I first encountered Traci Brimhall’s work when I stumbled across the poem “The Sunken Gospel” in the Kenyon Review. I was immediately swept into its strange and mysterious world, mesmerized by its “blue zodiac hymns” and “green valentines,” the fierce, sensuous physicality of the language and the mercilessness of the life and death it portrayed, the pain that pulsed through it, the steady hum of longing, and the emotional and spiritual heft as massive as the creature at the center of it. I finished it and immediately read it again, and then again. It was like a song you put on repeat, trying to immerse yourself in it. Then I went searching for more poems like it. Often when you search an artist’s catalogue for more songs like the one you love, you come up empty-handed– but not so in the case of Traci Brimhall’s poetry. I found legions more, spread out through various publications and two books, Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins– all with the same power, mystery, virtuosity, and unflinching vision of that first one.
With each new poem, after the initial enjoyment and sense of awe, I often found myself asking “How does she do that?! I mean… how in the hell is she doing that?” The sleight of hand is seamless. The wires do not show. The cracks, the doubt, the pain, they seep through many of the voices in her poems, but they only strengthen the spell. Reading one of her books is like eating really rich, delicious food– I want to scarf it all down at once, but after two or three in a row, I find myself having to pause for breath and gather my senses.
I have given her books as gifts on numerous occasions. The last person I gave Our Lady of the Ruins to, I knew for sure that she would love it and it would knock her on her ass. Sure enough, she texted me a few days later: “TRACI FUCKING BRIMHALL! Holy crap!” When I told Traci this story, she thanked me for putting her work in the hands of people who know her real middle name.
The following conversation took place by email. Traci is a gracious and thoughtful correspondent, and I am grateful and honored that she was willing to give me even a faint glimpse of those wires.
Todd Gleason: What you are up to these days? Do you have a new manuscript in the works? How is that going?
Traci Brimhall: I had a draft of the new manuscript about two years ago. I knew it wasn’t set in stone, but it sat in that order and structure for two years and kind of congealed. Recently, a couple of conversations led me to rethink the book and how it was operating, and I realized I’VE BEEN ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION! I had to ease everything apart, like breaking rigor mortis that’s set into a body. The previous question had been a distraction, but it had gotten me writing. The previous question had to do with the town in Brazil my mom is from and helped me create a fictional history for that place. What I realized after my mother died was that the book wanted to know both who and where I come from.
So I started from scratch. I opened a new document, started with a new title page and new title, and started retyping everything from there. I went chronologically backwards through one hundred years of history through a family tree looking for new ways to ask my question–who and where am I from? It felt amazing to have that breakthrough in structure, but it was also so humbling to realize that the first two books didn’t teach me how to write this third one. I felt pretty confident with two books under my belt, but neither strategy I used to order the first two worked with this one. I’ve often said that being a poet is like practicing serial monogamy (though let’s be honest, some times those loves overlap), but one relationship doesn’t teach you everything you need to know for the next one. The next one wants to be loved a little differently, wants more time alone, and never introduces you to its parents. In one view, that’s awfully frustrating, and yet I’m so excited that each new love/book has something new to teach me.
Todd Gleason: Wow. I think anyone who has toiled creatively on even moderately ambitious projects, if they haven’t experienced that exact situation, can certainly sympathize in their imagination. Like grinding and sweating for months or years to build a house, then you step inside to paint and furnish it, and realize it’s rickety and sways in the wind, and the whole thing has to come down and be put back together! What a moment, accepting that, taking that breath, and then finally wiping the slate. It must have felt pretty monumental, maybe even a little bit impossible at first. It requires a lot of courage, and yet at the same time, I’m sure it feels like there isn’t really a choice.
It sounds like this book was always conceived as a collection of related poems. Your other books are both thematically cohesive, yet I get the sense that the connections were perhaps more unconscious in the writing of the individual poems, and then tied together in the assembling of the manuscript. Whereas here you are setting out with a bigger picture in mind. How did you approach the writing of individual poems and the greater story you were trying to tell? Did you find poems bleeding into each other more than they usually do? How did your process evolve and did you have to make conscious changes to the way you write?
