There are many reasons to support literary magazines, but I always return to the possibility of discovery. Some magazines merely claim to include “emerging writers,” but others actually practice such inclusion, and in doing so give readers the chance to follow poets from early, independent work, to the unified wholes of first books. I have discovered and enjoyed the work of Traci Brimhall, Rose McLarney, Alison Stine, Marcus Wicker, and Joe Wilkins in scattered issues, and almost feel proud when their debuts arrive. Add Mark Jay Brewin, Jr. to that list.
I first discovered Mark’s work in West Branch. Images drove his taut lines forward: details that would make a fiction writer envious, but delivered with associations beyond the realm of prose. His debut collection, Scrap Iron, won the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, and was published this year by the University of Utah Press. Scrap Iron contains the same elements that attracted me to his earlier work, but also pivot from those narratives into wider themes that complicate family and place. And that place—New Jersey—is one whose poetic tradition often goes unmentioned.
I wanted to learn more about how Mark’s experiences “Down Jersey” informed this great collection.
The Rumpus: What’s the history behind this book—did it begin as separate poems, or was it conceived of as a larger project from the start?
Mark Jay Brewin, Jr.: Fresh out of the gate, I always knew that this book was going to be waist-deep in my childhood landscape: Vineland, New Jersey. Large Italian-American population. Farm beds as far as the eye can see, all tucked up against the edge of the Pine Barrens. Rust. Trash. Diners with Snapper Soup always on the specials menu. (Damn, sir, you’re getting me in the mood for a visit home, but I digress.)
This was conceived as a whole project, an exploration of experiences and ideas from my past to the present. My parents only got a high school diploma—my father went to trade school for a little bit, my mother got a license to be a cosmetologist—and never left the state, so when I had decided (in high school) that I wanted to go to college down south, study English, it was an extreme departure from what they knew and how they lived. Obviously, me being the first in my family to up sticks and receive both a bachelor’s and master’s degree caused plenty of familial strain, resentment, distancing; so from the beginning, this book was going to be about the tender violence among my folks and siblings while I was both in-country and out-, Down Jersey and across the states.
As far as the arrangement, compiling, and writing of it, the book is a basic, flowing chronology with minor tweaks and introductions to Garden State icons (Palace Depression, Jersey Devil, and so on) that work as vehicles for further exploring the stresses within our dynamic. The book took a rough form while I was abroad, and during my travels I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago across the north of Spain, which allowed me a chance to see if the collection cut the mustard, if the order was solid. Each night in hostels, I had a chance to delve further in. Snoring pilgrims and my words. The most important part of the arrangement I had to iron out was building the tension, so I constantly had to consider how to peak the narrative and end on its current final note, cutting out all the comparatively weaker pieces. There were so many B-sides to this manuscript, I could have—and probably will—fill a whole other book with Jersey happenings. So, yeah.
Rumpus: I first discovered your work through “Drinking Stories,” a poem that appeared in West Branch. It’s an incredibly effective representation, through syntax and image, of the mind’s struggle with dementia. That poem doesn’t appear in Scrap Iron, but the manuscript shares similar stylistic points. Could you talk about that piece? Is that part of another manuscript?
Brewin, Jr.: Thanks for the kind words about “Drinking Stories.” That poem came from a whole batch of writing while I was in Ireland. I had solidified the rough arc of the manuscript and was looking for a few different ways to end the collection. One of the last weekends back home, before I left for Europe, I spent a chunk of time with my father and grandfather; usually my dad is busy working overtime at the Vineland Municipal Electric Utility, but it worked out that he had a long weekend. The whole experience, all that time, listening to those two bullshit—my father’s worries, the fear and loss, the beers and memories—were all perfect inspirations that would become “Drinking Stories” and “Turkey Point,” the last poem in the book. They fit right along with other works in Scrap Iron, like “Burning Down the Camper” and “On Peeling Skin.” When I was reading, re-reading, and working on the final arrangement, “Drinking Stories” and a handful of other South Jersey poems—with ideas of storytelling, my grandfather, late night awakenings—began to use and utilize stylistic elements and images akin to new poems I was starting to pen in Spain on the pilgrimage trail. Working the land, my faith, and lapsed Catholic upbringing; the ideas of offerings and grace. It seemed to me that it better fit the upcoming Camino series. Besides, my grandmother (that particular grandfather’s late wife) was never one for sharing the spotlight, and she makes quite a few appearances in Scrap Iron. I figure he deserves his day amid the Iberian countryside, doggerel prayer, and the second manuscript.
