The month after the cruelest month / An interview with poet Anne Barngrover

The month after the cruelest month

by Anne Barngrover

is silk and velvet, redbuds and forsythia,
lace-white pear trees backlit

in a streetlamp’s planetary glow.
A grinning dog chases cars in tall grass’s

gold tassels, and some fool
burns wet green wood in the near

distance, the rising smoke in the trees
with a bad smell that creates no heat,

no clear purpose. How I no longer feel
out-of-love but simply not-loving.

I established this pattern years ago.
For one month I believe

I’m someone’s dream girl. I fall
for someone’s charm like a migrating bird—

the bright flicker of feathers, the rare
trill threading the dogwoods—then gone.

I’m down on my luck again, pissing off
every man around. I’m no one’s

dream; therefore I am everyone’s
foe. Call me jaded—it fits

me like a dress that’s so tight
I can’t properly sit down. Every woman

must come to a crossroads. Oh, charmer,
I have learned your bright alphabet

of night-blooming flowers.
There will always be dirt in your nails

and smoke on your breath.
There will always be smoke in the trees.

First appeared in The Adroit Journal 2015.

Barngrover author photo-color.jpg

Anne Barngrover is the author of two books of poetry, Brazen Creature (University of Akron Press, 2018) and Yell Hound Blues (Shipwreckt Books, 2013) and co-author with Avni Vyas of the chapbook Candy in Our Brains (CutBank, 2014). She is an assistant professor of English at Saint Leo University and lives in Tampa, Florida.

Anne’s work was brought to our attention by poet Jennifer Maritza McCauley, whom we interviewed here. We offered Jennifer the opportunity to “pay it forward” by choosing another poet to interview, and she chose Anne. Jennifer says, “I met Anne Barngrover several years ago when she was Contest Editor at the Missouri Review. As I got to know Anne personally, I was blown away by her lovely and fierce spirit and soul-stirring poetry. Her newest collection Brazen Creature (University of Akron Press) is elegant, searing, and beautifully rendered. A must read!”

So, here is Jennifer’s interview with Anne.

Q~How would you describe your style?

A~My highest style aspiration is to sound like a Southern/Midwestern Amy Winehouse. I’ve only ever lived in the South or Midwest, or usually a place that’s a blend of both regions like Cincinnati or Missouri, and so I can’t escape the linguistic flair of the South nor the frank “them’s the breaks” attitude of the Midwest. I particularly enjoy using line breaks to hit harder, double-back, or surprise the reader with an unexpected turn of phrase.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “The month after the cruelest month.” How is it representative of your work? 

A~Like a lot of my poems, it is snarky as hell. I am both nodding to and poking fun of T.S. Elliot by positing the question: if April truly is the “cruelest month” and the harbinger of apocalypse for him (read: for men), then what comes after that, for women?

Poems like this one often begin with me feeling angry, hurt, or confused at a very raw, base level. But, then I take a step back and try to examine my feelings and reactions in a logical, almost detached manner. For this poem specifically, I thought about how to be desired as a woman often means playing a role and acting out a script that ultimately does nothing (aka burning the wood that never makes a real fire). And, so I wonder—here is the hardest part—how do I fall prey to these patriarchal notions, how am I complicit in them, and how do I enact them myself?

I am not the hero of my poems; I am the villain. This poem is calling out my own bullshit for whenever I say oh, this time will be different, which of course is a myth that tricks women into performing emotional labor and taking on the thankless and pointless task of “fixing” men. What do we give up when we fashion ourselves to be desired? And, what do we sacrifice when we reject those notions and refuse to be this “dream girl?” Does that subject us to anger? Or, are we called bitter and jaded when we refuse to follow this narrative? These are all of the mental gymnastics I had to perform as I was writing this poem. I ask these questions throughout the book, especially as they play out in the conservative landscapes in Midwestern/Southern places that often rely on women fulfilling traditional roles.

Q~Brazen Creature feels alive. It blends the tender and the fearsome, the wild and sweet, the ghostly and the carnal. The speaker seamlessly weaves through heartache, longing and self-assurance, in backwood bars and classrooms, on country roads and Midwestern fields. How did this collection come together? Were there any poems that were harder or easier to write than others?

A~It’s really interesting that you picked up on the physical movement of the poems because that’s how most of them came into being. I “wrote” most of them (in my head, with my muscles and breath) either while running on the MKT Trail or while driving on backcountry roads to teach as an adjunct in the small town of Fayette, Missouri. The images that emerge in my poems, therefore, were not usually ones that I saw once but repeatedly over days, weeks, months, even years. The ironic thing is that I am terrible with directions, but without question I always knew on my drive where I’d see the guy selling pumpkins out of his pickup truck, the herd of goats, the four white horses, the biker bar called The Hog Pen, the weak smoke above the lavender trees. And it became like ritual on my trail runs where I’d find the fencepost with the red-tailed hawk, the Catalpa trees with flowers big as dinner plates, the art installation of a bicycle strung up in branches, the rotting deer ribcage in the creek bed. People sometimes ask me if I need to write these things down, but I often don’t because these images couldn’t shake from me even if I tried.

