Michael Hettich interviews Mildred Barya
"...a relentless attempt to express the inexpressible."
I met Mildred Barya a little more than two years ago, when we read together at Asheville Wordfest. I was moved deeply by her reading, by the gentle clarity of her responses to audience questions, and by her forthright commitment to environmental and social justice. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to one of her classes and of presenting my work for the reading series she curates. But I knew little about her background as a person and her practice as a writer, among other things. I proposed the following interview for precisely those reasons.
This interview was conducted by email during the months of March & April, 2021, while Mildred was busy with her teaching duties at the University of North Carolina/Asheville.
MH You’ve told me that your earliest serious mentor in creative writing was Ayi Kwei Armah. Can you describe how you met him and give us some sense of the experience of working with him? What kind of mentor was he?
MB I first "met" Armah on the pages of his books. His first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, had a profound impact on me and is still regarded by many as one of the finest books to tackle the predicament and complexity of the post-independence era in Ghana and Africa at large. In person, we met in early 2005 at a Kwani writers’ conference organized by the late Binyavanga Wainaina in Nairobi, Kenya. I was enthralled to see him, couldn’t believe how lucky I really was that I got to be in his presence and hear him address us calmly and eloquently. During coffee break, I could not contain the wellness of joy babbling all over my body, so I approached him, and the curious journalist in me started asking questions. He told me that he was in the process of establishing an African writers’ residency in Popenguine, Senegal, where he lives, and he would mentor young writers in the art of novel writing. At the time, I was writing a novel and imagined what a great opportunity it would be if I was a successful applicant for his mentoring program.
We kept in touch after I returned to Uganda. In early 2006, I saw the call for applications—seeking aspiring writers from across Africa. Only four people would be selected. What chance did I have? Still, I applied. I was working with Ernst & Young as the Human Resources Advisor then, after completing a master’s degree in Organizational
Psychology at Makerere University. I got immersed in work and eventually stopped thinking about the writers’ residency. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later I received news of acceptance along with three other fellows from Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. I left EY, a lucrative job, to pursue the unknown. For nine months we wrote and workshopped our novels with Armah. He read everything and advised us accordingly—we were all apprenticed to him—and that was my first long and immersive engagement with craft. The environment was warm, inspiring and very professional. After nine months in Popenguine, I had a good draft of 603-page novel.
MH You earned your M.F.A. at Syracuse—and I assume it was in poetry. Can you describe the program as it was when you were there? How difficult was the transition from your work with Ayi Kwei Armah in Popenguine, Senegal to cold and gray Syracuse? I wonder about the cultural disruptions and transitions of that period for you. Did you find any particular mentors there?
MB My MFA was actually in Fiction, although I took workshop courses in all genres. The program was open in the sense that you had to take more workshop classes in your admitted genre, but in no way were we limited to take courses in other genres. Again, I had incredible mentors—Arthur Flowers—a griot from Memphis reminded me of the griot performances I had watched in Dakar, where I moved after. my nine-months writing residency in Popenguine ended. It was while I was in Dakar that I began to think about attending the MFA program in the US. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Less Taken explains my circumstances best in this one line: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way”.
At Syracuse I had George Saunders as my advisor and worked closely with him on a collection of short stories for my thesis project. Mary Karr’s memoir class was also eye-opening, and I took several poetry courses with Michael Burkard, Chris Kennedy, and Bruce Smith. My transition to Syracuse was made smooth by these compassionate and wonderful writers. I’ve maintained close communication with most of them and once in a while we meet in person. Arthur Flowers, for instance, was one of our MLK Guest speakers at UNCA in February 2020. Bruce visited my high school in Birmingham, Alabama where I taught for a year in 2013. It turned out that he knew two folks—one of the instructors in creative writing, and also the chair of the Creative Writing Department who hired me. Bruce had previously taught them in the MFA program at the University of Alabama before he moved to Syracuse in 2002. That’s how broad and small my writing world has been. Other than the harsh weather, the program at Syracuse was right for me.
MH And finally, at least as far as your education goes, I wonder the same things about your time in Denver. I know we’ve shared the fact that I got my MA at Denver University, studying under Burton Raffel and John Williams. Did you find any particular influences in the Ph.D. program? Was Bin Ramke there when you were?
MB Funny you should mention Bin; he was my primary dissertation advisor, so he got to read a lot of my poetry. My dissertation was in poetry framed within a long critical introduction on the poetics of home and the diaspora. Unlike Syracuse, where I had gone not knowing what to expect, Denver was remotely familiar from the country songs of John Denver that my father and I loved listening to when I was growing up. Secretly, I nursed a desire to see the Rockies for myself. I loved hiking in the mountains and camping in summer. The blue skies were also a relief. No matter how cold it got, we always had blue skies. Nowadays I choose my locations based on how blue the skies are.
What I appreciated most about the Ph.D. program has to do with how experimental and innovative it was—that spoke to me because I do not know how to exist in one genre, and traditional forms, however exciting they may be, don’t hold my fascination for long. I always like to mix things up a bit, so at DU I could invent and do whatever I wanted. I feel like hybrid genres can absorb all that life contains, while still highlighting the poetic, narrative, anti-narrative, and/or dramatic experiences typical of life. The opening or openness to form is what I particularly found liberating.
