Barbara Tomash is the author of five books of poetry including, most recently, Her Scant State (Apogee), PRE- (Black Radish), and Arboreal (Apogee); and two chapbooks, Of Residue (Drop Leaf Press), and A Woman Reflected (palabrosa). Her writing has been a finalist for The Dorset Prize, the Colorado Prize, The Test Site Poetry Prize, and the Black Box Poetry Prize. Before her creative interests turned her toward writing she worked extensively as a multimedia artist. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Conjunctions, New American Writing, Verse, Posit, OmniVerse, and numerous other journals. She lives in Berkeley, California, and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.
Her poems “Of Love,” “Of Transit,” “Of Equipoise,” “Of Sightings” and “Of Seawater” appear in the thirty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Of Love,” “Of Transit,” “Of Equipoise,” “Of Sightings” and “Of Seawater.”
A: The five poems in this issue of Touch the Donkey were written as part of poetry manuscript in process (working title: Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea). All the poems in this manuscript share the same form of a narrow rectangle with justified margins and no punctuation.
I come to poetry from the visual arts, and I remain interested in how the sound and sense of a poem shift according to how the words are arrayed on the page.
While writing the first poems in this narrow box-like form, I evolved a process of researching various questions about the ancient and ongoing intersections between our human species and other species on earth and joining this with my writings about my daily life and with excerpts from the things I have been reading. I like assembling a glossary of words and phrases and then feeling out connections between these disparate things as I go. Forgoing the use of punctuation can free the words gathered inside the frame to assemble and reassemble themselves, even as I write them down. I enjoy this fluidity within the process, seeing how fragments seam together in unexpected ways allowing for shifting meanings, multiple readings. I have always loved the wonderful modernist tool of collage, which imitates, I believe, how our minds work, the jump cut that transports us, rather than the smoothly paved road of continuity.
I wrote “Of Equipoise” by a different method than most of the other poems in the manuscript. I gave myself the exercise of condensing one of my books, The Secret of White, into the narrow rectangular form of a single poem. It was exhilarating and oddly satisfying to see how seventy collected pages representing years of writing could be distilled to fit into one small container. (At this point, there are several other poems in the manuscript which I wrote using fragments gathered from each of my published books.) “Of Transit” also stands out within the body of the manuscript. It is the only poem written from a third person perspective, and its momentum derives from a continuous narrative flow and syntactical progression, rather than from an acceleration of images in juxtaposition. As I revise, I am considering whether “Of Transit” ultimately belongs in the final version of the manuscript.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: When my exploratory writings begin to hint that they have potential to grow into a book, it is easy for me to become mono-focused. Recently, I have been writing only poems belonging to Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea. Since I don’t have concurrent work to which I can compare these poems, I’ll have to look back a bit to answer this question.
In the past few months, with my editor Valerie Coulton at Apogee Press, I was preparing my newly released book Her Scant State for publication. It was a pleasurably absorbing process of selecting a cover image and helping with interior design and proofreading, etc. Her Scant State is an erasure of Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady, and the most obvious connection between it and Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea is that both were written under the pressures of creative constraints. The process of writing Her Scant State involved keeping strictly to the novel’s words (adding no language from outside the novel) and to their order (but I allowed myself free rein with punctuation and with form on the page).
My previous book, PRE-, was also written within constraints, and it shares collage as a compositional method with Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea. The creative constraint in PRE- is that all the poems spin out from dictionary definitions for words beginning with a particular English prefix. All the language is found, but fractured and juxtaposed with a freehand approach—so, not surprisingly, my proclivities for certain kinds of ideas, images, and language emerged and circulated. One of these preoccupations is human presence in nature and its paradoxical merging and alienation—which brings us to what we could call a thematic connection with Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea. Where these books part company most notably, I think, is that Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea includes a more active first-person speaker in many of the poems. Though that speaker is not consistently autobiographical, its presence springs from my own sense of urgency about the perils of our political and social circumstances today.
Lately, I’ve been revisiting some prose writings I began fifteen years ago—and for these I am not working with compositional constraints at all. But it is too early to talk about what these pieces are like, or what they are not like, or what they may become.
Q: I’m curious about your exploration of the constraint: what brought you to first utilizing such compositional processes, and what do you feel is possible in your work through the constraint that might not be otherwise?
A: As I mentioned, I worked as a multi-media artist before I began writing. At first, I attempted writing short stories. Out of curiosity, I took a poetry class—I had never written a poem—and I fell for poetry hard, even obsessively. I remember the tactile sense I had with the very first poem I attempted, transfixed by the endless options and permutations possible in “breaking” lines. That sharp focus and concentration on form was a continuation of what I had been doing as a visual artist—the experimentation, the sense that a poem was an object, made from language patterns and play, yet full of ideas, of thinking on the page that wasn’t necessarily struggling to tell anything. I hadn’t felt that thrill of the malleability and physicality of language when I was writing short stories. Writing my first poems reminded me of standing in front of a Kandinsky painting as a child—I felt both awkward and at home—as if I were hearing a new language I understood perfectly without being able (or asked) to translate a word. I thought also of the paintings of Pierre Bonnard. In his works “the subjects”—the people, the objects—are often at the periphery, as if they are about to fall out of the frame; the center may be empty. And I wanted to find a way to write this same movement or spin, to find in language a center replete with absence. Here was a beauty I really wanted, that seemed to spring from the formal necessities and constraints of artmaking.
