Poet and Filmmaker Dr. Joan Baranow: New Work Inspired by Family, Healing, Happiness
Many years ago, while juggling her work as an English professor, an independent book publisher, and a documentary filmmaker, Joan Baranow and five other busy writers formed a weekly “poetry ball” to share and critique each other’s work. They would dial into a conference line, quickly agree on a prompt, and then write for an hour before calling back to present their work.
This was how they made time for poetry.
While the weekly exercise provided both valuable feedback and a supportive community, over time Baranow noticed a pattern. “I was so focused on that deadline that I felt an internal nervous tension – a kind of pressure – to finish my poem. Then, I realized that much of my work was tightly structured because my life was so structured.”
A long-planned sabbatical, which coincided with the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, gave Baranow the time she craved to not only truly focus on her writing but also reflect on her work over the years.
It was a productive time, from which Baranow published three collections of poems inspired by events that span a quarter century. From pregnancy and early motherhood to her life as an empty nester and a breast cancer survivor.
“During my sabbatical and because of the pandemic, I wasn’t compelled to go out and get distracted,” Baranow recalls. “It became my job to write poems. Once I started to write, I also started to look back at my poems from the last 20-plus years and decided it was time to figure out what books they could become.”
Family and the ordinary moments that remain lifelong memories are central to A Slight Thing, Happiness. It’s a book of family poems that begins with Baranow’s efforts to get pregnant and then looks back on the years when her children were young. A few poems follow her children as they grow up and move on – with her youngest son now in college.
Terry Lucas, Marin County’s poet laureate emeritus, notes in his praise of the book that Baranow “bears witness to things both slight and substantial with a linguistic lens that finds the beauty in all things.”
Both the resiliency and the vulnerability of nature are featured in many of Baranow’s poems. From the color of the flowers on the bedside table after her son’s birth to the simple pleasure of watching a red squirrel maneuver a broken feeder, nature is interwoven throughout much her work – either in a literal sense or as a metaphor.
“Nature – it’s just who I am,” Baranow says. “Nature - and insects in particular - usually find their way into my poems. For instance, “Aphids in the Rose”—aphids gave me a perfect metaphor for breast cancer.”
Aphids in the Rose is a 25-poem collection documenting Baranow’s journey from diagnosis and surgery through a month of radiation. Poet Alicia Ostriker writes that the book is “rich with Baranow’s trademark closeness to the natural world, her sensuousness, her gift for levity, her brilliant leaps of utterly apt metaphor, her self-acceptance – in a word, her humanity.”
The sabbatical gave Baranow more than time to write. It also allowed her to fall into a daily ritual – perhaps as a way to create calm in the middle of a world in chaos – that inspired her work.
“I would read poetry every morning. This became an important ritual for me – as it got my brain wired rhythmically,” Baranow says. “What I was reading would influence my writing. The style of the poet I was reading would inspire me – and my poems reflect that style.”
Poets Wislawa Szymborska and Galway Kinnell influenced her third book, Reading Szymborska in a Time of Plague, which won the Brick Road Poetry Prize. The book is written in sections - with the first focusing on daily life during the early pandemic and the third on family and loss as the world started to return to normal. Many of the poems reflect the uncertainty and upheaval of the time. Baranow writes about challenges and loss, hospitals, illness, patients, isolation, life, and death, often through a lens of care and humor.
In all three books, Baranow says, she favored two styles of poetry.
“One is narrative and the other is more playful,” she says. The playful inspiration is credited to Pulitzer Prize finalist Dean Young, a mentor who died of COVID not long after retiring from holding the Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas, Austin.
“My poems influenced by Dean seem a bit surreal or have shifts that do not follow, but at the same time they kind of do follow.”
The sabbatical also allowed Baranow to return to a project she began two decades ago with her husband, poet and physician Dr. David Watts. They traveled across the country to interview famous poets – including Alicia Ostriker, Lucille Clifton and Stanley Kunitz – about poetry and healing. After using footage for a presentation at Duke University, the video collection remained untouched until last year.
“We had so much footage and knew that this could become a big project, so I decided that each video would feature one poet and one poem, starting with a brief interview. The poet reads to the camera and we add music and images. Each is four minutes, which is about perfect.”
The work put her back in familiar territory, combining poetry and healing. Watts and Baranow produced the PBS documentary “Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine,” which tells the stories of patients whose lives have been dramatically changed by the incorporation of poetry into their recovery process. The documentary followed a poetry therapist at a hospital in Florida, which was among the first to offer an arts medicine therapy program.
A second documentary, “The Time We Have,” presented an intimate portrait of a young woman facing terminal illness whom Baranow had been working with to express feelings through poetry. The film won the award for best documentary at the UK Film Review Festival and best biographical film at the New Hope Film Festival.
Read the Marin Independent Journal story about “The Time We Have.”
Baranow helped structure and now teaches in Dominican’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Launched in the summer of 2017, the low-residency MFA offers tracks in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. It also offers an emphasis on narrative medicine—the only such MFA track in the country. The hybrid program enables students to attend classes on the Dominican campus for 10 days in summer and seven days in winter. Throughout the year, they work online with a faculty mentor.
Read the Marin Independent Journal story about Dominican’s MFA.
The program is a perfect example of what is possible in today’s mobile, connected, and diverse society, Baranow says.
“We live in a golden age of poetry. We live in a democracy, we enjoy freedom of speech, and we believe in education. We can reach out to provide education to people living anywhere in the world. With the Internet, we have platforms. This is an inspirational time for creativity.”
Baranow also has taught literature and creative writing to undergraduates at Dominican for more than 20 years. In this semester’s creative writing class, she is guiding her students through narrative medicine by structuring the course around illness and healing.
“I tell my students that they don’t have to write about illness, but as long as they write about something important - then it is healing.” Each week’s work is grouped under a theme, such as humor, health, and birth. The final class of the semester will focus on the celebration of life.
“We do a couple of readings early in the semester that have to do with research on writing and healing. It probably derived from psychology and talk therapy, but with writing you don’t need to engage with someone else. You can do it for yourself and by yourself, but get some of the same benefits of talk therapy.”
This semester her undergraduate students include English and creative writing majors, as well as students studying nursing, business, psychology, and dance. Some also are enrolled in Dominican’s minor in health humanities.
“These students are good writers and are so nice to each other and supportive,” Baranow says. “I tell them whatever is bothering you or hurting you – it’s important to get it out there. If you share your work then you are not alone. You will feel community. You will be taking a step towards healing.”