Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview: Barry Napier

Barry Napier is the author of the short fiction collection Debris, the Strange Publications chapbook The Final Study of Cooper M. Reid, and the poetry collection A Mouth for Picket Fences (released today by Needfire, the poetry imprint of Belfire Press).  The Lynchburg, Virginia native makes his online home at ghosts in (parentheses).

This past week I conducted the following interview with the author.

Macabre Republic: Hello, Barry, and welcome to Macabre Republic.  Let's start out by talking about your new poetry collection, A Mouth for Picket Fences.  This strikes me as a work born of a keen American Gothic sensibility.  What does that phrase  "American Gothic" mean to you, and in what ways do you feel it applies to your work?

Barry Napier: I think any imagery with picket fences and the interaction of neighbors in small rural towns covers the definition of "American Gothic."  Of course, I also think that it certainly stretches beyond that.  "Gothic" is such an elusive term these days because of culture, obviously.  High school and college students no doubt still see gothic as representing a musical movement that, to be fair, is not quite gothic at all.  I think the often depressing sounds and musings of The Cure and the shock-rock factor of Marilyn Manson and his minions are sort of the new American Gothic in some odd way.  Truth be told, I left high school with the impression that these things were gothic.  Then college courses on Gothic Literature had me reading things like Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  You can imagine my surprise and, I'll be honest, slight disappointment.

That being said, even these two examples prove that there is indeed something dark and unknown at the center of gothic sensibilities.  In putting the poems for A Mouth for Picket Fences together, Grant Wood's historic painting came to mind quite a few times.  But I wanted to twist it.  I wanted to see what that painting could represent if Munch or Dali had done it.  I wanted to see what the pitchfork the old man is holding really represented.  I wanted to know what ghosts lurked in the house in the background.

MR: Careful thought appears to have gone into the arrangement of the individual poems, creating narrative and thematic threads that help unify the entire volume.  Could you share some of your ideas behind the structuring of the book's contents?

BN: There are interior illustrations within the book that show, with the progression of each of the book's three parts, the steady decay of the same scene.  These were something of a reinforcement of the narrative woven throughout and served as the mile-markers for the book as I was putting the poems together.  But it was important to me to not only highlight the relationship between the light and the dark, but to sort of explore the journey from one to the other.  There is one poem in particular, "What We Know of Blackbirds," that I wanted to serve as the hinge of the two points--the thin area where the darkness and the light overlap.

I also found it important to introduce the "stranger" we initially meet in the section titled The Darkness Weighs Us in each section of the book.  He has prominent appearances in the last two sections but he is also poking around at the start (but is hiding pretty well).  While the individuals within each poem are the real cast within the collection, this stranger is really the center of it all.

And, for a bit of honesty, I should also point out that the foundation of the idea was taken from the song "Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.  Nick Cave fans might notice the inspiration right away in the title poem.  There is a line in that song that says "You're the one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan" that pushed the dominoes in my head over and they just kept falling until I had written about 75% of the poems in the book.

MR: I noticed that a number of the poems here are written in the second person.  Tell me about your usage of "you"--the advantages you feel this point of view provides.

BN: After a while, the poems began to feel almost formulaic to me and it took a while before I realized that most of them were written from the perspective of each character.  There are a few in third person as well, but not many.  So I started toying around with different approaches to some of the more surreal ones and decided that second person narratives worked well for several reasons.

In poetry specifically, I have always been a fan of the second person approach.  It provides the feeling that you, as the reader, almost have some sort of ethereal influence or control over the people you're reading about.  Also, I think second person can serve as a ghostly form of first person.  It's a great way of viewing oneself as if outside one's own body and seeing someone different.  Given that it is indicated that these people are under some sort of influence throughout the book, I thought the second person approach would work well.  I know there are skeptics out there when it comes to second person narratives and I understand their arguments, but I felt that this voice added a bit of voyeurism to the poems.

MR: Your poem "Each Ghost Reads Its End" is reprinted from Death in Common: Poems From Unlikely Victims, and a handful of other pieces in A Mouth for Picket Fences seem to align with the storyline created for that anthology.  To what extent would you say that your book interconnects with Death in Common?

BN: Thematically, I think it's plausible to say that A Mouth for Picket Fences and Death in Common could exist within the same fictional world.  Both books are about exploring the darker things in life, particularly the human response to loss and death.  Truth be told, I almost pulled "Each Ghost Reads Its End" from A Mouth for Picket Fences because I didn't think it really fit the environment that the other poems created.  I tried placing it in several different areas and finally decided that it did fit rather nicely in the end.  Ghosts--both figurative and metaphorical--pop up from time to time in A Mouth for Picket Fences and I think it adds some validity to the addition of "Each Ghost Reads Its End."

MR: I know this is like asking someone to choose among their own children, but are there any poems in your collection that stand out as personal favorites?

BN: Yeah, that is a fitting comparison.  But there are three that stand out to me--one of which is actually in the running for favorite poem I have ever written.  That one is "We Will All Be Voyeurs in Heaven," and it relates back to your question about the second person approach.  This poem would likely not work without being presented in the second person.  I like the displacement of it, the way it sort of drifts all over the place and is then anchored at the very end by the regrets of a woman's choices.

I also like "Not Waking Up in Iceland" because, quite honestly, I spent a long time trying to get each word just right.  I knew that I wanted the poem to bridge the first two sections of the book, and to do so, I had to come up with a fitting analogy on the play of light and dark.  My slight obsession with Iceland helped me stitch this together.

