traci barr

traci barr shares her creative process

traci barr

The poem “Seeing” popped into my head while I was reflecting upon the way I felt about a man who told me he loved me…and then who chose to not act upon his feelings.

I eventually came to believe that he said he was in love with me just for the “thrill” of it and in order to stroke his own ego.

Because he speaks a lot about the subject of love, I wrote this poem in response to what, I thought, was his hypocrisy. In the relatively brief interaction I had with him, my own ideas about love changed quite a lot, and I began to think of him as a used-car salesman.

Sometimes an idea for a poem will start rattling around in my head in a way that becomes very, very distracting.

The only way to make the rattling go away is for me to…write the poem.


by Traci Barr


You look at me and see

everything you fear:

every truth,

every lie,

every puddle,

every apple,

every brick in the wall.


I look at you and see

the sample boy

in a wool factory.


And that is the difference

between us.

covered dishes

by Traci Barr

It is said that true Southern hospitality
begins in the kitchen,
where you can find the makings
of a covered dish
or a cast iron skillet filled with corn pone
or a heaping of poke sallet,
poisonous until cooked,
Geechee red peas, sweet tea,
barbecue and Frogmore stew, too;
a little okra or gumbo,
some grits for good measure –
perhaps for a family picnic or a church social,
attended by true Southern gentlemen
and their antebellum lady guests.
Is there enough for everyone at mealtime?
Of course there is…
this is the South,
a place that stands apart
more than any other in America,
a place of moonlight and magnolias and manners;
a place of live oaks and Spanish moss;
a place with a history of plantations, Textile League baseball,
bo weevils, King Cotton and cotton mills,
buildings where work was done that mattered to folks;
buildings where cloth was once cranked out by the country mile;
buildings that now provide trendy, loft-style living
for the presumably trendy newcomers
who can afford to occupy them.
I am an outsider and take an emic approach to the South itself.
From the many fields of bletted, landrace Carolina Gold;
to the Low Country, flavored with a little Gullah terroir;
to the Upstate’s peach orchards, all sticky and sweet;
the stories of the South are told in its food.
I would go so far as to say that Southern cooking
is the mother cuisine of this country.
But, as I sip that last drop of savory potlikker
left behind in a vessel of braised collard greens,
I sometimes wonder what really goes on down here,
below the Mason-Dixon.
Because, while you are taking a bite,
dainty as it is,
of that genteel pimento cheese spread,
which I have spent time making just for you,
you are thanking me and saying,
in the very same breath,
“Bless your heart.”
And I am not quite sure y’all
are necessarily wishing me well
when you say that to me.



by Traci Barr

My grandmother, Verna,
was a true Southern belle,
worried what the neighbors would think,
exquisitely beautiful,
delicate, fragile, willful, vain.
My Lord, she had cotillions and corsages,
the vapors, gentleman callers,
the whole damn archetypal nine yards.
I imagine she bought her groceries
at the local Piggly Wiggly.
There wasn’t a Whole Foods to shop in –
not back then.
When I was little,
I called her long distance every Sunday,
just to hear her sweet Southern drawl.
I had a long list of favorite words
that I would ask her to repeat.
And then I, a budding cook, would beg her to tell me,
for probably the hundredth time,
the story of how hushpuppies got their name.
“Hush, puppy,” she would say, over and over again,
as she described how those little balls of fried cornmeal
were tossed to quell the yapping of hungry Confederate dogs.
Ever the paragon of Southern manners,
she always patiently obliged me.
Grandma often drank too much
and during the summertime,
when I would visit her in Kentucky,
a universe away from my home at the Jersey shore,
she would creep into the guest room at night where I slept,
wake me and tell me
I was the most beautiful little girl
in the whole wide world,
stroking my hair and slurring her words.
Of course,
because she was drunk,
and believing I was, in fact, the ugliest little girl
in the whole wide world,
I did not buy it for a single minute –
the evidence was so distinctly in my favor.
Grandma was very radiant and a touch crazy
and her vanity eventually got the best of her.
She faded and slipped further and further away,
refusing to allow even me, her favorite, to see her
when she became completely disfigured by illness.
But in my mind she remained
a true Southern belle to the very end.

my so-called crazy life

by Traci Barr

What is life like when you have mental illness?

Now, there’s a question.

What is life like when you’ve had mental illness longer than most of the people around you have even been alive?

What is life like when you are teased as a teenager for being crazy? Is there anything possibly worse when you are a desperately confused, 16-year-old girl who is scared she’s losing her mind? I’m not sure.

Can you picture reaching levels of depression so deep you don’t have the energy to even cry? Can you imagine achieving a state of mania so high you don’t sleep for days and end up having hallucinations and seizures as a result?

I started my struggle with my bipolar diagnosis 36 years ago – when I was 14 years old. So, I can most definitely imagine these things, because I have experienced all of them.

I always have so many questions, like:

How do I think about a life that has been filled with dozens, maybe hundreds, of different medications, doctors, therapists, nurses, hospitalizations, shock treatments, meltdowns and breakdowns?

How do I try, every day, to not be terrified by the certainty that I will die alone? What do I do with the unbearable grief I feel for never having a child? How do I, at the same time, reconcile my grief with the outright gratitude I have for never actually becoming someone’s crazy mom?

Why do I sometimes behave in ways I truly cannot understand? Why do I sometimes have anxiety that is so paralyzing my own breathing feels like a threat to me?

How do I even begin to explain the feeling of extreme worthlessness I have for myself? It is very difficult to describe such a feeling. It’s as if we should all get a new word for worthlessness – and for extreme.

What is life like when you feel no one understands you for even one single second?

What words should I use to describe the relentless sadness I have that never really seems to leave me? Isn’t it logical to think that suicide would eventually feel to me like a twisted, final, ironic act of profound self-love?

Can you understand wanting to be euthanized like a dog?

How do I consider my own serious, but obviously failed, suicide attempt? What do I do with the knowledge that my suicide attempt landed me in jail, but left me with absolutely no memory of it?

Can you appreciate the fact that most mental health problems, while sometimes manageable, are not preventable…and not curable? Haven’t we all finally realized that it’s possible to help prevent so many other chronic diseases, simply by eating healthy foods?

Can you imagine my confusion over why most health insurance companies pay the costs associated with those preventable diseases, but why many of them won’t cover one thin dime of the costs associated with mental health care?

Can you feel my anger about the countless people who are desperate for help but cannot get it? Can you believe that in 2011, according to the Coroner’s Office, 75 people died in Greenville County as a result of suicide? How does that number compare to the 34 homicides or the 57 traffic fatalities in that same year? Do the math.

Do you know that one in four people has a diagnosable mental disorder and that mental illness is the number one cause of disability in the world, resulting in trillions of dollars of lost worker productivity around the globe?

Don’t you think that if businesses and other institutions showed leadership regarding the mental health concerns of their employees, many workplace tragedies would absolutely be avoided?

Don’t you think that it would simply be stone-cold good business for companies to start getting really real on the issue of the mental health of their employees and other stakeholders?

I sure do.

So, what is it like to have all these questions about life with mental illness?

Well, it can just about drive a person…crazy.

And, when you are bipolar like me, it can be quite beautiful, all at the same time.


(An edited (for length) version of this essay was previously published in the July 12, 2013 edition of the Greenville Journal.)