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Poet Profile: Marsha Barber Reflects on All The Lovely Broken People

This is a poem/for when you are broken…Marsha Barber*

The front cover of Marsha Barber’s latest book includes a snapshot of a rag doll with its head tilted and severed at the neck. Symbolically, it reminds me of childhood innocence and how easily it is lost.

book launch photo 2 for invitation with shadow

All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) is the latest poetry collection by Ryerson journalism faculty member Marsha Barber.

At some point we all break and need to find a way to ease the pain.

As an award-winning Canadian poet, Barber cradles this universal theme of family ties, loss, brokenness, and grief and through poetry tries to make sense of it all.

For example, in her first poetry collection What is the Sound of Someone Unravelling (Borealis Press, 2011) she introduces the reader to the joys and tragedies of life and death. As she writes in her introduction, the book “begins with the suicide of someone else’s father and ends with the death of my own father.” It is her way of “trying to understand both the small and enormous losses that make up all our lives.” Her 62 poems are divided into three sections: Remembrance, Graveyard in Summer, and Watching My Father Rest.

This unravelling of emotions continues with her second book All The Lovely Broken People released by Borealis Press in 2015. The 98-page collection includes 64 poems divided into five sections: Inside the House, Difficult Journey, Swimming for My Father, Guided Tour, and Small Joys.

As a journalist and a documentarian, Barber hones in close to her subject matter and writes in a clear and accessible manner. In her poem, “Photo of the Doomed Man”, she examines the struggle between the journalist’s need to share the news and to protect the victims. At one point, she writes: “We’re inured/to gutting open/the fragile moments between/life and/death/like a Halloween pumpkin.”**

Marsha Barber photo from Ryerson website

Canadian Poet Marsha Barber writes about grief and healing in her two poetry collections published by Borealis Press. Photo Credit: Gary Gould

Her work is deep: both analytical and close to the heart. Of particular note is her use of the five senses, especially the sense of smell: “Inhale the smell of coffee and damp coats/still flecked with snow, like white icing.”***

In a Verse Afire review****, Canadian poet John B. Lee wrote: “Marsha Barber’s poems are consoling in their beauty and fortifying in their faith in the quality of a good life well lived and also in the purposefulness of dying well. She writes of loss and of the pain resulting from the terrifying awful things we humans are capable of inflicting at our worst reminding this particular reader of Yeats’ line “…the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” And she confesses more than once in these poems that she does not always understand. And it is that lack of understanding that renders her insights all the more luminous. Her poems are more than an anodyne to soothe the troubled mind. They often kick sideways into the dark realm of true experience.”

By the end of the book, Barber offers the reader hope: “This is a poem to sew those torn pieces/into ribbons//and eventually/into kites.”*

A few weeks ago, I asked Barber about her writing process. Below is her response:

Congratulations Marsha on your latest work. Describe your new book. What inspired you to write it?

I write about what’s important to me and this book was inspired by needing to write about themes that range from the intimate and personal, to events unfolding in the wider world. The poems are my attempt to make sense of those worlds.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Perhaps they’re more accessible than some. I love words and form, and have written experimental poems, but for me the real test of a poem is whether it will move readers. Will they relate to it? Will they laugh, or cry, or pause to think? Perhaps that comes from a deep desire to communicate with each person who is reading my book or hearing my words.


poems book cover McNally Robinson

What is the Sound of Someone Unravelling (Borealis Press, 2011) was Marsha Barber’s debut poetry collection.


You were a journalist first. How has your documentary experience influenced your poetry writing?

As a journalist, my goal is to tell an interesting story to an audience. That’s made me very aware of the power of narrative and storytelling. Just as journalism uncovers truth, I aim to get to the heart and inner truth of what I write about. Also, I’ve been told my work appeals to the senses, including the visual. Perhaps that stems from my work as a documentary maker. And finally, the best broadcast writing is clear and concise and words are chosen carefully. I’ve learned from that, I think.

 What inspires you and who are your mentors?

Good poetry inspires me. I’m a traditionalist in my tastes, so books of poetry by Keats and Yeats are never far from my bedside. I love the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and Jane Kenyon and Dorothy Livesay, among many others. The Canadian poetry community, which is wonderfully generous, is full of people who have been inspirations and mentors.

Describe your writing process.

I write my first drafts late at night. Usually I sit on the bed with my Hilroy notebook and start to write. I always complete my first draft in long hand and I write fast. Revisions are a different matter. Usually I type out the draft and revise as soon as I wake up in the morning. Reading the poem aloud helps with that. Then I let time pass before I return to the poem so I can see it with a fresh eye before I do additional revising.

 What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on my third poetry book. This spring I was in Europe on sabbatical and some of the poems were written overseas. It was inspiring to write in a new setting in the middle of intense new sensory experiences.

What are your future plans?

More writing. I’ve written since I could hold a pencil so I imagine I’ll continue until I can’t hold a pen anymore. I think the impulse to create is as powerful as the impulse to draw breath. For me, it’s largely what makes life worthwhile.

Thanks Marsha for the interview and for allowing me to share a reprint of one of your poems. I look forward to reading your future work.

The Condolence Call

By Marsha Barber*****

I cradle the phone gently.
You are so far away.

Your grief surrounds you now
like a moat full
of dark water.

I cannot reach
far enough to comfort you.

My words flit around, useless
as flies.
What, after all, can be said?

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, you say.

I imagine I would have howled.
I imagine I would have rolled on the floor.
But in the end, I cannot begin to imagine.

I’ll be okay, you say,

but your voice is so remote as if
you’ve left us all
for a bleaker planet

where the air is charred,
and you cannot find the path
that leads
back home.

