COLUMBIA — To him, poetry is more than words. It’s an experience. It exists in real space and real time.
To him, poetry happens in the space between the stage and the audience, and if he’s lucky, it’s in the audience.
To him, poetry is a portal into understanding “being,” a way to understand life.
“Part of the poem is what’s happening immediately around it,” he says. “A poem is like a body — it fits within a whole that’s better than the sum of its organic parts.”
He is Mike Barrett, and his 46 years have taken him on quite a journey. He has been a high school football star, a teacher in inner-city schools, a performance poet, a slam poet, a painter, an essayist, a professor, creative director of the multimedia arts collective Anvil/lyre Studio — and just a curious guy. Now, he is somewhat of a combination; plus, he’s a parent.
Although Barrett has performed his poetry on stage for years, lately he has focused on teaching at Moberly Area Community College and raising his sons, Eddie, 10, and Jude, 8. Most midnights find him in the literal depths of Columbia’s First Ward — in his basement — battling his ego. He’s created a painting on his basement wall that most people will never see. This is Barrett’s way of making sure that he makes art for the love of art alone. When he and his family move, they will paint over the wall, and it will be lost, having existed without recognition.
Two decades of work
Barrett doesn’t perform as much as he did in the 1980s, when he was part of the Chicago Poetry Ensemble, which was a centerpiece of the early days of the slam poetry movement. But he does perform at least twice a year at festivals and other gatherings. In addition, he has organized several performances of poetry and arts in Columbia.
His work has evolved over the years, and Barrett sometimes uses offbeat techniques to write — such as writing with his left hand because he says he can think with his entire body.
Barrett’s latest work, “Phidias, Heidegger, Adorno,” is a performance poetry piece and partially improvised. It is his interpretation of an imagined conversation among philosophers Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno and himself as Phidias, an ancient Greek sculptor. The philosophers explored the idea of existence, and so does Barrett as Phidias. It centers on the poem, “Sein und Zeit: Cuts of Phi.”
Parts of the poem are told through the lens of Emily Dickinson. The lines and stanzas are arranged in relation to each other according to the golden ratio — a ratio of 1.618 to 1 that, when used in art and architecture, is thought to be pleasing to the human eye. Perhaps the most famous example is the Parthenon, an ancient temple built to honor the goddess Athena. Phidias is credited with sculpting the statue of Athena in the Parthenon.
Barrett performed the work in late April at an experimental literature festival in California.
But even though he has immersed himself in poetry for more than two decades, he’s not going to tell you what’s good poetry and what’s not.
“I hate the idea of poet as gatekeeper,” he says.
In addition to the philosophy that others should decide about poetry for themselves, he enjoys learning from others, often pursuing obscure and odd topics that pique his curiosity.
It’s the curiosity aspect that Barrett’s longtime friend and MU professor Timothy Langen remembers about the first conversation the two had more than nine years ago. They met through their children, who played together in the neighborhood. When Langen told Barrett he was a Russian studies professor, Barrett started asking him specific questions about Russian poets.
“One of the most important things to know about Mike is that he has the most universal, voracious curiosity — he’s just interested in everything,” Langen says. “He’s not a Russian teacher or anything, but he was asking me very specific questions about Russian poets.”
Barrett grew up on Chicago’s West Side in a passionate, brawling, loving Catholic family. His mother was Polish and his father Irish, which he calls the typical Chicago mix. In his neighborhood, “fistfights were a way of life,” he says.
Barrett started writing poetry when he was 11 but didn’t tell anybody until he was 19.
“I didn’t know how to fit it into a vision of myself,” he says. “But sometimes secrets are good. It was a secret power I had.”
While Barrett developed his secret power, he played football. He wanted to become a professional player one day.
“I’m built like my mom, but I look like my dad,” Barrett says. “She was a strong lady.”
In his sophomore year of high school, Barrett injured a nerve in his neck and couldn’t continue to play football, so he picked up shot put and discus.
Sports have long been an important part of Barrett’s life. He describes sports in romantic terms. He talks of “kinesthetic pleasure,” pleasure in movement. Standing on his porch, discus in hand, he spins. But before he throws it, he says it’s great “to have everything go right for a brief moment in time.”
Even his wife, Trudy Lewis, a creative writing professor at MU and author of two books, the more famous being “The Bones of Garbo,” remembers the first thing she heard Barrett say was about physical activities.
