Barnes, Jim 1933–
Barnes, Jim 1933–
Born December 22, 1933, in Summerfield, OK; son of Austin Oscar (a rancher) and Bessie Vernon (a rancher) Barnes; married Cora "Kandi" McKown, June, 1964 (divorced, 1973); married Carolyn Louis Turpin, November 23, 1973 (died, May, 2004); remarried McKown, January 1, 2006; children: (adopted) Bret Alan, Blake Anthony. Ethnicity: "Native American." Education: Southeastern State College (now Southeastern Oklahoma State University), B.A., 1964; University of Arkansas, M.A., 1965, Ph.D., 1972.
Giustina Brothers Lumber Co., Eugene, OR, lumberjack, 1954-59; Northeastern Oklahoma State University, Tahlequah, instructor in English, 1965-68; Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University), Kirksville, instructor in English, 1970-74, assistant professor, 1974-76, associate professor, beginning 1980, and professor of comparative literature, poetry editor, and writer in residence, 1994-2003; Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, distinguished professor of English and creative writing, 2003-04. Guest writer at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany, 2000. Chair, Camargo Foundation Creative Writing selection committee, 2001-07. Chariton Review at Chariton Review Press, Kirksville, MO, then Santa Fe, NM, editor, beginning 1976. Gives poetry readings throughout the United States and internationally.
PEN American Center (chair, translation award committee, 2005), PEN Center USA West, National Association for Ethnic Studies, Associated Writing Programs, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines.
National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978; translation award from Translation Center at Columbia University, 1980, for Summons and Sign; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio residency fellowship, 1990, 2003; Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry, 1992, for The Sawdust War; Senior Fulbright fellowship, 1993-94; Translation Residency, City of Munich, Germany, 1994; Camargo Foundation fellowship, 1996, 2001; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1998, for On Native Ground; Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry finalist, 2002, for On a Wing of the Sun.
(Editor) Five Missouri Poets, Chariton Review Press, 1979.
This Crazy Land (poems), Inland Boat Series, 1980.
(Translator from the German) Dagmar Nick, Summons and Sign, Chariton Review Press (Kirksville, MO), 1980.
The Fish on Poteau Mountain (poems), Cedar Creek, 1980.
The American Book of the Dead (poems; also see below), University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1982.
A Season of Loss (poetry; also see below), Purdue University Press (West Lafayette, IN), 1985.
La Plata Cantata (poetry; also see below), Purdue University Press (West Lafayette, IN), 1989.
The Sawdust War, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1992.
On Native Ground: Memoirs and Impressions, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1997.
Paris: Poems, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1997.
(Translator from the German) Dagmar Nick, Gezählte Tage/Numbered Days, New Odyssey (Kirksville, MO), 1998.
Visiting Picasso (poetry), University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2007.
Work represented in anthologies, including The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, Red Earth, 1979; The Pushcart Prize V: Best of the Small Presses, Pushcart, 1980; and Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry, Monitor Book, 1980. Contributor of poems, articles, and translations to journals, including Nation, Treasure World (under pseudonym Jacques Tisserand), Prairie Schooner, Poetry Now, Chicago Review, and Focus/Midwest. Past poetry editor of Places.
An editor, translator, and educator, Jim Barnes is also a respected poet of the American landscape. His books of poetry include The Sawdust War, On a Wing of the Sun, and Visiting Picasso, and he also penned the American Book Award-winning On Native Ground: Memoirs and Impressions. Editor of the Chariton Review since the mid-1970s, Barnes has also translated several collections of verse by German poet Dagmar Nick.
Although Barnes prefers not to be considered a Native American poet—his heritage is Choctaw, Welsh, and English—many of his most respected poems are about bones, rivers, plains, and other natural elements. Discussing Barnes's career as a writer, Elizabeth Blair wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that "his first major collection of poems, The American Book of the Dead, takes as its subjects place, heritage, and loss, all of which remain prominent themes in his later books. Barnes has been called both a confessional poet and a Romantic poet…. Commitment to place is often neither comforting nor simple, as the poems in The American Book of the Dead amply illustrate." In a review of The American Book of the Dead for World Literature Today, Charles R. Larson dubbed Barnes a "master of ironic distance." Other critics have taken note of the poet's deep interest in his Native American heritage as well as his solid grounding in the British and American literary traditions.
Reviewing Barnes's collection The Sawdust War, which won the Oklahoma Book Award in 1993, Cimarron Review contributor Samuel Maio praised the book's careful structuring, redemptive wisdom, and its ambition. In Publishers Weekly a contributor commented on the poet's use of "lovely, concise imagery and philosophical asides that are … entirely true to life." The verses in this collection reflect a poetic voice capable of "weathering a significant share of life's vicissitudes while developing an acute appreciation for the myriad curiosities of existence," the contributor added.
In his more recent work, On Native Ground, Barnes turns to prose, reflecting on settings ranging from rural Oklahoma during the 1940s to time spent in the Italian countryside. The book is divided into two parts, transporting the reader from the poet's rural youth to his more cosmopolitan life as a poet and editor with a passion for European literature. "While nostalgic for a simpler time and place," noted Library Journal contributor Lisa A. Mitten, in On Native Ground Barnes "is also clearly enervated by" his career in the arts. Through his memoir, the poet's "goal of being recognized for his art rather than his blood is well on its way to being achieved," Mitten concluded.
Barnes once told CA: "I began writing poetry at the age of twenty-five, while working as a lumberjack in western Oregon. My first work was not published until ten years later. Since 1968 my poems have been appearing in literary magazines, and in 1980 my first volumes were published. I have been called a ‘place poet,’ but that term seems a bit too restrictive. In my poetry, I often choose places that have all the signs of having once been full of life but that are now neither full of life nor lifeless. This in-betweenness is important in my work.
"Many times in my verse, I am walking with the speaker of the poem, the observer. And he is visiting, however briefly, however long, a certain spot in time, and what I seem to be after is almost always a certain sense of loss that is felt by the speaker about the situation and the place that he finds himself in. This sense of loss is not sought on my part for itself, but for provoking the acknowledgment of an affirmation. I hope my poetry is not the poetry of destruction, of failure, of disillusion. I hope that the speaker who is created in the poem is one who affirms the loss that is there and accepts it. By doing this, the speaker is growing; or at least I would hope so.
"Perhaps I am a nostalgic person. I look backward a lot. Perhaps more so than ahead, especially now that I'm in middle age. I keep looking back to the good old days which were actually boring as all hell. But when I look back, I don't see those times; I don't look back and find bad things. It's always the good home things. I like the future—but I get more pleasure out of the past. I think anybody who says he doesn't is foolish because there's wealth of things we've lived through. If we can sort them out, maybe we can find our hearts. ‘Nostalgia’ is not a pejorative term for me. The past is important, and I am going where it leads, wherever tradition leads. The future lies only in the past, the immediate past and the far past, call it what you will. Time is relative, as Einstein showed years ago. I can't live without the past. To deny it is to deny memory, mother of the Muses. Try shutting out the past for the moment and things fall apart; I cease to exist.
"An editor once accused my poetry of being unrelentingly sober. I think that the editor who said that did not like a poetry of images, poetry that is filled with the sense of loss, yet affirmation. Unrelentingly sober—I hope not—for I must occasionally have a sense of humor. If I've lost my sense of humor, then I'm not of much worth. It's a dangerous thing to do. But yes, I am unrelentingly sober in this respect: when I get an image going or a metaphor working, I will try to carry it throughout the poem and weed away anything that is extraneous, anything that's not tightly connected to the major image of the poem. I try to stay true to the image. I am always trying unrelentingly to succeed at this particular task. And the effect is usually a sober one, to be sure.
"I have also been called a confessional poet. Yet there is no such thing as autobiography. One cannot write one's life as one's life was or is. Nor can another man or woman simply write the life of another—it's impossible. The greatest confession is lie. One has to take a few facts here and there, make transitions between, and hope somehow to capture the essence of the thing or the person. And essentially, poetry works the same way because for each poem there must be created a voice to carry that poem—a speaker, a narrator. The speaker is not the poet. The speaker is a character invented by the poet to act as the voice in the poem. And within the poem, there are, of course, the images that dominate. Never the idea; I don't like the concept of ‘idea poetry.’