Traci Brimhall: The fact that there’s coherence to my first book, Rookery, feels miraculous. Its composition was so haphazard. I wasn’t intentional, but I think obsessions just have a way of following you and creative conversations between poems. The way it worked in Our Lady of the Ruins and again in this new book is that I wrote a poem that breaks a world open. In the case of Our Lady, I wrote a poem called “Our Bodies Break Light” while I was still trying to finish up Rookery. And like any good first date, I was intrigued–what just happened? whose voice is this? what are these girls doing in the woods? Almost every poem after that was asking similar questions. It’s like the world already exists, and I just pop my head in and write what I see for awhile. It’s actually a pretty big mess until I get around to finding a good foundation for it to go from scattered bricks of language into a house. But I HAVE to make a mess! If I hadn’t created a mess, I couldn’t have reordered this new book. I like a mess the way a pig likes mud.
Todd Gleason: So where is the mess now? Do you feel like you were able to answer some of those questions that presented themselves about the who of your mother as well as the where? Has another poem presented itself as a possible mysterious key to the next book? What goes into the process of deciding what to put in the manuscript, what to leave out, and the order?
Traci Brimhall: There’s a popular Rilke quote that says: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.” The point for me never was to find the answer; the point was to live the question, line after line, poem after poem. Though I suppose in the book, which does (after all) need an ending, finds that the answer is love. The book proceeds backwards through time to a love story that’s 100 years old. And isn’t that how we all hope we come from? Some foolish, hopeless, impossible love.
Todd Gleason: Indeed. Perhaps “answers” is not so much the word, as “discoveries?” Surely there was some sort of seeking involved, and each poem unearthed something, if only more questions? The words must have changed you in some way, no? If not definitively, at least there is some truth that looks different or less obscure on this side of it? Or do you not think of it that way?
Yes, Rilke! Eternal, soothing, beguiling Rilke. The preface to that quote is often left off: “You are so young, so much before all beginning…” Questions are all that is available to the young poet. Mr. Kappus, cannot “live the answers” because he has not yet really lived. Wisdom (and therefore artistic gravity) lies on the other side of failure and loss and heartbreak and survival, and of course the unfaltering passage of time. There is no short cut but to live. To “…ripen like a tree, which does not force its sap…”
Young or old, the questions will always outweigh the answers, yet Rilke says there is (perhaps) some distant answer we are living our way into. Pious soul that he is, he knows that the quest never ends, and that faith is forever wrapped up in doubt. “…[G]ods do not entice,” he writes elsewhere, “They have their being,/and nothing else: an overflow of being./Not scent nor gesture. Nothing is so mute/as a god’s mouth.” And yet, faith must attach itself to something more than silence.
Which leads me to Our Lady of the Ruins (which hopefully you are not too weary of discussing!) The poems tackle a mountain of ecclesiastical concerns. The physical landscape of the poems is broken and seething with life, and God’s muteness is a haunting presence that hangs over all of it. “Nailing myself to a tree,” the speaker says in “Somniloquy”,”didn’t bring God any closer.” These are deeply spiritual poems, but they appear to speak more to exile than ecstasy. As you said earlier, you were drawn into this world by the poem “Our Bodies Break Light,” but what was it that kept you there for the length of this book? Were there outside influences– books you were reading, films, music, experiences? Was there a spiritual legacy you were coming from that you were grappling with? The poems contain spiritual content, but do you see them, when being written or read, as serving a spiritual function? Akin to prayers? In the writing, were you, like the pilgrims in “Pilgrimage,” trying to journey further than your doubt?
Traci Brimhall: I hate the narrative that we are born, experience things, come of age, mature, grow from our wisdom and possibly reproduce, ripen with that wisdom and die, presumably rich with stories as well as some well invested financial planning that we leave to our children and some charities. Mr. Kappus is young and has no choice to live the questions, but I’m not sure the rest of us are any better for having lived. For some of us, it breaks us.
Which brings me to the first part of that question–was there an answer, was there a discovery? I discovered something about how I hate narrative because it implies redemption. Conflict builds through rising action to a climax, and ah, we are changed. I discovered one way to resist this is to resist chronology, which is why the third book is told in reverse chronological order, so the poems will function more truly as lyric, which I feel is kin to how memory works–a fragment, a moment crystallizing. I am changed, but I’m not sure change is always progress or always good. I started the book while my mother was alive, and it wasn’t until she died that I realized it was about love.
