Writers on Writing: Marsha Barber

Marsha Barber is a writer and professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism. Though her journalistic career took place mainly within CBC’s The National, she has always had a passion for personal memoir writing and poetry. She honed her poet’s voice working as an assistant to Dorothy Livesay — often called the grandmother of Canadian poetry — on British Columbia’s Galiano Island. Her second poetry book, All the Lovely Broken People, was published in April of this year.

Your career within journalism has been more focused on broadcast — was print journalism something you ever considered?

I’m a very visual person. I like television, I like television images, and I like ways that you can tell a story on TV. I was always drawn to TV documentaries especially, so broadcast seemed like the way to go.

I’ve always loved words, and I’ve done some work in print. But I’m also a visual thinker and, when it comes to journalism, telling television stories in documentary form is the best fit for me.

When did you start writing poetry?

I’ve written poetry my whole life. I’ve always written. I think, for me, regardless of the genre — whether it’s journalism, or memoir, or poetry — the goal has always been to communicate. That’s been very important to me.

In journalism, the voice is typically more objective and detached, whereas, in poetry, it’s pointedly personal. Do you ever feel torn between these two mindsets?

There are different ways of communicating and different ways of telling stories, and I think what the two paths have in common is — when I worked in daily journalism a lot of the documentaries I did were investigative, so there was always the effort to get at the truth, at the core of what’s happening. And, in poetry too, there’s the drive to get at the emotional truth of the subject. So, no, I don’t feel torn — they’re different, but they’re not conflicting.

A lot of your personal writing is centred around personal crises and moments of intense stress. Is writing, for you, a kind of coping mechanism in those situations?

I write about what I need to write about. I say what I need to say, and it’s always urgent for me, or why bother. It helps me make sense of the world — so in that sense, yes, it does help me cope with the ups and downs that every life is subject to. I think when you can step back and think about it and make sense of the world, it does help any writer to — I’m not sure if cope is the word, but it’s helpful.

So would you say it’s as much something we do for ourselves as for an audience?

Yes. It’s very important to me to communicate with an audience, so it doesn’t stop with me. But, as I work out what challenges in the world mean to me, I hope very much that audiences will be able to relate to that as well. I’m looking for that connection when I write.

Of course. And, I mean, that’s a hard thing to gauge, but have you gotten that sort of feedback?

I did a reading a couple of weeks ago, and a woman was kind enough to write to me that her adult child was going through a divorce, and by reading one of my poems — told from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl — it helped her to understand what her granddaughter might be thinking. So, yes, I do get that connection, and that was lovely.

Before the first book came out, was the prospect of putting something out there that was so personal intimidating to you at all?

I had practice. In 2007, I published a memoir in The Walrus about my husband’s illness. I think if you can make a poem or a memoir universal, so it’s bigger than you are, then there’s good reason to put it out there. So, no, I didn’t find that particularly daunting, and I’m very glad that people did connect with the writing.

Photo courtesy of Marsha Barber