Thursday, December 25, 2008

#11 - Brian Brodeur

What was the process like assembling Other Latitudes? How many different versions did it go through before it was chosen as the winner of the 2007 Akron Poetry Prize? Had it always been called Other Latitudes or had it gone through different titles?

For better or worse, I revise endlessly. Over the course of four years, Other Latitudes went through about twenty major transmogrifications before it was finally published. If it hadn’t won the Akron Prize, I’d still be tinkering.

After fifty or so duds, I came up with the current title during a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. This sounds very romantic, but I was there in winter. At night you’d walk out of your studio and find the air so cold your nose hairs would freeze to the sides of your nostrils.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

About half of the poems in the book are previously unpublished. But, yes, I’ve certainly experienced the anxiety that many young poets feel about seeing individual poems appear in reputable journals, anthologies, websites, blogs . . . printed on the sides of hot-air balloons, branded into the flanks of show ponies . . .

As I write and submit new work, that anxiety hasn’t diminished. In fact, it may have intensified. There’s also a new anxiety: trying to outdo myself, write better poems than those in my first book.

How much of the book comprised your MFA thesis at George Mason University? It seems now there are more younger poets publishing books that comprised the majority of their creative thesis. Was this the case for you?

Yes and no. About a third of the poems in the book appeared in my MFA thesis, which I finished in August of 2005. The earliest poem in the book was written in 2003, the latest in 2007.

The book is in three sections, with the middle section comprising one poem, “Figure Drawing,” made up of nine sections. Was “Figure Drawing” always in the middle? How did this become the centerpiece of the book?

The idea to use “Figure Drawing” as the centerpiece came from a friend of mine, Sally Keith. In the fall of 2007, she agreed to read a draft of the manuscript and meet me at a bar to discuss it. At that point I felt I had written all of the poems I needed to form a competent manuscript, something I wouldn’t be ashamed to submit for publication, but I didn’t know how to arrange the poems. When Sally made the suggestion of having three sections with a “proem” at the beginning and an epilogue poem at the end, sticking “Figure Drawing” in the middle seemed the most organic way to go.

I always had a group of “core” poems that survived each drastic gutting of the manuscript, poems I considered to be my strongest. Basically, I built the book around them. In an early manifestation, I ordered the work thematically, placing nature poems beside nature poems, family poems beside family poems. But this seemed too simplistic a way to construct a collection of poetry, dishonest in some way, not at all evocative of how I see the world.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

Joy. Whiskey. Nothing much after that.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?


How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

A few strangers have e-mailed me to say they’ve enjoyed the book, which I’ve found intensely gratifying. A book is worthless until a reader connects with it. As Auden said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Instead, it’s “a way of happening, a mouth.” Poems live within the minds and bodies of sympathetic readers. Discovering notes in my Inbox from people I’ve never met has enabled me to preserve my illusion that the book is actually being read, that it has taken on a life of its own, a life apart from mine.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve been giving public readings to support the book, scheduling events in Akron, OH, Salem, MA, Washington, DC, Blacksburg, VA, Cullowhee, NC, among others. Basically, I’ll read wherever I’m asked.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

What did Eliot say to the young Donald Hall when he asked for advice on living abroad in Oxford? Wear long underwear.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

Well, I’m writing, revising, and submitting new work to journals and magazines, hoping that these poems will somehow cohere into a second manuscript. But I have no idea what shape this manuscript would take.

Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Keep a calendar, pay attention to who’s judging particular contests, submit religiously, and don’t forget to write new poems. I should also say that persistence is half the battle. Even a poet of middling talent can publish a book, as long as she or he keeps at it. Whether you think this is encouraging or discouraging, we see it all the time.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

If more people read poetry and took it seriously, yes, I believe it could, but only on an individual level. I’m thinking of the famous quote from W.C.W.’s “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” For the poet and reader both, poetry is a private act, written in isolation, read alone. Yet love, death, birth, beauty, injustice, sex—all the human facts of the world that link us as a species through language—are only a few examples of “what is found there.”

We should also remember that “Asphodel” is a love poem to Williams’s wife, Flossy, written towards the end of their lives. Like the asphodel, the flower of hell, love becomes the one human force that triumphs over darkness and rises above death. The best poems, for me, share this ambition.

Brian Brodeur is the author of Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize, judged by Stephen Dunn, 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 or are forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Margie, The Missouri Review, River Styx, and Verse Daily. Brian lives and works in Fairfax, VA.