Will Barnes – “Next Big Thing” Interview

I am so grateful to my new friend Veronica Golos who tagged me for this interview.
Picture of Will BarnesAuthor: Will Barnes
What is the working title of the book?

The Ledgerbook.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a long story…. I began writing poetry in earnest when my first child was born in 1990.  In those years, I struggled a lot to find any sort of narrative voice.  My language was fractured, splintered, in layers.  I was told that I was an “ecstatic” poet, which to me meant that no one could understand what I was trying to say.  I found that I wrote most often and best off other people’s language, that I could hardly speak my own words.  I relied on the voices of others for inspiration.  I stole language; I collaged.  but it made me uncomfortable because I felt like I needed a narrative, a spine.

Then one day I found an amazing work by Cathy Carruth on the literature of trauma and memory.  I began to recognize that I was writing out of a place of trauma.  My own voice, whatever that meant, was in fact broken, disassociated, repetitive, and impacted by something larger than myself, something I could not truly understand.  I felt like I was inside an event I could not see.
So I began to think about the intersection of personal and cultural trauma.  I began to feel within my own voice, the pull of historic events and the odd rippling of stories that had happened long ago, somehow still recurring in me.  This is very much an aspect of the way trauma works, repeating itself until it can be understood.   I learned that in trauma, the healing takes place in a process of speaking and listening.  So I started looking for ways to speak and to listen to the memories of landscape and culture.
All the while, the only truly authentic knowledge I could call my own, and the only voice I could claim as my own, came from the ground itself.  A sense of very personal relationship with the landscape and the wild places of the west in which I live.  The one thing I absolutely know is that the answer to all of this, for me, comes out of the ground.
And then I found the ledger books.  Beginning in the 1860s with the arrival of paper to the Great Plains, many of the native plains tribes, particularly the Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapahoe began to use ledger books to record their traditional winter counts — encrypted drawings of annual tribal history.  The tribes acquired these books through trade and sometimes in battle.  In many instances, the ledger books had been used by their previous owners — as record books or accounts inventory.  The drawings, therefore, were often superimposed onto text written in English.  From a tribal standpoint, these under-writings were in a foreign language and derived from a foreign culture.  The act of drawing over, or on top of, these earlier writings, is a complex statement of both cultural conflict, incorporation and witness.
The ledger drawings feel like a perfect motif for my own personal search for meaning and voice in the context of a larger traumatized landscape and culture.  I stopped fighting against the desire to collage, and began to actively steal language as a means of writing myself into this place, as a mechanism for healing and finding my own voice here, now — as a mechanism for speaking and listening.
In their own idiom, the ledger drawings depict acts of great bravery and loyalty in the face of absolute danger and change.  The drawings themselves are literal acts of witness, representations of cultural layering in all of its violence, loss, courage, and hope.
It is not my intention to replicate or to confiscate this art form, but rather, to find in it a parallel construction with which to express my own experience of living in America, here in the west.  I believe the layering and the dialogue that is possible between voices, texts and places is meaningful, and for me, critical to finding my own voice.
So, that is how this book came to be!  A lot of reading, experimenting and collaging of texts.  Somehow, I hope, my own voice also begins to come out.
What genre does your book fall under?

This is a book of poetry.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This question is so funny to me; I am bad at remembering actors names… But Anne Hathaway should be in it, just because.  There is a love story.  And there should be a kind of grizzled handsome cowboy type, not really Paul Newman, but nice like him, and a little funny and quizzical  like Dustin Hoffman, with something lean and more tough and lonely and down to earth like… I have no idea.

The most important actor would be the landscape.  There would be scenes in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming and Montana, with creeks and pine forests and aspens, and there would be sweeping grasslands, and horses, and there would be some basin and range country too and maybe even a little sonoran desert.  But mostly Colorado, both eastern and western.  Lots of wild open space.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

This is a book about landscape, memory, trauma, language and love.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?  

I’ve been working on this as a coherent project since 1998, so about 15 years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Just trying to understand what it means to live here in the west in the 21st century.  Writing has been my lifeline and the mechanism by which I have tried to understand who I am, and what I am supposed to be doing here.  The poems really lead me.  So, it’s a discovery.  The best poems, I think, see into things, and take the reader somewhere hidden, previously unrevealed.  I think this book has written me, and the book was written by this place, and the texts and voices that come out of this place.  It’s inspired by love and heart break and stories of people living deeply in the land.  So many poets I admire whose voices are replicated here: Emily Dickinson, Carolyn Forche, TS Eliot, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, among many others.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It is full of botany!  And the wild west, and explorers!  It’s lyric and associative and layered.  I think there is a lot to be discovered in it.  I think it is a sensual book; it was certainly written with a lot of desire under the surface.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t know.  It is out there in the contest world, looking for a home.  I have certain hopes, but best not to say.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:

Jon Davis and Greg Glazner.