This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
One of the poems in the Review’s November 4 issue was “For the Growers and the Grocers” by Susan Barba, which reflects, in a wintry mood, on the “long, constricted year” that was 2020, before turning unexpectedly to her grandfather, “a gardener, and a walker, attuned to weather” and a man who survived the Armenian Genocide. In her poem Barba remembers him ensconced in “the greater republic of organized forgetting,” with an orchard of fruit trees. In just seven delicate stanzas, the poem takes in the sweep of twentieth-century catastrophe and the fragile world that sustains us.
In her other occupation, as a book editor, Barba has a similarly wide scope: at our sister publisher New York Review Books, where she has worked since 2013, she has shepherded to publication books as varied as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Brian Dillon’s Essayism, Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and a number of NYRB Children’s Classics (a personal favorite is Nancy Willard’s The Adventures of Anatole).
But Barba’s primary vocation might be her poetry. In addition to The New York Review, her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Poetry Magazine. Her collection Fair Sun—which revolves around the poem “Andranik,” about her grandfather’s experience of the genocide—was awarded the Anahit Literary Prize, while her most recent collection, geode, was a 2020 New England Book Awards finalist.
I caught up with her this week by e-mail to ask some questions about her writing life.
Daniel Drake: To start with, can you tell us a little about your life—and your life as a writer. Where are you from, and how did you arrive at writing, or poetry, as a vocation? Were there any poets (or writers with a strong style) in particular who inspired you when you were younger?
Susan Barba: I was born and raised in New Jersey. My father was a second-generation Italian American, a child of the Great Depression, and my mother was born in Tehran and immigrated to Oakland, California, with her parents. I was a compulsive reader. I wanted to be an archaeologist, then a marine biologist, then a writer. I had no models for the first two, but for the third, my English teachers inspired me. They made time for writing in the classroom, “making time” being the operative phrase here. Like a magic trick they conjured this dimly lit, quiet and otherworldly time out of the school day.
I don’t know if writing would have become a vocation were it not for my father’s dying when I was twelve, which was like having the scenery collapse on set. I remember getting back on the school bus and picking up conversations as if nothing had happened because I wanted to reassure friends that I was okay. Writing was the opposite of conversation in this sense. It could acknowledge the rift. I didn’t write because I had something to say. I wrote because I thought I had nothing to say and writing gave me words, even to express silence.
In high school I loved Hemingway—talk about strong style! Then in college, I turned to poetry, or turned back to it, since I’d connected with its prosody at the beginning through nursery rhymes, hymns, Armenian poems my grandfather would recite. Mark Strand’s Dark Harbor was a revelation to me. So was Jorie Graham’s The Dream of the Unified Field. Here was a way to dispense with the cumbersome apparatus of (conventional) fiction and address being directly. Genre distinctions aren’t so delineated in my mind now, but it seemed then that poetry was the only way to orchestrate the various planes of existence, to create something equally attentive to the very small and the very large, the past and present and future, the comic and cosmic.
Could you also say how you came to work for NYRB Classics, and about your history here?
I came to work at NYRB through my friend and fellow poet-editor Jeffrey Yang. I think my academic background in comparative literature, and experience in publishing before and after that, gave me some depth and breadth that are useful to my work as an editor. In my dissertation I focused on Russian, Armenian, and English poetry and politics of the 1930s, which allowed me to make connections between cultures and languages, to be interdisciplinary before Interdisciplinary Studies was a field in itself. Both my family history and my education made me aware of centers and peripheries early on, of how power and geography determine minority and majority languages, as they used to be called. The publishing industry in the US by and large still promulgates the central perspective, the present American one, even as what constitutes the center changes. To work on translations and forgotten classics, a “list of lost books,” as Edwin Frank [the editor of the series] has called NYRB Classics, is intellectually thrilling, even if it may seem “cross-grained” or “wishful”—in fact, especially then.
What would you say your philosophy, or perhaps sensibility, as a book editor is? What leads you to, say, Kolyma Stories or The Moth Snowstorm?
Sensibility is a good word, because I don’t think I have a philosophy as a book editor per se, but yes, I am responsive to books that engage with those themes, books that, without offering facile resolutions, by their very existence counter the annihilation they describe. Varlam Shalamov’s experience in the Gulag, which led to his stories about Kolyma, nearly silenced him—he refers to how atrophied his mind became, how hard it was to return to a life predicated on language rather than physical needs. We reflexively call these kinds of stories “dark” or “heavy,” shorthand for what we imagine the memory and its weight to be. But his stories are so much more various, specific in their brutality: the image of a glove made out of human skin is hard to forget. And unexpected in their beauty: his descriptions of the dwarf pine in the snowbound taiga and how it unbends and rises skyward as spring nears. The latter is no consolation; rather it’s a mystery, how its subtle intelligence and perceived poeticism can exist in the same world as the human glove. Shalamov’s stories describe how he survived despite the dehumanization of the camps. Time and again, he emphasizes how he did not join the criminals who profited in Kolyma. He learned how fragile his humanity was and still he managed to maintain it.
