In the poem “The Barnum Interview,” Michael Hurley crafts an imaginative interview with P.T. Barnum, who becomes a completely unlikeable—but strangely seductive—speaker. As with all well-done persona poetry, Hurley’s Barnum casts an unusual view of the world, but one the reader wants to believe could be real. Barnum’s observations accumulate into character, perhaps most chillingly with the statement that men and women are “all small enough to fit inside a cage.”
This persona sees everything through the lens of the circus, with other humans as its commodities, and unfolds in a finely-engineered, call-and-response format. There is just enough of a looseness and disconnect between the questions and answers to create an eerie atmosphere, but all seem inevitable of Barnum’s character.
The questions asked of Barnum generate as much interest as the answers: They are plausible, but uncommon to the celebrity interview format. He is asked, “When did you realize you were mortal?” and responds with an anecdote about a man selling him an x-ray of his teeth; the first time Barnum understands that he has a skeleton inside of him, even though the x-ray is later revealed to be no more than a crude drawing. A mix of long and short answers—ranging from full paragraphs to two-word, matter-of-fact conclusions—tightly control the pacing of the poem, and offer a wealth of world-and voice-building.
While the work is interesting on a first read and gives a quick first impression, this piece is one that yields more with each perusal. It tackles large issues (God, death, human cruelty, money) with fine-tuned details that age well: teeth as cranberries, a train as success, humans as owls, mandrakes as a trick. Barnum doesn’t care to know he lives on a spinning planet, and instead turns his attention to hedonistic pleasures and whatever happens to exist within train’s reach.
These strange images also play with the clichés of the circus. The phrase “The crowd goes wild” leaves familiar territory when it is used to answer “What happens when you die?” This poem does not avoid those images and phrases known to the circus and the time period in which P. T. Barnum lived, but rather recasts them in new material.
All of this adds up to a persona that can relate any image, any theme, and any question to the circus and the personal character it takes to lead one. By reflecting on his own experiences, this Barnum indirectly shows the reader what he offers his circus audiences: the knowledge of mortality, but given by an illusion that forces you to think about what’s inside yourself.
Barnum himself knows he is not above the call of the entertaining con man, and when asked about the x-ray he knew was fake, “Did you buy it from him?” responds, “Of course.” This punch of an ending reminds the reader how captivated a human can be by what’s constructed and what’s cruel. Even though readers of this poem will and should dislike this Barnum character, he couldn’t have built the world’s most well-known circus without the support of a roaring audience.