A Slut for Beauty:
An Interview with Sarah Jane Barnett

ARTS, Books, EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, Interviews
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Inside Sarah Jane Barnett’s remarkable new book of poems, WORK.

WORK is the title of Sarah Jane Barnett’s new book of poems. All in caps: a single, barked syllable. In each of the book’s six long poems, there are unusual kinds of work. A woman hunts a bear. A man stores seeds for the apocalypse. A doctor operates on the largest melanoma in the world. A glaciologist studies her sheeds of ice core. But there are layers and layers of other kinds of work, as well: the work of sex, the work of parenting, the work of love, the work of compromise, and the slant, strange work of writing beautiful poems. Here is Sarah in conversation with a fellow slut for beauty, Joan Fleming.

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img_sarahjanebarnett-workJOAN FLEMING: Grace Paley says something like, stories can’t be interesting to adults unless they deal with blood and money. Blood, as in, family relationships, and money, as in, the economics of the family unit. Do you share Grace Paley’s conviction?

SARAH JANE BARNETT: Well, one of the reasons this book is called WORK is because the poems focus on the professions and obsessions of the characters. I’m a person who has to balance those two things. I’m interested in other people’s obsessions. But I don’t know that I agree with Paley. Are they essential? Some stories can be more surreal, or mystical.

JF: They can deal completely with the dream life. Whereas what she’s saying is they have to deal with the practicalities of how you go about your life.

SJB: I’m always wondering how to be in the world. I think my poems investigate how other people manage this. It comes out of a curiosity to understand others, and out of that curiosity, to understand myself. I want to look at different people’s stories and find that gem of what it means to be human.

JF: For people whose work is intellectual, you do need to maintain that otherness, that inner world. Sometimes that takes you away from the work of relationships, particularly if you don’t share the intricacies of that inner, intellectual world with the person you’re in a relationship with.

SJB: “Glaciers” and “Ghosts” are both about marriage, and how two people stay married through different challenges—each person having their own urgent worlds.

This relates to a bigger concern that I have about the borders between fiction and nonfiction, and the stories that we tell ourselves. I think marriage, sexuality, gender—these are all, in part, narratives that we tell ourselves, and that our perceptions of the world are created by those stories. And sometimes we don’t know that we’re telling ourselves those stories. I hope my poems somehow get the reader to reflect on their own stories.

JF: I was thinking about your thesis topic in relation to the treatments of gender and sex and unconventional relationships in the book. As far as I understand, your thesis is about humans being inseparable from nature, and disrupting this construction that puts people over here, and the environment over there, separate from us.

SJB: And also that poetry is itself a construction, and how to write a poem that is knowing of its own construction.

JF: I was interested in the way your deep thinking about nature, or what’s natural, affected the things you wanted to write about. There’s an asexual woman in the book, there’s a polyamorous couple, there’s –

SJB: A transgender person.

JF: There are women who are pushing against traditional constructions of femininity.

SJB: I’m very aware, both in my life and in my writing, of my position of privilege. I grew up as a child of middle-class academics, I had an easy ride in that regard.

JF: Same.

SJB: I have quite a non-traditional marriage, and I’m bisexual. That’s not mainstream. But a lot of my ideas have been formed by that upbringing of privilege. And I don’t want to write from that position. It’s not that I want to police my own views of the world, but I want to hold them up and examine them.

For example, the reason I wrote the poem about asexuality—well, my writing group jokes that my poems always have sex and death in them, which is pretty much true! But I wanted to try and inhabit the perspective of someone who was asexual, because I think that is an equally valid expression of sexuality. I want to make sure that I don’t produce work that is only a narrow retelling of my own experience. This might be for selfish reasons; I want to be able to experience other perspectives and open up my own concept of the world. But I also want to open up those perspectives for readers as well.

JF: It must have taken such imaginative empathy to write from the perspective of the asexual person. It’s kind of a magic trick, because the poem has these mesmerising images from the perspective of someone who is looking at the sex act, really distanced, and unaffected by this, like, grinding of pink bits. That moment, for me, was like, oh my gosh.

But then, as a reader, you don’t understand why that intense image is meaningful until later on in the poem. That’s something you do so well. To gently simmer these ideas, and gradually unfold big ideas about nature and sex that are metaphors for the characters’ relationships. The formal construction of the book helps to create that effect. It slows down the narrative, and creates these incredible slow-dawning realisations of these metaphorical connections. I don’t know how you managed that.