You also clearly have an affinity for the subjectivity of childhood. In the first section of Fair Sun, for instance, several poems are from a child’s perspective, and indeed are often fastened by the kinds of details that preoccupy children (and go on to form memories of childhood): color, the somatic feeling of the natural world, small objects like buttons and rocks. Is there something about the experience of childhood that you find continues to inform your life and/or your art?
In Fair Sun, I needed to enter into the child’s perspective you describe to write about history, to approach an otherwise impenetrable world through the smallest opening, to sneak in undetected. What interests me is how subjectivity changes, how those buttons and rocks that fastened us—to repeat your great word—to the world, lose their hold on us. The human music distracts us and we pay the piper with those well-loved objects. But writing offers a way back in, not to dwell in nostalgia, or to sentimentalize childhood, but to redirect our attention to what we deemed, at some point, too small or inconsequential to interest us, and it’s often some aspect of the natural world. This is difficult to describe because it’s not a mode I consciously write in, it’s what generates the writing, I think. And of course, you can write about rocks from a mature perspective.
It’s not only the songs of innocence that interest me; it’s the songs of experience, too—the news in the morning and children’s books at night. We can get stuck in one mode of seeing the world and it makes us immune to others.
Geode, your latest collection, took up the subject of climate change by zooming way out to geologic time, or using legal language, or trying a number of rhetorical approaches that skirted the usual language (panic, scientific-stentorian, dejection and irony) of crisis. How—in your poetry and in your life—do you grapple with seemingly unavoidable catastrophe?
Thank you for this astute reading of the different strategies in geode. Yes, the sense of deep time is important, similar to the childhood subjectivity we discussed. It’s a different orientation, a way out of a debate that seems to me to sometimes replicate the dynamic of the Anthropocene era by making the story all about us, the humans. I think it’s necessary to recognize that our knowledge is limited. Our understanding of the sentient world, and its intelligences, is only increasing. Since geode, I’ve been working on two related projects, an anthology of writing about American wildflowers that I hope will counteract plant blindness, and a long poem about mining in the Atacama Desert in Chile, commissioned by the photographer David Maisel.
We’ll see very shortly what the outcome of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference is, but for me personally, I live in a city and state—Cambridge, Massachusetts—where there are many incentives to transition to clean energy. Every fall around this time of year, Cubby Oil would pull up to the sidewalk and drag out a pipe to pump heating oil into the big old tank in my basement. I love radiator heat, the winter sound of the pipes knocking, the radiant warmth and smell of heated metal and dust. It’s what I’ve known my whole life. And the way a car with a combustion engine drives. The physicality of it, the calibration of the pressure of your foot on the accelerator with the airflow into the engine, the mysteriously controlled continuous explosions. And even though I know the cost of all of this exhaust, I want to acknowledge the perverse appeal of these old technologies. Abandoning them is nothing short of a necessary revolution in each of our lives. I have what’s called an air source heat pump that heats my house now. It’s a thinking machine, unlike the old furnace in the basement, and this disconcerts me, even though rationally I know it’s an improvement. I mention these things because there’s an emotional component to the changes we need to make, and though they are disproportionately minor in comparison to the losses we face otherwise, I want to acknowledge the emotional resistance that, even putting aside the very real financial costs, which can be prohibitive, prevents us from implementing changes in our own lives more quickly. I think it’s helpful to recognize, to parse out what is holding us back and why—what part of it is torpor? what part unacknowledged disbelief? what part discomfort? The biggest problem is when resistance to change is justified by ideology, misinformation, or self-interest. One of my senators commented recently, “It’s hard to understand something you’re paid not to understand.” How do we get around this obvious fact? It’s a reality we need to counter creatively.
Who are some poets you’ve been reading this past year, and what have you treasured in their work?
In the past year, some new books and some new to me books: Peter Gizzi’s Now It’s Dark, for its atmosphere; Ciaran Carson’s Still Life, for bringing art into poetry and for how it inspires me to write rangier lines; Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake, for its singing; Nikky Finney’s Head Off and Split, for its sheer brilliance; Sandra Lim’s The Curious Thing, for its cold, clear mind of winter; and Katie Peterson’s Life in a Field for bringing story into poetry and Young Suh’s perfect, silent pictures.