If you're going to be a trickster you've got to be a good one.
Stuart Bartow has long been a student of Zen, the numinous, the expanse of consciousness. This is everywhere evident in his poetry, as well as in his engagements with the world, be they streams and rills, or students in his classes. We met in late May, for lunch, on the eastern edge of the Adirondacks. Spring was finally in full blossom. I spent my drive watching the ponds and marshes for moose, for the streams and creeks for fly fishermen.
Green Midnight. Dos Madres Press, 2018.
Quaking Marsh. Pond Frog Editions/Red Moon Press, 2018.
Einstein's Lawn. Dos Madres Press, 2015.
Teaching Trout to Talk: the Zen of Small Stream Fly Fishing. Ra Press, 2014. Received the 2014 Adirondack Center for Writing Non-Fiction Award.
Questions for the Sphinx. WordTech Editions, 2011.
Reasons to Hate the Sky. WordTech Editions, 2008.
Whelk. Pygmy Forest Press, 2001.
and the chapbooks
The Perseids, winner of the Palanquin Prize from the University of South Carolina.
The Stars Belong to No One, winner of the Owl Creek Chapbook Prize.
As Armless Messengers Wake, New Spirit Press.
Sleeping Through Seasons, Northwoods Press.
Rick: Have you said everything you can possibly say about fly fishing?
Stuart: Probably not. But I don't want to say anymore about it. I'd rather actually fish than write about fishing. If I'm going to write anything more about fly fishing that I would regard as a discovery that other people might be interested in reading then I might, but I don't think I'm going to write another fishing book. I can put it, now, into a haiku or a poem, but I don't think there's going to be another fishing book.
Teaching Trout to Talk was fun to do but it took me seven years to write because I approached it like I was writing a book of poems, short essays. After seven years I realized, "Okay ... I think I expressed what I actually wanted to do."
In a way there were two main inspirations. One was Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. I love the absurdity of it. I love the short chapters and the style that it was written in. And I love the fact that it was a short book.
The other one was a book by William Humphrey, who's a forgotten writer. In '50s and '60s he was well-known. He wrote a beautiful little book called My Moby Dick which is about 100 pages long and about trying to catch a giant trout in a small creek in the Berkshires.
Teaching Trout to Talk deals with some strong topics. I wanted it to have a lighter touch. Nowadays that's pretty hard to do as we continue to destroy the planet or the habitability of the planet. But I think I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish with it.
At the time I started writing the book I'd probably been teaching freshman comp for twenty years. I'd always had a slightly funny feeling that I didn't have a work of prose and I would teach composition, at this point, to thousands of students. But I wasn't going to write a book for the sake of writing a book. There're enough books out there. I'd rather read a good book than write one. "Does the world really need another book?" was part of the question. What I concluded when I started out on Teaching Trout to Talk was that nobody's really written a book about fly fishing dealing directly with its relationship to Zen. So I thought that gave me license to do this, to add to the huge sub-genre of fishing literature. I've done that now. I don't think I going to do that again.
Rick: You have nearly one hundred short essays in it. How did you know when to stop?
Stuart: I felt that the first year I had a lot of ideas and wrote a whole lot of chapters. The second, still a lot, but the third, less. The fourth, less. The fifth, less. By the time I got to about six or seven years nothing more was coming. You know, it's the old Dr. Johnson quote about Paradise Lost -- "Nobody wished it would be any longer." My feeling was that I don't want to people to say this about this book. It ended up longer than I'd originally wanted it to begin with.
Rick: Where have you been in the world?
Stuart: I was raised in Connecticut at a time when it still had a rural aspect. Some of it still does. One reason I came to this region was I wanted to return of that rural aspect. I spent three years in the Fiji Islands in the South Seas as a Peace Corps volunteer. I love this region. The South Pacific was wonderful, but I love this region of the country, of the world.
Rick: What's so special about upstate NY?
