Aubrey Barnes knows the power of the written and spoken word, and he’s an expert in both.
The thoughtful 30-year-old Rock Island native is releasing his latest book on April 18. His third self-published book, “It is Good. It is Written,” Barnes’ piece of art has been three years in development, and has been consigned by world-renowned poets, such as Black Chakra.
“It is Good. It is Written” is a collection of poetry that speaks a narrative in hopes to resonate and transform the heart and soul of Black America, as well as provoke thought in everyone else.
From sharing his personal battle with depression, to sharing messages given through his inward journey, fleeting thoughts and emotions, “Aubs.” presents readers not with a solution per se, but his introspective story and answers he has found through his self-exploration; doing this through recalling stories from his travels outside the country, to referencing America’s divisive history.
“I’m a big empath — I feel everything,” Barnes said in a recent interview. “Even though things are chaotic now, it is good because at this moment, I am present with myself, my emotions, of my neighbor and what they’re going through.”
All religions focus on how to overcome obstacles, he said, and we can learn from them all. “We can get through this too, because these people go through their experiences,” he said. “They wrote them down. I can do the same thing.”
Poetry is a potent way to make sense of the world, and create order from chaos. Barnes enjoys it also as a way to know himself better.
“Poetry has allowed me to provoke thought within myself,” he said. Performing it aloud brings a different energy and power to audiences, he said. “Traveling storytellers would share their stories, and I think that part is important.”
The new book of 33 poems represents poetry in its rawest form, all written in the past two years. “I like my work to speak for itself,” Barnes said. “It’s this progressive piece of art, talking about the optimism I have to find during all this stuff going on.”
Poems address his depression and cynicism, among other topics. The book is a journey to how he got to the creed of its title (“It is Good.”).
Starting shy and inward
Aubs. went to Iowa Central Community College on a track scholarship, finishing his bachelor’s degree online through Western Governors University, in educational studies.
“I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was 6, 7 years old,” Barnes said, noting his parents (Aubrey Lee and Linda) are pastors in downtown Rock Island. Other family members have been teachers.
He’s been writing poetry since he was 12, as a means to express himself.
“Being a socially awkward 12-year-old, I didn’t talk to people but I had words to say,” Barnes said. “I’ve always written poetry, in college, my first major before education was creative writing.”
The spoken-word aspect didn’t come to him until he was 23, when he started performing his poetry.
“Rap was what influenced me to write poetry, so it’s kind of taking those two arts together,” Barnes said. He gained confidence by his early 20s to talk in public, after working seven years in local schools as a paraeducator and teaching assistant (including the Black Hawk Area Special Education District).
Doing poetry workshops with students is a favorite activity for Barnes, now going on eight years. He taught a two-week workshop in Haiti in 2019.
His first self-published book, “Unfinished,” came out in 2017. “I just didn’t want my work to exist as spoken word; I wanted people to read it,” he said. “It was one that I was proud of, but there was a lot of room for growth. It was my first book to learn from.”
It encompassed poetry from high school through age 23, and his second (“I’m Not Anti-Love”) was published in February 2019, talking about relationships.
The pandemic gave Barnes more time to write, and that inspired his new book.
“I’m a big introvert for sure; I like my own space,” he said. “That’s where my thoughts come, where my writing ideas come from. Having that time was the silver lining to everything that was happening.”
The pandemic made Barnes consider the social justice issues roiling the country (like the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor).
“I wrestled with the idea of whether I was as safe as I thought I was in this world,” he said. “I’d go to work, sit in these Zoom meetings and everybody would act as if everything was normal, while these protests were going on a couple states over.”
Considering safety, equity
During the pandemic, Barnes went to counseling (over Zoom) for the first time, to help process his thoughts more productively. He also had written about racial issues in his first two books.
The 2020 protests and riots reflected feelings of hurt from African-Americans, he said. “It’s like how an avalanche starts — you have all this snow that accumulates…and that’s exactly what happened. It made me think about going to counseling.”
One incident made Barnes feel unsafe — when walking around Vander Veer Park, a group of women thought he was abusing his dog, and started harassing him about walking his dog.
“I have to just walk away and have this sense of unsafety,” he said. “2020 really made me look at things I always lived in and made me question them. I sat with the ideas a little more.”
Diversity and equity efforts have improved in the past year, Barnes said, noting there always will be racism.
“I’ve got to be grateful for the little things I see,” he said. “There are always gonna be people who are not grateful for what you do.”
Barnes tries to be true and honest in what he does, and ideally aims to reach parents through their kids.
“A lot of poems in my book are me speaking to kids,” he said. “My biggest thing is, the kids are our future. They’re gonna transform things.” Students are often more open-minded and nonjudgmental than adults, Barnes said.
He studied Buddhist teachers during the pandemic, and learned how to overcome suffering.
Spoken word allows people to feel poetry in a different way. Barnes has also recorded with well-known QC rapper Torrian Ball.
“It’s allowed me to form really good relationships with creatives,” Barnes said.
In addition to being an author, Aubs. performs as a spoken-word artist and a battle rap enthusiast.
When Aubs. isn’t on stage or in the classroom, where he often works with at-risk children, he contributes to The Black Thoughts Podcast, as its co-founder and host.
This month, Barnes will re-start his podcast, with new episodes released every other month. Conversations revolve around everything from mental health to religion, to financial literacy and relationships.
“The point of the podcast is to have these conversations in more of a vulnerable way,” he said. “We try to ask these hard questions.”
Aubs. performs and teaches workshops all over the world, from Chicago to Haiti. In 2019, the Iowa Writers Organization ranked him the third-best slam poet in the state of Iowa.
Seeing a need for area artists to showcase their poetry, in 2014, Aubs. launched Roaring Rhetoric, a live interactive poetry showcase.
These shows have featured professional artists from all over the Midwest. Later, Aubs. founded the Young Lions Roar Project. Its purpose is to teach the next generation of young poets, writers, and entertainers the art of writing and performing poetry. The class uses rhyme and other poetic devices that make learning easy and gratifying for the participating students. He also teaches poetry at multiple camps, churches, and events.
He also produced his first recording project at the beginning of 2019, called “Aubizms,” and just recently released the sequel project “Aubizms II,” which can be heard on all streaming services.
Elevating poetry’s impact
Like many people around he world, he’s been very inspired and uplifted by the young Black poet Amanda Gorman, who rocketed to fame by delivering an original poem at President Biden’s 2021 inauguration (the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history).
“To be able to have Amanda Gorman essentially say, it is good, it is written and seeing how that healed people, that was really good to see,” Barnes said. “It shows the power of poetry, you know?”
He also was impressed by Brandon Leake (another African-American), the first spoken-word artist to win “America’s Got Talent,” in 2020. “Between these two, I think it’s really opened people’s eyes to how poetry is still relevant to these times,” Barnes said.
His new book will be available on Amazon and local book stores. Barnes will schedule book signings and a summer tour, including Chicago, Indianapolis and North Carolina.
“This piece of art is my way of provoking change in some type of way,” he said.
He loves being back to work in person with students, and appreciates it more than ever.
Barnes will teach a poetry workshop for a month with students in Cambridge, Ill., and singer-songwriter Lewis Knudsen will work with them on music (a project funded by Quad City Arts). The students will perform spoken word of their own poems.
For more information and to order Barnes’ books, visit his website: www.poeticaubs.com.