Tina Barry is a poetry and fiction writer who mixes and bends genres with a deft touch. Her work can be found in journals and anthologies, on lists of Pushcart nominations, and in two larger collections — including her newest, the dreamlike Beautiful Raft. In this new book of poetry, Barry writes about Virginia Haggard, Marc Chagall’s partner, as well as Haggard’s daughter from an earlier relationship. Barry is both whimsical and political, making something historical feel relevant and necessary in today’s world.
Hannah Grieco: This collection is technically one of prose poems. But it feels almost like micro-fiction, or rather creative nonfiction in the form of imagined biographical micros! The lyricality of your prose lends itself so beautifully to poetry, except you play with form like a story-teller. Did it start out in your mind as poetry, or did it start somewhere else and wind up there?
Tina Barry: You’re right; technically Beautiful Raft is made up of mostly persona poems written in the prose poem style. That’s just how the work evolved. At first, I referred to the pieces as “poem stories.” That’s what most of them are, really.
Before BR I wrote ekphrastic pieces with a character speaking, and have made up characters in fiction, but I’ve never really lived beneath the characters’ skins like I’ve done with BR. And the characters are based on real people: the artist Marc Chagall, his partner of seven years, Virginia Haggard, and her daughter, Jean McNeil, who was five years old at the time. McNeil, who is a painter in the UK, and I developed a correspondence during the writing of the book.
As I researched Chagall, Haggard, and McNeil, I added work that leaned more toward micro-fiction and flash. I hesitate to use the definition “creative non-fiction” because, while the work is loosely based on historical records, and Haggard’s memoir, it’s fiction. In addition to the persona prose poems and micros, there are epistolary pieces, with letters from McNeil to her father, and letters from Haggard to Chagall.
Chagall traveled a lot during their time together, and I wanted to express their longing. There are a couple of lists too. Early drafts included a few poems with line breaks, but once I read the entire manuscript, the poetic, lineated work just seemed to call attention to itself and didn’t add much to the story, so micros or flash took its place. I used several genres to tell the characters’ stories, but, at least to me, they all seem necessary not forced.
HG: You write in a variety of genres, and your language and style bleed over in surprising, gorgeous ways. Tell us about that process, how your mind works as you write in different forms.
TB: I do write in all sorts of genres. The more I write, the more the stories take on poetic language, and the poems tell stories. For BR, I was intent on finding the voices for Haggard and McNeil, so voice and tone drove the writing. Setting was important, too. I wanted the hamlet of High Falls, NY, where the family lived from 1946-1948, and where I now live, to function almost as a character, so a lot of attention was paid to scenery.
Often, when I’m writing flash or micros, there isn’t much room for setting; it’s about jumping into the action and making something happen. But for BR, I wanted rich imagery. Chagall and Haggard were both artists, so the pieces needed to have a painterly feel.
HG: Who are some other poets you love who write with similar genre-bending styles?
TB: I read a lot of Lydia Davis’s work. I’m intrigued by the writing of Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, and Anne Carson. Jo Ann Beard’s creative non-fiction was an early influence. I read broadly: creative non-fiction, poetry, fiction, memoir.
HG: You’re also a visual artist, which I assumed inspired this dive into Chagall’s life? Where did this idea begin?
TB: Before I started writing, I worked as a textile designer, and then a clothing designer. I imagine the worlds the characters inhabit as I write. Those visuals spill into the language.
I’m always interested in the lives of artists, especially women artists. In 2014, my husband, the sculptor and potter Bob Barry, and I moved from Brooklyn, where we lived for 30 years, to the hamlet of High Falls, in upstate New York. I was curious about the town, and as I researched, I discovered that in 1946 Marc Chagall and his partner Virginia Haggard made a similar move when they left New York City and relocated up here. Their house and the studio where Chagall painted is a five-minute drive from us, and still stands.
So, there were the similarities in our circumstances that first interested me. What made me do the deep dive into the family’s time here, was how little information was available about Haggard. Who was this woman? As I uncovered information about her, I realized that she needed a voice in the story. That’s true for her daughter Jean McNeil too, who was five years old when they moved. Making them present in the history of their time here drove the writing.
As I worked on the pieces, I wondered how other visual artists would interpret my stories, so in 2018, I curated a show called “The Virginia Project,” that included collaborations between me and 14 women artists, who each created a visual interpretation of a different piece of writing in the series. In the Wired Gallery, which is on the same block where Chagall and Haggard had lived, the artists’ work hung beside my writing; a kind of conversation between me, the artists, Haggard and McNeil. In 2019, the show traveled to a gallery in Brooklyn.
HG: How was writing Beautiful Raft different than Mall Flower or your short stories?
TB: It was a very different experience. With Beautiful Raft, I tried to bring the inner (and outer) worlds of the characters to life. It meant researching the time, which I loved; I’m a research nerd. And it meant thinking about life after the war for these two foreigners. What kind of trauma did Chagall and Haggard carry? What kind of guilt? What was it like to leave a city and try to establish a family in a rural hamlet? What was it like to be a young woman, pregnant with Chagall’s son David, who had just left her husband? What was it like to be a mother with a rich mind who yearned to create? What was it like to be a child, taken from her home, which was a mixed blessing; Haggard’s husband, Jean’s father, was suffering a debilitating depression that left him angry and nearly comatose. What was it like to witness this blossoming love affair of her mother’s? So, the writing is about their experiences, not mine. Many of the poems and short fiction in Mall Flower are based on my own life.
HG: How long did Beautiful Raft take to complete?
TB: It took about four years to write. I started in 2014, put it aside for about a year, to get my first book Mall Flower out into the world, and then picked it up again in late 2015. I always had other writing in the works too, but Beautiful Raft was the main focus over the past couple of years.
HG: What is your writing process, itself, like? How do you plan, organize your thoughts, draft, revise?
TB: Beautiful Raft unspools in a linear way, with a beginning, middle and open-ended conclusion. That is not the way the writing happened, though. I went back and forth in time, as I discovered more about Chagall and Haggard, adding moments here and there, characters, etc. The process was anything but straightforward, and I’m glad the writing developed the way it did. Creating the pieces felt organic, as if the work dictated the way I’d learn and write, instead of me forcing the story into some preconceived framework.
That’s often how it is with my writing. I have a plan, say, that today I’m going to focus on a poem about something. Then that something turns into something else. The theme may change; a lineated poem may become a prose poem or microfiction. Then I write drafts until the voice inside me stops saying, No, this isn’t right. If I let the piece sit for a while, and then read it again, I find areas to tinker with.
HG: What’s next for your writing?
TB: I’ve been missing the feeling of being absorbed in a project. I have a few ideas for new writing that haven’t quite jelled yet. In the meantime, I’ve been working on poems and a few pieces of short fiction. I’m excited to see where it all goes.