B A R B A R A T O M A S H
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: We’ve published a suite of poems excerpted from your latest chapbook. Can you discuss the project or intentions of this book?
Barbara Tomash: In spring of 2018, just as my book PRE- was released by Black Radish Books, the press’s founding publisher and managing editor, Marthe Reed, died suddenly. She was an irreplaceable poet, teacher, and social activist in the prime of her life who offered everyone she worked with the full bounty of her intellect, energy, and heart. As a person new in her orbit, I felt lucky to have known her, and also the sad finality of the loss of any continuing friendship and collaboration. I began my chapbook project Of Residue on the anniversary of Marthe’s death as a memorial. This was in response to an open invitation by Dusie Kollecktiv 9 to contribute electronic chapbooks as a collaborative tribute to Marthe. I wrote a twelve-poem sequence as my contribution. Two years have passed, and I am still working on expanding the series. This year, Drop Leaf Press will publish a twenty-five-page chapbook.
When I began Of Residue my instinct was that I wanted my poems to enter as directly as possible into questions brought up in Marthe’s work concerning climate change, the environment, “nature writing,” and the reframing of human/other-than-human relationships. These issues aren’t foreign to my own work; still, I am always taken by surprise when I see how frequently end-of-the-world imaginings and the imminent threat to the natural world crop up when I write. In my day-to-day life I am not aware of being obsessed by this theme, and when I sit down to write, catastrophe is not on my mind. I am, however, often writing into the intersection between my unexpressed thoughts and feelings and my close observations of the natural world (to which my body, of course, belongs and paradoxically forms an interestingly permeable barrier). Over the last two years of writing, however, as the Trump administration wore cruelly on, the pandemic hit, and wildfires raged, disaster began to play a more up-front role in my writing.
For me, process and intention always go hand in hand. I am often more committed to a mode or method of writing than to a subject or theme. I trust ideas to percolate up during a writing process in ways that will surprise and interest me and take my thinking further—in fact, leave me in a state of creative bewilderment (Fanny Howe) that I value. Plus, I love the materiality of words, and I’m curious to let them have their way with me, to act on me, with accident, chance, and randomness, and by collage and juxtaposition rather than by deploying them in argument or with the literal coherence of a conventional narrative.
C: What is the relationship between the poems’ formal constraints (narrow margins, no punctuation) and its content/meaning?
BT: I first tried using the form of a narrow rectangle with justified margins and no punctuation quite a few years ago. I come to poetry from the visual arts, and I remain interested in how the sound and sense of a poem shift according to how the words are arrayed on the page. Writing the first poems in this narrow box-like form, I came to see the page more as a window than as a container, a translucence that shapes and makes possible perception, while above my desk, the actual window, filled with tree branches, became the scrawled-upon page. Forgoing the use of punctuation can free the words gathered inside the frame to assemble and reassemble themselves, even as I write them down. I enjoy this fluidity within the process, seeing how fragments seam together in unexpected ways allowing for shifting meanings, multiple readings. I have always loved the wonderful modernist tool of collage, which imitates, I believe, how our minds work, the jump cut that transports us, rather than the smoothly paved road of continuity.
Marthe Reed wrote an essay titled “somewhere in between: Speaking Though Contiguity,” and that title alone, when I began to think about writing in her memory, brought to mind the form I had previously put away. What could I find in that “somewhere in between,” in the narrow space inside the justified margins? What could working without punctuation and instead by use of collage reveal about the meaning of “speaking through contiguity”? I wish I could answer your interesting question about the relationship between the poems’ formal constraints and their meanings, but, perhaps because I am still writing in this form, I don’t think I can at this moment. I do know that I have evolved a process of researching various questions about the ancient and ongoing intersections between our human species and other species on earth and joining this with my writings about my daily life and with excerpts from the things I have been reading. I like assembling a glossary of words and phrases and then feeling out connections between these disparate things as I go. Meaning, for me, is not static, neither as a reader or a writer; it is transformative and in motion, difficult to arrest.
C: The emphasis on the preposition “of” recalls your previous collection, PRE- (Black Radish Books, 2018), a virtuosic improvisation on prefixes. Is this new work an outgrowth of PRE-? Do the two projects, in your opinion, intersect?
BT: The most obvious connection between PRE- and Of Residue is on the level of process—both were written under the pressures of creative constraints, and they share collage as a significant compositional method. The compositional constraint in PRE- is that all the poems spin out from dictionary definitions for words beginning with a particular English prefix. All the language is found, but fractured and juxtaposed with a freehand, freewheeling approach—so, not surprisingly, my proclivities for certain kinds of ideas, images, and language kept emerging and circulating around. One of these preoccupations is human presence in nature and its paradoxical merging and alienation—which brings us to what we could call a thematic connection with Of Residue. Where Of Residue and PRE- part company most notably, I think, is that Of Residue includes a more active first person speaker in many of the poems; though that speaker is not consistently autobiographical, its presence springs from my own sense of urgency about the perils of our political and social circumstances today.