Crows startle the clouds
with grievances never resolved
and warnings blurted into thin air.
Once in a while, the cries of all those who tried to survive
pour from the funnels of their throats.
No wonder we never really listen.
Excerpt from Judith Barrington’s CROWS (Horses and the Human Soul, Story Line Press, 2004)
I met with Judith Barrington on a sunny summer day in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Southeast Portland. Sitting outside in a bright pavilion beneath the shade of a sidewalk tree, we sipped iced coffees as Judith’s pleasant voice spoke of memoir, poetry, and the changing city that she has grown to know so well.
Having moved to Portland in the summer of 1976 for a brief stay that turned into a lifelong residence, Barrington has a knowledge of Old Portland’s poetry scene as prolific as her writing catalog. Diving head-first into the literary community at a young age, Barrington paved her way by attending poetry readings and regularly submitting her work—her career “creeping up on [her] and bypassing a single moment of decision”.
Along with a vibrant poetry vocation that encompasses well-reviewed and award-winning collections Long Love (Salmon Poetry), The Conversation (Salmon Poetry), History and Geography (Eight Mountain Press), Horses and the Human Soul (Story Line Press), among others, Barrington is also the author of a memoir. Ursula K. LeGuin has said about Barrington’s poignant Lifesaving: A Memoir, “I think a great many people will find it speaks to them about the hard places and the hard choices, while they love it for its sunlit picture of a woman young, wild, and wildly alive.” Her equally celebrated text on the process of memoir writing, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, has become one of the most widely sold books on the process of the craft, utilized by individuals and educational institutions worldwide.
As a feminist, Barrington has been one of the pioneers of establishing and fighting for women’s literary opportunities both in the Northwest and internationally. From 1983 to 2000, she and her long-time partner, editor Ruth Gundle, “ran a feminist writing program on the McKenzie River which brought about 160 students and 10 teachers every summer from around the country.”
In addition to this programming, Gundle and Barrington are the founders of Soapstone, a residency program on the Oregon Coast created to uplift the voices and creative processes of women writers. Putting women first has always been at the forefront of Soapstone’s mission as it grew from a collective fundraising campaign into a program that has hosted such authors as Wild’s Cheryl Strayed, poet Cecelia Hagen, Oregon Book Award finalist Barbara LaMorticella, and recent Soapstone Bread and Roses Award Winner Maureen R. Michelson.
“(T)he energy for the project grew out of the women’s movement of the 1970s and ’80s, with which we both had been involved,” Barrington told me in March when I first interviewed her about this year’s recipient. “We believed that a large group of ordinary folks could make something important happen on behalf of women writers, who faced obstacles in finding the time and space for serious writing.”
Later, upon discussing Barrington’s experience as a feminist in the 1960s and the exclusionary pattern that women-identifying writers have faced throughout the history of publishing, I mused to her, “Sometimes I wonder if I should be writing under an acronym to hide my name, if it would give me a better chance.”
“Don’t do that. I don’t suggest it,” she immediately replied. “You would be doing yourself a disservice.” Barrington argued that we, as women writers, must stand up for ourselves and forge a place within a traditionally ‘male’ medium. To mask ourselves behind the veil of a writer alias in hopes of sneaking our way toward the opportunity of success would be “giving in to them”.
With this, I wholeheartedly agree. Though many women have gained immense success and acclaim as beloved, established, and groundbreaking authors, I have still, unfortunately, lost count of how many times a peer or acquaintance has told me with utmost confidence that “there are no good women writers.” We must therefore strive not only to obtain equality in the field with the use of our names, but to push past the categorization of ‘women writer’ to simply ‘writer.’ It is important, if not necessary, for programs like Soapstone to exist in order to propel fellow women, just as it is important to celebrate the great feminist voices like Barrington who continues to produce affecting work having paved the way for the young writers of today.
In addition to serving on Soapstone’s Board of Directors and continuing to teach workshops in the United States, Spain, and the UK, Barrington remains active, currently working on a second memoir exploring the topics of processing grief, age, and the difficulties she has faced throughout her life.
Read my full interview with Judith Barrington below, and take a look at her website which features published works and upcoming workshops.
When did you begin writing and at what point did you decide you wanted to pursue writing as a career?
I’ve written most of my life. I was fortunate to go to a girl’s school in Brighton, UK where I failed to receive a lot of what I now wish I’d learned, but did have to write. Our education involved passing exams that had never heard of “multiple choice,” but, rather, asked for three-page, essay-answers in history, geography, and pretty much all subjects including English literature and English language.
Writing as a career crept up on me and bypassed a single moment of decision. I fell into writing poetry for myself, then got into writing groups—first, feminist groups in London where I was encouraged to write female, angry poems that we published in our own chapbooks. Later, in the United States, I took submitting seriously, began to accumulate publications, and at the same time started to submit prose writing, usually op-ed pieces to The Oregonian with a focus on women’s and gay issues. I had a really good editor, who taught me brevity and how to tolerate drastic cuts to my work.