Marsha Barber’s next reading will be at the 100,000 Poets for Change event, Saturday, September 17, 2016, 5 to 8 p.m. at Mây Restaurant, 876 Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario. Hosted by Pat Connors and Steve O’Brien, the event will also include readings by Mahlikah Awe:ri, Sharon Berg, Luciano Iacobelli, Donna Langevin, Max Layton, Jeannine Pitas, Robert Priest, Dane Swan, and Anna Yin. More information here.

Marsha reading on train

Barber shares her work during the 2015 Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour.

Additional information about Marsha Barber can be found on The Ontario Poetry Society website.

Descriptions about her books are located on the Borealis Press website.

*from the poem “All the Lovely Broken People” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) pages 94 and 95. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

**from the poem “Photo of the Doomed Man” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 69. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

***from the poem “Writing in Cafés” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 82. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

****The full book review by John B. Lee appears in Verse Afire, A Tri-Annual Publication of The Ontario Poetry Society, Jan. to Apr. 2016 issue. Reprinted with permission.

*****“The Condolence Call” originally published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 26. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Marsha Barber, 2015  Please note due to formatting limitations of this blog, the phrase “as flies” in the fourth verse could not be indented as it should be. My apologies to the author and Borealis Press.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles. 



I Have Never Been to the Atlantic Ocean but Now I Feel I Have~~~

Well, I have and I haven’t! Oh, this is so confusing! One of my literary goals on my bucket list is to dip my toes in the Atlantic Ocean and then write a poem about it. I don’t know when I will get there but about three months ago I started reading a poetry book that not only made me feel like I was already splashing through the salty waves in my rubber boots but that I needed to pack up my fishing nets and head to the east coast today and for real! Ready or not, here I come! Books can do that, transport me to locations I have never seen and may never get to in person. My apologies for the late review, long overdue but I was hoping to polish up my French for the trip. That’s on my bucket list too!!


By Donna Allard and Nat Hall Broken Jaw Press and BS Poetry Society, 2013, 72 pages ISBN 978-1-55391-111-1

By Donna Allard and Nat Hall
Broken Jaw Press and BS Poetry Society, 2013, 72 pages
ISBN 978-1-55391-111-1

At first glance, From Shore to Shoormal could easily be described as a poetic travelogue where images of the Atlantic Ocean mesmerize the readers and lure them onto fishing vessels and along barren shorelines where the “high-spirited” raven keeps a watchful eye. In the poem “Treasure Hunt” the instructions are to “Get your map out”… “never lose sight of your compass”…and “Feel the last wave, follow the sun.”… For those who are unfamiliar with the coastal fringe of Acadia’s Shediac Bay and the shoormal of Shetland Islands, U.K., this book nudges individuals into the salt taste, damp fog, fishy scent and rugged characteristics of these two regions.

However, this collection of 25 bilingual poems by New Brunswick poet Donna Allard and Shetland-based poet and visual artist Nat Hall is more than just another geography lesson. As stated on the back cover this 72-page book is a celebration of the Atlantic connection between two voices: the persona of Allard’s acadianrose cresting like ocean waves in “From Shore” the first section of the book and Hall’s nordicblackbird flying strong in the second part dedicated “To Shoormal”.

While the cover image (Hall’s photo ‘vagabond mood’) appears stark and gloomy, it sets a melancholy tone for the poetic landmarks within.

For example, Acadia’s rich history unfolds as relic puzzle pieces and unearthed memories in Allard’s introductory poem “War Musket Grass (Bay of Fundy) where “they swear the land still smells of powder.” In “Northwest Passage”, the “mornin’ boats dot the water like fag butts” and the “morning sun zips its warm jacket and leaves”. The couplets in this poem and the metaphors throughout this section of the book are like the waves in the ocean, lapping the shore at a steady rhythm. The writing is tight and Allard often uses haunting words when describing the fisherman’s life, beer, his wife’s isolation, “icicled telephone wires”, “ghost ships that/appear at sunset” and eyes either “shipwrecked on déjà vu” or a “glassy reflection of dark tides”.

It is not an easy journey. As Allard states, “There’s not a road on this isle that does not bleed/from shore to shore.” Yet, Pablo’s poetic influence abounds “along the apple pathways of every heart in love.” In another poem, she writes “this memory shall live within me/until that sweet season when we meet again.” Death and love are common themes: “I drown, in the beauty that only the Bay of Fundy can offer.”

In the second section of the book, once the reader is seamlessly transported across the ocean, Hall resumes the Atlantic tour using the image of the raven and the wind in many of her poems. The writing is often gritty, sometimes gentle, written mainly in the first person point of view and is accessible to the general public. However expect some unique twists and turns of phrases. In her poem “On the Tip of My Heart” she taunts the reader “go ask the bird what it feels like inside the gale.” Hall explores the “Lady Mist”, “water washed words”, the turbulent storms of the Atlantic and the lighthouse beacon. In “The Tales from the Tides” she experiments with an acrostic riddle and later humours the audience with the unexpected language of canned fish. One of the most memorable lines of the book appears in the poem “Harva” where Hall states, “I taste the sea…I’m still drinking the Atlantic/like a long shot of/tequila.”

While both sections of the book are written in a free-style format, the addition of French translations and Shetland dialect provides a cultural echo and textured layer to the original English work. As Hall writes in the English version of her closing poem, “I love this sudden switch of tongue/sur toutes les lèvres du St, Laurent!/Now I feel home on either side of the Atlantic.”

Whether the reader is French or English speaking, it is not necessary to be bilingual to appreciate the depth of emotion and multi-layers of meaning in these poem treasures. Rather, here is a book that dares people to step outside their boundaries, to take a closer look and celebrate these strong voices that make the Atlantic coast so special.

For additional “official” information about the book, click here.