"One poet who knows this well is Dagmar Nick, the German contemporary whose work I have translated. Nearly all of her poems are based on her life, but none are confessions. The image is all, and the voice speaks for all of us. The voice is a lie in reflecting any poet's life. He may be using a few facts that belong to his experience, but he's got to expound these facts in a certain way to create what you would call the universal. He's got to think what he is saying and he's got to make it real. This is what lie is: it's a mixture of anything, many things, that the poet cares to stir up that will make the poem work. From the total experience of the poem comes the experience of the poet, and it's from this combination of fact and lie that truth comes. If it means something to you, if it affects you, it's a certain truth. If it makes you see, if it makes you realize, if it makes you grow, then it's somehow true.
"Take the lies of Plato and his dialogues in The Republic—the analogy of the cave—or better yet, the great vision of Ur in the tenth book of The Republic. This is not fact; there is no way that anyone could go into hell or Hades or the underworld and return with the knowledge of what the great system is. Yet there is a certain truth that comes out of Plato's telling the vision of Ur, and we somehow learn something about ourselves from this lie, this myth. In this respect, for me, lie is the greatest of all truths."
Barnes contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
The first summer after Pearl Harbor was attacked—I was seven—was especially hard for us. My father had not been able to get the fertilizer he needed in the spring for his cotton and had had to plant without it. Then there was too much early rain, and later too much sun. As we chopped away, thinning the cotton to two stalks for each length of a hoe blade, he said there wasn't much need to trouble. The mature plants would yield very little. And as he had forecast, we barely realized a bale for all the labor. The following summers were but a little better if at all.
I don't know how we survived the lean war years. With both my sisters married and away from home and my brother in the Eighth Air Force, it was more than difficult for my parents to eke out a living from the poor upland farm, where the stones dulled plow points and the mules looked as if they were daily marching toward the boneyard. My mother hoarded what food ration coupons we were entitled to, or she would not have had enough to buy sugar to make blackberry jelly when the wild berries matured each June. Not often were we able to find enough berries to make the effort of looking for them worthwhile. Everyone else wanted the berries, too. Competition, water moccasins, and ticks kept us out of the blackberry patches more often than hunger drove us to them. The sweet taste of jelly on hot biscuits was a rare treat for me in those days.
We did, however, have a garden, which we watered from a two-gallon bucket. I remember carrying water from our well in the front yard to the garden while my mother measured out tin can after tin can for each plant. The garden kept us from tipping over the edge into starvation. It often proved to be a means by which we could trade for staples and for me a means by which I could gain admittance to the tent show that came every summer for two weeks during the course of the war. But when there were no late green onions to trade for tickets to the movies, I along with a half dozen other boys would slip in under the tent as soon as the lights went out. I don't know which was the greatest pleasure: the thrill of seeing a good movie or the risk of slipping in under the tent. Once or twice a tentwalker would catch one of us by the heel, but it really didn't matter. In a few minutes' time we would again be at the edge of the tent. I think the movie man expected a good number of his movie goers to be children of the night.
The movies I saw helped sustain me. In a dreary time when life on the home front was slow and dull, I needed the adventures of heroes to carry me into some other world, a world where you could be another. Without reading and the movies, I would have gone mad in a crazy world of childhood. Across the screen or the pages, I followed the action of many a man and woman. Westerns, detective stories, romance novels—I read everything impartially. But it was on the silver screen that I lost my self entirely. In watching movies I became what I could not be. I was Colonel Tim McCoy (a bona-fide World War I decorated hero), Gene Autry (who had once been a telegrapher on the Frisco line, which passed through the Fourche Maline river bottoms a mile away on its long stretch to the West Coast), Bob Steele (whose lightning fists were never still), Johnny Weismuller (whose German name was never questioned), and a multitude of others, even once in a while a "good" Indian, strong and tall, standing my ground against evil. And once in a while, as the long summers passed, I realized, with the better movies, few though they were, that there were forces of evil loosed on the world I had little knowledge of.
I was an avid reader at a very early age, thanks to the efforts of my two sisters, Marveda and Erma Dean. By some unknown method they somehow, probably accidentally, taught me to read before I started to school and before they left home. I can remember when I was five and reading with ease Hans Christian Andersen's Silver Skates, which came with drawings that could be colored the hue of your choice. And when I was five and just starting in the first grade, I completed the first-grade reader on my own in two days. I then told the teacher I wanted to be in the second grade. There was a stunned look on her face, but she promoted me on the spot and handed me a new reader, telling me to ask one of the second-grade students where the lesson for tomorrow was. Each day I escaped into literature. At night my ears were glued to the battery radio. I was with Captain Marvel, Sky King, the Green Lantern and Kato, the Lone Ranger and Tonto. It all took me away and into a world quite other than the dull, lonesome expanse of what I then perceived as worthless land between the Sans Bois Mountains to the north and the Winding Stair Mountain to the south.
Yet the living land itself was working its way into my bones. The images of it, the smell of it, the sounds of it still play with my psyche today. And I am richer for it. Not until I admitted this in the late 1960s could I write any thing I thought worth reading.*
How dull to say I was born in 1933, the fifth and final child, the third son, of Austin Oscar and Bessie Vernon Adams Barnes, near the town of Summerfield in LeFlore County, Oklahoma. Yet these facts set me firmly in time and place. My earliest memories are of house and vista: from a porch facing a lane I looked up and down a road that stretched to the mountains in the south and to the river in the north. It was an infinitely long, sad road, veeing and disappearing into the blue of Winding Stair Mountain or dropping into the woods by the river I had yet to see.
Only brief moments and images remain of the few years we lived across the field from a clump of trees that sheltered an Indian burial mound. But the house is as clear in my mind as if I left it only yesterday: two rooms, with a breezeway between them. One room had a fireplace and a space for sitting and a bed, where my mother and father slept. The other contained two beds and sundry items and boxes I no longer see with any clarity at all. I do not recall where I slept, nor where we ate. The image of the house as viewed from outside through a child's eyes is an immense one, the structure towering gray and hollow against an autumn sky.
And the image begins to fuse with another: the house on Mountain Creek Road, north of Wister, a small town twelve miles northeast of Summerfield. Again, the image of house is clear. Now a larger, more expansive dwelling with a long front porch and no breezeway, an enormous fireplace that I could walk into when the fire was out, a kitchen as large as a bedroom. The color of gray persists: many houses during the Great Depression were made from green lumber fresh from local sawmills and could not be painted with any success. Even after the lumber had aged, the rough-cut boards were usually not painted. I have no memory of sunlight for the first six years of my life. Only the gray days and the deep, black nights.
The house on Mountain Creek Road seemed as large as a castle. I remember standing underneath the edge of the front porch to get out of the rain, with Colonel, my collie, sitting beside me. We were both looking across the road to a grassy prairie pasture that swept down a sloping hill to the creek beyond, where, had it not been raining, my sisters had promised to take me swimming. I remember standing on the high bank of the swimming hole eating pawpaws my sisters had picked from the low limbs of a tree, looking back up the prairie and across the road to our house that stood, gray on gray, immense in its place on the hill.
If memory of childhood has color, then the color is gray. The days of my childhood seem to gray each into
the other in a time when time seems hardly to have existed at all except now as in some long dream I see from a distant sleep. Images appear, vanish, appear again in such a fashion or frequency that these are themselves the history of the place where I was and, consequently, of what I am.
It seemed a long time we lived in the gray houses. The third was back near Summerfield and nearer the Fourche Maline River not far from Folsom Switch, on the Frisco Railroad. Here again the scene is much the same, the long porch high off the ground, the large fireplace, and vistas of light opening up from the house to the west and south. Here, in the house at the end of a long road from Summerfield that passed by the house of Lafe and Clio Anderson, whose daughters I tried to buy when I was four years old, and the house of Mr. and Mrs. McClain, whose first names I never knew and who seemed older than the land itself, the landscape in my memory takes on the atmosphere of a Corot painting. Always there is a dark foreground of house, forest, field, with figures going about a daily life, but in the distant background a mysterious light that gives a kind of hope you know is needed to keep everything going in the idyllic world. Whether it is the memory of dark or the memory of light that interests me most, it is hard to say. I can only view the houses now as if they were in Corot paintings, a dull gray, framed in a memory of time that is mine and mine alone.
