An Interview with Wendy Barker
Wendy Barker, UTSA’s Poet in Residence and writing teacher, spent nearly a decade trying to publish Nothing Between Us, her novel in prose poems that dives deep into race relations, infidelities, drugs, food, and other sensory experiences of the 1960’s. The publishers all gave her the same line: it’s neither a novel nor really poetry. She took a hour to talk with LIT-Url about her book’s various taboos, the value of writing and why she really thinks that publishers wouldn’t bite all those years.
Tell me what it is you “do.”
I think it’s strange to say, [adopts lofty tone and pose] “I’m a poet.” Both [her parents] loved literature and poetry so from the time I was a baby, they both together would read poetry to me. It was one of the few ways in which we were in harmony. Poetry is the center of the periphery of my life. And it’s not an escape the way people think. It’s about exploring, trying to understand the self and others, growing beyond one’s tract house in Tuscon [where she grew up]. Writing is…a sort of prayer.
What’s the point of studying English? Most people have a vocational view and there must be at least a few that look at us as doing something masturbatory.
Such an important question. In this very pragmatically minded, frankly money-hungry, superficial, narcissistic, selfish culture that we inhabit–and it’s not all that way–but the overall cultural bias is toward doing something practical and making money without the kind of respect of the Humanities that many other countries have. [They] understand that the goal in Life ought to…become someone who understands what it means to be human, who understands the power and significance of language.
People sometimes ask me, “What are you learning how to do?” and I say that we’re learning how to think critically.
Absolutely! And how to be able to use, read, and hear language carefully. Language right now, as Orwell warned us, can be a powerful tool. We’re seeing it in our political sphere.
We also see it in word choice for advertisements or when a person says one thing to us and means another.
It’s the English major who is going to understand those things and be able to act intelligently and carefully in the world.
Is it an accident that a Humanities degree isn’t worth much in our ecnomy? Does it say much about who’s really in charge? I tell people that they wouldn’t be able to have a thought if there weren’t such a thing as language…
There was a time when I was with my parents and some other people who were…gentrified, upper-middle class. This man…said, “How wonderful! I’ve found that the people that are best at Trivial Pursuit are always English majors!”
Here’s my pet theory about it: when the “honkies” came over when this country was founded, they brought with them a religious doctrine that emphasized and feared idle hands. The Calvinist notion that you never knew if you were really saved, but that God’s grace would probably give you a sign. Which meant that a homeless person might not be saved, but a nice house might mean you were. Meanwhile, when these settlers came, they led a hard freaking life. There wasn’t time for art. Somebody like you or me, who wanted to be writing could bring a whole village down.
Meanwhile, the world of Academia is at it’s core contemplative, which seems at odds with what you’re talking about.
Yes. But it’s also a misconception that artistic people don’t work very hard. It’s very difficult to explain to people, “No, I don’t work eight to five.” It’s work that can’t be seen. My own mother wasn’t even very religious, but she was nervous about the way I’d sit reading and writing.
Jason Rocha, writer and Professor at Texas State, once said to me, “Idle hands spend time at the genitals.”
[Laughing] That might have been what was not being said [by the colonists].
But when we’re contemplative, we can have a deep thought about a book we read or…we can get into trouble. And maybe we’ll have a deep thought about that troubling experience and make art out of it.
I think that’s what’s really scary to our contemporary culture: the fear of facing themselves. That’s a reason why people would like to trivialize literature, because it forces us to confront not only the lives of others, but also to look deep inside and examine ourself.
Talk to me about the autobiographical nature of this book. It says it’s a work of fiction. But you’re drawing from life experience clearly. How does it go from being autobiography to fiction?
I left Berkley in 1972. I also left an affair with an African-American colleague. I left determined to make my marriage work and went to graduate school. In 1994, I received a fellowship to work in Bellagio, Italy by myself for a month. During that time…Pierre Croisson, an economist, and I talked about poetry addressing political difficulties and I started confiding in him about being in Berkley in the 60’s, but I told him it was all too politically incorrect, too explosive, and it would hurt my husband. And Croisson said, “Oh, hang husbands! When has any male artist ever considered what a woman in his life would think?”
Painters in particular.
Yes! He said, “You’ve got to write this.”
But you waited to get it published?
I couldn’t get anyone to publish it. [The] book was a finalist in upteen poetry contests, but the response was always: It’s too short to be a novel. It’s not really poetry. I think frankly that it scared the shit out of people. Afterward [on book tour], I had people telling me, “Thank you, for finally telling the truth.” It was such a lesson in what you and I were just speaking about: how important it is to express these deep down things in order to connect with people.
I want to ask you about the sexual relationship between the chief characters. It seems to fly in the face of the Feminist context of the time. During sex, Ty says to the speaker, “Whose pussy it is?,” she says, “It’s yours.” To me, that’s such a brutal exchange and, yet, it’s also used as an affirmation of love.
I’m glad you picked up on that. I had to read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique at the time and found myself saying, “I don’t know if I agree with all this.” That was the speaker’s state of mind also.
When the speaker also tries to pull out of the affair, Ty says, “Don’t put the lid on the honey pot” and she says, “How could I say no to this?”
How did you take that?
I think it raised a lot of questions about public versus private behavior. You can have the two most liberal, progressive people in the world making love behind closed doors and treating each other…uncivilized?
We are primates. Especially in sex. On the other hand, Ty talked like a jerk in a lot of ways, but he was also there. And the speaker loved his bluntness and appreciated his honesty.