Fellow: Awarded 2009
Field of Study: Poetry
Competition: US & Canada
Barbara Ras is a poet and publisher, dividing her creative work between her own poetry and bringing the words of others to life. Ms. Ras was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1949. She attended Simmons College in Boston, receiving a B.A. in Art History. At Simmons, one of her pivotal experiences was an independent study, suggested by professor of English, George Nitchie, that launched her into a semester’s engagement with Rilke’s Duino Elegies. To swim, often over her head, in this brilliant work, for week after week, was both thrilling and daunting. From then on, Ras has wanted to live in Rilke’s realm, following his ecstatic instruction to “fling the emptiness out of your arms / into the spaces we breathe--maybe that the birds / will feel the extended air in more intimate flight.” This admittedly ambitious quest has been the bedrock of her writing throughout her career.
Barbara Ras went on to the University of Oregon for an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, where she learned what Gerald Stern describes as the writer’s vocation: “reading four/fifths of the time and writing the rest.”
Between graduate school and a career in publishing, Ms. Ras taught English as a Foreign Language in Cali, Colombia, an experience she credits as having a life-changing effect on her literary and political sensibilities. In part it was falling in love with a new language, and in greater part it was discovering that at the heart of the matter, people elsewhere, and their cultures, address the same elemental question—what it means to be alive, and how humor, along with hope, is the last thing we can afford to lose.
Ms. Ras’s first book, Bite Every Sorrow, was selected by C. K. Williams for the Walt Whitman Award given by the Academy of American Poets. In his judge’s citation, Mr. Williams said: “Barbara Ras’s poems are informed by a metaphysically erudite and whimsical intelligence…her verbal expertise and lucidity are as bright and surprising as her knowledge of the world is profound. This is a splendid book, morally serious, poetically authentic, spiritually discerning.” Published in 1998 by LSU Press, Bite Every Sorrow subsequently won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and earned Ms. Ras the honor of Georgia Poet of the Year.
Her second book, One Hidden Stuff, published by Penguin in 2006, received generous praise. Dorianne Laux said of it: One Hidden Stuff is “shot through with surrealism, enlivened by [Ms. Ras’s] own nervy vernacular…turbulent, reverent, far-reaching, fresh.” Jane Hirshfield wrote: “A book overflowing with music and intelligence….Ras’s poetry turns towards every available form of light—physical, metaphysical, emotional, political, scientific.”
Barbara Ras’s next collection of poems, The Last Skin, will be published by Penguin in Spring 2010. Beginning in the darkness of the Bush years and over-shadowed by the aftershocks of her mother’s death, the poems move through desperation toward light, or at least toward the discovery that the power of nostalgia and delight in life’s unpredictable daffiness provide a measure of rescue. Gerald Stern, in an advance comment on the work, writes: “Barbara Ras is one of those poets who calls the wolf out of the forest. She is both ferocious and tender, exactly what a poet should be. In The Last Skin she says she wants to be a duck and hide her iridescent head under her wing. But how could a swan so beautiful and so wise want to be a duck? And how could anyone write a poem so amazing as ‘Washing the Elephant’?”
In addition to her books of poems, Barbara Ras has published a collection of short fiction in translation, entitled Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 1994).
After a long love affair with Latin America, Ms. Ras has begun a new chapter of travels. In 2009, she joined a group of writers on a mission of cultural diplomacy to Tunisia and Morocco. The trip was organized by the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa, and sponsored by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. New travels to Africa, including Zanzibar and Egypt, are on the horizon.
In her professional capacity, Barbara Ras directs Trinity University Press, in San Antonio.