We moved to within a quarter mile of Summerfield perhaps a year before Pearl Harbor. The gray boxed house (no studs in the walls) stood on the road running west to Summerfield and east to Lone Pine. Within months of the move, my brother Haskell had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps before finishing high school and was assigned to a camp in Colorado, and both my sisters had married boys who had volunteered for military service. (Another brother, Murel Kenneth, who was born two years before me, died in infancy from what most likely had been SIDS, though they did not call it that in the l930s.) Times were indeed hard for us then. My father did tenant farming for a cousin, and there was little income even when my brother and sisters were home to help. I had just started school and was of little use on the farm. It was here, in this house, that we heard the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When war was declared, my brother went directly from the CCC into the Army Air Corps, and we would not see him until he returned from England nearly five years later, after the war.
The day we heard the news on the battery radio was cold and wet. I can still hear the sound of the rain on the tin roof of the house, rain that could have easily been snow if the temperature had dropped. My mother cried most of the day, and my father walked to town to talk with others about what was happening in the world. There are for me only the gray house, the gray day, the rain, and the endless news and static on the radio. I have no memory of leaving the house on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.
In a short time most of the young men were enlisted, either by draft or through volunteering. Tiny white flags started appearing in the front windows of houses along the roads. Each had a blue star or stars upon it, depending on how many sons and daughters were away at war. I felt alone and was very much alone during the war years. I was then essentially an only child, and a hawkish one at that. The games I played were war games. When others were crazy for basketball, I was fighting on all fronts, imagining the way it was over there. I was aviator, infantryman, submariner: I did it all over and over again. If children could have gone to war, I would have enlisted immediately. Even my dreams were full of war, and I do not apologize for that. I was a child, and in a child's way I saw the war as an adventure, a way out of the dull life that I thought I knew too well. My fantasies of war were as broad as nights were long, filled with deeds others had
done, according to Captain Midnight and Sky King on the radio or Captain Easy and Joe Palooka in the comic strips.
In this the last house of my childhood, I would discover another world beyond radio and comic strips. The world of reading opened before me, a flowering dawn that I walked into each day from the time I started to grade school. I devoured every book I could get my hands on. And with time on my hands, I read each night until my father forced me to bed with a reminder that kerosene for lamps was scarce and ten cents a gallon. It is reading, nothing else, that ultimately made me want to write. Nothing in the blood or the genes or the culture of eastern Oklahoma made me want to become a writer. I fell in love with the art of writing twenty years before I knew what had afflicted me. It would take two more wars and a decade in the Pacific Northwest and over a thousand volumes of reading before I would be ready to write one word.
The four years of high school were wasted on me. In spite of them, however, I learned one thing: how to type. I must have learned others, such as how to diagram sentences and thus better see the grammatical functions of elements within, or how to conjugate verb tenses, or how to spell effectively, though it seems to me I have always known fairly well how language works. You cannot have read voraciously since the age of five without gaining some knowledge of how language behaves on the page and in the mouth.
But I was taught nothing in high school about how to read, or what to read. I simply read and read, until there was nothing in the LeFlore High library, the size of a small closet, I had not read. My English teachers could recommend nothing, for we had no means of attaining anything beyond what was already on hand—the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, two or three Tarzan novels, a few Zane Greys. We had two real novels, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The rest was junk reading. I should like to think I sensed it then, though I probably did not. At an early age I knew that there were definitely two kinds of literature, one of escape and another of enlightenment, and that sometimes the two kinds got all mixed up, as they did in the Twain novels. It was not until I was out of high school, out of LeFlore County, well out of the state for that matter, that I began the discovery of significant interpretive literature on such a grand scale that I never had thought possible.
Out of sheer boredom I joined the Oklahoma National Guard (Company I, 180th Infantry, 45th Division) during my junior year when I was only fifteen years of age. I had to hitchhike to and from Poteau, twenty-one miles to the north of Summerfield, each Monday night for drill. Payday was every three months, at ten dollars per month. In 1950 the guard mobilized for the Korean War. I wanted to go, desperately, but my wise mother was not about to let that happen. My honorable discharge reads "error found in contract," a phrase that should be stenciled across the face of my high school diploma. I was taught nothing in high school: neither the love of art, nor the way of the world, nor the worth of numbers, nor the will to achieve. After high school I suffered through nearly a decade of bone-breaking labor before I had the will to reach farther than my grasp and look beyond my range of vision to a wider world of possibilities.*
In May 1951 I left Summerfield, quietly telling myself that I had stepped in the last pile of cow dung I ever would. I was going to Oregon, a distant and exotic land of towering trees and mountains always green, of rugged coasts where ships heavy with gold had run aground by the hundreds, where, in other words, a man might make his fortune off the land with no more effort than it took to pick a pebble up off the beach. In a way, I have not lost that childish dream: I still think I live in a time of limitless possibilities. There is still the possibility of that green land beyond the next hill which may be the place I am looking for.
I had lived all my seventeen years either in Summerfield or within a day's walk of the town. I had seen friends leave whom I knew I would not see again, and I knew there was a fatalism holding those who stayed behind with a grip no god could loose. I did not want to stay at home so long that I would know defeat of sense and soul. I knew I had to leave or be counted among those who were even at my age withering into a complacency of spirit that accepts defeat with little more than a yawn.
My brother and sister Marveda were both calling Oregon their homes at this time, and I had been waiting anxiously for graduation so I could finally join them. My mother's brother, Weaver Adams, was in Oregon also. By the time I arrived my brother was the chief highline operator on the construction of the massive Lowell Dam, on the Willamette River, which was three or four years in the making. Marveda's husband, Chet Hamner, was a catskinner on the same project. It was a time when work was plentiful for skilled machine operators and unskilled laborers alike, and I had no trouble at all finding work with Morrison-Knudson and later with Utah Construction, working on the same project as Haskell and Chet. My work, however, consisted at first of pulling nails out of used concrete forms and later, after I had been fired for not denailing fast enough, of cutting blue tops (scooping away the dirt from survey stakes) so the grader operator could finish the dirt work on road beds. Still later, I worked as assistant powder monkey and dynamited half a mountain away in order to make roads around what was soon to be the shores of a deep lake. With hindsight I know those jobs were absolute drudgery, though at the time I was too enthralled with the Pacific Northwest to care what I had to do to live. I was surrounded by the foothills of the Cascades and the mountains of the Coast Ranges, and the great Willamette Valley that stretched from Portland to Cottage Grove was a new land I was anxious and determined to explore.
From early 1954 through late 1959 I lumberjacked for Giustina Brothers Lumber Company, of Eugene. Most of those years were spent on water, sorting and rafting and scaling (determining the worth of) Douglas fir and hemlock logs. I loved the work as much as I had loved the rivers of my youth. But after five years I had had enough. I wanted more out of my freedom. What lumberjacking had given me I understood and was grateful for: time to continue reading and to reflect on all that I read. By the end of the 1950s I could discern in literature what I knew to be good or bad or mediocre writing. And by that time, too, I had begun to want to write. I had seen compression and the great art of suggestion over statement in Katherine Anne Porter and Ernest Hemingway. I had sensed the value of structure and myth in Thomas Mann. I had learned that the human heart and mind were nearly always at odds from William Faulkner. I thought I was ready to write. I bought a typewriter and typed a fifty-page novella, in imitation of every bullfighting story Hemingway ever did. No one had to tell me it was bad: in the writing of it, I realized that something other than a typewriter and a will to work was needed. I would have to read more than I ever dreamed possible just to be able to keep from writing like those I read.
The best advice I have ever received from the time I first began trying to write was from a man who became my one great friend in Oregon and who has remained steadfastly so for these forty-odd years. Jerry Easterling, who recently retired from his position with the Salem Capital-Journal, put his hand on my shoulder one Friday night in the Roundup Tavern in Creswell, just after Bobo Olsen had coldcocked his opponent in black and white in the corner above our heads, and said: "All this crap about being a writer is meaningless as long as you are sitting here doing nothing except holding that brown bottle in your hand." In other words, write, he said. There is no other way.
I wanted to write short stories. The novella was the first try. Others followed. None succeeded. I thought college was the answer. It was not. Though I learned much about literature, I learned little about the act of writing there. What I learned about writing I continued to learn from reading the thing itself. If I were ever to write a good short story, I would have to have read enough of them to at least know the possibilities of form, the variables of style, the opportunities of language.
