SHELDON LEE COMPTON: I’m going to be honest here: I’ve always thought of you, firstly, as a poet. You just hold a line so well and have just amazing instincts with a phrase. Where does “Rusty Barnes the poet” fit into your idea of yourself and your work?
RUSTY BARNES: I began writing as a poet and that’s still how I think of myself. It looks like I write a ton more fiction than I do poetry, but that’s because the poems come between longer fiction projects. Whenever I cool off or finish something long, the poems start to come, and I write them for as long as the Muse will hang out with me, then start another novel or novella. It rounds out to writing poems three months a year and two or three novel(las) a year. This is how it’s worked for the past three years anyway. I’m in a holding pattern—this one is requiring a lot of research—with my current novel, and it feels weird not to be writing poems, but I trust everything will even out pretty soon. It usually does.
SLC: On Broad Sound is, I think, some of your best poetry. In particular, the poem “Lamp” speaks most clearly about your adoptive frame of mind in Revere. How long have you lived in Revere and what was the timeline for writing the poems in this collection?
RB: I lived first in East Boston, then moved to Revere–a move of only a half-mile or so–17 or 18 years ago. With one or two exceptions, the poems were all written in 2015 and 2016. I run in spurts. I usually take a break from fiction and write poems twice a year or so.
SLC: Do you have a favorite poem in On Broad Sound? One that stands out for you? If so, what’s the story behind that piece?
RB: I do have a favorite. My wife and I have been together for 26 years and I’ve never quite captured the dynamic of our relationship or said the things I want to say about how much I value her as friend and lover and go-to for basically everything in my life. She’s my first reader for all my poems. Sometimes we sit across from each other or move to our various places on the couch and email drafts back and forth for a couple hours a night after the kids have gone to bed. During one of those sessions came the last poem in the book, “The View from Earth,” the first poem where I thought I might have captured those feelings which usually stay unsaid. So yeah.
SLC: I love that, man. I just reread the poem. It’s one I had bookmarked as a favorite. It’s a piece that honestly does seem to pour out emotion, like an actual stream of total love, devotion, and sort of an awe for the subject matter, your wife Heather in this case, of course. It’s beautiful, Rusty. It seriously is.
After reading this collection, I’m now going to have to visit Revere, Mass. You make me want to move and take up a residence there, visit the local restaurants, stand on the shore. It’s as if you infused these poems with a hint of how it must feel to live there and raise a family there and build up years with a woman who fills up your heart. I’ve known you now for more than a decade and have thought of you in many ways as a regional writer. Do you have the feeling you’ll revisit Revere as a locale or inspiration?
RB: Thanks Shel. You can come up and visit anytime. I’ll take you to the SeaWitch and we’ll grub out on some fine fresh seafood. I hope I’ve captured something of what it is about Revere I like. It’s working-class and immigrant-rich still, but slowly gentrifying, which is a mixed bag. Still, within 20 minutes–a short subway ride– you can be downtown amidst all the culture you’d ever want. There are readings almost every night if you want to do that, great restaurants and a cool indie scene in general. For us, it’s perfect.
I will revisit Revere. In fact, I have already. My next big project coming out is Knuckledragger, from Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books (October 2017) which takes place in Revere and surrounding towns, a book about a low-level Irish-type enforcer’s life, how he juggles his job and his women and gets in way over his head. I’m looking forward to seeing how folks like that, or whether readers will take to it knowing my past publication history, which is regional, as you say.
SLC: The SeaWitch and crashing a couple solid readings must be done. I remember telling you maybe a year or so ago that I had this vivid dream where I ended up at your house and, for some unknown reason, needed to crash there for awhile. You and Heather and the kids were awesome and took me in like family. I think I’m destined to visit Revere and hang with the Barnes family. And, of course, if you’re ever in spitting distance of Horseshoe Drive, you all need to stay for a bit on the farm. We’ll burn garbage and eat grilled ribs, just like good southern folk.
With mention of Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books and the focus here on On Broad Sound, I have to wonder if you’ll ever wed those two sides of your writing life – the poet and the crime writer. I know you’ve been laying down a mighty amount of pages and cranking out several crime/thriller titles, such as Ridgerunner (which was solid as all hell) and the upcoming Knuckledragger (which I’m sure will be the same) but, like you said, you keep poetry there in the foreground with you. Can we expect a crime poetry collection in the future? And wouldn’t that be something that hasn’t been done before? Maybe ever?
RB: I’d love to get down to Horseshoe Drive. Someday. . .
I honestly have never thought of a crime poetry collection. This is what I know about crime poetry from my contemporaries though. Tony Barnstone wrote a very good book called Pulp Sonnets, which doesn’t quite match up with crime poetry but is, as the title suggests, full of love for pulp fiction and movies of all kinds. Also, my friend, the poet Joshua Michael Stewart–you may know him from Facebook–has had a book of very good noir poems in progress for some time. I’ve read some of them and published a couple in Fried Chicken and Coffee. The Lineup: Poems on Crime, cofounded by another Facebook friend, Patrick Shawn Bagley, is a small anthology that’s still available. I imagine there’s still a market for something like that, albeit limited. You may have just found me my next poetry project, Shel!
As for questions I wish you’d asked. . .I dunno. Now, I’ve got ideas for a bunch of crime poems, though, and I want to thank you for putting that idea in my ear and for doing this interview. Always nice to chat with one of the good ones.
SLC: Same to you, Rusty. Thanks for talking, and keep me updated on that collection!
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RUSTY BARNES grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his B.A. from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his M.F.A. from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in over two hundred journals and anthologies. After editing fiction for the Beacon Street Review (now Redivider) and Zoetrope All-Story Extra, he co-founded Night Train, a literary journal which was featured in the Boston Globe, The New York Times, and on National Public Radio, ending its ten-year-run in February 2012, relaunching in 2014 long enough to do a best of anthology and one new print issue, ending its run (again) in 2015. Sunnyoutside Press published two collections of fiction, Breaking it Down and Mostly Redneck. MiPOesias published two chapbooks of poetry, Redneck Poems and Broke. Cruel Joke Press published his poetry collection, I Am Not Ariel in November 2013. Sunnyoutside Press published his novel, Reckoning, in March 2014. Ridgerunner, a crime novel, came out in May 2016 from 280 Steps. A follow-up to Ridgerunner, The Last Danger, will be published in Winter 2017. Also in 2017, Ravenwood Quarterly will publish a novel-in-stories titled Kraj: the Enforcer. His new poetry collection, On Broad Sound, is now available from Nixes Mate Press. His flash fiction appears in Best Small Fictions 2015, edited by Tara Masih and Robert Olen Butler.