I recently spoke with award-winning poet Traci Brimhall about blending genres, the writing process, grief, and why she just might be the Quentin Tarantino of poetry.
Wendy Hill: Your third book, Saudade, is forthcoming in 2017 from Copper Canyon Press, and you call it an autobiomythography. How did you approach genre in Saudade? What were the limitations in poetry, biography, memoir, or myth that led you to create a genre of your own?
Traci Brimhall: I can’t claim to have invented it on my own. Audre Lorde wrote the book Zami: A New Spelling of my Name and called it a biomythography, so I’m certainly borrowing terminology there. For me, books tend to start with a world first, and then the writing tends to shape that world and give it edge and color. When I wrote the first piece that grew into Saudade, it was prose. It taught me a lot about what the book was about and would become, but it didn’t work as a poem and ended up being cut from the book very early on. I believe in mess, and mess always comes first in my writing. I followed bits of my mother’s biography and her childhood in Brazil, and I followed my own autobiography imposed on her, and I followed existing myths, and I made my own. I cook in the same way. I’ll read four recipes to figure out what is essential and what possible extra ingredients there could be and then invent something.
And here’s what sucks: writing two books before this didn’t teach me what I needed to know for this book. I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to say or what form it should have, and none of the genres that helped in its creation helped me understand the shape it should have. The book was initially over 100 pages, and I seriously hacked away at it to make it manageable as a poetry book. From those trimmings I’ve written a novel and a children’s book, and honestly I still don’t feel done. I’ve been thinking I want to do a series of comics to tell one of the other stories that’s still in me. Maybe since I’ve heard stories about Brazil since I was a kid, this false history I’ve invented will also be a part of my future. I don’t know. I don’t know why I need this story so much or why I can’t leave it, or perhaps more accurately, why it won’t leave me. It was much easier for me to abandon previous books. We are important to each other, I guess.
WH: I’m currently writing about my various female family members, and I have found that the writing is an attempt at connection, a tether between us I’m trying to strengthen, and also an attempt at distancing. That duality is an engine driving the writing. What were the dualities that came up for you while writing Saudade? What do you feel is the book’s engine?
TB: Yes! It definitely does both, and changes. I’ve been thinking about the way in which I’m taking ownership of my mother’s stories, and how that ownership is both homage and disfigurement. For instance, she was chopping wood with a machete one day and cut her finger clean to the bone. She had to be rowed upriver to a bigger town with a doctor and that took forever. The story goes, at least as she told it, that if she’d arrived a minute later, she would’ve lost her finger. In my poems a girl loses a hand, but that hand remains animated with life and starts writing poems on trees and performing miracles. It’s mostly my own imagination and the truth of invention, but the truth of my mother is in there too.
There’s also this— the dead child in the story is mine, but my mother died while I was writing this book inspired by her stories. So the dead child became both mother and child somehow, reaching both directions into different generations of family: a twined grief. When she died, I understood I had been asking the book the wrong question and the ordering fell into place. A story of daughters is always a story of mothers. Now I don’t know any other way to tell it.
WH: Grief is so tumultuous, and so varied. I think of it as existing on a continuum from small waves to a tsunami. I have found that the writing produced while grieving is raw and unpolished in a way that even years later, seems to defy polishing. I’m really interested in the fact that you began the book and then, in the process, the book was changed by grief. Can you talk a little more about the influence of your mother’s death and the influence of grief on the writing?
TB: I think organizing a book is often about shaping the question it’s asking. My mother’s death helped me realize that my book’s question was wrong. The book was supposedly about her or inspired by her, and yet the question had nothing to do with her. And for grief and writing, I guess the most important relationship between those two is just that poetry requires that I tend to my grief. I’m so impatient with my feelings. I know that sounds counterintuitive to be a poet and not like feelings, but I can’t wait to get past my feelings most of the time. But understanding your feelings and feeling your feelings are two different things. When I sit down to write, I make time for the difficult. I say the damned thing, or I surround what I can’t say with what I can. It’s not where I go to still talk to her, though it’s where I go to talk to the absence she left.
WH: You mentioned worldbuilding as an entry into writing. One thing that strikes me about your work is the prevalence of animals. In Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins they appear in great variety. There are mosquitoes, foxes, lions, frogs, more than I could list, and I particularly enjoyed their presence in both books. What role do animals play in the worldbuilding of your books? What role do they play in your new work?
