With both their debut volumes of poetry appearing this year, the mother and daughter discuss collaboration, pronouns, and the imperative not to look away.
Madeleine Barnes and Michelle Maher embody an ode to the family. In the era of viral elegy, in a winter where World War III is trending, their delight in intergenerational symbiosis can make a cynic blush. Are all families of writers this happy? No, and certainly not alike. The ones that come to mind are largely patriarchal trades: the Manns and Amises in prose, the Wrights in poetry. And the Brontës—our example par excellence—were as volatile as prolific. I know there must be other case studies, but they fade in the face of speaking with Barnes and Maher. Together they stage an intervention for love’s role in letters.
I first met Barnes as a fellow adjunct at Brooklyn College. Her debut collection, You Do Not Have To Be Good, is out this spring via Trio House Press. When she mentioned her mother planned to release her own debut, Bright Air Settling Around Us, at the same time, a chance to trace their genealogy was too good to overlook. The morning after Thanksgiving we convened via conference call: they with a lavish esprit de corps, me with leftovers in hand. Somehow, even over the phone, I was made to feel at home.
(Read three poems from Barnes on the site here)
Tom Kozlowski: I’d like to open with a question for Michelle and then trickle down to Maddie’s book, moving through time. Michelle, in one of the ekphrastic poems you shared with me, you dwell on Caravaggio. This got me interested in stylistic parallels between your approach to the page and his approach to canvas. Naturally I went to Wikipedia, and they had this to say about Caravaggio:
“[He] employed close physical observation with a dramatic use of chiaroscuro that came to be known as tenebrism. He made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light. Caravaggio vividly expressed crucial moments and scenes, often featuring violent struggles, torture and death. He worked rapidly, with live models, preferring to forgo drawings and work directly onto the canvas.”
Your own poems employ real, intense observation of live figures, like your parents or daughters, and they create lyric gestures cast in a particularly textual color or mood lighting. Do you feel a kinship with this kind of realism in the Old Masters? How do their techniques resonate with you?
Michelle Maher: You hit the nail on the head with his focus on struggle and illumination. I’m surprised how many poems of mine deal with Catholicism and spiritual struggle. But what really shines through in that particular poem you mentioned, “Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin,” is the relationship between mother and daughter. Looking back, I didn’t anticipate responding so strongly to that theme.
Earlier in my life, if someone asked me what my life’s purpose was, I’d say to be a great poet. But now I’d say it’s to learn how to love. My daughters, Maddie included, taught me how to be a mother, so that relationship is one of the primary subjects I return to.
TK: That makes me think of Alice Notley’s insistence, in “The Poetics of Disobedience,” that one can be a poet and a mother and entangle those spheres intensively. No site should be off-limits, despite masculine injunctions that said otherwise at the time.
MM: Yes, absolutely. In the ’60s and ’70s, women were discouraged from writing about domestic life or their feelings toward their families. It was degraded as value-less, but now that’s changed thanks to Notley and others who proudly said, “this is the stuff of our lives.”
TK: At the time, to use the materials of one’s life was a given for someone like Berryman or Lowell, who could charge the emotional content but rage against the term “confessional” as something akin to low-art. For women writers, though, such a term was imposed one way or another purely because the pronoun “I” was deployed. When you began writing, did you sense these sexist obstacles at play in verse culture? Who stood out to you as models or influences for expanding what could go in a poem?
MM: I had wonderful teachers, and one of them was Maura Stanton, who won the Yale Younger Series Prize in ’75 while she was teaching at Indiana University. She was transgressive in that she would tackle subjects like family life but move far beyond it, too. At the same time, I was exposed to poets like Yusef Komunyakaa. He visited a workshop I attended during the 80s, and Maddie, you went on to work with him at NYU, right?
Madeleine Barnes: That’s right, which is another crazy thread that connects us both.
MM: At that time, he was writing through his experiences in Vietnam and racism at home, and his courage was instructive on how to transgress boundaries. Reading his work, along with so many others outside the classroom, showed me how it’s done. Even right here in Pittsburgh, where I’ve worked with seminal figures like Jan Beatty and Toi Derricotte, who’ve opened so many opportunities for women writers. I’m truly standing on the shoulders of giants.
