In honor of Black History Month, we invited issue 2 & 10 contributor Cameron Barnett to talk about his writing influences in an email interview. Check out the q&a below as well as Cameron’s recording of his poem “Crepe Soul Shoes.”
Pretty Owl Poetry: What was your favorite game as a child?
Cameron: By far my favorite game as a little, little kid was Hi Ho Cherry-O. My sister and I used to make our parents play that relentlessly. I’ve always loved chess, and that’s a staple game for me. Thinking more toward sports, basketball was always fun, and I had a brief stint in ice hockey too. Crazy 8’s was my favorite card game. Videogames—absolutely have to go with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Possibly my favorite game of all time.
POP: How did you get into writing? What initially attracted you to language? And what keeps you engaged with it today?
C: Reading young adult adventure books got me into writing. I loved the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, and often tried to “rewrite” the stories myself, which usually ended up being very similar to the original text. I always wrote poems when I felt angsty or sad, but it wasn’t until college that I considered playing with the language of my poems rather than just listing feelings. I fell in love with a good turn of phrase, or a word placed in such a way that it has dual meaning. I would say that both this and my love of poems that tell a good story are what keep me writing today. For me, the perfect poem pulls me in with a good tale, explicit or implicit, and keeps me going with a good use of wordplay.
POP: Who are a few Black writers who have inspired you? What are you reading right now?
C: August Wilson, Terrance Hayes, Maya Angelou, Common, Yusef Komunyakaa, Yona Harvey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama, & Audre Lorde.
Right now I’m not reading as much poetry as I’d like, but I last left off on Rachel Mennies book The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. I’m currently reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Coming up in my reading list is Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.
POP: What is one of your biggest fears (irrational or rational)?
POP: Of all the moments you’ve experienced, what’s been the most powerful?
C: My first year of grad school I went to a writers-of-color potluck with fellow POC MFAs, and Yona Harvey was in attendance. As people talked about writing about race, I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t often explicitly write about race. I got the courage to share that fact with the group, and when I was asked why I felt that way I responded that I didn’t think I had lived a “typical-enough black life” to write about blackness. Yona Harvey looked my square in the eye and said “But Cameron, you are black, so all your life’s experiences are black experiences.” It sounds simple and obvious, but that moment was a watershed moment for me personally and in my writing—it felt like I had been given all the permission in the world to express myself.
POP: When it comes down to it, what’s your least favorite museum in Pittsburgh?
C: Andy Warhol, hands down. My favorite museum, however, is the Carnegie Science Center. The Children’s Museum is a close second, though.
POP: As an MFA graduate, were there any teachers or professors in particular that had an impact on your poetry?
C: Obviously Yona Harvey, as I mentioned. But also Terrance Hayes. His way of reading my work and helping me see further into it was invaluable to me in my growth as a writer. I would still be writing rather mediocre love poems, and nothing more, if it weren’t for his advice, intensity, and encouragement. Studying with him has made me reach further with my work, and I hope that it shows.