J.R. Barner is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Athens, Georgia. They are the author of the chapbooks Burnt Out Stars and Thirteen Poems and their forthcoming first collection, Little Eulogies. They were educated at the University of Minnesota and the University of Georgia. Their work has appeared in online and print magazines and journals Flow, ONEART, Suburban Witchcraft, and Impspired. New work is available periodically at jrbarner.tumblr.com.
You can read his poem Miserabilism in the January 2023 issue of Pinhole Poetry.
Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your poem? For instance, how or why you wrote it, or perhaps provide some extra context?
My poem is about a word, which is also its title. ‘Miserabilism’ is a memory of my teenage years. It emerged, fully formed, one hot summer’s day. I’ve always felt there was something about that word, which was so frequently used to describe my generation’s attitude toward things in general, but most often was used as a reaction to the music we listened to or how we dressed. People, who tended to be older, but weren’t always that much older than us, assumed that we were miserable all the time, when in fact we were not. We were, however, quite aware, as David Bowie once sang, of what we were going through and how we were being judged and we certainly didn’t like that one bit! The poem is, I think, an effort to reclaim that word, to celebrate it. To point to its misapplication and, in so doing, expose its truth.
Why was the poetic form the best fit for this particular piece of work?
Free verse seemed to capture the dreamlike quality of the memory. The images came to me quickly and in detail, and I wanted to preserve that level of nuance. I wanted the reader to smell the hair dye and to hear the voice coming through the headphones without any rhythmic or metrical constraints.
Do you have a collection of poetry or even a single poem that acts as a touchstone?
There are far too many to name, but suffice it to say that William Carlos Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and The Man with the Gallows Eyes by Billy Childish are almost daily inspirations and have been for years.
If you didn’t write poetry, how do you think you might access the same fulfillments that poetry offers in your life?
I honestly cannot imagine doing anything else or experiencing the same thing I experience when writing.
How do you revise your work?
I tend to write a first draft quickly, trying to get down on paper whatever inspiration or words or image there is, without overthinking it. Then I set the piece aside for a while – a day, or two, sometimes longer. I’ll return to the draft and work through it, line by line. Regardless of the length of the piece, I aim for concision and economy of language. This process might repeat for three or four iterations until something starts to feel “done” – but we all know a poem’s never really “done,” right?
What are you working on now?
I am celebrating the release of my first collection, Little Eulogies and working on a cycle of longer form poems that utilize decasyllabic meter and broadly follow a Medieval French style, related to the 12th century chansons de geste.
How or where or with what does a poem begin?
It can be literally anything. An idea, an image, a word or phrase, a title, a dream, a sound, a memory, a feeling or mood. Literally anything at all. I have had things rolling around in my head for months or years and then, all of sudden, they find their footing on the page.
Are there other art forms that inspire or inform your poetry?
I love painting and photography. I love music. Small pieces of biography inspire me all the time. The minutiae of people’s lives are works of art to me. They are like AA batteries for my poems. The way a person walks. The sound of their voice. The way people stand near the yellow lines waiting for the subway to arrive. All of those things lie at the beating heart of my poems.
How do you make space for poetry in your daily routine?
Two hours a day. Every day. No days off. Whatever I get done in that space, usually first thing in the morning, before anyone else is awake, is what I’m meant to accomplish that day.
What are you reading or watching or listening to lately that intrigues or inspires you?
The silent films of Ernst Lubitsch, in particular his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan from 1925, written for the screen by Julien Josephson. It’s probably one of the most visually captivating films I’ve ever seen.
Have you ever received advice (or has there been something you’ve learned on your own) about writing or revising poems that has made you a better poet? What was it?
I know this might sound too simple or even cliché but it took me a while to listen when people told me to “slow down.” The more measured and purposeful I’ve become in my editing process, and the more space I give myself to think before I write, the better my work has sounded to my ear.
Do you belong to a writer’s group? If not, where do you find poetry community and feedback?
I am so fortunate to have a community of writers where I live (Athens, Georgia) that meets regularly and is supportive and motivating. I’ve also found social media, much to my own surprise, to be, for the most part, excellent forums for sharing work and finding fellow travellers.