I guess that brings me to another narrative I hate which is this idea that poets are wise. I still like to think so when I read people I love (like Rilke), but really, I’m just this meat sack with a conscience trying to make sense out of all this bright noise. It’s absurd, really. But at nineteen I needed poems to make me brave, and in some ways I still do. My truth is the one I keep coming back around to. It’s the question I have to answer after I draft every poem–What did I mean to say? In fact, I started a google group for brave poets where we post a brave poem every month, and that’s the only goal–say something brave. To be a little afraid when sitting down to write. My husband once told me I was too ambitious for the book and not ambitious enough for the poem. I’m trying to fix that.
It’s like that poem had heartworm and was completely colonized by questions. That’s why I could stay so long. So much needed to be dealt with. The outside influence was so much silence. I was living in my car at the time so travel pervaded, prayer pervaded, gratitude prevailed. The book has its intense questioning, but honestly, I love my doubt. I felt so guilty for it as a child, but I’ve always found doubt more interesting than faith. The blindness of faith and the assurance of atheism are boring to me. Where’s the space for wonder? Where the wound awaiting my finger? How can we find God if we don’t try to catch him in a net of language? It’s a good thing God is a trickster God and will never be caught.
Todd Gleason: I appreciate your resistance to (or outright hatred of) the exalted reputation of poets as divinely-kissed soothsayers, as well as the tyranny of the redemptive narrative. Charles D’Ambrosio, in the preface to Loitering, says he was drawn to the personal essay, because unlike the short story or novel, it “leaves its questions on the page, for all to see…”; it is, he continues, a “forum for self-doubt…”, and in this way, “the work of equals, confiding, uncertain, solitary, free…” Perhaps, (particularly when looking at the recent work of writers like Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson), poetry and essays are more kin than might be apparent on the surface. At least in the way they wear their flaws, their doubt, they seem to take a more human form as they wrestle with, as you so beautifully put it, “all this bright noise.”
Of course, this inherent sense of doubt doesn’t stop someone like Mary Oliver from poetically declaring “You do not have to be good.” Though perhaps the poem that follows that declaration is merely an attempt to convince herself that this is true. Or it was a fleeting revelation, and like a freshly awakened sleeper trying to scribble down the dream before it fades, she wrote it out hoping to give it some eternity. So there it is. It is written, and in its way eternal. But is it wise? And what does this wisdom serve? Is it enough to hold you up when the SSRI’s fail? When the “clean blue air” is choked with carbon monoxide? When you don’t give two measly hoots about those fucking geese? What then?
A friend of mine and I were recently discussing how to flatten the arc in fiction– writing stories that do not progress in a linear fashion, and protagonists who do not change– stories that more mirror actual daily human life. It’s an attractive idea, but much trickier than it sounds. Unconsciously or not, the linear, redemptive narrative is built into the structure of the way we tell stories. As a reader of fiction, there is part of me that craves that arc and the hope it instills, however illusory. In the best stories, even in resolution there is an echo of mystery.
I guess what I’m getting to is, why poetry? What is it about poetry (aside from a natural talent, and something of a successful track record so far) that keeps you coming back? What is it about poetry that helps you to be brave? What can poetry do that other forms cannot, and what do you think its purpose is? Does it have the power to change, to save, to liberate? How has your relationship to poetry changed since you were nineteen? Do you think of it differently as a writer, a reader, and a teacher?
Traci Brimhall: Usually when people ask how I got started in poetry, I talk about a great poetry teacher I had in college and how I wanted to write the great American novel until I took her poetry class. But when I look for what else is true, I realize that some of the poems she introduced me to were the first works of art that made me feel awe. Those poems introduced me to the kind of awe I’d only ever felt on the side of a mountain. It made me feel the way I thought church was always supposed to make me feel. And I think that’s what keeps me coming back–the chance to feel that religious feeling again, that desire to be good enough, even though you’re not, which is also tied up in wonder, which is also a part of fear.
I don’t know if poetry helps me be brave, but it gives me a space to practice bravery. I could easily be a coward in that space. Sometimes I am. I don’t know if it can save anyone. That depends on the person, I suppose. But it gave me a discrete space for my voice. I want to evoke the space of the confessional, but I know how dangerous that is in poetry. So I’ll call that space a private space to speak where you know you are heard but don’t see your listener. I also think that once you get comfortable in a space, it can stop challenging you. I’ve been trying to write essays lately because it’s so much scarier to me. The paragraph as a container is really tricky to those of us who aren’t as practiced as using it as the container for our language.
