CLAIRE BECKER: When I first got to know you, we were in workshops working on our MFAs, still in a very exploratory stage as to the nature of a poem and immersed in reading and in our peers' work. I like to think I'm still in that stage, but writing now sometimes can feel pretty different. Now that you've become an editor, completed a manuscript and started a PHD program in literature and creative writing, I'm wondering what's different when you sit down to write?
LILY BROWN: This is such a good question! I started thinking about it on a long car ride today and found myself doing something I often did when we were working on our MFAs: I took out paper and started writing on the steering wheel at stop lights. This habit's persistence alone may indicate that the material/habitual aspects of my writing process are similar to what they were five years ago. At that point in time, I was finally in this place I had been wanting to be in for years, which is to say, everything in my life was pointed towards and consumed with poetry (was this the same for you?).
But when I sit down to write now, I think what's different is that I trust language more than I did when I started my MFA. On one level, I'm not really interested in what "I" have to say as much as I might have been then. So while "I" probably emerges when I'm writing, I'm much more willing to see where the language takes me while I'm revising (which is really where writing happens for me), to make radical cuts to my poems, and to trust that something human emerges in a poem regardless of the first person pronoun. Writing a good poem--to me, anyway--usually means cutting all of those little moments where "I" sneaks in and tries to say something--where there's a bit of didacticism.
The change I'm describing came about because of good readers like you and our teachers at Saint Mary's, and because of a larger discussion we were always having about how language works in poems. I saw how elision and compression could open up possibilities in a poem in terms of meaning. At one point, I think in our workshop with Norma Cole, and when I had just taken an intensive class on Stevens with Graham Foust, I started thinking much more critically about the line. That concentration on form totally changed writing for me. I discovered that I could play with tones and resonances in words by breaking lines in specific ways, and that became a part of the compositional process. On a broader level, I guess I ceded control to my poems, and started to see them as separate from myself, as having to do with language rather than the self.
CB: In answer to your earlier question, yes, it was the same for me! When I go to on certain trails in the Oakland hills, I think of hiking up there with you and being able to think out loud about poetry. It was great to have a place to bare all my strange thoughts, ideas and poems--a place outside of the classroom, but with the classroom as a corollary. I'm glad you mention the importance of revising in your work. During my MFA, I also learned to revise, and I think that is why I'm still writing.
You say the writing really happens for you in revision, playing "with tones and resonances in words by breaking lines in specific ways." I'm sitting in a coffee shop reading and thinking about questions to ask you, when I hear a woman exclaim, "The ever-present line!" She is talking about the bathroom, but I agree about the line. Revision can feel like setting a machine to work--to tinker, cut, and shape each line--but I think what makes your poems really successful, is that you trust "that something human emerges," and it does.
At times, in your poems, it seems a consciousness gathers things and runs through them. As the speaker of the poem "In the Shins" states, "Hello—sorry // I lost the footing—even language pivots. / I address myself to the boats." Yet at other times, a physical presence is more obvious: "We close our eyes but I know // we're breathing. If my arms make / a cross. If our arms make a cross." More visceral, more present—the poem slows. Then in the next line, a consciousness views the physical, "There are stones stacked up the sky." Sometimes you offer images for losing the body, as in the poem "Nobody is in Cahoots with the Telephone Pole":
We don't speak: no one believes
one thing follows another:
the path between sun stalk
and wintered pavement
is deeply broken.
Sense this and I'll love you.
I turn into full sight.
There is no body.
Can you talk a bit about this divide and how a physical sense of the world enters into your poems?
LB: It's funny because that last poem you cited is the only poem in my book that I wrote in college. My sister read it and told me it was "totally different" from all of my other poems. I think it's a little different (more punctuated and more dramatic, maybe), but I'm also oddly attached to having it in the book. The origins of that poem are relevant to your question, actually. When I was a senior in college, I took a workshop with Jorie Graham, and I was sitting in her office one day and, if I remember correctly, we were discussing how poetic logic (distinct from rational logic, I suppose) can make people uncomfortable. One of us looked out the window and pointed out that the cracks in the pavement and the sun were related to each other. So that poem laments, in a sense, the lack of an intuitive relationship to the physical world in daily life. I don't mean "intuitive" in a wishy-washy way at all--I just mean that there's been a compression in the poem's logic of this human process (paving) that's interrupted and usurped by a natural process (the weather). So, I guess the sun stands in metonymically for the weather in that poem, while the pavement stands in for human interference.
