swim in the even colder English Channel. I loved it! More recently, my ecological concerns have focused on the oceans. I've been reading about the issue for several years, as well as reading good old adventure stories set at sea. I have a fascination with sailing ships and I read all the Patrick O'Brien novels. "Night Dive" owes much to two writers: in particular to James Hamilton-Paterson, whose nonfiction works about the ocean I love. In The Great Deep, he describes a night dive. I was particularly struck by his description of the array of sounds underwater, which he detailed in a way that allowed me to steal, and to follow up with other reading. His work has been enormously inspiring to me. In fact, the form of The Great Deep helped me shape Lifesaving, when I was quite stuck in the process of assembling various pieces of that book. I think my poem also has an echo of a poem by U.A. Fanthorpe—a terrific and highly acclaimed British poet whose work you may know. One of my favorite poems is her "Rising Damp", from a sequence called "Stations Underground" about the underground rivers of London. These lines of hers rhythmically echo "The House that Jack Built":
These are the currents
that chiselled the city,
And that same rhythm seems to have crept into "Night Dive" in the lines:
No longer the student who won a prize or lost
mother or left a country; no longer the one
no longer the one with the talkative mouth—
But I haven't directly answered your question. I think the sea is more than simply a backdrop in this and most of this current batch of poems. It is, in a way, the central character. In "Night Dive" I created a fictitious woman diver (I've never done it myself), but she is no more central than the world she is exploring and learning to listen to.
T: As regards to "stealing" from Hamilton-Paterson, what form does this take, and is there a conscious decision at work here when you use the word "steal" rather than "borrow"? When you say you owe Hamilton-Paterson a literary debt for the shape of Lifesaving, does that debt lie more in the direction of significant detail, or overall structure?
J.B: I think I "stole" Hamilton-Paterson's experience more than any specific wording or form, although I do describe certain fish and know where they hang out because of his work. It's more like a taking-off point. I'll read an account of his and then go and research the particular fish or coral reefs in the underwater world he describes, to find out more. The idea of the night dive is taken from his description of doing that himself. I usually mitigate these "thefts" by acknowledging in an epigraph, or a note, where I learned some of the content of the poem. I can't really speak about a demarcation between theft and borrowing, since it seems to me that anything taken from another's writing is stolen. How can one return it if it's borrowed? But I do try to set for myself a boundary, particularly to do with actual wording. I have no desire to repeat anyone's actual speech, phrasing, or voice.
T: You characterized the sea in "Night Dive" as "in a way, the central character." There’s certainly a strong sense of this, throughout the poem, but especially in the second stanza, at the beginning of which the woman’s "skin dissolves," and which works its way to a point in which there seems to be a real possibility of this woman’s losing herself entirely to the ocean. How do you see the third person functioning in this stanza?
J.B: This poem was always in the third person. Partly because I had made a decision to move away from the first person, which I've used extensively and autobiographically. This poem, of course, would not be autobiographical in the first person, but I was enjoying the fictional aspect of writing poems about imaginary characters in the third person. Perhaps, too, I just didn't have enough knowledge yet to be convincing in the first person. I don't know how I would have written about that merging into the ocean and loss of self, had I been doing it in first person. Perhaps I would have found a way, but I can't see it right now. I think to write it in first person, I'd have to discover another layer of response to the experience that I might never get unless I actually do it.
T: There is, as well, the conceit of transition, specifically, in this instance, between the world of sound above water, and that world of sound below water—the latter being a world that many would tend to associate with a lack of sound. In the poem, it takes three dives before the diver's sense of hearing starts to adjust to the underwater world's sounds, and the poem ends on a note of transition as well, as the diver re-surfaces to a world that is "oddly quiet." How central is the question of transition in your own understanding of this poem?
J.B: I think the question of transition is very central. Not only is it the transition between the world of air and the world of water, but also a transition out of our expectations (that the ocean is silent and "dry land" noisy). I was startled and enchanted when I learned that the undersea world was so full of sound: I think that was the impulse for the poem. And I liked making that transition if only in the world of my imagination.
