Susan Scarlata with Jessica Baran

Jessica Baran
Jessica Baran

Jessica Baran won the first annual Besmilr Brigham Award for Women Writers for her book, Equivalents. As Editor at Lost Roads Press, I chose Baran’s book collaboratively with Danielle Pafunda and Prageeta Sharma, who generously donated their time as guest judges for this first contest.

Susan Scarlata: Over the past year we’ve gotten to know each other from coast to coast (Boston, San Francisco) and a few places in between (Denver, Laramie). It has been amazing to know you first through your book, Equivalents (which I love and chose to publish as the first new Lost Roads’ title in quite some time), and then to find equal compatibility in-person in these varied places. Throughout, I’ve picked up on various things in our conversations I’d love to ask you more about.

Starting with Equivalents: We were sitting in my friend Brian’s loft, and you mentioned that you wrote over 300 poems for the book and that only fifty made it in. What was the process of culling it down to 50 like, and do you go back to the 250 others?

Jessica Baran: The last two sections of Equivalents—”On Dissonance” and “The Panorama”—are comprised of poems I wrote for a collaborative project I did with two artist friends, Gina Alvarez and Amy Thompson. For every day of 2012, Gina took a photograph of the sky, while I wrote a prose poem. Amy, then, designed and printed an immense series of letterpress broadsides of our combined work, which was exhibited this fall in St. Louis.

Our project certainly informed my book, but not all 366 poems written for it fit with my sense of the manuscript’s concept. And I’m not sure that the remaining outliers have a coherent sensibility, either—though I did not begin the work for Equivalents or 366 Skies with a sense of where it would go or end. Both were blind, process-driven experiments, which matched their concern for the everyday.

SS: Throughout our weekends together you were always snapping photos, and actually captured more about life for Jody and I in San Francisco than we did in our year there. How does this seemingly daily recording of life through photos work for you? Does it influence your writing?

JB: Much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I rarely visit places like the ones where we’ve met—San Francisco, Denver, Vedauwoo. So, there’s a very demystifying answer to your question: With you, I’m a happy tourist.

But, yes, I do take a lot of photos, especially of my day-to-day. This has not always been the case. Though I studied art as an undergrad, I nearly failed the one photography course I took. For most of that semester (picturesquely spent abroad in Paris) my Nikon FM2 seemed tragically inoperable, and developing photos was even worse. I thank advanced technology for inventing the digital SLR—my husband, Galen, bought me one six years ago, and my life has since been heavily visualized.

I’m hesitant to further analyze this impulse, as nearly everyone with a cellphone camera and some form of social media is now a self-obsessed photojournalist. I’m nothing new. Certainly, discovering Alfred Stieglitz’s series of sky photographs (which provided the title for my book) had special resonance. And, well, there’s a lot more I could say, but won’t: about composing and framing the everyday; about anxiety over absent documentation; about photography as a historically popular hobby (that Stieglitz asserted as a high art form); and about the weird paradox of abstract photography (which, according to Rosalind Krauss, Stieglitz invented). It’s also not a stretch for me to say that taking photos directly extends from my, so-called, abjection. Pictures bridge the gap between real experiences and the bed-zone, as they evidence lived instances of beauty or activity.

SS: I like the not-saying-while-still-saying list! And yes, abjection: at the start of your reading at Counterpath in Denver you let the audience know that you were feeling “entirely abject.” I was totally taken with how you developed such good rapport with the audience that night, and this reference struck me enough that I’ve thought about it since. What did you mean by “abject”?

JB: OK, well, “abject” is admittedly a loaded word to casually throw around at a literary event. To be clear, my use of it is more Merriam-Webster than Julia Kristeva. When I’m feeling abject, like that evening, it’s not in response to primal reality or cathartic horror. It’s because I haven’t bathed in over a week and have been mostly laying in bed amidst filthy piles of laundry and dog hair. This prostrate routine is neither erotic nor Brian Wilson-esque. I like to think that I’m chronically “working” via writing and reading—but it’s definitely depressive. And my depressive reality (however storied the trope may be in poetic history) is not a source of special personal pride. In fact, it’s pretty humiliating and makes me feel drastically removed from the rest of functioning humanity. But it’s there, in that muffled and myopic nest, where most of my creative life is spent. So, when I’m suddenly standing at a mic in front of a group of seemingly well-put-together people, my shame-filled parallel existence feels all the more absurd, and I’m prone to desperate humor involving self-declarations of abjection.

