Brass Atoms: An Interview with Samuel Rafael Barber | Jon Riccio

36 mins read

Jon Riccio: I was thrilled to learn of your chapbook Thousands of Shredded Scraps of Paper Located Across Five Landfills, That if Pieced Together Form a Message, published as Volume 40 of The Cupboard Pamphlet, edited by Todd Seabrook and Kelly Dulaney. Congratulations on being among such catalogue-mates as Christopher Shipman, Lily Hoang, and Kelsie Hahn. Some of my marginalia for your work includes: disease rates; Greta bed & breakfast; rumor/lore; newspaper reporter; clandestiny; collective bargaining; and Frackenpohl, which sounds traumatic to the earth but in reality is a recently deceased composer who wrote the Concertino for Tuba and Strings, low brass on the brain as Thousands . . . takes place in Tuba City, Arizona. Each section—whether a three-page quest to procure the yearbook affiliations of an arsonist or a four-line message from the Social Security Administration—offers an annotator’s trove whose logos harmonizes with ethos, producing literary chamber music, pathos the bass notes that keep our engagement on-key. How did you go about orchestrating such elements as mortality statistics, tourism, voicemail, and investigative journalism?

Samuel Rafael Barber: I’ve been sufficiently lucky to often find myself surrounded by artists like yourself, Jon, who enter into the literary realm with sophisticated understandings of how music operates, conceptually. So I’m knowingly nodding to your characterization of the experience of the text through the extended metaphor of literary chamber music, provided there are no follow-up questions (if so, I’m sorry to inform you that I have no choice but to abandon this interview, and perhaps literary production as well). In any case, we live in a world subsumed by documentation. Applying for financial aid or demonstrating the work requirement for SNAP is just the tip of the iceberg (now lost to climate change and commemorated with a plaque and eulogy by Icelandic scientists). Each of these forms of documentation is individually inadequate in providing proof (whatever that means, at this moment in human history) of the conspiracy, and their assemblage into a coherent narrative is troubled by the lack of apparent motivation. Like, the FBI infiltrated the civil rights movement through COINTELPRO, bombing churches and assassinating community leaders like Fred Hampton and attempting to blackmail MLK Jr. into committing suicide in order to undermine the codification of racial equality in the law. Hoover and those of his stratum were willing to do this in order to maintain their power. The covert testing of the effects of radiation on American civilian populations, meanwhile, seems to strike people as especially capricious, anecdotally at least. People have a harder time rationalizing, fitting it into their worldview. Reading Arendt’s dispatches, or about Operation Paperclip, is clarifying.

JR: “Demographics” finds the protagonist Guadalupe Rivera at a Tuba City saloon where she “[rants] and [raves] about the legacy of John Collier’s Indian Reorganization Act” intended to give indigenous persons greater self-governing autonomy. Rivera raises our awareness of “The frailty of John Locke’s defense of private property. The benefits of speaking directly into a tape recorder with no regard for premeditated thought.” The proximity of Locke—who said “Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself.” (Second Treatise of Government)—to a tape recorder’s cassette that owns whatever the voice distributes, said in a city with a predominantly Navajo population, is layered in irony and historic wrongdoing, both drawn to the section’s closing sentence, “Reparative justice is the name and seizing the means of production is the game.” What aspects of Thousands . . . aid in this seizure?

SRB: If I’ve learned anything from the Stop Kony campaign that ravaged my college campus in 2011, it’s that raising awareness is a dead end, unless you’re providing sexual education information sessions as a part of a network of health clinics serving marginalized communities who’ve been neglected by fruitless policy asking for people to abstain from rubbing their parts together in ways that feel nice. This is a thoughtful question built upon a really generous reading. I’m not sure this text is rendering any sort of aid. It’s not for me to know, in any case. I think you’ve convinced me to title my next book Jeff Bezos Says He Has So Much Money He Doesn’t Know How to Spend It All, or perhaps It’s Time to Pack the Supreme Court to Combat Voter Suppression and Partisan Gerrymandering since many people seem to stock their personal shelves with the equivalent of Gatsby’s uncut books for the sake of appearances. Perhaps I can help radicalize some poor man or woman or child bored to death at some dinner party somewhere, as their eyes make their way to such a spine.