Rumpus: I was thrilled to discover your treatment of South Jersey in this book. New Jersey has such a rich and diverse poetic tradition—Walt Whitman, Stephen Dunn, Amiri Baraka, Gerald Stern, Maria Mazziotti Gillen, Robert Pinsky, Diane Lockward—despite the tendency of many to oversimplify the region. Could you talk about the NJ elements of this collection, and your experiences as a poet from the state?
Brewin, Jr.: I remember this mission-type, volunteer thing that I had to do in high school with a busload of my classmates, where we stayed at a church in Camden, New Jersey for a week (maybe two) and we did service projects, met up with people from the public, heard life stories, stuff like that. When we first got there, they took us on a tour of the burnt-out, crumbling row homes and finally on to Walt Whitman’s grave. After all the picking up trash, serving at soup kitchens, prayers and lectures, I went back home and read Leaves of Grass. That profound idea of a Jersey poet speaking on behalf of the masses, for the masses, sharing and commiserating and rationalizing the human experience, changed things for me. I knew I loved Jersey, and so began to look at it a little deeper: the people there, and its eccentricities, which are some of the most beautiful, enigmatic things I have ever heard about or seen. The dogma and salad days glorified by the farmers, the New Italy Society, church festivals, the ruins, all began to compound into a larger patch-worked story that writers like Stephen Dunn and Gerald Stern (don’t forget Kathleen Graber from Wildwood) contributed to, that I wanted to be a part of.
When I was a teen, my father brought me along to help him with odd jobs and maintenance work at family friends’ houses. Usually the places were empty, so in between fishing wires through walls or holding the flashlight for my father crouched in a crawlspace, I would rifle through drawers and boxes, invent histories for people I never really knew. While all this went on over weekends or after school, I spent my days in class surrounded by a handful of English and Art teachers that taught me how to bring these observations and thoughts together. I wanted to be among their ranks. I wanted to share a pie slice of this state that hadn’t been served up yet.
Rumpus: Scrap Iron also investigates the folkloric elements of the state. In “Jersey Devil,” “children light house lamps at the same black hour” to drive away Mother Leeds’s devil child. “Palace Depression” reveals the eccentric home of George Daynor: “A catacomb of turret spires, graveyard/ of half-sunken rust-scarred cars.” Do you think New Jersey has a particular mythology or folklore? Did leaving the state intensify its eccentricities, or create a nostalgia for them?
Brewin, Jr.: When I think of the folklore, I think of a lot of it as amalgamations of details, stories, and junk. The Palace Depression was a jumble of trash. The Jersey Devil was a deformed creature made from a dozen animals’ traits, steeped in a handful of bad luck Revolutionary War-era stories. Our mythology is built from so many different elements. We’re a resourceful people when it comes to our tall tales and idols.
After leaving the state, for undergrad and graduate studies (first to North Carolina, then Illinois) and now my move to Rhode Island, so many people when they hear “New Jersey,” immediately conjure images of Camden and Hoboken, of refineries and power lines and the turnpike, but they don’t see my Down Jersey, know its stories. Each place I move to gives me the opportunity to impress someone, make a believer out of him or her or whoever. Hell, I didn’t first drive the turnpike until I was dating my wife and I had to head up north to meet my future in-laws. (All that geometry, the hard angles, metal structures, industrial spaces and machinery, the chugging smokestacks, I even love that too.) Ever since that first departure, I have only fallen further down the rabbit hole.
Rumpus: Your father appears enormously important to your poetic sense in this book. I love the terse, rough way he’s presented in poems like “Burning Down the Camper,” but also how his image evolves into something mythic: “The way he spoke / our names, a muttered hex.” The two of you are connected when “milking the wasted land” in the titular poem. Could you talk about your relationship with him, as filtered through this manuscript?