I should also say that one of the biggest changes I’ve lived through is publication through the Internet. In graduate school, I remember creative writing workshops being hyper-competitive, and yet when Maddie studied at NYU, her cohort seemed friendlier, more supportive. With the Internet, there’s more opportunities to publish, more cross-pollination and ventilation, making the classroom environment feel less dire. And that canon I once studied, exclusively defined by white men, has been actively revised by younger writers like Maddie, improving the quality of our writing overall. This enriches all of our experiences, whether as Americans or global citizens.
TK: Both of you write about one another with so much wonder, a valence that stands in stark contrast to the lyric as elegy or exposé. That kind of awe is rare. I’m interested in how, as a dynamic duo, you’ve found just as much aesthetic inspiration in each other as materials for love. How do you communicate about your work together? Do you workshop each other’s pieces?
MB: We do show each other poems and iron them out—it’s very special to me. I’m lucky I can ask my mom about poetry and pedagogy, and she’s introduced me to so many poets I love (long before I took a workshop with Sharon Olds, my mom was the first to show me her work). Especially in low moments of doubt, my mom was there to encourage me through such a brutal composition process.
Also, when I was younger, I loved hearing my mom read publicly. Toi Derricotte had chosen her poem “At the Brera, Milan” for a prize in 2012, and at the reading, from the back of the room, hearing her images and music aloud… that became my definition of poetry. I’m so proud of her.
MM: And Tom, I remember when Maddie had written a prize-winning poem for the Princeton Poetry Prize in Princeton, a poem called “Afterlife.” When I first started reading her work, I was scared—scared because she was thinking and feeling everything so deeply that I had to wonder, in a world of such suffering and violence, how is she going to get through this? But I was also so blown away by her vision that I knew she would excel.
I don’t even think I would’ve finished my manuscript without Maddie’s help. I was so exhausted and discouraged, but Maddie was editing line by line. I knew I couldn’t let her down. Eventually, a few months later, it was accepted, and it was Maddie who carried me over the finish line.
TK: Together your perspective has doubled, as if you’re blinking at once. It would make sense that, regardless of whose poem you’re reading, your joint presence echoes out.
MB: Yes, exactly.
TK: Maddie, you said you were taken by your mom’s imagery, and I wonder what kind of impact it’s had on you. In your own manuscript, the imagination is inherently visual. Across couplets that are tightly snapped together, you chase an idea by leaping associatively from image to image, letting one supplant the other. So, in a poem like “Following My Parents with a Camera,” the viewfinder is a literal object as much as an analogical way of seeing:
“I don’t know how I came to know this:
the good in them is the good in me. It cannot be made
or unmade; it covers their whole bodies,
soars between them, edgeless. It was there before I sent for them,
I was a comet above a deserted beach shining and fierce,
not an archangel but an omen, a disturbance
that pulled between us like a leash, a cool, blue strand,
an attachment, and now it strains, tugs, proves
I’ll never lose them…”
How you curate the rate by which images unfold? Or, what kind of associative logic do you feel moves through you while working through couplets?
MB: I tend to start poems from a situation and then record what’s seen from that position. I’m a visual artist, so I want to bring in sensibilities of color and texture found in drawing and painting. I want to test an atmosphere, test how something feels. In that sense, the images come easily, and what I struggle with are narrative anchors that orient us in a time and place.
TK: It doesn’t surprise me you work in visual art—you incorporate dabs of color throughout the manuscript. Both of you frequently use blue, in fact. Not for any symbolic value, but as a written mark to thicken the plot. So it’s not that every image you use must have some networked dependence on the rest, but that images vibrate against one another, revealing newly activated relations within a single scene.
MM: I didn’t notice that about the blue. That’s a great observation.
TK: It’s funny that, early in the manuscript, you have a poem titled “The Blue of It,” but eventually, nearing the project’s conclusion, another title reads, “And Now There’s No More Blue.” Evidently you got sick of it.
MB: Yeah! I must’ve done a Control-F search for the word and had enough.
TK: And yet it becomes a binding element for the project. Readers remember previous instances and watch the blue effect modulate over time.
MM: I love that.
TK: Given you build poems from scenes, it seems to me that a recurring device for you, as in “Perennials” and “An Incident on the Tram,” is witness. Specifically, an attempt to stand in solidarity with people who’ve suffered at the hands of gendered, state-sanctioned violence. There are obvious reasons to be drawn to these tragedies. Formally, though, how do you view the poem’s participation in these cases? As a technology that produces empathy? And what are the risks associated with using these cases as poetic subjects? How can writers walk the line between writing about, with, and through the deceased without flattening their embodied experience to mere imagery?
