by Jesper Andreasson | Contributing Writer
J. Mae Barizo writes with quiet power. In her second book of poetry, Tender Machines (Tupelo Press, 2023), she handles minimalist forms and expansive structures with equal skill. No matter the approach, Barizo always conveys a sense of profound feeling, exploring intimacy, loss, her immigrant ancestry, and motherhood. She balances this depth of feeling with the sober distance of reason, transforming Tender Machines into an examination of intuition and intellect, and how they impact (and skew) our perceptions of the world.
The settings of Barizo’s peripatetic poems move from Manhattan, to the Northern Mojave desert, and to the Philippine islands, where her parents emigrated from before she was born. Barizo grew up in rural Ontario before moving to New York City in 1999, where she attended a music conservatory and later, Bennington College. She is also the author of The Cumulus Effect (Four Way Books, 2015). She lives in Harlem, NY and is an MFA faculty member in Creative Writing at the New School.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Barizo about music, Manhattan and her new book, Tender Machines.
Jesper Andreasson (JA): Congratulations on Tender Machines, a very moving collection. Manhattan plays a large role in the book; it seems to simultaneously represent loneliness and comfort. How has the city shaped you as a writer?
J. Mae Barizo (JMB): I’ve lived in Manhattan since the end of 1999, when I came to the city as a student. I’ve watched Manhattan’s landscape change in profound ways—after 9-11 and during the pandemic. These kind of seismic shifts occurred as my artistic and familial life was also evolving. I fell in and out of love on these streets, became a mother, watched friends and colleagues leave or pass away. The city itself, while constantly changing, became a type of character in Tender Machines. I suppose the landscape became mythic in a way, mirroring eruptions and transformations in my own self.
JA: In “Small Essays on Disappearance,” you refer to the “geologic proportions of Manhattan: limestone, marble, malachite.” This evokes the mythic terrain of ancient cities, their grandeur and ultimate fates. Do you feel that the changing landscapes of the city altered the way artists and writers exist and create in New York City?
JMB: Definitely. For me, these ruptures in the fabric and life of the city created existential challenges that we are all still coming to terms with. After 9-11, I was very close to leaving; everyone I knew was operating under an almost unbearable scale of anxiety and grief. It took me years to begin to process that, in the poems. As the city healed, I began to interrogate, obliquely, my place in the city—which was constantly shifting and gentrifying—as a woman of color. During the pandemic as well, we all had to rethink our ways of communicating and expressing grief—from a distance. These poems came out of what seemed then like unnavigable spaces of longing and absence. I’m grateful for the close relationships that sustained me along the way.
JA: In my favorite poem of the book, “Woman Wakes in Another Time Zone,” you achieve a special kind of intimacy. The refrain “a staircase away” effectively suggests the distance between the two lovers. Did the repetition of that line come naturally in the first draft or was that something you worked in later?
JMB: I didn’t even notice that until you mentioned it! I think of poems as architecture; I often think about the innate structure or skeleton of a poem, ways in which we make that architecture ornate, or pare away at language’s extravagances. I’ve always aimed to strip language into a type of distillate. I’m a chronic reviser. But that poem came very quickly; it changed very little or not at all from its first draft. I used to teach writing at Parsons School of Design. We read texts by Juhani Pallasmaa, Michel De Certeau, Gins and Arakawa. Thinking constantly about the spatial poetics of a place, how that affected intimacy or comfort, probably bled into my creative work.
JA: Do you think minimalist approaches—in architecture and poetry—can create a barren sense of feeling if taken too far? Like a Brutalist structure, for example. How do you know you have put in just enough words to make an emotional connection with the reader?
JMB: Well, I happen to like Brutalism! So no, I don’t believe that minimalism equates with lack of emotion. I think of the work of the late poet Jean Valentine, who was a dear friend and mentor. I’ve always loved her elegant, sparse lyrics. I told her daughter, writer Rebecca Chace, that I wouldn’t be the writer I am without Jean’s influence. We also lived in the same neighborhood and I’d run into her every so often on Broadway. There is a deep regard for sensation and subtlety in her tiny poems.