Stuart: Well, I love the seasons. There's a magic about this area, this region, that I just feel. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that I could just about live anywhere and still be creative and find joy in that place. In the fishing book there's a Shinto aspect. The sense that there're spirits everywhere, or consciousness, or something that's not human. I think part of what I'm interested in is the experience of the expanse of consciousness. I know that sounds hippy-ish, and new age-y, and all that, but I believe in it.
There are places when you just get a feel, I write about it in that book, numinous places. I thrive on that and I feel it in places around here more than in others. I know if I was in a city like Troy I'd feel it there on some of the back streets, some of the old buildings, and such. But I need to get away from people a bit, too. It can be overwhelming. I sometimes feel like it's almost like the Martians in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, how they're all become invisible or get absorbed by humans because they just can't deal with the static of having that kind of consciousness around them. I love people but I need to constantly retreat from them, too.
Rick: Are the people different here?
Stuart: Well, there's three answers to that. Yes, no, and yes and no. On the one hand, people are people everywhere. On the other, I think the eccentricity is more visible around here than in other places. If you go to New York City, for instance, people are just as eccentric, but it's more nobody's paying much attention. It's just too many people to notice them, I guess. Are people different? I like the independent spirit a lot of people have here. I am sometimes dismayed by the conservative politics and have been from the time I came up to this area, but of course my sister's in Vermont, and I'm there a lot, and I live near the Vermont border, and that's different. Vermont's different in that sense. I mean, If you look at the Senators there and our congressional representative in particular....
It's hard to describe. I think they are. Obviously, in every region people have a certain characteristics that make them unique. I think the sense of humor around here is more subtle, which I like.
They are different in certain respects and it has to do with the landscape, I think. It's a hardscrabble life for a lot of people up here and I like the toughness of people. I admire that.
Rick: But they don't show up in your work.
Stuart: I think I'm not especially inclined to write about people much. If I were, I'd probably more inclined to write fiction rather than poetry. Also, I don't write about myself much, or at least directly about it very much. I think the fishing book's a little bit different 'cause there had to be somebody there fishing and experiencing things.
I find people interesting and I love people, but I don't feel so inclined. I guess if I were a painter I'd probably be more inclined to do landscapes, or starscapes, or mythological subjects.
I don't know if I would, though. It would almost be like a Marc Chagall thing where'd you have a landscape but then you'd put an angel in it or a couple flying over it. I'd probably be more inclined to do that, or a William Blake. He didn't do landscapes did he? I don't think he has any work that doesn't have angels, or devils, or demons, or people, or something like that in it. I don't think there's any work he ever did that was devoid of humans. So I have to walk that back a little. The landscape'd be there though.
The imagination, to me, well, to William Blake is that spark of divinity in us. Without it you're just an automaton. It's necessary to everything. Without it you can't imagine other people's feelings. You can't even begin to have empathy. You can't begin to see the real infinite variety of the natural world. It's absolutely critical and there are all kinds of ways to express it. You don't have to be writing about mother nature.
I'm recently reading Bukowski. I really love his work, but he's able to use his imagination in a much different way than I do, imagining other people's lives, imagining how they interact with one another, the city life. To sort of reinvent himself, which is a cliché, but I think he did a lot of that. When you look at his FBI arrest record he wasn't so bad as he looks in his poems.
Rick: Do you consider yourself a nature writer?
Stuart: I don't have any problem with that. I know when other poets are asked that, they recoil. I can't think of anything more important right now, in the whole scope of human history, than being a nature writer. I think people used to recoil against it because of this aversion to being considered someone who only wrote about how beautiful nature is. I know Robert Frost was famous for, or infamous for, complaining about being called a nature writer. But no, I don't mind not one bit. There's a lot of 19th-century nature poetry that's just dreadful. I guess that's where it begins, and why someone like a Frost would recoil from being called a nature writer.
But I don't do that. I mean, I'm not doing it in that way. Nature is nature. The natural world is dangerous. But I suppose I have a romantic attitude, too. Often, where there's danger there is beauty, too. The Adirondacks are a perfect example of that. The Adirondack Mountains are dangerous. We wouldn't want them any different.