MH Now, to shift a little to your life and work today. What’s your current practice in poetry? Do you write every day? How do you keep the spirit of poetry alive within you?
MB Poetry is how I pay myself first. One of David Bach’s books on creating financial freedom mentions paying yourself first by putting 10% of your monthly earnings in a retirement fund. (Since we all know what a booming business poetry is!) I dedicate the first hour of my morning to the practice of poetry, either by reading, writing, or meditating upon it. In this regard, I think that poetry and prayer have a lot in common. Whenever I skip a day without paying myself first with a poem, I end up in a less joyful state. I’ve always felt that writing in general is a sacred art form because we use words and sound—the origin of all creation. Nowadays I’ve taken that belief a notch higher, and overall I am definitely good company after a dose of writing/creating. My partner says that I am a danger to myself and others around me whenever I step out of writing communion for long. I think that says a lot, because it speaks to the possibility of existing in a state of writing, whether one is actually writing or not. The closest analogy that comes to mind is the idea of abundance—what it’s like to be in a state of abundance versus manifestation of abundance in what we call “reality.” I know some people that would be categorized as poor, yet they exude a sense or perpetual state of abundance. I also know people who from a material perspective are financially blessed but give off too much poverty vibe.
MH What poets have most influenced you? What poets mean the most to you now, both as a practicing poet and as a human being? Do you think any particular “schools” of poetry have been more amenable to you than others?
MB The Ugandan poets, Susan Kiguli and the late Okot p’Bitek were foundational to my becoming a poet. When I was an undergrad student, Susan Kiguli introduced me to the poetry of Jack Mapanje (Malawian) and it sparked a fire in me, then the visionary Blake, Coleridge, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Dennis Brutus, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, Claude McKay, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, T. S Eliot, and Maya Angelou. Each week we’d read tons of poems from writers across the world. When I look back, I realize what a great and rich education my undergraduate experience was at Makerere University. I was shocked when I came to the United States and discovered that some of my peers didn’t know any poets outside White American literature. This still jolts me when I realize the narrow scope of literature studies that students in our institutions have been exposed to. Milan Kundera has an essay on this—World Literature—how small nations tend to study all there is about large nations and themselves, while citizens of large nations tend to not go beyond their noses. According to Kundera, “The large nations resist the Goethean idea of world literature because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere.” Kundera quotes what Kazimierz Brandys says in his Paris Notebooks: 1985–87, “that the French student has greater gaps in his knowledge of world culture than the Polish student, but he can get away with it, for his own culture contains more or less all the aspects, all the possibilities and phases, of the world’s evolution.” I think this is similar to what I’ve encountered here.
Nowadays, the poets that mean the most to me are those in touch with the numinous or mystical experiences like Rainer Maria Rilke. I’m also fond of animal poems—I have a whole unpublished collection featuring the animals around me—the basis of which is my reverence for all forms of life. Your poems too, Michael, acknowledge the importance of kinship with our animals and planet, so I have you next to Mary Oliver. Other poets I’m rereading include Gabeba Baderoon, Ai Ogawa, Ross Gay, and Tyehimba Jess.
MH Have you ever translated poetry? If so, please discuss the process and tell us how you think the discipline of translating has affected your own original work.
MB I have translated trickster tales from my mother tongue, Runyankole Rukiga into English, but not poetry. However, whenever I’m writing and want to use fresh images in my poems, I switch to thinking in Rukiga because it’s the best way for me to tap into the rich vocabulary and idioms of my culture. When incorporated into English, they come across as original and organic. Besides, they force me to think of their equivalent in English, so I think it’s safe for me to say that my writing is a form of translation. Assuming that I didn’t have knowledge of other languages, it would still seem to me that the act of writing involves translating thoughts to make sure they make sense on the page.
Translating is the closest thing to creative writing. It is in fact creative writing. There are several schools of translation theory but they all meet at a creative point that allows the translator to improvise by thinking mostly about the culture in which the translated text will emerge rather than the one from which the text originates. Diction, for instance, distinguishes a good translation from a bad one. It’s also a major characteristic of good writing. What I take away from translation theory is that the work or text should be intelligible and meaningful. The intelligible follows logic and the meaningful creativity.
MH Please describe the process of revision as you typically experience—or engage—it.
MB George Saunders says revision is love in progress, and I agree. I write freely without stopping to think too much, but after I have the first draft, that’s when I read it with revision in mind, sentence by sentence or line by line to make sure the sequence is right, then diction and tone. I like to put the work aside and give it time to grow in the dark, then return to it after a week or month, and that’s when I work on the musicality and fall in love all over again. At some point I read it out loud—ears are good editors—they’ll detect what the eyes may not see. After the second or third round, I eat the work to feel how it tastes—how it settles in my body. If it gives me indigestion or some other discomfort, I know it’s not ready. If it leaves me feeling fresh as if I’ve just peeled and eaten a sweet orange, or it fills me up like steak and potatoes, I know I’m getting somewhere.