Finally, I had enough accumulated poetry, with many magazine publications, that I was able to publish my first book. Four more followed: the first two from a small Oregon press, The Eighth Mountain Press, the third from Story Line Press, and the last two from Salmon Poetry in Ireland. I was teaching writing at many workshops and colleges, and became interested in literary memoir, a genre I had included in my first two poetry collections. When I realized, through teaching memoir, that there wasn’t a good book to use, I wrote one [called] Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art.
What originally brought you to Portland in 1976?
I first crossed the Atlantic in 1975 for a trip, when I took a Greyhound bus from New York to San Francisco. Along the way, I met a woman in Albuquerque and had a brief affair with her. After I returned to England, she moved to Portland, taking a job as head of Women’s Studies at PSU, and talked me into coming to Portland. I came for the summer in 1976 and never left. The relationship didn’t last long, but I became intrigued by the academic branch of feminism, having been a radical activist in London, but now also drawn to the study of women’s history and writings. I taught women’s studies at PSU for a couple of years.
You spend summers teaching and leading workshops in Europe. Can you tell me about some of the major differences you see between the work coming out of Europe and that of the United States? And in how writing is approached/taught?
I’m most familiar with UK writing, but also try to follow what’s happening in France and Spain. I taught a class every summer for six years in Spain, and also taught several times for the Arvon Foundation in the UK as well as for the Poetry Society of London and various other writing workshop series. In poetry, the most obviously experimental work is from continental Europe, particularly France; British poetry retains a love of form, even when it’s not obvious. I’m impressed that British poets have a tremendous grounding in the history of their art.
It has frustrated me, as a longtime teacher of poetry in the United States, that would-be poets here seem less interested in that grounding. There has been a notion in the U.S. that becoming a poet simply happens when one writes some lines that speak a personal truth. On the other hand, memoir as a literary genre has flourished in the United States more than in Britain. I do not write fiction, but am an avid reader of it, and must say that all my favorite novelists are British.
In the UK it is generally taught as a serious part of a literary education. There is less of the “alternative” approach that has flourished in the United States in so many short-length, non-residential MFA programs. An advantage to the American scene is that many writers have had access to good teachers at a fraction of the cost of university. The disadvantage is that not all famous writers, who are hired to teach at casual workshops, are good teachers.
Along with writing, you are the Co-founder, past President, and current Board Member of Soapstone. Can you tell me more about your mission with Soapstone and how the organization supports women writers?
Soapstone was originally created to run a residential program for women writers. A group of us six women had acquired a piece of property in the Oregon Coast Range, 12 miles inland from Manzanita, and decided to start a nonprofit organization to make it available to writers. First, we renovated the cabin, which had been built by Will Martin for his family’s use. We brought water and electricity to it and made it usable for two writers at a time. It sits on 22 acres of beautiful forested land and fronts Soapstone Creek, which is a salmon-spawning river. It was a huge community-building project involving hundreds of supporters—mostly women but not entirely.
After 20 years of running the Soapstone program from Portland through massive climate events that threatened flood and fire, the Board decided to discontinue it and sell the property. We put it in the care of a Land Trust, which designated it worthy of conservation.
The Soapstone Board re-conceived its program in line with its mission to support women writers, creating a program of study groups in Portland. The goal was to allow writers and readers, both men and women, to meet and study the life and work of woman writers
You have written/continue to write celebrated memoir, texts on memoir, and poetry. Does your poetry come from a personal and autobiographical place?
My poetry began in London in 1973 with extremely personal subjects. I used it to explore feminist issues and how they had impacted my life; I also used it to confront my lesbianism and my great fear of coming out, which I did mainly by way of poems. After I was in Oregon, I wrote, also mostly personally, but with a wider lens. I used my poetry to explore what it means to live in a new culture—and America was certainly a very new culture to me. I also wrote about the natural world, both in celebration and lament.
As I grew confident of my technique, I realized that I needed to include the world in my work, and not just my personal world. I needed to merge the two. The first poem that I believe fully achieved that was a poem titled The Conversation, which won the big prize from the Cork (Ireland) Poetry Festival. My recent poetry continues to come from a mostly autobiographical place. I’ve had medical challenges in the past decades, including a near-death experience and brain surgery. Naturally, some of that has appeared on the page and I am now quite eager to use my writing in the cause of disability, even though it’s a challenge to interest readers in that subject.
My last collection—a selected and new—was titled Long Love, which reflects how fortunate I’ve been to live in a relationship with Ruth Gundle for 43 years. It’s dedicated to her.
