2015 saw the publication of two books by the award-winning poet Quan Barry: the novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born and her fourth collection Loose Strife. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born tells the story of Rabbit, a Vietnamese woman with the power to hear the voices of the dead. Through this supernatural character, Barry gives flesh to the history of Vietnam—not only the destruction of colonialism, war, and nation-building but the hope the country holds for its future as well. Loose Strife meanwhile tackles a wider range of subjects, from the Cambodian genocide to the Lykov family of Soviet Russia. The publications of these two books show a writer at the top of her form as she interrogates how—in the words of literary critic Rigoberto Gonzalez—violence “shape[s] human imagination and expression.”
In this interview, Quan Barry talks with Eric Nguyen about her work, her writing process, and the power of poetry.
EN: Your latest book She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is a novel. Before that, you wrote four books of poetry. Why the jump to fiction? What can the form do that poetry can’t?
QB: Poetry is great for constructing narratives in a way that asks the reader to do some of the heavy lifting in putting the story together. The poet Louise Glück wrote an essay titled, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence” in which she talks about the power of the unsaid, of the ellipse; poetically, silence allows your reader to read into the silence, to infer. I’m drawn to poems that can generate multiple meanings simultaneously, but in writing my novel, a work that chronicles the history of 20th century Vietnam, I wanted to create a more structured narrative with character and settings and conflicts. True, epic poems like The Iliad have plot etc., so I don’t think it’s a matter of something lacking in what poetry is capable of tackling. Rather, for me, a lot of my decision to write a novel was fueled simply by my desire to be a writer. When I was a kid, I would write poems, stories, plays (all one page or shorter!)—I didn’t make distinctions between genres, so to me, at the end of the day, it’s all writing.
EN: How is the process of writing fiction different from writing poetry?
QB: First, at this point in my life, fiction requires me to be a bit more disciplined with my time. For me, it just takes longer to write a first draft of a novel than a first draft of a poetry manuscript. At artist colonies, when I’m working on poems, I can walk around, go swimming, read, enjoy nature, then sit down and bang out a poem in thirty minutes (when I was a graduate student, it took me much longer to write poems—writing fiction has actually changed my poems in the sense that my poems have become longer in length and I also write them faster). When I’m working on fiction, I have to keep my butt in the chair for hours a day.
Second, I need other eyes on my work when I’m writing fiction. With a poem, I can see the whole thing at once—the beginning, middle, and end. I can look at it from many different angles pretty easily metaphorically speaking. But when it comes to fiction, a 300-page manuscript requires me to rely on readers who help me know what’s going on at different points in the book. It’s easy to forget that Character A said X on page 80, but readers help me remember what balls I have up in the air. They also help me realize things about my arcs and subplots that sometimes I’m not even aware of while I’m on a first draft.
EN: She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is different from a lot of other novels from
Vietnamese American writers in that you spend a lot of time before the Vietnam/American War and after it. Why did you choose to do this?
QB: I had noticed that many contemporary novels about Vietnam are just about the war; for many Americans, Vietnam has become a metaphor for a quagmire. I decided that I wanted to write a book that chronicled Vietnam’s 20th-century history. It was a conscious decision on my part not to spend the majority of the book on the war itself but on other aspects of Vietnam’s history.
EN: A lot of your work is punctuated by violence. In She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, there’s the violence of colonialism and war and the re-education camps. In Loose Strife, your latest book of poetry, we see violence in the form of racism, misogyny, genocide, and much more. Why write about violence? What makes you return to it as a subject matter?
QB: I used to think I write a lot about violence, but now I realize that what I’m really writing about is conflict. Conflict is what makes the world go round, no? Conflict between individuals, cultures, nations, generations, men and women, etc. At its heart, even the sappiest romantic comedy is a conflict—will the girl get the guy? I think I choose to write about conflict because I’m interested in shining a light on stories society would rather not look at. And I’m not interested in proselytizing—I’m interested in figuring something out about a particular conflict. Chronicling/documenting what’s happening usually isn’t enough for me either; ideally, I like to make connections—how is this situation like some other situations across time, place, people, etc., and what is my responsibility in light of this situation? How am I shaped by the fact that this thing happened/is happening?