T: "Interiors" also focuses upon the speaker’s conscious decision to enter the house, and the tension that creates between the house’s interior and its exterior. Do you regard such borders and transitions as central to the work of a writer? How generally do you think a reading focusing upon this sort of mechanism can be applied?
J.B: In trying to answer you, I realize that I write without any consciousness of these issues. Looking at it retrospectively, I can see that transitions, or crossing boundaries, is probably a theme I pursue. From my poem "Countries" (crossing national boundaries) to "The Dyke With No Name" series, I have tried to articulate the tension between being an outsider and fitting in. I think I have, in fact, clung steadfastly to an outsider's vision, while trying hard to make it understandable to readers beyond those with similar experiences.
T: In "Night Dive," there seems to be a distinction between limitations that are willful—those we choose to work under—and those that are imposed by the physical attributes and capabilities of our sensory organs. Do you see this distinction at work in the poem "Night Dive"?
J.B: I'm not sure that I understand this question. From my reading, I've come to believe that our sensory organs can indeed serve us underwater. We can, especially if we don't use a lot of equipment, hear the sounds mentioned in the poem. If we bundle up with oxygen, mask, etc. then we miss a lot and perhaps that choice could be called "willful." But I think maybe the fact that we miss much of the sensory sea world is simply due to not knowing it's available. I certainly didn't. I suspect, too, that many divers might aspire to using the high tech equipment which cuts them off from a more immediate and raw sensory experience of the deeps. Hamilton-Paterson describes diving at night with only a lungful of air and a simple mask. Not many choose to do it that way. In my mind, it's a little like the experience on the surface of the sea when you choose to sail with no motor, as opposed to dashing across the waves in a speedboat and missing the feel of the wind itself (not the one you generate) and all the sounds connected to a boat working together with the wind and the water. I did sail quite a bit as a child, so this one I know first-hand.
T: That’s what I’m aiming at, yes: those bits of equipment by which we both protect ourselves from and remove ourselves from a given environment, but also a sort of "willfulness" in our not knowing, and persisting in not knowing, of the availability of such sounds. This latter is a bit more difficult to express, because it seems to land somewhere on or near a conceptual border between the physical limitations of our senses and a closing off of those senses that is partially a matter of volition. There’s a question of where the real limitations lie, and in one sense, "Night Dive" seems to be exploring that, as well. The poem could be read as a physical rendering of the process of exploring one’s memory, or self, perhaps, and of trying to use one’s senses to get past limitations of a more conceptual kind. If that reading is followed through upon, the danger of the loss of one’s self, and the consciousness of the real dangers of allowing one’s self to be overcome by distress, take a much more psychological turn. How conscious are you, as a writer, in generating space enough for a reader to arrive at such a reading?
J.B: Not at all conscious. But I'm delighted that such a reading can be made. I believe in taking risks, facing the unknown, etc. for the possibility of discovery, just as the diver in this poem does. It is always interesting to probe under the surface of one's written work. I remember once visiting the U. East Anglia at Norwich (the first Phd program in creative writing in the UK). I gave a reading and then sat in on a group of graduate students discussing my second book of poems. What an extraordinary experience! They knew far more than I did about what was going on under the surface.
T: There are, of course, many literary conceits surrounding the sea, but there are also quite personal reasons why the sea might be a large factor in your own writing. To what extent, do you think, are those more personal reasons comprised of or mediated by traditional treatments of the sea in literature?
