Interview with Terry Barr

Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Red Savina Review, Full Grown People, Hippocampus, and will soon appear in South Writ Large and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He has a new essay up at Melange Books. His essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, was just published by Red Dirt Press.

3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?

Terry Barr: I think I’ve always written, but when I got to 9th grade composition, something different happened. My teacher taught us Shakespeare, and then my 10th grade teacher let us write fiction. I read one of my stories to the class, and my best friend—a much better writer than me, I thought—looked back at me in a way he never had before.  But back to 9th grade—that was the first time I really kept a journal. Each day at the beginning of class, we would write “non-stops,” five minutes of intense writing where the only rule was that your pen could not leave the paper. I kept those writing notebooks for years, and employ that method in my writing classes, only I force them to write for longer periods without stopping—maybe 20 minutes.

But I didn’t think a lot about my own creative writing until I joined a writing group in grad school, at the University of Tennessee. I wrote a story about the first time I saw the word “fuck.” My father slapped me for saying it, and then I saw bats circling our favorite neighborhood oak tree. Something about those moments and images cohered into a story back then that I later revised—one of my very first published Creative Nonfiction pieces.  That publication was four years ago, and I have since published over 100 other CNF stories, all using events, moments from my past.  So, journals, bats, the word “fuck” and non-stops. That did it for me!

3288 Review: In your instructor bio at Presbyterian College you write “we must examine the stories, the mythos, that America has been writing about, and which it has come to believe about itself.” Given that it is difficult to see a system when embedded in that system, how do you teach your students to step outside of their own experience and see the “big picture”?

Terry Barr: The American mythos, as I understand it and as I teach it to my students, is predicated on American Exceptionalism, that we’re the City on the Hill, as John Winthrop suggested. OK, we are a great nation and I am truly glad to be living here with our advantages and our freedoms. But let’s examine the texts and the history/culture surrounding them.

For instance, I just finished teaching Absalom, Absalom! to my Modern Novel class. While Faulkner was a gradualist regarding racial issues, he forces us to confront troubling issues in our past—not just our Southern past, but also our elitist, upper class past. So, while miscegenation was a taboo in the old South—and for many in other regions—upper class white males were “expected” to have black mistresses, a sign of manhood. Or if not expected, they were pardoned or even winked at by their peers and fathers. And look no further than Strom Thurmond to see that such matters aren’t confined to the 19th Century. Why do these revelations surprise us, if they do?  Do we look the other way for Jefferson?

I also teach a course in Holocaust Literature. My students are so wonderful and earnest, and of course, they are horrified at the Nazi genocide. But they are just as horrified and completely stunned to examine America’s isolationist position during that war. And when I tell them that many historians believe and have proven that FDR knew that we could not enter that war if it were to “save the Jews,”—meaning that anti-Semitism was not only a real mood/force in the country, but more crucially in his own state department (see Breckinridge Long’s role)—well, their image of America gets more in focus, or at least they realize that there are other images to consider.

Finally, I want them to see that a mythos itself is a set of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Those stories are grounded in reality, or should be. But what do we know of our reality? What do we want to know? So we read Dreiser and Hemingway and Kate Chopin and Patti Smith and look at American life in all its facets. Doing so allows us to think about, rethink, our images of ourselves.

3288 Review: As a kind of flip-side to the previous question, how do you teach your students to not give in to apathy and cynicism, particularly given the toxic nature of the current U.S. political discourse?

Terry Barr: I learned as an undergraduate from one of my favorite professors, Dr. Jack Hamilton in Political Science, that to be overt in my own political leanings/beliefs in class would be detrimental to the classroom atmosphere and to those students who either did not share my views, who were just beginning to figure out their political attitude/persuasion, or who at that time didn’t care about or were intimidated by anything political.

That is not to say that sharp students couldn’t tell my politics or see my liberal attitudes. Once, during the first Bush’s Gulf War, students staged a protest and I read Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” so outside the class, I was definitely who I was. In class it was hard to make everyone feel comfortable all the time. Once, in a Holocaust class, I had a student want to pray for all the poor Jews who would be “going to hell” because they didn’t accept Christ. We talked about her belief and though many of us didn’t share it, we honored her right to express herself.

