Sunday, June 05, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Colleen Louise Barry

Colleen Louise Barry is an artist, writer, and teacher based in Seattle, WA. Her first book of poems, Colleen, appeared from After Hours Editions in April 2022. More at or @colleenlouisebarry.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book is about to come out! I'm not sure that the fact of this book being completed and published is really a life-changing experience right now. Writing Colleen was more like a companion through change ~ not a major catalyst but a subtle process, or a container. Like a friend or a healing ritual.    

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It's all mixed up. I have always been writing something in some way, painting and calling it narrative, building installations and calling them poems. My way of being in the world is making things. Language is an always accessible and infinitely rich material with which to do so.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A long, long time. I allow myself to operate under zero pressure in my writing life. Colleen took six years to write with large gaps of just not writing at all, or writing only by revising. I let poems come to me however they wish. Sometimes quickly while I'm driving to the store or some such thing, sometimes piece by piece over years. I do like to try to fit lines together, images together. There's just no set way. Creativity is equivalent to flexibility and receptivity. For me, that's the thrill.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Making a book was never a concrete goal for me. My poems are independent little creatures. They spring up from anywhere and we get to know each other.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I completely understand and respect poets who value and uphold the tradition of poetry as an oral, performative art. But for me, poems are on the page and their life is there. I really want anyone who reads my poems to get that private intimacy with them, without my intonation and timbre echoing in their heads. I do not enjoy reading my work aloud. I don't particularly even feel like the voice with which I speak out loud is the voice of the poems. Even though it was me who technically wrote the book, the Colleens in Colleen aren't really me. They could be anyone.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The current questions are all the old questions, too. Can we understand how language creates our reality and can we overcome its limitations? Is it possible to create a better world with words? What is underneath words; is it meaning? What is the nature of meaning without language? Is language our bridge to truth, or is it the veil obscuring it? Why are things funny? Why are things sad? Why am I me?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The writer's role is to inform and challenge. Writers should use their material (language) to change the way people see each other and to open them to alternative understandings of their world. I think it is true that excellent writing engenders empathy ~ empathy being the most essential ingredient to our species' survival.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I did not find outside editors particularly essential until I was ready to consider the poems in Colleen as a larger collection. I wasn't sure how to do that effectively ~ package them, order them, say confidently: these poems go together and you should buy them as such. Other than that, between myself and the poem I'm writing, there seems to be plenty of opinions already flying around.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Work hard with ease. Simple, true, a kind of relief.  

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (solo to collaborative work, poetry to multidisciplinary work)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love and in some ways need to move between genres all the time. My work informs my other work. It's like its own little ecosystem of creativity.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I dream of being a writer with a routine. I am, however, decidedly not. I write when I get that feeling to write ~ a feeling that is hard to describe. It's like a swelling in the chest. I drift off into another mode of observing. When that hits, no matter where I am, I write the words down. I use my iPhone notes a lot, or a little spiral notebook I bring around, or sometimes scraps from my bag, or the back of my hand.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I do not stress about this much. I just work on something else, a drawing or sculpture or dinner or anything. I also love to read. Reading always inspires me.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Grass and dirt, wet dogs, a fireplace going out.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music was a huge part of Colleen. I love the way songs create intimacy with the listener. I also love the way a song can play over and over and over again, that it can come to mean a moment in time, that it can come to define a version of you. It's yet another reason I named the book after myself. Cher has Cher, Britney has Britney, why can't I call my debut book Colleen? (That's halfway a joke, but the serious half is very serious.)

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love any writer that can capture the absurdity of life with empathy and humor. Joy Williams, Emily Hunt, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf. A certain precision with language. I love writers who know how to research. I am honestly blown away by contemporary journalists who have perhaps the most difficult job of all. They must use their writing like a weapon in defense of humanity, equality, democracy, science.  

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
This question makes me think about a piece by Jean Chen Ho that I read in the NY Times this morning, sitting in bed with my partner and my cat and some coffee. It was about the subjunctive tense and the power of grammar. She writes: "A subjunctive mode of inquiry uses narrative 'both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling...'"

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I am currently a middle school art teacher at an independent school in Seattle. It's what I'm supposed to be doing and probably what I always would have done.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I certainly do other things alongside writing. I love words and I love to play. I am curious about everything. And I want to communicate. I think it all just falls into line. I followed my heart to writing, as I have to almost everything else.  

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
My favorite recent books:
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Hoarders by Kate Durbin. My People The Sioux by Luther Standing Bear. We Die in Italy by Sarah Jean Alexander.

My favorite recent movies:
Licorice Pizza. The French Dispatch. Donkey Skin. Bull Durham. Into the Blue. Cutie and the Boxer.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on daily sanity, a positive outlook, a lesson plan about action painting, a novel, a series of giant and soft artist books, an animatronic ride-turned-installation called "The Love Tunnel".  

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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