J.B: To tell you the truth, I've been fairly oblivious of the sea-poetry tradition with a few obvious exceptions (I memorized Masefield's "Sea Fever" in high school). I've certainly never thought of my own work fitting into that. But the more we talk through these exchanges, the more I realize that I write very much from the heart, and pretty much from personal concerns—although I would say that some of these concerns might also be defined as social or political. I'm not a "thinky" poet. Any analysis I might have about where the poems come from, or what influences bear upon them, is strictly retrospective. I don't hold those concerns in my consciousness when writing.Recently a friend gave me a little Everyman Library pocket series volume called Poems of the Sea. I believe this was the first time I've really given consideration to it as a body of work. As for my words being mediated by traditional treatments of the sea, well, I suppose I try pretty hard not to repeat traditional treatments. I think we have a much greater understanding of ocean life now than when many of the traditional, famous poems were written. And even though I'm only a dabbler, my own reading in the field has given me a healthy desire not to romanticize it, and, as far as possible, to address the intersection between human life and that particular part of the natural world.
T: In your essay, "Interiors", there’s a pretty clear focus on memory as a process, and your work with the memoir also suggests a fascination with the subject.
J.B: I've always been interested in memory, perhaps because my life brought a rather sudden tragedy when I was 19 (my parents' drowning). I always doubted my memory of the events surrounding that—and have, in fact written, in "Interiors", about some of the mistakes my memory made, and how I found out later that I had "created" memories perhaps to suit my needs. More recently, I became interested in some of the science that was being done about memory and, although not at all scientific, I read several books for non-scientists about it: books like The Seven Sins of Memory, by Daniel Schacter. Just last week, I read a novel called The Memory Man by Lisa Apignanesi, in which the main character is a scientist in the field. Incidentally, I thought it a very good novel.
T: It is an extremely interesting subject, when the science of the matter is engaged. I was recently put in touch with a local teacher who, I was told, had researched the subject. When I met with the person in question, the conversation started off conventionally enough, but I soon found myself deeply engrossed in the teacher's story: she'd had a personal experience in which an extremely traumatic event occurred to her at age 9, and she had entirely erased it from her conscious memory, only to have it resurface when she was 17. As part of the process of dealing with those memories, she threw herself into a thorough study of the subject, initially engaging it from a scientific point of view, then moving into representations of the problem of memory. The main point the teacher in question kept coming back to was that the idea of memory is so central to what we understand to be our selves, that to discover one's memory to have been so absolutely wrong entailed working through a real fear that she, herself, might disappear with the revelation. To the extent that the arts engage that sense of self, both the creation of memories and mistakes within memory might suggest some of the same processes involved in artistic creation, thus the subject would seem to be central to the discipline as a whole. In fact, the very act of creating, within the arts, would seem in some respects to engage and emulate some of the tricks our minds play on ourselves. How do you see the two as being similar, or different?
J.B: In "Interiors", I tell a story which seems connected to what you recount about the local teacher, particularly when you say "to discover one's memory to have been so absolutely wrong entailed working through a real fear that she, herself, might disappear with the revelation." I had a similar experience of discovering that I'd remembered something entirely wrong. I describe it in that essay as a sensation similar to when one wakes up and can't figure where one is: a sensation of falling into a void. What occurs to me here is something that, for me, was a central issue in writing memoir. A central fear or block, perhaps. I felt instinctively that if I wrote down, and shaped and revised, my story as best I could remember it, then I would be left only with the written artefact—not with any "genuine" memory of the experiences. I had a sense that the writing would replace the memory, and that it would be fixed. Rather as a photograph becomes the picture one remembers of someone. For some reason, this frightened me. I saw it as a step in losing my memory altogether, perhaps. Anyway, when I did write the memoir, Lifesaving, I discovered that my fears were entirely true, but also that it didn't matter. If I hadn't fixed those memories into the words on the page, then probably they would have become fixed just through the act of remembering over and over. In fact, in the last chapter of Lifesaving, I describe a breakthrough that occurred when I saw something in a movie that shifted my repeated memories and gave me a new perspective. But those memories had, in fact, become fixed, just as they would, in new words, become fixed when I wrote them down. As for how remembering is the same or different than artistic expression—well, I tend to think that the very act of working with language to refine and pinpoint meaning, is a kind of refining of memory itself. Sometimes, in the act of revising, and struggling to convey the "truth" of an experience, the memories become clearer, new memories emerge, remembering becomes more nuanced. I'm a great believer in the power of language itself to talk back to the writer. I think the work of revision—of trying to make sentences rhythmic, varied, colorful, etc.—actually deepens memory and understanding.
