. Perihelion Verbatim ---- John Barr 

"Poetry is the animal that always escapes."

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Raising the Barr:
A Conversation With Poetry Foundation's John Barr

Interview by
Joan Houlihan

A year ago Feburary, a poet, investment banker, entrepreneur, college professor and founder of a successful investment banking firm, John Barr, was named president of the Poetry Foundation. The Foundation was formed to handle a bequest of $100 million made to Poetry magazine from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly, whose own poetry had been consistently rejected by Poetry. Barr is the author of six books of poetry and served on the board of directors of Yaddo as well as that of the Poetry Society of America.

At Perihelion we are very interested in what John Barr and the Poetry Foundation might have in store for poets and poetry as the result of this tremendous gift.

Perihelion: Isn't it mysterious that a rejected poet turned around and left so much money to that which rejected her? I understand that Ruth Lilly did not make any details known regarding the use of her money, but are there any discussions at the Poetry Foundation, any attempts to divine what she may have wanted done with it—or is that all beside the point now?

JB:That Ruth Lilly has made such a gift to the magazine that declined to publish her work--and has done so with no conditions, instructions, expressions of wishes or strings of any kind-- is both mysterious and wonderful. To me it is the act of a person who has placed her love for poetry above even love for her own work. In addition to its sheer size, the unrestricted nature of the gift, which is a contrast to other major bequests one sees today, again shows it to be a selfless act of generosity. The history of the magazine has left us no clues as to Ms. Lilly's specific ideas or wishes, but we do seek to keep her informed of our plans and activities through her advisors. And we look for new ways to say Thank You. This past December the Board of the Foundation elected Ruth Lilly its first Honorary Trustee, which she accepted with great pleasure.

Perihelion:In an interview in Poets and Writers last year, you make this statement:

"The Poetry Foundation is currently known for two things…Poetry magazine and the Lilly bequest. That combination of literary distinction and financial capability has not occurred before in the history of American poetry. The Foundation has the opportunity—and the challenge—to serve the arts by finding the best poetry and placing it before the largest possible audience."

These are great goals. Regarding the first goal, "finding the best poetry", it seems to me that one would first need to know what to look for, to have some standards to measure with, otherwise, the Foundation is simply picking what they "like." In what way(s) do you plan to "find [define?] the best poetry"?

JB:Our commitment to "finding the best poetry and placing it before the largest possible audience" is descended directly from Harriet Monroe. When she brought out the first issue of Poetry in 1912, she announced the magazine's purpose: "to print the best poetry written today, in whatever style, genre, or approach." Your question implies, I think, that "best," like "beauty," is in the eye of the beholder and cannot help but be a subjective decision. I draw hope from the history of the magazine, which for nearly a century has discovered and printed--often for the first time--the work of virtually every significant American poet. The roster includes poets whose work is wildly dissimilar--Eliot, Pound, Moore, Frost, Williams, Stevens--which is a testimony to the second part of Harriet Monroe's statement. Were she to visit today the editorial offices of the magazine and the Foundation, I think she would be pleased by the combination of knowledge, passion and humility she would find there. (I remind myself of our need for the latter with the following question. If the year were 1860 and not 2005, who among us could know of a recluse writing in the stillness of a house in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the arms of a new intensity?) I think Ms. Monroe would find the climate at the Foundation to be remarkably free of the politics of poetry.

Perihelion: The second goal, of course, can best be met after the first goal is met. It seems to me it's the easier (but not easy) goal—placing it before the largest possible audience, since we have all kinds of media outlets and marketing tools. But I wonder: is the American public interested in what the Poetry Foundation deems good poetry? I wonder if the American public is interested in poetry at all, good or bad. You might need to reach even further back, come up with a way to interest people in even the idea of poetry, or poets. (How about a reality series: "The Poet" modeled on "The Apprentice" with someone formidable and successful, say Derek Walcott, with the Donald Trump role). Typically, people become interested in poetry in high school—or not. Any thoughts along this line?

