Rick Barot was born in the Philippines but grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. At first, Rick thought he would be a lawyer. Things changed when he started taking classes with Annie Dillard. At first, Rick was interested in creative non-fiction, but started writing poetry in his senior year of college and never looked back. Later, he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer in Poetry. Rick has been the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His first poetry collection, The Darker Fall, was well-received and won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in poetry in 2002. His second collection, Want, won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize. Rick has taught at Stanford, California College of the Arts, George Washington University, the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson, and is now with the English Department at Pacific Lutheran University.
The Rainier Writing Workshop welcomes him now as our incoming program director. Rick joins the RWW family this summer and he has been working diligently to understand the nuts and bolts as well as the heart of our program. This has included long conversations between Rick, Stan Rubin, Judith Kitchen and RWW alumni, staff, faculty, and current participants.
I met with Rick in an independent coffee house in Portland, Oregon, a place I worked as a barista during my graduate years at Portland State University. I ordered a latte and looked at photos of myself on the walls from nearly 20 years earlier. I had done some recon on Rick, so I knew it was him when he came in. Rick ordered coffee, sat down, and for the next three hours, we talked. What struck me about Rick was an earnestness to understand every detail of my experience at RWW. If not for an ill-timed hair appointment (for me), we could have talked hours longer. He wanted to know everything—about my writing, my goals, where I live and what I do (thank goodness, he didn’t get me started talking about my dog). When he left, I still had my stack of bios from Google. Admiring his dedication and insights, I later attended an Attic reading where I felt like I got to know another Rick Barot—a poet dedicated to craft, whose delivery feels like a personal conversation between friends.
Sydney Elliott: Our theme for Soundings this year is “communion,” which was inspired by a morning craft talk by David Biespiel. What does the world “communion” conjure for you as a poet and as a teacher?
Rick Barot: I used to be an altar boy. This means that when I encounter the word “communion,” I experience a mild synaptic slippage that takes me back to my pre-adolescent Sunday mornings.
These days, though, in the very secular life I lead, the word doesn’t come up much. But I do believe that the meanings that surround the word—a celebratory coming-together, a sacramental taking-in—are manifest in the worlds I inhabit as a poet and as a teacher. When I teach literature and writing and poetry, I like to highlight the idea that we’re in the room with our lab-coats on. That is, that the analytical/critical work involved is vital to a deep understanding of how any text, any work of art, does its work. And so, as a teacher, I’m heavy on craft. But it’s impossible to have a full discussion of art without acknowledging that the artist’s work, in addition to the technical effort involved, also involves a kind of alchemy. Magic and mystery are always in the room. Regardless of the vigorous, vaguely scientific discussions that we have about craft, the numinous is the context in which those discussions happen.
In my work as a poet, which is about as solitary as the classroom is gregarious, “communion” is in play when my attention is, paradoxically, wholly at rest and wholly attuned at the same time. In my way of doing things, I’m writing an actual poem maybe 10% of the time, and in the other 90% I’m reading, or daydreaming, or scribbling cryptic little notes to myself, or madly typing lines for a couple of minutes and then flopping onto the couch for the next few hours. That 90% could probably be characterized, in a fancier way, as Keats’s state of negative capability. But in that stillness—active and loose at once—that’s when things start to happen. You know that really quiet time in the house, in the late afternoon or late at night, when the mouse feels it’s okay to creep out from behind the refrigerator? That’s my figure for poetic communion. It’s the quiet that invites the unexpected flash of life to show up.
SE: I read that you intended to become a lawyer, but after taking an English class taught by Annie Dillard, you discovered or unearthed a passion for writing. What advice do you give young writers when they unexpectedly unearth that passion within themselves?
RB: I was already writing a lot—mostly long and elaborate journal entries—when I started studying with Annie Dillard as an undergraduate. But at that early point I still felt that I had a number of options, in terms of my eventual professional and adult life—including lawyering. However, Annie’s encouragement was so lavish—for work, I can see now, that was sappy and raw—that she triggered this in me: the notion that I could be a writer. And that notion quickly diminished all the other options. And so maybe that’s one important piece of advice: find a teacher early on who will, in a beautifully irresponsible way, tell you that you can become a writer.