T: I find the fear of a memory becoming "fixed," and the effect that had on your own writing, interesting, as it suggests that the value of memory, for you, isn't necessarily a matter of its being "the truth," except perhaps as that truth expresses itself in a more dynamic fashion. I'm assuming that the value of memory remaining unfixed lies in the ability to shift perspective as regards an event, but I'm quite interested in the idea that there is more to fear from a "fixed" memory than there is from an "unfixed" one, given that when we speak of a "good memory," we're generally talking about someone who has accurate recall of specific and verifiable details. How would you explain the value, from a writer's standpoint, of an unfixed memory?
J.B: I think that memory is always malleable, and I believe current research shows this more and more clearly. The old idea that there is a "true" memory, just doesn't hold up. Our memories shift over time. But what I meant about my fear of "fixing" a memory by writing it down is this: I felt that I wouldn't have the freedom to experience that ranging through memory and coming up with a forgotten piece of it. I felt that I would never "remember" something in a direct line from now to the the remembered scene, but that it would always be a question of "remembering" only what I had written down. In other words, instead of finding a new or slightly different memory tucked away in my brain, I would simply recall what was written on page 98.
T: If I'm following this correctly, then, the "fixing" of a memory is perhaps a fear that your own memory would become mediated, or, as you put it, the memory would no longer be available via a "direct line," but only through the medium of the words that had been written down. The answer to this fear was that the mediation would have occurred anyway, and that the real question, for you, was which medium those memories would be cast in. Do you think the mediation you're describing above is avoidable? Desirable?
J.B: I don't think that having memory "mediated" by a visual or written record is desirable or the opposite. I think it just happens. I remember, for instance, when I realized I could no longer picture my mother's face. I could look at a photograph and I could "remember" the face in that photograph, but I had lost the sense of her in moments not captured by the camera. As I said, I once felt that this would be a big loss, and my fear of it entered into my fear of writing memoir. But I wrote anyway, and at some point I realized that this process with memory goes ahead inexorably, no matter what. Perhaps "direct" memory always become "mediated" memory, whether by way of photographs, writing, or people telling stories over time.I do feel quite at sea in thinking about this. Perhaps I just don't have enough self awareness. I also think that I might not want to understand it too precisely as sometimes that kind of analytical understanding takes over from the intuitive approach I need for writing. What I mean is: if I'm thinking about how my memory functions and looking closely at how I remember something, then I can't get to that impulsive writing down, which sometimes leads to words which seem satisfyingly "true."
T: One of the distinctions you draw, in your book Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, is the distinction between "memoirs" as a literary genre, and "the" or "a" memoir, as set apart by an article.
J.B: I think in these terms in order to distinguish memoirs which are written because the author is famous for something other than writing, from memoirs in which the author is usually not famous. I'm interested in the genre which might be called "literary memoir," except that sounds rather pretentious. In those memoirs the writing, the structure, the language, etc. are all of primary importance as well as the events which form the "plot." In fact, as someone who started as a poet (and has reverted happily), I think of memoir as focusing on rendering personal experience in the most artistic way possible, just as many poems do. I don't mean to imply that all poems are autobiographical—my current ones are absolutely not—but it's surely true that a good deal of recent poetry is.
T: I assume the primary distinction between these two forms has to do with how public a person a particular memoir deals with, there being a fairly obvious distinction to be made between, for example, My Life, by Bill Clinton, and a book chronicling the life of an anonymous person. Are there other distinctions you make between the two?
J.B: Somebody like Bill Clinton, or Hillary, or countless other well-knowns, hardly has the time or inclination to write and revise and revise again. In fact, I think many of them are ghost written, or drafted and polished by someone else. And possibly the writing suffers. But you have to include in this discussion the fact that the readers of those books are reading for a very different reason than the readers of literary memoir (or poetry). There is an overriding interest in the author rather than in well crafted literature.
