“Color Is Its Own Divine Language”: A Conversation with Colleen Louise Barry

By JoAnna NovakJune 14, 2022

“Color Is Its Own Divine Language”: A Conversation with Colleen Louise Barry
ON FLIGHT 860, passengers were reminded to refrain from using the lavatories barefoot. A child cried and set off a chain reaction. “Enchiladas sounded so good,” said the woman seated next to me. Profanity ensued about a place named Chewie’s. Meanwhile, the plane reached a cruising altitude of 37,000 feet, and I forgot the world. I was reading Colleen, an immersive, crystalline, and wry book of poetry from multimedia artist Colleen Louise Barry.

Colleen is campy, glittery, neon, black-lit joy. Think giant, melty sculptures of Danielle Steel hardcovers; ball pits beneath jellyfish-translucent streamers; Day-Glo trophies. Barry’s art has been exhibited at The Factory Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, Tuf Fest, Base Art Space, and other venues. She makes candles, too, and runs the interdisciplinary publishing projects Mount Analogue (gallery, community space, small press bookshop, artist residency, and publishing project) — which, as Rich Smith wrote in The Stranger, has “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.” Looking at pictures of Mount Analogue gallery space — all iridescent furniture and furry footstools — I couldn’t help thinking about a teacher who used to tell me that stanza means room. In Barry’s world, those rooms are immersive, tactile, and fun.

I first encountered Barry’s poetry at UMass Amherst. It was the early 2010s, and we were both poets in the MFA program. Colleen was cool, in a punk-art-amazing-bangs way. We were never in workshop together, but I heard her read at Flying Object, where her command of the room was awe-inspiring. Her work is rooted in conceptual art and DIY culture. I emailed her questions when it was safe to turn off airplane mode.


JOANNA NOVAK: Titling the book Colleen is such a rock-star move. It also raises interesting questions about the performance of the self in poetry, the book as an appendage of the author, or maybe as synonymous with author. How did you know you were writing Colleen?

COLLEEN LOUISE BARRY: The poems in Colleen weren’t written with the idea that they would be in a collection. They came line by line and poem by poem over about seven years, born more of an impulse to process my personal experiences than to publish a book. I started to feel first in my own self that a change had occurred or a threshold had been crossed, and then I couldn’t see the poems I’d been writing as anything but a document of that. Like a phase was complete. I thought, How can I commemorate what these were? Could these be a book? I put them together in some order, vaguely chronological, and they felt wobbly, until I just named them after myself. The idea was conceptual and practical. I wanted to point out my self-obsession and I wanted also to point out everyone else’s.

Self-obsession and self-awareness are so dangerously close, especially in art. There’s this paradox that the poet is a narcissist but also a martyr, rendering themself completely selfless in service of preserving humanity’s soul through art. There’s no way to get at anything real without first acknowledging that any expression of reality is inherently personal, shifting, and nuanced. Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” I do think he was talking about being a million different people from one day to the next. I also think he was talking about empathy and people’s ability to understand the personal as universal.

“It’s brave / to have a name and to use it,” you write in the poem “Unstable Star.” While putting this book together, were you inspired by other writers and artists who put their names to works?

I love pop stars and rock stars. I think about the fierce confidence and scale of their art form but also the vulnerability and fragility of the individuals who perform and connect and change. Britney Spears’s album Britney, Cher’s Cher, Mariah Carey’s Mariah Carey. These albums gave me permission to call my book Colleen. [Laughs.] But that idea of permission! It’s so important. Artists have been giving each other and anyone who wants to listen permission. It’s one of the main functions of art. Do you want to do that outrageous thing? You should.

I think there’s a lot in Colleen that’s really romantic in its own way, romantic as a mindset or a philosophy. When I was an undergrad at Western Washington University, my professor Oliver de la Paz taught this amazing formal poetry course. I always write free verse, but I think it’s important to remember that poetry was first formal and was defined by its boundaries, like a puzzle. I remember from this course so distinctly the Arabic form of the ghazal. In a ghazal, the last couplet includes a proper name, often the poet’s. In the Persian tradition, each couplet was of the same meter and length, and the subject matter included both erotic longing and religious belief or mysticism. I’m inspired by a single poem’s ability to contain all of these huge things together.

When you name yourself, you take accountability, but you also separate yourself from that version of you being named. This makes the poem feel more like a conversation to me, like the poem is more in control than the writer. The poem is addressing and challenging the writer in the same way it might address and challenge any other reader.

This book is so attuned to color. A dog named Doug has “a blank expression like he’d woken up in a beige land”; there are “big dreams about green.” Was your aim to focus on color, or did that just occur naturally?

I think both are true. If I had a religion, it would be color. It’s the closest thing to the sublime. It’s like music or emotion — a universal signifier that all things are connected and communicate. Color is its own divine language, creating meaning through combinations and arrangements. It makes existence feel.

“We can impose limits on anything / we will in turn be limited,” you write in “The World.” I found this idea provocative, especially given the current of thinking that promises that formal limits or constraints will engender a freer poetry. What is your relationship to limits in writing and art? In life?

