He’s been interested in poetry from a young age but pinpointing exactly when and why that spark ignited in Walter Bargen would have him going back more than 60 years. It could’ve been that shameful day in the eighth grade: Bargen’s English teacher was fed up with the class and had them write “adult sentences,” only to exasperatingly throw them into the air knowing no 12-year-old would have any clue what an adult sentence was. It’s also possible that the catalyst was the dark, alliterative poem he wrote in high school which detailed “seasick swaying trees." Whatever it might’ve been, it led Bargen to have the honor of serving as Missouri’s first poet laureate from 2008 to 2009.
Friends, such as Matt Dube, appreciate Bargen’s sense of humor as well as his strong sense of the absurd, and they recognize it in his writing. “He’s very good at presenting a particular perspective on the human experience,” Dube says. “I think it’s a valuable perspective that he gives us.”
His newest work Pole Dancing in the Nightclub of God flexes his ability to reach deep into absurdity. Bargen takes biblical characters who lived thousands of years ago and launches them into modernity.
Bargen’s poems and prose are a reflection of him, unique and impossible to duplicate.
How did you get into poetry?
I taught myself, because at the time, poetry was not really part of the curriculum. I think poetry is better learned through the experience of reading poetry. I learned how to write poetry by reading poetry, not by being taught. Reading is the best teacher of poetry.
What inspired you to use biblical characters in Pole Dancing in the Nightclub of God?
One way to bring a certain level of profundity to your writing is to take up well known characters and use them because they come with a whole trainload of baggage that everyone knows. So I take up Adam and Eve in the first section of Pole Dancing in the Nightclub of God, and there’s so much I don’t have to explain because everybody knows it. It gives us a greater depth and actually greater surprise because it’s so different from what they know and expect.
Do you have a favorite poem from this book?
God’s Juice, which is about Moses. He goes into an Egyptian pole barn — by the way, that’s where the title comes from, pole-dancing — where there is an aluminum pole, and that’s where he practices pole-dancing. His audience, you know, are a bunch of Holsteins.
Was there a poem you found came easily to you?
Local Prophet Says Everything Must Go. It happened because it had a certain rhythm to it. It was just easy to fill in with what caught my attention; it ends, I think, rather humorously. So he goes through his list: “OK, no bushel basket of fermenting apples, no spider-cracked sidewalk, no catawampus telephone poles, no used car lot, no embryonic scrap-metal business, so this is all I have left, prophecies I’ve made, good and bad, though mostly bad…”
You’ve produced more than 20 books. What is the publishing process like for you?
Writing the poem is the most exciting because that’s where I’m making discoveries. Revising is also rewarding because I continue to make discoveries about what works and what’s really not working and coming up with new ways of saying things. Trying to get a book published is a whole lot of work. Then, when a book arrives on my desk, I can’t look at it; I’m just exhausted by it. But then sometime later, I will pick it up and I will go, “I wish I could write as good as that guy did,” because generally speaking, whenever I’m writing something, even though I’m making discoveries and that’s exciting, I often don’t like what I write.
Are you working on anything new?
I have a new book coming out called You Wounded Miracle. I’ve never had the opportunity to publish a book like this. It contains over 60 photographs, all but five of them taken by me. It’s in color, and it’s matched with 60 poems.