Interview by Carolle Morini
Susan Barba is the author of two poetry books: Fair Sun (2017) and geode (2020). Her first book was awarded the Anahid Literary Prize and the Minas & Kohar Tölölyan Prize, and geode was a finalist for the New England Book Awards. She has received fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo, and her poems have been translated into Armenian, German, and Romanian. She works as a senior editor for the New York Review of Books. Barba’s literary guide to American wildflowers will be published by Abrams Books in the fall of 2022. We conducted this interview over email.
Q: How have you been doing this past year? Has your writing shifted with the shutdowns?
SUSAN BARBA: It’s been a challenge of course, but I’ve found new paths, new ways of doing things. I usually write when I’m away from home, somewhere, anywhere alone. This past year, out of necessity I’ve learned how to write in the midst of—work, family, remote schooling. I would have thought it impossible in the past, and at first it seemed that way to me—but because there was no alternative, I either had to figure out how to write in the midst of it or I wasn’t going to write at all—it wasn’t a conscious decision, I just found a way. It’s been a revelation for me.
Q: Good for you (and for us) for finding a way to continue writing. Do you remember when you first learned about poetry?
SB: Yes, it was with me from the beginning—my mother read nursery rhymes to me and my grandfather would recite Armenian poetry by heart. The lullabies that were sung to me, the psalms and hymns I heard and sung in church, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson: these were some of my earliest encounters with poetry.
Q: Poetry really was with you from the beginning—it is a part of you. What is it about poetry that draws you to the form?
SB: The silences, the music, the aptness of metaphor, the compression and the expansion of language, the urgency of the occasion, all of which allow poetry to communicate the essential, that which ordinary language can’t communicate.
Q: I agree with your thoughts. I can imagine that being an editor, a poet, and a writer has many benefits and maybe some inherent difficulties. Would you like to speak about each?
SB: Yes, all the reading—it’s a strain on the eyes! I just saw the eye doctor and had to get stronger prescription reading glasses because my eyesight is deteriorating. But in all seriousness, being an editor and reading for work does help my own writing because of the depth and breadth of the reading, the engagement with language that editing requires, the attention to what will make the writing the most efficacious and most memorable. I heard a wonderful reading by the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, who is also an editor-poet, and who said, “I am so tired from all my work, I am like an athlete who is constantly working out: I am in tip-top shape from all this reading I do!” He referred to us poet-editors, as “Atlases who create.” A terrific image.
Q: Oh, that is a wonderful image! All your reading must be immensely fruitful. Keep the stronger reading glasses on order. What is the best and/or worse writing advice you received?
SB: It was probably one and the same—the professor who warned us creative writing kids in college that we should only set out to be poets if we truly could not imagine living otherwise. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, and I thought of it as discouragement, but now I understand. It means that you will write if you have to, if that kind of excavation of the self and of sense is necessary to you, and if it is, then you should heed it and do what’s hard.
Barba’s Fair Sun from 2017.
Q: That truly does make sense—it is a fair warning and unveils the hard truth of the work one must do. Are there particular writers you admire or return to?
SB: Yes, many poets and many prose writers too. I especially love essays by poets, artists, science writers. To name more than a few of those writers: Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Hannah Arendt, Osip Mandelstam, WH Auden, Eghishe Charents, Anna Akhmatova, George Oppen, Joseph Brodsky, Svetlana Boym, Natalia Ginzburg, Elizabeth Hardwick, Agnes Martin (her writings on art), Tove Jansson, Robin Wall-Kimmerer, Annie Dillard, Arthur Sze—I could go on and on!
Q: What a fun list of writers and artists. Is there a line of poetry that you wish you wrote, or rather, repeats in your mind?
SB: This past year whenever I’d go out walking, these lines by the mystic Julian of Norwich kept running in my head: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s a mantra whose repetition was healing for me, especially last spring, as I’m sure it has been for many since the fifteenth century when she wrote what was the first book (in English) by a female author.
Q: Those lines are fantastic and so relevant for any time, but especially for us this past year. I am sure Julian of Norwich had good reason to write them in the fifteenth century. Any particular journals or periodicals you enjoy reading—besides the New York Review of Books?
SB: Yes, the Review certainly! And also, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review, Raritan, Lana Turner Journal, the New Yorker intermittently (I just can’t keep up with every issue), and Appalachia Journal.
Barba’s geode from 2020.
Q: The reading piles grow and grow—books, journals, online journals and articles…it never ends, for better or worse. What are you currently reading?
SB: I just finished Anne Truitt’s Daybook, which is a journal of her life as an artist. It’s a brilliant book about making art and making a life concurrently.
Q: That sounds good to me. As we head into spring and then summer, do you have a summer reading list?
SB: I have readings lists—lists for work and lists for pleasure. On the latter are The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste whom I just heard give a beautiful reading, David Copperfield (to read with my son), Inger Christensen’s essays in The Condition of Secrecy, the graphic novel This Woman’s Work by Julie Delporte, and In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova.
Q: What a great list! Mengiste’s book is on my list too, but now I have more to add. Any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
SB: I’ve been compiling a literary guide to American wildflowers, which Leanne Shapton is illustrating and which will be published by Abrams Books in the fall of 2022. It’s been a great joy, learning about wildflowers and selecting texts about them that represent a long-held appreciation of these at-once threatened and resilient flowers and their representation in our culture. I’m also excited about a book I acquired for NYRB that will be out in the spring of 2022, Letters to Gwen John by the British painter Celia Paul (whose beautiful Self-Portrait we published last fall).
Q: I look forward to the American wildflowers book and the Celia Paul book sounds wonderful. Self-Portrait is indeed a beautiful book! How did you learn about the Athenæum?
SB: Through David Godine, a brilliant friend, bibliophile, and member of the Athenæum.
Q: Godine publishes great books. Any last thoughts?
SB: Thank you Carolle, it’s been a pleasure! Long live the Athenæum.