Madeleine Barnes is a poet and visual artist from Pittsburgh. She is the author of the chapbook The Mark My Body Draws in Light (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and her poems have recently appeared in places such as Pleiades, Fields Magazine, Jai-Alai Magazine, The Rattling Wall, The Literary Nest, and Pittsburgh Poetry Review. She earned a BHA from Carnegie Mellon University, a Master’s of Philosophy in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, and an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University.
DS: Why do you write poetry?
MB: My mother is a poet, so I was familiar with her poems and her passion for poetry at an early age. As I grew up, I’d occasionally sneak books from the shelves of her study, and in this way I secretly encountered the work of poets like Yusef Komunyakaa (with whom she and I both eventually studied!), Rilke, Lorca, Franz and James Wright, Keats, Plath, Kim Addonizio, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Li-Young Lee, Jan Beatty, many Irish poets, and so on. I have always loved my mom’s poetry; it is sonically familiar and deeply comforting to me. From this starting point, I expanded outward and built my own mini-library. Then I began to write and never looked back.
I felt (and currently feel) that reading and writing poetry are the only things that keep me from going mad. If I’m not writing, I am not engaging with the realities of life. For me, reading is the surest way to get close to the important truths of living—and it arms me with the compassion I need to reflect on trauma, grief, loss, political strife, and the subject that levels and unifies us: death.
Poetry is also a way for me to understand my family history. My grandparents worked in steel mills shoveling zinc or building railroad ties; they were carpenters and teaching artists—members of the working class. Through poetry, I’m trying to examine and preserve their stories with a lens that is simultaneously personal and objective, and filled with tenderness. I write poems because life seems unbearable when I stop wondering about the truth of other people’s experiences.
DS: What do you hope to find in poems written by other people?
MB: This changes and evolves over time; I have recently encountered some surprising losses, so in other people’s poems, I look for solace. I have really, really loved rereading the U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. “When the storm // kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing // after all we’re certain to lose, so alive— // faces radiant with panic.” Thank god she is our poet laureate during this terrifying political time!
I search for poems that cut straight to the bone; poems with lines that you want to write down again and again until grief reconfigures. I’m looking for poems that will see us out of this time with their hard truths and compassion. I love the raw, egoless work of very young poets and the poems of the very old. The work of my friends is staggering, and I love the courage and ferocity of what they create.
Sometimes I read 6-7 books in a week and find only one line that gives me an answer to my questions, but that is enough to keep me going.
DS: Describe your works in progress.
MB: I'm fighting hard to finish and send out the full-length manuscript I've been working on for seven years. People I trust have told me that it's done, but I feel there is a section about my family’s working-class roots and experiences missing, so I'm hammering that out slowly and with patience. I’m interested in the ways they suffered and what it took for them to survive—there are threads of addiction, grudges, domestic violence, and mental illness, but also strains of resilience and love. Steel and Pittsburgh, my hometown, are everywhere in this manuscript.
I am also working on a chapbook of visual poetry—something like poetry comics in the style of Bianca Stone layered in with some Matthea Harvey-style cutouts and possibly embroidery. Still mulling this over and experimenting, but it has been a lot of fun to work on.
Finally, I help read poetry for Cordella Magazine with the creative director Cate Clother, and this has been a wonderful project that helps me look outside myself.
DS: What are your hopes for the future of poetry?
MB: I hope that poetry outlives us all. I hope it becomes a little less insular—maybe people who wouldn’t normally read poetry will engage with it and find some relief in it, as I have. I hope that young people write fiercely and in their own styles. I hope that society starts to value poets a bit more and starts paying them and taking the work they do seriously—society is obsessed with “what you do,” but somehow you get the occasional eyebrow raise when you say, “I’m a poet.” I hope future poets protect their creativity and value it with all their hearts. I hope poetry preserves the names of things that seem to be disappearing. I recently read that the words “acorn” and “blackberry” have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and that botany is a dying science, so please, poets, help us remember the names of things.
I also hope that the kind of hustle/ego that I find in some poetry these days dissolves and leaves the raw, true things behind. I respect the hustle but think it’s sad when the “social scene” of poetry sidetracks writers. Sometimes I just want a cabin in the woods and, like, 10 pugs by my side while I write the truest things I can. I want poems that eradicate prejudice, call attention to and dismantle oppressive systems, and raise hell. I am so grateful for everyone writing and creating today—keep going!