In Rilke's Footsteps
An Interview with Willis Barnstone
by Barbara March
WILLIS BARNSTONE’S NEW BOOK of poems is Moonbook and Sunbook. He is a poet, memoirist, scholar and translator of the moderns and the ancients, author or editor of more than seventy books over six decades of publishing. His center is poetry, but his books range from memoir, literary criticism, Gnosticism, and biblical translation to anthologies. A Guggenheim fellow, he has four times been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and has had four Book of the Month Club selections. His poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. His books have been translated into diverse languages including French, Italian, Romanian, Arabic, Korean, and Chinese. Barnstone lives in Oakland, California. He gives frequent poetry readings, often with his daughter Aliki Barnstone and son Tony Barnstone, both noted poets and professors. I met Willis Barnstone two years ago when he led a translation workshop at the Surprise Valley Writers' Conference, which I co-founded in 2006. Since then Willis and I have corresponded regularly, most recently about his new book, Moonbook and Sunbook, published by Tupelo Press.
Barbara March: In the Afterchat of your new book, Moonbook and Sunbook , you say it was always your desire to create a book in the same twenty-two day measure as Rilke. So, first Sunbook and then Moonbook were written, in the same year? What did it feel like to knowingly follow in Rilke's footsteps?
Willis Barnstone:: Both Moonbook and Sunbook were started the same year, but I didn't have anything like the number of poems I have now. I had the same number as Rilke, which was my goal—he had forty-nine sonnets for a complete book. I did mine in almost the same few weeks that Rilke did in 1922. I wrote the Sunbook part in Boston, the Moonbook in Bloomington. And the other poems were added over the years, especially in the final preparation. After getting the volume accepted by Tupelo Press I added perhaps twenty-five or thirty.
As for how I felt, I felt very good to be following Rilke's steps. I began to write poetry in 1947-48, after reading Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, in a bilingual edition. By my senior year my reading ability in German was good. Rilke's book was essential to my belief that poetry could be both philosophy and art, which is what I always strive for. And it hugely contributed to making me wish to be a poet.
As for doing forty-nine sonnets or so in twenty days, I have done the equivalent. My book Stickball on 88th Street, which is 100 pages, I wrote in thirteen sleepless days in Austin, Texas, and absolutely no fiddling afterward because it was right. It took thirty-seven years to find the right publisher, but it was worth it.
I think speed and numbers don't mean much. What counts is quality. T.S. Eliot wrote surprisingly little in his life, but each poem counts and represents an amazing contribution (whether one likes or dislikes the ideas). Others, like Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, wrote abundantly and one must select the best amid the prosaic. But when good, as Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" or his elegy to Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," or Robert Frost's lonely "Acquainted with the Night" or his erotic "Birches," then the poem is magic and inimitable. Many ways to Rome. But Rome when you get there better be a great city. Frost recounts that he spent a miserable weekend writing and refining the title poem for his book New Hampshire. Tired and gloomy after an all-nighter, at dawn he walked outside, saw the sunrise, and wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" "as if I had a hallucination, in just a few minutes without strain."
BM: The sonnets in Moonbook and Sunbook are filled with the candid confidence of a street smart guy who addresses the moon as a "circulating rock." You're brash with the moon and sun, immense subjects in a commanding body of work. You say the whole project took fifteen years all told. How did you stay the course and keep your focus while writing other books at the same time?.
WB: I think I had two immense moments. When I wrote the first part of it, in Boston, and soon after in Bloomington, I was doing eight sonnets a day, and my day was twenty-four hours. Many all-nighters. And when I got word from Jeffrey Levine that he wanted the book I did a huge careful review, and added thirty or forty poems to the original book, and also added other poems from other manuscripts or books, which fit. So this modest book of just 100 pages has about 160 poems, most of them sonnets, and the others also in form. I was consciously following Rilke's bipartite measure.
BM: The Moonbook sonnets are feminine, the Sunbook sonnets masculine. Which was more accessible to you, moon or sun?
BM: This book can be described as a poetic memoir. Would you agree?
WB: Memoir. Yes and no. Yes, as every one thing one does, including Language poems, where the I and ego are supposedly 100 percent avoided. But let's not go there. And no, it is not essentially memoir, though deeply personal, because I never write about me unless the me is also a universal me. I think that all my writing, and especially this book, is an example of intellectual history. Most of the poems are about the Spanish civil war, Anne Frank, Lorca, Machado, John of the Cross, Sappho, Wang Wei and Li Ching Zhao, and metaphysical ideas.
BM: You enjoy a present-tense intimacy with many literary figures in Moonbook and Sunbook, not the least of whom, St. Paul and Spinoza, you write to, or Apollinaire who "gets in a truck and carts a ton of smoking crepes straight up to our lips." You bring them to life for the reader. Is this a literary device? What do you feel you achieve by it?
WB: Well, I love writing poems about literary figures I love. They are my closest friends, and we talk, beginning with Sappho and the unknown author of the biblical Song of Songs (Shir haShirim). That particular surreal image you refer to is mine, but in the manner of Apollinaire. And that is one of the reasons I am so indebted to these writers. They make me. I don't think we gain anything by calling it "a literary device." Shall we call it, what Borges might say, "my habit."
