Vlad Savich: Today, my interlocutor is Cornelia Barber. Hi Cornelia. Please tell me, what is literature for you?
Cornelia Barber: At its best literature is the radicalization of human thought. Turning time around, crafting archetypes, dreaming against the wills of conformity and power, delving into the great mystery of earth, consciousness, humanity, existence, love, opening up channels of communion across false borders and boundaries. Life reflecting life back to itself.
VS: I understand why we need mathematics, physics, and medicine. But why does humanity need literature?
CB: Here is my poets myth about language: When the first “people” lived and worked they had many ways to communicate, through gestures, sounds and pictures, these communications could be about collecting the right berries so you don’t get poisoned, distributing labour amongst the group, signaling fear. We didn’t need written or spoken “language” to stay alive. But to notice the shapes the clouds were making, to connote the deep sensations gained from sitting beneath a tree, to explain dreams or imagine where this group came from, to tell stories about mother earth, the sun and the sky…we needed to invent ways to do this…and we still do. We need medicine to keep our bodies alive, we need literature (at its best) to keep our souls alive. To understand ourselves.
VS: I want you to tell me a little about yourself. After all, in your life there is not only literature. What are your likes? What are you afraid of? Etcetera? Please, I listen to you.
CB: I love the show The Leftovers. Big fan of YouTube make up vlogs. I love being in bodies of water, the long island sound, rivers, lakes, baths. Being in the woods and at the beach, around flowers, in gardens. I love animals, butterflies, dragonflies, dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, spiders, ducks, hawks, lady bugs. I redecorate my apartment a lot. I enjoy reading theory and poetry and memoirs of strong women like Joy Harjo and a Bhanu Kapil. This is starting to feel a little okcupidish…ugh. What am I afraid of? Probably my biggest fear is harming someone without realizing it and not taking responsibility for it, or once I realize it being defensive about it and not hearing or seeing them and then ruining the relationship. I mean that happens all the time in little ways. Afraid of failing infrastructure and of subways crashing. Afraid of violence from men. Afraid the groundlessness of capitalism is too great an obstacle for coming to terms with climate change and social justice.
VS: Is this all from which your verses are born?
CB: I’m not exactly sure where my poetry comes from. Something deep inside for sure. But also kind of outside–from nowhere land. And of course I am in constant dialogue with other writers. And lots of things: politics, climate change, nature, nostalgia, love, race, empathy, violence. I think to love writing you have to love reading. Sometimes that means battling with your idols and mentors, or allowing yourself to be challenged to be more honest, more compassionate, more of whoever you are and less of whoever you think you should be. Is that cliche? I guess sometimes cliches are true. Well, Jeanette Winterson says “It’s the cliches that make all the trouble.”
VS: Today is the 20 of July. 48 years ago. Apollo 11 was the spaceflight that landed the first two humans on the Moon. Mission commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin, both American, landed the lunar module Eagle on July 20, 1969, at 20:18 UTC. Do you look at the moon when you write your poems?
CB: That’s amazing! Recently I’ve been watching a lot of space videos before sleep. Of the international space station. I like watching people float and flip flop without gravity. Above earth. With their utensils flying above them. They are all very relaxed. Sometimes I look at the moon and I see faces in it. I think these faces help me write poems.
VS: Which of American or English poets have influenced you?
CB: Oh gosh the list is so long as grows and grows. Right now I would say Anne Sexton, HD, Melissa Buzzeo, Bhanu Kapil, Joy Harjo, Carmen Jimenez Smith, Jasmine Gibson, Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, Thom Donovan, Carmen Giménez Smith, Jill Magi….people writing at the intersection of trauma, healing, everyday experience, memoir, poetry, politic. Dead, alive and in conversation.
VS: I’ve always been interested and never find the answer. Does a poet have to be a rebel ?
CB: Here is my answer: YES!!!!
VS: As a rebel and a poet, you want to change the world. How do you see your world?