JB: The capacity of the American public to include more poetry in its daily life is something no one knows enough about. In order to help the Foundation, as well as other poetry organizations, to pursue their programs with better knowledge of their potential audiences, we have launched a major survey, the first of its kind, to understand where poetry sits in our culture. In coming months the National Opinion Research Center will conduct one thousand random telephone interviews to learn who reads poetry, what they like (or don't like) about poetry, where they go (or don't go) to get it, and under what conditions they might read more of it. The results, to be published next Fall, will be freely available to everyone. The Foundation will use the findings of the survey to fine tune its own programs and projects so that we are not just throwing a lot of poetry "out there" and hoping for the best.

As to people often becoming interested in poetry in high school, we couldn't agree more. This Spring the Foundation and the NEA will jointly test, in Chicago and Washington D.C. respectively, a program of poetry recitation in the high schools. Structured as a competition (think of a spelling bee, then think of a "poetry bee"), the program will require participating students to memorize great poems and recite them before judges. When the program is fully deployed, winners will move from local to regional to national finals. The premise of the program is that poetry, when discovered at that age, will stay with its discovers for the rest of their lives.

Perihelion: A "poetry bee"! Great idea. But it would have to have a lot of power and/or cachet to rise above the flood of poetry titles printed and poems made available online--a number that has become huge since the means of publication—journals and magazines (print and electronic), presses (print and electronic, POD)—have proliferated. . For instance, the NEA released a study that showed readership of poetry has gone down in the past three decades: 14.3% in 2002, down from 20.5% in 1992. During that same time period, an AWP study shows that the number of graduate writing programs in America increased almost 25%. But we have no real measure of how many poems are being read, or what, if any, influence they have. This in spite of the flood of graduates pouring out of MFA programs (2 to 3,000 every year according to AWP president, Dave Fenza). So, while the avenues of publications increase and the number of poets wanting to publish also increases, they serve an unmeasured market that may signify nothing. MFA graduates need a "poetic career portfolio" for a teaching job (book publication is a must for a tenure-track position) so you have an insanely competitive market in a field hardly noticed by the general public. What do you make of this situation? Do you think this is something the Foundation can address, perhaps by helping fund the "best" journals and presses? How about making presses so solvent they don't need to run contests; instead they could hire staff and actually focus on publishing the "best" poetry (once the standards are known..)?

JB: Your questions make the point that there is much that is out of joint in the poetry world today. The list could be expanded: Too much mediocre poetry being written, not enough readers, a lack of what Garrison Keillor calls "swashbuckling criticism," a network of prizes and academic postings the effect of which is to reinforce the status quo, a system of fellowships, grants and other subsidies the effect of which is to absolve recipients of the responsibility to sell their books. Our response at the Foundation has been to try to identify poetry's greatest unmet or under-met needs, then to develop projects and programs to address those. The conventional poetry reading, poetry workshops and the MFA program are examples of poetry institutions which were doing just fine before we came along; the needs to which they minister do not appear to be under-met. But more readers, a larger audience for poetry of all kinds-- you can never have enough of that. Each of the initiatives of our new strategic plan pursues the goal you quoted earlier, to place poetry before the largest possible audience.

Perihelion:Or, maybe the explosion of MFA programs needs to be looked at. All these graduates looking to publish are driving the creation of presses that run contests to stay afloat, etc. Meanwhile, readership is declining. How about financially rewarding schools that institute an alternate MFA track in critical reading (as I proposed in "No Poet Left Behind")—then pay the MFA graduates in Critical Reading a higher starting salary in any teaching job they take than the MFA graduates in Writing, give them the status that only comes with higher salary in America. This also makes the alternate track more attractive to MFA candidates and we start cutting back on the sheer number of poets who are trying to write and publish, while simultaneously creating an educated audience for the poetry that does get written. Would the Foundation be likely to get involved in shaping MFA programs?

