Santa Fe, New Mexico
Barbara’s collection of poems, “Sting and Nest,” won both the New Mexico Press Women’s 2012 Poetry Book Prize and the National Federation of Press Women 2012 Poetry Book Prize. She also received two Pushcart Prize nominations and was selected to be an Associate Artist at a 2012 summer residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts. She teaches poetry workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
What is your relationship to the authentic self?
My ongoing quest is to reveal and embrace the authentic self. I wrestle with peeling the layers of defenses and doubt and long-held assumptions that can hide the truth of who I am and can be. In my writing this is an ongoing challenge. I want to be as odd and beautiful and tender and fierce and mysterious and original as I can. That is, to trust my voice, the authentic voice. Maybe this is partly why many of us make art.
There are many parts that make up that authentic self, the roles I embrace as mother, teacher, poet, wife, contemplative, seeker but also the child who grew up interacting with the natural world, the girl who was solitary and made dioramas of imagined worlds. In both my poetry and in my life I want to deepen and discover a relationship with that part of me that is least inhibited and least dictated by contemporary culture, social class, by imposed limitations of being a woman. We each hold so much mystery, uniqueness and potential! I guess I would say I am inviting mine to break to the surface.
I have always known I was a teacher, which I define as a facilitator of identifying and nurturing creativity. And a writer. Until my mid-40’s I was immersed in various aspects of education and the arts. I worked in theater as a director and stage manager, then went on to teach drama. I developed curriculum that integrated arts into the classroom and trained others to do this. I think I was shy or uncertain about claiming myself as artist. I spent years encouraging others to find their creative expression. Once I decided to seriously devote myself to poetry I knew this was it, the deeper calling. And, of course, to share the journey with others by leading workshops and classes. I love to teach, love to be a poet in community. It is a spiritual path. There is the constant surprise of where poetry might take me. My calling is to stay open to that path, to learn from those further along the path and to share discovery with fellow travelers.
How does money relate to this calling?
Interesting question! No one, or very few, make money writing and publishing poetry. Recently I’ve been aware of thinking how I’d really like to be better compensated for what I do. I did just receive a small check from an LA journal that published a poem! I think I’ll copy and frame it! Most poetry journals can’t afford to reimburse their contributors and selling our books brings in very little. The message is that writing and teaching poetry in this culture is not valued. Not a great feeling but I remain devoted to the calling, to the love and pleasure in it. Would I Iove to win a grant or prize that would boost my income or earn more as a teacher? Oh, yes!!
When did you know you were a poet? Did anything unusual happen to trigger this or make it clear?
When I returned to New Mexico in 1992 after some years in New York state I could not find the initiative to pursue the arts education work I’d been doing. My father had died with an unfinished novel and I often think that was a wake-up call, that we are mortal and better pursue what we love, to claim our passion before time runs out. He was a champion of my writing when I was young. I took some free-write workshops and became more and more intrigued with poetry. After I took every class I could find in Santa Fe, I jumped into the real deal by attending Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. I was blown away! I knew so little about contemporary poetry and craft. I was a sponge. I loved every minute, even when I was terrified and questioning every word I wrote. I was hungry for all of it. Slowly I absorbed the support, encouragement and praise I received. It did take years, even as I studied and tentatively started to teach, to say, “I am a poet.”
Describe your art-making process.
I write most mornings. It is a very loose process of journaling, jotting, fragments and drifts of thought. I record dreams and respond to the news or weather or something I’ve been reading, poetry or fiction or memoir. I might riff on words that appeal, their sounds, their unknown meanings, their musicality. Sometimes the writing takes a turn toward a poem. I return to the journal after a period of time and earmark the pages that seem to be poems in the making, pull the lines I like and get them onto the computer. That’s where the work begins. There are also all those scraps of paper I jot on in the car or at a reading or in a café. And snippets of things I read that I tear from magazines or newspapers that inspire me. I rarely set myself the task to write a poem or series of poems on a certain theme or idea. It’s more organic than that for me, for better or worse! Once these things are in a document on my computer I obsess and revise and re-visit. Then I take many of them to my critique group to get some response. That’s very helpful.
You do some 12-step recovery work. How, if at all, does this relate to your writing?
I’ve been in Al Anon for a bit over two years. It’s an amazing gift. There is so much shared about self-compassion and putting oneself first in this program that extends to my writing. I am centered on my writing life in a deeper, less distracted way. I am not as hard on myself, not as critical and certainly not as envious of other writers as I once was. I never considered that there was much beyond my own gifts, will, grit and perseverance that would determine my happiness, success or creative output. Gradually I have come to understand that a “power greater than myself” might just hold the keys to the universe. Big relief. I can relax a little. I can experiment and trust the poems to unfold. Because I am softening and accepting more I am more welcoming of what my writing life has to offer. This includes opening to the teachers who have come to me, my students, the amazing fellow writers I meet at workshops and retreats. And gifts arrive at breakneck speed now that I notice. So, there is gratitude. I feel blessed to have some creative gifts and the time and support to pursue them.