Rick: Do you consider yourself a regional poet?
Stuart: I wouldn't be offended, I think I've been called that. It depends on how narrow you define 'regional'. I don't think you get a sense of the desert, or the Southwest, or the deep South, or the Midwest, or the West Coast from my work. So, if you define it as northeastern region in the broad sense like that, yeah, I guess I am. But I could name off 20 other poets who are internationally known who are quite regional: Ruth Stone, Charles Simic, we can go on and on. So there's no problem with that. But if I was only described as a Washington County poet, that would feel pretty narrow. I'd say, "Well, where you see that? How is that going? Why would you say that?" New York City's poets don't seem to be called New York City poets.
Rick: You're writing about the small streams within a walking distance of Salem.
Stuart: Yeah, but they're everywhere. They're all over. I mentioned in the fishing book that I'm fishing in Mill Brook and that there are Mill Brooks everywhere in the Northeast. There must be a good thousand or so Mill Brooks all over New England and New York. But I suspect it's probably a northeastern regional feel certainly to the fishing book. The poetry, I don't know, don't know. I suspect not. It's not something I worry about.
Rick: How does the classical mythology intersect the landscape in your poetry?
Stuart: If it does. Let me think a little bit about that so I can answer in an inaccurate way. The easy answer would be it doesn't, although the mythology of classical mythology or any mythology is universal. Sometimes the best way to get into a particular poem, or subject, or problem is through a side door or a back door. I've found that sometimes a classical mythological framework or setting has enabled me to express the drama of those things and the power of those things which otherwise would not be possible.
For instance, in Questions for the Sphinx there's a particular problem about the Laestrygonians in the Odyssey. There're no Laestrygonians. But it's like embodying the invisible. The Laestrygonians that we deal with now are the 1%. They're the billionaires. These are giants who are devouring us, but we can't see them. This is what I meant about a back door, a side door is you can express that in a powerful way by seeing it mythologically.
This is no new invention. James Joyce was the first one who did this, which one of the reasons why he's so regarded. So I think that's how mythology functions for me. We're all sort of living our own personal myths in a way. I think we're all going to be heroes of our myths and I'm sure ... I'm hoping that by giving that example I am able to express, maybe not what I see here in the landscape or in the natural world, but, nevertheless, where all of us are subject to ... I mean, how do you write a poem about the 1%, about oligarchs destroying your world? It's hard enough to write poems to begin with.
Rick: So much of your poetry is vested in an accumulation of detail even as it intersects with the mythological.... By way of example, the array of birds or insects come with....
Stuart: I have a lot of interest in the ... well, in September I'm going to take a master naturalist course that Cornell Cooperative Extension offers.
At a certain point of my life I was an exterminator, which led to a great interest in entomology. I've always been interested in ornithology and birds. I'm the Salem astronomy club. I actually took an online astronomy course, University of Birmingham in England. I took the course. I got a B+. I can remember in my early 20s when I was in Fiji. There were 300 islands there. About half of them are inhabited. I was on one of the outer islands and I had the compulsion to write poetry. I was trying to learn Fijian at the same time. I looked around me and realized, "I don't know the names of anything. I don't know anything. Okay, that's a spider. I don't know what kind of spider it is. That's a butterfly. I don't know what kind of butterfly. The southern constellations.... Anyone can identify them. What's the Southern Cross? Anybody can do that."
And it haunted me. I'm getting much better. I can identify various moths, and butterflies, and wildflowers, and various birds, but this is a lifetime thing. The richness, the millions of species. There's something about knowing. I mean, if you're using language you need to know the names of things. There's so much wonderment out there. Now, with the Internet there's so much access to it.
