December 12, 2015
MU alum Walter Bargen reflects on his experiences as Missouri’s first poet laureate.
Two men shake hands.
They sit down. One mentions T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land”; the other recites 30 lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
And then former Gov. Matt Blunt asks Walter Bargen, “Can you think of any reason why you should not be appointed poet laureate?”
“I paused for a moment, and I foolishly said, looking for something really small, ‘You know, I used the word breasts once in a poem,’” Bargen said. “And mentally I’m going, ‘I just used the word ‘breasts’ in the governor’s office.’ Now I’m scrambling. I’m really desperate and trying to think of something else to say to cover that up and I blurt out, ‘Well you know, I grew up in the ’60s.’”
On Feb. 13, 2008, Bargen was named the first poet laureate of Missouri.
During his two-year term, Bargen made it his goal to promote all types of literature throughout the state. As the first to hold the position in Missouri, the MU graduate had to create the position as he went along, setting the stage for poet laureates after him.
Write an adult sentence.
This sentence, this combination of four words, 20 letters and one period, is what shamed Bargen into becoming a poet.
“An English teacher in maybe eighth or ninth grade, Mr. Morris, had us clean off our desks and the assignment was, ‘Write an adult sentence,’” Bargen said. “We handed them in and he looked at them, and then he created this giant snowfall of 8-by-11 pieces of paper as he threw them up in the air. We didn’t include anything that was meaningful. We didn’t include any phrases, probably didn’t use conjunctions or supporting clauses, and I think back on that and I think that is what really ignited an interest in trying to understand the use of language.”
Bargen received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and minored in anthropology at MU. As a student, he only took two English courses — required freshman English and The Modern Novel, where he received his lowest grade at MU, a C.
As a child, Bargen lived in Germany for seven years and Switzerland for six months. His family was a military family, an experience he said shaped who he is. Their travels sparked in him a willingness to explore, which evolved into a search for a permanent place.
“I think that perhaps having moved around so often, I had a reaction, and I wanted to develop a sense of place,” Bargen said. “That place, that search, is a theme that runts through most of my work.” Bargen said his mother occasionally referred to his “other mother,” likely due to her dementia. He never understood what this meant, as he had a birth certificate to prove that she was his mother.
“One time I came into her room, and she was saying: ‘Your other mother kept me up all night, chain smoking and filled a trash can full of cigarette butts. And it was so smokey in the room I couldn’t see the TV,’” Bargen said. “What did she mean by that — my other mother? I concluded in one poem, ‘I’m too old now to have another mother.’”
Today, Bargen is a narrative poet. But before his style shifted in the early 1990s, he was an “imagistic poet,” meaning his poems conveyed the figurative imagery he thought of. He often tries to blend the narrative and imagistic styles in a unique fashion. Because they are widely known and do not require explanation, religious characters are easy to “thrust” into a work to create “images that startle.”
“Taking a historical figure and putting them into a modern-day setting creates all kinds of interesting contrasts that you wouldn’t have if you left that historical figure in their time and place,” Bargen said. “For example, having Jonah stand in line at Walmart holding a plastic bag filled with fish brings all kinds of images to mind. The image then results in the possibility of making very interesting discoveries that you might not be aware of.”
Bargen has published 18 books over four decades of writing and has two unpublished manuscripts. Two of his books were translated and published in German. One of his books, “Remedies for Vertigo,” is a group of poems focused on flight, one of which is called “Redshift.”
“One day I walked into Hill Hall, and there was a door with a sign that said, ‘If you’ve lost something red, call this phone number,’” Bargen said. “And so this begins. And it goes through this whole list of what might be red, but it’s not that. Then it goes cosmic; thinking about the redshift in wavelengths means going farther away.”
“Too Quick for the Living,” one of Bargen’s unpublished works, takes on an elegiac style. The other, “Pole Dancing in the Nightclub of God,” is compiled of prose poems about biblical characters in everyday life.
“Moses is, in one part, a lawn mower repairman,” Bargen said. “At one point he thinks he sees God in the bushes, but he goes back to repairing the lawn mower because he’s converting it into a self-propelled believer.”
Bargen said it is common to be rejected many times before a company commits to publishing a work.
“Rejection isn’t all bad,” Bargen said. “Of course nobody wants to be rejected, but at some point, you just have to eat it. And every time you eat rejection, you become stronger. Not in terms of bracing yourself or walling yourself off, but you become more determined. Also, it gives you the opportunity to revise the manuscript again.”
Bargen said he often finds himself revising his poems that have already been published, because “nothing is ever finished, only abandoned.” In order to keep things interesting, he said, writers should always attempt to surprise themselves.
“It is true that you will write best what you know best,” Bargen said. “But your most interesting writing will be when you write through what you know, into what you don’t know, and know something for the first time.”
This theory applied when Bargen wrote “The Feast,” a collection of prose poems retelling the story of Jonah.
“I knew there was something that was bothering me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was,” Bargen said. “I finally realized I was really tired of the pronoun ‘she.’ So I didn’t create the character, but I borrowed the character of Jonah, from the Bible. There’s eight sections. Six of those sections deal with Jonah and his wife, Jezebel. Those were all hes and shes. And that allowed me to do a number of things that I hadn’t done.”
