Writing Your Way through a Pandemic with Tacoma Poet Rick Barot

Writing Your Way through a Pandemic with Tacoma Poet Rick Barot
Poet Rick Barot. Photo Credit: Rachel McCauley

Rick Barot was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now a resident of Tacoma, Barot teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. Along with writing three award-winning poetry books , he’s also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Artist Trust.

We asked Barot a few questions about what he’s been reading, his new poetry book, The Galleons , finding creative inspiration amid the isolation of lockdown, and writing from the heart and body.

What poetry have you been reading during lockdown?

In the early spring, when the lockdown was most intense, I read poetry that looked into the properties of grief or interior malaise: Mark Bibbins's 13th Balloon , Victoria Chang's Obit , Carl Phillips's Pale Colors in a Tall Field , and John Gallaher's Brand New Spacesuit .

Most recently, however, as I’ve focused on questions of racial equity in our country and in our literature, I’ve shifted to reading prose writers of color who are engaged with questions of American identity and belonging: Marie Mutsuki Mockett's American Harvest , Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings , and Sejal Shah’s This Is One Way to Dance .

Your new book of poetry, The Galleons , was released during the COVID-19 pandemic. How did this impact the release of the book?

I had a pretty robust book tour scheduled, with about a dozen readings all over the country, but just about all of them had to be cancelled. A few ended up happening online, and I was grateful for this. I was especially happy for the reading that I did for Seattle Arts and Lectures in May, which was the official launch for the book.

Has lockdown influenced your writing process? If so, in what ways?

I’m usually a slow, patient writer. Also, most of the time I’m busy as a teacher, editor, and administrator and don’t have much time to write. Being on lockdown, though, gave me expanses of time and thought that speeded up my usual process.

In March, as a way of processing the anxiety and uncertainty that I—that everyone—was feeling, I started writing a sequence of short prose poems, using the Notes app on my phone. I ended up writing 30 poems in the sequence, and it’s titled During the Pandemic . The pandemic, then, ended up being a sort of weird gift for me as a writer. On the one hand, I was in a dark place, but on the other—my creativity was on fire.

What advice would you give to writers who are finding it difficult to write during lockdown?

The first piece of advice is stop thinking of your writing as writing. That is, don’t burden yourself with being artful or meaningful in your writing—just write. I keep a journal, and I write in it daily, and the low-stakes writing that I do in the journal is a profound source of grounding for me.

The second piece of advice is to write with an awareness of your own body and what it’s going through during the distressing times we’re in. Most of the time we live in our consciousness—in the things we think and desire and worry about. But especially now, with the physical vulnerability that many of us are feeling—because of the pandemic, and because of the socially traumatic moment we are in as we reckon with racial injustice in our country—it's good to be reminded of what it means to live in our bodies, and to write with awareness from the sensations and textures of corporeal being.

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