Poet Tina Barr on the power of juxtapositions

ACTIVE READER: "I love poetry that requires the engagement of the reader’s imagination," says poet Tina Barr. "I like opaque language, rather than transparent language." Photo courtesy of Barr

When local poet Tina Barr was 11 years old, her younger brother, Riggs, died of bone cancer. After his death, Tina’s mother gave her a hardcover copy of Robert Frost’s poems. Poetry has been part of her life ever since.

Today, the award-winning poet lives in Black Mountain “in a cabin on the side of the mountain with the bears, turkeys, copperheads and deer,” she says. Her poetry collections include The Gathering Eye (2004), Kaleidoscope (2015) and Green Target (2018).

In this month’s poetry feature, Barr speaks with Xpress about her poem “Threat” and the inspiration behind it, as well as advice on writing and publishing.


by Tina Barr

Through crushed August grass
a child’s gray shoelace tugs itself,
its tiny pebble of a head triangular,
a wedge, therefore venomous.
Laced through a sneaker’s eyelets,
it nips a finger, a tiny prick. One
worries in the mountains. Goldenrod
seeds our heads with bites from some
insect. Meanwhile upright red rod
flowers burn for hummingbirds.
Portable shield on his back, a turtle
labors, feels with splayed paws, shows
off his orange splotched arms, leopard
patterned, bright as marigold, as
oranges bowled all along the railroad,
where a supermarket truck, pulling
across, got its back half sheared off.
Cop cars beetled up and down the road.
A boy on vacation by a lake said, “Let’s
go in,” but my husband refused. The
boy, and another who went after him,
drowned. Each night of his childhood
my husband dreamed it, woke just
before dying. One’s death is the period
that ends the sentence. In Cairo
on the sidewalk men link arms, like
paper dolls I cut as a kid. All at once
a waterfall of bodies bows to Mecca.

What inspired this poem?

My book Green Target is centered on Black Mountain and the cabin which I share with my jazz composer husband. In the poem “Threat,” I mention a tiny copperhead. One day, driving along Route 70, where it meets Grovestone Road, I saw an Ingles supermarket truck which had been sheared in half by a railroad car as it crossed the railroad track. Oranges had spilled from the truck all over the roadside. Cop cars surrounded this wreck.

My poetry often works through juxtaposition, so I included my husband’s childhood experience of witnessing two boys drown, another kind of catastrophe. I visited Cairo for five years in a row, and I really did see dozens of men at prayer, bowing to Mecca. So the threats run from a tiny snake to accidents to women alone in Cairo, who could feel threatened unless they know exactly how to behave.

What is it about juxtaposition that appeals to you as a poet?

I love poetry that requires the engagement of the reader’s imagination. I like opaque language, rather than transparent language. I like indeterminacy and leaps between images, images that are the meaning. So I like a poem which contains shifts from one idea to another that may not be obvious.

How do you go about both challenging and inviting new readers into your work? 

I have been writing and publishing since the 1980s, and because I studied literature so deeply, I’m not your typical reader. I have an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts and a master’s and doctorate in literature from Temple University. My allegiance has always been to the making of the poems as a literary art. Not every reader is going to understand my poetry. I know my poetry can be challenging, and I hope that readers find it valuable. But I can only be true to the work, and if that means some readers don’t understand my work, I accept that reality.

Let’s talk about your process. Does it vary per poem, or do you go into a new piece with a similar approach as far as self-discipline, expectation and drafting? 

When I first began writing, I’d write a draft onto a yellow legal pad and type it up. I might have 40 versions of a poem before it was finished. So many years later, I do much of the thinking or composing in my head. An idea or story I might hear through a friend could be a trigger for a poem, and then I am aware of needing other elements, a B and a C, which might form a poem. I really am “amalgamating disparate experience,” as T.S. Eliot suggested.

So do you sit down and actively thinking about juxtapositions? Or have you developed that part of your brain’s muscle to where you kind of let the initial story/image/concept sit with you and trust that other elements will emerge? 

I’ll hear a story and I might jot down some notes, or I’ll read something and it will lead to a connection. But you articulate the process for me very well: Yes, I do let that part of my brain’s muscle contemplate, sometimes unconsciously, and the elements do emerge, a connection between elements that interest my imagination. And then I will sit down and work for a couple of hours, typing directly into my Word [processing] program on my computer, so I keep developing the poem at one sitting. Then I’ll take it with me, put it in my purse, and then beside the bed and edit it over a day or two.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about young poets who may come across our monthly poetry feature. What advice would you offer them as it relates to the craft itself as well as getting one’s work out there? 

I was lucky enough to have a real grounding in great literature. So my advice would be to give yourself that opportunity and read (in translation) Beowulf, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, James Joyce’s short stories, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. When one does so, one learns some degree of humility. Find a poet whose work you love; for me, it is W.B. Yeats, Yusef Komunyakaa, Pattiann Rogers, Tom Hennen, William Wright, Alice Friman and Eleanor Wilner. Poetry is not about content; it is about language. Read books about craft, so as a writer you learn where poetry comes from, received forms, its choral origins.

Publishing is completely different from the making of a piece of writing. Our egos lead us to want to publish, but if that is a writer’s only motivation, it will bring disappointment. I would suggest going online and searching “best poetry journals” to discover more about how journals are ranked. I would not begin by submitting to the toughest journals, since they get so many submissions. I’d begin in middle-ranked journals and submit to a dozen journals at a time, across a range of kinds of journals, some less competitive, to give yourself a chance at acceptance. And do read the kind of work they publish to see if your work is a good fit. Even smaller journals receive thousands upon thousands of submissions.

Is there a recent poetry collection from a Southern poet that you’re fond of or excited to read? 

This isn’t a recent collection, but I love Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse by Valerie Nieman, who now lives in South Carolina. And William Wright‘s Grass Chapels: New & Selected Poems, published in 2021. They are both terrific writers. I also love Keith Flynn‘s The Skin of Meaning and Joseph Bathanti‘s Light at the Seam.

Who are the four poets on your Mount Rushmore? 

W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Yusef Komunyakaa.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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One thought on “Poet Tina Barr on the power of juxtapositions

  1. Mary Dean Lee

    Dear Thomas Calder – I appreciate being introduced to Tina Barr’s work through your interview with her and will be reading more. I am also very impressed with your great interview questions and interaction with her responses. It’s a dynamic process, makes the exchange come alive!

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