10 Questions for Christine Barkley
- By Edward Clifford
"I am a writer," and I hate this part. I am a writer, so I am grateful for the requisite third-person: she is a writer and she hates writing about herself.
This is her name. This is where she lives, and how. Here are a few facts that are true but safe, carefully chosen for mass appeal. This is how she wants to be seen.
—from "Third-Person Bio," Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My elementary school had an artist-in-residence program, and when I was in second grade my class worked with a local poet. One of our assignments was to write about a day of the week, so I wrote a poem about how Tuesdays are blue. At the time, I felt that I was being completely literal—I have synesthesia, so when I think “Tuesday,” I immediately see the color blue—but my teachers were really encouraging about following that line of thinking. Of course, now I understand that a lot of the things that people (myself included) think of as literal are actually very subjective. It wasn’t until high school, when I was able to do a creative writing independent study with my mentor, that I found my voice and motivation for writing. The poems that came out of those sessions were really formative; I was able to identify and build on themes that continue to influence my work today.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
When I first started really reading poetry in high school, I was obsessed with Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings, and Richard Siken—I spent a long time experimenting with each of their styles. Having settled into my own style as an adult, I’ve been hugely inspired by Maggie Smith (especially The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison), Louise Glück (Proofs and Theories, as well as her poetry), Paisley Rekdal, Anne Boyer, Adrienne Rich, and Marie Howe. Other writers who have inspired me to write in general (though our styles are not necessarily similar, and I fervently wish that I could write the way they do!) are Czesław Miłosz, Christina Davis, Howard Nemerov, Clarice Lispector, Oliver Sacks, David Markson, José Saramago, Shirley Jackson, and Rainer Maria Rilke. (It’s possible that I have tattoos of Miłosz and Rilke quotes.)
What did you want to be when you were young?
I always knew I wanted to work with animals in some capacity, and so I’ve worked in animal care since I was 13, when I started a pet-sitting business. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but soon realized that I was far too squeamish to be in charge of a surgery. Since then I’ve worked as a doggie day care counselor, an animal care technician, and a veterinary assistant. My chronic illness and disability have resulted in periods where I’ve been unable to work consistently—especially because I chose a very physically demanding career before I started experiencing the full extent of my symptoms, and long before diagnosis.
As I became more interested in psychology, I thought a lot about becoming an animal behaviorist. These days, I write about (and play with) animals more than I work with them.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I had only been submitting my work for publication for about six months, and I had just sent several packets of submissions. I always feel a little lost when it comes to writing cover letters. Do I keep it completely professional and objective, just a list of facts? Or do I try to endear myself to readers by revealing deeply personal information? Essentially I was feeling frustrated, and started writing about it. Pretty quickly, I recognized the feeling as one that I also experience when talking about my chronic illnesses. There is an immense pressure to explain myself—why I am exhausted all the time, why I get injured doing “normal” things, why I’m still so sick when I do everything that I’m supposed to do to manage my symptoms—and in explaining myself, I often feel invalidated, ashamed, and misunderstood. I’ve even gone through periods of denial where I didn’t believe my own body, and have had to “explain” my illness to myself. I’ve learned over the years that this is a really common chronic illness/disability experience.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I was born and raised in the suburbs just outside of Washington D.C., and moved away to the west coast as soon as I could. I love the family that I have there, but I do not love metropolitan areas. That move away from such a densely populated coast, and towards easily accessible wilderness, absolutely changed me as a person. The forests and mountains (and, sometimes, deserts) of the western states set the tone for most of my writing. I’ve driven across the country several times, so I’ve also been inspired by other types of landscapes—but they’re (almost) exclusively natural places.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I've tried to take the advice that I've seen so often—to spend a set amount of time writing every single day—but it just doesn't work for me. I need specific inspiration. To begin an essay or poem that resonates with me, I usually have to encounter a "problem"—a memory I can't shake (good or bad); a confusing or overwhelming situation—and try to process or "resolve" it, in a way, by reframing it in creative writing. If I sit down with the intention of writing without that internal conflict, I'm never satisfied with the result; it almost always feels trite. That may also be why I feel insecure about writing in a matter-of-fact way (like this)! The actual writing process always happens in the same place; on the living room couch. I need to have headphones on and my music playing, and then I’m completely immersed in writing for a solid hour or two or three. With a new piece, I also end up “reading” it over and over in my head and editing in ten- or twenty-minute bursts through the following days or weeks.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
First my partner, and then my mentor (who was also my creative writing teacher in high school). My partner is an immensely talented writer and orator, but since he is so close to the work I don’t expect truly “objective” feedback from him—it’s more about getting support and reassurance. When I’m feeling stuck on a particular piece, I bring it to my mentor. He always asks generative questions to help me move towards my intended meaning. He’s also really helpful when I’m unsure about different versions of a line or stanza. It’s difficult to take a step back when writing about deeply personal experiences. I get attached to certain phrases or feel that a particular word is more factually “true,” but ultimately it just doesn’t fit the overall feeling of the piece. I’m fairly protective of my work, ironically, until it’s out in the world for any stranger to see. My first readers are often the publications where I send my submissions. (That was the case for “Third-Person Bio,” actually; the MR readers/editors were among the first to see this piece.)
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’m so in awe of singer/songwriters, and composers and musicians in general; writing lyrical prose and non-rhyming poetry is difficult enough. I can’t even comprehend how someone can write lyrics and merge them with music, or juxtapose them with music! There are such layered, unexpected emotions in the combination of those two forms of art. As much as I adore, and am deeply moved by, the written word, nothing compares to how I feel while listening to my favorite music. If I can quote Louise Glück, from her essay on George Oppen: “To speak of what you love—not admire, not know to be good, not find reasonably interesting, not feel briefly moved by or charmed by—to speak of such work is difficult because the natural correlatives of awe and reverence are not verbal.” Maybe someday I’ll try to take a step into that field.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on some short essays and creative nonfiction, but my main focus now is my first full-length collection of poetry. I realize that it is ambitious for someone who hasn’t even produced a chapbook, but I feel strongly about the themes and the quality of work I have so far, and many of the poems have been published or are forthcoming. I’m nearly there, length-wise.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction recently, since I usually read novels and poetry. I’ve found new creative pathways by reading more about subjects that have always interested me, but that I’ve neglected since finishing school - literary/art theory, philosophy, biology, and neurology. I’m slowly working my way through The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick; re-reading all of Oliver Sacks’ work; and getting into the bibliographies of critics like Susan Sontag and John Berger. I’m also branching out into different types of fiction with more linear, plot-driven narratives (I generally gravitate more towards non-linear, experimental forms). But I’m also digging deeper into even more experimental forms! I’ll always have at least six books on my side table, one in my bag, some floating around in the bedroom or on the coffee table . . .
CHRISTINE BARKLEY is an artist and writer based in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing explores themes of chronic illness, trauma, and nature. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, Rust and Moth, Autofocus, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere.