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With Roots in Major Cities, Tina Barr Infuses Her Poetry with the Spirit of the Mountains

Courtesy of Tina Barr

Tina Barrearned a PhD in poetry and a tenured professorship at a small college, and then she met a jazz pianist.

“My husband was willing to do his work or die, so he spent years living in Brooklyn, sleeping on a futon rolled up under his piano,” Barr said. “He really was an example to me of how to be an artist, and so I feel like now I can call myself a writer.”

In an era when younger poets are coming up through the slam and spoken-word scenes, 63-year-old Tina Barr is a traditionalist. The nature and landscape of Western North Carolina punctuate Barr’s poetry, and she prefers to deliver it through the printed word.

The new collection of Barr’s poetry, her third, is titled “Green Target.” You can hear her reading from her new collection of poetry from noon to 1:30pm Friday, Nov. 9, at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts.

“I’m trying to make the greatest art I can, so I want to use language that is dense, that is complex, that is going to resonate,” she said. “I’m always writing to be true to the best art I can make, not to be accessible to an audience.”

Barr grew up in a politically liberal family on Long Island, New York. She studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and went on to live in Manhattan, Philadelphia and Paris. She said her five extensive stays in Cairo, Egypt, over a five-year spell are central to much of her poetry.

“I was always real serious, even as a kid,” Barr recalled. “I didn’t come from a healthy family, so I didn’t have a picture of what a happy family can be.”

She taught poetry and started a creative writing program at Rhodes College in Memphis. She met the jazz pianist and composer Michael Jefry Stevens at an artists colony in New Hampshire, and Stevens moved to Memphis so they could marry.


They were living the lives of urban artists, but after Barr’s mother died, 10 years ago, Barr felt called to the mountains of Western North Carolina. She gave up her tenured position at Rhodes and the couple moved to Black Mountain. While Stevens initially struggled to find a community of jazz artists in this region, Barr felt immediately at home.

“Moving here was the first irrational decision I ever made,” she said. “I’d always been or tried to be been an achiever and was I moving more toward an inner life. In other words, there was always the sort of intellectual me and the real me, which is the artist me, and so in a sense I chose the artist self when I moved here.”

Barr teaches poetry through the Great Smokies Writing Program and, three years ago, she founded the Shining Rock Poetry Anthology, which archives work originally published in the New Yorker and other literary magazines.


“Being an outsider is really important to me—bearing witness, going into an environment that’s new to me and making observations about it,” she said. “There’s often a speaking eye in the poem, and I want to reveal a lot emotionally. I want to take that risk.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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