I might also answer your question by saying that I tend, in my physical sense of the world, to make metaphors out of my visual experience. I think what you're noticing in the poems is the quick leaps the mind makes between reflection, a sort of metaphorical visual experience, and the interaction between those things. The present moment, when I'm writing, often triggers memory, reflection, imagination of the future, and so on. All of those things are compressed into the small space of the poem. I think of the poem as a thought process. As such, the poem is something to think through, rather than about. I have one poem in the manuscript with a line that goes "Birds heel the sky." That line is the direct result of looking up at the sky and seeing a flock of birds in the shape of a horseshoe, and the thinking that resulted from that comparison. I guess the poem, for me, is like a thinking artifact of a consciousness' experience in the world.
CB: When we were in school, I remember that you wrote a lot while you were reading, listening to poetry, or looking at art (and of course driving). Now that you're back in school, have you been exposed to anything lately that is influencing your poetry?
LB: Well, yes! Last fall for a final project for one of my classes I wrote a series of poems that I'm calling "Being One" right now (the title comes from Gertrude Stein). I had never written a series before--and in fact, I had barely written any poems for two and a half years--so this was a new experience. The project is made up of thirteen sections, and each section takes its title from one of the books we read for this course. I've never consciously worked to incorporate other sources into my poems before, but for this project I wrote out of what the titles I chose suggested to me. The funny thing about the process was that I'm usually dead-set against conscious "intention" entering into the composition process, but somehow it worked in this instance. I probably unconsciously chose "titles" that were evocative for me, and that caused my mind to wander (writing for me is usually a kind of mind-wandering-while-reading), so maybe that's why the process seemed seamless.
In general, though, I find that the more voices I have running around in my head, the more likely it is that poems are going to come out of me.
CB: I love this poem from "Being One," the series you mentioned:
(The Mercy of Chance)
The wall of her leaving,
the wallowing sieving,
the surrealists wake up to
a scene where she’s lacking.
Her male surface, a slab
indelible, synthetic, disarming.
LB: Thanks, Claire! That poem is channelling Breton. I was reading Nadja and thinking about her character as more of an idea or a surface that the narrator projects himself onto, rather than as a living, breathing person. In a sense, that poem is my short attempt at doing a reading of the text through the medium of the poem.
CB: Right now, we're writing simultaneously in a Google Document. I work on a question, and I see writing appear on the screen as you work on an answer. I've been wanting to ask you about Facebook, Gmail, videochatting and how you think our rapidly changing relationship to technology affects poetry. One of the great things about being a poet today seems to be that we can have relationships with other poets around the country (or world) and interact daily in a somewhat meaningful way (although ideally we see people face to face whenever we can). Technological developments allow us to publish an email and online journal (RealPoetik, on which we collaborate from across the country) available free anywhere. (Look for some physical artifacts of RealPoetik coming soon!) What would you say about the influence of technology on you, your life, or your writing?
LB: I know that technology allows all of these things you mention--RealPoetik, google-chatting, using Skype to talk to Joshua (and our dog, Bella, who is utterly confused by video-chatting) when he's in Chicago and I'm in Athens. Facebook certainly seems to allow this dailyness to people's interactions that might not have been possible in the past. But sometimes I want to run in the other direction--I find myself sewing chapbooks with Joshua for Boxwood, or making chapbooks for my family and friends, or cooking (which seems oddly related to poetry to me) to honor the process of making and the physical artifact.
What I like about technology is what you point out about how it allows us to "have relationships with other poets around the country (or world)." What I'm troubled by in terms of technology, though, is what you pick up on when you say that these interactions are "somewhat meaningful." Sometimes I feel like I'm peeking in on people's private lives with Facebook, that I'm feeding into a sea-change in terms of how we view privacy and how we live on a daily basis, and for me that's not always meaningful interaction.
I tend to gravitate more towards email correspondence than towards Facebook, for example, because I like the relative privacy of email. I'm also easily overwhelmed by too many choices, and Facebook/the internet have that effect on me. I saw Susan Howe and David Grubbs do a Q&A today at UGA, and Susan Howe was talking about how in our culture, as soon as you become a cultural figure, a kind of murder takes place. She mentioned this in the context of Stein and Dickinson as cultural figures, but also in terms of how our culture is name-centered (with celebrities and so on). I started thinking about how the presentation of the self on the internet is like this--its like turning the self into a name. This is my own neurosis, I'm sure, but it's the way I feel.