SJB: I don’t know if I could write a short lyric poem anymore. The long form poem—and there are six in WORK—is the natural progression of my voice. The form has arisen out of my desire to tell a story, and to also have those emotional lyric moments. People have said to me, why do your words suddenly break all over the page? In those moments of intense emotion, I want to move away from formal stanzas. There has to be some space, and leaps, and a freedom about it. Humans are thinking animals, and we are also these instinctual, biologically bound animals. We are wrestling with the tension all the time. I want my words to show that.

Humans are thinking animals, and we are also these instinctual, biologically bound animals. We are wrestling with the tension all the time.

If you think about the sex act, sometimes you are so animalistically in it, and sometimes you can, intellectually, look and go: this is a strange thing, this grinding of pink bits together.

JF: Or after climax, you think –

SJB: This is weird.

JF: What was that?!

SJB: Exactly. That’s an amazing experience, to be able to reflect back on ourselves. And the poets that I like the most capture the true emotional essence of something, but don’t just leave it there. There’s a distancing, a looking back on it.

JF: Does anyone ask the question, is it poetry? Do the genre conventions matter to you?

SJB: I think you could argue convincingly that the pieces in WORK are poems, or that they are stories. But I don’t think that’s the most interesting question. For me, they are poems. They still rely on poetics more than they rely on the craft of fiction. They do have narrative, and they do have dialogue. But metaphor, imagery, sound, the form on the page, all those aspects of poetic craft are more essential to them. I think the interesting question is: what is the emotional reason, in the poem, to bridge these two forms? What rises up? That slow simmering, but also the intensity. I hope the form allows my readers a deep connection with the characters while also experiencing the lyric moment.

JF: There were two moments in “Ghosts” where I was convinced that one or the other characters were going to die, and I wondered why the happy ending.

SJB: Oh! I don’t see it as a happy ending. At the end, he’s dying. He’s old and bedridden. In a way, neither of these people got what they wanted. They didn’t manage to have a child.

JF: So it’s a narrative of compromise.

SJB: Yes.

JF: Even though she is pushing back against his insistence that they keep trying, do you think she wants the child. But she’s actually given up.

SJB: Yes. I was interested in the different experiences of miscarriage between men and women. Because women go through the process of it, the actual physical loss, I think it’s easier to grieve. Harder in one regard, because it is happening to your body. I’ve never had a miscarriage, but I have friends who’ve had multiple miscarriages. With men, it’s more abstract. From my own experience of being pregnant, the baby was abstract for my husband until he, Sam, arrived. But from very early on, when I could feel Sam, he was real. Obviously these are generalisations, and I don’t know if gender is important. In my poem I had a heterosexual couple but if they’d been a lesbian couple would it have been the same? Probably not. But nevertheless, the person who is pregnant has a different experience. More often than, say, the Hollywood blockbuster would want us to think, relationships have long-burning and complex issues. Any long-term relationship survives through compromise. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.

JF: It’s almost an exercise in humility. We both come from privilege, and the narrative of privilege is you can have anything you want. And you can have it all, and all at once.

SJB: And that’s not true [laughs].

JF: In relationships, and particularly parenting, which I don’t have experience of, you don’t get what you want all the time. And neither does your child! You’re constantly negotiating what is not allowed to be had.

SJB: [laughs] Yes!

What I wanted to find was the beauty in that. The beauty of the moment of compromise. The practicalities of loving are not beautiful, but the act itself has a particular, human beauty to it. I wanted to refuse that easiness. That’s why I don’t see “Ghosts,” which is a poem about a couple deciding whether to stay together after many miscarriages, as having a happy ending. It’s a human and practical ending to their relationship. That’s the grey of what life is really like.

The practicalities of loving are not beautiful, but the act itself has a particular, human beauty to it. I wanted to refuse that easiness.

JF: One of the moments in the book that was a powerful punch in the throat, for me, was in “Glaciers.” The woman’s lying in bed with her lover, and he says, “Did your body change after you had your son?” And then the poem moves into a narrative of labour and birth, but it’s managed with these geological metaphors of glacier movement, and it’s so incredible. And then she says, It’s not the body that changes.

So, what changes? If it’s not the body.

SJB: Well—[her voice drops] the body does change! [laughs] And never goes back. But that’s okay. Um, it’s a perceptive change. And I would hope that experience of the poem creates that perceptive change as well. Before I had Sam, I knew being a mother would mean doing different things, but I didn’t understand how my brain would change. I am never without him in my head. My identity went through a huge transformation.

Also, in that poem I wanted to see if I could move beyond metaphor. The idea of the glaciers, and the freezing and unfreezing, this deep connection to the earth, I wanted it to be literal. Obviously it can’t be literal, but to get to the emotional transformation of motherhood I needed to write as though it were.