T: Following that same theme, I've recently been rather struck by the number of people I've heard saying, in effect, that in their own engagement with literature, they far prefer non-fiction over fiction. Most recently, I encountered this sentiment most recently while listening to the December 5th broadcast of Moby Lives, which featured an interview with Connie Doebele, of CSpan's Book TV. In that interview, Doebele, detailing the process by which Book TV came into being, says, "I fell in love with non-fiction. It's the kind of thing where you don't know...if you don't know what you don't know, and I just had never taken the time to read a lot of non-fiction, and realized that the new non-fiction is better—it's not better, but as good as any fiction. And so, I got really hooked, I got hooked on the books, I got hooked on the authors, I got hooked on the programming." This is not the first time I've encountered this sentiment, and it seems to be one that is shared by many readers, and a key concept, in Doebele's statement, is that concept of "the new non-fiction," suggesting that the genre has somehow changed in recent years.
J.B: I agree with Connie Doebele that good nonfiction is terrific, though I personally don't like it any better than good anything else in the writing field. I think it's excellent for writers to read about things we know little or nothing of—particularly in this time when the vast majority of writers are living in similar kinds of communities (university departments). A long time ago, I went to interview the fiction writer, Kay Boyle, at her house. On the coffee table, she had books on thatching and building dry stone walls. I asked her if she was moving into sheep country or rural England, and she said that she always read about crafts or trades that were unfamiliar to her. She did it, she said, "for the vocabulary."
T: In your own work as a writer, how much of your work is made up of accessing the vocabularies of a specialized field of work?
J.B: I don't think much of my work has drawn on specialized vocabularies, except perhaps some of the horse poems, where I have to be careful since my close experience of horses was as a young person in England, and of course, some of the words are different. I can't think of examples right now, but it seems I've come across different words for tack: pieces of bridles, saddles, bits, etc. One that comes to mind is the American "posting" which in England was always "rising to the trot." And this leads to surprise at words in different contexts, which, in my case, arises mostly from my move from England to the U.S. I was afraid, at first, that my poetry would sink into some blah middle ground. There are far more differences than are usually acknowledged, both in the rhythm and structure of sentences, and in the subtle connotations of individual words. "Quite," for example means something different in British English than in American English. Quite good, here in the U.S. has a laudatory aspect—almost "very good," whereas in England it is slightly disparaging—a bit of "fairly good" or "rather good" but with a definite reservation about it. There are lots of those kinds of differences.
T: Do you think there is a trend, in readership, toward non-fiction, and do you think this has any particular bearing on the popularity of memoirs?
J.B: There has definitely been a surge of interest in the memoir over the past decade or two. I've sometimes thought it is partly explicable by the lives we live. Most people don't sit around and talk, telling stories from our lives, yet there is a human hunger to know how other people manage the challenges that life offers them. The truth of this came home to me a couple of years ago. My partner and I have celebrated Thanksgiving, birthdays, and sometimes Christmas, with a small group of close friends, for several years. We felt as if we knew each other pretty well, having cooked together and had deep and interesting conversations at those meetings. But one day, someone said something about his past and we all looked shocked. "We didn't know that about you," we said. And so was born our "biography group," which met once every two or three months over two years. Each person had a turn to talk about his or her life for one whole evening after dinner. Everyone interpreted it differently, but most used photos, maps, anecdotes, etc. I think this is related to why people read memoirs.
T: This is an important human phenomenon, I think, though the desire to tell one's story takes many different forms, of course, and any individual is likely to have a different sense of their preferred audience. It does seem to be a central part of what we are, and why language is as important to us as it is. On the other hand, hearing those stories also seems to be central to our being—perhaps even to the extent of comprising an important part of what we understand our selves to be. What would you attribute this need for exchanging stories to? How similar would you say the twinned need to tell and to hear stories are? Is it the same need?
