I spoke to Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s on the eve of the publication of her new book City Slicker being issued. We had the following conversation about this astonishing new work of hers that took a lifetime to compose. The batteries in the smoke detector alerted me all histrionic when I said this aloud that there are a number of decades left for Barbé Hammer which is lucky for us as her writing continues to broaden and expand. City Slicker (encounters with the outside) is available at your favorite independent bookstores and record shops as well as the corporate self checkout and digital ghost shops. It is also available direct from Bamboo Dart Press.
Your new book City Slicker (encounters with the outside) is about the external, how it formed you as you grew from a girl to a woman. In one of my favorite pieces in the book of Working a table on a street corner for eugene McCarthy, 1968 (New York City) you flip the script of the book as this one is about the internal. The first death of a friend, political awakening, being at odds with your parents, it is all here, succinctly and circuitously these three topics unwind around each other in the poem.
The majority of the verse in this book is dated. Each piece with a titles and most followed by the year, 1958-2019. The book is sequenced in chronological order and I have two questions about that. Firstly, how much of this book was written in real time and how much is reflection? I would think that the majority of the early poems were written after the fact, but that? Boiling down sixty years of life into sixty pages is quite a feat, especially considering what a rewarding read City Slicker is. How did you go about editing this book together.
The poems seemed to spool out in terms of a specific moment as well as a particular time and location, so when the time came to “collect” them, I played around with ideas — including going backwards in time and juxtaposing city and country poems — but this just seemed to confuse the issue, so I went with traditional linear time. As to what was written in real time and what wasn’t — well, the poems about the past were written as reflection, although some of them (outside at night, discomfort poem, ellen) were written quite a while ago, in response to prompts given by John Brantingham in a free class he gave on how to make a poetry collection. The poems about living in the PNW are all recent — some of them very recent. To be honest, I didn’t worry about this at the time; I just wrote them as they came up for me. Many were written during covid, which was such an internal time, and that isolation enabled me to look back at experiences like college and the year I lived in Geneva and in the East Village and see them with a kind of vividness that I might not have gotten access to otherwise.
When you first turned in the book, I recall asking you why there was an absence of approximately twenty years, in the timeline of the pieces. I laughed when you told me this was because you and Larry were raising your daughter during that time. It is worth noting that none of your work was published until you were into your fifties, that gift serves this book as so much of it was not written with the reader in mind. That quality shines in a book that is a hybrid book of verse/diary/memoir.
I published poetry in my forties as well as some short fiction, but yes, this work all comes from later. I think it takes time for some of us to be able to write about our lives, and I don’t think I could have written this way earlier. Being older really does have its benefits. I’ll share that my spawn is herself a creative writer, so I don’t think it’s my job to write about her (although I have — a little — in my earlier poetry collections). It’s really for her to tell her own story.
Your other writing has incredibly vulnerable and three dimensional characters, many taken from those you have known and reworked around the edges in the abstract. I wonder if sharing this much about yourself in a spare and honest voice was a difficult proposition for you.
You know that issue has only occurred to me recently! I look at some of these poems and think “jeepers, well THAT’s revealing,” but at the time i was just making the work and that came first. The poem about sex in Northampton feels very revealing to me, as does the poem about the window cleaner. But on the other hand, I really like them! So, I’ll have to live with the discomfort that I’ve revealed too much, and the possibility of feeling embarassed. After all, I write about having diarrhea in France! And in the end, lyric poetry is ABOUT the personal. It’s where the “I’ performs its most intimate dance.
For the sake of economy, I seldom pull from the text of BDP writers books in these interviews, but the following lines in one of the last entries in the book For the window cleaner March 22nd 2021 (Whidbey Island) is as great an entry that may exist for someone to understand your writing. It is conversational and natural, but crafted by one who has a great understanding of writing, and is herself, a poet. This is something many of us would like to say as a farewell. It reads matter of fact, but after sitting with it, it reads to me like the work of a gardener, a caretaker. Yes, things are a mess, but messes can be cleaned. Don’t get caught up in the minutia. Everything ends, all work on the internal and external will not end. Not until after the decline, the true end.
That’s so funny. I answered the previous question before seeing this one. Ah, my beloved window cleaner! Yes, as a poet, I myself am kind of like the window cleaner. You do what you can. It’s alot of work, and it doesn’t always come out smudge-free. And there’s always a more successful poet or someone shinier out there. But it’s the job. And sometimes you need to swerve to avoid hitting something. And you pack up your gear and you start again tomorrow, god willing. You’re making me realize that I identify with him to a great extent, and that’s fun to realize.
Excerpt from City Sicker (encounters with the outside):
I suppose that suffering doesn’t build character Sadness doesn’t make you better, kinder, more patient Rather it’s that constant swipe of the squeegie on glass The clean that doesn’t stay, because things are declining
These lines are so interesting to me — I’m not sure where they came from! Things are declining or are they? and so what if they are? I feel a certain sympathy — solidarity, I guess — with the window cleaner because he has to work hard and others don’t. He gets to be pissed off about that, in my view. But it makes just as much sense to turn this whole proposition around. The window cleaner reminds me that being able to be a poet, have the leisure time to write is a great privilege, for which I need to be more grateful. So, in a way the window cleaner is telling me that I’m pretty lucky to not to have be be doing physical labor to make a living. I’m sitting at my desk looking at him. But he’s looking back. I hope the poem does him a little justice in that regard.