Saturday, November 7, 2015

Writers in the Spotlight: Tina Barry

Hi Tina, 

Welcome to Literary Exhibitionism! I’m excited to have you as a guest author. I was originally introduced to your work in Fictionaut and am always impressed by your ability to create textured, vivid images in so few words. “Tuscaloosa,” a poem I first read in Ramshackle Review, comes to mind.

Hi Jen. Thanks so much for inviting me as a guest author at Literary Exhibitionism. I’m flattered. And thanks for the kind words about my writing. Yes, Fictionaut. I’m indebted to that site for introducing me to so many great writers who have become friends and supporters. You ask later in this Q&A what advice I’d give to other writers. Join sites like Fictionaut where writers meet, comment, workshop and encourage one another.

It’s interesting that you mention “Tuscaloosa.” My writing has been called “image driven,” and I suppose it is. I was a designer for over a decade; so it’s the image I see first, the story it tells follows.

I wrote “Tuscaloosa” after reading about the “Super Tornadoes” of 2011, in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama. The poem is a series of images, one piled on top of the other, the way I imagined someone would see objects, things, people, whirl by during a tornado, and how those things would be a visual synopsis of their world:

"A pin in a doll’s heart
then one in its foot.
Hot vapor
with its own populace:
The lady at Stop & Shop
with the dead eyes and gray perm.
Your neighbor’s pick up truck
grandpa’s house
with grandpa inside
and a prom queen
wearing a fake satin dress
corsage pinned just so.
for its years of service
and unblemished safety record
a Ferris wheel gently rocks
its last riders
then dumps them to the ground.
People laugh
at the banality
of final thoughts.
Closer to the stars
a man finds comfort
recalling the part in his daughter’s hair."
I would love to know more about your process. So, my favorite question to ask… Writing is hard. Why do you do it?

Writing is hard, especially for someone like me who works in fits and starts, sometimes obsessively, hunched over my computer for days, sometimes a week will go by with only random notes.

Why do I do it? Writing helps me unearth and make sense of my memories. And it’s craft as therapy. I love watching a piece tighten, finding stronger words, dumping lines that don’t add to the whole.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and who/what were your early influences/inspiration?

I wanted to be a visual artist, not a writer. I have a degree in fine arts, and then spent about 15 years as a textile designer, and then a children’s clothing wear designer, before getting completely burnt out. I thought, though, that I could write about fashion and style. After working in the industry, I knew fashion lingo, and teachers had always praised my papers in college. It sounds naïve now to think I could just jump into that kind of work, but oddly enough, I was assigned pieces for newspapers, magazines and online venues pretty quickly. Not long after that, I wanted to write creatively and took classes in non-fiction and fiction before going for my M.F.A. During my years in graduate school, I explored poetry and short fiction.

Early influences? When I was around 10, my mother gave me a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant. His famous Boule de Suit “Ball of Fat” gripped me. No story I had read before it elicited such rage and sorrow, and in so few pages. I also read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web obsessively. I had the first few pages memorized. I read it to my daughter when she was little and was touched again by the originality of the story and its message.

What's the last fantastic book you read?

The Liar’s Wife, Mary Gordon’s four novellas. I was completely lost in the worlds she created.

Congratulations on your new release, Mall Flower, a collection of short fiction and poems. What do you want readers to take away from reading Mall Flower, and how did the book come about? 

Thank you. Mall Flower is my first book and I’m excited to have it out in the world.

The book came about when I started to read through my work over the past few years. I realized that without intending to, I had written a lot of pieces about my family, especially my father’s departure from us and how that event colored my experience as a child, teen, young and older adult. I sent the manuscript to Robin Stratton at Big Table Publishing hoping it would be a chapbook. She loved it but wanted a book, so I opened it up. If someone reads Mall Flower and thinks, Yeah, I relate to that, and if it makes him/her laugh, or squirm, that’s the best take away.

Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked, and if so, how do you find your way through?

There are people who can sit down with a journal and scrawl page after page. Words for me are like badly behaved dogs that need to be coaxed from beneath the sofa with a bone. I get a piece started the same way I once began a visual arts project: I look at a lot of visual art; that always stirs something inside me. Then I read other writers’ work. In my office, I keep a big bulletin board where I tack up photos and cards, colors I like, different writers’ poems. Designers use these storyboards to gather inspiration for a project; now I use mine as prompts for stories and poems. I read and reread work online and in publications like Poetry, always on the hunt for the word or image that will spark an idea. I turn to Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories. Whenever I read their work, some memory or question I’ve had always comes to the surface. It’s a beginning.

Do you ever use prompts?

I love prompts! When I connect with a prompt, I can explore ideas or combinations of ideas, in ways that surprise me.

The poem “Honeycomb,” in Mall Flower, comes from a visual prompt of a black and white drawing of a beehive. The hive, crammed with insects, reminded me of an apartment I shared years ago with two roommates, who were -- I’ll be kind and say -- “unstable.”

“…I once lived in an apartment
with too many roommates.
One initialed each egg
in its carton.
Another swigged scotch
till she stung.

I think of us now
in that warren of rooms,
our droning lives.
How small we became
to fit there.”      
What is the best advice you ever received (on writing or anything)?
Best advice? If you worry about being the best at something you probably won’t be. I don’t remember who said it, but it’s always rung true. If you worry that someone is doing it better, whatever “it” is for you, you’re wasting your time. Someone is doing it better. It’s just the way it is. Write, cook, paint, run: whatever makes you happy. Just keep honing your craft. If you let other people’s accomplishments diminish yours, it’ll crush you.

What are you working on now?

Promoting Mall Flower. I’ve done a couple of readings and have a few more in the works. I’ll have the dates on my Facebook page soon (

I’ve recently moved from Brooklyn to a small town in upstate New York. It’s been quite a transition. I see more trees and fewer malls in my work. Eventually, I’ll do what I did with Mall Flower: take a look at the themes that emerge and shape it into the next whatever it wants to be.

Thank you, Tina! 

*Inspired by Tina's interview, find a black and white photograph and write for twenty minutes. See where the visual catalyst takes you. I particularly enjoy post cards and photography books--especially portraits. 

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