Poetry Fridays: 2010 Festival Poet Marjorie Barnes

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Khalil Murrell, Program Associate, Poetry

Marjorie Barnes

What is the connection between music and poetry?  Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan come to mind as singers whose lyrics are said to be rather “poetic.”  Some singers have even braved the task of actually writing a collection of poems – Alicia Keyes, Jewel, Jill Scott, etc. – though few have done so as successfully as Leonard Cohen, who published several books of poetry before achieving international recognition as a singer/songwriter.

Within the poetry community, some styles or aesthetics have been described as more musical than others. Many poets grapple with this question by arranging sound and silence in a way that creates rhythms that imitate movements in music, particularly jazz. Still even in the best cases, such as Kevin Young, the “music” of poetry is mostly metaphoric. In other cases, i.e., Kwame Dawes, poets read with musical accompaniment. Others such as Hermine Pinson often take it a step further by literally bringing song into their poems or by singing poems altogether. (You may also be interested in hearing vocalist Luciana Souza sing Pablo Neruda.)

Though not to be confused with the jazz vocalist of the same name, Marjorie Barnes shares with these and other poets a deep passion for music. Her poems are not only musical in their composition, but also extend into and are wonderfully interrupted by song. For her, music feels inseparable from memory. Her poems often recount childhood stories in which she and family members sang together: namely, her father, with whom she composed several songs as a child. In other poems, specific phrases spoken by kin are sung as musical refrains between stanzas.

“I love the blues,” you will always hear her say at readings.  So it seems fitting that she produced a CD entitled, My Blues Ain’t Over Yet, also the name of the poem and title track on the album.  Marjorie’s work and influences, however, travel beyond the blues.  Gospel and hip hop are a clear presence in her work. In fact, the poem, “My Blues Ain’t Over Yet” starts off by sampling the rap duo Dead Prez‘s refrain in “The Grind” by Erykah Badu, and she cites the gospel group, the Clark Sisters, as a huge influence on her singing. She has also helped to bring many hip hop artists to NJPAC as a guest curator for the Sacred Circle Cafe, a theatre and poetry series run by Baraka Sele, and has been an integral part of their Alternate Routes’ Hip Hop Festival.

When asked about the writing process, Marjorie says she knows when a poem will be “performed” because she paces around as she writes it. Others feel more for the page if she is composing at a desk or computer. Marjorie’s poems are as much about family and place as they are performative and infused with music. She writes against forgetting and recalls simpler times with family and friends in Newark. Her work speaks volumes about the struggles and strengths of the women who raised her– her mother, grandmother and the elder women in the neighborhood.  Her poems give voice to people who often remain invisible: the mentally ill, drug addicts, and people who live with AIDS.

Marjorie is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Union County College where she has taught for more than a decade and, as a visiting poet in the schools, has been a long time favorite for many teachers and students in New Jersey.

Please use the “Share your thoughts with us” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet. In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2010 Festival Poets.

Return in the weeks ahead as we continue to profile the 2010 Festival Poets

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The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10
For more information, visit the Poetry website.

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