Amy Quan Barry found her way to Madison the way a lot of University of Wisconsin professors did: luck. She went to college in Virginia, graduate school in Michigan, scored a fellowship at Stanford and another at UW-Madison where the English department asked her to stay on.
"I tell my students this: a lot of art is luck. I was in the right place at the right time," she said. "Hopefully you're good at what you do, but there’s always an element of luck."
She has written four books of poetry and a novel, "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," in addition to teaching poetry classes. She has recently received some attention on public radio for developing a website — Asphodel.info — in reaction to, and shortly following, the 2016 presidential election. It features her poems and is updated regularly.
You’re a novelist, poet, writer and professor. Which comes first?
I’m only speaking for myself, but maybe for a lot of artists, we teach in order to support our art. I love teaching — I love my students, they keep me young, they keep me reading, they keep me having to be current in my field — but hopefully I would be writing poetry no matter how I would be earning a living.
My training, my background and my Master’s of Fine Arts degree is specifically in poetry. As a child, I always wanted to be a writer, without distinctions between poetry, fiction or playwriting. So I see myself as a writer. I started in poetry, my first four published books were poetry books. I recently have been writing more fiction. And this summer I’m actually working on a libretto for Fresco Opera. It will be performed hopefully in April 2018, for “Queen of the Night.” It’s actually a prequel to the “The Magic Flute.” It’s all original writing, original music. So that’s really exciting.
What’s a libretto?
For an opera, the libretto is the words. With what I’m working on now, somebody else wrote the book, which is the story. They came up with the narrative and now it’s my job to use parts of that to write the songs. Not the music, the words. Once that’s written, generally it gets sent to the composer.
Does that use your brain differently than writing a poem?
It does, even though most of the songs are, in a sense, poems. The way I use my brain slightly differently is that it’s collaborative. I wrote act one, sent it off and they said, “These songs are too long.” When you sing a song, it takes longer. To write it and have spaces, times where the music plays without the singer, takes a lot longer. So now I have to go back in and really shorten what it is I’m doing.
When you publish books of poetry, do you set out to write a poetry book? Or do you write a lot of poems until you have enough to put in a book?
Everybody works differently. There’s been a recent trend of what they call project books. What that means is maybe I’m going to write a bunch of poems from the point of view of Indiana Jones. And I write a bunch of poems and that’s my project. In the old days, 50 years ago, Sylvia Plath and all those people wrote a bunch of poems — and you can see this when you read the letters they wrote to each other. “I finally have 60 pages. I’ve got a book!” They weren’t necessarily thinking thematically as poets today are.
I do tend to be the less thematic kind of poet, but I’ve gone both ways. I am of the school where I think if it came from you, you wrote it, there will be a linkage. My last book, “Loose Strife,” I was asked by a friend of mine who’s an artist to do a collaboration with him at Edgewood College. I wrote a bunch of poems for his exhibit and then I ended up turning that into a book.
Do you think much about audience when you’re writing?
Poetry versus fiction versus playwriting versus libretto, in different spheres you have to think about audience. In poetry, the audience — honestly because we have so little, that’s the strength of poetry — there’s a lot of freedom because it’s not marketable. When it comes to poetry, it’s sad, but the audience for poetry, by and large, is other poets. Because I know it’s for other poets, I can have a level of difficulty in it that I wouldn’t normally have. Having said that, writing for Asphodel.info, that’s a different audience and I don’t keep it in mind, but I see those poems as being much more accessible than my published work.
When it comes to fiction, you do have to think about audience because fiction still has a market. This first novel I published, I’ve heard it’s a difficult novel. The thing about poetry is it asks the reader to do a certain amount of work. If your poem is short, you’re asking the reader to unpack some things. Because I come from that background, I have similar instincts in my fiction. Hopefully I’ve given the reader enough to be able to infer things, but I think a lot of people are used to fiction where everything is given to you and it’s more about following the story rather than actually having to be an active participant.
How did you come to name your site Asphodel?
There's a famous long poem called “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams. It’s part of like a 30-page poem. But in that poem, there’s a famous quote where he talks about this idea that men die miserably every day for lack of what is found in the news. To me, what that means is they nurture us in different ways. A newspaper will give you the story, all the facts. But art doesn’t. What art does is rely on the reader to do certain kinds of work. Oftentimes in doing that, it builds empathy in us.
Specifically in fiction, empathy is built in us when we encounter an art piece and need to work to let it communicate to us and the work of doing that kind of empathetic building actually sustains us. It’s nourishing to us as people. When we lack that, that’s when men die miserably every day for lack of what they find in the news. It’s the idea that art nourishes us because it asks certain things of us.
In that line about getting your news from poetry, when you think about just that part of it, what is the news that you’re referring to?
Historians know more about this than I do, but when a historian is studying a period of time, they’ll go back and the art can tell them more about that period than even the historical reports of what happened. Like in Weimar, Germany, the decadence of the art, the cabaret culture, that can tell you more about what was happening than just reading the news accounts. What I’m trying to do with Asphodel is that filling-in kind of work. It’s the idea of learning about a culture not through its news stories, but showing you the broader picture of what a culture is.
I think it would be easy to look back, 100 years from now, and just read the news about what’s happening now. You think about Germany and there were people who didn’t agree with what was happening. There were other trends. I do think that art in general is filling in, in a way that news can’t.
How often are you writing poetry? How prolific are you?
I tend to write the poems on Asphodel.info really fast. I’m kayaking and I see this thing, here’s a poem about it. Before I started Asphodel, because I had been writing fiction, I hadn’t written a poem on months and months. Because I write in more than one genre, I ping-pong back and forth, so it’s not unusual for me to go a very long time without writing a poem. Now I try to do it once a week, but… you know.
What’s been the response to Asphodel?
I’m not a Buddhist, but I study Buddhism, my next novel is about Buddhist monks. Buddhists have this idea that doing the work without caring about the results. So for Asphodel, it’s not about whatever the result is going to be. I need to do this because I need to feel like I’m doing something. Maybe that’s self indulgent. But people are hearing about it.