“Who’s in the barn, what’s he doing in there, is it even his barn?”
A Flash Book Review of ‘50 Barn Poems’ and Brief Interview with Zac Smith
When I think about barns, I think of a space of nostalgia for me in other people’s memories. I’ve never had a barn, so I wouldn’t know what it’s like to party there every Friday night in high school, like my friend who moved away to Kentucky when we were young, or I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have a barn in the mountainous range of the Catskills, like my girlfriend had grown up with, until it burned down when she was eight, and all of her horses and her dog were killed in the fire. Here are two barns and two different strains of memory, one of luster and the peak of adolescence, and one of trauma and pain, each I can enter and understand a little more about the human experience and our attachment to place and memory.
In his debut poetry collection 50 Barn Poems out now from Clash Books, Zac Smith gives fifty insights into this space of consciousness; it’s through the lens of barns in which he gives us flashes of time and place, full of memory and raw, heartfelt emotion. It’s not short of humor, either. ‘Barn Poem 1’ stands as a salute, stating its intentions: “these are barn memories/barn feelings/barn impressions” followed by the warm greeting: “welcome to the barn, motherfucker”, insinuating that we, the reader, are now entering this space, his space; the “motherfucker” an endearment of recognition, but also a call to action.
With ‘Barn Poem 2’, we start with the image of a barn on the side of the road “built way too close to the shoulder” where “every three months a car hits it/every three months the sheriff makes the same joke/something about a drunk driver hitting the broadside of a barn/it’s exactly as funny every time, too.” Here, we get the first inkling of Smith’s skill as a poet, portraying a startling dramatic scene, a barn acting as a structure of consequence for careless drunk drivers, in contrast with a sheriff who cracks a joke to ease the tension of reality, playing at an old movie trope of the getaway car smashing into the side of a barn, cue an explosion of feathers.
Throughout the collection, we see a spectrum of language. From internet slang such as in ‘Barn Poem 6’ where we get stanzas like “woah haha that dude’s really in there/in the barn, haha/hahaha wtf/look at that” as if we are engaged in a text conversation with the author, getting the details of action playing out in real time; to rich and vivid prosody, like in the lines “a hundred seagulls/instead of the solitary rooster/may it someday wash ashore/when you least expect it” from ‘Barn Poem 34’. The contrast in language shows the flexibility in the purpose of barns; they can be cause for celebration such as in ‘Barn Poem 29’ where the author urges, “let’s have a fucking party” or a profound contemplation like the message in ‘Barn Poem 10’: “we all belong to a barn somewhere — there is no escape.”
In 50 Barn Poems, Zac Smith shows us what an architectural space is capable of; that the reason we build things can be as versatile as our needs themselves; they can be spaces of shelter, worship, meditation, deviancy, entertainment, relaxation, death, violence, trauma, and imagination (like in ‘Barn Poem 38’ inviting us to imagine life in a barn underwater). By inviting us into his barn, we are forced to confront our own structures of meaning that we create—it’s seeing a space as an extension of ourselves and our possibilities; and with Smith’s wit, humor, profundity, and grace, we certainly will never drive by a barn, nevertheless our own houses, the same mindless way again.
My conversation with Zac took place over the transom about barns, math, Capitalism, and an ideal barn party.
A barn is such a striking image, especially in the middle of a barren field, surrounded by blue sky, like it is on the cover. What was it about this image, if anything at all, that led to you wanting to write a collection of poems about it?
I think what appealed to me most about the barn was its uniqueness. Describing it that way is good—from an image sense, it has the red paint, the white trim, the shape and features. And functionally it's unique, housing animals and feed and tools and whatever else. A barn is kind of mysterious. For a lot of people, it's completely separated from our day-to-day, and even for people who work in or with barns, I have this sense that every barn is unique, has its own purpose, its own features. They're big and full of unknown things. So, the very first thing I wrote that would eventually be a part of one of the poems was about this mysteriousness. Who's in the barn, what's he doing in there, is it even his barn? That was one of the earliest images that I grabbed onto.
In a way, each of the 50 poems speak to the same mysteriousness. Each one is unique, serving its own purpose. In 'Barn Poem 7', you speak to this purpose as an old farmhouse on a mountain knowing that anything could go wrong; that it knew how small the narrator felt passing by it on a road trip. Could you talk a bit about this sensation of projecting one’s insecurities onto physical structures? Especially barns? As you close that poem with "we can turn anything into a barn."
