The Monthly talks to writer, poet and Psychologist, Miriam Barr – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

You form a poetry group?

Yes. We started getting together and workshopping material and seeing if we could pull a show together. By 2006 we were a group of 7 and had started putting on our own events. Being in The Literatti with a group of other poets was such an important part of my journey. We would workshop our material together, play with music and movement, bounce off each other, and that was part of the process of developing, again just being with other poets and writers.

We were also looking at things like Def Jam poetry and seeing performers in the United States and the UK. At one point I came across a woman called Nikki Patin on YouTube and I commented on one of her pieces called Sweat to say you should come to New Zealand and it turned out she was planning a tour and surprisingly said sure thing I’ll come. So we started collaborating, exchanging material by email, and eventually she came over to New Zealand, and we did a show together called Growl.

Did that help you develop as a group?

It was part of it. Everyone we worked with influenced us. The Literatti was constantly evolving, the members changed, new people joined, and the role of director changed hands too, from Shane to me to Christian Jensen. We started out where each member of the group would do their set, ten minutes each sort of thing, and we would sort of stitch together a set for the group, but we moved towards creating shows with coherent themes, incorporating theatre techniques, doing duets and group poems, and we added in film footage, worked with dancers, things like that. We had always worked with music and we were very ambitious in that we would book big venues and produce stage shows in theatres. We would make sure we had high tech gear and we were working on projects with animators and photographers and that would all get filtered in as well.

Does anything develop from there?

So many things grew from the confidence I found in that group. Slam had started to come more into the poetry scene around the same time we were getting started and I got right into that for a while. I won the first Poetry Idol slam in New Zealand in 2006 and that lead me to perform in Bali at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival. There wasn’t really such a thing as a slam poet or a slam style back then, it felt like there were no limits or expectations. Eventually a slam style started to develop here, and they got super competitive, and I kind of lost interest then. I didn’t like the impact it had on my writing and performances. Trying to win felt constraining, not winning felt discouraging, and trying to beat the competition felt unsupportive, which was quite the opposite of what I wanted to be. I still dig slams and they do provide a great platform for poets to get in front of an audience. They certainly helped me make a name for myself at the time. But you’ve got to take the competition element of it with a grain of salt. I just realised I  like collaborating more than competing.

Did the Literatti get much support?

Not really. We weren’t people with high profiles and we didn’t have big publications and what we were doing was quite unique at the time, though we were always keenly aware of all that had come before us, the traditions we were part of. Other groups have come along since and been more successful in that regard. So no, we didn’t get a lot of support from the institutions but we had no problems drawing an audience and covering our basic costs through ticket sales.  Leaving New Zealand wasn’t really an option because it was so expensive to travel so we never took what we were doing overseas. Though I was able to bring another of The Literatti poets with me to perform in Ubud and we were able to do a few tours around different parts of New Zealand using funds raised from local shows at home in Auckland. We did get some funding through a mental health arts grant for a show that used poetry to reduce the stigma of mental health issues. But other than that, it was all self funded for the love it.

What else did you do?

I started small publishing activities and I produced a monthly zine called Sidestream. That was very much a kind of home publishing production, made possible by a group of volunteers from the local poetry community. I would post it out to this global network of poets, who distributed the zines in places where people wouldn’t expect to find poetry. They went to Melbourne, Berlin, India, New York and lots of other places. We managed to keep that going for years, I think we published over a hundred different poets in that time.

I was involved in all sorts of things, I ran Poetry Brothel events to fundraise for Side Stream with some guidance from the original crew in New York, I self-published two books, tutored a creative writing group at a local mental health arts centre, was one of the instigators of a transient visual poetry collective called The Guerrilla Poets, helped edit an annual Poetry Live anthology, and took part in an annual collaboration with visual artists called Metonymy. A few years back I found out that the poetry animation I made with Kate Barton as part of Metonymy and put on YouTube had ended up being taught in a UK university course and analysed in a text book called Digital Textuality. It turned out we had made what is considered an early example of digital poetry. We didn’t know it at the time, we were just experimenting.

In 2012, I started my doctorate in clinical psychology, so I had to drop a lot of the activities that I was involved with, and in 2013 I stepped back from most of that to focus on my training and research. Though I didn’t stop entirely.

What happens then?

I took on a part time role as National Coordinator of National Poetry Day for three years, which helped me pay my way through much of my degree, but it didn’t leave a lot of room for writing. A couple of years earlier, I had met a feminist poet called Heather McPherson, who I had admired for many years, and she encouraged me work on this manuscript I had almost given up on and try to get published properly. So in 2014, Steele Roberts Aotearoa agreed to publish my book, Bullet Hole Riddle and it came out towards the end of that year. I am still really proud of that book and the reviews it got. Some of the poems even ended up on the labels of this boutique wine range by Byrne Wines which I loved, I’m all for poetry in unexpected places. I was able to collaborate with this fantastic poet Genevieve McClean for the launch and she kind of opened up a whole new perspective on how to use my voice. Genevieve has been a big influence on me. Later I was able to take part in a butoh inspired ensemble piece she directed called Flock. She had us doused in flour and using movement in ways I had never encountered before. Things like that change you.

What are you doing now?

I don’t do anywhere as much as I used to. At one point my entire life was poetry, either writing or performing it, publishing it, mentoring others, or  organising gigs and events. Now I have to be a bit more selective with where I put my energy and fit it in around my day job as a psychologist, which takes up a lot of space, but still uses my creativity in other ways. I’ve been able to bring poetry into therapy too, either sharing poems to help open up discussion of difficult, nuanced issues, or writing people therapeutic poems using their own words to help create a reflective space for them to look at their own insights and experiences from a different perspective. That’s been really special, this small but significant act of turning struggle into art. I’ve been working on a poetry therapy group that I’m calling Speak Easy and hope to get off the ground in the not too distant future.

One change has been getting into visual poetry and making what I call Book Boxes. They are part object art, part poetry book. Some are accordion books with concertina pages that fold out of recycled gift boxes, others are probably best described as dioramas. They use found objects, collage, ink, whatever I can lay my hands on. I’ve  ended up being involved in a few group exhibitions and have two more coming up next year that I am working on now.

I still perform and collaborate with others where I can. Covid has been interfering with that a bit over the past 18 months, but I managed to get on stage at the start of this year and online events like International Page and Stage make it possible even when we are in lockdown. I have been working on a few pieces with a local musician John McNab and he has been able to record the music for me, so I am still able to do some semblance of what we had planned. This latest lockdown in Auckland meant we had to can the first event I had helped organise in years. We’d planned this series of site-specific performance poetry installations with a dozen different poets at a historic vineyard turned arts centre in West Auckland. Hopefully it’ll be able to happen in October.

I still get published occasionally too, though I rarely have time to submit unfortunately. A big highlight for me was having a poem included in a book called Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women’s Poetry. There’s a recognition in that title which feels like I have in a small way made into the canon, and that seems a long way from where I started out.

See more of Miriam Barr’s work at her website: www.miriambarr.com

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