How often had you sent out The Animal Gospels before it was chosen as the winner of the 2004 Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize?
The Animal Gospels was essentially my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Houston. I defended it in April of 2004, made a few revisions and then began sending it out in May. I had worked on the book for about eight years, so I was ready to find some closure, and thought submitting it to some contests would free me up to work on other poems. I had really prepared myself for the long slog of sending out the first manuscript. So many of my friends had been sending their books out for years and had been semi-finalists and finalists but hadn’t yet hit the jackpot. I knew from their experiences how frustrating the process could be.
The two contests that accepted submissions in May were the Tupelo Press First Book Prize and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. In July, I found out that I was a finalist at Tupelo, and in September was notified that while I wasn’t the judge’s pick, I had won the editor’s prize. I was stunned that it was picked up so quickly, and I’m still pretty sure that there will be some sort of karmic reckoning down the road! It will probably be 2025 before I have another book. I felt a whole soup of emotions when I found out: disbelief, elation, terror, sadness that my book would be published while so many of my friends’ books, that I believed in deeply, languished in a kind of limbo. What I felt was much more complicated than I ever thought it would be. Happiness won out in the end though, and gratitude that I was lucky enough for my book to get into the right hands the first time out. There is an element of luck to the whole endeavor.
One bit of advice for poets sending out their first books I’ve always heard is, “Buy first books and see how they’re put together.” Yours is one that may not serve as the best model for someone with a manuscript. I say that because three sections are solely comprised of long poems—meaning one a piece—and in between those are two sections of seven poems apiece. This seems like it was clearly a purposeful decision. Had the book always been structured like this, or did it take a while to find this structure and this order? Tell me about your decisions for putting it together this way.
The structure didn’t come on the first try. I experimented with a lot of different orders and organizational techniques before I hit upon it. I resisted, at first, starting the book with a long poem. I thought it was too much to ask of the reader. But I kept getting drawn back to “Flood” as an opening poem. I liked the way that it announced some of the book’s common themes and the way it alluded to the flood in Genesis. I also liked the idea of beginning on a high lyric register. Once I decided to take that risk of opening with a long poem, the long poems as three pillars, or anchors—beginning, middle, and end—came to me quickly. I knew, then, that the “Crow Gospel” felt like a centerpiece poem, and “Monkey Gospel” felt like a poem to end on, one that looked forward, in some way, both in style and subject matter. Beginning with “Flood” also freed me from the impulse to start with a kind of bildungsroman structure, beginning with childhood poems and moving to the present self. Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with such a structure, but I felt like I had seen it employed for a lot of first books, and I wanted something less self-conscious, less predictable.
Also, for a while I toyed with the idea of having section titles. Ultimately, though, I jettisoned them in favor of section breaks marked with an asterisk (four dots in the published book), just as the sections in the longer poems are connected. I thought that section titles made each part of the book feel too compartmentalized, and I wanted the book to have a sinewy flow to it, an elasticity, just as the long poems did. In fact, I kept thinking of what Frost said once, how if you have twenty-four poems the book itself should be the twenty-fifth. In this sense, then, I believe that structuring a book is a process of discovery, just as writing a poem is, and it shouldn’t be willed or forced by the poet. Keep an open mind and be willing to take risks.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Not a lot of details, honestly. I remember clearing an hour to sit down and read the book through in that format. It was nice to hold it, and I was happy, of course, and relieved, as it had been a long process. The book was accepted for publication in September 2004 and didn’t come out until May 2006. I also remembering feeling that it was time to get back to work! I was at the bottom of the mountain again.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?
Tupelo asked for my input on the cover, and I sent them some black & white photos of crows by Keith Carter that I liked. They didn’t ultimately use them, but the designer was inspired by them and created the close-up of the crow feathers with the scripture projected over top. When I first saw the cover, I thought it was quite lovely and unique, and I was happy that the image wasn’t too wedded to Christian icons or mythology. The cover and the poems have a synchronicity, I think, a shared aesthetic. I couldn’t have asked for a better one, I don’t believe.
Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it? How has your life been different since your book came out?
I thought that having a book would raise my chances of landing a tenure-track teaching job, and it did help in that respect. I’ve been teaching here at Murray State University since 2006 and running the undergraduate creative writing program. It’s also been very satisfying and encouraging to get emails from strangers, or to have poets I’ve admired say nice things about the book.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve been doing some readings here and there. I had a great time reading at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. I got to read with a friend of mine from grad school in Houston, Blas Falconer, and we read in the Capitol Library. It was an amazing room with all kinds of gothic ironwork and musty books and old portraits. It looked like the sight of a Scooby Doo cartoon instead of a poetry reading. I had the opportunity to read with my wife, Nicky Beer, at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The folks up there were so nice to us, and it was incredible to be invited by one of my favorite poets, Judy Jordan, and to hear her say such nice things about my work. I read with my friend Wayne Miller at Square Books in Oxford, MS, which was killer. The bookstore cat jumped up onto the podium while I was reading and plopped down on my book. Afterwards, we were invited to a party at the mayor’s house where there was a lot of bourbon, good conversation, and a guy wearing a fez.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon? Another longer poem, “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods,” recently appeared in storySouth—will that be part of a new manuscript?
I have a new manuscript, The Black Ocean, almost finished. The “Dragging Canoe” poem is part of this manuscript, and I hope it will be complete in the next year or so. I think at first that writing after the publication of the book was difficult. I felt like I was fumbling around, not really sure if I should be “loyal,” so to speak, to the aesthetic and subject matter of The Animal Gospels, and hyper-aware that I was no longer writing behind a veil of anonymity. Just in general, I felt way too self-conscious to create. It took a while to get beyond this state, to get some distance from the book. Once I did, I felt completely free to write the poems I sensed I needed to write at the moment and not worry too much about these other factors. And I think, in the end, that the new book will be a much different book than The Animal Gospels, and I’m actually happy it worked out that way. I’m too young to start writing the same book over and over again! And I like the freedom to play, to explore, to try to widen my imaginative and stylistic scope.
Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Well, there are a lot of great indie presses out there doing incredibly noble and often thankless work. They publish beautiful books and do a great job of distributing them and of supporting their writers. So it’s a great time to be a writer. But do your homework. Ask around about presses, especially if you’ve never heard of them before. Buy some of their books of poetry and take a look at the quality of the printing and design. If you attend the Associated Writing Programs conference, try to talk to the editors in person at the book fair and get a feel for what kind of operation they run.
And make sure that you’ve lived with your own manuscript long enough to know that you can live with it for a lifetime!
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I think poetry has the ability to change individuals, and individuals can create change in the world. We’ve all experienced this as readers, haven’t we? That rich intellectual or emotional truth that puts us more in touch with our own emotions, or opens up a space for empathy, or prods us to think more deeply about the world we live in. Right now, at this moment, someone somewhere is being floored by a poem, is feeling rearranged by some words on a page. So yes, I believe that poetry can create change in the world. That’s why there’s never been a civilization without it.
Brian Barker’s first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, won the Tupelo Press Editors' Prize and was published in 2006. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Ploughshares, Agni, Quarterly West, American Book Review, The Writer's Chronicle, The Indiana Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, and storySouth. He is currently an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Undergraduate Creative Writing at Murray State University in Kentucky.