There is an openness currently in contemporary American poetry to writing about spiritual lives and naming God, a move from the pervasive cynicism and atheism that many writers extolled. I think the culture is in great need of community and vulnerability and a shared humanness. I was definitely more ironic, more skeptical and certainly not a believer in organized religion. Today, I am more open, seeking to build a relationship with God, spirit, soul. I want to allow the tenderness, vulnerability and fear that are part of this quest to move through my poems. It is tentative and new. So, that was long-winded response to the impact of the 12-step work on my writing life.
How do you approach writing on tricky subjects such as family members or things that might affect your privacy? Are certain subjects off limit?
I have many poems about family. I have been honest, hoping to write the joy and the suffering. Humor, wit and irony can be great tools for softening what might be painful or seemingly taboo. Though nothing is off limits in poetry I do set a limit around some subjects. I may write the poems but I do not submit them for publication if I believe it would hurt someone I love. Also, I try to find ways to write the hard stuff through story, metaphor, persona poems, ways that distance the subject from biography or confession. Poetry is not memoir. Poetry is not fact. Many readers believe every personal sounding poem is the truth of the poet’s life. It may or may not be. The speaker of the poem may not be the poet. We hope to make art on the page. We hope to convey an emotional experience. I learn this gradually and it gives me many new tools with which to express grief, hurt, and regret, the too-personal stories that would hurt those who are close to me if I was to write purely confessional poems.
Do you write in other forms besides poetry?
I am curious about lyric essays. I think it is an extension of poetry. I have lots of drafts and experiments but have not known what to call them or how to edit them yet. But I’m excited by the free flow and spontaneity, how lyric prose tumbles off the tongue! I love reading essays and creative memoir. I also enjoy writing prose and have written some articles and reviews.
How long have you lived in New Mexico and how does your geography affect your writing?
I have lived in New Mexico for about thirty years. There were interruptions and moves. I am a New England girl at heart. Odd as it may seem, that landscape remains my touchstone. Lakes, rivers, low hills, meadows, the rocky coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Those places appear a lot in my first book. For me New Mexico is about crags, rough edges, drought, a harsh and brittle texture. I react to this in my poems. I rail against it. It offers a tension I may need, something to push against. When it rains or snows I am happiest and celebrate that relief in my poems. There is astounding beauty in the high desert, the sunsets, the light, the air. I have a handful of poems that rejoice in these things but it is rarely an obvious impetus for my writing.
What kind of challenges do you feel in trying to live authentically?
The first thing that comes to mind is the simple art of slowing down, of accepting the rhythms of other people and accepting my own limitations. To breathe. It is a challenge to surround oneself with kind, open, nurturing allies. I am amazingly blessed to have wonderful friends and family. A big challenge is to trust that the deepest, truest impulses and qualities of my personality and my aesthetic are good enough, that they are valuable and that the poems and teaching that emanates from that place is the best gift I can offer. It is a challenge to trust my originality. Of course, there is the culture that applauds consumerism and appearances and success based on fame and money that can corrupt and impede our sense of authentic living a hundred times a day if we let it!
What effectiveness do you feel in trying to live authentically?
A gift of an authentic life is authentic connection with others and with one’s work. I become closer to my husband, to my daughters, my brother and sister-in-law, to my students and friends. When I am aware of my inching toward authenticity I am aware of my place within humanity. I am a small bit player. My compassion for others deepens. I pare down what really matters in relationships and in work. Kindness, good humor, a willingness to experiment and fail, to laugh at oneself! To not take, for instance, the business of the poetry world too seriously. If I can be a bit more authentic, then I can shed false expectations of myself and expectations I imagine others have of me. An endless path, isn’t it?
Have you had any outstanding dreams, intuitive experiences, or synchronicity related to your calling?
There have been many but I’ll mention two. There is the saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will come. I have had some amazing teachers. A year ago I was selected to be an Associate Artist at Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. I spent three weeks in a residency with composers, artists and poets. Marie Howe was the Master Poet in residence. She was exactly the teacher and woman I needed. A spiritual, funny, honest, no-nonsense and gentle soul. She remains deep in my soul and life.
Also, I have recently embraced and been embraced by a group of terrific women writers who fill me with courage. My connection with them arose out of involvement with A Room Of Her Own Foundation. But these women, I believe, came into my life when I was ready and will be a lifelong presence.
There is great power in envisioning what we want. In dreaming. It has happened many times for me. Intuition is involved. Noticing the doors that open and walking through them. Sensing what is going to open the next opportunity. I even feel the synchronicity in your contacting me after years!
What books are you reading right now?
I am reading poetry by Jack Gilbert, Sophie Cabot Black and a poetry anthology, Last Call: Poets On Addiction and Deliverance. I am reading a novel, Three Strong Women, by the French writer Marie NDiaye and the non-fiction treatise, Of Women Born, by Adriennne Rich. I switch gears from one to the other. My bedside table is toppling with possibilities.
Paper or digital?
What’s your favorite vegetable?
What’s you favorite tea?
Anything with cinnamon and spice.