Author Dorothy Barresi talks poetry, teaching

By Larissa Gula

For many students, the word poetry prompts bad memories of high school classes and anxiety at… For many students, the word poetry prompts bad memories of high school classes and anxiety at the idea of writing sappy love phrases.

But poetry remains alive and well, surviving as a literary form locally and on the Internet, according to author Dorothy Barresi.

Barresi is a professor of English at California State University, Northridge. She studied poetry in Pitt’s graduate program in 1980 and has published four books since 1991. The newest, “American Fanatics,” was released in August through the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her book has received praise for delving into the heart of American society.

Barresi looks back on her time at Pitt’s graduate school fondly, citing living away from home surrounded by writers as a phenomenal experience. Her style evolved through the graduate school program and her experiences afterward.

Today when she grades her students’ writing, the published poet tells them she knows that most of them have written poetry before, but that she wants to help their style reach a higher level.

“There are individual styles,” Barresi said of poetry. “There is an aesthetic bias you bring to a poem. I try to leave my bias out when I teach. I try to help the student write the best they can. Beginning poets need to know about economy, intensity, to create an image out of figurative language and to avoid a cliché. There are all kinds of things beginning poets need to know to take poetry to make a hobby an art.”

Barresi adored reading and language from a young age, collecting her writing — mostly fiction — in a journal. She fell in love with poetry after taking an undergraduate course.

“I was reading contemporary poetry for the first time,” she said. “It was a world of language and language play I didn’t even know existed.”

Today she continues to write and teach in a culture that is not always receptive to the art.

“I think poetry is mysterious,” Barresi said. “I think that’s one of the reasons the public backs away from something they perceive is challenging. It’s more of an instant culture that flashes and we get it. There are still thousands of people who love to lose themselves in language and get transported some place they didn’t expect to go. Poetry is lyrical and strange and takes us out of ourselves deep into ideas. So readers turn to get something they can’t get anywhere else.”

But Barresi stressed that poetry, in all its forms, remains an active component in society.

“I think thanks to spoken word performances and poetry slams that there is a[n] … audience for poetry that isn’t always acknowledged in the academic word,” she said. “I have students who go to slam events and spoken-word events downtown where there may be music playing. I think it’s healthy for poetry that there are also these other forms. They’re a little looser on the page and aren’t so literary, but it’s all about language.”

The Internet provides outlets for self-publishing as well, allowing anyone with a hobby and love for poetry to write and post their works.

“It takes poetry out of a precious, special place,” Barresi said of the method. “It shouldn’t be like opera. It should be a community event. I think all those nonliterary vendors are fantastic. It increases an audience and makes poetry more of people’s everyday lives.”

Poetry still sells fairly well, according to Maria Sticco, a publicist with the University of Pittsburgh Press. And there are, of course, plans to adapt to the market.

“We are trying to keep up, getting our books ready for electronic readers,” Sticco said. “We’re in the process of making things electronic. We don’t have a choice. You keep up with the trends.”

Before getting her book published, Barresi’s manuscript was reviewed by members of the University Press. When reading any submission, Sticco said, editors gravitate toward stronger styles that use technique and verse well and that have varied content.

“People try hard to be clever and tie in poetry with something happening in the news,” Sticco said. “They try too hard. There are different forms and definitions in poetry. There is a pattern to a lot of poetry — even in free verse. Even if a lot of our poets don’t go to grad school at first, authors may go back to validate themselves.”

The poetry community is very collaborative, Sticco said. She said she admires that Barresi often supports and works with other writers.

“They’re all looking for a chance for people to hear their work,” she said. “We just want to get the poetry out there.”

With her new book released, Barresi can reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of her work as she begins a new collection of poetry.

“If I were asking myself how my work has changed, I’d say I am more interested now in writing about the culture and writing about where America is right now,” she said. “I still write about myself that way, but I am interested in looking outward now and having an overlay of cultural examination or asking questions about where we’re at in the country right now. In the beginning I wrote a lot about family. I think my gaze has turned outward. I like that, because one can only write about one’s angst for so long.”