From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, I wrote eighteen short stories, none of which was good enough even for me to want to send to literary magazines with publication in mind. But then in 1967 I wrote the nineteenth, and I knew I had one good short story. I sent "The Reapers" out for ten years, to forty-nine different literary and general interest magazines ranging from the Atlantic Monthly to Sou'wester before it was accepted in the summer of 1978. The story has since been anthologized a number of times. Ten years, forty-nine submissions—results like those can cause a writer's psyche to do strange flip-flops. I knew I had a damned fine short story when I completed "The Reapers," but I also knew that it was one of the hardest tasks I had ever had before me. Thus I swore I would never write another until I published "The Reapers." And in that interval of ten years, I discovered poetry and found myself at home in form and structure, delighting in the possibilities that both offered. What I had learned from fiction I would apply to poetry on a smaller, even more compressed scale than that of short stories.*
I returned to Oklahoma reluctantly in 1960. Financially, it made sense, even though the University of Oregon had admitted me. It was college that really opened up the world for me. To have unlimited access to thousands of volumes of books and magazines was in itself mind expanding. Three professors at South-eastern State College, in Durant, Oklahoma (now renamed Southeastern Oklahoma State University, or SOSU), had a great deal to do with the course of my life from the time I entered the school that fall of 1960. Ruth Hatchet, professor of English, convinced me that without keeping the crap detector turned up full blast you could not possibly write anything that was worth keeping. She was a cantankerous old maid who had been lied to by an anxious lover in her youth and ever since trusted nobody who wouldn't look her square in the eye and say, "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am." It was through her tutelage that I began to see the shallowness in much of what was written in modern and contemporary American literature.
Lee Ball, also professor of English, showed me passion in literature, pure flights of ecstasy in Whitman, Jonathan Edwards, Mark Twain, showed me how the language soared when the writer was at his best and how it sagged when he was at his worst. Lee's own feeling for literature was as passionate as anything he read aloud in class. You don't forget people who feel literature alive and jumping within them.
The gateway to the realm of world literature opened wide when I started to college. I majored in English, drama, and French (a triple major almost, just three hours short of a legitimate French major). Wade Baskin, my French and German professor, broadened my view of literature to such an extent that I wanted to translate. He allowed a few of us in his classes to assist in the translation into English of André Gide's Notebooks of André Walter and Kurt Kolle's Introduction to Psychiatry, which he was doing for the Philosophical Library. It was Wade who convinced me that I should go to graduate school in comparative literature rather than in drama, or acting. (I seriously thought about becoming a professional actor, for I did well in college dramatics, playing some very good roles very well: Buff in Death of a Salesman, the sewerman and the reporter in The Madwoman of Chaillot, and the one-man chorus in Jean Anouilh's version of Antigone.) Wade had seen too many starving want-to-be actors in New York while he was finishing his doctorate at Columbia University (where his dissertation was the first American translation of de Saussure). Wade was careful to point out that he had also met starving poets. On the wall of his study was a signed, framed copy of a poem that Maxwell Bodenheim had given him, the one with the passage that reads "the little silver birds of death." Ominous words for one who was torn among three possible professions—poet, actor, literary critic. I decided that I would try to have the best of them all by formally completing a Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, by writing, translating, and publishing poetry, and by writing a critical study of works by Malcolm Lowry and Thomas Mann.
I was writing poems all through graduate school at the University of Arkansas, though I was not able to take classes in creative writing because of the tight schedul-
ing of courses I had to observe for the comparative literature degrees. But regardless of the work load of study and the graduate teaching assistantships I held, the writing continued. I began to place pieces in magazines—Prairie Schooner, Discourse, Nimrod—and it was only a matter of time before I was classed as one of the contemporary Native American writers, an academic ethnic category given "legitimacy" by N. Scott Momaday's winning the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn in 1969. That was all right with me, for I have always been proud of the Choctaw blood that flows through me and just as proud of the Welsh also. But I always made it clear that I wanted to be called a writer or poet because of my work.
After finishing the M.A., in comparative literature in 1965, I took an English teaching job at Northeastern Oklahoma State University. And in the winter of the same year I bought a house on the hill above the shores of Lake Tenkiller, at Pettit Bay, some five or six miles south of Tahlequah. It was not an extraordinary house, but it was perched rather precariously on the hill above the bay. What I remember most about moving in was that first I had to move the spiders and centipedes out. I hired a local exterminator who blasted the house inside and out with malathion, which I discovered much later on was a danger not only to pests but to humans as well. I had never seen a centipede over two or three inches long until I called the exterminator. We measured a bright yellow-and-black one, slow in dying, to be seventeen inches long. This was wild and woolly country, the western edge of the Cookson Hills.
The house on the hill above Pettit Bay was a good place for writing. Gone by this time were the gray houses of my childhood. The world had discovered rustic stain and "natural" colors. It was here that I wrote "The Reapers" and the first handful of poems that I realized were good enough to call poems and to submit to magazines I believed in as organs of fine writing. Perhaps I could have written as well elsewhere. Perhaps this was the point in time toward which I had been growing for so many years, the point where I could distinguish the worth or worthlessness of what I was writing. At any rate, this was the time that I stopped doing lots of silly things in my work, such as flagrantly imitating the recently dead giants of American literature.
Here I could sit at the windows on early mornings in the fall and see, in the distance, deer come down to the lake's edge to drink. Nearly any night after first frost I could hear the yap of coyotes in the hills, and sometimes, if I listened carefully, I could hear the sound of fox feet in the dry leaves around the house. It was a lonely time, and a time of much reflection. I wanted to write stories and poems that would survive me, and I was very afraid that I would not. Without knowing it, during this time of reflection, this time of late beginnings, I was continuing to store up images that would be with me the rest of my writing days.
Above Lake Tenkiller, to the north, the Illinois River cuts a rugged path down from the high country near Siloam Springs. It is a short but fast river, fed by hundreds of cold springs, that drops by a series of rapids that are a canoeist's dream. From the upper reaches of the Illinois, down past Tenkiller, south through the San Bois, and on to the Winding Stair and Kiamichi mountains, roads take me past places that are alive with a spirit that informs my world, ancient places that grip the heart and make it throb with the ache of knowing. No matter how the face of the land changes or how many tourists I have to step around on my way to them, I will keep returning. For each time I go back, I feel my being lifted up by something I know but absolutely cannot name.*
In the fall of 1968, I returned to the University of Arkansas to continue graduate work on the Ph.D. and by the spring of 1970 had finished all but the dissertation. In the fall I took a job teaching French and English at Northeast Missouri State College (now Truman State University). I wrote the doctoral dissertation during the summer of 1971 in a white-hot dash of six weeks. (It would be published in its entirety some twenty years later.) I began editing the Chariton Review in 1976 after the founding editor, Andrew Grossbardt, left the university. I continue to edit the magazine, and it is a daily task that I attend to joyously and always with great expectations. I have taught a multitude of subjects at Truman State University over the last twenty-seven years, from ancient Greek and Roman literature to contemporary American literature and creative writing. In 1994, after seven books of poetry, one scholarly book, and one book of translation, the university named me writer-in-residence.
I was married in November 1973 to Carolyn Louise Ahlborn, a native of the town we have made our home in for these twenty-four years. It has been a good, solid marriage for both of us. We have two sons (Carolyn's by a first marriage, adopted by me), and I have written over five hundred poems, short stories, and essays. It may not be fair to Carolyn to gauge a relationship by the number of books produced, but she assures me that she approves of such a yardstick.
As soon as I settled into teaching at Truman State in 1970, I began to publish quite frequently in the literary magazines, and I continued to write more and what I thought to be better poems. Through the 1970s I must have published more than a hundred poems, and God only knows how many I wrote (or how many I threw away). There is a stack of first efforts in my file cabinets that I don't ever want to look through again.
I had two full-length manuscripts ready for publishers' consideration by the time the decade turned. I had, in fact, been trying for nearly ten years to place one of them and had miserably failed with each effort. In 1978, Cedar Creek Press, a very small press in Stillwater, Oklahoma, accepted my Fish on Poteau Mountain for publication. Two years later and two states away, Cedar Creek finally brought out the book, without my having been consulted regarding cover, without my having proofread one poem, without any sign of a contract. My first published book was a giveaway. The book failed: it was not distributed at all. I bought out the press's inventory of Fish in 1989. Failure is a good teacher.