Life is itself a limit. Limits are how we define reality, so when I’m talking about being limited, I’m talking about perception. I think one of the main functions of art and poetry is to help us understand perception as nuanced. I think that’s how you develop empathy.

There are no definitions without boundaries in language. It’s like words are little lassos trying to rope in understanding. Poetry is the art, to me, of this process. It points out the pointlessness or failure of this exercise, but also how vital it is to try.

I admire how your poems engage with abstract nouns — namely, beauty. Your writing about beauty made me think about the way the artist Agnes Martin writes about the subject. In your poems, beauty assumes a kind of material heft — it’s on the wind or in the garden, like that “chained up snake.” What draws you to write about beauty?

From the time you’re really small and you’re first encountering what the people around you are calling art, you understand it as beautiful. For example, I remember going to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum with my mom and grandma as a kid. I remember my grandma saying over and over that Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are beautiful. And then I grew up, and understood her work also as morbid, and sexual, and defiant. And I wanted to understand how beauty was also all of those things. And how art can be ugly. So much art is so ugly, and isn’t that just like saying it’s beautiful? Like flipping a coin.

When you were at UMass, did you ever take Dara Wier’s class on aphorism? I was thinking about the aphoristic as almost a verbal pose while reading so many of these poems, especially “Good Timing.” What short forms inspire your writing?

Yes! I love Dara and I love aphorisms. I also love Wallace Stevens. The year or so that I was writing those very aphoristic poems I was obsessively reading Opus Posthumous. I was addicted to the confidence and power. An aphorism is so confident, and I wanted to play around with that. If I make a statement, it may or may not be true, but the power of it cannot be denied. It’s because of the syntax, which is normally manipulated in poetry to create some emotion, but in an aphoristic poem, the goal is to manufacture power. (Is power an emotion?) It’s a way to define and redefine parameters and to build your own reality through language. It’s really a very similar trick to asking a question. The response to a question is an answer in the form of a statement, a supposed truth; the response to a statement is a question.

You return to the limits of perception and intellect in these poems. I love this formulation in “Smart Water”: “Seeing it is more like how I thought / Though thought is not who I am.” And yet these poems are deeply rooted in a particular subjectivity. Is this a contradiction you play with?

It’s a really human contradiction. There’s no way to be alive and not have a subjective experience. But I also think it’s natural to judge that experience against what you perceive as right or wrong. That’s where the tension and also the meaning lies for me. How do people know what to trust? How do we wake up and go, yes, this toast, this body, this job, this anything, this is reality? It’s an appeal to anyone who reads these poems.

Tell me about the series in the book. The USA poems, the 12/1 poems — they reminded me of both diary entries and editions in a print series.

I just adore a series. Serial work is inherently about limits, variation, and accumulation. The idea that art acquires meaning over time or iteration is fascinating to me because I think that’s also true of people and experiences. Like sequential art, the spaces between the work also evolve and gather significance. Those are spaces where the viewer gets a lot of say. They can get as involved there as they’d like.

Dates and time are interesting as a conceit or signifier we all agree on, not dissimilar to language. The dated poems were not contrived as a series; they were actually a part of my personal diary and were written on the days that their titles suggest. I liked taking them out of that chronological context for the book’s final order to give them a mysteriousness. The USA poems were more contrived as a series, though. They were written more like a hexagon, trying to show multiple sides of the same relationship. It’s strange and unsettling to be an American.

Speaking of titles again, how do you approach titling your work? Where does it fall in your drafting process?

I used to approach titling with trepidation. Now I don’t worry about it. Dara taught me a lot about titles. She used to always say the title is the first line of the poem. Titles for me are either informative or funny, aware of the tension it creates and the beat that comes after it. Titles arrive when they arrive, although rarely first for me. One thing I always try to avoid is a summation. Instead of wrapping things up, a title should offer a window or a door.

The speaker in these poems is so wise, self-sure, and patient. Many lines floored me. This was one: “The only way to be real / is to have a lot of accidents.” What role does the assertion or the pronouncement have in your work?

For me, when I think about work that stays with me: songs, poems, sculptures, passages, ads on the subway, it’s always the one line or moment that seems clearer than the rest of everything. That part of the piece where it’s suddenly direct. I want to get to the heart of something in the most lucid manner that I can. I don’t want to be obscure, but I do want to be complicated. For me, I’m writing to reassure myself that I can speak. I can pronounce something, anything. If I feel like I’m going to write it down, spend my life with it, shape it into a form, I don’t want to waver. It reminds me of Hemingway or Carver — actually, quite a masculine way of writing. It feels strong and powerful and dramatic. There’s a lot at stake because you’re defining yourself. You’re daring life to prove you wrong.


JoAnna Novak’s third book of poetry, New Life, was published in 2021. She is the author of Meaningful Work: Stories, winner of the 2020 Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction, and the novel I Must Have You. Her debut memoir, Contradiction Days, is forthcoming from Catapult.

LARB Contributor

JoAnna Novak is the author of I Must Have You, a novel, and Noirmania, a book of poetry. Her work has recently appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and Real Simple. A founding editor of the chapbook press and literary journal Tammy, she lives in Los Angeles.


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