Virginia Barrett: on Expressing What We Want to Share

Virginia Barrett: on Expressing What We Want to Share

An interview with Virginia Barrett, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Virginia Barrett was born in Manhattan but grew up in Vermont. She attributes her deep connection to the natural world to her childhood in a small village in Vermont. She sites her transcendentalist leanings in spiritual matters to be a result of her classical New England secondary school education (for better or for worse). She is a poet, writer, visual artist, editor, and educator. Her books of poetry include I Just Wear My Wings and Singing My Naked Lines. She has edited two anthologies of contemporary San Francisco poets, OCCUPY SF (with Bobby Coleman) and Feather Floating on the Water, which received an Acker Award for Excellence in the Avant-Garde for Children’s Literature. Virginia also plays the mbira, a sacred instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. She lived and studied with musicians in Zimbabwe for nine months, which resulted in her writing a travel memoir, Mbira Maker Blues. A teaching-artist in city schools, Virginia is also the cofounder of the annual We Are All Poets — a youth poetry and civics engagement program. She has performed her work all over San Francisco, where she currently lives, as well as at venues well beyond the vortex of the Golden Gate.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I’m a poet and a visual artist. I’m also the founding editor of an independent press, Jambu Press/Studio Saraswati, as well as an educator.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

The artists’ quintessential struggle … time and having funds to devote time to my creative work.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Do it. Find a disciplined routine that works for you. Spend tons of time in nature, talk to flowers and trees. Meditate daily.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

George Harrison: “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

I have two. Kate Waller Barrett, 1857-1925 (my great-great-grandmother) was a prominent Virginia physician, humanitarian, sociologist, and social reformer. She devoted herself to helping single mothers, mistreated prisoners, and folks lacking in educational and social opportunity, and she was Vice President of the Virginia Equal Suffrage (1909–1920), among other political activist work. She’s not much known today, but she was a big mover and shaker in her time. There is a school and library in Virginia named after her, as well as some other institutional buildings. I intend to write a creative nonfiction book based on her life in the near future.

The other ancestor is the English poet and politician Edmund Waller, 1606-1687. He seems to have been a bit of a rogue at times, but is credited with popularizing the heroic couplet. At some point I hope to make an ancestral pilgrimage to his home, called Hall Barn, which is still standing in Buckinghamshire, England. A cool anecdote about Edmund Waller: I recently discovered a musician in Virginia has set one of Waller’s best known poems, “Go, Lovely Rose” to music (as others have, but this one has a rocking Celtic flare). Check it outon YouTube.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

This answer is very quaint. I admired Michael Landon as the character “Pa” on the TV series Little House on the Prairie. I thought him to be not only very handsome, but such an inspiring, stable father, and he played the fiddle. I don’t remember thinking about what I wanted to be when I was 10; I was probably struggling too much with making sense of the present, although I was impressed, I’m sure, by Laura Ingalls Wilder for having written stories about her childhood.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

If I recall a week I spent in the Alaskan wilderness once, it embodies forging down a river on foot to find where the salmon came in to spawn and finding them scattered among rocks, their midsections eaten by bears — their eyes picked out by seagulls; encountering a mother moose and her baby early in the morning; listening to loons at night; following an eagle with my eyes until I lost sight of him; freaking out when I tried to kill a trout I had just caught by banging it’s head on a rock (advice from my friend’s boyfriend — he had to kill it in the end and cook it, too, for me); losing my tent in the lake (it sank) when a fierce wind kicked up and I was off hiking without properly securing it…

What’s wrong with society today?

We need more love and creativity.

What is your fondest memory?

These aren’t singular memories but one of my fondest is spending time each summer with my maternal grandparents in Georgia and swimming all day in Lake Lanier. Another is living with traditional musicians in Zimbabwe for nine months and learning how to play the mbira from them.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Many times. When I’m enraptured by a poem, taken by a song, or seduced by art … or when I go outside and swoon over flowers, trees, or delight in small children playing. Perhaps this makes me a romantic…

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

I would like every school and university (in the world) to provide daily meditation and a comprehensive, high-quality arts program to every child, youth, and undergraduate student.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art at its finest is a revelation of our highest selves as well as our collective selves … meaning art transcends all boundaries of time, space, and individuality. Without art we are left to simply wallow in, and be led by our instincts … which may not always be elevating to existence as a holistic happening, though I have great admiration for instinct as it relates to the animal world. Art also allows us a space in which to offer a gift to existence; to express what we want to share by being alive … even if no one ever sees, or hears, what we make.

What are you working on right now?

A new manuscript of poetry, a memoir about growing up in Vermont, and a publishing project.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I would like San Francisco to become a place that truly supports artists by providing affordable housing and many grants — easy to apply for and open to a wide range of creative people. More of our city officials need to involve themselves in creative expression so they begin to understand the value of it for themselves and for society as a whole.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

Well the first thing that comes to mind is a large creature with long legs, long neck, and a plump, feathery body standing in the mist in a field at 5:30 a.m. as I was waking up all the other students at a yoga teacher training. Since we were in Grass Valley, California, I could not place the animal as something existing in that landscape, and so I had to just accept the strange being as a kind of visitation, and get on with my duty of ringing the wake-up bell. Later, I learned it was an emu. He had escaped from an emu “farm” somewhere nearby.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

With 50 words I can write a poem (including the title):


the spiders have strung
their threads
between the trees

they sparkle like lengths
of exquisite light as the sun
shines through the leaves

these are the webs
woven through the woods
of our shimmering existence

illuminations of creation
and the delicacy
of intricate survival

— I wrote that poem for my stepmother, Lynn Evans, as she was recovering from a battle with cancer.

With $50 I believe I can rent a discounted car for the day and go to Point Reyes National Seashore (or some other gorgeous place near S.F.)

What are some of your favorite smells?

Night-blooming jasmine and gardenias are intoxicating. I also love the smell of balsam fir needles and the woods in summer just after it rains. The scent of piñon smoke from kiva fires in New Mexico is another smell that makes me breathe deeply.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I would love to make a comprehensive list of all the poets, artists, musicians, and spiritual teachers I admire / have been inspired by (from all time periods), and take a trip around the world visiting their birth sites and “old haunts” (as my father would say). Of course I’d write a book about my grand journey!

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