Rick Barot, the most recent author featured in the Zell Visiting Writers series, shared his poetry at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Stern Auditorium on March 31 to an intimate and attentive audience. In an ever-changing and overstimulating world, Barot offers therapy, observation and reflection in his erudite presentation of poetry and his writing process.
Barot is best known for the four books of poetry that he has published, most recently “The Galleons,” with his other works including “The Darker Fall” and “Chord.” His poems by him have been featured in the likes of The Paris Review and The New Yorker, as well as several editions of The Best American Poetry anthology series. Barot currently is the director of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Barot’s prestige in poetry is matched 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 the museum staff leading the audience through a brief mindfulness practice. This welcomed and much-needed practice opened both minds and ears to the surrounding world, offering a moment of contemplation. The tone of the room quickly shifted from lively and buzzing to calm and pensive, primed for a journey into Barot’s poetry.
This introduction served as a fitting precursor to Barot’s reading aloud, as listening to his work is itself a practice in mindfulness. Beginning with a reading of his poem “The Girl Carrying a Ladder,” Barot explored a world of seemingly unrelated material possessions and events: a $175,000 luxury-goods punching bag, camouflage clothing and a Palestinian girl carrying a ladder to get to school seemingly have nothing in common. Barot’s enlightening exploration in this poem prompted the audience to consider the opposite and find the connection in unrelated observations.
Barot shifted the room’s focus from contemplation to personal narrative as he read two self-titled poems from “The Galleons.” These poems were reflective of his experience of him growing up in the Philippines; the first served as an elegy for Barot’s grandmother who passed away in 2016, and the second was a personal account of his childhood from him.
Riding this very proximal assessment of Barot’s life, the final poems shared were a series of prose titled “During the Pandemic.” Barot solemnly depicted him’s struggles and internalization of his quarantine experience, something every member of the audience could surely relate to. Barot cited his experience of writing these poems as entirely therapeutic; he had no initial intention of publishing the series of around 30 poems, which only strengthened the reliability and truthfulness of the series. His final poem from this series, beginning with “During the pandemic, I praised the cherry blossoms,” highlighted small acts of praise and gratitude during these trying times, an uplifting note to end his reading of him.
Barot’s tone while reading was collected and steady; never faltering but subtly emphasizing important passages to leave the audience with enough space to draw their own conclusions. This is something Barot perpetuated in the follow-up Q&A segment of the event.
When interviewed by museum staff, Barot revealed his tendency to leave aspects of his work up to the reader’s interpretation. This was evident in his reading of “The Girl Carrying a Ladder,” when placing elements side by side allowed the audience to make connections and draw conclusions organically. This underlines Barot’s takeaway on self-implication in his poetry; his joking and playful answers from him evoked intentionality in the way we move through our lives and the world.
Barot tapped into his relationship to art as both an artist and a human being; experiences and facets of art he took for granted early on were now foundational to the ethics and aesthetics of his art by him. I have affirmed beauty as the primary experience of art. The critical process was also fundamental to understanding Barot’s inspirations – he claimed everything is “soaked in blood,” unable to be avoided by a critical eye in some sense. This critical and altruistic mindset was certainly evident in Barot’s readings and answers of him.
Opening his presence to audience questions, Barot shared more about his process of writing his “For the Pandemic” series. Barot wrote these poems on the notes app of his phone de el — a place of deep contemplation and messy records for many — and encouraged a process of a “heat reading.” Picking out pieces with high potential and prioritizing the “good stuff” into more formal spaces can be helpful when organizing large quantities of unfiltered work. He continued to explain that the demystification of the writing process has allowed him to write anywhere and anytime; it is necessary for our writing to become more opportunistic as we inevitably become busier.
Barot’s emphasis on process and organization in his work was an important and enlightening takeaway for readers and listeners alike. His easy-going demeanor of him, as well as thoughtful responses throughout, made for a memorable final entry in this semester’s Zell Visiting Writers Series.
Daily Arts Writer Connor Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.