CB: I see the world as many levels and hoops and connections that are inspiring and influencing each other. Some of the most present danger to my closest communities like development and gentrification, or to my largest communities, climate change, nuclear war are still taking place within the same world that’s constantly connecting and re-connecting and interdependent. Humans are only one tiny part of this world. More than anything I wish this was felt more, not to minimize humanity or its influence, but to step back a little and learn from all the other beings that make up this planet.
VS: Oftentimes I hear, “it’s a utopia or it’s a fairy tale.” You write tales so, yes or no, please tell me, is there any truth in fairy tales?
CB: I guess it depends on your fairytale. Right now I’d say our world is more Rumpelstiltskin than Cinderella.
VS: Our world is a reality or an illusion. Maybe the earth and people are someone’s novel?
CB: Maybe! But that won’t help me work out a fight with my best friend or wait in line at the DMV. We’re here, on the earth. This is what we got. Maybe it’s a dream or an illusion, buts it’s our starting place. Even when working with dreams and poems the earth is our home.
VS: When I was a kid my favorite hero was Robinson Crusoe. Would you like to be on an uninhabited island?
CB: Maybe if all my friends and family were there. Maybe for a couple months…
VS: If you had the right to take to a desert island with ONE ONLY ONE book. Which one would you take?
CB: Thats so hard! Singing Into The Bone by my teacher Rebecca Singer. Stories from her life as a shaman and healer and young girl and cool person.
VS: I live for a long time in the world, but I don’t know what happiness is. Can you tell me about this subject?
CB: For me happiness is getting a hug from someone you really love. Or hanging out with friends and family and talking for hours. Or being in a bath or the ocean and just feeling quiet and okay.
VS: What inspires you?
CB: Other writers inspire me. Feelings I don’t know how to process inspire me. Passion inspires me.
VS: According to your answers, I notice you are interested in political sciences. Who are you in your convictions communist, anarchist, liberal …
CB: My political beliefs are something along the lines of (mostly) anti-capitalist earth-spirit-justice. Something like quiet democratic socialism. I see politics in and of itself to be both utterly useless and kind of necessary, and I see people, workers (this includes artists, poets and healers) at the foundation of community building that has to ultimately not just be about one community, but about all communities, just as spiritual practice is not about you as an individual (even if it helps you as an individual through the struggle) but about all beings. Politics at its worst is what we have right now. But we know this. I see the alternatives as non-instagrammable, non-postable, non-sellable…sometimes I even think they are not sayable. The water-protectors at Standing Rock. Protestors around the world at the climate march. People who are building solar panels in the way of pipelines. Mothers of black children who have been killed preaching resistance at their son’s funerals. Union-organizers, school-teachers, shamans teaching ancient practices for the sake human survival. All of that makes sense to me as the alternative.
VS: When you will meet with God. What will you tell him?
CB: Hmmm if there is a god to meet I would probably ask her to see what her house looks like. I imagine it would be filled with some very beautiful, very ancient things, and I want to know the objects most important to her. I imagine them more as poems, than actual objects.
VS: Dear Cornelia. Thank you for your answers. I want to tell you that I meet a kindred spirit. It pleases me. It happens not often.
CB: Thank you so much Vlad! I also feel a kindred spirit.
Cornelia Barber is a New York writer. In her dual writing and healing work she investigates lineage, intimacy, race and the psychic and physical ecologies of people, plants, places and animals. Her Chapbook Unconditional is out now from Dancing Girl Press. Her work can be found in Prelude, The Felt, Berfrois, Fanzine, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Entropy, Weird Sister and more. Her poem Pink Metal won the Luna Luna Magazine poetry contest on the theme of "Death", and her full length manuscript Of Mouth And River was nominated as a Tarpaulin Sky book award Semi-Finalist. She is an editor at Queen Mobs Teahouse. You can read her blog Poetry Rituals..
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.