David Blair is the author of five books, including Barbarian Seasons (2020) and Walk Around: Essays on Poetry and Place (2019), both from MadHat Press.
Katherine Hollander: David, thank you so much for talking with me. I’m really sad we’re not reading together like we planned, but I’m so glad I get to interview you about your book Barbarian Seasons, which I really love. When I was talking with Dora Malech about the genesis of this project, I mentioned meeting poets because of doing readings in person, and how it felt like a shame to miss out on more of that—and you were one of the people I was thinking of! We have a bunch of friends in common but we’d never met, and you came up to me after the reading with Naomi Shihab Nye at BU in November and were just so friendly and generous and welcoming, and then you asked me to read with you and Raquel Balboni at the Grolier in March, which of course we had to cancel right around the time the pandemic was really gathering speed. Thank you for being so nice to me!
David Blair: No problem, Kate. That was a wonderful reading at the B.U. Castle. It’s always exciting to hear a new Boston poet. I really enjoyed how your German dictionary poems worked with their titles giving everything that followed the force and more comprehensive precision of extended metaphor—made me think of the Hass poem “Heroic Simile” and how Steven Dobyns used the form of the riddle in his earlier poems, with the title functioning as the answer to the riddle, something I guess Simic was doing as well at about the same time.
KH: Thank you so much! That is exceedingly good company to be placed in. It’s funny, way before the book was published, I did a reading where I didn’t tell the audience the English translations of the titles but made them yell out their guesses. It was fun, but maybe not so nice. Then there was a version of the manuscript that had all the titles translated at the back. I didn’t end up doing that. So maybe it is in the middle, like a riddle.
DB: I like how those poems move and don’t give everything away at once—the old Mallarme line about 9/10 of the pleasure of poetry being not in naming things directly. I don’t mind not getting the whole thing at once. Some of the German words I knew. Some I had to look up because if I had ever known them, I forgot them. Others, I just went with the poem.
KH: Oh, that makes me really happy. I’m glad that all three possibilities (knowing, looking-it-up, not-knowing) are okay. But I’m supposed to be asking you about your book!
Your book is so joyous—it’s in itself joyous and it’s brought me a lot of joy. I laugh out loud reading it, not always because of its humor—although it is very funny in places—but just because of its ebullience. There are lines that are so vivid, and yet catch me off guard, and it feels like New England in this essential way that’s totally recognizable and yet totally original, off-beat. There are some moments—like the “jam smell” under an urban grape arbor or the rabbits in “Let’s Not Think” that feel just like our city, Somerville. “Concord River and Walden Pond” is a tour-de-force, as are longer sequences like “Big Family Poems” and “Short Time.” I love the image in “Riding the Metro-North New Haven Line” about men with a “boating complexion.” There are so many deeply critical and yet also loving crystallizations like that. Can you say a little about the way New England is at work in your poems?
DB: New England has gotten increasingly important to me as I have written poetry, as I have lived here since I was twenty-six, and that is coming up on half my life. But I think I will never be a New Englander, per se, as I grew up in Pittsburgh. This gives me some fresh eyes as I don’t ever see the places around here as somebody who always saw them, but more as an adult transport. However, I also think that I am a New England poet at this point because I think of art in general as being “site specific,” and poetry is like architecture and music that arises from specific venues in being profoundly local. And the fun of poetry is that it is a way of using the near-at-hand and daily and seeing things through the selection of detail, which is usually answering some sort of personal need. At the same time, “surroundings” are democratic and can be shared. I also think that there is just a lot of drama in the places here.
KH: Ha! I love the idea of New England as dramatic. New Englanders, many of them, would protest that characterization, but not me. I didn’t realize you were a transplant! It makes sense, what you say about your eye being fresher that way. When I lived in Vermont it was clear that Robert Frost got a lot of Vermont just right, but the most accurate (though most fantastical) descriptions of Vermont life I’ve seen are by a Viennese refugee, Alice Herdan-Zuckmeyer, in her book Farm in the Green Mountains. She nails it in a way that no native New Englander would dare.
DB: How interesting. I think of Frost as being a California poet, and he is able to do the landscapes at the end of “Out, Out—” because he was from somewhere else in part of his head. Similarly, Robinson Jeffers in California, from Pittsburgh. I think some writers get the distance other ways, maybe time or other kinds of dislocation. Dan Chiasson has wonderful Burlington poems, particularly as he remembers it from childhood and being a teenager. He has a personal cult.
KH: Maybe my favorite poem in the book is “The Far Side of Election Days.” Can you talk a little about that one?
DB: I am glad you like that. A few things about that poem. One is that I remember actually being mad when I started it. I campaigned in rural New Hampshire for Hillary, and it was dispiriting to get back a weekend before the election and realize we were in bad shape and in danger of losing. I was mad at the misogyny of the culture and how it helped inflict this disaster on us. I also was annoyed at the people I agree with politically for being so self-righteous and not getting that they have to convince people to think good things, and also that we have to have a basic sense of affection for people whom we disagree with, and who can act in ridiculous ways, in order to change things. Sincerity seems like it is very perceptive and wise, but then I realized that probably Gary Larson understood what was motivating people and their absurdity, and so I sort of saw the whole political situation like a Gary Larson cartoon. I have no doubt that many or most people who did not vote for Hillary on either side of the political spectrum have issues with their mothers.
