Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: “Hateful When You’re Sober” is a very emotionally vulnerable poem, laying out plainly the speaker’s struggle with alcoholism. Are these emotions based in real experiences of yours or of people you know?
Tanner Barnes: The poem definitely comes from a real place within me. I am six months sober. The poem originates as a result of my brother and my roommate telling me that I have been much more hateful since I’ve gotten sober. When I was drinking, I was very isolated. I actually had a conversation with my brother where he was asking about my sobriety and he had no idea how bad it had actually gotten for me. I had to tell him that no one ever tells you the truth of it. No one just blatantly tells you “Hey man, I’m an alcoholic,” because that is not something that usually comes up in casual conversation. I found in myself that I wasn’t comfortable being honest about what I was doing during that time until I was comfortable with my sobriety. The climax of the poem comes from more of a feeling than an actual experience I had. I felt like I was driving myself straight into hell and if I kept going the brakes wouldn’t work. Luckily, I was able to get sober through the help of those around me. So in a roundabout way to answer your question, yes this poem does come from my real experiences and emotions in getting/being sober.
RR: The poem presents a rather bleak picture – but at the same time takes a rather cynical, humorous tone. Do you feel like humor is an important way to temper harsh emotions? Or does it function more as an emotional shield?
TB: Humor for me has always been a sort of balancing act to everything else going on the world around me. I feel like, in life, humor helps temper a lot of the darker side of humanity, but at the same time that tempering can act as a sort of emotional shield. For poetry specifically, I believe that you have to have humor in it to make it readable. If something is just dark and death and destruction, you’re going to have a hard time getting anyone to read it all the way through. And on the other side if it’s all light and happy, personally, I will be rolling my eyes about four lines in. Humor is a way to get humanity into a poem, really get the human experience in there on the page. Without that layer of temperament or shielding, it’s not going to connect with the reader. In this poem specifically, it is a way of tempering the harsh emotions. The poem comes from an honest place and the humor in it is used to open the reader to the bleak without just throwing in the deep end of the pool.
RR: In your biography, you list off a range of influences – Philip Levine, Frank O’Hara, Larry Levis – how do you see these poets in your own work?
TB: The harsh nature of this poem really connects with Phillip Levine’s work. I think my poetic voice leans towards his style. Larry Levis also has this sort of dark voice that really helped me learn how to begin to write in a way that I could tackle the subjects that I wanted to. You can’t really say Phillip Levine is an influence without also saying that Larry Levis is an influence, I think they just go hand in hand. My including O’Hara as one of my influences is from “Personism.” In the essay/manifesto, he lays out that a poem should be like a telephone call. This poem comes from that place. It’s what I wanted to say to the people that didn’t really see me at my darkest and wanted to know why I got sober. In a way, it’s also to myself to remind me why I got sober in the first place
RR: Also in your bio, you mention that you attend school in Florida. How has the unique landscape of Florida influenced your writing?
TB: Well, how do I say this, I am from Panama City, FL, which if you don’t know, took a direct impact from Hurricane Michael back in October. This devastation has completely changed my writing. My writing has drifted more to a darker tone as of late. This was the first poem I wrote after the hurricane where I didn’t directly address the hurricane. Most of my writing of these past months has dealt with the loss of home. It’s unreal to think that most of the places I grew up in are being torn down now, or were torn down in the storm. There are still roughly 3000 homeless directly as a result of the storm, and here we are 2 months later, and FEMA has pretty much given up helping.
RR: As a poet, what function does poetry hold for you? What about for contemporary society?
TB: I have been thinking about this question the longest. Honestly, I was stumped. But about an hour ago I was taking a walk and it came to me that poetry is my form of spirituality. It’s a way for me to connect with someone else who I have absolutely nothing in common with and to come out of the other side of reading their work and feel immediately closer to them. Some people feel a connection to the universe when they read certain Bible verses. For me, I feel the same connection when I read Howl.
Now, the second part, okay. I had a conversation with a friend recently where he hit this point that poetry was the quiet art within society, and I completely agreed with him. In our present day, we have so much noise that poetry kind of gets muted. Not too many people hear it. It is something you have to search out. It is an art for those that are looking for a deeper meaning, something beyond the superficial. With that being said, I would say that its role in society is subjective. If you go to a conference with a bunch of other poets, of course, you’re going to walk out saying that poetry plays a large role in society. But if you go to a small rural town, you might be lucky to find one person that keeps up with contemporary poetry.
Tanner Barnes’ work in Issue 6.1: