(Photo of Ros Barber by Simon Bottrell)
Last Autumn I went to the York conference of the National Association for Writers in Education to present a paper on the theme of voice in writing. It was an interesting weekend with a good variety of sessions but one of the biggest pleasures was the Friday night evening of poetry. There was an excellent selection of different voices but the highlight for me was Ros Barber.
Ros is a striking performer of her work and listening to one of her readings is akin to hearing an actor performing a particularly lyrical extract from a play.
Sometimes when I have bought a volume of poetry after being impressed by a reading I have been a little disappointed by the way the poems translate to a private reading on the page - it seems that it was not the words themselves that were appealing to me but the way they were said. However the poems in Ros Barber’s HOW THINGS ARE ON THURSDAY are just as exquisite on the page as said aloud for example THE DANCER begins with:
‘She could fold herself in a perfect half
like a dollar bill in a waitress’s apron pocket,
waiting to be spent...’
and Patience Agabe says that ‘Ros Barber’s work is exquisitely honed in meter and metaphor. She makes the iambic pentameter sound as if she just invented it.’
There are poems on such diverse topics as loss, ageing, a nanny’s accident with her charge and the fate of a delapidated building (which can be read on her website) - converting the most commonplace things and events in life into something more fabulous. Her style reminds me of Gillian Clarke's and Simon Armitage's - it is direct, profound and strong - and makes you think again about things you thought you knew.
Ros Barber was born in Washington DC, grew up in Colchester, studied biology at the University of Sussex and now lives in Brighton running a small theatre with her husband as well as bringing up four children. She has very kindly answered my seven questions...
1. Do you have any connection with snails?
As a gardener, I have a very antagonistic relationship with snails. I tend to 'rehouse' my snail population (via a short flight) in the communal garden of the mews houses next door, which is very green and never used. However, I suspect the greenery is not to their taste, as they keep making the 50 ft climb back to my roof garden. A short story entitled 'Slugs & Snails' (published in IOS) once did rather well for me. And I had a tutor at university who used to study them. He was famously dull. He'd walk in and my friend would whisper to me, no matter what the subject ("bet he brings snails into it"). And he always did.
2. What is your proudest moment?
Getting a first at university (in Biology) when the previous year I'd been on the verge of being thrown out for academic underachievement. I got two fives in my Early Finals, owing to the fact that I was in the middle of a breakdown (and not prepared to admit it for fear of being locked up). I was on the Vice Chancellor's list, the last list before you get booted. In the summer before my final year, I found an understanding boyfriend, signed up with the university's counselling service, and worked my arse off to try and catch up. After the exams I was called in for a Viva (interview for the borderline). I thought it was for the pass/fail boundary until I realised how difficult the questions were. I shouted at the external examiner and burst into tears. He wouldn't let me out of the room for another twenty minutes because he said I'd scare the other candidates. During that time, we just talked. I thought I'd messed it up completely, went home to bed, pulled the duvet over my head, and cried. A few hours later I got a call from a friend who said she'd heard the results had been posted on the notice board, so I got my boyfriend to give me a lift back to campus. Walking up the path towards the doors of the glass foyer, I saw a crowd of people round the notice board. One of them noticed me and one by one their heads turned until they were all staring at me. When I opened the door, silence fell, and the crowd parted so I could make my way to the front and see my name at the top of the list. It was like a film.
3. Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
Five years ago, when my divorce settlement came through, I asked my lover to join me on a two-week Tantra workshop in Costa Rica. As a result, my lover became my husband.
4. What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
There are so many sad things in the world. I'm very drawn to sad things. But I can't pretend any of them affect me more than the personal. Three years ago my mum was on the second day of a holiday in Thailand when a 16 year-old sitting in a parked vehicle turned on the ignition so he could listen to the radio. The truck was in gear - it lurched forward and knocked her over. The resort they were staying in was fairly basic, and she died from her injuries before they could get her to hospital. My mum was the strongest influence in my life, and my biggest fan, writing-wise. Everything good that happens I want to share with her first. Sometimes, still, I find I have dialled her number by mistake. There's so much she's missed already - my first book, my first daughter, my sister's first child, England doing well at cricket - she'd have loved all of that. She was a very alive person. She had a big laugh, an eccentric dress-sense, a love of champagne, a passion for eating outdoors even if the weather was crap. Despite experiences that would have knocked most people sideways, she was the most optimistic person I've ever known. Then she went on holiday and didn't come back.
5. If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
I'd be less chaotic. I'd know where things were when I put them down, and I wouldn't wake up in a panic in the early hours of the morning.
6. What is happiness?
Not wanting anything different from what you have now.
For me, it's loving and being loved.
7. What is the first thing you do when you get up?
Pee. And then, so long as there's no-one to stop me, I'm down in the office in my dressing gown, turning on the computer.
HOW THINGS ARE ON THURSDAY is Ros Barber’s debut collection - already she has won an impressive number of awards and prizes for both poetry and prose. I am very much looking forward to reading more from one of my favourite poets.