MB: I would say, as writers, we should try to focus on individuals or events we’ve actually encountered. Like that woman in “Perennials,” I remember my own experience of moving to New York from Pittsburgh and my own astonishment at people’s indifference to that wounded women in Union Square. I felt hopeless about what to do next, especially once the police arrived. I had wished for a way to comfort her, and that helplessness has stuck with me. So by noticing suffering without making unfair comparisons to larger tragedies, witness can honor what happened to them without looking away.
TK: The phenomenon of looking away is rich territory. I was just reading this great book by Rei Terada called Looking Away. She excavates a tradition wherein artists and philosophers have “looked away” to suspend reality and activate fantastic appearances in the imagination. In contrast, to look at the world as it is entails dissatisfaction. There’s no distance in which to find relief from the fact of suffering. The world will then demand some obligation from us…
So maybe some poems do have an imperative to stare in the face of tragedy—if not to record, which can be voyeuristic, then to rescue a fragment of memory. I imagine that’s how Carolyn Forché would respond, at least. Does your work have any relation to her mode of witness? Have you thought about how to trouble that mode at all?
MB: I’m so glad you brought about Forché—she’s been one of my favorite poets since an early age. I found a book of hers in my mom’s office and remember being blown away by her arrangements on the page. As a byproduct of loving her work, I think I inherited high standards for the poet as witness and learned how to create responsible forms of empathy. To help others understand what my own perspective was like, it’s a way of projecting love back into a world that largely takes it away.
TK: I feel a really pronounced tension in the manuscript between the imperative to imagine and the imperative to witness. Your repeated use of couplets carries a specifically Romantic charge: imagination’s authority, flight, harmony with nature, to name the most general of tropes. And yet, given what you just said about Forché, you care deeply about cultivating new ties to the social. How do you hold these two different theories of lyric in mind? This is just my readerly response, naturally, but as you look back, I’m curious to what extent you may have grappled with these traditions.
MB: I can feel a tension in where and how I should look, definitely. And I think of a workshop I took with Sharon Olds where we discussed not being afraid to look. She would challenge us to watch attentively through our own discomfort, even if that means staring, so that we can gather the tiniest details we need. Of course, I’m still concerned about overstepping my bounds, but while writing, I knew I had to honor what Sharon said.
TK: Did your move to New York prepare you to “keep looking?” Like, I can stare at my shoes on the Q train for a long time, but at some point there’s no way to avoid making contact with someone shuffling by.
MB: Yes! New York’s actually made me more comfortable and open over time, given we’re always inundated with sights and sounds. If something’s happening in public space, people will naturally look, and they can’t expect I won’t, either. I’ve learned to see through the chaos.
TK: What’s it like to look in Pittsburgh, Michelle?
MM: Where we live, in a suburb toward the north, I love walking around and seeing the trees in bloom. I don’t know how Maddie survives in endless stimulation, which I suppose is exciting, but for some of us would be draining. That intensity of life. But I think what you’re hitting on, Maddie, is important: the imperative to witness, even locally in Pittsburgh, always taps into the wider world. Poems may not be able to produce empathy at the end of the day, but at least I can say, “I was here. This is what I saw. This is what it was like for me to be alive.” Or, I think Toni Morrison was the one who said, “If you’re free, you need to free someone else.” To record what I saw, I hope, might inspire someone else to do the same.
TK: Maddie, in the title of the manuscript, You Do Not Have To Be Good, what communities or receivers do you imagine inside the pronoun “you”? I think your dedication within the text sheds some light on this (as does the nod to Mary Oliver), but maybe you could speak more to it here.
MB: Yeah! The “you” is strongly tied to my dedication. It’s specifically geared toward women, queer, and nonbinary people, reminding them it’s okay to be rebellilous, to be messy, to take up space. You can just be however you feel and still be loved. I have a number of teachers and friends who embody that freedom for me, and I just want to pass that message forward.
TK: That’s lovely. And it seems to me the genius and trickiness of “you” is how it functions like a revolving door of perspective. It reminds me how, in Citizen, Rankine can usher readers into the “you” on one page so that they might feel the imminent threat of racist violence. Yet, on other pages, she knowingly ushers us out of that pronoun. There’s just no way for everyone to lay claim to such a personally marked experience of blackness, nor should they. Readers step in and out, and in that sense, Rankine makes space for her specific “I” by moving us through a “you.”
