Monday, April 13, 2009

Unanswerable Questions: An Interview with Brian Brodeur

Brian Brodeur is the author of Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize, and So the Night Cannot Go on without Us (2007), which won the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Poetry Chapbook Award. Recent poems have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Margie, The Missouri Review, River Styx, Verse Daily, and are forthcoming in Many Mountains Moving. Brian lives and works in Fairfax, VA. He blogs at

When did you first know you wanted to be a poet?

I didn’t start to get serious about writing until college. While studying abroad for a year in Galway, Ireland, I took a class on W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. Ulysses bowled me over. I remember reading that episode in which Bloom huddles behind the rocks on Sandymount Strand to “admire” Gerty MacDowell, getting so excited I kept thinking: this can’t be literature, can it? By the end of my first semester at UCG, I had drafted ten short stories, much to the detriment of my course work. When I returned to Salem State College the next fall, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop. The instructor, J.D. Scrimgeour, introduced me to the poetry of Garcia Lorca, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara and many others who would become touchstones. He also encouraged my own fledgling attempts, exposing me not only to the vastness of modern and contemporary poetry but, as a poet himself, exemplified writing as a way of life.

If you had an opportunity to prognosticate the future of poetry in America —as you do right now, in fact—what would it look like?

I love this question because it’s impossible to answer. When I think about why poetry matters, I often return to Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of 10 O’clock,” which ends with these lines: “Only, here and there, an old sailor, / Drunk and asleep in his boots, / Catches Tigers / In red weather.” That drunk sailor seems the perfect stand-in for the artist, the outsider, the dreamer, the one who preserves the health of a culture by living far enough outside of it to subjectively criticize it, even if that culture despises or (worse) ignores him.

When Plato and Socrates banished the poet from their Republic they were completely justified. Poetry provokes unrest by upsetting the status quo, by raging against complacency. What do I think the future of American poetry will look like? Beats me. But I hope it continues to push itself into new territories—to find new forms, new subjects, new tones. I’d like to see an even heartier inclusiveness, an entirely different breed of drunken sailors.

Last year you published your first book, Other Latitudes. How different is it to be working on your second book from your first?

I’m not sure how to answer this question either. Though I keep a regular writing schedule, I feel far away from a second manuscript. Basically, I’m trying to write poems that are better than those in my first book. Which is proving to be difficult considering OL is an assemblage of the best work I produced over a period of five or six years. Writing for me, especially the writing of poems, is mysterious at best, painful at worst. Can I say that I’m superstitious, would rather not comment on what hasn’t yet been finished, and hope the muse will still return my calls?

Tell us about “How a Poem Happens.” What prompted you to start that blog?

The project began in selfishness. I wanted an excuse to contact some of my favorite living poets and ask them how they wrote some of my favorite poems. So I came up with this scheme of an online anthology, like the print anthology Alberta Turner edited in 1977, Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. “How a Poem Happens” is a collection of interviews with poets who discuss the making of specific poems. I choose one poem, ask the author of that poem to answer ten to fifteen more-or-less standardized questions about it, and post those answers on the blog. As of April 6, 2009, fourteen posts have gone live, featuring interviews with Eric Pankey, Stephen Dunn, Adrian Blevins, Daisy Fried, Dorianne Laux, Michael Ryan, Ron Slate, Steve Scafidi, Richard Newman, Dan Albergotti, Sandra Beasley, Richard Frost, Philip Levine, and Oliver de la Paz, with posts from many others forthcoming. Honestly, the generosity and graciousness of the writers I’ve contacted has confounded me.

If you shaved your beard, would you, like Samson, lose all your superpower?

Yes, sir. Try it and die.


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