By Daniel Ford
I first became aware of author Quan Barry by picking up her novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born at the bookstore. However, when I emailed her to set up this interview, she mentioned that she is also a published poet!
Soon after, several of her poetry collections landed on my doorstep and I had the pleasure of discovering her distinct use of language and form.
Barry also graciously answered some of my questions about how she got hooked on writing, her favorite poet, and how the writing processes for poetry and fiction differ.
Daniel Ford: What made you decide to become a poet?
Quan Barry: When I was an undergraduate, I lived in a suite with two girls who were serious journalers. As the end of each day I would watch them writing furiously, some of which they shared. I was amazed that people would write things just for fun and not for class. Sure, I used to do that kinda stuff when I was a kid, but I hadn't written like that for years. After watching these two suitemates, I decided to take a creative writing class, and voila! I was hooked.
DF: Which poets influenced you and what’s your favorite poem of all time?
QB: I've always loved the work of W.S. Merwin. As I became a more serious student of poetry, I read his body of work much more closely. It was amazing to see how he evolved from rather formal beginnings to the poet we think of today, whose unpunctuated work relies pretty heavily on the reader to pull meaning out of the text. I once saw Merwin read when I was an undergrad, and I still remember how he ended the evening with this long poem called "Lives of the Artists," which is an amazing poem about the life of a Native American youth. In general, I love the collection by Merwin that contains this poem, a collection titled Travels—there's a poem in it called "A Distance" that I adore, adore, adore. I can't necessarily tell you what's happening in that poem, but it ends with three questions: "what/ are you holding above your head child/ where are you taking it what does it know."
DF: When you sit down to write a poem, is there a set number of words you’re aiming for each time you sit at the keyboard, or does it depend on the type of poetry you’re writing?
QB: Because I also write fiction, I've noticed that my poems have started to get longer and longer. I used to be able to write really short lyric poems no problem, but now sometimes the fiction side of me struggles with this, which means that occasionally I'll decide to write a seven-line poem. I think the seven-line poem is the perfect poem the way an egg is the perfect food. Seven lines gives you just enough time to get something done but not too much time to mess it up.
Having said all this, I don't usually have a line length in mind. I mostly just let the poem dictate how long it wants to be.
DF: It seems to me that word choice in poetry is so important, and you use some great language in your collections. Do you reach for the dictionary or thesaurus as your writing, or do you make choices in the editing process?
QB: No, I'm not a dictionary or thesaurus nut. In my second collection, Controvertibles, I definitely had some big words sprinkled here and there throughout some of the poems. But they were words that I was fascinated with, specifically by the mere fact that they existed. Words like "recipiscence," which can mean "knowledge after the fact.” That word is basically the story of my life!
DF: Your novel She Weeps Each Time You're Born was published this past February and garnered rave reviews. Why the change in genre and was your writing process any different?
QB: In short, I've always wanted to be a writer, not necessarily a poet or a novelist or a playwright etc., just a good ole-fashioned John Updike-like writer (I wish!). Updike basically did it all, and to me, trying your hand at different genres is one way to keep challenging yourself and to stay fresh.
The writing process between poetry and fiction is vastly different because honestly, I'm now in to place where I can write poems fairly quickly, but writing a novel takes serious amounts of time and revising, both of which are not my strong suit. Narrative and plot aren't that hard for me (i.e. moving my characters from point A to Point B), but I have a load of other problems. In poetry, if I mention something one time, then I can trust my reader to remember it. In general, we tend to read poems closer and more carefully because they're short. In fiction, I can't just mention something once, as is my tendency, and count on my reader to remember it 10 or even hundreds of pages later. I have to give my reader more than I'm used to without over explaining, and since I'm a poet at heart, this is always a battle for me.
DF: Now that you have a novel under your belt, do you think you’ll return to poetry or stick with fiction writing for a while?
QB: I intend to keep writing both. I'm also hoping to do some more work on two plays I wrote a few years back. Someday I'd like to have a play produced, but that's admittedly way down the pike.
DF: What advice would you give to aspiring poets and up-and-coming authors?
QB: Read, read, read, and read broadly. I was just talking about this with the poet Derek Mong. Basically we were agreeing that sometimes young writers just read first books in their genres. This can get to be stultifying. Yes, it's good to know what first books look like and how they're constructed, but if that's all you read, your work may end up sounding like everyone else's and one day it may also read as dated.
DF: Can you name one random fact about you?
QB: It's a definite humble brag, but I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I've set foot on all seven continents.