SS: I was and am entirely impressed by your openness and honesty, which doesn’t come across as desperate at all, but very humorous. It strikes me especially, I think, considering our shared Catholic background, which I always attribute to my own near inability to show vulnerability, which is maybe less overall Catholic and more specific to the version of it I was raised within. On that note though, I recently re-read your interview with your cousin, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. You and he get to talking about religion and you say, “I have a hard time with the common art world refrain about how ‘fucked up’ religion and the church are. All the appalling things about the church, of course, I get and loathe, but, I also dislike the total dismissal of religion. I feel there is a great loss of depth there.”

These ideas have re-asserted themselves into the foreground for Jody and I, having recently moved back to Wyoming where we have, as you peripherally experienced, friends who are quite religious. I agree with you: I don’t and don’t want to entirely dismiss religion as a whole. That impulse seems too simple to me, and there is a “loss of depth” as you say. Would you say you “have religion” in your life at this point? I was so impressed that Pope Francis recently stated the two biggest problems in the world today are youth unemployment and loneliness of the elderly—not abortion and gay marriage.

JB: Pope Francis is really impressive. His unswerving stance that Catholicism is fundamentally about love and not dogma is enormously moving. I also appreciate his insistent use of the word “obsession” when describing the church’s disturbing anti-lust for gay marriage and abortion. Hearing him express all of these deeply sympathetic views has weirdly made me sad. Seeing even a glimmer of what a radically different place the world would be if we only had braver and more just leaders of this magnitude is a cause for mourning, as much as invigoration.

Thanks so much for re-reading that BOMB interview, Susan. That was a special piece for me to write, and the whole bit regarding Catholicism really does sum up my perspective on the subject. Tommy’s long been a personal hero to me—of honesty, intelligence, bravery and artistic integrity. His way of negotiating spiritual impulses while staying true to himself has made a tremendous impact, artistically and philosophically. Which is to say, in answer to your question. I don’t necessarily consider myself religious, but I do consider myself Catholic. And maybe I don’t completely know what this means. I do believe in a shared morality. I also believe that we should actively demonstrate compassion for those who have less than ourselves. And these two basic ideas, to me, form the core of Catholicism, which is the moral language I inherited. Tommy’s art and way of articulating his thinking have given me “permission,” of sorts, to create a space for this in my life—”this” being the beauty, ritualism and ethics of a religious tradition that’s not, in my mind, anathema to a liberal or creative perspective.

SS: Yes, I like the idea of “moral languages.” One of the most amazing parts of getting to know you was participating in a workshop for teenagers we organized for you to lead in Laramie, Wyoming. Using Berryman’s “Dream Song 22: Of 1826,” you taught high-school students about the “declarative American” voice, as you called it. We discussed how we deal with and understand the multiple identities and roles we play in the world. How does this notion of the “declarative American” show up in your work? Is it something that figured into the writing of Equivalents?

JB: Teaching that workshop was great—the students were so smart and earnest. I was moved by what everyone wrote.

And I loved being able to do that exercise, which I’d drafted seven years ago, but never had an opportunity to teach. The original idea came from my love of Berryman and an ongoing suspicion of the lyrical “I” (also informed by a deep infatuation with Ashbery), and just how fixed or unfixed it was with a single self. I want to say that public conversations on cellphones were also at an unfamiliar height circa 2006—so one was all the more able to hear the salient shifts in diction and tone that occurred when, say, a friend you were meeting with at a cafe took a call from their mother or employer. Now, our various disembodied selves-as-voices are probably less indicative of our enforced cultural schizophrenia than is the visual selfie. But Berryman’s Dream Songs still gets it right.