MH How do you typically organize a manuscript of your poetry? What I mean here is, how do you make something that has the coherence of a book, rather than just a group of poems with a title. How do you create something larger than the sum of its parts, something with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end?
MB After I’ve written over 60 pages, I write a brief synopsis or blurb to inform me of the manuscript’s essence, which then gives me a sense of what the majority of my poems are really about in terms of themes or subject matter. From there, I categorize the poems from first to last, following the arc, but also determining how to balance the prose poems with verse, that sort of thing. The last organization involves flow. I need to feel the manuscript’s fluidity as the running thread—ease and grace.
MH You currently live in Asheville, which is right down the road from Black Mountain, home of the renowned Black Mountain College and the Black Mountain School of Poetry, comprising such figures as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and Edward Dorn. These poets are famous in part for having extended William Carlos Williams’s call for a poetry written in the “American” language. As someone coming from a tradition outside the “American” tradition, what influence, if any, have these aesthetic ideas had on your practice. What does “American” poetry mean to you?
MB These poets are heavy on image and improvisation, which I favor myself because that approach is experimental; it’s not about getting it right all the time or insisting on a particular form, but rather staying open to the creative process itself. The art of craft, which we favor in creative writing to shape content, throws borders like “American poetry” out of the window. The cultural content may be American, if we figure out what that means, but the way craft is executed in the work may not be different from the way a Jamaican writer demonstrates craft. I’m teaching a course in World Literature at the moment focusing on African Poetry. After analyzing three full poetry collections and an anthology of about 400 pages, I set a trap question to my students and they cleverly avoided it: “What makes African Poetry different from other kinds of regional poets you’re familiar with?” It forced them to respond from a comparative perspective, pitting craft elements against craft elements, and thematic issues dealing with the continent versus the diaspora. Although some things were distinct, like a community or outward focus v. individualized self/thinking, a lot crisscrossed, which is on point to what you’re raising here. It used to be that Ethnic literature wasn’t talked about in terms of merit or craft, but I think that is changing, especially with the likes of us in the classroom. Also, American poetry is diverse if one is looking beyond the canon or what’s commonly taught in the classroom. Sharp differences only emerge when white male poetry of a particular period is emphasized over and over as if it’s the only American poetry that counts.
MH As a corollary to the previous question, shouldn’t we best think of American poetry as embracing as wide a range of voices and practices as there are voices and cultures in American life itself?
MB Yes, exactly.
MH How important to you is understanding what a poem means? To what extent should good poems resist paraphrase?
MB I think it would help poetry readers to ask themselves what kind of understanding they’re bringing into a poem rather than thinking that they’re coming into it without any knowledge or preconceived notions. I’m particularly interested in how we read as opposed to what; how we ingest and process information or the world around us, which involves poems, which means that we most likely see things in a poem that the author didn’t put there, and that should be fun, instead of deliberating one possible meaning.
MH What role, if any, does politics play in your work?
MB In the sense that the personal is political and vice-versa. I’m not sure if it’s possible to talk about one’s identity, a writer’s identity, without seeing how it engages the political.
MH I know you write prose as well as poetry. Can you briefly discuss the differences you find in the process of composition of poetry versus prose?
MB I need more time, planning and structure for prose. More thinking space and a large desk. Probably some candles, sage burning, Duke Ellington in the background. A glass of water or a pot of tea and wide windows. The process is elaborate. Poetry is more merciful in its offerings. It shows up when I’m taking a shower or working on a prose piece. It comes to me while I court prose. Nowadays poetry happens when I’m running. I don’t know if it’s the sound of my feet crunching leaves or coming into contact with the ground that brings it on, so I memorize the lines and continue running. The funny thing is that I run to get away from thinking, so I’ve been surprised to find that when I do succeed in getting out of my head, poetry appears, which implies that it’s coming from somewhere other than my head, and frankly, that’s a relief.
MH Finally, what quality do you think most distinguishes you as a writer?
MB Persistence and a relentless attempt to express the inexpressible.
Mildred K. Barya is a writer from Uganda and assistant professor at UNC-Asheville, where she teaches creative writing and world literature. Her publications include three poetry books as well as prose, poems or hybrids forthcoming or published in Shenandoah, Tin House, Obsidian, poets.org, Poetry Quarterly, Asymptote Journal, Matters of Feminist Practice Anthology, Prairie Schooner, New Daughters of Africa International Anthology, Per Contra, and Northeast Review. She’s at work on a collection of nonfiction, and one of the essays—Being Here in This Body—won the 2020 Linda Flowers Literary Award, and is forthcoming in the North Carolina Literary Review, 2021. She received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Denver, an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, and a B.A. in Literature, from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.. She is a board member of the African Writers Trust, and coordinates the Poetrio Reading Events at Malaprop’s Independent Bookstore/Café in Asheville. Visit her blog: http://mildredbarya.com/
photograph: Todd Crawford
Michael Hettich has published ten books and a dozen chapbooks of poetry, most recently TO START AN ORCHARD, which was published in September, 2019. His work has appeared in such journals as TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Orion, Prairie Schooner and Terrain.com. He lives with his family in Black Mountain, NC. His website is michaelhettich.com.