Rick Barot, the most recent author featured in the The Zell Visiting Writers Series shared its poetry at the Stern Auditorium of the University of Michigan Museum of Art on March 31 before an intimate and attentive audience. In an ever-changing and over-stimulating world, Barot offers therapy, observation and reflection in his scholarly presentation of poetry and his writing process.
Barot is best known for the four books of poetry he has published, including the most recent “The Galleons”, along with his other works including “The Darker Fall” and “Chord”. His poems have been featured in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, as well as several editions of The Best American Poetry anthology series. Barot is currently the director of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Barot’s prestige in poetry goes hand in hand with the quality and lasting impact of his poems. The poems Barot read aloud consisted of entries from “The Galleons”, as well as a series of prose poems titled “During the Pandemic”.
Taking a different approach than usual, the event was opened by museum staff leading the public through a brief mindfulness practice. This welcome and indispensable practice opened minds and ears to the surrounding world, offering a moment of contemplation. The tone of the piece quickly changed from lively and buzzy to calm and pensive, ready for a journey into Barot’s poetry.
This introduction served as a fitting precursor to reading Barot aloud, as listening to his work is in itself a mindfulness practice. Beginning with a reading of her poem “The Girl Carrying a Ladder,” Barot explored a world of seemingly unrelated material possessions and events: a $175,000 luxury punching bag, camouflage clothing, and a Palestinian girl carrying a ladder to school apparently have nothing in common. Barot’s illuminating exploration in this poem prompted audiences to consider otherwise and find the connection in unrelated observations.
Barot shifted the play’s focus from contemplation to personal narrative by reading two eponymous poems from “The Galleons”. These poems reflected his experience growing up in the Philippines; the first served as an elegy to Barot’s grandmother who died in 2016, and the second was a personal account of her childhood.
On this very proximal assessment of Barot’s life, the last poems shared were a prose series titled “During the Pandemic.” Barot solemnly described the struggles and internalization of his quarantine experience, something that surely every audience member could relate to. Barot cited his experience writing these poems as entirely therapeutic; he had no original intention of publishing the series of approximately 30 poems, which only enhanced the reliability and truthfulness of the series. Her final poem in this series, beginning “During the pandemic, I praised the cherry blossoms,” highlighted small acts of praise and gratitude in these difficult times, an uplifting note to end her reading.
Barot’s tone during the reading was collected and steady; never faltering but subtly underlining the important passages to give the audience enough space to draw their own conclusions. It’s something Barot carried on in the event’s follow-up Q&A segment.
When interviewed by museum staff, Barot revealed his tendency to leave certain aspects of his work up to the interpretation of the reader. This was evident in her reading of “The Girl Carrying a Ladder”, when placing elements side by side allowed the audience to organically draw connections and conclusions. This underscores Barot’s takeaways from self-involvement in his poetry; his pleasant and playful responses evoked intentionality in how we move through our lives and the world.
Barot tapped into his relationship to art as an artist and a human being; the experiences and facets of art that he took for granted early on were now fundamental to the ethics and aesthetics of his art. He affirmed beauty as the primary experience of art. The critical process was also fundamental to understanding Barot’s inspirations – he claimed that everything was “soaked in blood”, incapable of being avoided by a critical eye in some sense. This critical and altruistic mindset was certainly evident in Barot’s readings and responses.
Opening up his presence to questions from the audience, Barot shared more about his writing process for his “For the Pandemic” series. Barot penned these poems on his phone’s Notes app — a place of deep contemplation and messy recordings for many — and encouraged a process of “hot reading.” Choosing rooms with high potential and prioritizing the “good stuff” in more formal spaces can be helpful when organizing large amounts of unfiltered work. He went on to explain that demystifying the writing process allowed him to write anywhere and anytime; our writing needs to become more opportunistic because we inevitably become busier.
Barot’s emphasis on process and organization in his work was an important and illuminating element for readers and listeners. Her laid-back demeanor, along with her thoughtful responses throughout, made for a memorable final entry in this semester’s Zell Visiting Writers series.
Daily art writer Connor Jordan can be reached at [email protected]