This past semester, again in Holocaust Literature, it became very easy to go off topic and discuss the views of Trump and the difficulty in feeling safe, as Americans, from radical jihadists. I confess to telling a few Trump jokes but also apologized for doing so, for changing the classroom climate. The students, though, wanted to discuss the American political landscape, especially once they saw how a charismatic, hate-filled leader back in the 30’s “charmed” an entire nation–or at least its Aryan populace–with vengeful rhetoric against a race of people.

It would be easy in such a course to become cynical, to give up on humanity because genocide and hatred of various forms continues as if we truly learned nothing from the Holocaust. It would also be easy to leave everyone just with the end of Schindler’s List or Anne Frank’s famous “last words” about believing in the goodness of humanity. Either attitude, however, is far too troubling: too cynical, too naive. So what I charged the students with at the end is to take the issues within the course personally. By that I mean, it is up to them, daily, to face hatred, disrespect, bigotry, and prejudice, and to have the courage to call it out. This might take the form of speaking out against a racist acquaintance or fraternity brother, of denouncing the Confederate flag, or at least entering a dialogue about why it’s so hurtful to many. It’s the dialogue that matters, so I asked the students to think about how they have to live what they’ve studied, particularly if they, as so many other students have stated, want to ensure that such horrors as the Holocaust “never happen again.”

Being realistic, I tell them that even with speaking out, they may not be able to change minds or stop movements toward genocide. But if they don’t speak out, they also have to live with themselves. Being active, not passive, is the key, but it’s also doing so with the intention of forming common threads with others and not pushing others away.

Another example comes from my Modern Novel course. In certain areas within academia, it has become the rule, it seems, to denounce certain canonic male novelists as misogynistic. Maybe they are, but I still teach Faulkner and Joyce and DH Lawrence along with Woolf and Forster and, when I can, Zadie Smith. Within Faulkner and Lawrence, we discuss the parent-offspring relationships, and again, it would be easy to become cynical about overbearing parents, tyrannical and selfish adults who commit, at the least, emotional incest, or who engage in vicious acts of rape. Speaking to my students about these issues is important, not solely to condemn these acts, but to understand why they’re committed. I have a student who became very troubled by the account of rape in Faulkner’s Sanctuary because a friend of hers had recently been the victim of date rape. This same student also felt troubled by Sons and Lovers and the degree to which a parent can control or ruin the life of a child.

Again, instead of allowing cynicism or the dismissal of certain individuals or genders to rule, I encouraged students to discuss their own autonomy and ways they might seek help if they, or someone they know, feels victimized or trapped. The result for this particular student was a research paper on gender and voicelessness, particularly focused on Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. I don’t think that this student would have pursued such a topic had she not felt encouraged by our classroom dynamic to write about a topic that her own parents might not approve of. The paper, by the way, was one of the best I’ve ever received in nearly 30 years of teaching.

This is all to the credit of students who don’t turn away from controversial material; who don’t allow labels to impede their academic and personal growth.

3288 Review: “It’s the dialog that matters.” The idea of the “public intellectual” seems to be changing–dissolution or democratization, depending on who you talk to–thanks in large part to social media. In your time as a professor, how has your own experience of the public intellectual changed? Is there still a place for late nights in cafes and bars, discussing difficult topics?

Terry Barr: I think so, especially in certain coffee shops. We have a great one in Greenville, SC: Coffee Underground, and something about walking in there screams “let’s talk about serious subjects.” They sponsor poetry slams, improv comedy, films, and art shows. My wife has even helped instigate a show on Women’s Body Image through History there. What I remember best, though, are the very early mornings with my men’s group or with my friend John, where politics, turns in popular music, and middle-aged woes are confessed and debated. The late nights, while increasingly rare for me, have also stood out. Sometimes it’s just my wife and me, feeling our way through decaf lattes and discussing how to negotiate through various family crises.

But what I remember most is that Coffee Underground was the place my old friend Al and I always ended our semi-annual Dad’s night out. We’d start in another bar, trying various high gravity draughts, but head over to CU when we knew it was time for last call. I don’t know how many people across the land found themselves as we did, sipping hot mocha and talking about John Dos Passos, or Ishiguro, or why Midnight Cowboy is one of our favorite movies. Al actually got me a still from the film–Joe Buck and Rico sitting on that farewell bus–for my 40th birthday, though he’s still pissed at me for never finishing The Unconsoled.

