Spotlight: Barbara Loots


A Merry Heart Goes All the Day

by Gail White

This cannot be an objective critical analysis. For the greater part of my life, I have been corresponding with Barbara Loots about poetry, books, cats, men, religion, and the trivia of daily life. As George Bernard Shaw observed, long and intimate correspondence can occur only between people who never meet one another. So, although I would unhesitatingly describe Barbara as my best friend, we have met only at infrequent intervals. That’s what you need to know before we get started.

In 1967, with a track record of good fortune already behind her, Barbara walked out of college into a job as a writer for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. This was in the golden age of rhymes for all occasions, and an excellent training ground for mastery of form. It also made Barbara one of the few poets who can count her readers in the millions. Now and then a grateful recipient would track down the writer of an especially meaningful card and send a letter saying how much the message had touched her (or him). This, of course, is what makes poets feel that life is worth living.

In 1986, Barbara produced her first chapbook, The Bride’s Mirror Speaks. Such favorite subjects as nature, art, Bible stories, and relationships make a first appearance here. Much of it is in free verse, which was what the poetry world outside of Hallmark wanted, and she did it well. But rhyme and meter would break out occasionally, as in:


When woman wanders brazen in her mind,
no vow can hold her and no fetter bind.

Stone, veil or shutter cannot keep her in,
no man discern how faithless she has been

who sleeps with gods behind the hooded eyes,
ecstatic where her faithful body lies.

Two years later we devised a joint chapbook, Sibyl & Sphinx. Then I had the bright idea of a collection of four women (Barbara, Rhina P. Espaillat, the late Martha Bosworth and me)—which, after many vicissitudes including the publisher’s death, finally appeared as Landscapes With Women in 1999. And then, as far as collections were concerned, there was a decade of silence.

But during this time Loots poems were appearing in magazines at a great rate. The New Formalism had made rhymed poetry respectable again, and suddenly there were markets for it, including The Formalist, New Letters, The Lyric, and Plains Poetry Journal. John Mella founded Light Quarterly, which would morph into Light online. Barbara became an early contributor, sending, among others, this metaphysical verse on the folly of pursuing logic to its logical conclusion:

Care to Reconsider?

Rene Descartes stops by a bar
To quaff a couple beers.
The barkeep says, “You want a shot?”
Rene Descartes says, “I think not.”
And POOF! He disappears.

Barbara happened to cross paths with both Mike Peich and Dana Gioia shortly before those two cooked up the West Chester Formalist Conference. Thus she got invited to the first one—a spur-of-the-moment thing—in 1995. There she presented a paper, riffing on ideas from Frederick Turner, entitled “Strumming the Neural Lyre: The Poetry of Greeting Cards.” A version of this was published subsequently in Light Quarterly.

In 2008, Barbara, newly widowed, retired from Hallmark. Shortly thereafter, she was lucky enough to meet a man with an island. We’re not talking Turks & Caicos here. Dickinson Island, located in Ontario, is about an acre in size and harbors a cottage with no electricity or plumbing or Internet, but plenty of history since its purchase as a “homestead” in 1946. It provides two great gifts for a poet: proximity to nature and silence. Barbara’s dalliance with and eventual marriage to Bill Dickinson included annual stays on the island. An outbreak of poetry ensued that led to renewed book publication. Road Trip and Wind Shift show the full range of her gifts, with the fresh winds of wit, intellect and spirit blowing through the pages.

Naturally an island inspires nature poetry, especially of birds and insects (the caterpillar “shrugged its fur/ it shed its house/ it fasted/ and it flew”). Barbara’s poems derived from Scripture often display the kind of cheerful irreverence that characterizes saints. Bob the Cat, a family member, furnishes ample inspiration and furry companionship on the island as at home. You’ve seen two examples of Barbara’s gift for describing and personifying cats. When I was stuck for a second verse for “Brother Dog, Sister Cat,” she presented me with the following elegant quatrain:

Cat is cagy as a fortune teller,
Loopy as a starlet in a 1930s role.
Sensuous as smoke around a stripper,
Elusive as conviction in the soul.

I must leave the strict limits of light verse in order to finish with my favorite Barbara Loots poem, but it’s too perfect to be left out, having all her characteristics of concision, clarity and charm:

When I Become Transparent

When I become transparent,
I shall be a glass,
or prism, or a water bead
upon a vein of grass.

When I become transparent,
I shall be the sky,
or a single facet
of an insect’s eye.

When I become transparent,
the universe will be
a little less invisible
through my transparency.

Gail White has been hanging out with formal poetry for decades. Her latest collections, Asperity Street and Catechism, are available on Amazon. She is proud to be included in Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse. She lives in South Louisiana with her husband and the cats who provide most of her inspiration.