Street Talk

Cameron Barnett

Cameron Barnett earned his MFA in poetry at The University of Pittsburgh, where he was poetry editor for Hot Metal Bridge literary magazine and co-coordinator of the Pitt Speakeasy Reading Series. His honors include the O’Donnell Award for Excellence in Poetry from Duquesne University and The Academy of American Poets Graduate Poetry Award from The University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he works as a middle school language arts teacher, and is an associate poetry editor for Pittsburgh Poetry Review. The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water is his first book.


“Slow Burn on a Long Candle”: The Work Writing Can Do. An Interview with Cameron Barnett by Jess Turner for Braddock Avenue Books


Braddock Avenue Books: The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water is your first book. How long did you work on this collection before it won the 2017 Rising Writer Prize at Autumn House Press?

Cameron Barnett: I worked on the poems in the book during the three years of my MFA at the University of Pittsburgh between 2013 and 2016, with a couple of exceptions: the oldest poem in the collection, “Nigger,” is a revision of a piece I first wrote in 2008; the newest three, “Redwoods in the Hood,” “Muriatic,” and “Fresh Prince” were all written after I graduated. The title and concept of the book came well after most of these poems were written too—that is, I didn’t quite realize what I was writing toward for a couple years until some key conversations with peers and mentors. I made some tweaks to it a few months after graduation and began sending it out. That’s how it found a home with Autumn House Press.

BAB: Water serves as a powerful presence in your book. It weaves together issues of race, society, childhood, and memory, functioning both literally and metaphorically. What exactly does water mean to you? Why did you choose it as a thread?

Barnett: In some ways I think the poems themselves are trying to answer that question, and never fully can. There is much more to water than we normally think about day to day, and that fact itself is one of the ways I wanted to complicate race in particular in the book. Water is life giving and essential, but either too little or too much of it and you’re in danger. As the book illustrates, water is central to many key memories I have as a kid, and I’ve been attracted to bodies of water my whole life. When I think of the cover and title, I also think of the voice of the narrator in general throughout the poems: how a drowning boy is, on the one hand, someone who has succumbed to his environment, who has misjudged it, who is at its mercy. On the other hand, I think of the calmness of the boy on the cover, the presence and authority he has as a “guide” to this thing that is consuming and killing him. The reliability of such a narrator echoes the complexity and fluidity of all the book’s major themes.

BAB: The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water references pop-culture in poems such as “No Flex Zone” and “Fresh Prince.” How do you find that these references served your project and facilitated your ability to find your voice?

Barnett:  Blackness is too often conceived of as a monolithic identity marker. For me, the first and biggest crack to make against this mindset is generational. The epigraphs and pop-culture references that appear in The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water are, I hope, little breadcrumbs that help indicate how I approach my own blackness, and therefore other forms of blackness as well. Hip hop is a pretty consistent breadcrumb throughout the book. “Fresh Prince” is a poem that explicitly wonders whether there exists a singular way of being black; “No Flex Zone” questions the excesses of contemporary rap and hip hop; “Country Grammar” wades into the ancient discussion on the use of the N-word. These are all things hip hop has been doing for decades, so I draw from that—the lyricism, beats, mood, and mentality of hip hop. This informs my voice. To me, it’s all a slow burn on a long candle that I’ve inherited. And since my generation has pushed the discussion of race into more complex spaces than ever before, in a sense race is pop-culture for us.

BAB: Structurally, your poetry takes on unique forms such as that in “Post-Racial America: A Pop Quiz.” Do you begin each poem with a particular form in mind or do you choose the form afterwards? Did other poets influence you?

Barnett:  I almost never begin a poem thinking about form. I start poems thinking of personality, and after the poem has grown I begin to shape the form to fit the personality I get from each piece. This isn’t always drastic or overtly visible. I’m very comfortable with couplets, tercets, and quatrains, and the decision to use one instead of the others has more to do with line break preferences than overall presentation of form. Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet whom I feel has influenced the personality of many of my poems, though the evidence is less in the forms and more in the language. “No Flex Zone” borrows formally from Kristin Naca, though from a distance the page looks more traditional. “Skin Theory” is a rare example of me trying to write with a certain form in mind, albeit a rather loose one. “Post-Racial America: A Pop Quiz” is a poem where the title came to me first, and the form followed. To be honest, I’m notoriously bad at math but I love the crossovers between the languages of mathematics and poetry. I was thinking of the Snap Tests we used to take in elementary school while I was writing that poem, so in that way I was coming from a place of form first.

BAB: Your collection explores personal experiences, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing awareness to both past and present racism in America and opposing the country’s “hand-me-down history.” How has poetry, as an art, helped you define and challenge racism? How do you believe that poetry can influence society?

Barnett:  Straight up—words matter. I teach this to my middle schoolers in language arts. I tell them that words are tools, that different tools have different uses and impacts, that tools can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, and so it’s important to master them. Poetry has taught me how to look carefully at the tools we use with, and against, one another. Poetry has taught me how to spot the prejudices of others and of myself. Poetry has taught me better languages of kindness for all people. Hatred is the things we call each other and say about one another. These become our worldviews, so there’s a pattern to be broken. Writing poetry has personally helped me find ways to outlet difficult thoughts about my identity, using and repurposing the tools of language to better understand myself. Reading poetry has taught me things I never would have learned left to my own devices, especially about histories of race and racism. I credit poetry with all of this, but any genre of writing can make it work for any number of people. But as a poet, I think this genre is best suited to influence society because poets work with large ideas in small spaces. Poetry can flip a person’s paradigm in a heartbeat in ways other forms can’t. Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote “You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences. How long is a good idea?” The work of poets is to put the best ideas in short, small spaces—a sentence, or even a word. In that sense, poetry is a tool itself. A powerful one that can flip paradigms of prejudice and inspire introspection. And that’s work worth doing.