For me, as artist turned writer, process and intention always go hand in hand. I am often more committed to a mode or method of writing than to a subject or theme. I trust ideas to percolate up during a writing process in ways that will surprise and interest me and take my thinking further—in fact, leave me in a state of creative bewilderment (Fanny Howe) that I value. Because I love the materiality of words, I’m curious to let them have their way with me, to act on me, with accident, chance, and randomness—it is this love of process, and of words as objects, as portals to new perceptions, that engenders my attraction to formal constraints. A formal constraint asks that I drop old habits of putting together words and start anew. Pushed beyond the limits of my familiar experiences with language I find images, sounds, and even thinking, that the constraint itself seems to set free. It is a fruitful collaboration. The well-known irony of constraint is that what at first seems to be a limitation turns out to be an opening up of new terrain.
Of course, projects start in various ways. Each of mine has called forth its own logic, calling on a different writer in me. Not all of them work consistently with constraints. The elegiac origins of Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea gave the project its form. In spring of 2018, just as my book PRE- was released by Black Radish Books, the press’s founding publisher and managing editor, Marthe Reed, died suddenly. She was an irreplaceable poet, teacher, and social activist in the prime of her life. As a person new in her orbit, I felt lucky to have known her, and also the sad finality of the loss of any continuing friendship and collaboration. Marthe wrote an essay titled “somewhere in between: Speaking Though Contiguity,” and that title alone, when I began to think about writing in her memory, recalled a box-like unpunctuated form that I had previously tried out and then put away. What could I find in that “somewhere in between,” in the narrow space inside the justified margins? What could working without punctuation and instead by use of shifting juxtapositions reveal about the meaning of “speaking through contiguity”?
I continue to be particularly moved and excited by the visual arts, by their revelations about the world through the act of framing and re-framing things, changing angles of perception. Art’s recording of variations, shifts, and movements holds for me the essence of reality. The use of constraints helps me write into this reality by offering radical modes for composing language within the unforeseen, the unknown. Writing the first poems in the narrow box-like form in Amid Foliage in the Dark and in the Sea, I came to see the page more as a window than as a container, a translucence that shapes and makes possible perception, while above my desk, the actual window, filled with tree branches, became the scrawled-upon page.
Q: With a handful of published books and chapbooks under your belt, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work heading?
A: It’s hard to say if my work has progressed, or if it will ever progress. A progression suggests following a road directly to some locatable end, with interesting stops along the way. Instead, my work tends to move in either a circular or a branching pattern. (I think, again, of the tree that fills my window.) Each of my five books diverged stylistically and formally from the one that came before. Such abrupt departures may not be conducive to a forward motion, but they do offer the pleasure and adventure inherent in a new start. I am circling back these days—in another kind of beginning again—to making drawings (which I haven’t done in over thirty years) and revisiting prose I wrote fifteen years ago. Likely there is an imaginative core from which all the books and projects have emerged, and to which I keep returning. I couldn’t even begin to put into words what that core might be.
Q: You say you came to poetry from the visual arts: what moved you to shift genres so radically?
A: The shift was more subtle, more gradual than it sounds. During the years I was making visual art, I had a desire to connect my work more directly with my love of reading—I wrote diaristic entries on my paintings, recited excerpts from Daisy Miller in a video performance, used recorded dialogues in installations. I created assemblages, installations, and video works from the assortments of bulky found objects and raw materials I’d drag home in my small car. Over time, the thrill of the physical object began to wear off—I wanted a more direct conduit to the immediacy of imagination. The notion that as a writer I could spend a few seconds gathering tools and supplies—a pen and a notebook—rather than days or weeks of heavy lifting and building was very appealing. But underneath everything else that turned me toward writing was something more basic to my emotional life. As a child uncomfortable in my own skin, in my own family, I read and read—stories, novels, biographies. Reading was an alternative skin, an alternative body I could become whole inside of. I found intimacy and truth in the reader and writer exchange, so, for me the writer has a deeply human, even primal role. I think one of the ways the method of erasure (as in Her Scant State) appeals to me is that it allows me to plumb the mystery and potency of the reader and writer connection in an unabashed and imaginatively assertive way. Yet, it’s not so surprising that as a writer I have missed the physicality of artmaking—the whole-body involvement, the wide movements of the arms. It has been a pleasure recently to find out that even within my mono-focused style of working, I can make both poems and drawings. I’ve dreamed of using a broom to spread painted words on a wall. This may be why I often find an exciting new connection to my books when I read from them to an audience—the poems take on palpable physical presence in my body and in the room.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Innovative women poets reenergize me. I think of Anne Carson, Kathleen Fraser, Lorine Niedecker, Barbara Guest, M. NourbeSe Philip, and so many more. But most sustaining to my writing practice have been my writing groups and writing partners. Their creative projects inspire my own and we share processes from day one, when things are raw and messy. Without having to make any vows, we share a commitment to each other’s work. My joy and sense of fulfillment in seeing my writing partners’ manuscripts through final revisions and on to publication grounds me in the pleasures of my own work. During the last few years, in this odd pandemic period of isolation and zoom meetings, my writing groups have proliferated—an unexpected bonus in tough times.
I often return to George Oppen’s “Psalm.” The poem begins “In the small beauty of the forest/The wild deer bedding down—/That they are there!” The exclamation point that punctuates the simple statement “That they are there” slays me every time. The poem—which ends with the odd and delicately stunning syntax of “The small nouns/Crying faith/In this in which the wild deer/Startle, and stare out”—fulfills for me the lost promise of every religious service I attended as a child in love with words. I sat in the synagogue and listened intently to a mishmash of bad translation from Hebrew and a contemporary liturgy that never seemed to say anything. I was amazed that words could be so disappointing. I listened and read along and was confounded and bored out of my mind. Whenever I read Oppen’s “Psalm,” I find what I urgently needed then and still need now—I can’t put it into words, but the poet has.