Christian Barter: The Working Man’s Poet
“The singers I prefer are the ones who have to struggle,” Christian Barter declares in the title piece of his first and so far only collection of poems, The Singers I Prefer. And if he feels the same way about poets as he does singers, he must be fond of his own work as well.
Barter, 41, began writing poetry when he was a teenager and has since seen his work appear in venerable publications like Ploughshares and the North American Review. His poetry collection, which came out in 2005, was praised as one of the best debut works of the year by Poets & Writers magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize awarded by the Academy of American Poets. Now, more than five years later, Barter is trying to shop around his follow-up collection, and spends his days working long hours as a trail crew supervisor at Arcadia National Park in Maine.
We spoke with Barter about his early days composing bad love poems, what keeps him writing during the tough times, and why you shouldn’t quit your day job, even if you want to be the next T.S. Eliot.
Opening Lines:Christian, we really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. When did you first pick up the pen and start writing?
Barter: Well I used to write short stories when I was 8 or 9, and I switched to poetry around age 14. But like most writers, it’s hard for me now to think of a time when I didn’t write.
Opening Lines: Can you tell us about your early poems? What were you writing about in the beginning?
Barter: Oh, mostly poems about unrequited love. Sometimes I’d hand the poems out to girls in my high school. I remember one poem which was kind of an extended metaphor about how I wasn’t a super hero: “I can’t dash around the track at incredible speeds / or put on a red suit and perform stupendous deeds / I would like to but I can’t.”
Those were the opening lines. It was my sixteen year old’s idea of self-deflation. Good Lord.
Opening Lines: Well as far as bad love poems go, I’m sure people have written much worse! Did you show your early poems to anyone other than the girls you liked? If so, what kind of feedback did you get?
When we feel that no one is going to read what we’re writing, it still seems somehow to be important, not in terms of self-improvement, but it just seems to be important to the universe that we keep on.
Barter: Yes, I did, and the feedback was generally pretty positive, but I didn’t really have anybody around me who was very enthusiastic about poetry in general, or who had much of an understanding of it, other than my parents. And of course you don’t ever trust what your parents say.
I guess by the time I got to college, I started showing my poems to friends of mine who were more literate than me, and now that I think of it, the feedback was pretty mixed at that point. One of my best friends in college was a very, very smart guy, a double major in English and math, and I remember him looking at my poems and really kind of trashing them. He was one of those who would hold anyone up to the standard that it has to be at least as good as Keats. But I took his opinions very seriously and that was pretty depressing for me. Every time I’d talk about my poetry, he’d tell me why it wasn’t a work of genius. Eventually I learned not to show my work to him.
Opening Lines: You didn’t publish your first poem, The Eye of Jupiter, until you were 27 years old, after more than a decade of writing. Why did it take you so long?
Barter: Well, obviously I went to graduate school with people who were already publishing and a lot of the conversation among us writers revolved around publishing. Yet, I guess I always assumed, maybe with a certain amount of hubris, that I would publish at some point and publish easily. However I was always picturing that in the future and maybe part of the reason for that was so I wouldn’t have to deal with all that disappointment.
When I did finally start sending my poems out, I got one poem published right away, and so I thought it would be easy to get more published, but it turned out to be another two or three years before I got another piece published. And even then, until my mid-30’s, I only had one or two poems published a year. It was always grueling.
Opening Lines: How did you keep yourself writing during the periods when you could not get your work published? Did you ever consider giving up?
Barter: I think I was able to find a Puritan ascetic attitude about the writing, which is that I’m doing this pure work for some greater good, whether it gets read or not. Of course, that is kind of an odd theory when you think about it. What exactly is that greater good if no one reads it? And yet I think for a lot of writers, certainly for me, there is the feeling that somehow it is, and we trust that and we just keep doing it. When we feel that no one is going to read what we’re writing, it still seems somehow to be important, not in terms of self-improvement, but it just seems to be important to the universe that we keep on. Even now, I’m not sure it’s not true.
I also certainly had some people who were pulling for me, but primarily I had a really deep feeling that it was important to keep doing this. And even though I didn’t know why, I knew that it was and I just had to keep doing it.
Opening Lines: Now that your work has appeared in magazines and you’ve put out a successful book, has it changed the way you view yourself or your writing?
Every time I’d talk about my poetry, [my best friend] would tell me why it wasn’t a work of genius. Eventually I learned not to show my work to him.
Barter: If anything, I think it has actually given me more doubts, which I guess is a little bit ironic. Maybe it’s just a time of life thing. I’m 41 now and I think it’s a time of life when a lot of people really look pretty hard at what they’re doing and ask themselves whether what I’m doing really the most that I could do with my life.
I also think there can be an inverse relationship between publication and success, and confidence. It’s an odd thing to say but I think we’re more liable or at least I’ve been more liable to question whether what I’m doing actually deserves to be read. Once you’re being read you have more questions to ask than just how am I going to be read. Suddenly you also need to consider, God, do I deserve to be read? You know here I am and my work is out there and at least some people are reading it. Am I just colossally wasting everybody’s time? That is a question you never have to deal with before that happens, and it can be just as hard in its own way.
Opening Lines: Well if it’s any consolation, I don’t think you are wasting peoples’ time! But I am also curious how your day job affects your writing. Unlike many writers, you work long hours outside of academia. Do you think this helps you or hurts you as a writer?
Barter: I’ve had really conflicting feelings about it over the years. I love my job and I do feel like my job is my anchor, that it brings me to back to sanity and allows me to write and keeps me grounded and keeps me in the real world in a way that allows my poems to be real. But there are other times when I think I would in fact be a better writer if I could write all the time and I could actually finish all the things that I start and could constantly be reading and spitting out new material.
Right now, in the middle of summer, when my job is at its most hectic, I’m only working 8-10 hours a week. But when I had my fellowship and was not working, I’d right that much each and every day. That is certainly a disadvantage, but who would be conceited enough to say that they are the one who shouldn’t have to work or contribute to society and could just sit around and write poems all day?
Opening Lines: You did study music composition as an undergraduate in college. Do you ever think about falling back onto that profession instead of pursuing poetry?
Barter: I loved writing music and I continued fiddling around writing songs and playing in local bands. In fact, for quite a while I thought I might go that way, but certainly by the time I was in my late 20’s I knew that poetry was the thing for me and nothing else has really competed with it since.
I think I have to realistically say at this age that I’m never going to make it big in music. I think I’ll continue to play music for pleasure or enjoyment, but that’s a little bit different than tryin to break new ground in your field, which I can at least try to do with poetry. That is a life’s work, a lifelong pursuit, trying to get good enough to add to the body of work that’s out there. I’ll never do that as a musician.
Opening Lines: Finally, what advice would you offer to aspiring poets and writers out there?
Barter: Contrary to a lot of the clichés that are out there, you don’t have to give up everying else in your life, nor should you, especially at first when you’re not quite sure if this is what you want to do. You obviously have to make sacrifices, and when you are writing or reading, you have to give everyting you have to it or you will get nowhere. However I think a lot of people are under the illusion that I have to quit my job and put a backack on, that I need to have some crazy lifestlye in order to be a poet, and I have found that isn’t true. I think you have to let all your crazyness out in your poetry, but it is possible to live an outwardly normal life and still absolutely be as revolutionary as you want to be when you’re writing your poetry.
Image courtesy of Christian Barter.