J.B: I sometimes feel quite upset at how many of my students (in memoir primarily) have, apparently, an overwhelming need to tell their stories, with no balancing desire to read other peoples'. I always tell them that the best way to learn is to read. And some, of course, love reading. But there are people who, for whatever reason in their lives, just want to be heard. There are probably both psychological and social reasons for this, but those would fill books which I'm not qualified to write. I do think the need to tell stories is different from the need to write stories. Some of my own need to write them stems from that being the mode through which I really understand and "get at" the story. I don't have an equivalent need to tell stories, though I will if the situation is conducive! For me, transitioning from an instinctive knowledge to an explicit one, is a process of deepening and refining the knowledge. Maybe the knowledge is always there if I have an instinctive sense of it, but I'm not someone who trusts its presence until I can articulate it in words.
T: When a student has an overwhelming need to tell their story, but apparently no balancing desire to read others'—in what specific ways do you see this limiting a student of writing?
J.B: Well—surely no one can become a good writer without reading and, at least subconsciously, absorbing the rhythms, vocabulary, syntax, imagery, etc. of lovely writing, or clear writing, or dramatic writing. It's better still if they have the conscious ability to read and see what the writer has actually done with the language. I think classes in how to read as a writer would be a great addition to the offerings out there. We had such a class once at Flight of the Mind, taught by the novelist Sara Schulman, but sadly not very many signed up for it. Of course, I do have many serious students who are well read and love books. It just amazes me when I come across those who aren't and don't.
T: The question of how closely autobiographical material informs one's endeavors as a writer is always a sticky one. I can see the value in prompting writers to think back on their own lives and to access that material already present to them, but at some point, it seems important to move beyond that self and into a wider community. What is your sense of this process, as a writer and as a teacher? Do you think less experienced writers struggle with this point?
J.B: As a teacher, I certainly encourage students to mine their own experiences, and often set exercises that help them get there. I, too, have written very autobiographically for a long time. But I think the poems in Horses and the Human Soul moved outward. Some are based on personal experiences, but others, particularly later in the book, have a wider view. At least, that was what several people appreciated about that book when it came out, and I tended to agree that it was a mark of progress. Oddly, after Horses, I felt very strongly that I needed to move into a different poetic mode. I remembered Louise Gluck saying (on a videotape I have) that after each book she looks to see what she hasn't done in that book. Her example was that a recent book had no questions in it, so she set out to include questions in her new poems. It came to me quite clearly that I wanted to write poems with no "I" in them—poems that, though still obviously in a personal voice, would not be first person. I also wanted to write a lot about the ocean, particularly the underneath of the ocean, although I have never been down deep. (In fact I've just succeeded in making a connection with an oceanographer who is willing to take me along on fieldwork studying coral reefs! This may happen this summer or sometime in the future.) I read a lot and used my imagination. And it is a mode that I have grown to love for now. In terms of less experienced writers, I do find that many of them come to writing from a desire for personal expression and that at some point it is my job to help them find the universal in the personal story. This often happens through digging deeper into the truth of the personal until it speaks to a reader with entirely different experiences.
T: How thoroughly do you think the roles of teacher and writer inform each other? Do they generally compliment each other, or do they sometimes come into conflict with each other?
J.B: I do think the roles inform each other. I learn a lot from teaching, some from what actually happens in class, and a lot from the work I do to create and prepare a new class. Last year, I was invited to teach at Lewis & Clark College's "Writing Culture" conference, and offered a five-day workshop on poetic forms from different cultures. The preparation took me to live recordings of rune singers and blues bands, and forced me to see how a culture's history was woven into the forms that emerged at any given time. It was a terrific learning experience. In the past, I've chafed at the time spent teaching, when my own writing was neglected, but in recent years, I've found a balance which works quite well for me. The other thing I like about teaching a subject I love is that it helps me to articulate in sentences things I know instinctively, and I find that articulation is, in fact, a deeper kind of knowing.