Smog Mother: Sharon Berg Interviews John Wall Barger

February 14, 2023 at 2:13 pm  •  Posted in Articles, Blogs, Home Page, Poetry, Slider, Uncategorized, Welcome by

John Wall Barger’s poems and critical writing have appeared in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review Online, Zyzzyva, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, The Hopkins Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fifth collection of poems, Resurrection Fail (Spuyten Duvyil Press, 2022), was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Poetry Award, the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and the Grayson Book Prize. His latest collection, Smog Mother, was released last year (Palimpsest Press, 2022). He is a contract editor at Frontenac House, and teaches Creative Writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Sharon Berg: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, John. To begin, during the 1980s, long poems were admired, but fashion is always changing. It strikes me that, after going out of style for a while, long poems such as “Samovar”—from your new book, Smog Mother—are once again being appreciated. You’ve inserted metaphors like living bodies into this piece, (e.g., “dawn crowns / out of the mother goat of night / on her knees in Siberia, on cold ground, / the purple sac of morning / draining from her, the new day …”). The result is a magical transformation of your train ride from Moscow to Beijing, with the giant kettle of the samovar nurturing everyone on the 4,735 mile journey. Yet, your magic is dark and foreboding. Can you comment on your choice in contrasting the nurturing of the samovar and the darkness that penetrates your tale in poems like this?

John Wall Barger: You’ve really hit on the balance that interests me in art, between nurturing and foreboding. I love it when a poem, even a short one, can provoke a belly laugh and also break your heart. I don’t think a poem needs to choose to be either serious or playful. It can be both, just like a walk across Philadelphia can be both. I like poems that contain unreconciled contradictions. The poem doesn’t need to make up its mind. It can think right in front of us. It can not know. Or it can know and not tell us.

SB: Clearly the term “Smog Mother” and the intensity of the images and ideas it calls up—both as the title for this book and as the first section—are important to you. You have lived experiences and been witness to cruelty that many of us, in our protected corner of the world, have not. Can you speak to why it is important for you to share social conflicts we are either unaware of or have slipped from our memory?

JWB: I admit I found the three years we lived in India difficult. I used to have a romantic sense of myself as a world traveler who could roll with the punches. I’d always been vegetarian and curious about Hinduism and Sikhism, so India felt like a homecoming. But as I settled into day-to-day life, I noticed that on any given road, among the vagabonds and destitute day-laborers, were starving stray cows, half-dead goats, wounded monkeys: numberless creatures crushed by the world around them. I was mortified, stressed out. I wanted to be useful somehow, but not as part of any salvation narrative. Among the people in our village of Gamru I remained a tourist, awkward in my kurtas, speaking broken Hindi, peering out over the low wall of our house. 

The question for me as a writer was, how can I—a white dude—write about these countries, like Hong Kong and India, that have a history of colonialism by white settlers? I’m not an expert on these places or their people. So I focused on personal connections, and tried to be honest. In Gamru my wife and I found ourselves visiting local feral dogs: feeding and loving them. Despite our help many died—often enough in our arms—of distemper, parvovirus, violence. We learned to bury the dead and keep playing with the living. Though malnourished, persecuted, frightened, the dogs frolicked in rain, lay in sun, and slept in a warm-hearted pile. As a poet I thought it important to look at the suffering. Not to want anything from it, or to make grand proclamations about it, but just to keep looking. 

SB: You are not afraid to face the absence of light that carves patterns in human souls, but we need to read halfway into the book to discover that it has been partnered with the buttermilk and sunshine of positive interactions, in poems like “By the Halal Chicken Shop” or “Parking Lot, Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, Noon.” Do you ever wish you’d re-arranged the same poems in this book, putting more sunshine in its initial section? What dictated the order of these poems?

JWB: I think books teach us how to read them, in the first few pages. Smog Mother begins with the long title poem, perhaps hinting that a reader will need the patience to let go of “the plot” and just follow the rhythm of the marchers across Bangkok. Then the poem changes direction, following a three-legged dog off the wide boulevard, away from the marchers, to a marshaling yard, bamboo huts, a muddy river, fields of junk and poppies. The poem is more interested in people and animals than slogans. It peers into faces, gleaning what it can about Bangkok and humankind. That gloomy world is replete with bright faces and people seeking connections. In my opinion the sunshine, which you generously point out later in the book, will not come through unless it’s earned. It must be crawled toward through the dark.

SB: Every book takes a stance in the midst of the social and political concerns of its day. How do you describe the position of Smog Mother and its area of concern in today’s world?

JWB: Although some of the people I know are motivated by empathy, it feels to me that society at large is not. Compassion is not something I’m good at, but I’d like to be. And—supposing that our poems are smarter and gentler than we are—some of my poems portray empathy in a way that I hope I’m someday worthy of. I also love the notion of Dukkha, which Buddhists define as suffering, pain, or the unsatisfactoriness of everyday life. To write a poem about the suffering or disharmony that comes from being in a mortal body, hopefully connects poets and readers to others in their bodies, and reminds us of how fleeting everything is. 