Regardless of my publishing the book with a press-too-small directed by an idiot savant of the printing press, I think 1980 was a pretty good year. With the help of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and Truman State University, I brought out with the Chariton Review Press my own translation from the German of Dagmar Nick's Summons and Sign, which won the Translation Prize from the Translation Center of Columbia University. I wondered how that happened, for I knew no one at the center.
As many as four times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my book-length manuscript Dog Days placed as finalist in the Walt Whitman Award, but never did it get the big cigar. I submitted to other awards as well. I was slow to learn that most of the literary contests and not a few of the prizes were controlled by strange variables, rather than quality of work submitted. I think you know what I mean by that. It was at about this time that I swore I would never enter a contest that required an entry fee or that had as judge someone who had already awarded some other prize to a friend or former student. I would make it my business to know such things. Doubtlessly there are many fine prizes that are awarded with integrity and honor, but I know there are those that are flat-out rigged by the directors and paid for by naive submitters.
Dog Days became The American Book of the Dead when I submitted it to the University of Illinois Press for consideration. I had grown weary submitting it those few years and thought a title change as well as slight restructuring and the addition of a few new poems might do the trick. It did. Laurence Lieberman, poetry editor for the University of Illinois Press and a major poet himself, accepted The American Book of the Dead for the 1982 Illinois series and has continued to serve as valued adviser and critic. Subsequently, he accepted The Sawdust War for the 1992 series and Paris for the 1997 series.
The poems of The Fish on Poteau Mountain and The American Book of the Dead, as well as the two books published by Purdue University Press in 1985 and 1989, A Season of Loss and La Plata Cantata, are comprised mainly of work written between 1965 and the late l980s. Most of these poems were published first in the little magazines, with a dozen or so appearing in The Nation, a nationally prominent magazine that I still hold in high literary regard mainly because of the integrity of the poetry editor, Grace Schulman.
About 1988 or 1989, my work began to take on a sharper focus. Up until this time I was writing mostly occasional poems—that is, work that was done on the spur of the moment, content and form happening without regard for anything except the will to make a poem. Now I began to think in terms of book instead of single poem. Thus I began to work within a frame of reference. As a result, The Sawdust War was a book wherein all the poems worked toward spacial and temporal purpose, while at the same time each was complete in and of itself. I began the book while Carolyn and I were enjoying a Rockefeller Bellagio fellowship on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. For five uninterrupted weeks in the spring of 1990, I wrote many of the poems for what would become the final section of The Sawdust War and also started the translation of Dagmar Nick's Gezählte Tage (Numbered Days). It was a pleasant and complete surprise, in 1993, when The Sawdust War won the Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry. The book was entirely ignored by the Eastern literati but very well reviewed in Publishers Weekly, which is always good for library sales.*
Since 1980 I have given over 120 poetry readings in the United States, Korea, Japan, France, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic, and I have never seen, in all the travels, one of my books for sale in any commercial bookstore with the exception of a small store in the Old Town section of Omaha, Nebraska. Someone told me that not to see your books on the shelves of bookstores is a mark of distinction. I have come to believe it. At the Columbia Bookstore in the mall in Columbia, Missouri, there are books of poetry by "major" American contemporaries that have been there since the store's opening over ten years ago.
There was a time some years back that I would go anywhere just to give a reading of my work and for any price. I went to Santa Fe right after the publication of The American Book of the Dead for a reading
for nothing, carrying along twenty-five heavy hardback copies to sell, only to find just three people showing up for the event. They all had copies they had ordered beforehand. In 1989 I gave a reading at California State University—San Bernardino. In attendance were my host, his department chairman, his dean, and Carolyn. I was to be paid a goodly chunk of cash for the reading. I read. A lone graduate student arrived halfway through the performance. What a life!
On the other hand, there are those great moments when you are paid well and much appreciated at the same time. In February of 1994 the Municipality of Rome invited me to be the featured presenter at the culmination of a three-month-long exposition of art and artifacts of the American West, L'Arte della frontiera americana, 1830-1920. The directors of the exposition flew me down from Switzerland, where I was doing a six-month senior Fulbright fellowship at the University of Lausanne, and gave me an audience of 500 appreciative Romans and a double handful of good green one hundred-dollar bills. There are just rewards in the world after all, I told myself. Or take the time in the spring of 1996 when Carolyn and I were in Prague (I was the featured American poet for the Prague Writers Conference) and took a slow walk through the Old Jewish Cemetery with R.S. Thomas, listening to his solemn and dignified Welsh voice resonate with living verse. These are moments that tell you that you have made the right choice, a life of poetry.
At times the choice is hard. In the course of a year, I probably read over a thousand short stories and ten times that in poems that are submitted to the Chariton Review. A few years ago I counted percentages for a month: over 91 percent of what I read began with (somewhere in the first paragraph or first stanza) the phrase "my mother," "my father," "my son," "my daughter," "my brother," "my grandmother," "my uncle," or so on. In nearly as many cases, the phrase constituted the first two words of the story or poem. My conclusion was that almost every short story writer or poet was writing like every other short story writer or poet. And I didn't have to look far among the reputable national magazines to confirm that what I saw in manuscript was being published as well. On my desk were several stacks of magazines published over the past few years. By selecting one at random, I saw the fall 1992 issue of one of America's oldest literary magazines. Of the seven short stories therein, five began the same as those of my survey. What further disturbed me was that far too few of the stories indicated that the writer knew anything about form and structure—about complication, about the uses of irony, about vantage point, about tone. The stories and poems were, in effect, personal essays that simply started and ended.
In too many instances, every day of the week, I read the sorry state of the American short story and poem in the magazines I either subscribe to or get as exchange copies. (Currently, Chariton exchanges with over seventy publications.) Only a few of these have the editorial integrity not to follow the trend in publishing today that more and more seems to be the personal essay under the guise of short fiction or poetry—the personal essay that is first-person narrative, very believable because it deals with that with which we all have some familiarity: family. I love reading good essays and respect the genre. But I damned well like my short stories and poems to be otherwise than essays on familial conflict, real or imagined. Form and structure determine the art. The how is always more important than the what. Those writers not concerned with the art of making are doomed to have only subject to work with.*
I began writing the poems in Paris in 1992, just after the publication of The Sawdust War. They are the logical outcome of our many sojourns in the City of Light. Carolyn and I first visited Paris in 1988, a few days before attending a poets and editors conference in Thonon-les-Bains. It was, in effect, our first trip to Europe. We fell in love with France and have been returning each year since that time. Every poem I have ever written is grounded in actuality. The poems in Paris are more than grounded. They are saturated by the things we saw and continue to see in Paris, by what we read, by what we know. Allow me an anecdotal example. The weather in November 1992 was quite bad: wind and rain for the whole length of the two weeks we were in the City of Light. This did not, however, deter us from the streets. One day, out of sheer spite for the rain and wind, we walked from our hotel on Plaza Haussmann, in the eighth arrondissement, down rue du Faubourg St. Honoré to rue Royal and Hotel de Crillon, reputed to be the most expensive and luxurious hotel in the world. Though we never were guests of the hotel for overnight stays, we always found ourselves welcomed brightly by the doormen and others. The Crillon is a quiet oasis in a noisy city, what can often be a cold and wet noisy city.
The rez-de-chaussée bar of the hotel had been recently redecorated by Sonia Rykiel in gold, red, and black. And in an attempt to recoup the cost of renovation, the barmen seemed to want to make a killing off each drink served. In honor of Hemingway, Carolyn and I each ordered a fiery glass of kirsch and sipped it for over an hour hoping the rain would end so we could continue our walk across the Pont de la Concorde and down Boulevard St.-Germain to the heart of the Latin Quarter.
By the time we had finished the drink it was clear that the rain would continue throughout the day, and though it was good to sit there rethinking Hemingway's many Paris lives and liberations we needed to continue our planned walk or face an even colder night. As we had discovered, the Paris November days were short: it was full night by 5 p.m. on cloudy days. Paris is, after all, on the same latitude as Nova Scotia and insular Newfoundland. We were determined to walk and enjoy it.