All of that said, though, there are many great things about technology--getting to work on a journal with you, google-chatting with friends from across the country, being able to have an internet presence for small presses, which I think enables small presses to thrive in a way that might have been much more difficult before!
CB: It's been enlightening to talk to you in this more formal way about your work. I'm glad you'll be here in person soon, Lily live! Your first book Rust or Go Missing is coming out from Cleveland State University Poetry Center in the fall. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like putting that manuscript together? You also have several chapbooks out or forthcoming. How do you think of the chapbook as separate from or a part of the larger manuscript?
LB: Probably about 90% of the manuscript was written while I was at Saint Mary's. Our teachers there discouraged us from thinking about our theses until our final semester. So, when I got to my final semester, I put all of the poems I had written into a pile, and started working with my readers (Brenda Hillman and Graham Foust) to shape that messy mass of poetry into something more manuscript-like.
What resulted was a version of Rust or Go Missing. I've shuffled things since then, mostly in terms of making cuts and additions. I was sending the manuscript out for about a year with no luck at all. At that point, I changed the order of the book, and I started having more luck afterwards. I don't know if this was coincidence or what, but I wondered if the first poem was turning readers off, and put a poem in that position that I thought might be more compelling.
Your question about chapbooks stumped me a bit--I think chapbooks, for me, have represented discrete periods of time. I don't think this is the only way that chapbooks can function by any means, but for me, that's been the case. The Renaissance Sheet, which Octopus Books published, is made up of poems from my first year at Saint Mary's, while I wrote Old With You (from Kitchen Press) my second year. I have a little chapbook coming out at AWP from Doublecross Press that's called Museum Armor, and a lot of those poems are post-Saint Mary's. Because of the way I've organized my chapbooks, though, I do think the poems in each are stylistically similar. Museum Armor, for example, is full of little poems, which I think reflect an anxiety I felt when I graduated and was unsure of my next step. I kept whittling the poems down more and more, and as a result they're some of the most minimal I've written.
I also am obsessed with the object-ness of chapbooks. I'm really grateful to the people who handmade those books, and now that I run a small press, too, I know how pleasurable book-making is.
CB: You are a fan of Welsh Springer Spaniels and Boston Terriers, AKA dogs. Last spring, I was finishing work toward my teaching credential and, my 23rd year of school coming to a close, looking forward to less responsibility. I went to Chicago and spent a few days with you, Joshua, and Bella the Boston Terrier. By the time my plane landed back in San Francisco, I was thoroughly committed to devoting the next dozen years of my life to a dog. Can you explain what happened to me in Chicago? (My dog Mabel is presently ringing a bell indicating she wants to go outside.) What relationship do dogs have to poetry?
LB: I do like Welsh Spring Spaniels and Boston Terriers (AKA dogs). Here is my explanation of when you came to visit us and were soon devoted to a canine: dogs have the duende. And in this, I think they are related to poetry. Most of my communication with the dogs in my life seems beyond language (or pre-linguistic?), yet feels utterly natural to me.
As I write this, I'm reading Robert Duncan's essay "Towards an Open Universe," and I find he offers me some insight into this relationship between dogs and poetry. First of all, he reprints a poem in the essay called "A Storm of White" that mourns the death of a beloved cat: "O dear gray cat that died in this cold / you were born on my chest / six years ago." I realize this poem is about a feline, not a canine, but perhaps the connection he feels--the poem almost figures the speaker as having given birth to the cat!--is similar to that sort of elemental communication I think we can have with dogs.
In the same essay, Duncan writes "Our engagement with knowing...our demand for truth is not to reach a conclusion but to keep our exposure to what we do not know, to confront our wish and our need beyond habit and capability, beyond what we take for granted, at the borderline, the light finger-tip or thought-tip where impulse and novelty spring." Language is something we often "take for granted," but I think Duncan is right that poetry can engage us not by confirming what we already know, but by exposing us to "what we do not know." I write, read, and communicate with dogs in a state of unknowing, and I'm fascinated by the intuitive understanding we can have of both poems and dogs, I guess. This all makes me think of Stein--"I am I because my little dog knows me."
CB: Thanks Lily. I love that you ended on a sentence I feel like I have always known.