As the curator of Pioneer Square art space Mount Analogue and as the editor of the poetry press Gramma, Seattle artist and writer Colleen Louise Barry spent a lot of her time presenting the work of others in spectacular fashion. Though she’s since moved on from both of those projects, she’s left a trail of glitter, silk roses, inflatables, and BDSM operas that will surely live on within the minds and Instagram feeds of Seattle art-goers for years to come.
But now, with the upcoming publication of her first collection of poetry, Colleen (After Hours Editions, 2022), Barry is finally doing something for herself. Fittingly enough, it’s also about herself. Kinda.
In the last month or so, she’s been teasing out the book’s themes over email with New York-based writer Sarah Jean Alexander, who released her second book of poetry, We Die In Italy, on Shabby Doll House. Barry describes Alexander’s new book as “deceptively simple, full of optimism, food, and friends,” and she compares reading it to “a slow afternoon with nothing to do but love the world.”
Their conversation below addresses Barry’s choice to name her book after herself, Alexander’s rediscovery of her voice after breaking her jaw, and the origins of their new mantra: Fake it until you feel it.
Colleen: I adore the way that you and Lucy Shaw published your books as Shabby Doll House. It feels authentic and collaborative and like it's fueled by a deep love of poetry, books, community. Can you talk a little about the process?
SJ: Lucy and I have been publishing writing and art online via Shabby Doll House since she began the magazine in 2011. Then Lucy created ~Profound Experience of Earth, a collection of travel essays, in 2019, which transitioned into the ~Profound Experience of Staying at Home Quaranzine, a weekly magazine series once lockdown began. As lockdowns continued, she created the ~Profound Experience of Poetry book club. These spaces began to grow within themselves, unique microcosms of innovation nurtured by Lucy, and it’s a huge reason why we felt capable of self-publishing our books.
When we individually began to wrap up our writing projects earlier this year (which then turned into We Die in Italy and Lucy’s incredible novel Troisième Vague), we naturally circled back to Shabby Doll House as the only way we could visualize them coming to life. We wanted to own the process completely.
On each of our book's last pages, we provide a link to a hidden tab on shabbydollhouse.com with “behind-the-scenes” content: Images directly referenced in our books, photos of our editing journey, recommended reading, and music lists that were either featured in our books or just what we were listening to along the way. We’ve been updating it with links to interviews and features since the release.
It feels like a natural way to keep our books alive, as opposed to published on October 1st then fin. We interact with our friends and community largely online, so why not create an easter egg of a space to exist only there, only for all of us? And anyone can do it! More books should come with a playlist. What would be on yours?
Colleen: I need to make a Colleen playlist! I'm going to do that and then link it right HERE.
In one of my favorite poems from We Die In Italy, "We Feel Ancient", you write about eating, sleeping, and resting, with the phrase stuck and relaxed cascading up and down the whole poem. I love the idea of being stuck but not panicking. Instead, reveling in it. What has this idea meant for you, while writing this book?
SJ: After breaking my jaw last November, everything slowed down. I had no reason to cook, or move in general (friends brought me soup and Soylent, I was very cared for). I was only sipping oxy cocktails through the cracks between my broken teeth. I didn’t especially want to return to the poems I had been working on, many of which revolved around food.
After the initial shock and swelling of the accident faded, I began cooking* again (*liquifying meals in the Vitamix). I started to reminisce with passion on all the meals I had shared with people I love. I couldn’t realize it then, but I had changed! I was slow moving. I accepted help, love, and circumstance, and I embraced it. I came back to the poems.
I wrote "We Feel Ancient" in a moment of extreme contentment ~ lake house, happy dog, friends. I wanted to capture both acceptance and wanting. Obviously, life is not a peaceful journey. I fake it until I feel it. It works!
