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So What Do You Do, John Barr?

When the nation's leading poetry nonprofit suddenly got stinking rich, who did it enlist to run things? A Wall Street poet, of course.

By Jill Singer - March 23, 2004

Last year the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation received an extraordinary donation: $100 million over the next 30 years from pharmaceutical heiress and philanthropist Ruth Lilly. The gift is perhaps the largest literary endowment in history, and the fact that it was aimed at poetry, a notoriously underfunded art, left the foundation's executives a bit flummoxed. They immediately changed their name from the Modern Poetry Association, but it was clear that more radical changes would be necessary to create a innovative home for American poetry. In order to manage all that money and still retain the artistic integrity of the company, which publishes the tiny but prestigious Poetry magazine, they needed someone well-versed in the currency of both money and meter.

John Barr, who was named president of the Poetry Foundation early last month, seems a perfect match. Over the past three decades, Barr has pursued parallel careers as an investment banker and a poet. The founder of the successful public-utilities firm SG Barr Devlin and the author of six collections of lyric, long-form poetry, Barr has won acclaim as a financial expert and a gifted wordsmith, and he has etched out a career similar to fellow businessman-poets Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. Barr, his speech occasionally laced with similes and metaphors, recently spoke to about his new job, his unlikely career path, and the current state of American poetry.

Birthdate: January 28, 1943
Hometown: Born in Omaha, Nebraska; grew up in Lisle, Illinois.
First section of the Sunday Times: Book Review

So the news, of course, is that you were recently chosen to be the new president of the Poetry Foundation. How did this come about? Why do you think they chose you?
I think they were looking for somebody who had enough business experience to manage the responsibility of a very large endowment that, in effect, came out of nowhere. The 30 years or so I spent on Wall Street probably gave me the experience that they were looking for. The second part was that they wanted somebody that was passionately interested in poetry and knew something about the poetry world. And, I've served a lot of years on not-for-profit organizations. For five years, I was president of the Poetry Society of America. I have served and continue to serve on the board of Yaddo, which is one of the oldest artists' colonies in the country. I've also been on the board of Bennington College for almost 20 years, and chairman of the board for 12 years. So that gave me a window into the arts world from a number of different points of view. Not only that, I've got a life as a writer, and that was important to them.

What do you see happening with the endowment?
Our objective will be to discover some of the greater unmet or undermet needs of poetry in America. We'll develop programs either on our own or in conjunction with other organizations in the poetry world to meet those needs. One example is audience development. We want to get people who are not currently poetry readers—they might be commuters, travelers in hotel rooms who would love to see an anthology at night, airplane travelers, people outside of the traditional home for poetry, the academic world—in touch with good poetry, and grow that audience and see more poets selling more books. That's one example. There are other ideas that we're kicking around.

You've had this fascinating career: You've been an investment banker, you've been a poet, and you've also been a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. How did you get to this point? Walk me through your career.
I've been in the business world for over 30 years—on Wall Street, but not as a stockbroker. I was 18 years at Morgan Stanley, a wonderful firm, but the firm went public in the mid-1980s and a few years later I retired. I wanted to be part of something smaller and more intimate, just because I love small companies and the special kind of relationship they can have with clients. So I started my own firm, called Barr Devlin—Hugh Devlin was my partner and friend of many years on Wall Street and at Morgan Stanley—and we just kept doing what we had been doing.

I ran the public-utility group at MS for 10 years, and the business of our new shop was to provide advice to public utilities around the country. We caught the wave of all of the utility mergers that occurred in the 1990s—better lucky than smart, I guess. We had no idea that all that was going to happen when we started the shop in 1990. We were fortunate to be the investment banker of record on a lot of the largest utility mergers in the 1990s. We were acquired by Societe Generale in 1998, and we became a part of that global organization, which enabled us to take our specialties overseas. We continue as a part of their organization—we're still based in New York, and I still carry titles there—but I have some wonderful younger partners who run the business day-to-day.

How did you pursue a business career at the same time you were writing and publishing poetry? What was your day like? Did you write in the morning? Take summers?
It tended to be concurrent—on airplanes, in hotel rooms, in the back of a taxicab. If I was very actively involved in a book, sometimes I'd wake up at three or four in the morning. I find that's a wonderful time to write, because when you wake up, the sounds that have come through your head as conversation and noise have all abated from the night before. To me, the quality of sound or silence at 3 a.m. is like new snow with no footprints on it. The ear is more attuned and you can do the sound work of writing a poem very well early in the morning. I tend to keep journals and 3-by-5 cards, and I write lines on the edges of train schedules and whatever I can. So my method of writing is like other poets that I know. I would tend to write lines wherever I was, and then periodically transfer those in the journals. At this point, I probably have 5,000 pages of journals that are the raw material for a lot of what I write.

