Silence and Sound: An Interview with Poet, Barry Spacks

In Poets on May 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Barry Spacks was the first Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara and held that title from 2005-2007. Prior to the official recognition, he already maintained an important role in the local Santa Barbara poetry community. Spacks has published novels, short stories, and ten collections of poems, including Regarding Women which was the winner of the Cherry Grove Collections Prize and The Hope of Air, published by Michigan State University Press in 2004. In addition to teaching Literature at M.I.T.,  Spacks was a N.E.A librettist grantee, won the St. Botolph’s Arts Award, Boston, and is a Senior Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) student of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He currently teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the College of Creative Studies.

Forthcoming from Cherry Grove Collections in 2012 is A Bounty of 84s, a selection from an e-mail exchange over ten years using an invented short form. Of the collaboration with Lawrence E. Leone, a divorce lawyer in Santa Monica, Spacks says “we claim it as perhaps the first strictly cyber poetic form.” The form is in reference “to the Buddha’s having left – it’s said – 84,000 different teachings as a recognition of the variety of human types.” See also www.barryspacks.net for more information about Spack’s writings and visual art.

The following is an interview via e-mail in April 2011 between Barry Spacks and Crystal Hadidian.

What is your perspective on how your work engages with music?

I’ve always been a singer, since earliest boyhood, and I take the “lilt” of poetic speech as the crucial aspect of poetry to “get right” in composition, tweaking toward a desired beat endlessly. Word-music is central for me, and difficult.

How would you describe the role of sound in your own poetry? Do you compose with the “music” of a poem in mind, or do you pay more attention to things like narrative thread and image? 

Art in language work — in all genres, of course — must have distinction, fresh offering, and the music of poetry I see as a most subtle engagement with the reader. Story, imagery, these come right at us, while the swell and wane of the music of line and line-through are more an ambiance, a crucial alembic.

Is there any particular piece of music that has influenced your work as a whole?

Yes, come to think of it, Bach’s Brandenbergs, which were the repeat-music of my undergraduate days and meant “art” to me when I first came into discovery mode.

That’s a very interesting term.  What does  “discovery mode” mean to you?

As with others who might have been the first in their 2nd generation immigrant families to go to college (much less graduate from high school) I had the world of books and culture, history and politics opened to me when I reached the University of Pennsylvania at age 17.

I know that when you read “Dream Poem” from The Hope of Air at a reading, you imitate Morgan Freeman’s voice for the appropriate sections. What are you thoughts regarding the poem on the page verses the experience of hearing the poem performed by the poet?

 Sweet of you to remember that, Crystal! Like most poets, I believe, the poem aloud is the ideal medium. We’re nourished by the sensibility of the poet on the page, and how much more fully when she’s there in her fullness offering work that no one is likely to more fully understand.

That makes me think of the contrast between a produced record and a live concert. Do you see the poet as more of a performer, or entertainer rather than simply a writer reading? 

Certainly I’m at my best performing, getting the piece across, understanding the hell out of it. These days of heightened visual and auditory focus more and more poetry seeks performance for fullest connection.
Another poem I really enjoy from The Hope of Air is “Buddha Songs.” The lines “What’s loveable about a hum? / Needlessness. It stops, or continues” suggest an unfettered relationship with sound, lacking the modern desperation for constant background noise. Would you apply this same idea to music, or keep it primarily connected with that single image of a hum? Since we’re talking about sound and music, what is the role of its opposite – silence – in your work?

My key title on a recent poem is “Words About Silence.” I’ve even considered using those words as the title of the next collection. Silence stands for the Ultimate; the words are fingers pointing to the moon.

How do you view the relationship between popular music and contemporary literature?

Popular music — take my guys, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, my passions, Billie Holiday and Gillian Welch — is wildly inventive as practiced by the greats. Paul Simon, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Conor Oburst, these gifted creators show the way toward the new in feeling and originality. It’s all about contained risk, for which the music provides model and inspiration.

 How have you pursued this “contained risk” in your own work?

Absolutely. Sheer risk tends toward incoherence, hence the constraining word “contained” – one speaks out, reveals, knowing that those who merely sit in judgment will smugly sniff at times, condescend from the safety of their personal silence. Artists are condemned to reveal; craft and talent allow the personal to come across as “works.”

What are your thoughts on contemporary song lyrics and the decline of younger generations reading poetry?

Well, it seems to me the great loss is the capacity to read altogether. The satisfaction in reading comes more slowly, communing with the poem or story as it brings up a surge of commonality with the provocative source. The emotion in popular music comes with a rush. Addicts exclusively of the stuff – wonderful as it is – are junkies with little interest in meat & potatoes.


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