A Single Question Interview with Rick Barot

Natalie Staples

I met Rick Barot at the Bread Loaf Writing Conference in August 2019 and immediately felt his sincerity as a person and a poet. Far too rarely are we able connect with those writers who really listen to what we have to say and respond accordingly. Rick Barot is one of those listeners. His listening and deep attention shine through on the page, as well. This is especially apparent in his most recent collection, The Galleons. I was most struck by how much his poems carried: history, memory, the particulars and aftermath of mercantilism, and, perhaps most vividly, private and public elegy. In one poem, the speaker carries the names of the deceased and in another, a girl carries a ladder so that she may go to school. I read The Galleons jealously as Barot built his own meticulous ladder of thought, image, and detail. Though this notion that writers carry something along with them as they write is not a new observation (See, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Ada Limón’s The Carrying) I believe that it is an idea worth returning to; if a poem is a vessel, then the poet must be too.

Natalie Staples
What do you carry with you as you write?
Rick Barot
Recently I gave a talk titled “The Face of the Beloved.” The talk presented some ideas about why humans write poems, and my thoughts on the question were grounded in an idea proposed by the poet and critic Allen Grossman. For Grossman, the roots of poetry are in the desire to preserve the image of the human — or, more specifically, the image of the beloved. This is, according to Grossman, what gives poetry its urgency and its value — the “keeping alive, across the abysses of death and of the difference between persons,” he says, “the human image.”

I love this idea of Grossman’s. For one, it has given me a clear and concise reason for why I’ve been writing poems for 30 years now — because I’ve been engaged in that act of preserving, even though I hadn’t put it in quite those terms. Grossman’s idea, as I’ve continued to ponder it, has also gained a largeness that transcends my first understanding of his beloved as an intimate figure near the poet. Rather, the beloved has taken on permutations beyond the human. That is, the beloved can be the divine, or the features of nature, or an idea, or a cause. Which is to say that preserving the beloved may begin with something like love, but it eventually arcs towards something like an ethics. And it’s that proximity between love and ethics that we need now, given how broken everything is. And so, that’s what I carry — or try to carry — with me as I write: the face of the beloved.

Natalie Staples earned a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, NPR, Able Muse, Birmingham Poetry Review, Terrain.org, and SWWIM Every Day. Her work can be found at natalieannestaples.com.

Rick Barot lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. His most recent book is The Galleons, published in 2020 by Milkweed Editions.