JR: In “Driving Through Town” we literally dial into conspiracy—“There is not a single local radio station, though it has been said that there exists a particular iteration of static unlike any other

(within the state, at least) if one tunes a radio to exactly 99.9 FM.” Suspicions of covert activity

echo in “the genuinely peculiar oscillating tenor of this static to this institution’s perversely routine dismantling of the Fourth Amendment.” How might the multiple definitions of frequency serve as guideposts for Thousands’ . . . subject matter?

SRB: I confess (to everything) that I hadn’t been thinking about this until considering your question, but I’ve frequently been intrigued by that episode where Dan Rather was assaulted by two men who continually asked him, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” an inscrutable question which comes, of course, from an all-encompassing familiarity with various stories by Donald Barthelme, as we all know thanks to Paul Limbert Altman’s essay for Harper’s. The suggestibility of conspiracy is what both tantalizes and confines. Pattern recognition is one of the most crucial skills humans possess, but as we all know from the classic Jim Carey film The Number 23 and that guy who regularly hangs out in Providence, Rhode Island’s Burnside Park with wonderful pamphlets warning of the dangers of chemtrails, the frequency with which we misattribute random bits of data as cohering to some obfuscated narrative leads to a slippery slope created by the melting of that iceberg I mentioned above.

What I’m trying (and failing) to say, Jon, is that I enjoy lingual play, and I fear the violence done to meaning through various rote forms or manifestations of symbology, and I enjoy providing readers with the opportunity to identify their own patternings within the echoes and recursion. Privileging the interpretative possibility latent within the readerly imagination is vital to the art I find compelling, and so it is also my alibi for claiming ignorance, here.

JR: Where else but a “monolithic room” would tubas gestate (“Tour of the Tuba Factory”)? Employees are kept on a short tether, visits to the water cooler allowed once every three hours. Lockers and locks may be rented for five dollars an hour. The anonymous foreman describes their director as “An uncompromising negotiator, a relentless authoritative presence. We have all read Marx, after all.” What Marxist characteristics are required by Guadalupe’s role as observer-disseminator?

SRB: I’ve clearly spent too much time reading about the material conditions in Amazon warehouse facilities. It’s out of a Marxist fever dream: the peeing in water bottles to avoid docked pay because the walk to and from the bathroom is a twenty-minute ordeal, the constant surveillance and (unpaid) half hour spent in line to have your body searched for inventory at the beginning and end of every day, that workplace accidents are twice as frequent there as the national average, and how the head of Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration conspired with Amazon to reverse the findings of its official investigation into Phillip Lee Terry’s workplace death due to company negligence in order to entice Amazon to locate its HQ2 expansion within the state. I’ve never had to clock in at a place of employment, and it astounds me how commonplace this is for the people in my life. I’d like to think I could never tolerate such a state of affairs, but Capital knows just how amenable I’d (need to) be. Adorno’s essay “Free Time” changed my life, in that it changed how I viewed the tension between autonomy and socially-derived obligation. Wait a second, has Amazon started paying taxes yet??

But Lupe is just a human being trying to live a quiet life of dignity in accordance with values she holds as non-negotiable. Not unlike a baseball umpire, she’s calling it as she sees it: balls and strikes and wage slavery and all. This is rather rare within journalism of scale, unfortunately. Have you ever watched the White House Correspondent’s dinner? Do you remember how they laughed when Obama joked about drone bombing those foolish enough to ask his daughters out for a date? Her character could only work at a local paper, these days, one of the few left unravaged by private equity. We’ve all internalized the bootstraps rhetoric, and everyone wants to be self-reliant, but it doesn’t take Marx to recognize we’ve lost the thread (or, rather, the thread has been hidden from us, likely in a more or less identical monolithic room).

JR: Equipped with voice modulator, a source of Guadalupe’s broaches the Damoclean blade of worker displacement due to technology—“. . . those in denial regarding their value within this enterprise given the dynamics of the labor market in post-Reagan America. Within five years their jobs will be automated, after all. They’ve accepted the inevitable conclusion. The only remaining question is, do you? How informed are you regarding recent developments in machine learning?

This, and other passages in “How the Sausage is Made” which I’ll not spoil for the reader, brought it all together. You’re not talking tubas. What insights do you have for writers regarding the placement of a manuscript’s most pivotal revelation?

