In 2009, Traci Brimhall won the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award for her collection Rookery. Rumpus Contributor Evan J. Peterson interviewed Brimhall for this half of what we call a Rumpus Original Combo (for the second half, click here).
The Rumpus: The last time I saw you, in late summer 2009, you were driving solo around the country. Now that you’ve found a more domestic lifestyle, how is this affecting your writing? Do you anticipate a distinct change in your forthcoming work?
Traci Brimhall: There’s nothing like sleeping in the back of your car in a Wal-Mart parking lot to let you know all your dreams have come true. Seriously though, writing while I lived in my car caused a radical change in my approach to writing. I wrote many poems on post cards that I sent without copying any lines down. It was very freeing to write something and let it go. I also discovered Nick Bantock’s Capolan postcards when I was in Alaska. The story behind the cards was that the postcard artist was enlisted to make stamps for this fictional country of wayfarers. Of course this being a country of pilgrims, the borders always change, and the box of postcards included the history of these wanderings. Since I was traveling myself, I thought it would be interesting to blend my narrative with theirs in the postcards I sent.
Mostly domestic life has slowed down my writing process. Living in my car I was only responsible for two things: 1) how far I would drive or hike that day, and 2) what I would eat. Now I have many more responsibilities, more bills to pay, more papers to grade, more papers to write, more social engagements, and so I spend less time than I would like to on poems. It’s hard to know what changes to anticipate, but I do like to make deliberate choices in my work in order to challenge myself. I don’t know what’s next, but I hope it surprises me.
Rumpus: Your postcard story has me wondering: how precious are your writings to you? How do you feel about guarding, retaining, or otherwise protecting what you’ve written?
Brimhall: My writing matters a great deal to me, although most of that value is in the moments I am writing, when the material is still raw and unformed, and I’m in that liminal state discovering and creating something. That’s not to say I don’t care for my work after that stage. I like many of my poems and am even proud of a few, but what I enjoy most, what is precious to me, is the making. Walter Benjamin said that every work is the death mask of its conception, and that feels true to me. Once a poem is finished or abandoned, it becomes a snapshot of an experience and not the experience anymore. The pictures remain, but it’s not the same as actually climbing Mount Fuji. It’s not a night dive in Honduras. Deciding a poem is finished or abandoned means it’s not yours anymore; it goes to live in a drawer, or in your poetry boneyard, or an editor’s mailbox. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” A terribly smart poet said that once.
Rumpus: Rookery makes it seem as though negative experience is essential to your process: fear, infidelity, loss of experience into memory, etc. What do you consider your primary sacrifice(s) to be immersed in poetry?
Brimhall: I should also say that there’s joy in poetry for me, too. It’s not all sturm und drang. A sense of play was really hard for me to recover after my MFA because I’d spent so much time earnestly crafting poems and making aesthetic choices. I had to give myself permission to make a mess and let poems fail more often. I’m certainly glad when poems feel successful and complete, but I’ve learned more in my failures than I have in my successes. In response to sacrifices, I’ve definitely devoted a great deal of time to writing and saddled myself with debt, but I wouldn’t call any of it a sacrifice. When faced with making choices about how to spend my time and money, I think about what kind of life I want to live rather than what kind of poetry I want to write. Of course the life I lead informs the poems I write, and the poems I write enhance the life I lead, but my life comes first. I know some people who find this statement heretical, but I’d rather live a great life than write great poems.
Rumpus: As far as the MFA, why did you choose to go for that degree, and do you think it prepared you to write this prize-winning collection? There’s been so much debate about the boom in programs.
Brimhall: One of the things that prompted me to go back to school for my MFA was touring China with my brother’s jazz band. I was watching him play on the Great Wall when I was struck by how much it meant to him. I never thought I was allowed to love something that much, to make it first in my life, at least for a while. Of course, I didn’t draw an immediate line between loving your art and graduate school, but at the time many of my peers from undergraduate writing classes were pursuing MFAs. I was also working at a Shakespeare theater and many of the actors there had advanced degrees. It seemed like a logical step, or at least a really long honeymoon during which poetry and I really had a chance to get to know one another.
As far as being prepared to publish strong work, I guess I didn’t know mine was any stronger than anyone else’s. There were so many other talented writers in my classes whose work awed me and who taught me a great deal. I don’t know that an MFA is right for everyone, but I do know that love will change your life if you let it.