Another piece of advice would be this: follow the passion all the way to the end of its arc. A lot of starting writers get to that end-point and oftentimes the impetus for going forward ends there, too. That is, the initial passion was a kind of adolescent frenzy—heady but not sustainable. For the driven writer, though, when that first passion ends, a certain work ethic kicks in and replaces that passion. The passion will come back, of course, in various degrees of intensity—continuous reading and writing will generate many moments of that passion reasserting itself. But it’s the work ethic that turns out to be the engine that powers the writer over the long haul. The need to keep handling, working with, the materiality of language. The need to work and re-work language so that you get everything right, even if it’s just a quick email you’re writing. The craving for solitary time and space where writing might happen. The craving to read. These are some of the elements of that work ethic, in my case. In the first phase of my writing life, the relationship I had was with my own charged feelings; in this second and more enduring phase, the relationship is with language itself, with other writers, and with the complexities of the world.
Still one more piece of advice, especially when your work starts to have a life out in the world: keep a firewall between your writing self and the self that cares about publishing, reputation, criticism and praise. I’m not going to say that the public side of being a writer—wanting to have one’s work out in the world, participating in conversations about art and its place in society, being in a community of writers and artists, and experiencing the positive and negative energies of that public sphere—doesn’t matter. It does. Many of us are writers because we actually do have things to say. But being caught up in notions of success is bad for the soul, and bad for the writing too. The writing part of the self needs to be protected as much as possible, so that its imperatives are allowed to develop without coercion from the more public side of being a writer. I know I’m not saying anything new in saying what I just said.
In my own writing life, there’s a clear managerial side that handles the things that have to do with writing as a profession. Like a very good personal assistant, this side is cool-headed when it comes to the ups and down of being in the literary world. It doesn’t see a rejection as rejection—it just keeps the work-flow going. Having clarity in that professional side also, and more importantly, gives me clarity in the writing side. The priorities there are solitude, dream, play, intensity, rhythm, focus, silence. These are the priorities that the managerial side helps to protect and foster. And while the priorities might seem at odds with each other at first glance, they’re in fact the elements of the state that Elizabeth Bishop gets at when she talks about the writer’s “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”
SE: As you transition into the RWW community, what would you like to see happen? What is your vision for RWW?
RB: Stan [Rubin] and Judith [Kitchen] have spent more than ten years creating a program that is intricate and effective. In the months that I’ve been studying the program, I’ve been impressed—not to mention a little overwhelmed—by the number of moving parts that the program encompasses. And Stan and Judith had to give careful thought to each of those parts, innovating and refining along the way.
My job is to keep the program the way it has been, with respect to the values that Stan and Judith have generated in the program’s communal spirit and in its programmatic structures. Their values are my values too—and so, in that regard, my vision for the program is an extension of theirs. I am going to be directing a program that I already deeply admired. With the full faculty returning in August, an enormous part of the program’s identity will continue. We have just recruited an incoming cohort that will bring new doses of passion and accomplishment—qualities that are already hallmarks of the program’s participants. And with Stan and Judith remaining close—as members of an advisory board and as faculty members—I hope many will see that the program is moving ahead, not faltering or diminishing.
It would be disingenuous for me to say, though, that there won’t be any changes in the period ahead. In the same way that Stan and Judith, over the past decade, have continually adjusted the program’s workings to amplify our ethos of rigor and care, I will also be on the watch for possibilities that will do the same. There’s so much more ahead.
SE: What projects are you currently working on?
RB: I’ve been making the joke lately—sometimes in a bitter tone—that while I’m here in Tacoma bent over my desk and working on RWW-related work, my writing life is off wandering the world on its own, maybe backpacking in Europe or beach-hopping in Thailand. That’s to say, I am here and my writing is over there, and we’re taking a break from each other.
I shouldn’t really complain, though. I recently had a year-long sabbatical, and during that time I finished two projects: my third book of poems, and a book of essays on poetry and art, which had been 10 years in the making. Finishing those projects was profoundly satisfying. But I’m now in a place where I’m doing a lot of reading, a lot of observing, a lot of gathering of notes and ideas, without a sense of where this effort will lead. At the moment, the project seems to be me observing myself thinking about what I’ll do next—a totally solipsistic project! I’m used to these fallow periods, however. Between my first and second books of poems, I went almost two years without writing a poem; between my second and third books, about a year of silence took place. And so, I’m not all that worried. I know that my mind, in some crafty way only known to itself at the moment, is coming up with a writing project that will eventually reveal itself, kind of like that mouse from behind the refrigerator.