For a professional writer, the feeling of elation after having one’s writing published in The New Yorker is equivalent to the feeling a musician or band has after seeing their photo on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Rick Barot, a Tacoma-based award-winning published poet, finally achieved that distinction upon publication of his poem, “The Galleons,” in the March 12 print edition of The New Yorker. The poem serves as a sort of trailer for his upcoming fourth book of poetry, due out in 2020 (published by Milkweed Editions), also called, “The Galleons.” The featured poem is part of a 10-poem sequence in the book, in addition to 20 works.
Barot is an English professor at Pacific Lutheran University and director of The Rainier Writing Workshop. He is also poetry editor of New England Review.
Tacoma Weekly had a chance to chat with Barot about what inspires his poetry, the behind-the-scenes of his new book, and also his upbringing in the Philippines and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Tacoma Weekly: How did your poem, “The Galleons,” find its way onto the pages of The New Yorker?
Rick Barot: The New Yorker does accept unsolicited submissions. Many poets, many writers, submit work to them. I’ve been doing it for my whole life as a poet and never have been accepted. I’ve submitted probably five or six times over the 30 years I have been writing. It’s such a difficult place to get your work accepted. I didn’t make it a regular habit of being rejected by them. But almost a year ago, I sent them some work. They had the work over nine months. I got a wonderful e-mail from the new poetry editor, whose name is Kevin Young, that he was accepting one of the poems. That’s the story. I submitted, and they said yes.
TW: Are you going to continue submitting work to The New Yorker?
RB: Oh, I don’t know. You know, it’s like being hit by lightning. (laughs)
TW: To be accepted?
RB: Yeah! (laughs) Good lightning. But, sure, yeah, sometime down the road I will probably send again. But it’s nice to be in there once and, um, I can cross that off my writer’s bucket list.
TW: What made you decide to embrace poetry?
RB: It felt like it was my genre. If you’re a writer, and you love language, there is probably a primary genre that you work in, whether it’s poetry, or fiction, or non-fiction. After having written a lot of non-fiction, and then discovering poetry, I realized that poetry was really my home genre. And that was because all the parts of my non-fiction that I liked were the poetic parts—the parts that had to do with imagery, metaphor, and rhythm. I realized when I started to write poetry that I didn’t have to create all that scaffolding that prose requires. Poetry could get immediately to the gist of whatever I wanted to say as a writer.
TW: What is the theme of “The Galleons” that was featured in The New Yorker?
RB: One theme of the poem is my grandmother who died recently at 92. One theme is a kind of a grief for her and her long life. Another theme is the Spanish galleon trade. I was born in the Philippines, which was a colony of Spain for hundreds of years and it was one endpoint for the Spanish galleon trade which was basically the mechanism for colonialism that was in place in terms of moving goods and people from Asia to Mexico and Latin America and onwards to Spain. So, it was this system of colonialism that the Philippines was a part of. (The poem) is also about contemporary issues having to do with capitalism and race and identity. So, it’s 10 poems long. And so it has to include a lot of different things.
TW: How did your upbringing in Oakland influence your writing?
RB: Well, one crucial way that it supported my writing was that the Bay Area is an incredible area for bookstores. Growing up in Oakland, I just went to bookstores all the time — in Berkley, in San Francisco, and Oakland itself — and a great public library system in Oakland also. So, all the resources that I needed as a young writer were available.
TW: Did you spend a lot of your childhood in the Philippines?
RB: Yeah, up until I was 10. And then we immigrated (to the Bay Area). My parents decided to move us here and start over. It was amazing to think they did that. They were in their 30s. We had other family members here. So we had a support system here.
TW: How does your heritage influence your writing, and do you draw from that?
RB: I think so. “The Galleons” is a kind of metaphor for history. It’s a metaphor for colonialism, but it’s also a metaphor for nostalgia — you know, what have we lost? What are we still kind of suffering from the past? I think it took me a while to fully process as a writer all of the different layers of my identity. You know, there is my American self, my immigrant self, there is my writer self, there is my Filipino self. I’ve been trying more and more to get them to manifest in my writing. So, yeah, it all contributes to the writing that I do.
TW: What inspires you and drives you every day as a poet?
RB: My life as a poet is working in tandem with my life as a teacher. I’ve been teaching for a long time — almost 30 years. And so there is a kind of a feedback loop between what I do in the classroom, the conversations I have with students, and the writing that I do when I’m on my own. Because I’m aware of the power that literature and writing have in the classroom with students and so it makes me feel that my writing is itself valuable and it’s important to do it. The conversations that we have in the classroom inform the kind of things that I write about in my solitary space. So it’s important for me to think of that kind of dynamic between the social work that a teacher does and the solitary work that a writer does.
The galleons want to go to the opera
because they want to hear emotions as big as their emotions.
When the spurned lover sings
his booming aria, they think of the oceans that cover
the world almost completely.
When the young maid sings her way
to being the queen of a kingdom,
they think of the months-long journeys that will pick off
their crews one by one, in terrifying
weather followed by boredom. And then the galleons want
to shop in the mall in the suburbs.
Everything they see there is like the secrets
they once carried in their holds.
Racks of blouses like sacks of gold, tiers of blenders
like crates of silver. The food courts
remind them of their full bellies before the trips home,
the weight in the center of the body
after it has eaten everything, the stomach glossy and pink
as a shopping bag. And then the galleons
want to visit the boy who loves making model boats
in the basement that his parents have given up
to his hobby. Wearing a magnifying
visor, at a table with glues and tweezers and exact
bits of wood, the boy puts together long ships
and carracks in exquisite minute scale.
The galleons approve of the galleon he has been making
for months, imagining the huge tonnage
of the actual ships, their cannons arrayed on the sides
like judges. And then the galleons, on certain
other days, want to go back to the forests
they came from, to reel the blood-soaked narrative
back to the stands of pines and oaks
that will become their keels and decking,
hulls and masts. Back to the mountains being mountains,
their iron in the ground like gray thoughts.
Back to the birds being birds.
Back to the lakes being lakes, deeply shining,
like the black velvet gloves of a prince in an old painting.