By the time we reached the church of St.-Germain-des-Prés, the night was heavy with rain and endless traffic. Shortly after passing the church, we found the sidewalk blocked, cordoned off by a police barricade of some fifty yards. We made a detour left on to rue de Buci, then right on to rue de Seine, which took us back to St.-Germain and the other side of the barrier. A crowd of three or four dozen people ranged along the rope and even out into the street, despite the heavy traffic. Every one seemed to be looking toward a doorway next to a pharmacy, its green cross stark against the night. The crowd seemed uncommonly quiet. I asked a young man who was by the barrier, "Qu'est-ce que se passe?" He answered that an important dignitary was giving a talk upstairs. We thanked him and continued on down the street to Boulevard St.-Michel, ending our walk, finally, at George Whitman's Shakespeare & Co., next door to the oldest church in Paris, St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, and under the watchful towers of Notre Dame.
We were dead tired by the time we reached George Whitman's shop, and after having dinner a couple of blocks away at Café Hamadi (best couscous in Paris!) we took the metro to St.-Philippe du Roule, near our hotel. When Carolyn turned on the television for the late night news, we were surprised to see very much the same scene on St.-Germain that we had witnessed a few hours earlier. The only difference was that on the news the threshold to the courtyard door, number 114, was heaped with flowers of all sorts.
Yves Montand was dead. We knew his work, had seen him in a recent film, were sad at the loss of his art and his humanity. All those times that we had walked below his apartment, and only at his death could we wave hello and say good-bye. The next day the sun was shining brightly. We stood in line at the police barricade for an hour for the privilege of signing our names in the large black funereal book provided by Montand's widow. By the time we signed there were a hundred others queued up behind us.
From that actual experience of a few hours came at least a half dozen poems, including "114 Boulevard St. Germain," "Shakespeare & Co.," "Loo for Hemingway's Ghost at the Crillon," and "At Café Hamadi," all central to Paris.
The poems were coming at a furious pace, so fast that I had to brake for fear of hidden curves. This was no problem for me: once I had the frame of reference, I did not mind going days or even weeks without writing. In fact, the intervals between days of writing were needed in order that I find the time to market the work. The grunt work of submitting to the literary magazines (and subsequently of querying book publishers) has never lessened in all the years I have been doing it. That I have published over 500 poems in the last twenty years in nationally and internationally known magazines means nothing: it is still difficult to find space for poetry, for literary magazines can print only so many poems per issue. For each page, there are easily a thousand submissions.
Paris is a moveable feast. It has traveled well with us. It was with us in the Orient in 1992 when I gave readings in Fusan, Okinawa, Seoul, and Guam, and it is with us today, in north Missouri, where the heat index has risen to 114 degrees Fahrenheit. No matter that a terrorist bomb blows commuters to smithereens fifty feet below Metro St. Michel while the Peruvian band above plays on, Paris is with us. I am sure Gertrude Stein would agree that there is a "there."
Scenes repeat themselves and take on a significance you hardly noticed when the initial event took place. This is the way of poetry. The scribbler that we saw last summer in Café de Flore at work on page after page in his notebook we considered a pretender. Now we rejuvenate him with more hair and see him true. The painter at the Coupole, easily identifiable from the brushes in his shirt pocket, is today a latter-day Picabia. Henry Miller still sits in the shade of the trees in Furstenberg Square. In Paris I remade the world each time I thought it.*
The Paris poems continued while I held the senior Fulbright fellowship at the University of Lausanne (October 1993-March 1994), though by this time I was nearing my goal of between seventy-five and one hundred poems for the manuscript. To take a break
from the poems, I began focusing on fiction again. In 1991 I had written a short story entitled "In Père Lachaise," which was published by the North American Review in the same year. So while we were living in a six-room apartment, almost a villa, in the little community of Préverenges, near Lausanne, I wrote three short stories.
What I did in the stories is something I had wanted to do more of ever since I began writing poetry: to write as condensed a narrative as was possible, one that was highly realistic and therefore symbolic. What I ended with in each instance was indeed a condensed short story but also one that was a hybrid of fiction, poetry, essay, and autobiography. One of them, "Walking Avenche," was subsequently accepted for publication in the North American Review and another, "Crossing Lac Léman," for Flyway.
Switzerland was magnificent. In midwinter we could take walks along Lac Léman without fear of freezing. It was wonderfully mild near the lake, on the shores of which we saw palm trees growing. In Montreux we sat at the tomb of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov and ate persimmons from the tree growing near the grave while I aimed the Minolta to the north and snapped a shot of the Château du Châtelard that I would use as the cover of the fall 1994 issue of the Chariton Review. Strange how things come round in this world. In my early naive days of editing the review, I wrote Nabokov at his Montreux Palace address asking him to send me something for consideration of publication. Vera replied: "Dear Mr. Barnes, My husband thanks you for your letter of September 2 and the copy of the review. He regrets he does not have any unpublished material. Best Wishes. Sincerely yours, Vera Nabokov (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) P.S.: Incidentally, my husband does not send material for ‘consideration.’" Thus I was taught a double lesson, in humility and pride. Nonetheless, Carolyn and I sat in quiet reverence for the legacy of the Nabokovs. Few of their ilk will come our way again.
Carolyn and I were in Germany on a stipended residency during the months of January and February of 1995. I had been translating a München poet, Dag- mar Nick, for many years. Thanks to Dagmar's assistance, the München Kulturreferat (Arts Council) invited us to stay at Villa Walberta, in Feldafing, about twenty kilometers outside the city. The villa was reserved for writers who were translating München writers into other languages or for foreign artists who were collaborating with München artists. I added a few poems to the Paris manuscript during our stay there. But, for the most part, I worked with Dagmar on polishing the translation of her poetry that was included in the bilingual Gezählte Tage/ Numbered Days.
The Villa Walberta was an excellent place to work. It was very quiet, except for the creaking of the stairs and the sound of the wind in the tall pines. The city of Munich had been willed the villa with the stipulation that it be used to further the art and reputation of München artists. We were only a few hundred meters away from where Thomas Mann, writing in the house of a München art dealer, had discovered the character he called Settembrini for The Magic Mountain. Standing on the ornate but deteriorating balcony, as the brilliant day became shrouded with night, and looking out over the Starnberger See, I could imagine, too, that Eliot had stood here, reciting early versions of the first section of The Waste Land on a morning looking across to the other side where Ludwig II had drowned, the mystery of his death never solved, Eliot wanting to solve it but having the more pressing moment of his own need, the long fragmentary poem, which, if structured the right way, would bring him lasting honor and fame. Perhaps I imagined wrong. At any rate, I had my own shoes to walk in. Carolyn and I stood there, hearing the crows fussing in the pines, and swore, even though we knew literary publishing in America was dying, that we would never let the winds and snows of winter white out our joy at knowing that we were doing the work we had to do.*
Gerald Vizenor, who directs the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series for the University of Oklahoma Press, called me in the summer of 1994 and offered a contract for a volume of my autobiography. It was for me an astonishing telephone call, for no one had ever before solicited any work from me, much less a book. You might say I was flattered and humbled at the same time. I had known Gerry for many years and had, in fact, given a reading, at his
request, for the Native American Studies Department at Berkeley in 1978. (His Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart is one of the most amazing novels of the twentieth century.) During the telephone conversation I suggested and he concurred that I should do a prose memoir interlaced with poems, but with no transitions to and from the poems and no interpretation of them. I could not have dreamed a happier agreement. I was completely free to develop the work as I wished, to select what I wished of my life to tell and to show. On Native Ground: Memoirs and Impressions was begun in 1994 and completed in 1996, including the copy-editing, at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.
My wife and I spent the months of January through May of 1996 in a beautiful, spacious studio-plus apartment on the grounds of the foundation. I was awarded a fellowship to complete the work on Paris there. From our studio on the hill, we looked out and down to the lighthouse guarding the harbor of Cassis, beyond which stood the majestic cliff of the cape. It was the same scene that Signac painted in his Cap Canaille. The changing colors of the cliff's face were a continuing source of inspiration for both the books I was finishing. Michael Pretina, director of the Camargo Foundation, gave us the run of the grounds, and we were able to come and go as we pleased. Oftentimes we sat in the cabin where Napoleon had reviewed his troops, or we would lie on the lawn where Winston Churchill had sat and painted the cape and harbor. Or we would drive to Arles to see some of the lesser-known Picassos housed in a small museum there. On Easter weekend we were in Arles to see the opening bullfights of the season. We saw Caesar Rincon seul contre six, and we felt the presence of the ghosts of others who had been there before us: Picasso, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, all of whom are remembered in the South of France.