MB: It’s such a brilliant book, and part of why I love Rankine’s work is for that reason you describe, the tenuousness of the pronouns. In its fragmentary nature, certain glimpses of witness shine through, so naturally, it was on my mind while working on the manuscript.
TK: I’d like to throw a final question to you both. In a poem of Maddie’s called “What Happened,” a man tells a girl to use “I” less, and the poem proceeds to dramatize this violence by erasing “I” and thereafter repeating a new pronoun: “she.” That “she” is unnamed, made faceless, and yet it gestures toward broader, communal experience by being both one and many at once. It’s a thoughtful and terrifying sleight of hand.
When both of you deploy a pronoun like “I,” how do you manage these tensions between speaking as you, irreducibly you; embodying aspects of feminine experience but not monolithically so; and fighting back against these chauvinist commands to depersonalize?
MB: That’s actually something a teacher once said to me. Because of his instruction, I internalized a lot of doubt. Who am I to write about my life? Am I only worrying about myself? I’m not the only one to suffer these comments, either. Fellow women poets and writers have shared these experiences with me, too. But we’re allowed to say “I” in a poem, however much that anxiety might haunts us. Now, I do so intentionally to push back against that teacher, to reclaim my story. Hopefully other women who worry about this will see my insistent “I’ and realize they’re not alone in their doubt.
MM: I actually had that said to me within the past five years—by an older woman poet, no less. She told me, “This is the work of a beginning poet. Beginning poets usually use ‘I’ because they have nothing else to write about beyond their own lives.” At that point I thought: my manuscript’s over. That was paralyzing, and that was so wrong.
MB: So wrong.
TK: Yes. Meanwhile, “write what you know” is happily doled out to straight white men without pause. The hypocrisy is boggling.
MM: This gets back to what we were talking about earlier: not looking away. Not just externally, but internally. If we’re not attentive to our own lives, to what we can pass on, what lived experience will remain? I remember having a disastrous experience with an editor who I hoped might show an interest in my work. He asked me, “Why do you write?” And I answered, “To leave a record behind for my daughters. That their mother thought of more things than just telling them to clean their room or study hard.” And he said, “Well, it sounds like a diary for your daughters.” No. It’s so much more than that. We’re only here for a brief time: why can’t my writing be as robust as a life?
TK: Inheritance has loomed over this whole conversation. It’s rare to see this degree of transparency between different generations of a family. Most parents would kill to know what their kids think, and most kids don’t want to know at all (well, at least until some hormones burn off). Yet you’ve written in such a way that you’re totally open to Maddie, speaking to her in both the present and future tense, while also making space for yourself. It’s a tender balance to strike.
MM: When I read Maddie’s work, my heart is stunned and open. She sees so much. I worry about her, because the world can be so brutal, but I feel privileged to have the access that I do to her life. It’s such a privilege that I want to reciprocate.
TK: Now, Maddie, you have to tell us once and for all what you learned from your mom.
MB: Oh my god, on a literal level!?
TK: This was all a test to prove if you’re a good daughter.
MM: You’re a good daughter, I swear.
MB: Thank you, thank you. Ultimately I think my mom’s poetry is full of keen observations about love. She taught me a lot about form and imagery, yes, but it’s more than that. From my mom, I learned that love is the foundation of everything, whether it’s writing or teaching or being together socially. What does Keats say? “Love is stronger than death.”* Writing and reading with my mom, despite being 30 years apart, is my idea of a powerful act of love.
*And, I might add, “Stronger, too, than time.”
Madeleine Barnes is a poet, visual artist, and doctoral fellow in English Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her debut poetry collection, You Do Not Have To Be Good, was recently selected as the winner of Trio House Press’ open reading period and will be published in 2020. She is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Women’s Work, forthcoming from Tolsun Books, and Light Experiments (Porkbelly Press, 2019). She serves as Poetry Editor at Cordella Magazine, a publication that showcases the work of women and non-binary writers and artists. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from NYU in 2016, and she teaches at Brooklyn College.
Michelle Maher lives in Wexford, PA with her husband. They have three daughters. Her work has appeared in journals such as Cordella, the Pittsburgh Poetry Review, the Georgetown Review, the Chautauqua Literary Journal, and the Atlanta Review. Her debut volume of poems, Bright Air Settling Around Us, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag. She is a professor of English at La Roche University.
Tom Kozlowski edits The Brooklyn Review. His work can be found in Jacket2 and forthcoming in PANK.