Todd Gleason: I have read elsewhere where you said that you often create restrictions or challenges for yourself when writing a poem, so that the words don’t end up sprawled out and unmoored; that a certain formal structure, or set of rules creates a tension and discipline that helps the poem come together better. What kind of restrictions and challenges do you create specifically? How do you see the relationship between form and content? Does one follow the other? Does this relationship change over time? How is your writing of essays, for instance, the pouring of words into these strange containers, affected by spending so much time with poetic language and structure? Does it feel like an entirely different beast? Or is it more of a hybrid? Does it in turn affect your poetry?
Traci Brimhall: I think the creation of rules and challenges is part of play. As a kid, I liked to create blueprints of impossible houses–elaborate treehouses, houses with rivers running through them, houses that were floating islands, houses with secret tunnels. You name it, I probably both drew it and designed a kitchen for it. I like solving where things should go, how it would fit. That sense of play had both the fantastic (where would my pet cassowary live?) and the practical (are there enough bathrooms if I live with five friends?). Of course my current form of play isn’t literally putting toilets in my poems, but I think it does straddle that same sense of impossibility and practicality, is it both inconceivable and easy to move through it?
A great deal of my sense of form is demonstrating control. I often tend to keep stanza lengths similar, as well as line lengths. My poems often gravitate towards a sense of “too much-ness”, so trying to keep the stanzas/rooms arranged in a pleasing and balanced way is one way I try to guide readers through what may be a wild or impossible poem. Perhaps some of my interest in and fear of prose is that I don’t get to manage the container in the same way. The control has to find a new way to exert itself. The house has become a skyscraper, and I’ve never designed that many floors before or figured out what holds it upright. I think all of it is part of the pleasure of constructing something impossible, but the tools at hand feel different to me. And I suppose one impossibility makes me dream of another.
Todd Gleason: On the first page of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which I know we both read recently, she writes about her belief in Wittgenstein’s idea that “the inexpressible” is contained in the expressed– essentially, that language is a worthy net for God, not merely in spite of, but paradoxically due to its inability to actually capture the uncapturable. “Words are good enough,” she declares; and then, even referencing your same metaphor: “It’s idle to fault a net for having holes…” “In this way,” she continues, “you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.”
By the next page, of course, she is questioning her own devotion to this idea– through her husband Harry’s assertion that once something is named, all that is unnamed about it is destroyed. It is the old Zen idea of pointing at the moon– words are the finger, they will never be the moon. And you will never understand the moon by pointing at it–if anything you may understand it less. “Do not read books!” implored the 12th Century Zen poet Yang Wanli. “When you chant poems, your heart leaks out slowly with each word.” Jane Hirshfield, on the other hand, contends that “poetry is its own kind of meditation, with words.” “Poems,” she says, “elude boundary and bring compassion. They make you, quite simply, both smarter and kinder than you would be without them.”
Does language have the power to express the inexpressible? Are there times when words are counter-productive, when they take away from or obscure the essence of something? Is it true that nothing we say can “fuck up the space for God?” Are there limits to the power of words? Do they make us kinder and smarter? When did you first discover the power of language and what effect did it have on you?
Traci Brimhall: I am almost always underwhelmed by language. In most instances it obscures or hurts more than it heals or inspires awe. Or perhaps that just betrays my current mood. But honestly, that’s why I feel like the way poetry often uses language has the potential for power. And I like the idea that whether its our best efforts at beauty or bravery or our grocery lists, we can’t fuck up the space for God, just like that often quoted line by Dean Young that poetry isn’t hurt by bad poems. God supposedly made a whole planet by saying some words over a dark sea, and confusion over language(s) is how he punished people for Babel, so I bet God believes that words can pack a wallop (but that’s what a book would claim anyway, right? It’s like singing about how powerful music is). But I owe that confusion my wonderment. I think language always felt its most powerful when I didn’t understand. I always loved the songs we sang in church that used other languages. It always made sonic and emotional “sense,” but I couldn’t tell you exactly what most of the things I sang “meant.”
Todd Gleason: What constitutes a “great book?” What books have you read that would fall into this category? In your own estimation, what would make one of your own books a great book? Would it require other people to say so? Do you find yourself disagreeing with your audience with how they receive certain of your works? Have you ever been profoundly misunderstood in something you wrote? You yourself have received many well-deserved awards and accolades for your work. Do you find there is a kind of burden that comes with that?