KH: You know what’s so depressing is that until this very moment I imagined that the “great senator” in the poem was Elizabeth Warren. Ouf. It feels like nothing changes. The anger and affection in that poem is very satisfying to me.
DB: I was thinking of Warren and I was mad in advance that the same thing would happen to her. I also took some vindictive pleasure in imagining a giant Elizabeth Warren sitting on these fools. It was like “the return of the repressed” all the way for me. But I feel mixed things about the poem. Did my fear that she would not be able to convince voters—did my “realistic belief” that she would not be able to change hearts and minds contribute to her loss, even though I supported her campaign. I think we are living in a polarized age, but Americans go wrong when they think they are essentially different from each other. The poem has some “My Last Duchess” elements—untrustworthy speaker, sort of amateur pundit discussing an imaginary piece of visual art. I also should add that I wrote it in a way that I thought would work for various outcomes, win, lose or veep. The plan was that the book would come out during the primaries. If you know Larson’s The Far Side, I think it’s clear what I am going for in the end:
Think of a lot of stars over a parking lot
and no cars in the parking lot at all.
There are all these hunters crushed
with hunting hats and arms and rifles
all akimbo, some of them dressed
as Daniel Boone, and here is why:
this giant chicken came after them
at the bar, and so down she sat on them
like they were her nest, her little bald-
headed, crying-mouthed, squinting brood.
This bar does not even exist anymore,
but look at the stretched hands over
these keyboards, the cuffs on the hairy
wrists. They work at keyboards. They
have cuffs. They talk. They look dumb.
KH: This leads me to my next question, actually. Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What other events—personal or historical—shaped the writing of your book, and how does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently?
DB: My first book, Ascension Days, came out in the 2007, and it was shaped in large part by the second Gulf War and having a personal life that was very rewarding despite the Bush administration, and in some ways, this book was back to basics for me. The earliest poems in the book—the Metro-North poem and the one where Tom Yuill and I run into a Russian robot—date back to 2015, and I was thinking of the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, and I think those poems show that part of me has not been very surprised by what has happened. The book ends with Walden Pond being closed “on account of algae from piss,” and how that affects everybody, and that whatever happens in this country is because what we do together, and I guess that is probably out of a general environmental feeling that most sentient people have that together, we are all going very wrong. Some of the book comes out of my sense of myself as a person with a family, a marriage, a kid, and so on, experiences that bring out the best and the worst in a person, some of which I have had to see as related to my growing up with the toxic cultures and idiocy of maleness and ideas about me that at the far edge of the envelope lead to a Trump, and then there are a few poems that deal with specific events, the Women’s March, the Kavanaugh hearings, and so on. My hopes and fears for the Warren campaign were another event like this.
KH: I vividly recall hearing on the radio when I was a teenager that Walden had “the highest urine content” of any body of water in the state. And yet you end that poem with belief, and with a deeply affectionate (or at least, so it seems to me), Massachusetts-inflected endorsement: “I believe everybody here, wicked pissers, the babies especially.” There’s comfort in that, somehow. And so, here’s another question, since it seems that with the pandemic people—or some people—do seem to be turning towards poetry more, what single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why?
DB: I think it’s important that poetry makes people aware of their affection for other people, for the environment, for the things that are reasonable and good, and for that to happen, we can’t be too precious about ourselves, and on some level, we should not care if there is some piss in the water as long as we can still swim. I think that purity is an idea that is not very useful, and it’s important to have a healthy sense of wickedness as well. The Puritanical side of the culture messes us up from multiple directions, not least because it does not give us the tools to recognize or answer what is really messed up. So poetry should be about connection, but should not be treacly. It’s a place to find freshness of thought and language and authentic interiority as well as connection to others and the world around us.
KH: I really like that—freshness of thought and authentic interiority. And it does describe this book, I think, which feels like a companionable ramble around not in but with your mind. The interior is touring around with the reader, pointing things out, editorializing, writing goofy love letters, taking to task and holding accountable—instead of the kind of interior that is totalizing and absorbs the reader into it. It feels dialectic and, as I think you said earlier, democratic.
Okay, a couple more questions before we have to wrap up. What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss?
And—What’s a question you would want to be asked about Barbarian Seasons, and how would you answer it?
DB: I really love to go read in New York City, where I was born and went to college with my wife Sabrina. Usually, I get to see our friends Jim and Natalie, and my first poetry friend, John Sebesta, who works at the UN, and our friend Sean, and pals Christina and Wayne, and I like to get lunch with my mother’s sister Dale, and my father’s brother Tom, and all that. So I missed that. It was fun to give a few readings online, including one with my penpals Joseph Lease and Donald Revell, and I would only have been able to do that if I had flown to Nevada or California. I like the social aspect of giving readings, here or away, as poetry is partially a social art.
You really have asked me the questions that I wanted to answer and talk about. Thank you, Kate.
KH: I’m so glad! I’m glad we got to talk, I hope we get to read together before too long after all. I’m so fond of Barbarian Seasons and I’m going to have fun reading it over again a few times. Thank you!
Find David Blair’s Barbarian Seasons here.