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The Interview: Barbra Fant

Poet / Performance Artist / Healer

There’s a certain metamorphosis that occurs after the longevity of sorrow. It’s a metamorphosis through which poet Barbara Fant has transfigured and has lived to tell. Fant’s words have floated through illuminating performances in globally-recognized slam competitions and prestigiously-awarded literature, but she still finds time for mentoring children and providing ministry through poetry.
But right now, studying comes first. Pursuing an MFA program at Antioch University, Fant divides her time between Los Angeles and Columbus, all while being a voice in citywide promotions for I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100. Through her revelations of the past and her eyes ahead on what’s to come, Barbara Fant’s story is still writing itself.

The first time I saw you perform was at Urban Spirit about ten years ago. What I remember most was that your eye contact with the audience was as gripping as the piece. What goes into practicing your performance?

Barbara Fant: I always say that I found poetry when I was really young, and then when I was fifteen, poetry found me. I lost my mom when I was younger and I was kind of an angry teenager, so I didn’t really know how to talk to people. I started writing, it was my way of prayer, it was my language, it was my communication. When I was in high school […] I saw Sunni Patterson. She’s a poet out of New Orleans and I was like “Oh my goodness, I wanna do what she does.” When I came to Columbus, I said I was gonna find an open mic and get on stage. I ended up at Black Pearl Poetry which was a spot that Ed Mabrey used to run, and [poet] Will Evans slammed through that scene…. Will and I became good friends. When it was 2008, [it] was the first Women of the World Poetry Slam, and they needed women to compete. Will was like, “Barbara, I need you to slam” and I was like, “What? You’re crazy, no way.” So, I did and I went to the first-ever Women of the World Poetry Slam, and that’s when I started performing. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I perform a lot, but I also do open mics as my practice. I got used to performing a lot in the mirror, like, looking myself in the eye, then when I got on stage, I’d be able to look other people in the eye.

Is there anything specific that you want your audience to mentally unpack when they listen to you?

BF: My writing in the past has been a lot about spirituality, and now I deal with a lot of trauma and things that I’ve experienced in my childhood that I didn’t really know were traumatic. What I hope that people—I guess—unpack is that I really just want them to be able to see themselves in a piece of it. I hope I give people the space to be able to find themselves in the work, in a way, or feel that they can now tell their stories because I was able to tell mine.

“The poetry scene is constantly growing and developing. It’s a place where I can really do my work, hone in on my voice, and still see a national scene, but have a community, a grassroots, a place to come back home to.”

Have you ever had someone in the audience, or someone that’s heard you, approach you very emotionally after you did a piece?

BF: Yeah, that actually happens to me a lot. (laughs) And, I don’t know if that’s because my work is sad or what. People usually want to hug me or something after. People will come up to me, like, “Can I give you a hug? Can I just hug you?” I don’t really know what all that is, but yet, people do approach me emotionally a lot. I’ve kinda gotten used to it now. •
“I think for so long, black women’s voices have been silenced, and I think the only way that we break through any kind of false narrative is to keep speaking our truth.”

You’re originally from Youngstown and moved to Columbus to attend Ohio Dominican University. After winning so many national competitions, what made you stay in Columbus?

BF: I decided to stay in Columbus because ultimately at the time, I was serving at a local fellowship. That fellowship isn’t in existence anymore, but I was serving there under a pastor who was walking me through the ordination process. I went to seminary after I got my degree, and the reason I went to seminary was to become a prison chaplain…. I ultimately didn’t go that route, but part of my staying in Columbus was because I was back in school. I’ve had a really good community in Columbus, and I still do. The poetry scene is constantly growing and developing. It’s a place where I can really do my work, hone in on my voice, and still see a national scene, but have a community, a grassroots, a place to come back home to.

Did you face some challenges balancing being mentored by a pastor, wanting to be in the religious field and performing poetry?

BF: Well, interestingly enough, when I was in undergrad, I got a call from a pastor out of the blue, and her name is Yvonne Gilmore. I ended up going to her church and she is actually the one who became my mentor. She was in a group called The Cornel West Theory, so not only was she a poet, but she’s a black woman who was also in a pastoral role, started a new church and, you know, she’s a black woman. I grew up not even realizing that women could be pastors, my father told me that was not possible, that they weren’t supposed to, and here is this black woman in a pulpit, and she’s doing her art. So for me, being able to meet her just showed me a new world. It was like, “Oh, it’s possible.” I’ve never considered myself a “Christian poet,” but I always considered myself a poet who is a Christian.

What similarities do you see within the children that you’ve taught at ArtSafe and Transit Arts? Have both experiences compared to your youth?

BF: ArtSafe was such a great organization. We took art into juvenile correctional facilities and that helped me fall in love with that space. I’m still really-really connected and feel a strong call to be in that space with individuals who are incarcerated. I think that is because I saw myself in a lot of those youths; I realized it could’ve been me. I was really empowered in that space…. I think because I’ve lived the life that I’ve had, I connect with people who have really deep, traumatic experiences.

What are some practices that new poets should implement to enhance their craft?

BF: With my kids, […] they love the arts. Some of them are more advanced that others, but most of them are entry-level writers. What I work with them a lot on is introducing them to new writers and new ways to tell their story. I do a lot of introductory poetry exercises and teaching them different styles of poems, like letting them know that it doesn’t all have to be a sonnet, or it doesn’t all have to be free verse. There’s different ways to tell your story. We work a lot with introductory metaphors and similes–all the poetic tools you would think of for how to build a poem.

How can black women define themselves in a time when we’re often misconstrued?

BF: I think one of the ways to do that is to keep speaking. It’s probably a really simple answer, but for me personally, I’m oftentimes in an all-white space, and the only thing that helps me continue to define myself is to keep speaking and to keep being and to not let my voice be silenced. I think for so long, black women’s voices have been silenced, and I think the only way that we break through any kind of false narrative is to keep speaking our truth. That’s something that I do and I work to uplift the voices of other women because I think that there’s power in that. People won’t know it unless we tell it. Only we can tell our stories.

Barbara Fant will lead a 2-hour performance poetry workshop on January 23rd as part of a poetry slam competition co-sponsored by The Columbus Association for the Performing Arts and The Columbus Foundation.

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