Brewin, Jr.: My father wasn’t around a lot when I was a kid. He had shift work at the power plant to deal with, and so the only times I could ever really get a grasp on him, be with him, was a few hours a day. Even then, he would be dozing on the couch transitioning from 3-11s to Midnights. Whatever childhood memories I do have of him are these extremes, like the happenings in “Burning Down the Camper”—bursts of life, his longing to have real, meaningful relationships with us, and ultimately his animosity towards work.
I had a chance to really get to know him when—as I mentioned before—he had me help him with maintenance jobs. It was so damn cool to watch the way he would wire alarm systems, run bugs and window switches, set countertops and exterior doors. What’s amazing is that my dad is missing his index and middle fingers on his left hand, the way he has had to adapt how he uses certain tools. I tried my best to learn from him, do what he did as best I can, but I’m no Al Borland. When I finished high school and headed to college, our relationship started becoming more of a fluid thing—a give and take. He knew nothing of dorm life, iambic pentameter, graduation requirements, and so he was the one asking me questions, like I looked to him for how to patch holes in Sheetrock.
I guess, in reality, the manuscript was filtered through our relationship—does this make sense?—not the reverse. He picked up extra shifts to pay for study abroad opportunities, tuition, to fill my gas tank so I could go to conferences and writing retreats. These opportunities and escapes expanded my artistic and writing principles. Now, as my grandfather’s health has declined, [my dad’s] fear for losing his own role model is accented by how much I hate not being around mine, how I’ve jumped ship and barely have the time or money to return home as much as I want. All of this together is how and why this book exists in its present form.
Rumpus: The fascinating images of “Our Lady of Mount Carmel”—that church festival with “spilled beer” and “[a] feast day of hangovers and rosaries for sale”—are reflected in a later poem, when the narrator quips that “The guilt one acquires in Catholic school lectures/ isn’t readily forgotten.” How do you envision Catholicism and your family’s Sicilian background within your poetry, which moves far beyond those topics (from New Zealand to Carbondale, tension between brothers)?
Brewin, Jr.: Whoa, sugar. This is a heavy question. Forgive me, because I am sure this is going to be way too long…my apologies in advance.
I was raised in the Church at the behest of my maternal grandfather. He is a pillar of his parish, does the readings and helps balance the finances, and I am sure much more than that. My father (for most of my childhood) would openly admit that he didn’t believe in God, and if there was one he sure as hell wasn’t in his court; and my mother was spiritual but kept the church at a distance citing her own sins and sacrifice, but was never specific and open about it for the longest time. One of the most important academic opportunities I had, which helped sharpen my love/hate relationship with Catholicism, was my attendance at St. Augustine’s College Preparatory School. Every Wednesday morning we had Mass in the school gym (although the school preached academic rigor and development, I believe a large portion of students were pushed through because of their athletic talents or parents’ financial contributions), where I was elected Minister of the Cup and sang in the choir off and on, depending on if I wanted to skip a particular class or not for practice. Most students half-heartedly stood or sat, took the Eucharist, sang the Alma Mater, while afterward I got to finish off the chalice of blessed-wine-turned-blood and walked off to Church History class with a major buzz.
Cartoon Bible adventures on TV before CCD classes, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation were all things I grew up with. Every Christmas Eve, at my grandparents’ house, we said a prayer for our dear departed and threw back shot after shot of Sambuca Romana. Beyond all of these emotionless, thoughtless, routine actions I had growing up (memories of the Beef-n-Beer Bash at Our Lady of Pompeii Parish or, yes, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival—both moments for secular interaction more so than spiritual growth), when I got to Elon University (my undergraduate alma mater), I joined the Service Learning Community, which stressed volunteer work, community outreach, and a majority of our work was done via church groups. To see these real moments of fellowship, helping others, I was able to actually glimpse Catholicism for the first time in its true, full form. The real ideologies and practices of the Church in action.
