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The Scarlet & Black

Writers @ Grinnell: Hai-Dang Phan and Rick Barot

Rick Barot addressing students at the Writers @ Grinnell round table on Thursday. Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang
Rick Barot addressing students at the Writers @ Grinnell round table on Thursday. Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang
Rick Barot addressing students at the Writers @ Grinnell round table on Thursday. Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang

This semester’s Writer’s @ Grinnell kicked off on Thursday with a joint round table Q&A featuring Professor Hai-Dang Phan, English, and Rick Barot. Although he may be more well known to students for his work as a professor, Phan’s work has been published in the Boston Review, The New Yorker, and Bennington Review all within the past year. He is also preparing to publish his very first poetry book. Rick Barot is the director of the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. He has published three books of poetry. His most recent book, Chord was just released last year. Barot has also received multiple fellowships and awards, most recently a poetry fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. The duo shared their experience as poets at the interactive roundtable event on Thursday, Sept. 1, at 4:15pm and later gave a reading of selected poems at 8pm. Phan and Barot sat down with the S&B’s Quynh Nguyen to discuss inspiration, process, and form.

The S&B: How different do you think poetry is, as a medium, from other mediums like fiction or, say, nonfiction?

Phan: I mean, there can be very long poems as well. But the key difference, I think, is the musicality and the shaping of poems. Like for Rick’s poems, they can be more on the side of being essayistic.

Barot: I have friends who write fiction and nonfiction. Listening to them talking about their process, I feel like, and this can be a bad analogy, they are training for marathons. I think poets tend to be sprinters; you get an idea, a spark, and you go. And you can run out of breath within a few days or a few weeks. Whereas, if you’re writing a novel, or even a short story, you have got to measure the energy output that you use, knowing that it’s a longer project. So in term of the process, sprinting is very different from running long distance.

Talking of spark, where do you often get your inspiration from? Is teaching also a source of your inspiration as you interact with the students?

Phan: Often times, so much of it is reading for me. I read something, and the initial impulse is to respond to it. Sometimes, just being in the world, hearing a clip of language. I mean, there are so many things that can be a spark of its own. And opening yourself, and your senses, your mind, your cognition to those can lead to a lot of good writing.

Barot: I guess I can answer that question by saying that one of the things I tell my students is to notice what you notice, on any given day, and ask why. Because the things that you notice are very particular to you. Obviously, inspiration can also strike in terms of some information, or phrases, or surprises that you encounter. However, it is also just about how you notice things and ask why you notice them over something else. Ask yourself, why do you notice that Coke can on the ground today when it seems so absurdly ordinary? What if that image or that thing is a trigger for a deeper thought or concern that I might have? A spark does not have to be anything interesting by itself, but it is interesting that you notice it at all.

You mentioned in the roundtable event that you imagined being the first reader of your poem instead of aiming for a particular audience when writing. So, after forming a poem to its final stages, do you show it to anyone as a kind of revision and reference?

Phan: It does feel vague to decide if one poem is almost done. But I do have one reader I share with. Part of the reason is to open up a kind of feedback mechanism. We talked about revision as re-seeing and it is just helpful just to have a set of eyes look at your poem and have them tell you what they notice. Sometimes knowing that is very useful because the prescriptiveness helps. But in the end, it is you who decides what to do with the poem.

Barot: I think that has changed over time. Earlier on, I used to have a group of people, friends of mine, who I would share my work to. I don’t do that anymore, and not because I’m arrogant. I think it has to do with me having absorbed all the resources that I need to evaluate my own poems, and if it does not succeed, in my own mind, I would just be happy to write the next poem.

At the poetry reading later at 8 p.m., what work will you two be reading?

Phan: I’m going to read poems from my working manuscripts for my first book. A lot of the poems are already published, so I decided to read two new, longer poems that I believe will be important to the book.

Barot: I’m going to read poems from this book, Chord, and also some new poems.

Would you want to send any words of advice to rising poets or just simply, someone who wants to start writing poems?

Barot: Here is one piece of advice that everybody always gives: read a lot, and read everything. The way I would complicate that advice is pay attention to the things that you don’t like, and really ask, why do I read Michael Palmer’s poems and I don’t like this. Ask yourself from an analytical, and critical standpoint: what is it about this work that doesn’t resonate with me, so you can start to map out your value system, in relation to the things that you don’t necessarily prefer. Because we are living in this culture that is a thumbs up or thumbs down culture, so saying I don’t like that is very intuitive. But start to ask yourself why you don’t like that, and you have created for yourself a learning situation out of something that could have just been ‘I don’t like it’.

Phan: Students here are really busy, right? Classes, social life and everything. If you are writing poems, stories, fiction, do not wait to find time but make time for your writing, even if that’s just 15 minutes a day to make writing a part of your every practice. I think that also means paying attention to what you notice because other than that, your energy is just gone.

Barot: Writing does not just include writing. It can be when you read somebody else’s poems. That’s part of the process.

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