Barbara Hamby: Poems with Sprezzatura

Barbara Hamby has published five books of poetry, most recently Babel (2004), All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), and On the Street of Divine Love (2014), all from the University of Pittsburgh Press. In 2010 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry and her book of short stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and was published by the University of Iowa Press. She also edited (with her husband David Kirby) an anthology of poetry, Seriously Funny (Georgia, 2009). She is Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University.

Barbara was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.


In your new book, On the Street of Divine Love, you’ve returned to free verse after working extensively with the abecedarian and other formal constraints. You’ve said in other interviews that the transition back to to free verse was very difficult. What were those difficulties, and what is the most pleasurable thing about working in free verse again?

In All-Night Lingo Tango I was counting syllables, using internal and end rhymes (often mono rhymes), and playing with a variety of abecedarian forms, working with both the beginning and the end of the line, as well as writing more traditional sonnets. So many formal poets are accomplished, but I find their work boring. They often seem to say, Look at this difficult thing I am doing. I wanted to write formal poems that had sprezzatura, an Italian word meaning to do something difficult but make it look effortless. I also wanted to write formal poems that were serious but incorporated comedy.

I started working in a serious way with form in my second book, The Alphabet of Desire, with an abecedarian sequence. Then in Babel I started counting syllables and trying for end rhymes in my odes. Often I couldn’t pull it off, so I reconfigured the poems as free verse. In Lingo Tango I found myself being able to run with the formal constraints, which was a heady feeling. However, at the end of that book, I began to see how I could paint myself into a corner with form. I decided to go back to free verse, but I really missed the assignments of form.

Free verse begins with images, and as a result it can seem formless. I think Denise Levertov is right when she says that all poems have an intrinsic form. However, finding that form can seem like starting on a 1,000 mile hike with a backpack full of nothing. When you begin a sonnet, you begin with the rhyme scheme, the fourteen lines, the volta, and that couplet at the end. It’s grounding.

I worked on the first poem in On the Street of Divine Love, “Ode to Forgetting the Year,” over two years. It is my transition poem from formal to free verse. I started with the anaphora of “forget the year,” and then thought of moving through the year, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that and not sound like Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” I had to let it sit for long stretches before I came up with the various digressions. That poem freed me to begin writing more digressive free-verse poems that make up the rest of the new work.

I admire the formal elements of your poems, whether imposed or found, including the beauty of your stanzas and lines. The structure is not only beautiful, but it feels to me like a secure base from which to ride the narrative digressions, the energy of your language, and associative leaps. What are your thoughts on the organization of stanzas and lines? Do you consider this structure to be intrinsic?

I worked my way into my line and stanzas as the best way to present those digressions and leaps. I started out using couplets as a way to create some space in my poems, but as they became longer the couplets lost their appeal. The long stanzas with the indentation in every other line seem to support the run-on nature of my tangents by making the whole poem look more coherent. And the indentations make it easy to stay focused on which line you are reading. Because my poems tackle so many subjects and jump around, it is important that they look elegant on the page. The leaps and digressions may seem crazy, but in the end they add up to something larger than the parts, or that is my intention. I think the look of the poem on the page supports that desire. 

You’ve said you sometimes used the abecedarian form for the wild associations the form requires, then relineated the poems as free verse. I’ve never thought of the abecedarian that way. How does that work in your experience?

“Ode to American English” is an abecedarian gone bad. That was another difficult poem to write. I had such ambitions for it, and they all came to smash. It started as an abecedarian in rhymed couplets, but I just didn’t have the skill to do it, so I revised it as a free verse poem. I think the alphabet and the rhymes give it a pop that it wouldn’t have had if I had started out writing in free verse. In Lingo Tango I was able to pull off the abecedarian in rhymed couplets in “Ode on Dictionaries.” I just kept trying until I was able to do it.

I read a fascinating description of your creative process: of working poems in batches, letting images speak to each other, and improvising individual poems. Would you describe your process here?

When I first started writing I would work on one poem at a time, and it was hard to let it go if it wasn’t working out. I found that working on a sequence of poems solved that problem. Sometimes the sequences would be ruled by a metaphor (bees in Delirium or mockingbirds in Babel), form (abecedarians, sonnets, odes), or travel. Lots of poems didn’t work out, but it was lots easier to let them go when I had fifteen that were chugging right along. It’s a technique that’s still working for me. All my obsessions and yearning are funneled through the guiding light of the sequence. I’m amazed that it’s still a viable process for me twenty-five years later.

How do you collect and organize your images, and at what point do you begin working on a new sequence of poems?

