Despite modern world’s demands, Bob Barba keeps coming back to poetry

  • Ashfield resident Bob Barba reads his winning poem “Sundering” at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield during the awards ceremony for the 2019 Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Ashfield resident Bob Barba was the grand prize winner for the 2019 Poet’€™s Seat Poetry Contest for his poem “€Sundering.” Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • BRADEN-JOHNSON

  • Ashfield resident Bob Barba is congratulated for winning the 2019 Poet’€™s Seat Poetry Contest for his poem “€Sundering.” Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 5/3/2019 4:04:35 PM

When Ashfield resident Bob Barba sat down for the first time in the famed Poet’s Seat at the finale of the Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest ceremony, his flushed cheeks and glistening eyes spoke to how delighted, moved and slightly stunned he was.

“I’ve been receiving Hope Schneider’s emails (announcing the contest) for 15 years, and every year I think, ‘Maybe this is my year,’ and this year I had a new poem, so I guess this is my year,” Barba explained to the audience at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield before reading his winning poem “Sundering,” as well as “The Great Boxing Day Wolf Hunt.”

There is a melodious quality to Barba’s poetry, the essence of which is readily accessible even at first glance. The short version is that “Sundering” is about splitting firewood. The slightly longer version is that it is about getting close enough to the world through analog, physical labor to perceive:

A crackling so quiet that I kneel and lay my ear

Near the bark of the once tree, and hear the decades

Come reluctantly apart.

Connecting the act of labor to the process of understanding the world and our place in it is reminiscent of Philip Levine’s poetry, and Barba admits to having one of Levine’s books on his nightstand. Additionally, he cites Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Sharon Olds and Rita Dove as some of his literary inspirations.

Like Levine’s work, Barba’s warrants a closer reading. It is then that one notices such details as the juxtaposition of “Shouldering my least favorite tool, / The aptly named maul” with “And lay myself into my favorite autumn labor,/ The sundering of maple and beech into firewood.”

It is then that one notices what appears to be a nod to Immanuel Kant in the “sublime moment.” And, it is then that one can reflect on the way in which a poet, like the woodcutter, “cleaves even the most stubborn, gnarled” of sentences and ideas through the use of line breaks and word choice.

Barba thinks this poem turned out so well because, “I didn’t write it in an office. I wrote it while splitting wood. A lot of poets say they write while walking or doing other things, and I think I want to experiment with that more.”

“Poetry is a way to live,” Barba said, explaining in part why poetry is so important to him personally, as well as why he quit his job of 15 years as a dean at Greenfield Community College — a time during which he found himself unable to write.

“Friends would ask me, ‘Have you written any poetry?’ and I had this standard joke, and it wasn’t very funny, where I said, ‘You know, I think administration has beaten the poetry right out of me,” he said.

Currently, he works as an internship coordinator at GCC, which has freed him up to be “more with the world.”

His poetry reflects this theme of tension between the demands of the modern world and the inner drive to return to nature. In his “Boxing Day” poem, he escapes “The endless round of drinking and football and snacking” to go on a fantasy wolf hunt with his nieces and nephews:

The wildness just over the lip of the yard

And our own answering wildness,

That howl we carry around with us, stifled most days,

but at the ready, and our sharpened sticks at hand.

Before reading his poems at the ceremony, he placed a small figurine on the podium, which he said is a memento from his late sister, Sharon Rose Barba, whom he calls “the first poet in my life.” He later emphasized her formative influence on his life and writing, since she was 14 years his senior, and in many ways functioned as his mother.

“She co-edited a book of women poets called ‘Rising Tides’ in 1972 that still turns up on the shelves of some of my poet friends, especially women,” he added. “It’s where I first read Nikki Giovanni, Erica Jong, Anne Waldman, Laura Chester, etc.”

Although Barba has been drawn to poetry since childhood — indeed, his alliterative name seems perfect for a poet — circumstances seem to have aligned against his official recognition as a writer until this year.

He wrote one of his first poems as punishment in school in Maumee, Ohio, which his teacher was so impressed by, she submitted it to a children’s poetry magazine where it was initially accepted for publication.

“And then the principal didn’t let it be published. It was pretty bad,” he recalled. “So, I didn’t try anything again until college.”

Later, when he was studying English at the University of Ohio, he said, “I was a poet more then than I have been since.” However, he started working as the poetry editor for the local campus magazine, which had a policy to not publish poetry by its own staff.

After college, Barba moved to Boston where he worked for many years as a baker. He tried to get involved with the poetry scene there, but found that the politically activist poetry that was in vogue there was not his style.

“I feel differently now, but at the time I came out of this tradition that said politics was the enemy of poetry and made for bad poetry,” he explained. “So, I didn’t get involved in that scene. I wrote for myself, in a vacuum, which is kinda hard to do.”

It wasn’t until 20 years later, after settling down in Wendell and then in Ashfield with his partner, Rebecca Bradshaw, that he started to write seriously again — a revival for which he partially credits his writing teacher Edite Cunha.

Barba said he is grateful for the hard work and dedication of all of the people who organize the Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest ceremony, and the generous artists from Asparagus Valley Pottery who donate the commemorative plate for the winner and mugs for the runner-ups every year. He is especially appreciative of his longtime colleagues Dennis Finnell, who “is just an incredible poet” in his own right, and Hope Schneider who is an “incredible holder of the importance of poetry.”

The morning after the ceremony, Barba said he has already put the famed Poet’s Seat in the perfect spot and added good-humoredly, “I’m having a good morning. I’m gonna ride my 15 minutes of fame.”

Nicole Braden-Johnson of Conway is the author of “Unheard Melodies,” a monthly poetry column in the local “The Visitor,” and has also been published in several literary journals. She is always on the lookout for poetry news and events, and can be reached at bradennicole@gmail.com. Visit her website at unheardmelodiesnkbj.blogspot.com.




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