Poetry Primer #3: Sharon McCartney & John Wall Barger

We sought out east coast, award-winning poet Sharon McCartney for our third Poetry Primer installment. McCartney chose fellow east cost poet John Wall Barger as an emerging voice in Canadian poetry.


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We sought out east coast, award-winning poet Sharon McCartney for our third Poetry Primer installment. She won the 2008 Acorn-Plantos People’s Prize for poetry for her 2007 collection The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a beautiful collection published by Nightwood Editions. More recently she has published Hard Ass (Palimpsest Press, 2013), where she used weightlifting as a metaphor exploring the transcendence of love. McCartney chose fellow east cost poet John Wall Barger as an emerging voice in Canadian poetry. Previously published in many literary journals, his first collection was published by Palimpsest Press in 2007 with a follow up, Hummingbird, in 2012. Now spending time in India, his third collection, The Book of Festus, a shattered fable, is poised to be published next month.Get a taste for the poetry of John Wall Barger, with a selection from Hummingbird below.* * *Sharon McCartney on why she selected John Wall Barger:John Wall Barger is one of the rare, essential poets: a poet who has something to say. There’s no bombast in his work, no grandstanding, no pyrotechnics. Just meaning and heart. In “Insomnia,” Barger tells us, “I just want to be alone, to feel / what must be felt for others / so that they do not have to.” Clarity is risky. Too many are unwilling to go there. They hide behind ambiguity and obscurity. Big words and operatic melodrama. Barger’s work is not like that. It is precise and playful, replete with delicate and brutal detail, but there’s also the depth of a prematurely mature poet, a poet who can end a poem with “I am death, I am death, a boy with lovely almond eyes / leaning on his cricket bat / to better view / what will happen next.” It’s simple and true. Confident, yet humble. That’s what I look for in poetry. And that is Barger’s impact. Words that feel at home inside our heads, that connection.
John Wall Barger on why he writes poetry & who his influences are:My writing is so intertwined with all other aspects of my life that, like threads in a carpet, it seems impossible to separate them. I’m usually productive, but during the last six weeks I’ve been so busy procuring an Indian residential permit (so my wife and I can continue living in Dharamsala) that I haven’t been able to write. As a result I feel lightheaded, unmoored, vague, muzzy. I’m less attentive. I don’t jot down notes/poem ideas/journal entries. I don’t whistle. I don’t skip. I think I’ve begun mouth-breathing.Some days I write to expel my frustrations about the overwhelming and constant hypocrisy of humans. About half the poems I now write are, as a friend described them, “fucked up fairy tales,” or parables on the brutality under the surface of human interactions. Mythic, not topical: not about Bill C-51, but (for example) about a cruel king who cuts the legs off his subjects and replaces them with stilts and is then overthrown and as he watches them dance around a fire sees finally that they are beautiful. Writing these is cathartic! They’re like little screams you let out after watching the news.My influences are almost all poets whose work gave me permission to be larger than I was—or whose poems said that my poems could be larger, even if I could not be. You read all their books—starving for them!—and often it’s just a little tic of theirs you end up with. It is like falling in love and when it’s over you are suddenly squinting when you smile or putting your hand on your heart when you hear bad news, like that person did.Many Spanish language poets—Lorca, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Nicanor Parra, Roberto Bolaño and others—have given me permission to be furious, impolite, political, musical; to howl with a savagery I had not imagined possible. Lorca’s essay on Duende is the cure for bad poetry everywhere.I love the young Americans poets: Matthew Dickman, Terrance Hayes, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Tracy K. Smith are refreshingly brash, fearless, wild. I like Kay Ryan’s quiet smart poems, Sharon Olds’ so-honest-you-cringe poems, and Mary Ruefle’s laugh-aloud/gut-punch poems! The older generation of U.S. poets—viz. James Tate, Mark Strand, Charles Simic—are amazing: they manage to be uncanny and relevant, dragging the dream into the strip mall. I admire many Canadian poets, especially Anne Carson (I ♥ Glass, Irony and God) and Lisa Robertson (I ♥ Debbie: An Epic).William Blake’s frantic playfulness, which somehow lays religion bare like a broken coconut. Pasolini’s homoerotic vignettes and cinematic Catholicism. Mayakovsky’s wonderful rudeness! And Joyce’s heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.* * *Follow along with our Poetry Primer series all April long or get the full collection of featured poetry plus a poem from each of our established poets in our new chapbook, ibid. Get a free ebook copy if you buy a collection of poetry from All Lit Up during National Poetry Month.