Rumpus: There’s so much that goes on between women as well as between men and women in Rookery. The affair that kicks off the book is something you dwell on for many pages. Love, power, and sexuality simmer and often crackle–but that’s so many poetry books. Are you at all nervous about traversing familiar territory?
Brimhall: Not at all. That territory—love, power, sex, violence—is human territory. I’m not worried about being redundant because even though we all have those fundamental human experiences of heartbreak and healing, my story is still uniquely, painfully, wonderfully mine. The particulars of my life are both transcendently human but also utterly me. But the personal is also where I began. Since Rookery I’ve made different choices about form, voice, place and time, but even beneath all those attempts to try something new, the obsessions are still there: doubt, the body, love, and hope in all its terrible necessity. It actually gives me great comfort to think of my poems as belonging to a larger conversation about that familiar human territory because writing is where I go to deepen my humanity and to be as brave as possible.
Rumpus: Continuing this theme, what’s your relationship to gender and sexuality in the arts?
Brimhall: For a while now I’ve been obsessed with gender transformation, like the story of Tiresias, Woolf’s Orlando, or Anne Carson’s “Book of Isaiah,” in which men are transformed into women. My favorite gender contortionist is Shakespeare, Twelfth Night in particular, in which a boy actor plays the role of a woman who disguises herself as a man and acts out the role of a woman with the man s/he loves. Brilliant.
I really wanted to write a poem in which a woman became a man, but then I read Louise Erdrich’s Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, in which a nun becomes a farmer’s lover who becomes a priest. Not many people can be reborn twice. It was done so well I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful transformation. I think these dual-gendered lives fascinate me because these characters live in two worlds at once. We all live lives of multiple identities: daughter, lover, sister, father, friend, son, mother, teacher, student, parishioner. I’m interested in all dualities, but gender identity in particular shapes us in profound ways that affect how we see the world and how the world sees us.
Rumpus: What other dualities do you find in your reading or writing?
Brimhall: Desire and ruin. Love and fear. Mercy and terror. I often gravitate towards something with an undertow. I usually look for risk in subject matter rather than form, and I’d really like to risk more structurally. I’ve been thinking about Emily Dickinson lately, how Mount Holyoke Female Seminary determined her to be a student “without hope” when she would not rise and declare herself one of the converted, yet she is famous for her use of hymn meter. She used the form of what she doubted, and I find that incredibly fascinating. There are plenty of things I doubt in this world, the institution of marriage and the book of Revelations to name two. I haven’t figured out how those things might relate to the form of future poems, but I’m interrogating my doubt for possibilities.
I’ve wanted to complete a crown of sonnets for a few years now, but I have a hard time adhering to form. Form is often a starting point for me, but I have a hard time sticking to the rules. I’m a pushover when my poem decides iambic pentameter isn’t working, or it would like to be more than fourteen lines. Still, I’d like to try the crown again, regardless of whether or not it works.
Rumpus: Are you interested in writing prose?
Brimhall: I’m definitely interested in writing prose, but long pieces exhaust me. A page and a half of prose are about all I can handle in a day. More than fiction or essays, I’ve been exploring poetic forms like haibun and zuihitsu to try and find ways to blend poetry and prose. Most of the time I fail spectacularly, but I enjoy trying.
Rumpus: What do you want your readers to take with them from Rookery?
Brimhall: Umberto Eco has interesting things to say about the role of the reader, but essentially: the reader finishes the book. I know what I intended in many of my poems, but if I did my job as a writer, every reader can construct their own meaning. The book is finished again every time it is read. Discovering poetry changed the way I engage with the world, and reading poetry reminds me to notice language, and the smell of city streets, and the sound of geese migrating, and the heat of my husband’s breath on the back of my neck. I want to be moved by language, to imagine, to deepen my humanity, to see myself and the world honestly. If my book affects readers, I would hope that my poems could do for someone else what so many poems have done for me.
People ask about ideal readers and audience often, but I don’t really have a good answer for it. This is probably a foolish thing to say, but I assumed no one would read it, or that if someone ever read it, I would never meet them. In fact, I think assuming that no one would ever read my poems was essential to writing them, because I wouldn’t have written some of those poems if I thought people would see them.
Rumpus: Considering your zeal for trying new things, are you ready to start a new project?
Brimhall: Well, I’m still trying to figure out what makes me vulnerable right now. I wrote about the body and about God, and now I need to know what threatens to defeat me. That’s where I need to go before I continue. I want to be a little afraid when I write.
Click here to read the Rumpus review of Rookery.