EN: In “Loose Strife (Even Homer recognizes the barbarism of the act)” you seem to question the power of poetry:
Even Homer recognizes the barbarism of the act,
choosing instead to render the narrative in its mildest
form, recollections of windless days, the Greek fleet
grounded at Aulis. It is Euripides who humanizes
Many poets believe there’s power in poetry. What do you think is the power of poetry? Do you think there are limits to this power?
QB: First, to me, this quote is simply a summary of the different ways poets describe Agamemnon’s sacrificing his daughter—I think Homer downplays it not because he can’t get across the horror of the act through poetry but rather he wants to allow Agamemnon to remain sympathetic as a character.
As to the power of poetry, maybe it sounds cynical and obvious to say but to me language in all forms is powerful including silence, so in my estimation, poetry is no more or less powerful than language itself. I suppose if poetry has any inherent power, it’s in the fact that it’s often short and richly rendered, and in our fast one-time-use consumer culture, poetry is often language that has been labored over in the best sense, so it requires us to use different neurons than what our culture often requires us to use.
I also think one of the strengths of poetry is that it’s not results-driven. Poetry that is trying to spark a certain specific emotion in the reader often feels over-determined.
EN: The collection Loose Strife is inspired by the 2012 gallery exhibition of the same name, a collaboration between you and artist Michael Velliquette. How did the collaboration come about? And how was the writing process for this book different from your previous books?
QB: Michael and I are good friends, and I’ve been a fan of his work for many years. Some time ago, he was approached by a gallery here in Madison to do a show, and he asked me if I wanted to collaborate on it with him. The process of our collaboration was interesting for me because I tend to work fairly instinctually in that I’ll hear about something in the news or see some image that interests me, and I’ll marinate myself in it for a while and then maybe write a poem. But for this show, we came up with an idea and a theme—we needed to pick something that would resonate for both of us but still give us each the leeway to work the way we work, so we decided to be inspired by Aeschylus’s The Oresteia and the idea of a culture shifting from a reliance on blood vendettas to an actual justice system based on laws etc. Broadly, I began to think of the idea of chaos, of strife in all its various forms, not just physical but also environmental, emotional, economic, etc. Once I began thinking in these terms, writing the book wasn’t all that different from other projects that I’ve undertaken, but initially it was very different in the sense that I worked from an idea outward rather than just writing about whatever interested me first and then looking for common threads in the work generated and ways to tie things together, which is how I have approached other poetry books.
EN: Along with your collaboration with Michael Velliquette, a lot of your poetry references other works of art such as film, drama, fiction, and other poetry. What do you think is the relationship between poetry and other art forms?
QB: The word poetry comes from the Greek verb to make, so poetry, on one level, is literally a made thing, and poets are makers. In some ways, any act of creation results in a poem, whether it be film, music, dance, ceramics, what have you. If you think about it in a broader sense, the material world and all the things in it are poems. When we talk about the highest forms of artistry, we often use poetry as the ideal; we say things like, “Michael Jordan is poetry in motion.” Sometimes even beautiful works of fiction are described as poetic or lyrical. So I guess, in a nutshell, I think poetry and the vocabulary of poetry can be used to describe many different art forms.
EN: What role does poetry—and art in general—play in society, especially in societies and cultures and times punctuated with violence?
QB: Sadly, right now on campus, arts and the humanities are being squeezed and relegated to second-class status in order to make more room for STEM fields. Yet at the end of the day, it’s the arts that we turn to in our free time—music, film/TV, storytelling, etc. More and more studies are showing that literature is one of the best ways to learn empathy—we learn to sympathize with the plight of characters different from ourselves. Despite the flaws modern readers see in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book helped a generation of readers sympathize with slaves. Art helps us see beyond ourselves, and anytime we do that, it’s a good thing.
Quan Barry is the author of three previous poetry collections: Asylum, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize; Controvertibles; Water Puppets, winner of the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry; and Loose Strife. She is also the author of the novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. Barry has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both poetry and fiction. She is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Eric Nguyen has an MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
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