“Company in the void: A Conversation with Catherine Barnett about Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space”— Curated by Tiffany Troy

Catherine Barnett is the author of four poetry collections, including Human Hours; The Game of Boxes; and Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced. Her honors include a 2022 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a member of the core faculty of New York University’s Creative Writing Program and works as an independent editor.

Barnett’s newest, Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space, just published this May by Graywolf Press, is a book concerned with elegy, the consolations and provocations of art, and the speaker’s quest for solitude and company. In “How Best to Prepare,” Barnett writes: “Best not to dream of death as an enormous spider / crossing an empty highway. Instead imagine something / all your own to kiss and hug, and small hummingbirds / that look like azure foil. If you too awaken between / 3:00 and 5:00 to stare into the abyss where flies gather, / call me, I’ll talk you through until morning.”

Tiffany Troy: You begin Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space with the first of a series of poems, each of which is titled “Studies in Loneliness.” In your notes section, you thank writers Leigh Newman and Hannah Tinti for the “conversation that first got [you] thinking about the value of loneliness to a writer’s life.” Can you tell us a bit about your thoughts on loneliness for a writer and how that ties into the way in which this poem sets up the reader for the poems that are to follow?

Catherine Barnett: Hannah and Leigh were editing an anthology on loneliness and asked if I wanted to contribute an essay. I inadvertently made them laugh when I said “I love loneliness,” which got me thinking about what loneliness is, what its possible virtues or benefits might be, why I both aim for and try to dodge it. That summer picnic talk gave me the idea to give a lecture to about 100 graduate writing students, which I called “The Capaciousness of Solitude.” Maybe I’m unusual in thinking that both solitude and loneliness are essential for a writer. Or maybe it’s that when a writer is writing, loneliness, which often fuels the work, is a dear companion. As Rilke wrote in a 1903 letter:  “…the thoughts that come, even the most fleeting, must find me all alone, then they will again make up their minds to trust me; there is nothing worse for me than to become unaccustomed to loneliness: and I almost was.”

TT: Your poems are drawn from deep observations of visual arts and what you read. Can you tell me about the process of researching, writing and putting together this collection? How is it similar or different from your previous two collections?

CB: I grew up watching my mother’s commitment to her painting, and I’ve often–in these later years of her life–joined her in her studio where I can do my own work while she paints. We’ve had wonderful discussions-slash-arguments about the relative merits of painting over poetry and vice versa. One of her favorite questions, though neither of us is religious, is “Do you think god prefers poetry or painting?”

My first writing job was to write press releases for art exhibitions; then I got a job at an art magazine, as an editorial assistant, eventually becoming a senior editor. At the magazine, I did some ghostwriting for artists, interviewing them and organizing their responses into written text (with their approval). These  experiences were a kind of boundary-crossing so that I stepped momentarily–vicariously–inside a visual artist’s life and work. I’m endlessly fascinated by what we can learn from artists. I admire Diane Seuss, Victoria Chang, Dean Rader, and Terrance Hayes, among many other poets, for the ways they write into and about art.

The only research I did was for the lecture I gave on solitude and loneliness, and some of these notes slipped into the lyric essay/prose fragment sections called “Studies in Loneliness.” It was not typical research. I let myself go a little wild; I let myself exaggerate, use my imagination, play.

TT: Solutions for the Problem of the Bodies in Space has three sections. Can you walk us through the thematic or formal differences across the sections?

CB: The “Studies in Loneliness” meditations show up in each of the three sections, which are loosely divided into elegies, art, life force. Each section spills into and out of the next. There are no sharp divisions, just a mind at work.

TT: As you wrote the poems and brief lyric essays in this collection, did form come prior to the content or vice versa?

CB: I love what Michelangelo said about what’s inside the marble: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” I have so so so much superfluous material because I have a daily practice of writing, which allows me to keep my expectations low while remaining hopeful. The commitment itself is reassuring, as is knowing I can (and love to) revise. Formal games and constraint-based writing are useful for generating new materials, new approaches. So to answer your question as best I can: I would say the materials show up and then I try to figure out what shape they might want to inhabit.

TT: In “Thought Experiment” the speaker tries to imagine what it would be like to be a mantis shrimp. Why a mantis shrimp?

CB: The speaker marvels at the fact that some mantis shrimps are monogamous and live together for decades. The speaker herself is ambivalent about this set-up, not sure whether she wants to be more alone or less alone. She doesn’t know which state causes the mantis shrimp to bust her aquarium walls. I was amazed by their brains, which show up on their eyestalks!

TT: Some of your poems are elegiac, and some are humorous, a little off-kilter. How do you maintain the voice of the speaker throughout the collection?

I wasn’t too worried about maintaining the voice of the speaker throughout the collection. My main concerns are the desire to surprise (and be surprised), to discover, to be loyal to the speed at which the mind moves in its illuminations, contradictions, fears, desires, and unscheduled, unschedulable wanderings. Just yesterday, as I was visiting my mother and driving back to her home, she said: “Isn’t it amazing that the brain has a mind of its own?”

TT: In your “Notes” section, you reference artists and poets whose lines you have used in your poems. Who are some other living poets or writers who have inspired you or challenged you as you worked on this collection?

CB: The list would be pages long! I like nodding to the artists and poets who keep me such essential company that I rarely feel lonely. Or I always feel lonely, and share this with them. Marilynne Robinson is central to this book–her novel Housekeeping, which is just so terribly beautiful. Marguerite Duras is also central to this book (as I believe she has been to each of my collections). I want to encourage you to read Donna Masini’s poems; her quirky brilliance also accompanied me through, and helped me in absolutely essential ways with, these poems. My best and first reader, Saskia Hamilton, died some months before I finished the book though she helped me with the title, as I write about in the last “Studies in Loneliness.” Our conversations buoyed and enlightened me for years, as does her work. I remember hearing her read from As For Dream and thinking she was the real real real thing, she was doing what I aspired to–joining eros and intellect. I don’t want to repeat my acknowledgements page here–there are so many writers who’ve helped me both directly (Donna Masini, Maureen McLane, Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Ilya Kaminsky) and indirectly. My teachers, too–Ellen Bryant Voigt, Dennis Nurkse, Ruth Danon, Jean Valentine–are always with me.

TT: In closing, do you have any thoughts you would like to share with your readers of the world?

CB: It took me a moment to understand what you were saying re “readers of the world”! I love your phrase, “readers of the world,” which we all are–ideally close readers. Not only of texts but of faces, moments, the unspoken. To other readers of the world, I’d say hello, tell me what it’s like where you are, tell me what it’s like for you.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor of Tupelo Press, Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and Assistant Poetry Editor at Asymptote.