All while this is going on—remember, I’m the oldest son in a Sicilian family, who’s gone and jumped ship—family members of mine are both happy for my academic successes but are constantly afraid I am “forgetting” the family, wiping them out of my life. There is the seed that starts it all. I’m home from university for the holidays, Midnight Mass at Christmas, plenty of food, drinking, prayers and remembering what we’ve lost—then back again to working at a retirement community where the elderly may or may not be visited by family (ever), where the people walking into the soup kitchen that morning didn’t have a holiday, gifts to share, anyone to be with. And yet, they are hopeful, or if not hopeful, then at least willing and wanting human contact. And they are happy, praising God that at least they are alive, thankful for the Church, when most of my interactions with it were filled with teenagers falling asleep on a set of bleachers.
My oldest kinfolk spoke of church, these festivals, get-togethers as moments for little thanksgivings, for asking forgiveness, getting to the basics. The same words spoken over and over again, trusting in its power and promise, as a Sicilian family turns to the power and promise of each family member, passing on the same ideas, turning in to itself before ever turning away from it. And I did. I left them. I left the Church, but I never left the idea of helping and comforting anyone I can.
Constantly, I am always questioning if I should have stayed home (but my purest memories and realizations are only found with distance), or if I should have stayed with the Catholic Church, but I’ve seen too many people—just my small personal experience, I don’t want to assume or say that all or even the majority of church-goers don’t practice what they preach—turn a tin ear to the plight of another. The Catholic Church, my Sicilian family, and guilt that I am always answering to the fact that I am a white, privileged, lucky male who believes in something (God, if you will), who can’t help but find nostalgia and admiration for those religious practices, who can’t help but love and miss and venerate his family (but only with a proper space to focus on it), who can’t help but feel guilty for the fact that too much has worked out so smoothly, perfectly (fine-tuned as if my cards were already dealt) in my life. Based on the weight of everything, I envision the role of these two enormously important elements of my core as a catalyst, something I will forever try to reconcile.
Rumpus: Some of these poems, like “Hounds,” adeptly extend for several pages. Other pieces are prose-poetic. Does form or function come first in your poetic process?
Brewin, Jr.: As my mentors at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale said, “Form follows function.” Personally, I like things clean, “stanziated” (is that a word?), complete-looking, which puts me in a place to have set line length or prosaic builds for the works. I also lucked out, too: a peer of mine—Travis Mossotti, whose first book, About the Dead, won the May Swenson Award at Utah State University Press—spoke in depth with me about the weight of forms, how quatrains or couplets utilize pairings or stress narratives, the way tercets or prose-poems seamlessly weave ideas, tensions, moments, the best uses for them. The kid is good. My writing is better because of him. I would also hope outside of my own or anyone’s sensibilities that they are willing and eager to turn, evolve and grow from what they are reading. Prose poems (“Midnight Shift” and “Conversion” come from an odd build of Matthea Harvey and Sandra Alcosser) or long works (“The Island Meditations” and “Hounds” are rooted in Seamus Heaney and Matthew Francis) are all steeped in my readings at the time.
Poets need to form their own poetic code which they can live by (Hammurabi Brewin: a line for a line…), measure the weight of function in their own way. It is a tedious balance. God help us.
Rumpus: You end Scrap Iron with the powerful “Turkey Point.” It’s a throat-lumping knockout of a poem. How did it become your final piece? Do you see it as opening the door to a new batch of poems, or sounding the right closing bell for this one?
Brewin, Jr.: I think I played into and answered this question—at least in bits—earlier. As I said, the setting, style and landscape of “Turkey Point” harkens to upcoming poems like “Drinking Stories” in my rough second book. This piece was, indeed, specifically written as the closer; it cites the ringing emotional implications of the father-son connection, my longing to return home, the weariness and fear of my family’s future loss of the patriarch, and even the reference to “the vanishing scribble of each stray line” in the third stanza is an allusion to all future lines of poetry literally snagged on my South Jersey. Hopefully it is both (as you say) “the right closing bell,” as well as the door to my next manuscript. It brings to light some of the players and rooms my artistic game of Clue will involve and take shape in, not to mention stresses and states the conflict that will always rear its ugly, toothy head from here until I stop writing: “And what should I tell a son/ who doesn’t want to say goodbye to his father?” It shows the reader a bridge—literal and metaphoric—that spans father and son, New Jersey and everywhere else, future and past, the beginning and the end. One that I will cast my lines from, one from which I will watch the waters rise and fall.