Peter Baroth lives in Media, Pennsylvania with his partner, the poet and professor Courtney Bambrick. He is a writer, visual artist, musician, and sometime editor. He’s recently published his first full-length book of poetry, Lost Autographs, with Moonstone Press. His poetry, short stories, and artwork have appeared in a variety of print and online journals including Philadelphia Poets, Mad Poets Review, Apiary, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and elsewhere. Baroth also published the novel Long Green with iUniverse in 2003 and three poetry chapbooks between 2001 and 2005 – Mounds of Sounds, Sessions, and Ski Oklahoma – all with Wordrunner. Of Baroth’s work, Mad Poets Review Editor Eileen D’Angelo has said: “It’s St. Louis. Oklahoma. Chicago. Philadelphia. It’s Blues and Jazz, Coltrane and Miles, dark glasses, smoky bars. All words and music rolled into one.”
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the poetry collection. Can you tell us about the book’s journey?
Peter Baroth: Although it really started out as a sort of “Best Of” collection of my work since my last book of poetry published in 2005, Lost Autographs developed a pretty definite autobiographical shape, or arc, as it evolved. The book is broken into three sections: “origins,” “end/beginning,” and “travels.” But this is actually something that came together after the fact – after I had written most or all of the poems that comprise it. And it happened almost as if my unconscious had been planning this structure. So, really by good fortune, I ended up having a manuscript in my hands which spoke to a family past, then through my youth and formal – as well as informal – education, and onto some of my adult experiences. And I feel pretty good about the way it fell together and also really good about the fact that a version of it was recognized as a finalist in the Mad Poets Joie de Vivre manuscript competition.
CS: What poets have had the biggest impacts on your work? What about their work speaks to you?
PB: Well, there is definitely the big “Beat” or “Jazz Poet” element to my work: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen being very influential. I think a lot of that has to do with the Beats’ place so immediately after WW II. Ferlinghetti served as a Commander of a submarine chaser during the war but emerged from the experience as an avowed Pacifist. To me, so many of the Beats were important in defining that great postwar consensus in the arts and culture which began to say, “no” racism and “no” to war because, I think, the creative community had directly or indirectly observed the worst in humanity in the war and so much of the human race was chastened. And here I was, born in 1963 in Hyde Park, Chicago into this emerging “mélange” of American sub-cultures. And it really wasn’t a reach to fall in love with – and be moved by – Jazz at that point. It was there. And the Beats embraced it. Embraced virtually all of life. Today, there is, perhaps understandably, more of a Balkanized cultural environment, but there, in the mid-‘60s there was this emerging organic smorgasbord that was America. The Beats weren’t perfect, no. And by ’68 I was living in Norman, Oklahoma – which is another chapter. But the Beats speak to what was really in my bones by age 5 – an inchoate loosening of the breath.
CS: I’m always curious about a writer’s process. Can you tell us a bit about yours? Do you write every day? In spurts? Do some pieces come easily while others need to be wrestled with for months or years?
PB: When I look back at the poetry that I wrote in my 20s, I think it really leaned toward the mystical and the visionary – and a sense of nostalgia, almost. I was kind of like a frustrated movie director but without the means or tech skills for film school. And I think that I did write in sort of spurts with the idea that the first “take” was the best. But taking workshops with Leonard Gontarek, Paul Martin, J.C. Todd, and the late Len Roberts really taught me the importance of incorporating revision. And while I’d always been a bit of a Luddite, using the computer – not to compose but to revise – helped me to work more intensively on one poem – with a little bit more of a work ethic – but still not more than three hours a time, max. More than that was one way to risk overworking. I did write every day for 5-8 hours when writing my novel back in the ‘90s. And what really prepared me for this was writing an honors thesis as an undergrad at Wash U in St. Louis. The thesis wasn’t necessarily a masterpiece but it did really stretch me and my prose writing through to a longer sort of form.
CS: I was drawn to your poem’s deeper backgrounds—their sense and utilization of history—not just personal histories but also the history of nations. Are you a history buff? What about this kind of background and deep focus appeals to you? What does it bring to your work?