SRB: A magician never reveals his tricks, and a writer never supplants the experience of a text by providing additional guidance of any kind whatsoever.

Every text ought strive to become the best version of itself, and every reader ought judge every text according to its own logic and merits. What I will say is that as a frequent reader of modular work, arrangement is everything. Take B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, where the randomness of chapter order is meant to reframe our collective understanding of how memory functions. Or Marie Redonnet’s Understudies, where the perverse syllabic similarity of naming facilitates the perpetual swapping of personal identity and role within a space of labor to the point that every “story” in that collection is really a recycling of the same story, which is also the story of your life, Jon, and mine, and the lives of most everyone in the Post-Industrial era, I imagine. I gather that poets usually have a remarkable grasp on this skill. I stew with my material for a while. Really work on that broth. Through a combination of association and intentionality and mixed metaphors and a plastic wand within which fake flowers are revealed only if a certain button is pressed just so, the magic happens. Who can say how, or why?

JR: From forced prisoner sterilization to iodine-injected infants, “Known Knowns & Known Unknowns & Unknown Unknowns” provides a litany of sanctioned evils. This is the section where Guadalupe transforms from muckraker to crusader, “And yet I am here, because there is more. So much more.” What other alarming facts were uncovered in your research?

SRB: I’m grateful for this question, particularly because it provides cover for my compulsion to digress. I’d gathered bits and pieces of these events from my usual non-fictional reading diet over the years, though Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files was essential in refreshing these memories and collecting additional violations in one place. Reading accounts from individuals subjected to these degradations is infuriating in the same way as taking a look at Abu Zubaydah’s sketches of what was (and is) endured by those subjected to waterboarding and other methods of torture popularized by the Bush Administration and justified by the Obama Administration in its refusal to prosecute any of those responsible (which is, itself, a war crime according to the International Criminal Court).

What I continue to find alarming is the scale and scope of these sorts of dehumanizations. They’re never confined to a single bad actor or president. Using the internationally-ratified definition of the term, every American President since Truman is a war criminal. This is indisputable. It is not a subjective determination. And these abuses have persisted these seventy-five years, even during the halcyon days of Jimmy Carter. When it comes to localized human rights abuses, whether in sequestering and assimilating the children of American Indians in boarding schools or studying the infection and transmission of syphilis in African-American servicemembers without informing them or their partners, or any of the specific acts described in this chapbook, those who come from marginalized populations will always be seen as disposable by hegemonic power, regardless of our citizenship. Nazi scientists smuggled into the country by the CIA were instrumental to the Atomic Energy Commission’s transgressions, but academia and the broader research establishment is more than implicated, as evidenced by the number and prestige of the participating institutions I name in the text. There’s nothing uniquely American about any of this. It’s merely how power perpetuates itself.

JR: When she interviews the arsonist, Guadalupe inquires about “the destruction of knowledge implicit in the torching of a library.” I think back to October when students at Georgia Southern University burned Jeannine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers, a novel about a first-generation Cuban-American student attending a liberal arts college, microaggressions against its students of color a common occurrence. On-page and in real life, we see truth threatened to the point of combustion. Your description of the library as “that consummate public good” struck a chord, both the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the University of Southern Mississippi’s Cook Library instrumental to the reader I am today. How do you see yourself as part of the effort

to keep impactful literature that needs a larger audience off the endangered species list?

SRB: Crucet’s own published reflections on the episode really effectively demonstrate why many who currently profit from the suffering of others (because of their own dominant positionalities within our culture and economy) are so threatened by manifestations of redress like “safe space” or “white privilege.” I’m not sure who originated the idea, but from time to time I’m struck by the formulation that it would be impossible for our current library system to be invented whole cloth in the 21st century precisely because it is not an exploitable system. I mean, apart from impudent men and women using library computer access to browse porn. I’m glad you mentioned the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, particularly, because apart from being a fantastic physical space staffed with wonderful humans, the sort of community programming they provide is probably the most meaningful work someone in our small corner of the world can do, at least from my vantage point. It seems like the number of organizations conducting writing workshops within prisons is slowly growing too, which is beyond wonderful. Whatever the form, integrating literature into the daily life of as many people as possible should be the goal, especially among the young and the disenfranchised.

