Poet Rick Barot ’92 returned to the University on Thursday, Nov. 19 as Writing at Wesleyan’s latest guest lecturer. The alumnus was welcomed back to the Allbritton Center for Public Life to discuss his college days, his writing process, and his latest book, “Chord.”
Frank B. Weeks Visiting Assistant Professor of English Salvatore Scibona, who has known Barot for nearly 20 years and has read all of his poems, opened the night by sharing the letter he sent to Barot this summer immediately after reading his most recent book.
“Right from the beginning it made me want to start writing again,” Scibona read from his letter. “It has your economy, your clarity, and it has your surfaces. I mean, both the surfaces of language and the sensuous detail that always seems like an abundance and a sufficiency, as if the poems were content to observe innocently without needing or wanting to use them for purposes outside themselves.”
After graduating from the University in 1992, Barot attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. In addition to his three books of poetry, his work has been featured in publications such as The Paris Review, New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The New York Times Magazine. He currently is also the poetry editor of the New England Review and directs a writing workshop at Pacific University in Oregon.
Though he grew up in California, Barot was born in the Philippines. He cites his background as one of his major influences for his poems. In prefacing his poem, “On Gardens,” he talked about writer Vita Sackville-West’s England estate, Sissinghurst, where there is an area devoted solely to plants that bloom white flowers.
“You can imagine a garden wherein everything is white,” Barot said. “It’s a beautiful but really problematic space. I wanted to write a poem that responded a little bit to that idea of the privileging of a certain kind of beauty.”
Throughout the talk, Barot decided to switch up the typical reading format by alternating between reading a few poems, opening up for discussion, and then reading some more.
“I didn’t want to create this kind of unilateral space where I’m the only one talking,” Barot said.
The result was an engaging dialogue between the poet and the audience.
“I’ve been to a couple readings here,” wrote Lily Gould ’19 in an email to The Argus. “I think he, particularly, handled the event and the audience really well. He was easy to talk to and welcomed questions. I think a lot of it was based on his openness to make the event more informal than usual, to make it an open conversation.”
During one of the discussion portions, an audience member asked about how much of Barot’s writing stems from his personal experiences.
“For a very long time I was very shy of writing about personal experience,” Barot said. “I think that my education in poetry attended to suggest that experiences that ended up in poetry didn’t align with my own, as a person of color, as a gay person, as a person from the West Coast. I unlearned those things and I do now write about things which I think of being personal. But the personal is a hard thing to write about because you don’t want it to be just confessional.”
When a few students and professors pressed Barot to clarify what he meant by “confessional” poetry, he elaborated.
“I don’t want to write poems wherein I’m just disclosing experiences that I’ve had that are probably only interesting to me,” Barot said. “I want to be able to conflate the personal with something else that might be useful or relevant or interesting to somebody else… Otherwise I would just be writing in my diary, right?”
Ironically, Barot later shared with The Argus how his poetry career owes a great debt to his personal diary entries. When he was a sophomore at the University, he applied to a POI writing course taught by award-winning writer Annie Dillard.
“I was such a young writer that I had no actual pieces of writings of mine but my diary, my journal,” he said. “So I typed up a bunch of my diary entries and I submitted them, like 10 pages of it. And based on that I got into the class…. I think it was that class sophomore year that really convinced me that, not necessarily that I wanted to be a writer, but that I wanted to be in a place where these kinds of people were. I didn’t have the courage to say, oh, I want to be a writer—I just wanted to write.”
While introducing one of his poems, entitled “Ode With Interruptions,” Barot talked about growing up in Oakland, California in the house that his parents lived in for 40 years.
“One of the interesting things about living in a space like that for a long time is that the house is full of ghosts,” he said. “But it’s not the ghosts of other people, it’s the ghosts of the lives that you’ve lived in it. It’s a little bit like in this building, you know, where I can imagine my 20 year-old self having pizza with Bill.”
During the talk, Barot continued to reminisce about his experience at the University and how Allbritton was the student union during the time he an undergrad. He describes the café, pizza place, and mail room that the building used to house, and later notes the bittersweet sentiments of returning to campus after all these years.
“Before I got here I felt an incredible amount of nostalgia for all of the great experiences I had when I was here, all of my teachers, all of my friends,” Barot said. “And then I spent the afternoon here, and I really feel disillusioned. Because there’s no way to go back. You can’t have the personnel of your past just materialize and validate that nostalgia. It’s nostalgia and disillusionment—that’s the process.”