What better setting than the South of France could one have in which to receive word that someone likes your work well enough to want to publish it? Laurence Lieberman accepted Paris while Carolyn and I were in Cassis. It could not have been a happier time for us: On Native Ground at press and Paris accepted for publication. Both books appeared in 1997, barely a year after we had returned from Europe.
We often drove from Cassis north through the mountains to Vauvenargues to sit on the terrace of Le Restaurant Couscous and drink express and look out over the small valley to the hill where Picasso's château stands, a massive edifice of stone overshadowed only by the stone-gray crest of Montagne Ste.-Victoire. (A No Trespassing sign on the dilapidated gate reads "Le Musée est en Paris!") It was in Vauvenargues that I began a new manuscript of poetry, which I tentatively call Visiting Picasso. If luck and genius permits, all the poems in it will be formal, ranging from rimas dissolutas to spacials, maybe even a portrait or two.
Many are the projects that I have in mind for the end of the old and the beginning of the new century. At the top of the list must always remain the poetry. I came to the art and the craft rather later than most of my contemporaries, and often to myself I say: Thank God for that! Therefore, I may have some catching up to do. Also, I will continue to translate from the German and the French. In fact, Carolyn and I will be in Stuttgart, Germany, during March, April, and May of 1998. I will hold a distinguished residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, and it seems my sole duty is to do what I wish. I will continue translating Dagmar Nick's works, including a long lyrical prose piece, Medea, ein Monolog. And there is a Belgian poet, William Cliff, whose book of poetry En orient I would like very much to translate. Who knows what lies ahead?
Maybe I will live long enough to see a Selected Poems accepted for publication, or a Collected even. Again, who knows? More important, however, are the new poems, the new stories, the new work of whatever sort it may be. In this world of Po-Biz, nothing is more tentative than the written word, nothing more fragile. Nothing is greater than one true sentence. But who cares anymore how true the work is? Where will the literary publishers be in the next century when we walk the streets with manila folders under our arms? Out to lunch is what I expect to read pasted across most doors I try to open. That is the way it is and has always been in the Po-Biz of this century. The millennium may change. This world will not. I don't think I would want it to be any other way but hard.
Barnes contributed the following update to CA in 2007:
For the first three months of the last year of the twentieth century, I was back at Schloss Solitude hard at work translating a third collection of Dagmar Nick's poetry titled Im Stillstand der Stunden ("Hours at Standstill"). It was during this time in "misty old Germany" (Dagmar's phrase) that David Perkins, an editor at the University of Illinois Press, suggested that the Press do a three-volumes-in-one of my original poetry, consisting of my first book with Illinois, The American Book of the Dead and the two works published in the 1980s by Purdue University Press, A Season of Loss and La Plata Cantata. After due negotiation, Purdue released the copyright; and by early in 2001 I was proofreading copy at the Camargo Foundation, where I was enjoying a second semester-long spring fellowship. Most of my time at the Camargo Foundation, however, was spent working on my ninth book of original poetry, Visiting Picasso, and consequently taking advantage of the topography of Provence that Picasso certainly was well acquainted with.
The village of Vauvenargues still held much attraction for me. The concrete images of time and place, together with stories of Picasso in residence in his chateau, which he not-so-secretly hated, formed the bases of several of the poems in the manuscript. The writing of the poems continued on into 2003, at which time I received a second Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio residency fellowship. This residency was for the month of February, when Lake Como and the small farms and villages in the region seemed almost to hibernate, and the Alps were silent in snow. So still it seemed, contrasted to the noisy months of May and June, when tourists swarm the beaches and their sail boats flap across the bottomless lake like lame gulls. Both the Villa Serbelloni of the Rockefeller Foundation and the grounds of the Camargo Foundation are places that contributed greatly to the making of Visiting Picasso. Removal from the humdrum life of Midwest Academia and residence in such beautifully cared-for estates did wonders for my dulled psyche. Another month by the lake and spring by the sea were habitations in Paradise.
By the time the manuscript was published, in 2007, nearly all the poems had seen journal publication in Poetry, Sewanee Review, Georgia Review, South Dakota Review, Runes Luna, and others of their ilk. I had continued working on Visiting Picasso up until 2006. It had become a slower process after the two residencies in Europe. Back in academia, or to call it like it is, Truman State University, all was not well. Departmental bickering, mission failure, slow change when at all, individual jealousies, and all the other ills of a university gone wrong were plaguing me to the point that, by 2003, I had had enough. When I went to Truman in 1970 (then called Northeast Missouri State College), I thought I would not stay more than two years. But the writing time was good there for several years, and I stayed on, and on. But after thirty-three years I had had enough. There was going to be nothing new under the sun of northeastern Missouri. The actual landscape had never appealed to me: I ignored it. The landscape of desire was at the heart of my work anyway. I asked myself why not follow the contours. My wife and I left Missouri for Utah.
In June of 2003, Brigham Young University offered me a Distinguished Professorship of English and Creative Writing. My duties were such that there was much time for writing, and none of it to be spent on useless committee work or listening to complaints of peers or dealing with student woes. I was to have all the help I needed with the Chariton Review including a managing editor. I was to teach only two classes per semester and spend as much time in my office as I wished, writing. A new land, a new job, a new office in a brand-new building, all I needed by way of materials and machines, and encouragement to boot. A campus free of drugs, of alcohol, of cigarettes, of cursing, of cheating: an institution of learning, a place of study. I found immediately that I approved, and saw just as fast that students and faculty also approved of this kind of landscape.
Landscape of learning is the right term. With a campus backed on the east by the Wasatch Mountain Range and the Great Basin desert on the west, I now had an actual landscape that was also one of desire. And so the poems continued to come, and many of them fit quite well within my scheme of things in Visiting Picasso. Almost all my spare time for the first few months in Utah was spent settling in, for we came to the state with little except our clothes in the back of our Ford Explorer. I had to lease a house, and could find one suitable for what we thought our needs were only in Spanish Fork, twelve miles south of Provo and the university campus. We also bought a complete house full of new furniture and appliances. It was a starting over, more than just in terms of geography. Carolyn was not making the adjustment well. She was trying, wanted to, meant to; but it just wasn't working out. For her boredom found only one outlet.
We drove to Las Vegas at least twice a month on weekends. The drive was a few miles under 700, round trip. That we both liked to play the slots was no secret. We had gone to the young casinos in Missouri. She usually won; I usually lost. I can't say that things balanced out, for she was so lucky in Las Vegas that she could count her winnings in thousands every weekend we spent there. Then, in May 2004, coming back from Las Vegas late one Sunday night, the car hit a soft shoulder and went off the highway. I couldn't control it, and we rolled. How many times I cannot say though I was conscious the entire time. I had my seat belt on. Apparently, Carolyn did not. She was thrown from the car and died at the scene. My injuries were slight, I thought, though in days to come the intense physical pain was such that I had no time to grieve. And still today for that I have much regret. To have survived such an accident and not to have been able to grieve at the time is a burden no one easily can bear. I had five crushed ribs, with both lungs punctured and collapsed, and I had to spend fourteen days in the Provo hospital.
My son Blake—I adopted Carolyn's two sons when they were young—and his wife, Melissa, were at my bedside during the hospital days, and then drove me back to Missouri when I was discharged. I spent a month or more getting things in order there and then returned to Utah to deal with the sense of guilt that seemingly would never let up. The mountains of the Wasatch Range helped as much as anything. While the summer flowed on and I got daily stronger from the injury, the grief began to lift. I must credit much of this to the Sundance Resort, where I would go days to walk and sit and breathe in the clear mountain air. I am sure the lungs healed fast because of this. Also, I made many friends with the employees of the resort, especially those associated with the Foundry Grill—Brandon, Kelli, Steve, Wyatt, Ian, Gigi, Dan, Melissa, Nate. I shall not easily forget those friends who demanded nothing in return except my well-being.