JR: One anonymous note Guadalupe receives instructs her to “Go to the cemetery. Read the note pinned to the only tree. You are on the rightest track of all.” A third-party communique, also by an unknown author, threatens Guadalupe’s life. A voicemail from S Pharmacy “is concerned about what will happen to you while you are without your prescription.” Which is scarier, sinister gestures uttered by shadows or Big Pharma’s knowledge reach? How does fiction convey these fears in ways poetry and non-fiction cannot?

SRB: If I’ve learned anything from the classic Christopher Lambert film Highlander, it’s that humans are mortal and even vampires can be killed, if they’re decapitated just so. But Big Pharma will outlive us all. A human can be reasoned with. A multinational conglomerate or trade organization or industry comprised of companies like Purdue Pharma will always pursue what’s in their institutional best interest, which is to say self-perpetuation, which is to say the maximization of profit, which is to say the allocation of maximum profit in the hands of executives while real wages for the vast majority of employees continue to stagnate despite enormous increases in industry-wide efficiency. Merely the crude retention of power, it’s alienating as hell, of course, which is why Kafka will never age.

I’m not sure fiction does or can convey these fears any better way than poetry or non-fiction, though there might very well be a difference in approach. I’d be curious for your perspective on this question, as a poet. But if there is one structural advantage for fiction, it’s in the particular set of assumptions many readers hold about what to expect when they turn the page, regardless of the book in hand. By sneaking in real-world material alongside the clearly absurd or fabricated, I hope that readers of my work begin to question the porousness of their own borders. I ultimately want to weaponize reader expectation and exhausted conventions for an effect along the lines of experiencing a Max Ernst painting. Your eyes see a familiar albeit blurry figure in the periphery. As they adjust, recognition of the instrument. A half second later, confusion over the pairing of instrument and environment, the juxtapositional vivisection. For the rest of your life, an afterimage in the form of a transparency providing clarification to everything that is seen.

JR: In Louis Simpson’s poem “On the Lawn at the Villa,” he writes “It’s complicated, being an American. / Having the money and the bad conscience, both at the same time.” This makes for an

interesting contrast in your penultimate section “The Truth Comes Out,” where the speaker tells us “And I can’t say I know much of anything about the Atomic Energy Commission. It was before my time. If it wasn’t before my time, well, I don’t have much of an opinion either way. No, I don’t have a problem with what happened in Nagasaki or Hiroshima. It needed to be done. It was us or them. Their civilians or our soldiers.” Your antagonists have directorial roles, hence the money, but no conscience. Opinionless-ness is apathy’s neighbor, and they form a community where “everything beautiful becomes grotesque with time.” Do you think Simpson’s lens atones for, bemoans, or contorts the power structures individuals such as Guadalupe and author Eileen Welsome write to expose, if not dethrone?

SRB: I was taught in my amazing public school––no doubt as a consequence of curriculum dictated by the state board of education, whose unelected members are appointed by the governor (at least in Texas) and usually end up being wealthy donors and lobbyists––that the atomic bombs were necessary. I was taught the Civil War was about state’s rights, not slavery. I thought nothing of it, because I was twelve. Then, people started dying in Iraq, and I found it curious how the number of dead Americans was always headlined. Over time, it became clear that no one was tabulating the dead Iraqis. Even now, the range within the accepted estimate of civilian deaths is shockingly vast. Last time I checked, it varied from 150,000 to a million dead. Then, following the latest airplane crash or some other international disaster, it became impossible not to notice that the number of dead Americans were again listed before the dead of other nationalities. The Max Ernst afterimage was everywhere. Of course, to Simpson’s point, I profit from all this too. When we plunder for resources abroad, “the national interest” is not my own, but I’ll pay a little less money pumping gas or purchasing lithium batteries, even if these savings are a fraction of what Exxon or Tesla is making.

It would seem unfair for me to hold Guadalupe or Welsome to the same standards or expectations as artists. Exposure seems absolutely vital within their field, though it feels so inadequate in ours, considering a successful book publication would entail selling 2000 copies to readers who are more or less identical to us in terms of educational attainment and political persuasion. Meanwhile, I would be surprised if language can atone for much of anything apart, perhaps from within a contrite letter to an estranged loved one. I don’t have an answer, Jon, beyond abolishing the Department of Homeland Security. First things first.

