When our dear friend Barry Spacks slipped away from us, I felt my heart quake. “What will we do without him?” I asked, and thought of Ezra Pound’s verse, how days and nights “are not full enough,” and continues:
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
However, when Barry suddenly died, a crater suddenly appeared. I immediately turned to his books of poems, as if reading them for the first time. His spirit filled me as I delved into his wisdom and humor, love and compassion. When you’ve lived beside someone a long time, you think they are always going to be there. To me, Barry was immortal. His presence simply led my poetic life, as it did many of ours.
I met Barry around 1984 at a poetry reading, I think, and was inspired with his poems, and graciousness, not really knowing his acclaim. I was just putting my toe into the Santa Barbara poetry waters, and he made me feel like my poems were of value and encouraged me wholeheartedly. When my first book of poems was accepted by John Daniel & Co., at the end of 1985, I gathered my courage and asked if he might “blurb” it. Sure he would decline, I felt I’d won the lottery when he said yes. That was Barry’s way. He said yes to most things and people with his generous heart, and he always showed up.
With all the accolades and stellar qualities that we say and feel about Barry, he was also a showman in the best sense of the word. When he read his poems, he did so with verve, lighting the room with his charisma, having as good a time as anyone. Even when he didn’t feel well, he showed up, keeping his commitments. In September 2010, despite experiencing heart issues, he made it, out of breath, to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s judging for its annual poetry contest, having to walk a couple of blocks from where he had to park his car. He joined the panel just as he had since 1995, with dedication and care, and did so through the fall of 2013.
As a teacher and editor, Barry had a keen ear and eye that could discern in seconds what needed to be removed or switched around for the poem to shine. His hand is behind much of what I have published. We often teased Barry about being a bulldozer with our words, but the truth is, he was brilliant, and we relied on his insight and discerning eye, just as anyone who has worked with him. Barry has been a workshop leader for 13 years, along with David Starkey, for a summer poetry workshop I run. Participants always raved about his kindness, in awe of his mastery and grateful for his praise of their drafts.
One of the fondest memories I have of Barry was when he was appointed Santa Barbara’s first Poet Laureate. I had the idea to make a laurel wreath for him, near the last minute, no time to hike the hills and pick some real laurel. Playfully, he agreed, so we picked some leaves that might do from our yards and met to assemble them around a clothes hangar I bent round. Green tape and wire in hand, we quickly learned neither of us were crafty in such matters, but laughed ourselves silly trying. And when we placed it on his head at the City Council meeting before reading his poem, leaves dripping and pointed at odd angles, it made the whole thing a very jolly occasion. Two years later when it was my turn to be the Laureate, we repeated the task and he said, “We haven’t improved any, have we?”
Once Barry had a pacemaker to establish a regular heartbeat, he was able to return to all of his artistic joys. To celebrate, our poetry group held a birthday party for him in February 2012. The cake I made looked a little like the laurel wreath, the top layer near slipping on his lap. I will always remember his deep belly laugh, and the picture I took, one of my favorites. Happy Birthday again, Barry! Thank you for the magnanimous gift of your life, enlarging ours, as the rings of a pebble in water continue circling, on and on, as you liked to sign your messages.