Freedom, Confinement and Disguise: An Interview with Barbara Guest

Catherine Wagner


I met and interviewed Barbara Guest in Berkeley in November, 1996, when I was a graduate student; Donald Revell, who was my teacher and who knew I loved her work, had asked me to interview her for Colorado Review. Barbara would have been about 76. She kindly picked me up at the BART station and took me for a driving tour of Berkeley, where I’d never been. She pointed out the plane trees on campus—I asked to see them because they were mentioned so often in Quill, Solitary Apparition, then her most recent book (her Selected Poems had come out recently as well).

We turned on the tape recorder when we arrived at her little house in Berkeley. Barbara sat near a wooden spiral staircase in a blue chair that matched her very blue eyes. I was practically shaking with fear during the interview; she was queenly and occasionally (gently) impatient with my questions. She took me out to dinner at an Indian restaurant where I was impressed (I’d been living in Salt Lake City) by paintings of bare-breasted goddesses on the walls. I remember feeling very warm toward her at dinner. I didn’t realize at the time that the interview had probably made her nervous, too; her queenliness vanished at dinner and all my fear left me. She told me stories about New York in the fifties and sixties, about her financial struggles and the masculine culture of the time and the artists and writers she’d known; I have a terrible memory for conversation and I wish I’d written everything down afterward. She gossiped happily and asked me questions about my own writing, and her kindness and anecdotes and encouragements: “Oh, you must get in touch with so-and-so! Don’t be scared of him, he’s very kind”—gave me a sense of a world of poets who supported one another.

When I sent Barbara the transcript to look over, what she returned surprised me: she altered passages and cut the whole from fourteen single-spaced pages down to three. (I was disappointed because I had looked forward to a larger multiple of the five dollars per page Colorado Review paid.) The version published in Colorado Review (Spring 1997) is more of a Barbara Guest poem than an interview; it’s very lovely and its careful obliqueness bears little resemblance to the below, in which I kept pushing her to explain herself and she resisted, at times explicitly. She was a terribly elegant person and poet and an articulate speaker, but she wasn’t an elegant explainer: explanations require restrictive linearities that can lead to contradictions when you’re talking about something as mysterious as poetry. I think the effort to be linear felt inaccurate to her and irritated her, so she made a poem out of our interview. I hope she wouldn’t mind my sharing the original object in its associative and productive messiness.

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