Rick Barot’s poems are assured, finely composed structures in which memory and emotion often take startling, deeply moving turns. He is the author of three books of poems, including The Darker Fall and Want. Rick was born in the Philippines, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Tacoma, Washington. He teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, where he directs The Rainier Writing Workshop. Recently I caught up with Rick via email to talk about his new book, Chord.
Matthew Thorburn: Chord seems very carefully arranged so that adjacent poems speak to each other, and so that different family stories and personal narratives are gradually woven together into a larger whole. How did you go about putting your poems together as a book? Is this a process that changes for you, from book to book?
Rick Barot: The arrangement of Chord happened well after I’d finished writing the poems for the book. The poems were written over a span of about eight years, and during that time I didn’t have a sense of an overall theme that the poems were contributing to. I just wrote the poems. Some felt personal. Some felt polemical. I didn’t want to spend any time thinking about what the poems were and how they related to each other. I liked being surprised by what came up. My previous book, Want, had been a kind of project book. When I started it I had a clear sense of it in mind, and in the three years I wrote the poems of that book, I adhered to the theme. That experience taught me that I didn’t want to be that constrained in my next book. Until I had the poems in Chord spread out on my living room floor and I went through the process of moving things around and taking things out, I didn’t know that the book would be anything but a miscellaneous gathering of poems. In fact, to me it still feels like a miscellaneous gathering, even though I know it’s informed by recurring ideas and preoccupations.
MT: The opening poem, “Tarp,” is a wonderful example of something I especially admire in your work: the way you can start a poem with something from everyday life, something as seemingly unremarkable and harmless as a tarp, and then suddenly we find you’re writing about something much darker and closer to the heart. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you—and how you started writing this particular poem?