This is quite possibly the last interview I will ever do. Having spent an afternoon with two-time National Book Critic Circle winner, renowned poet and all-around great guy Albert Goldbarth, I am beside myself with perspective. Yes, perspective. The kind one can only gain after lunching with a man who describes himself as “impractical,” yet has a type of knowledge many young poets and writers actively seek across the nation.
Goldbarth, who has been teaching at Wichita State University in Kansas for nearly twenty years, was visiting Chicago to give a reading at Roosevelt University. Having spent many years living in Chicago and attending the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, Goldbarth was instantly familiar, welcoming, generous and, above all, terrifically funny. His warm nature and approachable demeanor made it easy to forget that he is also a Guggenheim fellow and a recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s 2008 Mark Twain Award for Humorous Poetry, a prestigious $25,000 prize given to poets who contribute to humor in contemporary American poetry.
The poems in Goldbarth’s twenty-sixth volume of poetry, “Everyday People,” are indeed captivating and hilarious, much like our lunch conversation (and later, his reading at Roosevelt University). For example, he started off our conversation with a story about Pamela Anderson and her unsuccessful Fox show, “Stacked,” which portrays her working in an indie book store. He had decided, at the time, that it would be a brilliant idea to purchase the domain name “Pamazon.com” just in case things really took off.
Along with his sense of humor, Goldbarth clearly feels a sense of responsibility as a poet to bring both emotional depth to this ordinary world around us. The work found in “Everyday People” observes our world with a combination of historical admiration and intelligence that cues the reader into the narrator’s passion for life, and also his compulsion to understand the everyday lives of others. Here is the ordinary made into the excavated, here is the speaker recognizing rituals and patterns of life. The writing is self-deprecating, relevant, and moving:
…We need a second place
to hold the extra “us” of us.
A god can provide it, a mythic hero suffices.
And yet, effective enough for most of us, is
the story of someone else, of anybody else, if necessary
of even the neighbors across the street:
because they’re like you but are not you, they’re
an isotrope of you. The truly interesting halves
of Hercules and Jesus are everyday people.
After ordering our food, I made my first attempt at engaging in a true “interview” question. Something like, “How did your poetry life begin?” It fell totally flat—because here is the beautiful truth of it: when you are with Albert Goldbarth, and even when you are talking about poetry with the prolific, LA Times Book Prize-nominated author, you can’t help but be an “everyday” person. Which, given the title of his newest book, “Everyday People,” one can’t be too surprised that our conversation prohibited any ego.
So why doesn’t Goldbarth like to be interviewed? He says: “I will tell you why. A real book of poetry ought to be magic. You should be able to reread it for decades with all the richness of the first time you read it. Have you ever seen David Copperfield fly out into an audience? Literally fly out with no strings or wire? It is magic and you would be totally stupid to ask him to give away the secrets of this trick. It is the same for poets and their poetry, you don’t need to see what the secrets are to appreciate the book.”
“Everyday People” has a candidness about it, in fact a real sense of “off the record-ness” that might make some blush, some cry, some laugh with the honesty and sincerity of his language. In the poem “Prophecy Song,” Goldbarth describes the disintegration of shopping malls with such specificity that we are caught in between the hilarity and sheer terror of it, the brutal frankness:
…even as passing storms
of globules from the transfat fryer blend now
with those inky beads of damp pressed out
from hearts of Magic 8-Balls, it will all
be chaff, and less than chaff, will all be loosened
congeries of mallecules adrift in space, yes even
Spaghetti Warehouse, even Restoration Hardware, the malls
were our temples, yet they will disintegrate…
Over his shepherd’s pie, Goldbarth explained that the poems in “Everyday People” came together through “existing in the same community.” Rather than writing about “everyday” people, he simply wrote poems naturally and they ended up fitting together into a thematic collection.
Goldbarth said he did not feel his poetry translated as effectively aloud and that it was better “experienced” on the page. But later, listening to him reading in Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery, this seemed to be actually quite untrue. His reading was at once animated, humorous, expressive and touching, much like how his poems function on the printed page. The reading, hosted by Roosevelt’s MFA in Creative Writing program and well-attended by graduate students and resident faculty, allotted enough time for Goldbarth to read two longer pieces and provide brief explications. (“I’m going to take you to the middle of the country. Middle of the day. To my wife’s high school reunion.”)
Goldbarth and I happened to wear the exact same shirt to his reading—he is, after all, an everyday person himself. Reading and listening to “Everyday People” is like having a friend who teaches you about history, mortality, pop culture, farting in the Middle Ages, ancient worlds and Asian-medley salads. Turns out, in everyday life, Goldbarth is exactly that kind of friend. And when you find yourself sharing a moment with him—whether he describes something the way you always felt it or you wear the same shirt—it’s inspiration to one day be as humble, wise and energetic as Albert Goldbarth.
By Albert Goldbarth
Graywolf Press, 178 pages, $18