[by Kendra Hovey]
Barbara Fant is a performance poet. While this is true, as descriptions go, it’s a bit lacking; not quite capturing her rapid cascade of imagery, shrapnel-origami-kite-bee-hive-honey-lightning-Crayola, nor the swift and choppy flow of a line like, “It’s about be, it’s about be, it’s about bee, like honey, like gold, like glow, like sky.”
Both examples are from “Handfuls of Honey.” A poem which Fant performed at the last TEDxColumbus and one that speaks pretty effectively to what it is Fant does—from the personification of her words as “a nightmare at the back of my neck seeping through my throat” to the simple and clear-sighted offering: “I don’t know another way—to pray.”
Barbara Fant had been a last minute addition to the program. TEDxColumbus organizers (as every speaker forced to rehearse a million times over already knows) are not too keen on last minute anything, but having seen her a day earlier at TEDxYouth, they found five extra minutes plus 45 seconds. Fant made good use of the time; the audience gave her a standing ovation.
One of those impressed was Doug Kridler, CEO and president of The Columbus Foundation. Kridler commissioned Fant to create an original piece—with “no boundaries,” he says—for the Columbus Bicentennial. Fant read the poem at the Foundation as part of the city’s big birthday bash in February. Kridler calls it “an awe-inspiring and multi-hued articulation,” adding, “What an enduring gift she gave to everyone in our community through that poem.”
“Today Beginning Again,” as Fant titled her ode-of-sorts to the city, is part thank you note: “You geography-ed me,” “river-ed me;” “library-ed myself;” “honeyed me into reflection…” And, it’s part reminder card: “You can’t stop now.”
A video of her performance quickly made the social media rounds.
The 24-year-old Fant was asked to perform the poem again, this time by Mayor Coleman as part of the fanfare around his State of the City address. She can also be spotted in a couple of recent videos, “Voices of Columbus” and “Columbus Young Artists,” both sponsored by 200 Columbus (and various partners). Just last month she was a “feature” (invited guest) at a Poetry Slam in Detroit. Oddly, all this is happening at a time when the poet has been scaling back on performing. Her main focus these days is graduate school.
This may be news to many; a lot about Barbara Fant may be news. Added so late, her name didn’t make it onto the TEDxColumbus program, let alone her story. To fill things in, I caught up with Fant, finding her in Delaware, Ohio where she is nearing the end of her first year at the Methodist Theological School.
From “Handfuls of Honey” I know, to her, poetry is prayer, and when I ask how she would describe her work she calls it “poetic ministry,” so seminary school would seem to be a simple matter of connecting the dots, but when I ask, she quickly puts me straight. “Not at all, ” she says.
Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Fant felt the call to preach at a very young age, and she can’t even remember a time in her life when she wasn’t writing. Yet seminary and slams didn’t come into her life till much later, not until after she moved to Columbus for college. “I come from a church where pastors didn’t go to seminary,” she explains, “I didn’t know what it was!”
It was during her last year at Ohio Dominican (she graduated in 2010 with a degree in English) that she first considered seminary, and it was only a few years before that, when she was about 19, that she first performed her poetry. That night was important. It was an open mic, her first, and afterwards, she’d be at the mic three or four nights a week. But when I ask about when she became a poet, she doesn’t mention the mic, she answers by talking about her mom. “She passed away when I was 15,” Fant shares, “I was angry. I had a hard time talking to people…so I wrote.”
Fant wrote—put my pain on pages, as she says in “Handfuls of Honey”—but she didn’t share. While in Youngstown she learned about open mics, saw some on TV, and she knew that as soon as she could find one and get herself there, that’s when she would start sharing. From there, it was only a matter of months before she was competing.
Both as an individual and team member, she’s won a number of Grand Slams, and two years ago, at 22, she published her first book of poetry, Paint, Inside Out, which won the Cora Craig Author Award for Young Women. She’s slowed the pace a bit now that she is in grad school, but Fant still slams and runs the occasional workshop (she’s worked with Transit Arts and Columbus Collegiate Academy, among other organizations). Most recently, she’s been spending some time in the theater—yes, she also acts.
Her approach to writing poetry, Fant says, is to “paint pictures with words.” With “Today, Beginning Again,” for example, she was drawn to the idea of Columbus as a smart and open city, then starts to break that down: “I’ll ask, what does that look like? Open…bursting…firework…and it goes from there…I try to make it come alive.”
Asked, then, about coming from poetry to preaching and the interplay between the two, she sees some commonality, but also a clear divergence: “Both poems and sermons are journeys that the listener allows me to take them on…But I do not perform sermons. I teach and preach sermons. As I minister through poetry, I am able to give people more of me, my journey and my testimony. As a preacher, I surrender myself to being a minister of the Gospel and I allow only God’s word to shine through.”