• <div style="background-image:url(/live/image/gid/198/width/1600/height/300/crop/1/50546_Middle_South_drone1.rev.1554236092.jpg)"/>

Forester News

Emerita Professor Lois Barr featured in Chicago Tribune

Associate Professor of Spanish, Emerita Lois Barr, an award-winning poet, was featured in the Chicago Tribune for creating poetry inspired by her commute on the “L,” Chicago’s elevated trains.

That woman eavesdropping on your conversation on the train might be this award-winning poet, who finds inspiration in the everyday rhythms of the ‘L’

Sep 16, 2019 | 5:00 AM

When Lois Baer Barr rides the “L,” she never wears headphones, and usually does not sit and read. She stands, watches and listens.

She hears people on the phone, talking about marital and job problems. She hears solitary riders ranting angrily to themselves, and panhandlers making their pleas. She enjoys the rich greens of Graceland Cemetery out the windows and the “teakettle whistle” of the train as it hits a curve.

And she turns it all into poetry.

Barr, 72, of Riverwoods, is an award-winning poet and short-story writer, as well as a professor emerita in creative writing and Spanish at Lake Forest College. Originally from Louisville, Ky., she calls herself a “typical suburban person.” Even when she lived in Chicago years ago, she didn’t ride the “L” much and mostly took buses.

But in the last year, Barr started using the CTA Red and Brown lines to travel between a writing studio in Edgewater and George Manierre Elementary School on the Near North Side, where she is a volunteer reader. And she has found a rich source of artistic inspiration from an activity many Chicagoans take for granted — riding the train.

“I get lonely driving a car,” Barr said. “I’m always on the phone, hands-free, talking to my daughter or my sister-in-law or my mother’s best friend in Louisville. But when I’m on the ‘L,’ I’m seeing stuff going on, and I’m nosy. I like that, being with other people.”

So far, Barr’s “L” rides to and from Edgewater have resulted in 16 poems, which she hopes to eventually publish as a chapbook, which is a small poetry collection, typically in pamphlet form. Her “’L’ poems” include pieces about the history of the Cabrini Green housing development, early rapid transit developer and notorious rascal Charles Tyson Yerkes and signs of spring, viewed from train windows. She has even written about the common mishap of being so caught up in a book that she almost missed her stop.

Barr is 5-foot-2, with brown eyes, short white hair and a ready laugh. She said she likes to stand on the train because she’s short, and it helps her see everything. She also has read research that too much sitting is bad for your health.

Barr admits that she “loves to eavesdrop” on other people’s conversations, and can do it not only in English, but in Spanish, French and some Russian. She just wishes more riders would talk to people they don’t know, instead of all conversations being between couples or friends traveling together.

“Coming from Louisville, I’m used to people talking to each other on the street,” Barr said.

Besides listening in on conversations, Barr likes to peek at what people are reading, and even conducted her own “scientific study” about preferences, finding that 78% of riders use electronic devices, 19% prefer paper, and 3% just doze, stare into space or people watch.

In her poem, “Rainy Day on the ‘L,’” she describes a change in mood: 

walk to Bryn Mawr
gray suede rain-proofed boots
Chicago Botanic Garden umbrella  
I look down the long gray line
pause under awning then board
we are waiting for a signal
to resume momentarily
gray purse across my chest
black bag of books
black clouds loom
check to see
you have all your belongings
before you exit
Sedgwick is next
Manierre School reading buddies
fist bumps and smiles
expel the gloom

Barr watches people, but also has seen them watching her back. She once noticed a pair of young women kissing, who “flinched” when they noticed her looking, so she turned away to give them space. It was the same day Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first openly gay mayor, was sworn into office and Barr wondered in a poem whether it was also a kind of “inauguration day” for the young lovers.

Barr usually writes poetry about biblical figures, finding inspiration in “all that family drama.” Her poem “Hagar,” about Sarah’s handmaid, was a finalist for the 2019 Rita Dove poetry prize.

Riding the “L” has taken Barr out of her “comfort zone,” which she said is crucial for artists.

“Everybody is kind of trapped in their own body and in their own life, but if you’re going to write, to do fiction, you really need to find out what’s happening to other people,” Barr said. She said the “L” is particularly good for poetry, because of all the sounds, and the 8/8 meter of the wheels.

“You might hear a piece of a song,” Barr said.

In the poem, “Gentle Reader,” Barr asks fellow riders to understand her desire to know them.

“I know I’m an old white lady,/ but maybe we have something in common … I want to hear your story,/ know you,/ want to be your gentle reader too.”