I don’t know if any of the poems were harder or easier to write than others, but there were definitely times while writing the book when I felt like a fraud, when I didn’t follow my own advice, or when I didn’t write a single poetic word for months, even, at a time. Writing a book while doing a PhD is really hard because you’re working all parts of your brain—teacher, scholar, literary journal editor, reading series co-host, academic job market seeker, etc. etc. etc. So, there were stretches when I simply didn’t have the mental energy to work on my own poems and when I had to carve out the time, like doing two residencies one summer, to get it all out. I fretted about it a lot, but now I realize it’s ok to sometimes go a long time without writing, and I need to be gentler with myself. The poems will always be waiting for me again when I’m ready to return.

Q~I enjoyed the feminist overtones in this collection. In the poem “You apologize to me in passive voice,” the speaker and an unnamed lover switch between active and passive roles, and in poems like “He Hates What I Do,” “The one drag show in town is closing” and “Your Name in My Boot” the speaker’s affirmations of self, awareness of inequality in her immediate world and relationships, and tug of war with the past are portrayed with such empowered complexity.  When writing these poems and/or compiling this collection, were you thinking about how to present feminist concerns? Why or why not? 

A~Thank you for saying all that. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we damage women and perpetuate sexism and misogyny at the word level. Again, I say “we” because I am villainous; I am guilty of doing this, too. We all are. It’s impossible to truly separate ourselves from what our society imprints on us that we’re supposed to want, appear, say, or do. One day I counted and saw that I refer to myself as a “fool” in this book over a dozen times. That’s because I know what and why I’m perpetuating these narratives, yet I still do them because that’s how ingrained they are in our lives.

The passive voice kills me. We receive messages from pop songs, dialogue in movies and TV shows, Hallmark cards, jewelry and makeup ads, biology textbooks, Bible verses, catalogues, sermons, doctors’ offices, investigative journalism, Sex Ed pamphlets, and daily conversations that men act and women are acted upon. This is the story we hear about how sex works, even how reproduction works. It’s all crafted this way for a reason. And, we’ve invented words for women who choose to act on their own volition—slut, bitch, prude, femme fatale, witch, crazy, hysterical, bitter, angry, cynical, frigid, nasty, clingy, desperate. Those last two—“clingy” and “desperate”—I think are having their heyday right now and create an even worse stigma than “slut” or “bitch” (just think of the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme). It’s preferable right now to be “the cool girl,” to go with the flow, to not care, not overthink or pause, to never question. Hmm, wonder why that is?

All that is to say, I don’t set out to write “feminist poems” necessarily, but because I’m always preoccupied and obsessed with these questions, they can’t help but work their way into my poetry, especially the more I read and the more I find I don’t know.

Q~The line “sometimes a ghost is not a ghost” and the imagery of ghosts and hauntings appear more than once in this book. Would you talk a bit about why you included ghost imagery in the collection?

A~Although I’m a scaredy-cat and can’t even handle the previews for horror movies, much less the movies themselves, ghosts still fascinate me because of the stories they tell and the cultural fears and shame that they represent. It’s the second, deeper story underneath the ghost story that’s compelling to me.

In my mind, patriarchy is a ghost. Racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are ghosts, too. The shame and fear that they carry may have originated in the past, but they still haunt us to this day and have present, real-world consequences. These ghosts have become systems. In ghost stories, the person who’s always like “I don’t believe in that” or “That isn’t real” is always the first who’s toast. I think there’s a reason behind that. We might claim not to see or believe in something, but that doesn’t mean shit because it still harms us no matter what. We must first acknowledge the ghost and give it a name, but that can sometimes be the scariest part. In Brazen Creature, I force myself to ask, what if the ghost also lives inside myself? (It does.)

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~They can visit my website. I just go by my name on Facebook and Instagram, and my Twitter handle is @Anne_Barngrover.

Brazen Creature cover

image2 (3)Jennifer Maritza McCauley teaches at the University of Missouri, where she is pursuing a PhD in creative writing. She is also Contest Editor at The Missouri Review and poetry editor at Origins Literary Journal. She has received fellowships from the NEA, CantoMundo, and Kimbilio. Her work appears in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Passages North, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is available from Stalking Horse Press.

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