As I’d look around the below-ground coffee house, I’d see others intent on other subjects, things I’ll never know. But even when our talk would turn to critiques of the various political nightmares running for office that year, we always had the freedom and space to talk without fear or interruption. I cherish those nights, especially now that Al has moved to Queens.

3288 Review: Who are you reading lately, who you find influential? In your experience, who is saying important things about the current state of U.S. culture and society?

Terry Barr: My reading for pleasure, for inspiration as a writer, and for culture is very unpatterned.  I read George Packer whenever he appears in The New Yorker, as well as Ian Frazier. Their views on politics, our layered social world, travel, are rich for me. Packer this week discusses the primary system and what we’ve wrought, escaping backroom decisions for a more democratic kind of system where the body politic has a true say. Have we gained? Do we know what we want? Would the backroom leaders ever give us a Trump or a Bernie Sanders?

Frazier’s book Travels in Siberia affected me deeply. We know so little about how and why people live in the outposts of our world, and while I don’t want to visit Nome, Alaska, particularly, or the westernmost tip of Siberia, I admire, and somewhere deep inside envy, Frazier for making this trek several times.

Just like I admire Paul Theroux for Deep South, his latest book about finding the lost, dead, towns of the South and why they died. Heartbreaking stuff, and though he can be a bit, well, condescending, he still uncovers people and places to exist that won’t be here in another generation. His journey through eastern South Carolina particularly shatters me.

Richard Grant’s Dispatches From Pluto is a work I like even better. Mississippi, to outsiders, seems a different planet. But Grant goes there as an unknown, likes, it, moves there, and finds that while still privileged as a white man, this place isn’t what it appears to be entirely.

I just finished Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Ed Tarkington’s first novel, and I think for capturing a small Virginia town when boys still listen to vinyl records and hurt each other, it’s really great. The title is that Neil Young song from After the Gold Rush, one of my very favorites, so that’s my bias here.

More than anything else, though, the two books that are staying with me from this past year are Sally Mann’s Hold Still and Patti Smith’s M Train. Their writing styles, entirely their own unique voice, make me want to write. Both are in love with words, with connecting words in rhythm, hearing the patterns in their mind. Sometimes I get lost in what they’re writing because the writing is so entrancing. As a writer, I long for such voices so that I keep my own motivation and strive to find my own individual voice.

3288 Review. You have a new book out, a collection of essays from Red Dirt Press titled Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. What can you tell us about it? What subjects do the essays cover? And what was your experience, going from publishing essays in journals to being the author of a full collection?

Terry Barr: Don’t Date Baptists evolved from my wanting to write about my mixed cultural/religious identity, so at first I thought of a collection that looked at my life through the lens of being half-Jewish but feeling alienated from both sides of my family. I married a woman from Iran who also happens to be half-Jewish so I thought I really had something to say and put together.  But then I got to thinking how the little city in Alabama I’m from, Bessemer, kept intruding in my thoughts. I hated Bessemer when I got old enough to leave it, but now…well, it’s not my favorite place, but it’s also home and I love it. So the essays reflect my upbringing in the Civil Rights era, along with the strange characters I grew up with. Some ended badly, some I dated, and others I still keep up with. The last two stories in the collection, to me, reflect the mixed sadness and joy of being a guy who noticed too much in his southern environment, but managed to survive and make something of the experience. I kind of learned to love Lynyrd Skynyrd too, but that took a long while. There are stories about our family maid, the boorish mayor of our town, and a virtual appearance by Pat Boone.

Moving from singles to a collection was like anything else. Or I’ll say it was like finding the right person to marry. I dated girls who were so wrong for me, up until I dated the woman who would become my wife; then everything just hit right. I shopped the collection and got rejected often, and then since I had been published in Red Truck review, the editor, Amy Wilson, who had just started the larger press—Red Dirt Review—said she’d review the collection. She loved it and working with her and her team has been the right fit for me. Perfect, in fact.

3288 Review: With your book now on the shelves, what’s next? What should we look for in 2016?

Terry Barr: I had a piece just come out in South Writ Large, and a couple of more have been accepted by the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Blue Lyra Review. I think by summer’s end, I’m going to be ready to think of my second collection. I hope to do some touring/reading from the first, and am looking to set up venues now. All I really know is that I have other stories to get to, not just about Bessemer, but more about the even darker personal experiences I’ve had.

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