Lastly, I also like "Housewives."  This poem was written before I even had the idea for this book but it was an obvious selection just because of the evil lurking around it.  This poem was nearly a piece of flash fiction, actually.  But when I couldn't get the piece to deliver the gut-punch at the end, I transformed it into a poem.  I've gotten great feedback from this poem and am quite proud of it.  You don't really even realize you've crept into this dark corner of suburbia until you're trapped in the shadows with no way out.

MR: Do you consider yourself a "horror poet"?  (I ask this because even when your work draws on genre tropes, it bears a dignity--a profundity--that makes  "horror" seem like a base designation.)

BN: While there is nothing at all wrong with that label, I would have to say no.  These poems were crafted to fit the theme and the narrative I wanted to work with.  But as I was tightening up the poems and tweaking the Normalcy section, I truly started to appreciate the small common aspects of each one and how something as minor as pecan pie crumbs can carry an astronomical weight.  But I also like approaching those types of things with a surrealist nature.

Since finishing A Mouth for Picket Fences, I have written very few dark poems simply to make sure that I am not limiting myself.  The biggest lesson for me came in reading non-horror poetry.  To me, the most terrifying things in life are found in the mundane.  I believe there is more to be investigated in the quiet man that just lost his wife, drinking a beer as he tinkers with his lawn mower, than in the zombie lurking in the woods.  This approach is the focal point of A Mouth for Picket Fences; while the entire book is monster-free (well, mostly), it is, in all respects, a very dark book.

Reading non-horror poems (I much prefer this term for the purpose of your question rather than "literary"), I was introduced to the aching normalcy of Mary Reufle's poetry.  I think I can honestly say that had I not picked up her book Indeed I Was Pleased With the World, I may not have really given poetry a fair chance.  Later, as I actually began to put this book together, I was also heavily inspired by a group of lesser-known online poets such as Christine Hamm, Kelli Agodon, and Rebecca Loudon, who use beauty, despair, dark humor, and an untouchable surrealism in their work.

MR:  You also work as a fiction writer.  Have you noticed any ways in which your poetry has influenced your prose (and vice versa)?

BN: Absolutely.  As early as high school, I was well aware that my writing was far too wordy.  Several years ago, as I started sending stories out to publications with real intent, the initial batch of rejections offered the same advice, backing up what I already knew...too many adjectives, too much flowery prose, and so on.

They were right (although I may have argued at the time).  In the past three years or so, as I have also tried my hand at flash fiction, I have learned to rid my writing of most of those instances.  Still, on occasion when I write fiction, I will find myself getting carried away with certain descriptive scenes.  If I find myself getting overdramatic and feel that my prose is getting too thick, I will read and re-read the writing in question and see if (a) it adds any value to the story, and (b) if not, is there a poem lounging somewhere in there?

A few poems in A Mouth for Picket Fences started life as a first draft short story attempt.  "Housewives" and "Singing Hymns as the Grass Grew Over You" are the most prominent ones, although there are a few more.  Similarly, the reverse is true.  My short story "Mi Casa Es Su Casa," which a few people have read and commented on, was originally a lengthy poem titled, ironically, "A Heart with Picket Fences."

MR: Who are some of the authors that inspired you to become a writer?

BN: This is a no-brainer and probably boring, but Stephen King is basically the primary reason I even gave writing any thought.  Granted, he's not much of a poet, but he instilled the desire to write in me. I read The Shining for the first time when I was 14 years old and it totally changed my outlook on writing and reading.  It also blew my mind and I consider it one of the best horror books ever written--easily in the top five.

Clive Barker cemented the passion for writing that King laid the foundation for.  Imagine opening up The Damnation Game or The Books of Blood, with the belief that Stephen King is as dark as you can get.  It's pretty powerful to be proven wrong in such an amazing way.  I didn't discover Lovecraft until later on, but he's been a big influence on me as well.  Nail Gaiman also helped to show me the little hidden corners of dark fantasy and horror that I wasn't preveiously familiar with.  His novels and short stories are well-crafted and clever, but his work on Sandman remains, to me, his best.

As far as poetry, I don't know how to answer that.  I have no proper education in poetry; just a few modules I took in college and whatever we were forced to read in Lit classes.  I have always admired Dickinson, particularly her work related to Nature and Death.  T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound resonated with me as well.  I discovered James Tate by accident and referral from Rich Ristow (whoactually edited my book) and am slowly digesting his body of work.

Honestly, I have been most inspired by a lot of those small-press poets I mentioned earlier.  Had I not discovered them, I don't know that I would have actually tried to put this book out.  Almost daily, I am discovering some new poet that is helping to urge me along.

MR: Finally, what can fans of your work look forward to next?

BN: I have a poetry chapbook out in submission land that is sort of similar to A Mouth for Picket Fences.  It is a collection of 15 poems, all of which can be read as separate poems, but also serve as "chapters" to a longer work.  It's quite odd and in that 30-35 page realm that is so often hard to find a home for.

Next year will also see the release of my first novel, The Bleeding Room.  In between the current release of A Mouth for Picket Fences and the release of The Bleeding Room, I am toying with the idea of maybe self-publishing a small novel I have recently completed, but I don't know if I quite have the guts, so I may just go the typical submission routes instead.  Also, I have been working with a very talented team of artists on a comic book that we sincerely hope will see some form of publication within the next few months.

Beyond all that, I am still writing a great deal of poetry and hope to have another complete manuscript together by March or so.  This one will not be "dark" or "horror" poetry, though.  There's a definite odd quality to this next batch, but nothing that could be considered any form of "genre" poetry.

MR: Thanks for taking the time out to talk with Macabre Republic today, Barry.  And congratulations on the release of A Mouth for Picket Fences.

BN: The pleasure was all mine.  The book is currently available through Belfire Press, along with other poetry by some very talented poets.

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