I think that very often, poets who have these left-brain day jobs tend to inform their art with the details of them. William Carlos Williams certainly had a lot of poems that meditated on hospitals and sickness. Do you find that happening in your poetry at all?
That's a good question. It took a long time for my business-world experience to come into my poems in an explicit way. I think everything a poet does comes into the work implicitly. But the book that came out in 1999, called Grace, actually had a section in it that was a parody of a typical New York businessman. The protagonist speaking in the book is a black Caribbean gardener who has been tried unjustly for a crime he witnessed but did not commit. While he's awaiting execution, he's got a cellmate, and the cellmate is a halfwit. This fellow is explaining the world as he sees it, including New York, to his cellmate, and it's my opportunity to take a fresh look at everything I wanted to talk about when I was approaching the age of 50.

Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins has been quoted saying that he gets two conflicting questions all the time: How do you account for the poetry renaissance in America right now, and, why does no one read poetry anymore? Which do you think is the more accurate perception?
Oh, he is a master at capturing issues like that. That's a wonderful way to put it. Here's my take on it: A decade ago, there was a debate going on in the intellectual press and the poetry community. One point of view was that nobody that writes poetry sells any books. The other point of view is that we've got this growing number of poetry readings and they occasionally sell out big auditoriums. So which is it? Is poetry, in fact, enjoying a renaissance or is it the black art that it has been in the past? My own view is that that's the wrong question.

Poetry needs to get in touch with the audiences of its time. The golden age of any art is when that art is in touch with the general audience of its time. Think of the drama in Shakespeare's day, think of the novel in the 20th century, and think of the movie today. It's where people go because they want to see the art, not because they're supposed to. They're drawn to it. The art happens at the same time as the entertainment in the art.

And I think poetry for the last 10 or 15 years has been succeeding in reaching out to the general public. You have a handful of poets—I'm thinking of Billy, I'm thinking of Mary Oliver, I'm thinking of Seamus Heaney—who, I don't know what their book sales are, but I've got to believe that it's real money, that they are at or approaching that point where a poet can actually support himself or herself through book sales, and the reason for that is they are writing in ways that the audience finds such deep sustenance that they will buy the book.

You mention those contemporary poets, and I know that Poetry magazine published the first poems of Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Is there anyone who's been published lately who has the chops to be considered in the same breath with those names?
I think that if I had been a subscriber to Poetry magazine in 1912, when it was founded, and when Harriet Monroe picked poems by the unknown poets, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others, I would not have understood them, and I wouldn't have known that they were to become known, a century later, as the great modern poets. I am a little bit humble about recognizing the next great talent when it shows up. I do think that poetry today is doing two things very well. The first thing it's doing is writing well in a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years that I would call the poetry of the rational or the didactic, where you can read the poem and actually parse it—poems you can read and go from A to B to C. Among those poets today I would put Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, and many others.

But that's only one thing that I think is being done well in American poetry today. The other thing that's going on is that other poets are pushing the envelope on what poetry can be. You cannot read a language poem and do what I just said about the first category. You cannot parse it and say, "This poem is about a man walking alone under a full moon." It's about something else. I think the surrealist poets, James Tate and others, often with great humor, are denying us the ability to read it as a rational line of discussion on purpose and are in fact trying to wake us up and push us in other directions. Poetry's being used as an element of exploration as well as communication and I think that's great. I think that both of those things have not always happened at the same time in the history of English and American poetry.

As long as we are on this literary bent, I'm going to remind you of that quote from Fitzgerald, where he talks about how difficult it is to hold two opposed ideas in your mind and still retain the ability to function. In light of your career choices, what do you think that says about you?
That my left and my right brain fused at birth? The way I think of what a businessman does as opposed to what a poet does is as follows: A businessperson, what they care about is making something happen, making something better in a world of external activities and affairs. That could be making a merger happen, selling a new product, or building a plant. A businessperson is trying to make sense of things in the external world, that's where things get settled. The business of the poet is to make sense of things in the internal world. For a poet, nothing has happened unless they've made sense of that in the context of a poem. They're different arenas, but they both have the same end. I view a businessperson and a poet as a response of the self to the chaotic universe. It's a way to establish order in a disorderly universe. That's where I think the two converge.

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