A Rejection of Logic: James Kendrick in Conversation with John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger

Malahat volunteer James Kendrick interviews Long Poem Prize winner John Wall Barger on how setting, political turmoil, and the Tao Te Ching all play a part in his winning poem, "Smog Mother," to be published in the Summer 2017 issue.


Read the full announcement page on Barger's Long Poem Prize win.

I've read online that you've lived in and travelled to many different places. The judges for the Long Poem Prize also called "Smog Mother" a "lyrical travelogue." How has travel informed your writing, particularly "Smog Mother"?

I suppose you could call it a lyrical travelogue, but I don't really think of it that way myself. I think if a poem is good it's good on its own merits and not because of the subject matter. It's dangerous for artists to lean on their material. It's always what you do with it. For example, I've been living in Dharamsala in the Himalayas for a while and trying to write about it. But I think the reader can smell it in my poems if I think it's impressive or neat to be living in the Himalayas, including lots of quaint local words which I just googled and forced into the mix, to borrow some kind of exoticism. Where a poem is set doesn't really matter, and in fact can distract from the real work of the language. Neruda's Heights of Macchu Picchu is a good barometer, for me: it's set in a cool location but the liftoff it achieves is earned and not borrowed from the setting. Travel has informed my writing in the practical sense that spending years in Asia has exposed me to people and animals that live in a manner which is different from what I was used to from growing up in Canada. I often set my poems wherever it is that I am, to give the reader a context to hold onto. But then hopefully the poem achieves some kind of liftoff, at which point the setting is in the mind of the reader, and the literal context—Bangkok or Bear River, Nova Scotia—doesn't matter at all.

You've said that the intended setting for your poems is the mind of the reader, that a location in space and time are starting points from which your poems imaginatively depart. In "Smog Mother" the literal setting in which the poem begins is highly politically chargedyou mention the death of Sutin Tharatin and paint a vivid image of the aftermathis there an extent to which "Smog Mother" remains politically charged after it achieves "liftoff"?

I happened to be visiting Bangkok in June 2014, while a military coup was in progress. The Thai army had declared martial law, deploying troops and essentially taking control of the country. The constitution had been suspended, and a curfew imposed. Thai citizens were marching and shouting in the streets, foreign nationals were evacuating by the thousands, and there were assassinations. "Smog Mother" begins here but then steps away from the protests, away from the wide boulevards and slogans, into a cramped neighborhood teeming with poor people and sick animals. I think, to answer your question, that yes what comes after that shift is political. I like poems that approach questions of authority and power through social relationships, which tackle "big" ideas, political or otherwise, through observations of people, animals, faces, up-close details, personal interactions, and so on. It's easier for me to enter the material that way, as writer and reader. I admire how Seamus Heaney was able to talk about the Troubles in Ireland, not by taking sides and telling us what was right and wrong, but by finding metaphors and stories that allow the reader to come to her own conclusions. I'm not apolitical at all. I think the world is going to hell these days, and we should all be doing something about it. I'm just not convinced that poetry is the right form to convey blatantly political news. I think that, even if the subject is the suffering and cruelty of human beings, the language of poetry is better suited to convey compassion and empathy, rather than condemnation and dismissal.

"Smog Mother" contains a lot of the same verbal patterns as Tao Te Ching, and it also mentions Lao Tzu by name. How does Tao Te Ching relate to "Smog Mother" aside from this?

Good catch! I'd just read the Tao Te Ching when I wrote Smog Mother, and was very impressed by the authoritative voice, and all the elliptical anecdotes about sages and humankind which disintegrate before your eyes like dreams. What is "the great Way"? He inches toward it, and then away, and doesn't exactly say what it is. I love that. Zhuang Zhou's The Inner Chapters is even wilder. All the parables and allegories and dreams intermingle, and just when you feel like you're grasping it it turns to smoke. There is a rejection of logic, but also some lingering significance. I love all religious books. The language blazes with meaning.

But the book that I was reading every day at that time was The August Sleepwalker, by Bei Dao. I'd been living in Hong Kong, where Bei Dao lives as a Chinese poet in exile. I didn't know him, but—since he was poet in residence at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where I taught creative writing for two years—his presence was ubiquitous. His poems have this ability to talk about politics (in China) through surreal and powerful images of nature and animals. And he uses minimal punctuation to great effect.

Following up on the last question, a lot of what is happening in your poem seems to be an interplay or confrontation between Eastern and Western culture. Can you talk a bit about that?

I suppose you're right to the extent that I'm a westerner—with my western thoughts and education and cultural construction—wandering in an Asian city. But I certainly had no grand intention regarding the East and West when I wrote this poem. I tried to be true to the war of images happening in my mind as I walked around Bangkok, and so to let everything I was seeing (and reading and thinking) burst forth in the line. Yeats and Kruba Srivichai and Martin Luther and Lao Tzu make appearances because they were percolating in my head in those weeks.

There is a sequence at the beginning of the poem, set off from the main parts, that seems to be about a real experience you had at the Siriraj Medical Museum, but then there is a corresponding sequence at the end of the poem that seems to be a dream vision. How are these two parts working together, and what is the progression that occurs between them?

While in Bangkok I walked to the miraculous Siriraj Medical Museum, or "Museum of Death," twice. It's full of "medical oddities" preserved in jars with formaldehyde, like conjoined twins, "pickled punks," and so on. There's a mummified serial killer named Si Quey. Whoever curated this museum has a deliciously morbid curiosity. I love unusual, deviant, ghoulish imagery like this, so I walked around for hours like a kid in a candy store, taking pictures and jotting down details. The prologue to "Smog Mother" describes a jug that a boy climbed into during a fire at a movie theatre; apparently, in the intense heat, his body formed into the shape of the jug. The epilogue describes a severed arm in a jar. I see why you might think of that as a dream vision, but it's just my interpretation of the tattoo on the arm. To me the tattoo looked like a fisherman playing a flute, happy about the fish he'd caught, and singing a little song.


James Kendrick

James Kendrick

* * * * * * * *