She could be called the 'Poet Laureate' of Holiday Island ... if there were someone to bestow that title

Monday, June 2, 2008

Barbara Rhodes could easily be called the "Poet Laureate of Holiday Island," if there were anyone to bestow such a title.

This prolific writer is known not only for her poems but for her prose, especially her two humorous and poignant short-story anthologies, "Tales from Babel Rock Lake."

But there is more to Barbara's work than just the humorous, light side of things. Her work encompasses the full range of human emotions and situations.

Barbara has been writing since grade school and has been published in several journals.

As a child, she submitted a piece to "Scholastic Magazine" and won first place in its regional writing contest.

Barbara was raised in Minnesota until the ninth grade, when her family moved to New Orleans. She attended Louisiana State University during her freshman year, and then went to the University of Iowa, where she graduated with a bachelors degree.

The "Iowa Writers Workshop" is famous for turning out illustrious writers. Although it is a graduate program, Barbara took classes with its professors, one of whom was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass.

After graduation, she and her high-school sweetheart, Buddy, married and she worked to supplement his education under the G.I. bill.

The couple moved to Lafayette, La., where Barbara worked as a television station copywriter and did live commercials.

Buddy started in education but later went into the insurance industry to support their family of three sons. During these years, Barbara was mostly a stay-at-home mom.

After the family moved to Omaha, Neb., for Buddy's job, Barbara took a poetry class from Patrick Wolf Gray, who taught "formal" (structured) poetry.

"That's when I started writing again," Barbara said. "I wrote poetry and submitted some and had a sestina published in the Hartford Courant; at that time they had a poetry section."

She also published in small literary journals: Blue Unicorn (three times); Wind; and Pudding (twice). Her most recent publication was "I Wear Her Dress" in Blue Unicorn in April this year.

Two moves later, Barbara worked in Kansas City for Hallmark Cards, and although she did not write greeting card verse, she ended up being a "poet to the presidents" when they needed birthday or other special occasion "roast poems."

Barbara has written thousands of poems for friends and relatives' birthdays, marriages, anniversaries and other personal events, she said, including elegies for funerals.

She has also written about 75 to 100 "literary" poems.

She and Buddy retired to Holiday Island in 1999 after having had a timeshare here. Her writing really took off, with the support of an active arts community.

"I wasn't prepared for finding so many creative people here," she said. "That was a delight to me."

In 2003, the Readers Guild decided to branch out with a writing group, and the Writers Support Group was born, with Kathryn Lucariello as its mentor. Barbara served as its coordinator in 2006 and 2007.

In 2004, the group put out a journal called Table Rock Review, an anthology of poems and short stories. Barbara's three poems, "The Itch," "I Wear Her Dress" and "Ozark Legend" were published.

In 2005, the group published it again, and "The Mother Colors" and "We've Waited So Long," a rondel, were included.

Two dozen lucky people received personalized poems from Barbara for purchasing the first edition of the Review.

"That was fun to do. People really opened up and in a lot of cases, they were having it done as a poem for someone's birthday or marriage or anniversary, so they got nostalgic and told a lot of stories," said Barbara.

Barbara's two volumes of Tales from Babel Rock Lake, a short story anthology published in 2006 and 2007 as a fund-raiser for the Writers Support Group, was very popular. It is based on "a small town in the Ozarks," but everyone recognizes themselves and their neighbors to some degree.

"Everyone asks if the characters are based on real people," Barbara said. "They are based on a composite of lots of people who live in a small community."

Another writer in the group, Melanie Rhodeback, is adapting several of the short stories into a play.

Barbara says she doesn't necessarily write at any certain time of day, but her computer quiet time is from 5 a.m. to about 7:30. She describes herself as a "morning person."

The sources of her writing are "from observing, seeing and hearing and smelling, all the sensual things around me," she said. "And also, most of my poems are about people. People are fascinating.

"Most of my poems are formal and humorous, and I tend to write in ballad stanza, but I also do free verse."

Another of her sources is the literature of the Bible.

"It has been a part of my life and it's sometimes a source of subject matter."

One extensive work Barbara is engaged in at the moment is a formal poetic work called a "sonnet redoublé." The work is a series of 14 sonnets on a related subject followed by a 15th composed of the first lines of the previous 14. The last line of each sonnet is the first line of the next.

The project is based on the Roman Catholic 14 "Stations of the Cross," which are plaques or sculptures that describe Christ's final hours, death and entombment. Some traditions have a 15th station, devoted to the resurrection. The devout walk, view or meditate on these stations as a kind of pilgrimage.

Says Barbara of how she came up with this project:

"One night, as I waited in a hospital room for my husband's surgery the next day, I looked out of the window and saw many other windows across and around the courtyard, some lit up and some dark. Tableaux were played out in those windows, those little boxes of hospital rooms, of human suffering, fear, sadness, and in some cases joy.

"The next morning I went to the Catholic chapel in the hospital which was large and adorned with fine wood, gold, and statues. The stained glass windows on either side were depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the final days of Jesus. I was struck with the similarity of His suffering and the scenes I had seen in the hospital windows the night before."

She says the redouble is not meant to be "literal depictions of biblical events, but modern parables related to the subject matter. Ambitious? Challenging? Yes. This may take a long time, but I have started with the first six sonnets."

Why Barbara writes is to share feelings and ideas with other people, she says.

"My family is very important to me; they are my best and harshest critics. I feel like I'm touching their lives when I write about what I feel and think and see."

She says she likes to think "that bard thing" is genetic because of her Scots heritage. Two of her sons graduated in journalism, went into photojournalism and are also songwriters and musicians. Her grandchildren also show writing talent.

Barbara says she does not write "political poems as such."

"I write about human conditions. I don't try to write scatalogical poems or anything too offensive, but I don't pull punches, either."

She certainly does not. "The Viewing: for John" as much as its subject is a husband at his wife's wake, is also a love poem. And that is what marks much of Barbara's writing -- a poignant mix of human emotion, at times from one end of the spectrum of tenderness to the other of being almost macabre.

In her sestina "Autopsy", published in Fetishes, the literary journal of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, she describes in great detail the dissection of a body donated to medical research, including the smells, sounds and colors a cadaver presents.

But the poem is not about the autopsy, really; it is about the person who once inhabited the body and how the living still handling it and those viewing it through the medium of the poem might think about the soul who inhabited it.

Barbara's work forces readers to look in more detail than they normally might: gaze with fascination or with fascinated horror, perhaps, at the surface of things, and then look past it into the foundation of what that facade presents.

Always, that foundation is the "soul" or essence of the human being, animal, cityscape, nature scene or event. To reveal it is the function, and the goal, of an effective poet.

"Writing makes you tolerant of all kinds of people because there's always a surprise when you delve into the minds and hearts of others, and that surprise is the kind of thing I try to capture in my poems," Barbara said. "You think you know somebody, and you find out when you delve into them that you don't know them at all."

Barbara says she plans to keep doing what she's doing and submit more work to literary journals. She is also at work compiling all of her writing to see what she might want to pass down to her family.

She credits the Writers Support Group with helping her to achieve her writing goals.

"The writers group has been very important to me, and the mentoring and feedback I get, because editing my writing is one of the most important parts of it."

To read more of Barbara's poems, click on these links:

St. Vincent DePaul's/Geriatric

Marguerite in New Orleans

Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

First Formed

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