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10 Questions for Patrick Barron

A few days after Italo Calvino's funeral I jotted down the notes that follow, in order to remind myself of the situation and the feelings of the moment. I had just returned from France, and that evening Calvino's wife (Chichita) called to tell me that Italo was dying. I left that night by car toward Siena together with Carlo Ginzburg's wife, Luisa, while Carlo arrived by train from Rome.
—from "Italo's Death" by Gianni Celati, Translated by Patrick Barron, Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was a little boy in Montana, I think about three or four years old, I used to dictate my memory of picture books that my mother had read to me, and she would then write down my words verbatim: scrambled, rambling and re-configured lines that I had half-remembered. I would then draw accompanying pictures and attach the pages using little brass fasteners that I would push through the paper and then fold back. I have only a vague recollection of all this, but she saved some of these little “books,” which seem to me now early indications of my interest in writing and book making, and of course evidence of my mother’s (long forgotten!) patience and care. I started keeping a journal later on in grade school and as I grew up would jot down impressions, stories and poems. It seems a bit like reading someone else’s writing now, disembodied.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
In Spooring, a book of mixed poetry and prose that came out this past March, there are many influences, from the spare, minimalist, externally-oriented prose of Gianni Celati to the vivacious, place-based verse of Andrea Zanzotto, two writers whose work I have translated extensively. I suppose it’s inevitable that writers whose work you both find fascinating and also translate end up finding themselves in your own writing, tapping into a wider immaginary in which writing, rewriting, retelling, and translating are impossibly tangled. Another collection of short poems (ms. titled An Arbor) is indebted in part to Lorine Niedecker. Some of the questions explored by the poems, shared I think with her, is how when we intently observe nonhuman beings our perception is simultaneously distorted and clarified. How can an intense observation of the external world enliven our relationship with our surroundings, rendering us less apathetic? In other words, can brief poems generate phenomenological questioning that leads to further playful and meaningful engagement with the membrane that separates-connects the self and the world?

Other writers who have influenced me include C. S. Giscombe, Lisa Robertson, Bernadette Mayer, W. G. Sebald, Julie Ezelle Patton, Clark Coolidge, Ed Roberson, Susan Howe, Larry Eigner, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, and Medbh McGuckian, but there are many more, some recently discovered, such as Zoë Skoulding, whose vibrant language and exploration of palimpsest landscapes I find fascinating.

What other professions have you worked in?
When I was younger, I held a lot of odd jobs, from paperboy, busboy, house painter, and supermarket bag boy in Montana, to “slimer” (fish gutter) in a salmon processing factory and produce manager in a small grocery store in Alaska. I also built trails in a number of national parks and forests and taught outdoor sports to children and adults, such as backpacking, rock climbing, and kayaking. One of my favorite jobs (though it didn’t always feel like one) was taking senior citizens on short hikes in Oregon. They would teach me the names of myriad flowers and birds, and we would always stop along the way at a roadhouse cafe to chat for an hour or so over pie and coffee.

When I moved to Italy in the late 1990s to teach English, in the summer when school had ended, I found a job as an “animatore” (camp counselor) and kayak instructor in the Majella National Park in the region of Abruzzo. At first, I could barely get by in Italian even after almost a year of trying, but the kids were a great help and found it really funny to have an adult to teach how to talk. Coming from various parts of Italy, they would often get into heated disagreements about common (or not so common) turns of phrase and also enjoyed sharing with me all the bad words and sayings they weren’t supposed to pronounce. It was both exhausting and exhilarating, a nonstop crash course with 25 kids around 11 or 12 years old and two other animatori that consisted of four two-week-long camps that ran back to back with various excursions into the folds of the massif, one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have ever been. I had a headache nearly every evening from the effort to understand and make myself understood, but at the end of the summer despite feeling utterly wrecked I could speak an Italian that was somewhat less broken.

I ended up returning to work at the camps for a number of summers, then to conduct fieldwork for a thesis in cultural geography about the area, and recently co-wrote (with local botanists and landscape historians) and translated a book about the agropastoral landscape of the park: Il paessaggio agro-pastorale del Parco Nazionale della Majella (The Agropastoral Landscape of the Majella National Park). When I brought my own two kids there last fall and spring it struck me that 20 years had passed since I had first experienced the area, but it also seemed as if all those initial experiences and memories were still immediate and tangible, as if all the intervening time had somehow been sucked into a vacuum—this despite the obvious physical and social changes all around.  

What did you want to be when you were young?
I had various far-fetched ideas, from mechanic to musician, but never thought I would become an English teacher, given that (with a couple of notable exceptions) I was often at odds with the English teachers I had growing up. I most enjoyed being outside, reading, and writing, and it makes sense that I found my way into teaching by way of the outdoors, connecting matters of place and space, the physical world all around, to literature.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I came across this account of Italo Calvino’s death while working on a collection of writer and filmmaker Gianni Celati’s critical work from the late 1960s to the present translated into English, still in progress with the provisional title Selected Essays and Dialogues. The pieces range in topic from landscape, environmental perception, and archaeological conceptions of historical knowledge, to street theater, writing, photography, cinema, and translation. Celati’s candid, personal, and unflinching observations of the events surrounding Calvino’s death and funeral are touching and unsettling, an unfiltered homage to a friend and early mentor, who as Celati notes with dismay, is being turned by the cultural upper caste into a “symbol of literature as an elite privilege.”