With the fall semester done at BYU and the holiday season upon me, I had had several invitations to spend Christmas here and there. I decided that I should not go back to Missouri, though Blake wanted me to spend the holidays with his family, as did a friend and former colleague at Truman State. My sister, Marveda, in Oregon invited me. I thought it best to stay in Utah. I could write during the holiday vacation, if indeed I could again. Fortunately, work on the Picasso poems began again, but slowly. On Christmas Day, as I was standing at my kitchen counter trying to decide where to have dinner and not be conspicuous, the phone rang. I picked it up and the voice said, "This is Kandi." My response was "Kandi, who?" I was thinking of students; or not thinking at all most likely. The voice replied: "The Kandi you were once married to for nine years!"
A voice from the past it was. Cora "Kandi" McKown and I were married immediately after we finished our undergraduate studies at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. The marriage lasted nine years. We were divorced in l973, just after I was awarded my Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas. Actually, I was into my second year's teaching at Truman State University when we decided that we could no longer live together, and Kandi had just received her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. We both blamed the atmosphere of north Missouri. There was nothing but ice and snow and a heavy lead sky from November through March. And we needed light, more light, I think, than most people of that time and place.
At any rate, we began corresponding in 2005, and within a few months of her call, her husband had a fatal heart attack. Kandi had retired, after twelve years' service as department head of Housing and Interior Design at Texas Technological University, to marry a noted surgeon several years her elder. Now here we were, after some thirty-five years, both lonely and remembering, knowing full well that we had always loved each other. We could hardly be called brave—foolish more likely—but we decided to marry once again. This time it would be the Apache way, with a blanket wrapped round us both. (Kandi is distant cousin to Geronimo.) Therefore, on the first day of January 2006, we received the Apache marriage benediction, said our own vows, and were thus married each to the other for the second time, under the branches of the magnolia trees on the campus of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, attended by lifelong friends, some of whom had been at our first wedding, and by many of whom we had come to know only recently.
At this point in time, we were in a bit of a quandary. What was I to do especially? I was a distinguished professor teaching in a major university and had leased a house in Utah and owned property in Missouri. And Kandi had two homes, a large house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the family ranch, still working, in Atoka, Oklahoma. We decided that I should retire, since I surely would receive none of the salary BYU paid me anyway. It would all go to the Internal Revenue Service, or as many of us now understand, to George Walker Bush's War. Best for me to retire from academia. I would finish out the term; then we would be free of teaching and campuses entirely. To sell the house in Missouri would free me from a state we both fervently disliked. We could handle the ranch in Oklahoma and the house in Santa Fe, especially since we had a steady foreman for the ranch and its seventy head of Brangus cattle.
Only days before our wedding, we discovered that Kandi had cancer of the uterus. By the 17th of January, she was in surgery at Cottonwoods Hospital, Salt Lake City. We had followed the best medical advice available to us and had sought a surgeon who had studied at the M.D. Anderson Center, in Houston, Texas. We should have gone to Houston for Kandi's operation. Though the Salt Lake City surgeon removed what now seems to have been all the cancer, he also caused her considerably more pain than she should ever have suffered. She suffered for weeks from an infection caught in hospital and could get no help through medication from the operating surgeon. We flew to Houston for better medical treatment. Alleviation of the pain came first and quickly.
Kandi and I did much commuting during 2006, largely to Houston from Salt Lake City and back again, with a side trip to New York City for me while Kandi was taking radiation treatments at the M.D. Anderson Center. I had been serving on the Camargo Foundation Creative Writing Selection Committee since 2002, a six-year term that would end only in March 2007. I continued to place poems in various journals across the country. Between commutes and classes at BYU
sometime in the early spring of 2006, Laurence Lieberman, University of Illinois Press poetry editor, called to tell me that the Press would publish Visiting Picasso in the spring of 2007.
By summer Kandi and I were in Italy, driving down from Rome to spend a wonderful week on the Amalfi Coast, at Villa Laura, high above the busy little town bursting with tourists and motor scooters. From Amalfi we drove on down to the very tip of the boot heel of Italy. I have good Swiss friends from my Fulbright days in Lausanne who have a villa near Santa Maria di Leuca del Capo. High on a hill above a little coastal village below, we delighted in the comfort of Villa Stella Maris, Dino and Tony Bellucci's summer home of some twenty years. I ate ripe figs from the tree in the courtyard and lay in the sun while Kandi and Tony napped the afternoon away and Dino proofread portions of his new book on the work of Melanchthon, that disciple of Luther so little understood to this day. With Kandi's cancer in remission, perhaps even eradicated, with my retirement from academia, with the sun of Italy warming us, with the writing now going well, I could feel that there was, after all, the possibility of another new life that would feed the desire to write more and better, regardless of how hard the future might be, of how forbidding or difficult the creative act might seem in the years to come.
The 1990s and the first few years of the new century were good for my fiction. I wrote twenty-five short stories in a relatively short period and published a goodly number of them in nationally respected journals, including New Letters (2 stories), North American Review (2 stories), Connecticut Review, Flyway, Gargoyle, Descant, Sou'wester, South Dakota Review, Texas Review and Iowa Review. During this same period, I published over a hundred translations of individual poems (works by William Cliff, Nina Cassian, Rainer Brambach, Dagmar Nick, and others) in national and international magazines. Because of the continuing publication of translations in periodicals and of my previous translation and book publication of the work of Dagmar Nick, I was chosen in 2005 as chair of the PEN Center USA Translation Award Committee.
At present and while living half-time in New Mexico and half-time in Oklahoma, I am still translating the work of Dagmar Nick, hoping to finish two new volumes of her work within the next year. Also, I am at work on a first novel, which has been a long time coming. I have completed a collection of short stories that I call A Good Place in the World and it needs a home with a good publisher, by which I mean a publishing house that will push the product. Fewer and fewer publishers each year are willing to take chances with good literary fiction and poetry. Literary works go begging, while hack writing continues to be the stock and trade of the major publishers. The dumbing down of America continues, and full-throttled. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment is nearly a thing of the past. Reading escape literature is the basic mode of "book learning" nowadays. Like all writers true to their art and craft, I want to be read and loved for the right reasons, shelved, and saved to be read again.
Among new poems scheduled for forthcoming publication is a long lyric-narrative piece titled "Five Villanelles," a poem that is destined to become the final fictive word on the disappearance of Weldon Kees. But who cares about Weldon Kees, or even knows the name? The reading public shrinks daily. Those who care about really good writing have dwindled to the vanishing point. It is frightening to think that our storytellers of the future will have read nothing and will be able to pass on nothing—except sound bites pumped into them daily by corporate America. This is the major reason that I have edited the Chariton Review for over thirty years: it is within literary magazines that some of the best fiction, essays, and poetry find a first home. If it were not for the literary magazines giving serious writers, young and old, a porch on which they can be read, there is a good chance they would not later be read inside any house at all, corporate or otherwise. To underestimate and denigrate the roll of the little magazine in the life of contemporary American literature is to believe that the best-seller list of the New York Times is the final word in good writing. God help us if that day ever comes. It is, however, drawing very near.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 175: Native American Writers of the United States, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Native North American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Ruoff, A. Lavonne Brown, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography, Modern Language Association, 1990.
Chicago Sun-Times, July 4, 1982, review of The American Book of the Dead.
Choice, June, 1997, review of On Native Ground: Memoirs and Impressions, p. 1658.
Cimarron Review, October, 1993, Samuel Maio, review of The Sawdust War.
Kansas City Star, August 8, 1982, review of The American Book of the Dead.
Library Journal, June 15, 1982, review of The American Book of the Dead, p. 1226; March 15, 1997, Lisa A. Mitten, review of On Native Ground, p. 63.
MELUS, winter, 1983, Gretchen Bataille, interview with Barnes, p. 64.
Publishers Weekly, January 27, 1992, review of The Sawdust War, p. 92.
Sewanee Review, winter, 2002, David Miller, review of On Native Ground, p. 158; summer, 2004, Sam Pickering, review of On a Wing of the Sun, pp. 467-475.
Southern Pines Pilot, September 15, 1982, review of The American Book of the Dead.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1998, review of Paris, p. 30.
World Literature Today, winter, 1993, Charles R. Larson, review of The American Book of the Dead.
Jim Barnes Home Page,http://www.jimbarnes.org (June 15, 2008).
Native American Authors Project Web site,http://www.ipl.org/ (June 15, 2008), "Jim Barnes."
Sound Authors, http://www.soundauthors.com/ (December 7, 2007), Ken Gufalsson, interview with Barnes.