Backchat: Albert Goldbarth in Conversation
Nick Patrick: Hello. I am pleased to say that Albert Goldbarth is with me as we sit and watch the sea roll in at the back of the Jubilee Hall here in Aldeburgh. Albert, it may seem daft to start an interview with a poet talking about geography, but when was the last time a chap from Kansas saw the sea?
Albert Goldbarth: Two years ago, in California. But this sea, never. This slate grey sea is a first.
Patrick: And what do you make of Aldeburgh?
Goldbarth: Well, it's lovely in its way. I suppose every place is lovely or ugly in its way. But one of the first things my wife noticed was that there were no burglar bars on any of the windows, no real graffiti, no particular litter in the streets.
Patrick: I have to say it's not typical of England.
Goldbarth: It's not typical of almost anywhere I've been in my life, and I think it should stay this way. I think they should take this place and put it in a little block of Lucite and keep it preserved like this forever so that archaeologists from the far stars can see that there was once a place on the face of the Earth that had no burglar bars.
Patrick: Can I talk to you about the public face of your poetry or maybe the public face of poetry? Because it seems to me that reading and talking about poetry is not something you're totally comfortable with.
Goldbarth: What I do is write poems. And in my head, I'm, for the most part, writing poems for people who care to read—off the page. And I think there is something enjoyable, something liberating, but at the same time absolutely useless and silly about a public occasion. I don't think poets are supposed to be cheerleaders or representatives or hookers or pastors on behalf of the art. I think poets are supposed to be poets and write poems.
In any case, I can enjoy a poetry reading. There's something nice about meeting the public, talking to people as I'm doing with you now, shaking hands, seeing people grow either excited or bored right in front of you. But for the most part, I think poetry should be encountered one-on-one—live reader and open book. That's the primary venue, and everything other than that is just a kind of appendage to poetry for me. I have never heard Dante give a reading—or Keats or Blake or Wordsworth or Dickinson or Whitman.
There may be a touch of hubris in my raising those specters as names to make my point, but I've never heard them give a reading or give a talk or a craft lecture or conduct a creative writing workshop. But their poems are utterly meaningful to me. They have transformed my life because they know how to write and I know how to read them. I might even put forth the idea that the best of literature is complicated enough so that I'm sure, when I'm reading certain poets, there's a richer experience happening in the inner voice in my head than a live human voice in an auditorium could ever carry.
I never convince people when I say things like this. There are too many of you out there. But I believe that very sincerely. So I give readings. I enjoy readings. I hope I read well, and I hope my readings are enjoyable experiences, but for me they're like the movie version of the novel. The movie version may have a thousand different things that are appealing to it, but it is not the novel.
Patrick: I saw a quote from a newspaper in Missouri—I'm not sure whether you were misquoted—but there was a sense that a lot of your work is a memorial. Does that mean you're a kind of working archivist? What were you trying to get at?
Goldbarth: I only vaguely remember that interview, but I do remember saying something along those lines. Well, a few things: first of all, I am a collector of various things. I collect certain kinds of old vintage toys. I collect old manual typewriters and typewriter paraphernalia. In fact, I've never touched a computer keyboard in my life. A lot of my own private life is devoted to a sense of conservancy. I'm not politically conservative, but I conserve objects and ideas in my life. In fact, it hurts me when I see public telephone booths and post office drop-boxes disappearing from the American landscape.
Some of my poetry implicitly asks to be a body that freezes some of those objects and the sensibilities they stand for in time. In fact, any poem, whether one wants it to be or not, is necessarily a block of language that to some extent holds firm a group of words and maybe the ideas those groups of words are meant to represent against the depredations of time. To that extent, I think almost any writer is a conservator. That must have been some of what I had in mind when I made that comment.
Patrick: I chose the wrong word, "archivist," didn't I? "Conservator" is a much better way of explaining it.
Goldbarth: If you saw the mess I live in... If my wife were here at the moment, she would tell you that 'archivist' is not quite accurate.
Patrick: What you need is an archivist.
Goldbarth: Yes. I'm searching for one. If you'd like to apply...
Patrick: Talk to me about technology, as someone who doesn't use it. Do you see why some people would argue that technology is going to be very, very important to poetry to continue getting it out there?
Goldbarth: Well, two things. First: and this always pisses me off, buster, I use technology all the time—a pencil is technology. It was high technology at one time. A ballpoint pen? Way-high technology. This microphone I'm speaking into—half-willingly in any case—it certainly is technology.
It infuriates me sometimes the way people have taken the word technology and really limited—and in a sense debased—it by choosing to apply it only to what I would call computer-based technologies. But my life is filled with technology. You know, I drove to the airport in a car.
I do have many problems with computer-based technology. Is it going to be important to poetry in the future? It's going to be important to everything in the future, and it's going to be the only thing that exists in the future. Your grandchildren will wake up in the morning to the sound of a computer screen. That computer screen will lead them into their breakfast, will lead them into—and become the entirety of—their jobs, where they will sit facing that screen that has the approval of the government and the advertising industry behind it. They will be there for their eight-hour day. Their personal lives, their sex lives, their parental lives will all occur on and through that screen. They will come home. They will watch that screen for government and advertising-world approved entertainment. They will fall asleep again. Will that computer be important to poetry and the arts in general? Oh, yes! But it won't be my poetry. It won't be anything I care about, and I imagine I won't be here to see the full fruition of that vision.
Patrick: On that rather depressing note, we'll conclude this interview. Albert Goldbarth, thank you very much indeed for talking to the Poetry Channel.
Goldbarth: Well, thank you.