Graham Barnhart, poet and US Army veteran, spoke with managing editor and poetry editor Eric Smith while he was attending the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. When this episode was recorded in the summer of 2019, Barnhart was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and his debut collection of poems, The War Makes Everyone Lonely—written during his service as a Special Forces medic—was forthcoming.
The conversation begins with Barnhart’s poem “Collateral Rabbits,” which was the was published in the Summer 2019 issue of the Review. The poem’s occasion, Barnhart explains, came out of emergency close air support training in New Mexico, in which soldiers-in-training call down air support on practice targets set up in the desert: “I remember being really surprised actually being out there among these things and seeing how big these holes are,” Barnhart explains. “You just don’t have a sense of it unless you see it up close, which seems like a metaphor for military training and the military as a whole.”
Emblematic of Barnhart’s poetry is a crisp narrative energy and an efficiency with which lines and imagery can capitalize on structure to build tension, like the final line of the first stanza of “Collateral Rabbits”:
like the jackrabbits’
tendency to stiffen
in the magnitude
of headlights, looks
like fear, so I curb it.
The conversation moves through Barnhart’s origins as a writer: from recruit training to active deployment; from writing classes to writer’s conferences and readings; and includes authors, civilian and otherwise, he counts as his influences. Barnhart’s work and lived experience is invested in the possibilities and constraints of narrative as well as the capacity for fruitful tension found in poetry. “[In] traditional military war narrative—soldiers and innocent civilians—a young person goes, is trained, deployed, sees horrors, faces ethical quandaries and challenges, and comes back forever changed by those things,” he says. “But I think the idea that moments of extreme violence forever and inevitably change someone that dramatically in a way that fits with a climatic story arc rather than a, more of a, traumatic circling: I think that arc is false.” But in poetry, “there’s a certain accuracy in not being accurate, to working around a thing and to missing.”
The Sewanee Review Podcast is recorded in the Ralston Listening Room at the University of the South. It is produced by Hellen Wainaina and edited by Alex Martin with music by Annie Bowers. Don’t miss any of our conversations with some of today’s best writers. Subscribe to the Sewanee Review Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The War Makes Everyone Lonely is available for purchase from Bookshop.org or the University of Chicago Press.