JR: Guadalupe’s fate unfolds in “Sounds From the Hallway Outside My Rented Room as I Hurriedly Stuff These Pages Under the Mattress from Which They Must Have Been Discovered and Extracted and Mailed to My Editor (as Per My Instructions) Given That You are Reading Them, Now.” This harkens to your title’s five landfills and the exhaustive work it must have taken Guadalupe’s editor to reassemble the truth. The Cupboard’s editors provide teaching-note metadata on your author page—segmented narratives, paper as material object, and living in late-stage capitalism, among them. Perhaps segmented living on paper stages is the way to go. The tuba is a behemoth noisemaker at sizeable remove from miniature furniture carved by a certain late Russian leader in “Boris Yeltsin Hosts a Tea Party,” the unifying title of your flash fiction pieces in DIAGRAM 17.3 (“He carves beds, tables, chairs—you name it—from wood and enters them in competitions. Not many people know this. If he does not win the competition, he will burn the failed piece.”). In another work, Boris “notices an ant pile nearby and says he will eliminate the pests but forgets for a few weeks. Then it rains. There are huge water puddles and he observes the ants holding on to one another, connecting to form a makeshift bridge over which other ants climb to collect food.” We began this interview in Arizonan terrain, end with insect architecture. To what degree is scale a facet of your aesthetic?

SRB: I’m enormously grateful for the time and care Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook poured into this chapbook. I know the pages of my copy are still damp with love. I could not more enthusiastically encourage others to seek out the work they put out through The Cupboard as well as what they create in their own lives, and the teaching notes you cite were delightful for me to experience myself, as I had no role in their compilation! I love your characterization of them as metadata! I resist using exclamation marks (except in emails to individuals with the power to hire and/or fire me), but you’ve compelled their use in two consecutive sentences, Jon, a testament if there ever was one to your thoughtfulness and powers of perception. I think gesturing at the enormous distance Sebald is able to travel through digression, in examining destruction and violence on both a microscopic and massive scale, provides one model I have been digesting for a few years, now. So, you’re definitely onto something.

I’m loathe to redirect or otherwise provide my own sense of Lupe’s fate for the same reasons I usually avoid reading interviews by writers I admire (unless you’re the interviewer, Jon, it goes without saying). But I will say, perhaps not as cryptically as I might prefer, that one particular titular word gestures at my sense of what befalls this text within the world of the story. Even so, I wanted to write an uplifting story this time. I wanted a happy ending. So, against all odds, Guadalupe seems to find what she’s looking for, regardless of how readers might interpret the aftermath. The bleak ending would have seen Lupe publish the material, get a few hundred likes and retweets from Twitter (apparently only 60% of users read beyond headlines, and another 60% admit to regularly retweeting articles they have not themselves read), and wonder why, instead of exposing these gross human rights abuses to millions, the Sunday shows are instead trotting out neocons I thought long dead to lead us to a war that was a self-evidently cretinous idea fifteen years ago. As they say, if a happy ending did not exist, it would be necessary to invent one.

This silence is important to this project, as silence is more or less the response to anything ProPublica or The Intercept uncover in similar sorts of investigations, and similar to the reaction I receive when I ask the customers at the Trader Joe’s I frequent what they think about our overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, installing the brutal reign of the puppet Shah which made Khomeini’s rise two decades later almost inevitable. But I digress (for the last time, thank goodness). In this bleak timeline, maybe Lupe would have been able to leverage this scoop into retaining her job while private equity vultures begin the latest round of layoffs while loading her municipal newspaper with the massive debt required to purchase it in the first place as they bilk the paper with consulting fees and scrap it for parts. ROI, baby!

Samuel Rafael Barber is 0.00000001343724% of the population. He has degrees from Brown, the University of Arizona, and Columbia, and is a PhD student at the University of Denver. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Chicago Quarterly Review, DIAGRAM, Green Mountains Review, Passages North, Puerto del Sol, The Rupture, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. According to life expectancy tables, he will live another 55.1 years. 
Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent work appears in Anti-Heroin Chic, Ocean State Review, and Oxidant|Engine. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.