Dan Barth is both a personal and a professional friend. He’s even a relative of sorts, though explaining that connection might prove tedious and even unconvincing, so I’ll leave it alone. What matters most is that he’s a superb writer who’s given me hours of literary enjoyment both from reading his works and from commenting on my own. Lest someone might think that opinion of his worth is mine alone, I tout him here as the poet Laureate of Ukiah, California, a title he held for a year a short while back. A well-deserved sobriquet for this distinguished author. Here are some of his fascinating musings about his life and work.
CRB: Dan, You’ve traveled many roads in your life, writing all the way. Do you recall where and how and with what intention all this scribbling began?
DB: Several years ago, in a box of old possessions, I came across my science notebook from 8th grade—Holy Trinity School, Louisville, Kentucky, 1966, Sister Kyran’s class. The notebook contained mostly definitions of science terms, dutifully copied out in my Palmer method cursive. But one page, for whatever reason, I had half filled with one two-word phrase repeated over and over: “word magic word magic word magic word magic . . .” Reading those words many years later, I felt connected to them. They didn’t seem strange or foreign to me; they made sense. The feeling that goes with those written words is wonder and amazement at the ability to take a blank page and, by some connection of brain, hand and pen, change it into something new, create something with words. So, that feeling and the urge to write have been with me for a long time.
still fascinated after all these years
by words and the way they magically appear
out of the nowhere into the here
Throughout my schooling I enjoyed English and social studies classes more than math and science. I had a good facility with words, and did well on essays and creative writing assignments. I entered college with the intention of being an English major. But my first few English professors were either pompous and pretentious, or ineffectual and dull, whereas my first few anthropology professors were lively and fun, so I became an anthropology major. Not a bad choice for a writer. All it really denotes is an interest in everything, and the ways in which everything is connected. I did continue to read novels, short stories and poetry, and I wrote for the school paper.
Final semester of my senior year I took a course in the Religion department entitled “Ethical Issues in the Life Cycle.” With graduation looming, I wrote my final paper for that class, a short story. My professor was a bit surprised to receive a work of fiction as a final paper, but he approved it and wished me well. I had decided that I would be a writer. All this really meant at the time was that I started recording thoughts, observations, poems and life events in notebooks and journals, but it is a practice that has served me well and that has continued now for over 40 years.
[Ed Note. Speaking of Louisville, the pages of this volume have a lot to say about that city, though the poems resonant universally. A click on the image takes you to the opportunity to buy.]
CRB: You’ve had a lot of interaction with various members of the beat generation, some of the literati and some of the not-so. How about sharing an anecdote or three about some of the most memorable incidents?
DB: My first in-person interaction with Beat writers was at a poetry festival in Santa Cruz, California in 1980. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso were among the featured performers, and the gathering was small enough that I met and talked with both of them. I approached Ferlinghetti and asked for an autograph for an old friend who had introduced me to Ferlinghetti’s poetry. Lawrence was very nice about signing the autograph and we chatted pleasantly. In the years after that we crossed paths several times and became nodding acquaintances. I consider him to be a very good poet and a gentle and kind person.
After one of the events at the festival, my girlfriend and I ran into Gregory Corso and a couple of women who were with him outside the Santa Cruz Civic Center. Not wanting to miss a chance at talking with a genuine Beat poet, I offered him a drink out of my hip flask. He accepted, looked at Mary and me, and spoke these immortal words, “Do you fuck her up the ass?” The conversation did not flow well after that. I met Gregory again a couple of years later. He was much gentler, and not nearly as drunk.
In 1982 I hitchhiked from Palo Alto, California to Boulder, Colorado for a big Beat gathering, a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I met a lot of writers there, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey. Burroughs did not seem very personable. I was more or less in awe of him. Ginsberg was generous and nice to me. Kesey was friendly, cheerful and encouraging—good old country Ken.