Tell me about your process of writing your memoir, Livesaving: A Memoir, how did it differ from your poetry writing process?
Writing Lifesaving involved a very different process. Naturally, it took a lot longer—probably about ten years on and off. I also found it difficult to envisage a whole book, never having written something long. Consequently, I wrote it in chapters, each of which almost stood alone, and then, with the help of my partner, Ruth, one of the best editors in the country, I figured out how to make it a whole. I had a particularly hard time ending it, and now believe that endings in literary memoir are often the weakest part of a book.
The problem is that if you’ve been reading fiction, you have an idea that a story needs to have a particular shape with some clear resolution. But life doesn’t fit into a tidy shape, and things that become worthy subjects for a memoir rarely get resolved. Mine, for example, was about my parents’ drowning and my inability, at 19, to properly mourn. When I wrote the last chapter, reflecting on survivor guilt and on my parents’ experience as I imagined it, the book acquired some gravitas, I think.
I spent most of my childhood on the ocean, and I very much relate to the coastline imagery depicted in your poem Walking North from your Horses and the Human Soul poetry collection. Can you tell me a little bit more about your connection to the sea and its place within your writing?
I grew up in Brighton, England, which is a seaside town. As a child I was taken often to the beach—a better beach, sandier than stony Brighton—to swim in the sea. My school stood high on a hill overlooking the sea. We would gaze out and speculate about seeing France from the library windows, but of course we couldn’t.
I lived and worked in Spain for three years and I fell utterly for the Mediterranean. My parents had lived in Barcelona for 20 years, leaving only when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, before I was born, but we always, as a family, retained a strong connection to Spain and eventually returned to the Costa Brava many times.
The first time I went to the Oregon coast in 1976, I made the trip on my very new motorcycle and joined two very new friends at Lincoln City. The expansiveness of empty sandy beaches was amazing. I fell in love with the sound of my bare feet in the sand. I tent-camped there and woke up to a hundred slugs all over the tent, making it seem as if it had caught a disease in the night. Later, I grew very interested in sea life, both human and nonhuman. I spent three weeks as writer-in-residence at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, where I talked with scientists who were studying whale songs.
Portland is further from the sea than I have ever lived. The pandemic time was the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing it. The sea, like horses, seems to creep into my poems without my noticing. It’s only when I’m working on putting the work together to make a book that I see how frequently both things occur.
Horses and the Human Soul is also deeply rooted in relationship with animals and the natural world. What place do they have in your life, and in your general body of work?
I had a horse when I was a teenager. I spent a lot of my life riding on the Downs and I’ve written about it. I believe that humans are animals, just like the animals we treat as servants. I support the legal work that is happening in an attempt to give nonhuman animals rights. I am currently somewhat engaged in writing a new memoir in which non humans play a significant role.
What would you consider the heyday of Portland’s poetry scene? When/where was it and what was the feeling of that atmosphere?
I suppose I agree with other “old-timers” who were part of the ’70s and ’80s poetry scene. Our community then was small enough that we pretty much all knew one another. We shared a feeling of creating something together and rejoiced in one another’s successes.
At that time, [the scene] was located in bars, taverns, Café Lena, and spaces that we poets rented for performances. My first public reading was at Satyricon, one of those Old Town taverns that held an open mike night. I took a group of women to support me, expecting hostility from men who might dislike my feminism, but to be honest I doubt they listened very carefully. I was reading to the front row, but it was important as a breakthrough for me. After that, I had a somewhat regular reading partner, with whom I put on events at the little theater in the old downtown YWCA. We would make flyers and announce our readings, to which we frequently got audiences of more than 100 people.
What advice can you offer to poets seeking to establish themselves and get published?
Read, read, read. Learn about the poets who paved the way. Study your art form. Love your art form. Don’t be preoccupied with having your say—be preoccupied with how you say it. Then send out to literary mags. Keep a systematic record of acceptances and refusals. Enjoy it for its own sake.
In your opinion, at what point in a writer’s career is it appropriate to broach memoir? Is there a certain experience level or age that should be reached before attempting it, or is memoir for everyone?
I don’t think there is an optimum age for tackling memoir. I think it helps if you’ve grown up a bit, resolved some issues, and can write a memoir with something of a dispassionate eye—not needing to exact revenge or to win any argument. But that moment may arrive at different ages for different writers. I also think—from personal experience—that it is a form that requires patience. It might be good to have acquired some of this beforehand. I say this as a poet whose friends in her first poetry group used to tell her that she expected her poems to revise themselves in the mail on the way to the magazine! Memoir is simply a narrative that’s true. It’s as much about the writing as the story. There are some brilliant memoirs from writers under 30.
Look forward to more interviews with the poets of Portland in Amy Leona Havin’s continuing Poet’s Q&A Series.