TB: So one of the answers I’ve often given to this is that when I moved away from New York, I just started to see the world more through nature. All of a sudden “bird” could mean more than “pigeon,” and I got really obsessed with looking at the world and naming things in it, like a lady Adam in the heartland of North America. Animals can also do a good job of placing a work in the world. This new book has eels and macaws and pirarucus (giant fish in the Amazon) and botos (pink river dolphins that turn into men).
But lately I’ve been interrogating this. I asked another poet over dinner that if they could lay down one of the obsessions they’ve carried with them through their writing life, what would it be? For me, I decided I needed to stop hurting animals. It’s like a Tarantino movie for small mammals in my books. I think I hurt them as a way to incite people into feeling. I want to do that without any animals dying. My husband has joked in the past that my next book should be called In Which Everything Lives.
WH: The poor animals! Your poetry explores violence and suffering in a way that is both haunting and extraordinarily beautiful. Do you feel any desire to invert that or diverge from it, to write about “lighter” topics in a way that is as equally surprising as the way you write about suffering?
TB: I don’t know that I can avoid suffering. That shit will just come for you whether you are prepared for it or not. I don’t know that I can direct too much of what I write. I don’t want to use poetry as a place to avoid something. Strangely, the happiest poems I think I’ve ever written were just after my son was born. That was such a god-awful time. It was sleepless and anxious and physically painful. But I would take an hour off once a week and go to a Starbucks down the road and write. Those poems are gleeful to me. Maybe it’s even a mania, but even though life was crazy hard at that time, all that came to the poems was the joy. It would be nice if all suffering could give you joy as well, but that hasn’t been my experience. Just that baby. Just those poems.
WH: In your reading life, have there been books that changed you profoundly as a writer, that propelled your writing in a new direction?
TB: I know I’ve felt those little permissions, like, “I didn’t know a line could be that long!” or “I didn’t know you could say that in a poem!” And I think I haven’t read a book that made me follow it per se, but sometimes I’ll read poets like Anne Carson or Alice Notley or Claudia Rankine and be like “There are no rules at all!” And the boundary breaking that they do inspires me to make my own freedoms.
WH: I was recently on the fringes of a conversation between two writers arguing about the importance of art above all worldly concerns and writing what pays. At the time I was reading Our Lady of the Ruins, and had come across an interview with you where you said you were living out of your car while writing the book. I immediately felt a profound gratitude for the book in my hand, and the lines of poetry that were reverberating in my head. Can you talk about the place writing occupies in your life, and how your relationship with writing either evolves or stays constant, or perhaps does both?
TB: Man, oh man, that stuff has changed for me over time. My rituals have had to change as my life changed. Before writing Our Lady, I would’ve said I needed at least three hours of silence for drafting. When I wrote Our Lady, I was usually writing in my head, or I’d scribble things down on a postcard and send it to a friend. But I wouldn’t allow myself more than 10 minutes for the actual writing part. I lived with the poem in my head before I ever got a postcard and stamp, and sending the poem away from myself kept me from trying to torture it into some weird version of perfection. It really changed the way writing worked for me, or where I did the writing, or where I thought the writing came from, or all three. After those experiences and that book, of course things changed again. For a while, what worked was stealing time. I tend to be early for things, so I would try and write whenever I was waiting for someone. If I felt like I was stealing time, something felt urgent when I wrote. And of course it keeps changing. I’ve been trying to spend 2016 in silence, partly because that urgency went away. I don’t want to write poems for my ego and to keep up whatever level of production felt natural before. I don’t want to write things that sound pretty but say nothing. I want silence to do the work it needs to do. I want silence not to be a place of anxiety but a place of sufficiency. I want my silence to be a gift to myself and not a punishment or a lack. I’ve been wondering if maybe poems don’t always need to come from a place of urgency. Maybe there’s another source. But lately I’ve felt that swelling behind the dam. I think they’re coming back for me. Someone once said poetry is the long preparation of the self to be used. I think that silence was a respite and a rest. I think the time to be used is coming soon.
WH: I’m so looking forward to reading the new book. When can readers get their hands on Saudade?
TB: Fall 2017!
Traci Brimhall is the author of three collections of poetry: Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award; and Saudade (forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press); as well as an illustrated children’s book, Sophia & The Boy Who Fell (Pleiades Press/SeedStar Books). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry 2013 & 2014. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently, she’s an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Kansas State University and lives in Manhattan, KS.