John Barrale is winner of our first-ever chapbook contest. We put out a call for collections of transcendent poems and fell in love with Barrale's Poems for the Camel while reading them out loud. He joins us today for a short interview.
Why did you name this collection "Poems for the Camel?"
The title comes from the first poem in the collection, "By the Banks of the Nile." The poem tells of an imagined painting used by a 1700s French explorer to illustrate his lectures about the Nile. The painting depicts an itinerant Arab peddler, his wife, their infant child, and the camel carrying their goods as they are being attacked by a pack of hyenas.
The camel and what happens to it, and to the peddler and his family, represents the absolute indifference of existence. In spite of this, we, that is life, struggles to preserve itself even though the invariable outcome of life is death.
The poem's second part states the narrator's desire to change, if he only could, the inevitable outcome of what the painting depicts, and save the camel and the family.
I believe that one of art's most basic functions is to celebrate life (existence) and its struggle against death. How we, as humans, carry on and function and achieve greatness and create beauty, in spite of our knowledge that death exists is truly miraculous.
Music, painting, literature, theater, movies and poetry, in short all art, for me, is a celebration and act of defiance in the face of existence's indifference. All that I write is for the camel. We are all the camel.
You submitted your manuscript to our contest calling for "transcendent work," which I admit, as the contest runner, can be broadly interpreted, even a little opaque. What about your work made you say, "Yes, this collection of poems is resonant with that term."
Being a child in the early 1950s, at the dawn of the Television Age, I grew up with a magic box beaming another reality out to me. Some of my earliest memories were of cartoons. There, things were often not what they appeared to be. Instantly things transformed or morphed into other things and revealed a hidden, other reality. Animals talked. Trombones melted while crows played them. Koko the clown emerged from an inkwell. By age seven, I learned that there was an inner life within things. And, more often than not this was more interesting than ordinary way things were.
Of course, as a child, I wouldn't have understood any of this or even be able to express it. But I lived it! It was a perfect shaman-like state where individual consciousness was not so far apart at all from the world around us. Isn't early childhood just that? Then came school and instruction. I was taught endless rules and in a million ways that I was something apart form the world around me. Eden ended.
Flash ahead through a lifetime. Zoom through the psychedelic sixties (which I enjoyed and was a part of), and which reinforced that reality was often not just what it appeared to be. Then came the dull but all-too-necessary years of normalcy where a family was raised and a living made. Then I started writing poems again in 2006. I had written juvenilia in grammar school and in my first year of college but nothing after 1972.
Something changed, perhaps aging, with its surprising new freedoms let me see reality again with childlike. Things came out of themselves in surprising new ways. I was able to connect! The lost Eden was still there within me and not so far below the surface as before. The layers pealed back. I found myself a happy idiot again!
Was this transcendent? I don't really know. When I saw your call for submissions looking for transcendent work I wasn't sure what you meant. I looked up transcendent in my dictionary, and I liked the "coming out of" and the "going beyond the limit" definitions. So I thought my work might be a good fit
Returning to your Lost Eden found after so many years, you said "Things came out of themselves in surprising new ways." I'm curious as to how this enlivened perception (my mind is drawn to the Emerson's line "I clap my hands in infantine joy and amazement, before the first opening to me of this august magnificence, old with the love and homage of innumerable ages, young with the life of life") from his essay "Experience." Can you tell me a little bit more about how you find found yourself transferring those enlivened perceptions into language?
I believe the state of "infantile joy and amazement" that Emerson wrote about is our natural state and not the abnormal. Unfortunately, society tells us this state is unnatural, and something only for mystics or saints. Nothing is further from the truth. We are imbued with joy from birth. The artist is not exceptional in this. Society labels people who have tapped into this joy and express it as either artists or mystics. This gives them a place within society that is safe for society, a role and place where the artist or mystic can exist without threatening society's order. An order, I feel, which exist only when the natural state of joy is suppressed.
This separation rom the rest of society is for society's benefit and protection. Unbridled joy and being really connected to the metaphorical Eden we lost would make quite a few of society's rules and structures untenable. The sad joke in all of this is that the joyous state is not special and does flourish everywhere. We can't help but be what our nature is. Our true nature comes out despite our best efforts to put it aside and call it something special or abnormal. Doesn't a carpenter, or a baker, or a plumber tap into this joy every day when they create through their work? All of our lives have incredible moments of unbridled joy.
Once you realize some of this, and each of our individual experiences in getting there are as different as our individual lives are, it becomes very easy to transfer your own perceptions, enlivened or otherwise into language (poetry or writing), or music, or painting.
For myself, I began to do this "transferring" out of a deep loneliness. I don't know why, but even connected to this greater joy, I felt profoundly alone and even, sometimes, isolated. Like a shaman, I only wanted to run and tell my tribe about what I had felt and seen. It was almost impossible not to.