For instance, I started writing a poem about the box jellyfish. It's a jellyfish beyond the great barrier reef that's roughly the shape of a shoe box, small. It has 18 eyes. It can see through itself. If you're stung by it you won't feel the pain first. It gradually comes. This is the bizarre thing about this creature; it causes emotional pain. It makes people who have been stung by it want to.... The mental pain is so great, the emotional pain is so great they'll asked the doctors to end their lives.
This is an amazing creation. How do you write a poem about it? One way is to just say all that of course. But how do you say it in a way that makes it different from just a factual narrative? What you have to do, then, is relate it to something that's not a box jellyfish. I don't have that yet so I can't finish that poem. That's okay. I'm sure you have a lot of writings that are a lot of work. Most writers do. But it's waiting for the magic thing to happen. It's away in the drawer and something will happen.
There are some writers who get so caught up in their writing that they close out the world. That's no way to live. I don't care if you're Tolstoy or whomever. You've got to be in the world. God, there's much more than the interior of life. Somehow you've got to balance it.
Rick: Sneaking back into who you are and whether or not you have a regional perspective, or a regional set of eyes, or ideas that are going to help process whatever's out there....
Stuart: Essentially, what you're asking me is there some sort of padding to my reading, I think, that reveals who I am but also where I live in this region.
I'd have to say if there is not aware of it. What I like is just what I like. Having grown up in a blue-collar Irish-Scottish family where I'm the first person in the family, really, to go to college, and having my early experiences at school, having understood at a very early age that I didn't fit in. After I got out of college, I spent three years in the South Pacific, came home, worked as an exterminator. My dad had a one-man company, so my brothers and I, when my brothers got out of the Marines, we took it over. I realized that that's how I would be identified for the rest of my life, and I was learning more and more about nature, and I didn't want to be the Pied Piper.
I didn't want to be that mythic figure. I went back to college. I loved it so much, getting my Masters. My professors encouraged me to keep going, but it was hard to shake off the sense that, "Well, I'll show the bastards I'm smarter than they are. Look, I don't look down on other people and I don't want them looking down on me." I think that's always affected the way I have approached my reading in that you're not going to catch me reading Dan Brown, probably, for instance.
But the nice part of that is I love a challenge. I love reading good writing. It's one of the reasons why I won't write a novel. What do I want to do that for when I could be spending time reading someone's good novel? You know? I think that's part of it. With my teaching at SUNY Adirondack, I've always felt that I have to keep educating myself. I teach Brit Lit 1 and Brit Lit 2, for example. I can't even begin to know all that stuff. No one can. It's not possible. But I do what I can to try to take in what I can.
So that informs some of my readings. So in a way my job does this. For instance, I wouldn't have read The Penelope Act, had we not at the end of Brit Lit 2 read a story by Margaret Atwood. I said, "Oh, I need to read another Margaret Atwood book." I'm sure you know how to enjoy educating yourself. It's not something that ever stops. My job has informed my reading, but also my friends, people who I love, people who I respect. The novelist Steve Stern, for instance, is a friend of mine. He grew up in Nashville, Tennessee but he lives down in Saratoga Springs. One of the things that's happened is I've gotten to know a lot of writers and I've to become friends with them, and you've got to read your friend's stuff. You got to.
Rick: Who do you write for?
Stuart: Well, obviously it's not the general public. I guess it could be who do I think about when I've finished the poem ... probably my consort Barbara Ungar, who's a very good poet. What would she think of this? The other answer would be having to deal with obscurity, which most of us, as writers, have to deal with. You have to come to terms with that fact, otherwise you're going to become embittered. So I started with William Blake who was largely ignored and concluded he was writing for a higher reality, okay? He expressed it as he's writing for the angels. So that's a home run.
Rick: Why zen?
Stuart: Because Zen is about the pure energy of being, because Zen is spirituality without religion. It's about an openness that allows for magic, an energy to pass through or into one's being. If you're trying to be, that's false. It's fake and I don't want to be that. I don't want to be fake. I want it to be ... I want to be real. I have no problem with tricksters as tricksters, but they're real as tricksters. If you're going to be a trickster you've got to be a good one.