JA: I sense that as well. I wouldn’t say that your work lacks emotion, but given the strong sense of reason in your poems, would you say you approach life through logic rather than intuition?
JMB: I’m a Libra. We’re diplomatic and tactful. We choose words carefully and are always obsessed with balance. Does that mean I’m a reasonable person? Maybe. Actually, I don’t think so. I find myself illogical and extravagant in my emotions, but maybe the poems are a way to temper that.
JA: We’re all completely unreasonable, don’t worry! You’re also a classically-trained pianist and violinist. In Rio Cortez’s blurb she wrote of “music and lyricism as twin pillars” in Tender Machines. Can you talk a little about the importance of music in your creative life?
JMB: I started playing music when I was four or five, and became a reclusive child who practiced four to six hours a day. This continued well into my adult life; I graduated from conservatory in New York City and worked as a musician for a long time. But the writing was always there, a type of shadow life to the one I led away from the page. It was as if I had two different types of languages, one to take over when the other one was inadequate. I’ve always felt blessed to have these two co-existing loves in my life.
JA: Does watching the world like an artist—capturing the details of a moment for the sake of writing it down later—make it easier or more difficult to stay present?
JMB: I always wish I was more present, in the happening. I think that’s the task of the poet, to reassemble the moment, to somehow reconstruct the world as we remember it. Honestly, I struggle with the every-day. It’s incredibly difficult to be constantly present—as a mother, a lover, a teacher. But I’m aware of it; and those roles are some of the most important in my life. But sometimes it’s easier for me to stay like that small child cloistered in a practice room, playing Bach and writing poems.
JA: A consistent theme is women carrying complex societal and familial responsibilities while pushing up against patriarchy—for example, in the poem, “The Mothers,” where women “must be water on the lips of flaming cities, quenching the husbands.” Do you feel that the expectations of women are legitimately changing?
JMB: Perhaps expectations are changing, but the internal pressure that women, and especially women of color, put on themselves in order to mold themselves into what public life or society expects of them is always present. Academic institutions, marriage, and even parenting are fraught with histories of inequality. It’s a daily challenge to challenge the fabric of institutionalized racism while acknowledging the historical richness of othered bodies. Part of writing is also acknowledging my own complicity and privilege, it’s a painful process, but a necessary one.
JA: Despite the profound experiential insight you display in Tender Machines, there’s also a charming, playful quality in the range of approaches and structures. How important is this playfulness to your work?
JMB: The poems go through dozens of revisions, especially if you take into consideration that some of these poems are decades old. At some point, it begins to be a type of language game–I’ve always been inspired by the propositions of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his Remarks on Colour, where you can see Wittgenstein arguing with himself as he writes. Also, in Joseph Albers Interaction of Color, we see that the book wasn’t simply his thoughts about color, it was an opportunity for him as an artist to experiment with language.
In many of my “experiments” or formally-restless configurations in Tender Machines I ended up returning to the sonnet, which was the first form I fell in love with as a young writer.
JA: In your opinion, what poets are offering an original direction in contemporary poetry?
JMB: I learn so much from my students at The New School. About social activism, media and technology, the possibilities of language. We also share book recommendations. Some of the books I’m reading now that signal exciting directions in poetry and transdisciplinary thinking are torrin a. greathouse’s Wound from a Mouth of a Wound, Lynn Xu’s And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight, and Sawaku Nayasaku’s Pink Waves.
JA: What do you think is the most important trait for a poet?
J. Mae Barizo, born in Toronto to Filipino immigrants, is the author of The Cumulus Effect and Tender Machines. Her recent writing appears in Poetry, Ploughshares, Esquire, Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris Review Daily, Boston Review, BookForum, among others. She teaches at The New School and lives in New York City. For more, please visit www.jmaebarizo.com.
Jesper Andreasson was born in Stockholm. His fiction and poetry appear in AGNI, Tupelo Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. Nominated for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize, he received his MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He lives in London. For more, please visit www.jesperandreasson.com.