JB:My own experience with MFA programs, having taught in one, persuades me that they can make of a writer a better writer. "Better" in this case means more knowledgeable in the traditions and the contemporary scope of the art, more practiced in the craft of writing, more aware of the nimbus of critical commentary which surrounds and to some extent drives the art. That's the good news; you come away with a better understanding of the sophistication of your audience and of other writers. But it is awfully important to go through an MFA program on your own terms, and not succumb to the intimidations implicit in a climate of careerism. The MFA experience can confuse the writing of poetry, as a career, with the writing of a poem as a need or an impulse. The risk is that students graduate believing that writing poetry has something to do with credentials. Writing a poem is such a fiercely independent act; it is the furthest thing from mentors, residencies and tenure. Poetry is the animal that always escapes.

Perihelion: Out of the $100 million left to the Poetry Foundation by Ms. Lilly, precisely how much does the Foundation plan to spend in 2005 on achieving its mission? In 2006? Will this amount step up over the next five years?

JB:The Foundation's budget for 2005 is approximately $4 million. It will increase in coming years to higher single-digit millions, as the money comes in from various trust funds. The important concept is that we are spending income, not principal, from the endowment. Unless we blow it, the Foundation should never run out of money.

Perihelion:Outside the academy, in many communities in America, there are efforts to revive and honor poetry at a human level, rather than as a career activity, through the creation of poetry organizations promoting poetry as a powerful, vital, force with an accepted social role. Do you think the Foundation should have any interest in researching these organizations, helping them thrive? How about the Foundation as a force for grass-roots funding?

JB:A role for a foundation "as a force for grass-roots funding" by other poetry organizations is an interesting idea, one that probably merits the attentions of any grant-giving foundation. An impediment for the Poetry Foundation is that our tax status as an "exempt operating foundation" precludes making passive financial grants for projects in which the Foundation plays no active role. In this we are different from many of those household-name foundations. But I don't mean to hide behind a technical reason. An active role is what the Foundation wants because that is the way, we believe, to make the most of Ruth Lilly's gift for the benefit of this thing called poetry. For example, the Foundation is actively involved in the "poetry bee" and has hired a project manager to help make it happen. The Foundation is also actively involved in the Kooser project because we will disseminate his product through a dedicated website which we have built and will operate.

JB:You state (in the Poets and Writers interview) that the Poetry Foundation will not be a "grant-giving" organization (by which you seem to mean "making passive financial grants" as you stated. By what means then, will the Foundation disburse funds to poets, presses or journals that advance the Foundation's goals?

JB:The Foundation is a conduit, not an end destination, for the annual income from Ruth Lilly's gift on its way to the poetry world. One way we are getting money directly to poets is through our annual prizes and awards, a program which is expanding. More important, we hope that our programs collectively will increase the readership for the many poets whose work we will disseminate. That should increase book sales, a financial benefit for both poets and their publishers, with the further benefit that it lets the audience, not the Foundation, decide whose work the readers so much love that they will buy the book.

This picture will not be complete without a final word on collaborations. I've mentioned the need for humility, and in that spirit we don't presume that the Foundation will have all the answers or all the best ideas. I've also mentioned our need to play an active role in what we fund. Where we find that someone else is already meeting poetry's needs with a better idea, a partnership or joint venture can be the perfect solution. In the past six months three of these have come into place. In collaboration with the Library of Congress, the Foundation will support American Life in Poetry, a new program inaugurated by Ted Kooser, the Poet Laureate, to make a weekly poetry column available, free of charge, to some 40,000 mid-sized and rural newspapers across the country. Separately, the Library of America will publish the first trade edition of poems by Samuel Menashe, the first recipient of our Neglected Masters award. Finally, we are very pleased to be coordinating with the NEA on the national program of recitation in the schools which I mentioned earlier. We look forward to more of these in the future.

Perihelion:Thank you, John, for sharing your thoughts and plans with us. We look forward to seeing the initiatives from the Poetry Foundation take shape over the coming year.


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