Two years ago, my translation of Celati’s Verso la foce (Towards the River’s Mouth), a philosophical travelogue across the Po River Valley in northern Italy that explores memory, place, and perception, was published accompanied by a selection of ten essays by various critics and writers. Verso la foce was written during roughly the same time as “Italo’s Death” and shares much in terms of style and observational focus on the external world. My interest in Celati’s work, however, goes back at least fifteen years when I happened upon another of his works Narratori delle pianure (Voices from the Plains) in a bookstore in Ferrara.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Many places come to play in my work. Landscapes of one sort or another, whether urban, rural or some uncertain amalgam of the two, are often the focus of my writing. Spooring for example is a travelogue down the Apennine mountain range in Italy from near Bologna to the Cilento coast, passing through towns and countryside and consisting of interconnected poems, short prose passage, road signs, photographs, and footnotes (of other writers’ texts). It struggles with whether an empathetic dialectic with the physical world is translatable in some fashion, or how ideas can be connected to matter, thoughts to place, through language engaged with language. As I put it in a note to the book, the result is not a fixed relief map, but a moveable index of small traces, tracks, words, and images, messages half-dismantled, enough to begin a paragraph or stanza, but not necessarily to finish. Spatial relations, geography, cultural landscapes, and sense of place are often on my mind in one way or another.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I have little notebooks that I carry around while walking to jot down observations and ideas. I used to be more disciplined about writing in one and finishing it before moving on to another, but now that I have two young children, matters have changed, with one or the other child absconding with a notebook to draw in. When it comes time to sit down for an extended writing session, the ideal way about it for me is to first go for a run or walk to air out my brain, then return to my desk that has been put in order and not be interrupted for a few hours. At the moment, with having to homeschool our kids during the current coronavirus crisis, it almost never happens in this way, if at all. At best I make do with a few hours at night while semi-exhausted on a messy desk with an unaired brain.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I would like to spend more time on photography. In the past, mainly in Italy, I worked on a number of “draft” methods to better perceive landscapes through photography, including grouping two or more images (at least one close-up and one perspective shot) with points in common connected by almost imperceptible, very thin lines (what I call micro-macro image assemblies) and documenting lines of travel (in essence connected points in series of photographs along a path of movement from multiple perspectives). I’ve also experimented with what I call “disrupted landscapes,” series of slightly overlapping yet separated photographs that emphasize the limitations of both our eyes and the camera—that the photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a subject distorted by a lens, neither of which we can ever fully perceive—while tempting us to make connections that may or may not exist. Another technique is what I refer to as “interrupted films,” series of from ten to hundreds of photographs taken while walking, pausing to shoot at set intervals of steps, from one photograph for each step to one photograph for every ten steps, depending on terrain and desired effect. The images are then displayed as a circular slideshow, producing a jerky somewhat disembodied effect that challenges the viewer to find points in common between the images.

What are you working on currently?
I’m about halfway done translating Gianni Celati’s Selected Essays and Dialogues, revisiting and revising a couple of poetry manuscripts, including An Arbor, and drafting an essay on C. S. Giscombe’s poetry.

What are you reading right now?
I tend to go back and forth between a number of books at any given time, especially when they seem to speak with one another: angela rawlings’ Sound of Mull, Bernadette Mayer and Lewis Walsh’s Piece of Cake, Zoë Skoulding’s Footnotes to Water, David Blair’s Walk Around: Essays on Poetry and Place, and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain are all on my desk or near my bed. The scattered reality of life at the moment under lockdown, from working remotely and trying to simultaneously teach a kindergartener and a third grader, to keeping the house that is being constantly occupied as a romper room from falling apart, seems to lend itself to the similarly scattered attempt to read multiple books at roughly the same time.


PATRICK BARRON is Professor of English at The University of Massachusetts, Boston, and has published a number of books of translations from Italian to English, including Celati’s Towards the River’s Mouth (Verso la foce): A Critical Edition (2018, Lexington/Rowman-Littlefield), Haiku for a Season, Haiku per una stagione, by Andrea Zanzotto (2012, Chicago), The Selected Poetry and Prose of Andrea Zanzotto (2007, Chicago), and Italian Environmental Literature: An Anthology (2003, Italica), which offered for the first time a comprehensive selection of Italian environmental literature from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has also published numerous scholarly articles, reviews, and poems, as well as the edited collection of essays, Terrain Vague: Interstices at the Edge of the Pale (2013, Routledge.) His collection of poetry Spooring is forthcoming in early 2020 (Unsolicited Press).

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