Ten years later, I was working at a bookstore in Chico, California, and writing for a couple of weekly papers. An audio collection of Ginsberg performing his poems was just out, and an editor at the Sacramento News & Review asked me to write about it. Ginsberg was touring in support of the cd collection, and the editor arranged for me to interview him by phone. I was to call City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco at a designated time, and ask for “Jack,” who would pass the phone to Ginsberg. I called at the given time, got “Jack,” but Allen was not on hand. So much for that. Two nights later I was working the counter at my bookstore job. The phone rang and my fellow bookseller, a young woman, answered it. She listened briefly, gave me kind of a funny look, and said, “Allen Ginsberg’s on the phone for you.” Yes, it was Allen, leaving no tern unstoned. He told me he was in Lowell, Massachusetts, for a Kerouac gathering, apologized for not being available previously, and talked with me for about 20 minutes. So, I got the interview in support of my review, and gained some respect among my bookseller colleagues.
CRB: Music has always been an important part of your life. How much and how has it influenced your writing? [Ed. hint. Check out the title of this book of Dan’s. Click to go to its Amazon page books.]
DB: I like to tell students, “Make your poems musical and make your songs poetic,” and I do my best to follow my own advice. Thinking back on my life, music and poetry have been always been there—nursery rhymes, childhood songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” Stevenson’s children’s verses put to music, “Oh, how I like to go up in swing, up in the air so blue/Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing, ever a child can do.” No doubt all of those things, along with simple biological realities of breath and heartbeat, provided ideas and examples of rhyme and rhythm that have influenced my writing.
Later in life I became aware of songwriters like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Kris Kristofferson, whom I consider to be poets. I have done my best to go to school on their work, as I have on the work of William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, E. E. Cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac and many others.
CRB: Much of your work has focused on the what, why and how of your personal experience, some of it with a homespun quality (“Ode to My Bow Saw” comes to mind.) Have you ever been tempted to launch into something entirely fictional such as a paranormal novel or the like?
DB: Every once in a while a poem comes to me, out of a dream or out of thin air, that seems to have nothing to do with the facts of my life or the person I consider myself to be. I accept those poems as strange gifts. With regard to prose and fiction, once in a while I give something “whole cloth” a try. A story of mine called “The Haunted Condominium” comes to mind. Another story I have worked on intermittently for years, and never satisfactorily finished, is titled “The Secret Goldfish.” It takes off from a bit in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. But even in pieces like that, autobiographical elements seem to sneak in. Another unfinished work in that category is “Uncle Heinrich’s African Journals,” a story about 19th century German explorer, Heinrich Barth, a distant relative.
CRB: I assume you are at work on some project or another, as you always are. Care to give us a glimpse into Dan Barth’s publishing future?
DB: There’s a backlog of essays and reviews that have never been collected into book form. And there are always new poems. Recently I’ve mainly been working on rather straightforward “prosy” poems, a collection that has quickly grown to 35 pages or so. That may become my next poetry book. If I ever really get my act together, I’ll publish “The Secret Goldfish and Other Stories.”
CRB: How about giving us a bit of an explanation of your haiku philosophy, and maybe a sample?
DB: I first heard of haiku in 1974 when I read Jack Kerouac’s novels The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. Also under the influence of those books, I sent in an application and in 1975 got a job working for the U. S. Forest Service as a firefighter on the Wind River District of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The guy in charge of the fire cache there—where firefighting equipment was stored, checked out, cleaned and repaired—was Ed Biggs, a former high school music teacher. During slack time, Ed was reading the first English language collection of haiku, the same one that had influenced Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, R. H. Blyth’s two-volume History of Haiku. I learned more about haiku from Ed and those books.
Quite a few years later, in 1994, my wife, son and I moved west, from Chico, California to Ukiah, California. My poet friend Franz Cilensek was the first to point out to me that Ukiah was haiku spelled backwards. [Ed. Note: “Ukiah” is actually derived from a Pomo Indian word, Yokayah, meaning “Deep Valley.” The confluence of its anglo spelling and the poetic genre is rather wonderful.] Several years later, I helped other poets and organizers start the Ukiah Haiku Festival, which is now in it’s 15th year.
My haiku philosophy takes off from Kerouac, who advised that strict adherence to a 5-7-5 syllable count is not necessary for western haiku, and from Basho, the great Japanese master, who saw haiku as a way of staying in tune with the natural world. Here’s a handful of mine, and I am outa here.
Thank you, Carl, for the thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.
on a wire fence
field in great shape
crow hops at shortstop
highway on ramp
hitchhiker with a sign—
in a pink sky
screech owl calls
in the bottlebrush
beside the deer fence
in coyote brush
on the pond
cut the water at dusk
On the page
to add . . .