The healing words of Barbara Fant

Andy Downing
Barbara Fant at the Transit Arts Building

It’s an understatement to say that this year has had its challenges. A global pandemic has created intertwined health and economic crises, while concurrent Black Lives Matter protests, ignited by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, have led to an ongoing and long overdue racial reckoning. For artists, this overload can manifest itself in myriad ways, according to poet Barbara Fant.

“It’s interesting talking to other creatives, because some people haven’t written at all and others it’s all they can do,” Fant said by phone in late July. “I typically am someone who turns to the page when I’m struggling or trying to process something, so for me it’s been an outpouring.”

The poet said that writing has served as a needed emotional outlet since age 15, when her mom died. At the time, Fant wanted to attend counseling, but her father, a devout Christian, urged her to seek comfort within the church instead. “That was his way of dealing with things, but I couldn’t process things that way,” said Fant, who will feature in“Healing Through Poetry,” an author talk hosted by the Columbus Metropolitan Library that takes place virtually at 2 p.m. on Friday, July 31. “I felt like I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t do anything.”

As a result, Fant shifted her attentions to the page, transforming these deeply held emotions into what she referred to at the time as “little prayers,” since the language of the church was more familiar to her than the then-explored poetry landscape. It wasn’t until high school, when Fant witnessed a televised spoken word performance by Sunni Patterson, that this new artistic world began to fully reveal itself. “She performed this poem, ‘We Made It,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’” Fant said. “I didn't know what she had just done, but whatever it was, I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. And, yeah, I just dived into it. I found an open mic when I was 18 years old and I haven’t left the stage since.”

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For Fant, spoken word has always come more naturally, but she’s worked to bring her on-page skills to the same level, which she said has required an additional focus on language, allowing written words to stand as strongly in print as she can deliver them in her own voice. The effect is clear in “My dad buried two dogs in the backyard,” a new workrecently published by, in which Fant wields language with devastating effect, the final lines of the poem hitting with the blunt force of a gravedigger’s spade breaking into frozen earth.

“I think the goal was to have it build up … the way memory builds up in you,” Fant said.

Coming up in the slam and spoken word scenes, Fant’s poems have typically centered on her own emotions and experiences, since the form “tends to be about letting your feelings out,” Fant said, though she’s grown increasingly comfortable taking on different narrative voices in recent years, particularly on the page.

“As somebody who has lived through a lot of trauma, there’s [an aspect] of having to let the trauma come out,” Fant said. “But you have to release it, and that comes from a personal place, and then you can move on to the next phase. I think now I’m getting to a point where I can reach beyond me and write from other perspectives, even if I’m writing about some of the same things.”

This is true of this moment in time, where Fant’s writings have emerged as a swirl of personal revelations, big picture overviews and societal reflections. “It’s all over the place,” Fant said, repeating the phrase. At the same time, there’s an aspect of healing consistent to the poet’s work, including her current outpouring.

“And I think that’s so important, especially now, and especially with what people are going through,” said Fant, who, despite the obvious challenges, remained heartened by the fact that, for a time, at least, “it felt like the entire world was shouting, ‘Black lives matter.’” “The thing about what’s happening now is that it’s not new. It’s not like we haven’t been shouting these words from stages, or writing about it, or making music about it, or painting. … It’s just now that it’s finally getting attention. It’s now people are listening.”