While both were attending the master’s program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and were at a meeting for teaching assistants, Barrett stood up and said he had just come back from climbing Mount Rainier in Washington.
Barrett and Lewis moved to Columbia in stages. She moved first, when after nearly three decades of education, interrupted by one year of teaching high school English in New Jersey, Lewis was offered a job at MU. Barrett stayed in Chicago for a year to complete his doctorate, before joining Lewis in Columbia. He worked for a time at an axle factory, then started teaching creative writing at Moberly Area Community College.
Barrett’s passion for poetry intensified when he was studying economics at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He took a poetry class that made it all click for him. The professor had his students perform at coffee shops, write poems in two or more aesthetic styles and, once, they had to do a two-hour free write. Barrett did his free-write assignment while he was home in Chicago on spring break.
Working in his childhood bedroom, Barrett started writing — and kept writing. By the end of the two hours, he was kind of hallucinating.
“When you’re free writing, you don’t even know where the words are coming from,” Barrett said. “It was greater than I was.”
He had written more than 14 pages and came to see that poetry is more than the sum of the emotions of the person writing. Poetry is something that can transcend.
Years later, Barrett took this understanding to the rowdy and often shady Get Me High Lounge in Chicago, where he met Marc Kelly Smith, the man who would later become the founder of the slam poetry movement.
At that time, the early 1980s, Smith was running a show in which he invited everyone who wanted to read poetry on stage on Monday nights. The lounge was often frequented by drunks and heroin addicts who would heckle the performers.
Smith describes Barrett as bringing a new perspective to the Get Me High. He was well-read and understood the technique of poetry. Others were writing more on instinct, and Barrett would at times rein them in, Smith said.
Smith invited Barrett to become part of the Chicago Poetry Ensemble, a group of artists who collaborated to perform pieces at the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago. It is here that the slam poetry movement had its start, although it wasn’t called slam at that time. The word comes from The Uptown Poetry Slam, which still happens every Sunday night at the Green Mill.
So what is a slam? It’s a poetry competition in which everyone who walks into the place is invited to take part. It is a judged competition, and the judges are randomly selected audience members who rank the poets, usually on a scale from one to 10.
Although the word “slam” has come to mean different things to people, the essence of it is rooted in performance poetry. Over the years, the movement has become international; some of today’s most famous poets owe their beginnings to the slam.
The Chicago Poetry Ensemble usually performed every Sunday before the slam started, and sometimes Barrett competed. Because Smith believed that poetry should always be entertaining, he thought the presenter should animate the poem being read.
“I could hold my own because I was a fairly expressive reader,” Barrett said.
Today, he considers it ironic that he is remembered as a slam poet. And, even though Barrett is mentioned in several books as part of the movement, he now considers himself to be an experimental poet.
Poetry’s quieter work
Barrett wants his work to be about more than his ego. He wants to work to work. He refuses to self-promote. He stays under the media radar.
Quite a few years have gone by since his days at the Green Mill Lounge, and although Barrett misses the collaborative work of the Chicago Poetry Ensemble, he still feels he does the work of poetry through his teaching.
“I’ve gone my own way,” Barrett says. “I’m not part of the slam scene; I’m not part of the language poetry scene. I’m doing the work of poetry more quietly.”
The latest example of that work is a poetry performance Barrett’s students held on April 23 at the community college where he teaches.
At the rehearsal, two hours before showtime, they stand at the mic reading their work. Most of the poems are group poems, and they crowd around the mic.
Jokingly, Barrett shouts suggestions: “A lot of you guys sound like you’re delivering a funeral eulogy. Put some life into it.”
One of the students brings his mouth to the mic and passionately shouts a line of his poem.
Barrett screams, “YES! There you go!
“Own the mic,” he adds. “Be the mic. Well, I’m Mike.”
Most of the students at the rehearsal — Mark Brekke, Teri Craig, Patrick Giberson, Humma Gulzar and Kevin Meissen — didn’t write much poetry before attending his class. But all say they have been encouraged by the experience.
Giberson says that in addition to making him comfortable with being a male poet, Barrett never told him how to write; he just made suggestions.
“He speaks to us as a peer. He makes suggestions, but he tells you that they’re suggestions,” Giberson says. “He doesn’t ever tell me what he advocates. He’s not trying to change my mind, and I think about words differently now.”