I have a couple of new sequences boiling on the back burners of my mind right now, so when I finish with the poems I’m working on now, they will be there to write. David and I went to India earlier in 2014, so I have a group of Indian poems. What a gorgeous country. I had been wanting to go for so long, and it blew me away. The images, the colors, the landscape, the food, the languages, the history, the people—everything teemed with such intensity. In June we went to Chile. I had been working with some students at the Universidad de Playa Ancha in Valparaiso on a little book of translations of my poems, and we went down for the launch of the book in June. Chile is the most poetical country. There was a poem on every corner. And I’m planning a group of poems about my mother, almost a biography. Finishing a project can be so sad. The only answer is to never finish and have something to work on always. It’s like the Christian admonition to pray without ceasing. Write poetry without ceasing.

It seems your creative process invites the unconscious into your work. How do you regard the importance of the unconscious to poetry?

It’s essential. The obsessions, fears, desire at the center of my being are trying to find expression on the page. All of the formal considerations are nothing without this engagement. An older friend of mine once told me that we are all wrapped up in the same fight—wanting to be free and bound at the same time. I think she’s right about that. I also think that we are trying to express what it is to be alive in our point in time. When I read Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 57,” (“Being your slave what should I do but tend / upon the hours and times of your desire”), I feel as if he is speaking directly to me. Frank O’Hara said in his essay “Personism” that a poem should be like picking up a phone and talking to someone.

I begin a poem with a group of images that are coalescing and maybe some formal idea, but writing takes place in the moment, and in that moment the images and form make contact with the unconscious and that makes the poem. It still seems miraculous to me.

You’ve said that working on a group of poems can be like falling in love, but painful, too. Would you elaborate on that? And how do you know or decide when a poem has succeeded or failed?

Oh, they can fail in so many ways, and sometimes I’m surprised by positive responses to a poem. In Divine Love there’s a poem “17 Dollars” that has gotten so much positive response, but I almost left it out of the book. Right now I’m working on a book about journeys. One of the trips was to Russia. In Moscow I set up a Bulgakov tour because I love The Master and Margarita so much. I’ve written five versions of my Bulgakov poem, but none is right. I think maybe I jumped the gun, and my Bulgakov poem is “Reading Can Kill You” in Divine Love. Sometimes I love a poem that I can’t publish in a magazine. In Babel and Divine Love there’s a poem “Fang” that I couldn’t publish anywhere, but I love it so it’s in both books.

Sometimes I find myself attempting something that I just don’t have the technical skill for, as in the abecedarians that work with the beginning and the end of the line. I wrote a lot of stupid poems before I was able to write “Lingo Sonnets” in All-Night Lingo Tango. The failed poems were hitting all the formal constraints, but they had no center. The same was true of the odes in Babel in which I was trying to count syllables. However, I was able to let the syllable count go and revise them as free-verse poems.

The love metaphor is funny. When I’m in the middle of a group of poems it is all engrossing and like being in love. When I can’t write a poem, it’s as if I am having a fight with my beloved, and when the poems are finished it’s like a death. No, a better analogy is a much-beloved child going off to college. You don’t want him hanging around the house and smoking dope in the basement for the rest of his life, but you miss talking to him every day. That’s the way I feel when a book is published, and that’s why I always have a new project to work on before a book comes out. I was shocked by how depressed I was when my first book was published. I wanted it to be published, but I missed fooling around with it every day.

You said your next book is about journeys. What journeys will the book include?

I’m writing about three specific journeys: a trip from St. Petersburg to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a trip from Memphis to New Orleans on Highway 61 (the Blues Highway), and a trip following The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaca. All three are concerned with a literature I love—the Russians, the blues, and Homer—but they are also mixed up with the accidental images I encountered on the road, with my parents’ deaths, and with other kinds of losses. I finished a rough draft last summer, so now I have to find time to polish the final draft. I could never have taken on such an ambitious project without the support of the Guggenheim Foundation and summer travel grants from Florida State where I teach. I’m so grateful to both institutions for their support. 

In addition to providing source material, how does travel influence your creative process?

In Buddhism there is a concept of beginner’s mind, to look at the world through new eyes every time. That’s easier said than done. Travel, especially to a place where you don’t speak the language, is an artificial beginner’s mind. I’m out of my comfort zone, afraid, exhilarated by all the new images. It’s a very creative place for me. 

In your poem, “On the Street of Divine Love,” the narrator says: “I’m on the street of divine love, / and if this pavement isn’t God, then I have nothing to pin my hopes on.” In my view, this speaks to a central question your new poems ask: What is the nature of the divine? Where does it reside? What are your thoughts on the relationship between divinity and the material world?