For me, writing this was like using a barn as a variable for more personal or complex experiences and feelings. When we do algebra, we borrow a non-numeral (like 'x') to represent something that we need to work to unmask. In math, there are these institutional conventions about symbols—some symbols have specific meaning, some have many contextual meanings, and we also have conventions about, like, if you're going to need many variables, which one do you start with: X, then Y, then Z, etc. But writing, and poetry specifically, is about rejecting these patterns, because that's cliché, and it's not about conforming to what others write, but about inventing something new.
A cliched metaphor in a poem is like doing math, you're leaning on some convention or known equation to do the work for you. And another difference is that in math, a variable has one direction, the letter you use to represent an unknown number doesn't give you any impression of what that number might be. There's nothing about "y" vs "x" that would indicate what the number is—it's just arbitrary aside from convention. In writing, symbols go both ways. In writing and thinking about the imagery, or scene, or experience, while writing it, the sensation for me was this bleed through. It wasn't just imposing ideas onto a barn but letting the barn impose its own meaning onto my ideas. And with a barn, with my specific relationships with or knowledge of barns or specific barns, that bleed through lead to some personal insight, made me reconsider certain moments in my life, and it led to some different imagery and ideas in the rest of the poems. So, in this case I used the barn as that variable, and that meant I could both *transform anything into a barn* and *transform a barn into anything*.
This makes me think of 'Barn Poem 41' in which you talk about us (humans) being taught a form of escapism "as a way to interest us in lives outside of the very proximal." And in a way, this teaching blinds us from seeing the world directly in front us and how we were meant to in a more natural, simplistic point of view. You write, "barns are never boring, and they never will be", which I took comfort in believing there is a place that exists outside of the pitfalls of daily life in a Late-Capitalist society. Do you believe such a place exists? Where for you is such a barn?
I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, this yearn for different kinds of daily life, especially now that I'm a working adult in a city full of cars and trains and big buildings. I take a lot of comfort in daydreams in this vein and I think a lot of people do. Confronting the reality of that was a really big thing for me when reading Noah Cicero's Give it to the Grand Canyon. There's this whole scene where the protagonist is thinking about a life of physical, rewarding labor, being outside, enjoying nature, but he talks to this rancher whose life completely sucks. I think we easily idealize the 'exotic', which is relative. It's the same case of a rural kid wanting to move to the big city, of a retiree wanting to live near the beach. We are naturally ambitious and restless, but we also seek comfort. It's there whenever we travel, we imagine ourselves living there, living these entirely new lives. I'm generally cynical about it but I think you need to have hope, and I do have hope. For me that's about being in nature more, living somewhere where I spend more time outside, where I engage with the world in a real way more. For others it's different—I'm not going to romanticize an exploited laborer's life, for example. I'm saying this from a lucky position of having so much education and life experience and luck and privilege.
I don't know where that barn is for me, but in general I think it can be in the day-to-day anywhere. I live by some really old, huge, gorgeous trees. Whenever I stop and really look at them I'm blown away, for example. There's this albino squirrel that runs around behind my apartment a lot, and it's a beautiful squirrel. When's the last time you really looked at a bird? There's that mount Eerie lyric that stuck with me - "When was the last time you touched a leaf?" I try to make an effort to ground myself where I'm at in little ways, but it doesn't feel like enough. I think we have to make it for ourselves, and the best place to start is with what we have locally. The barn is whatever that is for you, I feel.
I think that's what the collection portrays at its best—a barn being something of our choosing, an internal place of acceptance, but also being a space for us to connect with nature. This internal and external connection is not only grounds for hope, but celebration when felt. Can you end this by imagining what a perfect barn party would look like to you?
Thank you, I'm glad that's something you got out of it. Yeah on that first point I wanted to say that it's funny to me that in my experience a barn has this sense of closeness to nature, but in historical terms it's a key example of us partitioning ourselves away from nature. It's shelter, it's artificial, it stands against the elements, and in more abstract terms we use barns to house domestic animals and harvested crops, which is to say it's us separating ourselves from our dependence on the real wild natural world in favor of our personal control and prediction. Only in the context of our modern, connected world is a barn a place where we get *back* to nature instead of sheltering ourselves from it. I'm happy that it serves this symbolic purpose of connecting us with nature, and it makes me wonder at what the barn will be in two hundred years or two thousand years, what our relationship with nature will look like then.
A perfect barn party? I'm not sure. But I can say that we hosted our daughter's first birthday party at a barn. And that was pretty special. So, I'll say that: my perfect barn party is my child's first birthday party.
50 Barn Poems available now from Clash Books.
Zac Smith is the author of 50 Barn Poems (Clash Books, 2019). He’s interviewed authors all over the internet, and his stories and poems have appeared on many cool websites. He lives in Boston, where he likes to walk his dogs.