Featured Poet: Carla Barger + Interview
Elegy for Birdsong: Two Dead Thrushes
You and I note the prairie smoke
choking the ditch of I-75,
white with shock at its own survival.
Some things endure against all odds.
For instance, I can almost bear
to see columbines again.
Almost (which drives you crazy).
If only the dead weren’t everywhere.
Even the thrushes’ short sharp birdsong
reminds me of murder.
At twilight I watch them
dip through the humid air snatching
the mosquitos that survived the abatement.
On morning walks their plump speckled corpses
dot the neighborhood like breadcrumbs
marking their migration,
the only way I can tell it’s September.
I take death portraits of two thrushes
for reasons I can’t quite explain
except to say that
we are like the larvae of lacewings,
carrying our debris on our backs
from place to place,
dumping some here, some there,
the result of which, as it turns out,
is easily measured
by the number of dead
at the edges of poisoned fields and
Years ago I told you
the prairie is a land-locked ocean, undulating
row upon row of dustbowl brown,
an emptiness too empty to perceive
but powerful enough to drown you.
You hate this flat lined land.
So do I, but I am still alive enough to
alive enough to admit that
I’m sorry. I’m sorry
for all of it.
Our bone child, you called her
and I stared at the attached photo of your daughter,
imagined teenage feet skipping through the ashes of our regret.
I conjured you, I typed back. Called you to me
through the shale-gray present tense
when I pulled out your old letters last week,
the photos of us in highschool,
loose and laughing. What is more powerful, after all,
than a bipolar witch with unresolved desire?
It is raining here, was raining
when I opened your unexpected email.
A cliche still, you and I, just like when
we used to sit on your mother’s back patio
and watch the rain move across the crop fields.
Look at her--your hair, your Depeche Mode t-shirt.
I did, I am,
in disbelief of her uncanny resemblance to myself,
as if sheer will and longing
molded those ashes into our joint image.
The present tense is irreconcilable.
I run my nails down the tight weave
of distance between us,
but it’s chicken scratch, cowardly and half-hearted.
Our bone child...
What am I supposed to say to this?
To that which you yourself have never said?
I’m sorry, like our love for the rain,
is also just a cliche.
How to tell you that the years have ballooned
in me a yearning too large for the past tense to contain.
How to tell you that I was broken,
am breaking now,
like water spilling over a concrete culvert after a downpour.
In the long hours of summer days
we hoarded laughter like ants hoard grain,
until one day we disobeyed,
ran into the corn field determined to build
our fort amongst the knifelike stalks,
where we would hold a lonely court
with the crows and the jackdaws.
But of course we got lost.
You hunkered down,
gathered the leaves all around
and made a pillow with the silk.
But I ran row by row screaming for help
until suddenly we were grown up.
I thought I’d escaped,
but as the crows cawed from the field
I tumbled into the shiny silo anyway.
In my dreams I stand against the combine,
am threshed and winnowed and drowned.
In my dreams we at least drown together.
A Conversation with Carla Barger
Eniko Vághy: To start off, I’d like to thank you for sharing your work with us—these poems are absolutely beautiful. You’ve presented us with some pieces that have very clearly conveyed themes, but I wanted to give you the chance to explain what themes/issues/topics you find frequently gravitating to in your work and why you find them so fascinating.
Carla Barger: Thanks, Eni. What a privilege it is to be included in the inaugural issue of Lover’s Eye Press!
This is a hard question, because I have a hunch that most of us wish we weren’t haunted by the same themes for most of our lives and so there’s an internal reluctance to look too hard at them, even though for poets that's not an option. But speaking of being haunted, that’s one of the recurring themes in my work, thanks to a sixth sense passed on to many of the women on my mother's side of the family by my grandmother. But besides ghosts, most of my work, including the pieces in this issue, tend to take place in the landscape of my childhood and deal with regret, or our degradation of the environment and each other and the relationship between these two objects of maltreatment and abuse.
Regret is something we all know a little bit about. I’m not really sure why it appears so often in my work. All I can say is that being a poet means spending a lot of time excavating your internal life for material, and it requires a lot of self-reflection and self-awareness. This makes you conscious of your past mistakes.
My tendency to write about the environment is definitely related to the growing terror within me that all the wonder and beauty that I grew up with will soon be gone. I’m a child of nature--I spent my days in forests, pastures, creeks, and ponds--and I can’t work without a lot of natural beauty around me. To think that it could all be gone is almost inconceivable. But it is happening. Birds are going blind and falling dead from the sky, bee populations are dangerously low, polar bears are now on the “vulnerable” list and tigers are nearly extinct, you can’t dip a toe into a pond because of toxic algae blooms.
My poems about climate crisis always conflate it with relationship crisis, because they really are the same; someone who disregards our planet and the danger we’re in disregards the survival of everything and everyone around them, not to mention those who are not yet born. The secondary theme illustrates this parallel, I hope, and makes extinction more imaginable. I’m basically writing about the climate crisis using the lyric form and in a way that won’t alienate the reader, whoever the reader might be.
EV: What would you say made you a poet? What influenced your path towards the creative life and what would you suggest to those embarking on a similar journey?