As far as I can see the material world is all there is. I’ve done a lot of meditation, and in Buddhism there is a concentration on being in the present moment. For me that’s where the divine resides—in the pavement, in the madmen walking down the street, in the world with all its squalor and beauty. All I can do is record my observations of what I see through my own eyes and those I come in contact with whether it be through conversation, books, art, music, travel, or sublime accident.

When I approach your poems, I’ve come to expect the dazzling language, wit, and mind-expanding associations. This time, I was also struck by how strong the emotional currents are. The new poems feel shot through with anxiety and loss. I recognize I may be projecting this because of the resonance of those currents within me. And I don’t necessarily want to limit the reader’s perceptions by asking your specific intentions, but what is your sense of the emotional volume or tenor of these poems compared to your earlier collections?

Both of my parents died while I was writing these new poems, and those deaths changed me so much. I thought I’d asked them every question I could, but once they were gone I realized how much I’d forgotten to ask. My early history was gone, and there was no way to retrieve it. Also, when my mother died it was such a visceral loss. We had little in common on the surface—she was a right-wing Republican and hard-core born-again Christian—but I came from her body, which never stopped amazing me, and she had cared for me so tenderly when I couldn’t care for myself. At the end of her life I got so much pleasure out of taking care of her and in helping her. She was a fearless woman, but in the last five years of her life I saw her lose her confidence in navigating the world. Our relationship took on so much tenderness. As a young woman I had so many differences with her, but as we both aged those differences faded into nothing. I refused to fight with her about politics and religion, and they faded into the background. She would be appalled to know that Buddhist meditation was a keystone in our relationship.

Several of your new poems—“Ode to Forgetting the Year” is a notable example—end with an image that combines singing with darkness or night and an element of menace. What was the impetus for those images?

Everyone knows about Lorca’s “duende,” and death is at the end of the road we are all walking on, so I can’t help writing about that darkness especially as I grow older and the beauty of the world becomes sweeter.

Your collection of stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Do you have more fiction in the works?

I’m working on a novel about a missionary family in rural O’ahu during the sixties. I have 400 pages, but I think it should be maybe 600 pages. Most of the time I feel as if I’m in over my head, but it’s exhilarating at the same time. I hope I can finish it. I felt the same way about my book of stories. In fact, it was not a little disconcerting when it was published because I had to let it go. I had written a rough draft of the novel at the MacDowell Colony years ago, so I picked it up again and started filling in the blanks.

 What do you do when you aren’t writing?

For the last eight years or so, I’ve really gotten into yoga. I’ve turned one of the rooms in my house into a yoga studio, which has made it easier to have a daily practice. I did a lot of yoga in my twenties, and I’ve been surprised at how much my body remembers. I love the inverted poses especially headstand and shoulderstand and back bends. If I’m lucky enough to live to be an old woman, I want to be able to walk and think and work.

I also love to garden. Our house has a vegetable garden that was a Victory Garden during World War II, so the soil is rich. I love arugula, so most of the year I have a couple of rows of that. I also grow tomatoes in the summer and basil and peppers. I also have a collection of 60 or so frangipani trees in pots. The blossoms are the scent of my childhood in Hawai’i. They are blooming right now and it’s heaven. I’ve been able to make a couple of leis this year.

I love to cook. Soups and baking are my favorites. I have a file of soups from all over the world. Recently we were in Chile and I had Pablo Neruda’s Caldillo de Congrio, and I’m dreaming of making it myself. I love to make a big pot of gumbo or minestrone. After working all day with words, it’s so relaxing to cut vegetables and make a soup.

I play the piano very badly, and my drawings are bad, too, but I enjoy both. I usually draw more when I’m traveling. I love opera. The Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts over the last few years have allowed me to see so many productions. I love Mozart. Le Nozze di Figaro is my favorite opera, but I love Puccini and Verdi and Donizetti. I really like new operas, too. Thomas Adès, Philip Glass, and John Adams have had operas broadcast. It’s good to know that opera is a living art form. So you can see that I like to stay busy. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Oh, my mother would be so happy I said that.


Read a selection of Barbara’s poems here.

Barbara will be reading at the Miami Book Fair (November 16-23). Visit her website here.


  1. […] The interview was conducted by Laura Richardson, poetry editor. […]

  2. […] with Janet Burroway, Joe Clifford, Anjanette Delgado, Barbara Hamby, and José Ignacio Valenzuela (also available in Spanish). Visual Arts by Steve Cartwright, […]

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