Sleadd has created about 10 covers for Bargen. Bargen describes him as a “pen and ink artist,” explaining that he is “always trying to get him to do more color in his drawings.” Sleadd does not always create cover art directly related to the poems inside the books. Instead, he produces an image that reflects the book’s overall tone.
“When he did (“Theban Traffic”), I was so stunned,” Bargen said. “You will notice closely the ancient Greek drinking cup shape; notice motorcycles, trucks, airplanes. And “Theban Traffic” is a town in the Midwest by the name of Thebes, and there are two characters: Jake and Stella, and they’re in a combative relationship. These are prose poems, too, and all the way through it, almost in every poem, battling it out in one way or another.”
Sleadd said his working relationship with Bargen usually involves Bargen assigning him a cover project, and Sleadd procrastinating until he creates something both of them can be proud of.
“(I) get the satisfaction of working with somebody else, somebody as talented as Walter,” Sleadd said. “I’d say that is my big reward. Leonard Baskin did beautiful book work, and he worked with Ted Hughes, the poet. Walter thought it would be fun for him and me to be the new Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin, and I would illustrate his books. (It’s) 99.9 percent Walter and 0.1 percent my art.”
Bargen is now retired, devoting his time to re-tiling his house and taking care of the neighborhood’s animals: raccoons, foxes, and in the summer, hummingbirds.
“It’s a menagerie,” Bargen said.
While he was poet laureate, though, he worked for the Assessment Resource Center in MU’s College of Education.
“You always think of a poet as very meditative, having a glass of scotch and just laid back, and he’s not,” Sleadd said. “Walter squeezes (poetry) into his life. He used to have a full-time job and 200 cats and wife and property. You would never guess it from looking at his work, or reading his work, that he is doing all this other stuff.”
No Instruction Manual.
In his two years as poet laureate, Bargen attended between 150 and 200 events around the state of Missouri. He was interviewed on local television and radio shows; he promoted literature and poetry at local schools; he read his work at libraries.
“In county libraries, I would try to get there early and look around in their stacks,” Bargen said. “It would be disturbing to me; there would not be a single contemporary book of poetry on their shelves. I guess you could say that poetry was suffering from benign neglect.”
Because he was the state’s first poet laureate, Bargen spent his two years creating his role as he went along. He had no predecessor to model his term after; he had no guidelines nor instruction manual. Bargen made it his goal to promote the consumption of poetry through both listening and reading.
“It was not infrequent at county libraries that wives would drag their husbands to these events, and almost every time, a husband would come up afterwards and say, ‘I really didn’t want to come to this. But I really enjoyed it,’” Bargen said. “This told me I am presenting material to them that is graspable, that is acceptable, and that is moving enough to make someone come up and say that.”
Bargen works with other poets through a poetry group called Reflections. Matt Dube, a professor of creative writing at William Woods University in Fulton, works with Bargen in the group. He said Bargen raises the bar for the group by providing insightful feedback and pushing the other writers to think through and finish their work.
“(Walter is) a generous, serious poet,” Dube said. “He is very generous about the attention he gives to other poets and other writers, but he is also not afraid for standing up for it being serious business. There’s a point in getting good at poetry, there’s no point in screwing around and playing at it.”
Dube noticed that since his term as poet laureate, Bargen is more willing to discuss his opinions and the meaning of his work with both the group and the public.
“He was on the radio the other day, I heard him on Paul Pepper’s show on KBIA, ‘Radio Friends,’ and he and Walter mixed it up a little bit about what was happening in some of his poems,” Dube said. “I think Walter has been very empowered to say: ‘I want you to understand what I’m saying. We can disagree but I want to be clear where I am.’”
From time to time, Bargen is commissioned to write for different occasions. He writes a short piece once a month for Made For Agriculture’s magazine, “Today’s Farmer,” and writes for weddings, which he finds the biggest challenge.
“I don’t want to say it’s difficult to be as honest as I should be when talking about marriage, having 45 years of experience at it, but you’re dealing with that first blush of recognition that you are marrying someone else,” Bargen said. “I try to focus on that.”
When writing about marriage or any other topic, Bargen said entering a project with preconceived ideas ultimately prevents the author from reaching their peak creativity.
“Maybe in the end you need to make a judgment, maybe you need to take a position, you need to have an opinion,” Bargen said. “But up until that point, it’s better just to let it flow. To open yourself up and see where you can go.”
William Trowbridge, also an MU graduate, was appointed Missouri’s third poet laureate in 2012. He said the poet laureate is responsible for promoting poetry in-state and nationwide. Ultimately, it is up to the public to decide whether or not a poet had a successful laureateship.
“I think the laureateship involves promoting poetry through the best means available – readings, workshops, lectures, class visits, conferences, and publications,” Trowbridge said.
The position of poet laureate is still evolving today, and though the exact role is not clearly defined, Bargen said a visit from the poet laureate is in high demand. He said the ultimate goal remains to encourage citizens to read poetry.
“Why do all these people suddenly want the poet laureate to come visit?” Bargen said. “The only thing I can think of is maybe poetry requires a physical embodiment to really touch people. Otherwise, maybe it seems a little abstract.”
Jared Kaufman contributed to this report.