CB: I grew up on a horse farm in Southern Ohio. It was a very singular place--rural and isolated, and very beautiful. We weren’t allowed to watch much TV when I was young and we didn’t have internet access. The isolation--both geographical and technological--forced me to learn to use my imagination. My parents only owned a handful of books: the Bible, a volume of the Brontes, and A Christmas Carol by Dickens. It was a strange combination, and these, along with the environment, very much shaped me as a person and as a writer. In 5th grade our teacher asked us to write an essay on what we want to be when we grow up. My mom has held on to it all these years and I read it a couple years ago, the last time I saw her right before lockdown. I wrote all about how I would be a writer. In the 5th grade!
I think I gravitated toward poetry because of its compression and its dependence on imagery and rhythm. In my mind, poetry is more closely related to painting and music than literature. I see the poem in my mind before I write down the lines, and they are usually rhythmically almost perfect. Some poets have said that they merely write down what they receive from another realm. It usually does feel like that to me. Sometimes, if I’ve been writing very regularly, I will dream an entire poem, as if it’s being whispered in my ear as I sleep. It’s amazing when that happens! It feels divine, unexplainable, and those are the times when you understand why being a poet is often considered a vocation.
For those who are just starting out on this path you should know: the world does not want you to be a poet. Capitalism depends on all of us staying exhausted, distracted, and numb. This is the way the world is designed. The world does not want you, or I, or anyone to make art, to think deeply and creatively. Making art is a subversive act because it is outside the capitalist system. It is you taking back your biggest finite resource: your time. And as we all know, how you spend your days is how you spend your life.
It’s important to remember this because that finite resource is the thing you need to create good poetry, the kind of poetry that might change someone. People will tell you that if you really want to write you’ll “find the time.” This is so incredibly toxic and almost nonsensical. If you’re working full time--and who even only works 40 hour weeks now?--and trying to write and it feels impossible, that’s because it is, for most people. Don’t let someone shame you because no one gave you the tools to recognize and overthrow an incredibly complex system that has evolved over the course of 300 years and has been so internalized by its victims that it’s been rendered mostly invisible. Instead, see the world around you and try to find an alternative way to live in it. It will not be easy, but there are ways.
My way has been to go to graduate school for a PhD in poetry. I spent ten years as an administrator trying every which way to find the time and energy to write. It finally became clear to me that my current life made it impossible. I still work incredibly hard in the PhD program, but I’m in a space with like minded scholars and artists, and that makes all the difference. Magic happens in places where people with the same values spend their one finite resource on one another together. I’m not suggesting you must get into a graduate program to be a poet. Definitely not. There are other ways to claim your life as a poet. But the first step to being a poet is to find that way. EV: What is your writing process? Are you more highly structured, a go-with-the-flow kind of creative, or a mixture of the two?
CB: I really need structure. (I also like deadlines and bullet lists. Crazy, I know!) Too much unstructured time leaves me spinning. But if one thing is structured in my life I find it easier to structure everything else, including my poetry practice. For example, summers are generally a disaster for me because I lose the structure of the academic year. I sort of “fall out of time,” if you will, and get very little done. But in the fall when I start teaching again my days take on a shape, and somehow I can create a daily schedule for myself and stick to it. So even though I’m busier during the year I get a lot more poetry written.
I used to write in the early mornings at 5 or 6am, but last spring I began writing in the evenings, around 7pm, with a glass of wine. I haven’t been one to write in the evenings since high school but for some reason it felt very right. That’s likely how I’ll write for the foreseeable future.
EV: Who are the poets/writers that inspire you and what about them sustains you creatively?
CB: Oh, this is a hard question to answer because there are so many!
Early on, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology was very important to me, as was Rosellen Brown’s Cora Fry’s Pillow Book and Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie. These were all collections that told the story of a small rural town like the one I grew up in or of working class women, which also speaks to me since I grew up fairly poor, and my mother grew up very poor. I also grew up reading some of Emily Bronte’s poetry and I still love it even though it now feels quite melodramatic. There’s good stuff in there! Louise Glück, Mary Oliver, and Ted Kooser have also been incredibly important to me as I grew into my lyric style. I also write hybrid lyric essays and Carole Maso and Anne Carson have had a lot to do with that. Carole Maso is incredibly underrated. She should be required reading for anyone who creates hybrid work.
EV: What’s the last poem you read that took your breath away?
CB: This is easy. “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton. I actually have it taped to the wall in my study. I have a list of poets I want to get to know better and she’s one of them!
EV: One last question, because it’s going to haunt me if I don’t ask it now: is the final line in “Fort Defiance,” inspired by George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss?
CB: Not consciously, but oh my gosh, what a connection! Thanks for that, Eni! I haven’t actually read that book in years but now I might revisit it.
EV: Carla, thank you. Thank you for your beautiful writing, for entrusting it with Lover’s Eye Press, and for being its first every featured reader. I adore you.
CB: Eni, it is my very great pleasure.
Carla Barger is a poet and lyric essayist who hails from the farmlands of Southern Ohio. She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently finishing her PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she also teaches and co-directs the Digital Humanities Initiative. Her work has appeared in HeartWood Literary Magazine, decomP magazinE, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Light Ekphrastic, MidAmerica, and elsewhere. She received the 2019 David Diamond Writing Prize from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature and the Malcolm Sedam Writing Award for Poetry from Miami University, and has been nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Project Award. Find out more about Carla at CarlaBarger.com.