PB: Well, I almost had to become a history buff in order to be able to write, at least the “origins” section, of Lost Autographs. My parents are both immigrants. My father came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1947 – Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. He got his Bachelor’s in Industrial Design and served as a naval officer – both in the U.S. My late mother, a gentile, who was nearly five years older than my father arrived in America in 1957 from Germany. She had worked at the American headquarters in Heidelberg and from what I understand, just sort of became fed up with German culture. They met and married in Chicago. At a certain point in my adolescence things started happening to me which heightened my curiousity about my family’s past, and more broadly, that of European history in general. And I found that, for instance, my maternal grandmother – a German non-conformist in the dangerous ‘30s – and my paternal grandfather, a Budapest lawyer ensconsed in the upper bourgeoisie who didn’t survive the war, were alive in the sense that they were holding messages for me. That if I understood their situations and historical contexts I would understand those messages better. So I majored in Literature and History in college and then went onto law school – that second part as sort of a way of following my grandfather’s footsteps. But one of the elements of these “messages” that I mention is that the world can be a very, very dangerous place. Whether you aspire to just “fit in” as a Hungarian professional or follow the path of rebellion and resistance, as my grandmother did (though she was also a pharmacist). My German grandmother actually died in a motorcycle accident well before the war. Studying history was a way of turning a corner and understanding these people. It became a task because turning that corner wasn’t just a physical corner on the way to Pop-pop’s house. I had to cross oceans to understand – maybe a little bit like Obama had to. Anyhow, I feel like this has endlessly enriched my writing as well as my self-understanding.
CS: Another aspect of your work that interested to me was your use of place and geography. Perhaps that goes hand-in-hand with the history angle, but I found it very grounding and satisfying. Is the use of this a conscious decision? Can you share what this adds to a poem?
PB: Part of my parents’ immigrant experience was that they were very curious about this new country that they had both come to. So they, along with my sister and me – did a lot of traveling in the United States. Moving to Oklahoma – where I lived from age five to 22 (minus time away at college) put us in the middle of the country which made the West accessible along with the East – where we had relatives – and the Midwest. Later on, since I skied, I went on a lot of ski trips to places like Colorado, Vermont, and Canada. Later on came Europe. When things aren’t going well for you in one place – such as when I failed the PA bar exam a number of times – it is a great salvation to travel in your mind to somewhere else. Somewhere where you might have memories. At times I’ve thought of myself as a bit of a drifter with a law degree. In this way it consciously and unconsciously seeps into my writing. And it can buoy you. If your day didn’t go very well in Philadelphia – or Media – it’s an escape to think about –or write about – the maid in Summit County, CO or the activist in St. Louis, or the musician – or the soccer game – back in Oklahoma, where I spent a lot of time driving around delivering pizza. Or the castle in Budapest. What this can add to a poem is that the “then” and the “somewhere else” can well become a subversion of the oppression of the here and now. And that is freedom – going places. I love maps – especially of the U.S. There is a message and a drama to them – and in another life I could well have become a geography professor.
CS: You write and publish fiction as well. I’m always fascinated by authors crossing genres. Which came first for you? How does your background in poetry influence your fiction—and vise versa?
PB: One thing that I haven’t touched on has been my art and my music. I grew up playing the cello and planning on being a professional artist or designer. Thus, I had a good bit of grounding in a couple of the arts before I started doing creative writing semi-seriously in high school. There I remember almost simultaneously writing a couple of short stories and getting poetry published in the Norman High School anthology Soupstone. But I mention music especially because I think that that background has influenced both my poetry and my fiction. A reviewer, Pat King, called the prose in my novel Long Green “musical.” I think that it was as a cellist that I first wrestled with the concept of virtuousity. Playing with vibrato, having an ear, playing through crescendos and diminuendos, bowing those exquisitely rich mid-range tones – the cello, with its Renaissance origins, is a beautiful instrument. And while I’ve played the cello maybe once in the past 35 years, it still influences, first, my poetry. And because I don’t think that my prose is ever completely divorced from poetry, it then influences my fiction. Plus, I think that I’ve written two line poems about huge things and long short stories about very small things.
CS: What’s next?
PB: I’m hoping to have a formal launch for Lost Autographs. And then maybe trying to set up a small tour to get the word out about it.
Curtis Smith’s latest books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Communion (essays, Dock Street Press). His next book, a series of essays about Slaughterhouse-Five, will be released by Ig Publishing this coming spring.