SB: Did Smog Mother lay itself out on the page quickly, almost as if it were channeled, or did you put a lot of effort into its structure and the developmental process for it?

JWB: I didn’t write these poems with a book in mind. I wrote them in the years when Tiina and I were living in Asia—Hong Kong and India—from 2012 to 2017. A kind of sequel to my 2012 Hummingbird book. I wrote the long “Smog Mother” poem while alone for a month in Bangkok in 2014. The new book is a collection of, for me, the “best” things I wrote during that time, and those that fit together as a book. It was a very slow gestation over almost a ten-year span.

SB: Something that often interests readers is knowing how much a certain work is invented and how much is autobiographical.

JWB: This fascinates me, too! I think it has to do with how we define a poem. A poem is not, I don’t think, just an anecdote that describes something that happened. If a poem relates an anecdote, something still needs to happen: some music, some metaphor, some disruption of the reader’s daytime logic. I often write about things that happened to me, but I try to allow the poem to go where it needs to go, veering away from the biographical details, if it’s in service of the poem. 

So, for example, my long “Dukkha” poem describes one day in McLeod Ganj, India: a day when Tiina was sick with a fever and I was in my little writing cell reading Kabīr. But in truth, this poem took months to write, and I poured the events of those months into that one day. I thought a long poem form might be “big” enough to hold my complicated feelings about that place: the awe and the repulsion mixed into the acrid smoke of the village. It’s autobiographical, but also heavily curated and edited. I kept poring over draft after draft until I found the exact vibe I was looking for.

SB: In terms of your development as a literary artist, what do you hope Smog Mother achieves for you? 

JWB: I hope I’ve made progress with each of my six books. I admit that, at 53 years old, I’m bored by irony. And I don’t care too much about poems that want to tell me how smart the poet is. As a reader, I’m looking for mud and guts, a pound of flesh. So in my poems, I want feeling. In 2015 I threw all my experimentalism, my knowledge of epics and history, into my Festus book. I wanted Festus, maybe, to be like a gigantic Cy Twombly painting on the wall. Iconic, impressive. Since then, I’ve been scaling down, trying to be simple. Mahmoud Darwish said, “Extreme clarity is a mystery,” which I love. In my last book, Resurrection Fail, I began honing in on clarity, giving myself permission to not be “impressive.” Attempting to touch the reader, rather than blinding them with pyrotechnics. In Smog Mother—perhaps especially in the shorter poems—I might have inched closer to that goal.

SB: Is there a certain book, a collection of works, or a literary movement that inspired you to begin Smog Mother?

JWB: There are so many. One of my favorite poets, Charles Simic, just died the other day at 84. I was awed by him, and aped his surrealist style when I was younger. I’ve retained, I think, a Simic-like appreciation for the uncanny. He said, “The poem I want to write is impossible. A stone that floats.” I love that. I want to write impossible poems. 

The poems in Smog Mother also owe a lot to Spanish language poets I was reading: Lorca, Nicanor Parra, Roque Dalton, César Vallejo, and others. There’s an effortlessness to their surrealism which can feel forced in North American poetry. My title poem even borrows some lines from Vallejo’s long poem, “Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic.” He looks with sympathy at the Republican faction of the Spanish Civil War. This seemed like the tone I wanted, when I was struggling to write about the coup in Bangkok.

SB: In terms of audience for Smog Mother, there will be a group who are naturally drawn to reading it, and some perhaps that you think should read it? How are those two groups different? Why do you think the last group should read it?

JWB: I’m grateful, of course, to anyone who reads my poems. And it’s nice when people—hearing that I’m a poet—try to read my work. But there are many, in my family, for example, where poetry is just not exactly their thing. And that’s fine. I don’t want them to feel that they have to cram themselves into my niche poetry world in order to know me. Neither do I want to cram myself into their niche worlds. We can sit over a table, eat dinner, and talk about all sorts of things without ever mentioning poetry. Because I’m obsessed with it, I see poetry running through the fabric of everything; all around me, all the time. But I’m not sure that that’s healthy! It’s just one thing among many.

SB: Please describe the central idea that links all of the parts in Smog Mother and why you felt it was important to address this in contemporary times.

JWB: In the title poem, Smog Mother is this kind of nebulous, elusive, spectral figure rising up out of the detritus and poppies and 7-Elevens of Bangkok. But it’s not exactly tactile or describable. I’d be reluctant to sum up my book in a few words. And I’m perhaps suspicious of books that can be. But I do think there’s a specific vibe, or aesthetic, that runs through this book, which I associate with the apparitional Smog Mother figure. Perhaps a willingness to be open to what repels, to the grotesque, to the ugly. And when we sustain our gaze on that thing, it can (sometimes) transform into its opposite.

Sharon Berg lives in Charlottetown, NL.