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John Barr, Poetry Czar; That's Her Story, and She's Sticking to It

After Vietnam and Wall Street, John Barr's ready to take on the Poetry Foundation.

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John Barr, Poetry Czar

When pharmaceutical heir Ruth Lilly announced a gift of more than $100 million to Poetry magazine a couple years ago, she launched Chicago's greatest institutional Cinderella story. The journal, which introduced some of the 20th century's most important poets (but rejected work by Lilly, who submitted as Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper Jr.), had labored in respectable poverty since its founding by Harriet Monroe in 1912. At the time of the announcement, it had 10,000 subscribers and a staff of four working in cramped, donated quarters in the Newberry Library. But the gift brought a flood of unsolicited attention from the outside world and internal disagreements about how the money should be spent.

The pot shrank rapidly. Within months, Poetry's gift was down $36 million and the magazine was party to a lawsuit charging the Indiana bank that manages the Lilly trusts with mishandling the funds. Critics carped on the one hand that Poetry wouldn't know how to handle the money, on the other that its bankroll would make it inordinately powerful. Online magazine Slate questioned the wisdom of the donor, reporting that she'd been declared mentally incompetent 20 years earlier. It was enough to send longtime editor Joseph Parisi running for the cover of a hasty retirement.

But the wand had waved. The Modern Poetry Association was transformed into the Poetry Foundation, editor Christian Wiman took over the journal, and a national search was begun for a leader. Last week, from its new offices on Clark Street, Poetry announced it had found its prince. Lisle native and Wall Street finance guru John Barr--a poet with the Midas touch--is the Poetry Foundation's first president.

Smitten by Wordsworth and Emerson in high school, Barr was determined to be a poet--and savvy enough not to depend on it for his livelihood. He majored in English at Harvard, joining the navy to get his tuition paid. After graduation he served a five-year tour of duty, part of it as a weapons officer off the coast of Vietnam where, he claims, they pulled American fliers from the water but "never hit anything." He courted his high school homecoming queen by mail, married her, and returned to Harvard for his MBA, graduating in the top 5 percent of his class and landing a corporate finance job with Morgan Stanley, where he specialized in public utilities. By 1980 he was head of the firm's utility group. When Congress deregulated natural gas, opening the door for middlemen, Barr became a founder and chairman of the Natural Gas Clearinghouse, later known as Dynegy. (In 1989 Morgan Stanley sold its share of NGC, and Barr says he was completely out of the picture in the years following, when Dynegy went public, became one of Wall Street's highfliers, and attempted to buy Enron before suffering its own collapse.) In 1990 he and two associates formed their own investment banking firm, Barr Devlin, now a unit of Societe Generale.

Meanwhile, he wrote. His first book, War Zone, culled from notes scribbled in Vietnam, was published by a small literary press in 1989. Two more poetry collections followed in '91 and '94, and in '97 The Hundred Fathom Curve, his first published by a trade press, was favorably reviewed by the New York Times. His most recent volume, 1999's Grace, is a book-length poem. He'd just completed the manuscript for a book about writing poetry when he got an e-mail from former national poet laureate Robert Pinsky asking if he'd be interested in the Poetry Foundation job. He met with a headhunter in New York in September and says he was won over by the unique convergence of "the most important little magazine in the history of poetry and the Lilly gift." Unlike other arts organizations on whose boards he's served (he's a former board president of the Poetry Society of America), this one wouldn't have to spend time raising money.

Now commuting from his home in Connecticut (which he'll keep, along with a part-time role at his firm), Barr expects to be settled in Chicago in a matter of weeks. "The first order of business is to work with the board to come up with a strategic plan," he says. The foundation has already received $28 million of the gift (now much closer to its initial level, thanks to a recovering market), which it has entrusted to five professional money managers; the rest will come over the next 30 years. (The court case against the Indiana bank is pending.) In spite of the impressive size of the Lilly endowment, Barr points out that the income from the trust--and the foundation's budget--will be just "a couple million a year." With that they'll aim to address poetry's "greatest unmet needs"--and though nothing's been decided yet, it looks like the need for more readers will be at the top of the list. The Poetry Foundation, which Barr says will be "built up and operated like a well-run small company," is likely to focus on audience development. Maybe then, like its flashy stepsisters slam and rap, poetry will have a date for the ball.

That's Her Story, and She's Sticking to It

City planning and development commissioner Alicia Berg says troubles with the mayor are not behind her move to Columbia College--a report in the Sun-Times to that effect notwithstanding. The college announced last week that Berg will start work March 1 as vice president of campus environment and external affairs. She'll have the job Bert Gall left last year, with responsibility for daily operations spun off to new associate vice president Mike Debish. According to the Sun-Times, Daley was angry about a politically damaging letter giving veto power over redevelopment work on the CHA's ABLA homes to Alderman Danny Solis, who's linked to erstwhile mayoral pal Oscar D'Angelo (Solis's ward includes just 4 percent of the ABLA project). But Berg claims the letter was "no big deal--we just wrote to the aldermen what our typical practice is" (the letter was also addressed to Alderman Madeline Haithcock, whose ward encompasses most of ABLA).

Berg does say the mayor "was disappointed that there was anything that could have been misconstrued as to be unusual," but insists the timing of her exit is "coincidental." She'd been interviewing for the Columbia job since November, and after 14 years with the planning department--3 in the commissioner's hot seat--she says she was ready for a change. During her stint as commissioner Chicago's zoning code was rewritten and a 90-day delay over the demolition of historic buildings was instituted, and some preservationists say they're leery of a replacement. In her new post Berg expects to create a campus master plan and help Columbia with its "underutilized assets."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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