It’s interesting that you mention the pacing of We Die in Italy, because here are the first notes I made after reading Colleen: movement, wind. The dichotomy of our books seems almost natural in our stillness + motion. I especially felt this in the last line of your opening poem, “Purpose”:
The wind moves them but it can’t move me
Thematically, wind carried me through the entirety of the book, and that line specifically felt like you were sharing and transferring a power into me, into the reader, in preparation for the poems to follow. It was exciting! Do you feel that natural phenomena and ethereal subjects have always been motifs in your creative outlets?
Colleen: Fake it until you feel it is so much better than fake it until you make it. New mantra.
I think the mystery of natural phenomena has always been an obsession. Not just for me, but every human in some way. I feel like it is humbling and comforting to know that large forces are acting with or without us.
I especially love the wind. The wind represents the dichotomy of power to me ~ sometimes destructive in its irrational violence, sometimes so gentle and loving that it caresses and soothes. It's always moving, it carries messages. Poets talk a lot about the sun and the moon and the stars. But if anything in nature represents poetic romance, for me, it's the wind. The wind has symptoms, visual evidence, but is itself simply invisible power. And isn't that just like language?!
Maybe in a similar way to how We Die In Italy is using food to relate to language, I'm using the weather. It's this thing we deal with every day as humans and it can be beautiful or terrifying. It's the idea of making the quotidian wondrous through art, but also it's a way of honoring art as quotidian itself.
I think especially of "Red Wine":
here — I made these meatballs
beef, half a can of spam
tender fat, very delicate
SJ: You know when you meet someone you’re so attracted to, that you can’t tell if you want to be them or be with them?! I want my reader to feel the pull of both being the speaker and the reader. Making these meals. Eating them with me. Relating to power that exists not outside of us all, but moves with us!
There were multiple lines in your poems that made me think, "damn!!!" There is a fierceness that surprised me often, amidst the wind and dreams.
From “Route B43”:
There is, actually, nothing
unbearable about living.
I accept the brutality of this.
You lull the reader in with creamy clouds of tenderness, and then suddenly, The silence after a mistake (from “Postcard”), like a gut punch. Do you find that you often sway between soft and hard imagery? Have you learned anything new about your relationship to poetry while writing Colleen?
Colleen: Part of the reason why I named the book after myself (lol) is because writing it felt like trying language on, in the same way one might with clothes, to see what kind of person it made. Sometimes the poems feel tough, a language to stay alive in a brutal world; it's that intense. Sometimes they're casual, almost flippant. They want to see how elastic reality is through absurdity. And some are romantics, in love with the world, and interested in the reader, in holding them. Of course, there's always the question of being perceived at all. Is it always contrived? I think a lot about Whitman's line: I contain multitudes. It seems like one of the great strengths of contemporary American poetry has been to hold space for contradiction, clashing, disunions.
When you're writing poems, do you feel like that's one version of you separate from the rest? Do you think that the idea of poet-as-persona is valuable at all?
SJ: By the time my first book, Wildlives, came out in 2015, I felt pretty removed from the work. I had started writing most of them in 2012, and when pub day came, I had largely shifted my style of writing. I spent the next few years relearning my voice, which is a reason I’m so proud of We Die in Italy — it feels like me. I want it to be timeless, and I don’t want to feel separated from the poems. Basically what I’m saying is I don’t want to contain multitudes. I want them on display!
One of my favorite poems from Colleen is “A Diamond is Forever”. It’s intricate in the way it plainly presents symbols of the real and imaginary, memory and value, unfolding to reveal a mosaic of liminal space, like we’re living in the matrix. Multitudes! I felt floored reading the line, The mystery of looking is distance and time / It instantly takes forever.
Colleen: I am obsessed with statements ~ the strength and confidence of language in the form of a statement. I thought, what if I wrote a poem of aphorisms that had no real message? It's a testament to tone. I also have a lot of fun letting a sentence structure run its course without enjambment, but in a connection to the one before and after in such a way that it could only happen in a poem.
Sometimes I feel like I'm a cold, cerebral poet when I'm writing these kinds of fake aphoristic poems. I have to take breaks from that mode and do something more flowery, exercise that muscle.
Am I a surgeon of language, or a lover, or … what! Is my job! My responsibility! To words! As a poet!