Uncategorized | October 14, 2011
Word Missouri: Readings and thoughts from former Poet Laureate Walter Bargen
As this series grows, it will examine how Missouri has affected its writers — both those who grew up here and those who immigrated here — through profiles and readings of their work. This week, series reporter Davis Dunavin spoke with Ashland writer Walter Bargen, chosen in 2008 by Governor Matt Blunt to be the first poet laureate of Missouri. Bargen served from 2008 to 2010. Don’t forget to visit his website, and follow Word Missouri at kbia.org.
On Tintinnabula, a work in progress:
I have three manuscripts I’m simultaneously working on right now. Some get more attention than others. It’s kind of like dropping a stone in a pond; the splash is when I’m working and then the ripples go outward, and this is the first ripple. The splash is a manuscript called Dying of Strangers. Then there’s Tintinnabula.
I thought I had coined a word, coming from “tintinnabulation.” But then I found out there’s a cartoon series—I don’t know the name of it, but it came out in the past 15-20 years—and they have a city out in the desert called Tintinnabula. And it’s where there’s this giant sound-making device, and if the evil creature captures it, he can destroy the world. So, you know, so much for something original.
Tintinnabula is made up of prose poems, or what I call “povellas,” and it’s really a mixture of genres. It has a creative nonfiction prose poem. There’s an epistolary povella. So it’s a whole lot of things, and when I was thinking of the title, I was thinking of noise and the clatter of all these different things together in the manuscript.
On prose poems:
I love Charles Simic’s definition of a prose poem: an “explosion of language after an encounter with a very large piece of furniture.” And I would like to add to his definition, “in the dark.” He has a definition of poetry as “three mismatched shoes at the entrance to a dark alley.” They’re kind of like bookends—the prose poem and the verse poem.
On learning he was the Missouri’s first poet laureate:
Somehow I got nominated—I believe the rule was, you couldn’t nominate yourself, and so you were dependent on other people recognizing something about you they thought might be worthwhile to share with the citizens of the state of Missouri. There were 135 or so nominations and four finalists. I was called up for an interview one day—when I went down, I really expected it to be a hello, a handshake and a goodbye. It ended up being a 45-minute conversation with the governor and two of his assistants. I found that to be an exhausting experience, because I had to just really be on top of trying to answer all these questions in a way I thought might display my best characteristics. When I walked in, the first thing he said was, “I’m a big fan of poetry. I just finished re-reading ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot for the third time.” That certainly set me off balance for a moment, but we had a great time together.
On his duties as poet laureate:
The experience itself was quite surprising. I really expected I’d just be given a piece of parchment or something, I’d have it framed and hang it on my wall and that would be it. But the demand for the poet laureate around the state was really surprising. And it almost didn’t ever let up, even in the summer. There were times I made four or five appearances in a week, and it was never less than really two in a week. And I had to ask myself, “Where’s all this interest coming from?” So I really took it upon myself to define what the poet laureate should be, which was to spread the good word about poetry in the state and re-energize people and help them rediscover that poetry is important in their lives. And I feel like I did have some success at that—limited as it may be, because no one can move millions of people—but there were a number of times I’d finish at a county library, and generally a man would walk up and say, “My wife dragged me here, I thought I was going to hate it, but I really enjoyed this.” At an elder care facility, I had an 80-year-old man come up to me and say, “No one ever introduced me to poetry, and that makes me sad. Because you really moved me.”
On “Moonwalk Missouri”
One of the requirements at the very beginning was that the poet laureate would write a poem about Missouri. They removed that before even two weeks had passed, because I guessed they reasoned you just don’t ask a poet to write a poem. But I had already written my poem. It was called “Moonwalk, Missouri.” It took on going for a winter walk in the woods in Missouri and looking at the constellations—“these stars tattooed to their stories”—and how, essentially we are storytellers. Over the past centuries, we’ve—human beings, that is – tried to discover something unique about our humanity that defines us. And ultimately, I think it’s that we tell stories.
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