Moving forward, I more recently became interested in the American-ness of a certain writing style—that “declarative American” voice—especially as it works rhetorically to engender familiarity. I teach an art-writing class to visual art MFA candidates, where we spend the semester investigating journalistic art criticism. Early on, I present Jerry Saltz as a critic who takes a radical voice-and first-person-driven approach, which does as much to push his project of democratizing visual art discourse as the actual content of his reviews. I point out how his particular use of anaphora, consonance and assonance directly connects him to American public speechmaking—from the fire-and-brimstone sermons of Jonathan Edwards and the Declaration of Independence, to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Obama’s recent re-election speech. Poetically, the texture of those early works informed Walt Whitman’s writing, which in turn informed Allen Ginsberg’s, and so on—all of which combine to define our native linguistic sensibility, especially its oral variety. When we then read an article by someone like Saltz, we feel immediately at home, like we’re conversing with a buddy—and this is long before we stop to wonder about the artists he’s actually discussing.

In the sense that I have knee-jerk sympathy for attempts to democratize “high” art—including poetry—Equivalents can, sure, be said to invoke this “declarative American” voice, especially as most of it is written in prose form. Using this trope is also a kind of slap-stick parody of my clear lack of authority, as the poems often describe me as un-heroically positioned; so the repetition-compulsion toward directives and definitives is something of a shaggy-dog clue. But so goes America: Like myself, it’s always searching for an “I” and trying to loudly overcome itself.

SS: That’s fabulous: Picturing America embodied as something trying to “loudly overcome itself,” which, having lived abroad for two years, I accept as an entirely apt description of how our country is seen from beyond its borders.

I think we were in that large van, or maybe walking through some city or other, when you mentioned the fine balance in poems between the amount of lyric and the amount of fact, and how veering too much toward either will tank the entire thing. I’ve butchered the eloquent way you stated this idea, so can you explain it more in your own terms, and speak to how you strike the balance?

JB: All these answers kind of add up, I’m realizing—I’m a one-trick pony. I don’t think I have a more eloquent way to say what you described, Susan. It’s just something I feel strongly about in poetry and visual art, which is that great work of any form has an equal measure of experimentation and emotional salience. As I understand it, lyrical poetry is a mode connected with vulnerable (first-) personal utterances; language is its means, but not necessarily its medium. Experimentation in poetry is often concerned with the medium and stuff of language itself. But the “artist’s hand” is not necessarily betrayed by an affective gesture. One or the other on its own may be interesting, but it’s not interesting enough—boiling down to linguistic transparency or conceptual cleverness. Poems or art that both tell me about life, and tell it to me slant—well, they’re irreducible.

SS: Yes, the irreducibility, that’s it exactly. You’ve recently started teaching in a prison outside of St. Louis in addition to your other posts. What are you teaching, and most excited about bringing to this population?

JB: Yes! I’m very excited about this. Devin Johnston, the poet (who is also based here in St. Louis), co-created a program called Inside Out that organizes arts workshops at a male maximum-security prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri. Last spring he invited me there to facilitate a one-time Q&A with the painter Brian Calvin, after which I was asked to create an ongoing art-writing workshop. So while poetic concerns do factor into class discussions, we’ve mostly investigated approaches to translating the visual world into creative language. I’m using John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as our one text, but it serves mostly as a reference point. I’ve had a great experience thus far. Making visual, critical and curatorial concerns relevant to a broader public (let alone broader purpose) has been enormously gratifying. Plus, the fellows there are remarkable people to be getting to know.

SS: Interesting, I taught Ways of Seeing and it was in many ways “my jam” (as you might say) while teaching young art students in Hong Kong. Once they got over Berger’s 1970s style, they still weren’t too receptive to his ideas. I chalked it up to the incessant ads and consumerism in Hong Kong being all too close for them to come to his ideas with any perspective. Teaching that book in prison, where your students have limited access to the outside world and its commodities, is perhaps the exact opposite.

JB: Right! Ways of Not Seeing. I’m now mentally juxtaposing your class in Hong Kong with mine in Bonne Terre, and it’s looking pretty crazy. We might have to meet somewhere interesting in-between to write a collaborative script for a new HBO series.

SS: We’ll call it Perception!

Jessica Baran is the author of two books of poetry, Equivalents (winner of the inaugural Lost Roads Press Besmilr Brigham Women Writers Prize) and Remains to Be Used, as well as the chapbook Late and Soon, Getting and Spending (All Along Press, 2011). She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she teaches at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art and directs the nonprofit art space fort gondo compound for the arts.