Traci Brimhall: Greatness is not goodness. It’s both bigger than that and terrible to behold. I think about vision a lot–what makes something visionary, how do you know if you have it, how do you teach it? How do you go beyond emulation? What the hell about your voice is truly unique anyhow? And yes, what makes a book great. For me, there’s something of boldness or power and that ineffable stuff of vision. I once met a powerful world leader, and I could actually feel him across the room. Like that, but with language, with language over and over, poem after poem.
Sometimes I’m amused or frightened or confused or awed by how people respond to things I’ve written, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to disagree. However they take it is fine, and honestly, it’s easier to be misread, even wildly misread. I think a lot of writing comes out of a desire to be seen–truly seen, whatever that means–and yet, when that gaze is on you and someone really gets what you’re doing and what you’ve said, it’s terribly exposing and vulnerable and crazy-making. I think the pressure of certain kinds of success is that you have to keep failing rather than recycling what you’ve done before. What you’ve already done might continue to be rewarded, but if I even want to fancy myself capable of greatness in private, I have to be willing to fail over and over and over and over again, to have a vision bigger than I think I can pull off, to try and build impossible houses.
Todd Gleason: Five Desert Island Books?
Traci Brimhall: Hmmm… This is taking your question far too seriously, but here’s what I’d legitimately pack for a desert island:
1) How to Survive on a Deserted Island for Dummies. Sure, I’ve camped and watched LOST, but a good how-to for constructing shelters, collecting rain water, foraging for food, and first aid in the wild might be terribly helpful.
2) A photo album of my family. Seriously. Their faces are worth more to me than language, and if I forgot what they looked like, I might as well die out there.
3) My hand copied anthology of poems I love. When I went to the arctic for a month, that was the book of poetry I brought because it had so many that I cherished throughout the years in one spot.
4) Nazim Hikmet’s Collected, to help me survive solitude.
5) Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich when I need to be reminded why I should survive.
Todd Gleason: What were you doing in the Arctic for a month? And, what are some of the poems you have hand-copied into that anthology? That’s a really great idea. Was it sort of like Hunter Thompson copying Hemingway’s books because he wanted to feel what it was like to write something that brilliant?
Traci Brimhall: I was doing an artist residency in the arctic aboard a ship, so when I was trying to come up with good books to help me survive solitude, I thought of that experience.
I don’t have it in front of me, but I called the anthology “Batter My Heart” and Donne is one of the first poets in there. There’s also many of the usual suspects–Dickinson, Frost, Plath, Paz, Roethke, Neruda, Sexton, Hayden, Lorca, Eliot, and cummings, as well as more contemporary writers like Anne Carson, Larry Levis, Adrienne Rich, Terrance Hayes, Louise Gluck, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. For me, it was a way to sort of meditate. When I didn’t feel like writing, I hand-copied my beloveds. And it was amazing. I’d read these poems many times, taught them, memorized them, and it was like I’d been hitting on them all these years and they finally invited me upstairs. It’s a crude metaphor, I know, but I felt like I got more intimate with these poems I loved by doing that than all the other interactions I’d had with them. If I could choose a past life (or a future one in some post-apocalyptic literary society), I would be a monk and devote myself to the making of each letter in a book.
Todd Gleason: So I’d like to end with some questions from Nino,8 and Mena,5, the children of Contrbuting Editor, Adam Tedesco. They came up with them over breakfast, after reading your bio and some of your poems.
How do you become a lion?
Patience. And a lot of gazelles.
How do you protect yourself from a lion?
Become friends with hyenas.
What do you do at your job?
How do you survive?
By writing poems and loving lots of things.
Can you really get to Oz from Kansas?
I will ask the tornado when it comes.
Are we going to be friends?
Yes, but in 24 years in the future.
What is your favorite color food?
Orange, like sweet potatoes and the insides of mangoes.
Where do you get the words for your poems?
From flowers from birds from God from the sky from the dictionary from the window.
Do you have any sisters or brothers?
Do you know what Darts Vader means?
No, but I know Darth Vader!
How many blades will Darth Vaders lightsaber have in the new star wars movie?
No, but mine has one. It’s blue, like a star at its birth. §
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), winner of the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, Ploughshares, The Believer, The New Republic, and Best American Poetry 2013. She received the 2008-2009 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and a 2013 Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently she teaches creative writing at Kansas State University.