Showcased Writer: Dorothy Barresi

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Interviewed By: Sterling Bax

“Walnut Acres”, “August Explanation”, and “Vegan Heaven” Published in Silk Road No. 10


Dorothy Barresi has four published books of poetry, including American Fanatics; Rogue
Pulp; The Post-Rapture Diner; and All of the Above. Barresi has also been published in numerous
magazines, and been the recipient of many awards including an American Book Award.
Aside from being an accomplished author, Barresi is a Professor of English and Creative
Writing at California State University, Northridge.

“Walnut Acres” is such an interesting poem format. How did come about deciding to use
mortgage headings on each of the numbered sections?

You know, “Walnut Acres (with Cockroach)” is one of those poems that underwent so many
changes over the course of composition and revision that the end result still surprises me when I
read it. It began as a cockroach fantasia—several riffs on a tiny but powerful disruption of the
suburban surface. A little bomb going off: a cockroach reminds us that our veneer of domestic
control is really thin! And I was having a great time writing this theme and variation piece on the
suburban cockroach, and it was very arch in tone, but it lacked a sense of the imperative. That
poem was always in sections, but the idea for the mortgage headings happened in the revision
stage at a time when I was obsessing, along with the rest of the country, about the value of my
house (in the San Fernando Valley in north Los Angeles) as the economy was tanking. Am I
under water? Can I refinance? Can I control this chaos? Home value: one more kick in the slats of
the American Dream. About that time I was invited by the artist Lisa Bloomfield to participate in
a mixed media art show called “Considering Eden” at the Annenberg Community Beach House
Gallery in Santa Monica. So I began to revise “Walnut Acres (with Cockroach)” to read at the
show, and all of the parts came together: the mortgage headings, the staggered placement on the
page, the sparks of movement run up against the feeling of being hopelessly stuck. I think the
imperatives made themselves known finally, but it was a long process—about two or three years
in total.

Your poetry seems to capture the mundane aspects of life, but in an incredibly abstract
way. Is it a daily occurrence for you to see a moment and analyze it in terms of poetry?

Yes—that’s an occupational hazard for any writer: to see moments in life as material. Years ago I
was a pallbearer, along with my sister and brothers, for my grandfather, and we wore these
elegant gray gloves, which we were instructed to take off and lay on top of the casket as we
stepped away. There was something about the action of taking off those gloves and placing them
on the casket that set off a little alarm in my head: poem moment–even in the midst of grieving.
But often I don’t recognize the poetic possibilities of a moment until long after it has happened. I
once heard someone say that memory would not be possible without imagination. It’s the writer’s
imagination that makes a moment resonant.

The poem “August Explanation” develops a religious theme. What role does religion
play for you in your writing today?

Well, I was raised Roman Catholic, so the elaborate trappings of that particular faith practice have
found its way into my poems from the beginning. For me, there’s something ritualistic about
constructing poetic structures, and there’s a good bit of incantatory, prayer-like mystery in its
soundings. Art and spirituality arose at the same time in human history; that can’t be a
coincidence! But beyond that, the struggle between faith and doubt fascinates me. I’m always
setting existential church fires in my poems. As I say in “August Explanation,” “My origins are
out to get me.” On a literary level, God is the character to end all characters!

My favorite part of your poems is the shock factor from punching lines, like “we are all
gods to what we kill” in “Vegan Heaven.” Is there an intentionally dramatic element to
your poetry?

One thing I talk about with my students is the need to grant a poem’s speaker the authority to
make a strong statement. I think that’s one way a speaker is granted “sincerity”—even if the
speaker is dead wrong! And I don’t mean sincerity in the sentimental sense of that word (i.e.
authenticity), but sincerity as a kind of momentary confidence, even if the strong statement made
is contradicted in the very next line or the next poem! That doesn’t matter. What matters is
speaker position and speaker discovery over the brief course of a poem. What does the speaker
believe, and how does she arrive at that fleeting moment of certainty. In class we’ll read Louise
Gluck’s “Brown Circle” or the long poem, “October”
(or just about anything by Gluck, for that matter), or “Hansel” by Kim Adonnizio, and talk about
the power of a declarative statement. It’s shifty business! No narrator is truly “trustworthy,” but
the immediate power of a strong statement is indisputable. No matter how dispassionate the
declaration, it carries emotion directly to the reader. We feel, even as we investigate the speaker’s
motives. That being said, Gluck is capable of great subtlety or delicacy, and that’s something I
admire tremendously; I’d like to have more of that in my poems!

The images in your poems have a grotesque element. I’m curious about how you feel
about the images. I also love this part of your poetry, and when I’m writing for myself I
find the grotesque to be the most satisfying to describe. Is it similar for you or is there a
disdain for some of the darker elements?

No disdain at all! Like you, I love writing about the darkness right under the surface of daily life:
the ordinary gothic business of human nature and random fate—that’s a plotline I think about a
lot, especially as a mother. It’s morbid, and I don’t have any defense for that, but I will say that
I’m attracted to those elements because I’m an anxious person—a constant worrier, and art is one
way of exercising/exorcising that. As far as an attraction to the grotesque, I plead guilty. One
hundred percent! One reads Flannery O’Connor as a kid, or watches Rosemary’s Baby, or attends
a vigil on Good Friday, and boom: hooked.