Celebrating Poetry Month with Mildred Barya

A former human resources adviser with a master’s degree in organizational psychology, Mildred Berya has lived many lives before shifting her focus and dedication to writing. Today, the Ugandan native and award-winning poet serves as assistant professor of English at UNC Asheville.

In 2016, when she arrived in Western North Carolina, Barya says she was shocked by the landscape’s uncanny resemblance to her hometown. “There I was thinking I’d managed to get away, only to realize the failure of my mission,” the poet says. “Now, I can confidently say I never left home, or rather, home found me.”

In honor of Poetry Month, Barya has shared with xpress one of her latest and previously unpublished poems, “Falling in Love.” Readers will also find a Q & A with the poet below, where Barya discusses the inspiration behind her new work, Uganda’s influence on her writing, and some of her favorite local poets.

falling in love

A procession of wild turkeys delights me.
I watch them pause by my red automobile

and take turns at the reflectors.
They’ve discovered their own beauty,

a fascinating thing to behold. I’m shameless to say
I look forward to seeing them daily. I’ve rearranged

my tasks and routines to be home early when raising turkeys
emerge from the woods. They remind me of my youth

growing up in a home without mirrors. Once in a while, I’d go
with my sisters to the bathroom of a guest house and do our make-up

in front of its large mirror. When we became adults,
we bought pocket-size mirrors that fit in our purses.

I’ve never bothered to ask why we never had any in the house.
Maybe there were more important things on our parents’ minds than

looking at one’s reflection. When I bought the vehicle, it was love—
visualizing myself transported to places of wonder. I had not

imagined that the wild turkeys too would be charmed to see
themselves in the mirrors of my car and fall in love.

Q&A with Mildred Barya

XPress: In addition to being a poet, you also write fiction and nonfiction. As a writer, what’s your process in selecting the form? How, for example, did “Falling In Love” take the shape of a poem instead of say an essay?

baria: Most times I don’t think about form during the writing process. I just write, trusting that the “right” form will emerge later, and it often does. I’ve had pieces written in verse that I originally thought were poems. Upon revision, they transformed into essays. However, for “Falling In Love,” the shape came first — from a combination of images and ideas. The moment I saw the turkeys, the word procession was born. They walked in pairs, and that made me think of couplets. Then I counted them, so the first draft had 11 couplets. Afterward, I turned the poem into prose—a technique I learned from one of my teachers who is a master of the prose poem. Then I read it out loud. My ears told me to delete some lines, put the poem back into verse, in the form you have now.

Form fascinates me and provides endless opportunities for innovation and experimentation, which perhaps is the reason I’m attracted to jazz.

Time and reflection (both physical and mental) are at the heart of this poem. As a reader, the work caused me to consider the connections we make over time and the associations that bring these past connections into the present. Were these themes you wanted to explore as you began the poem, or did they evolve over time?

Since your question and observations are profound, I’ll say, yes! That was precisely my intention. He has! But the truth is, it didn’t occur to me and it hadn’t occurred to me that the themes you’ve highlighted were resonant or in my conscious mind at the time of writing. Your insight is brilliant, so I’ll roll with it. And therein lies the beauty of art and making meaning. Great readers like you do not just read actively. You also rewrite the work. I appreciate that.

Ha, well, I’m glad to partake in the rewrite! You grew up on a farm in Kabale, a town in the western region of Uganda. How has your youth influenced your works and how do you see it specifically influencing this poem?

The past, present and future merge easily when I start to write. Sometimes I’ll be focused on the present moment, only to have the next thought on the wings of the past. That’s how a meditation on wild turkeys brought images of my youth, and the rural setting of my childhood farm wrote itself into this new geography that is also a poem. As rational beings, we try to organize our thoughts into coherent, linear structures, but our lived experiences and memories demonstrate that they have more in common with dreams, because they do not conform to linearity. Our senses especially work with our emotions to make sure that we don’t fall for easy categorizations or compartmentalization. Passing by a bakery or pond can transport one back to the smells of their grandparents’ home. All things being relative, I take comfort in knowing that we are not as fragmented or separate from previous experiences as we may sometimes think or feel. Any singular moment also contains a crowd.

Is that what attracts you to poetry? That embraces the nonlinear? Or is there something else about the form that you find more powerful and enticing?

Poetry is the language of the soul. Before I knew what life was, before I knew what writing was, there was poetry. I like to think that in the beginning of the universe, the world was formless — nothing was — until a poem walked out of Spirit, spoke words into the void and sound was born. The sound that then made everything possible. If any reader allows their soul to speak, the words or sounds that emerge are poems. Everyone who’s in love or ever has been knows this. What puzzles me is how quickly we forget or deny it all.

Poetry makes expressions in other ways possible. Without it, it’s likely there would be nothing. Have I convinced you to open a poetry bookstore?

Business isn’t my forte. But we’re in good hands with Malaprop’s! Speaking of books and bookstores, is there a new collection of poems written by a local poet that you’re particularly fond of? If so, what makes the collection stick out to you?

You know, this is the hardest question to answer because there are many. I’ll just say anything and everything that Michael Hettich, Luke Hankins, Jessica Jacobs, Nickole Brown, sebastian matthews and Kevin Evans have produced. These poets ingest fire and spit it back like rainwater in varying degrees.

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