BM: This book is comprised mostly of multiplying sonnets. Why do you love sonnets so much? Please tell us about the prevailing rhyme scheme you use in your sonnets and about the challenges and joys inherent in writing sonnets.
WB: I very often use the sonnet in a strictly metrical sense, octosyllabic or pentameter, the first song-like and narrative; the second meditative and like a perfect short story. Some are Shakespearean. That is, three quatrains and a couplet, abab / cdcd / efef / gg, but most are a version of the Petrarchan (two quatrains abab and bcbc) and a sestet which again I free from the Petrarchan by making the two or three rhymes in six lines come in any order. Easy to manage.
BM: It sounds like the sonnet form does not constrain you.
WB: These sonnet forms constantly force me into new ideas, new images, which I would not dream of without the exigencies of the form. In 1996 I published The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets and have another 500 ready, A Rose in Hell. Someday I'll combine the two in one book as 1001 Sonnets (as in The Arabian Nights or A Thousand and One Nights. (It should be Persian since it is a translation from Persian and the characters are Persian.) However, sonnets represent no more than a fifth of my poems as can be seen in the last four books of poetry I've published: Life Watch (maybe a fifth are sonnets), Stickball on 88th Street (none), ABC of Reading: Poems (none) and Moonbook and Sunbook, mainly sonnets. Of more than five unpublished manuscripts, which are in as good shape and important to me as these recent published books, there are no sonnets. One is a volume of prose poems, So it depends on a moment in my life. The first book of sonnets, The Secret Reader 501 Sonnets will be appearing in a second edited, revised edition. The original took eighteen years of my life.
BM: Moonbook and Sunbook is comprised mostly of multiplying sonnets. Do you typically write in a sequence?
WB: My books are usually a sequence situation, rather than a miscellany. The sequence determines the form. My African Bestiary, for which Yusef Komunyaka has offered to write the intro, has some sonnets, about ten percent. The rest are formal and almost all invented forms. Yes, I like to invent forms, which seems to me perfectly natural and inevitable. John Donne and George Herbert did, much of the time.
BM: In your estimation is the sonnet gaining or losing popularity? Could the poems in Moonbook and Sunbook have been written in another form and still achieve the art and thought you seek?
WB: Each form, including the sonnet, lends itself to the inspired message. Yes, I think an Auden, a master innovator, might have found another way, though he did write two long sonnet sequences, In Time of War and The Quest. I was happy the sonnet was there for the English novelist George Meredith. In Modern Love (1862), in fifty fluent sixteen-line sonnets, he composed his confessional novella in verse. In his dark revolutionary book Meredith became (and more than Robert Browning) the first modern poet.
As for the sonnet gaining popularity, absolutely. Not when I published The Secret Reader in 1996. The sonnet was absolutely out of fashion, but I didn't care. I was writing for an English and international mythical audience, which includes the great twentieth century writers, from Hart Crane to everyone in most European countries. Many of the best poets I know now include sonnets in their work. The list is long. A book I'm wild about is Gerald Stern's American Sonnets, some of which I can recite by heart. They crack me up, as Gerry always does. Stanley Moss sent me this week a sonnet. The first from him. On the other hand, there has been a big return to classical forms as a movement, which I don't subscribe to. Writing in form does not make one good or bad. It is much harder to write in a sonnet form, for example, without it seeming forced, hackneyed and unenlightened. The strict new formalists have problems of quality. When James Wright writes in form, or César Vallejo and Miguel Hernandez and W. H. Auden and Federico García Lorca and Bertolt Brecht and Rainer Maria Rilke write in sonnet form, they are incapable of making them other than amazingly original, beautiful, important, and moving.
BM: Moonbook and Sunbook concludes with a tribute to your father, a theme that appears frequently in your poems. Do you feel this homage is a conclusion when you say in the final poem of the book, "He takes my hand. I fill his palm of dust with sun. And we're not dead because we love and chat in his blue tent."
WB: You have it. Yesterday I wrote two sonnets, and a bunch of aphorisms. The two were sixteen-line tetrameters to my dad and to Komunyakaa. Here's the one to my dad. It came out in about twenty-five or thirty minutes, (I started it in the shower) and I knew it was one of the better poems I've done because it is without baggage of any kind.
Dad, you've come again tonight.
Years since Tibet. Your face is clear,
smiling amid loud trucks. You light
a match. I leave my bed and we're
up in the hills where no one's eye
will catch and denounce us. I would
love to give you my iPad. You
are modern. Here you need no hood.
Tibetans welcome us. Monks are blue
like you at dying young. They burn
their bodies to protest. You died
also in sadness. Now's our turn
to hike up in the hills. Time holds
you sweet, perfect. To come you've sold
your Colorado home. The sky
is black. Our guide is sun inside.
BM: This is not a "one sitting" book. It is immense and intimate and includes your drawings of literary legends from Dante to Jack Kerouac. What advice would you give readers to best enjoy Moonbook and Sunbook?
WB: As with all books, please don't dip in. Read it cumulatively from beginning to end. And then, with luck, we are together.
Barbara March is a member of the NCBR (Northern California Book Reviewers) and co-founder of the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Berkeley Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Written River, Red Rock Review, Words Fly Away: Poems for Fukushima Anthology, and other journals and publications. She lives in Cedarville, California.
Photo by Seth Affoumado.