JF: That comes through throughout the book. And part of it is to do with your choice of verbs. You really work your verbs. A lot of the movements of certain characters or animals are told with technical terms. I have some favourite lines, like “even when threshed it breaks into spikelets.” And that noun, “spikelets”—that’s not something that would have been in your pre-research vocabulary! But the poem wears it lightly. The poems never feel heavy, or stiff, or laboured.

SJB: Thank you! I think that’s editing. I remember reading about intuition in one of your interviews. I also write intuitively, I write from the gut. My critical brain is light, and my gut is heavy, when I’m writing. I’m thinking, what’s this poem doing, what are the layers, what are the meanings. But it has to work from my gut, work from my emotion. There’s that word again—work.

JF: Were there moments when you were blocked, in your critical work, from doing the intuitive work of writing poems?

SJB: Maybe for my first book. But all of these poems have come from a deep and urgent place within me. A place of true human curiosity and empathy. And I felt they were important stories to be told, that often weren’t told.

JF: Do you worry or wonder about certain poems in the book being read as autobiographical?

SJB: Noooo [both laugh]. I can go on the record to say “Running with my Father” and “Glaciers” are both autobiographical, and I’m fine with that. I think by now anyone who’s read any of my poetry will know that my father is transgender. Anyway, all poems are autobiographical, aren’t they?

JF: I agree.

SJB: There is no way we can escape our own emotional impulses and investments. I can only write from my experience. Even when I research—I had a lot of concerns about writing as a man from Addis Ababa, who’s a widower, and who migrates to New Zealand. I just did so much research. I did an interview with a friend of mine, I watched so many YouTube videos of migrants to New Zealand, I read so many first-person experiences, so I could draw on them. At the same time, I brought my own emotional response.

JF: You say that that poem arose from your grief at losing Christchurch, the city of your childhood. And that’s the emotional lens that you bring into the poem, so you can do this dual thing: write from the perspective of another, but through your own experience. Which is thorny, if you’re a white person from a privileged background writing about, well, someone from Africa.

SJB: Yes. And I think it always needs to be done with deep respect and humility. And good intentions. And also, accepting feedback. I sent the poem to my friend before it was anywhere near being published.

There also has to be a fearlessness. For whatever faults there could be in the poem, to not be afraid to write genuinely about people who are different to myself. To recognise a sort of otherness, that exists to varying degrees.

For example, you and I have less otherness in our experience. Because we are of the same age, gender, background. In all humans, there’s a sameness and an otherness. It’s about recognising how big that otherness is. And also recognising the limits of my own abilities. I felt I could write that poem, but I don’t know if I could, for example, write a poem from the perspective of a Masai warrior.

JF: Because there’s no overlap in experience.

SJB: There’s no overlap that I can intuit. Some perspectives are not available to me.

I remember flying in from Christchurch to Wellington, after the earthquake, and feeling this deep loss for Christchurch. I couldn’t find my way to Latimer Square, because the landmarks were gone. All the landmarks of my childhood, the places where I used to smoke as a teenager! It was so painful. Two weeks later I met Judah who I eventually interviewed about his experience of migrating to New Zealand. These two events seeded the idea for “Addis Ababa.”

JF: What strikes me about your work, is that it is coming from—you describe it as an urgent place, a place of very human curiosity. You’re not waving the flag of victimhood. You’re also not writing into these political areas from a purely intellectual place. This is what I think is so important. What poetry can offer, that other forms of writing can’t.

SJB: Yes. The best poems connect you with that humanness. They are these moments, almost like a poetic wormhole, where space bends and suddenly you’re connected to another human in such an indefinable and poignant way. Right in your chest. That’s why I read poetry.

JF: For that physical feeling, yeah. Me too.

SJB: That’s what gets me through the vacuuming, and the washing! And that’s why I’m trying to find beauty in the compromises. In the work, in the grief. Because I think it helps me in that everyday beautification of life. I’m just after beauty. I’m a slut for beauty!

[both laugh]

JF: So what’s next for you? Besides the longest and most beautiful poem yet.

SJB: For me, I wait until the idea happens—until I see a person or I read a story in a newspaper—that creates that urgency in me to understand what it is like to be that person, and then I write into it. I do want to write a book that is one long, single poem, but I’m not there yet.

JF: Do you have any thoughts about the future of New Zealand poetry? What it holds, what it will look like?

SJB: I hope there are ways for there to be a greater diversity of voices. I feel like that is starting to rise up through the zines, blogs, and indie presses, but I wonder if they’re still confined within discrete communities. In the future, I want there to be some sort of massive online platform that beams different types of poetry straight into our brains.

JF: We can make it happen.

WORK’ will be launched at Vic Books on October 22. It can be ordered from the Hue & Cry Press store.