An Interview with Gaylord Brewer
By Austin Tally
Loss has a constant presence in your new book, Give Over, Graymalkin. For you, where does the act of writing poetry fit into the process of losing, accepting, rebuilding, and regaining?
That’s a significant question and a slippery one. The poems about my dog Jasper were ones in particular that I swore to myself I wouldn’t write—too private—and then ultimately wrote anyway. His death—slow and then sudden—was hard on us. I finally realized it would be those poems or nothing for a long while, and so I suppose in some ironic way the intimate nature of the subject that I was so wary of was also what finally compelled me to tackle it. I hoped through the personal to strike a resonant chord about loss. From responses I’ve received, maybe I got lucky, although it was damned costly luck. I’ve been writing poems for a long time, and that process obviously has important correlations to how I approach my life and what I am and believe. It’s not therapy, though, and it’s not a journal. The poems are intended for an audience to read and perhaps be moved or amused or appalled by. To recover from loss takes time, not poetry.
The tone of the pieces in this book is often quite matter-of-fact, at times bordering on disillusionment. How do you balance this down-to-earth mentality with some of the spiritual experiences you had in India or elsewhere in your travels?
Well, I’m not quite sure what you mean by matter-of-fact and how this may or may not be synonymous with down-to-earth, so let’s be cautious here. The art can be in the apparent artlessness, and I always value qualities like grace and clarity, even when I fall short of achieving them myself. I recall reading a long poem by one of our most heralded poets—it must have been one hundred lines or more or seemed so—and I read and reread the poem. As far as I could tell, to the extent that it communicated anything, it said something like, “I woke up depressed and walked down to the beach. I saw a bird there. It was a stormy, gray morning.” The rest of the rigmarole? Beats me. So if you mean down-to-earth as some sort of antithesis to willful obscurity and laborious self-indulgence and making the reader feel stupid, I’ll take it.
There are plenty of poems about home in Give Over, Graymalkin, but most of them were written from thousands of miles away. With what had gone on, I needed the distance to look across. The Dead Metaphors, however, which are purely wry invention, were written in Tennessee, and the speaker who inhabits and informs many of the India poems is an intentionally constructed persona, the coarse American clown bringing a lifetime’s skepticism toward an inner life he’d love to discover and believe in. But I don’t know that I’ve answered your question.
Take “matter-of-fact” to mean “down-to-earth,” or a dictionary definition: “unemotional and practical.”
The idea that poems might have some practical use for the reader doesn’t bother me a bit. In fact, I find the idea appealing, if I’m reluctant to try to name what those practicalities might be. As to
unemotional, I’m not so sure. Those poems of loss we were just discussing strike me as among the riskiest and most open, emotionally, that I’ve ever published. When I was a kid I wrote typically teary, melodramatic, tediously heart-felt juvenilia, particularly in the area of the short story, but I wisely destroyed all that long ago. Consigned to the fire, along with my first novel.
Serious as a heart attack.
Do you regret this, um…
Immolation, yes. Did you regret it later?
Not for a second. I probably should have burned a lot more, and maybe I will. They aren’t holy relics, just words on pages. Although I warn you, it’s hard to get three hundred pages—that was the novel, not the file of fourteen short stories—really going good on the grill. Persistence, as in all things.
Well, back to our discussion, I suppose. How do you achieve this balance between descriptions of the ordinary and descriptions of events or feelings that become aggrandized by being turned into art?
You’re bringing up several complicated matters here, I believe. First, sure, the act of writing down an event or—be careful now!—a feeling automatically introduces artificiality. But artifice isn’t de facto a bad thing and is obviously necessary to write the poem. You need to be very suspicious of Deep Thoughts. When you just can’t help yourself now and then, and you’re convinced that through honesty and craft and hardheadedness you’ve earned a Grand Pronouncement, I advise you to bury it in the middle of the poem to mute the effect. Don’t load it up at the end. Mostly, though, show some restraint and good taste. Let the poem do the hard work of excavation. The poem should be smarter than the poet. Everybody knows that, right? And always, always keep a keen eye and ear on the seismograph of your own bullshit. I Have Spoken.
Many of your poems end with short, suggestive phrases: “Come on. You know better than that.” (“Death Metaphor: Fidelity”), “Be grateful, baboon. Big dumb mammal. Breathe.” (“Death Metaphor: Sunlight after Morning Thunder”), “Take cover, relax.” (“Death Metaphor: Clouds”). Are these directed at the reader? Or are they reminders for you?
The “you” in those cases is not me. I’m not that addled or neurotic . . . yet. All three examples you cite are from the Dead Metaphors, which I think is telling. Those poems set themselves off a bit from the rest of the book—a palette cleanser, if you will—and all of them, if I remember correctly, are written in second person. Gimmicky, yes, but in the case of this series a gimmick I hope was justified. The “you,” broadly speaking, is I suppose the invited reader, with the “host” in the poem alternately cajoling, lampooning, sympathizing, even encouraging. Following the invitation should be some opening, a turning or revision of the metaphor’s trite expectations. Meanwhile, as I suggested above, always going in fear of the Big Ending. A bit of blunt and useful advice is maybe all we need.
Tell me a little more about how your “blunt and useful advice” differs from “the Big Ending.” Is there ever a poem that could benefit from a “Grand Pronouncement” as a finale?
They’re opposites, to my mind, although it’s possible I was being slightly facetious about the advice. I have a friend who told me years ago that he thought I ended poems well—he considered it my
strength along with good titles. He didn’t, I don’t think, intend the comment as mean-spirited and evil, although of course it sabotaged the ending of every poem that came after (and just glance at the Dead Metaphors and the apologia to confirm I gave up on reasonable titles). That said, I’d rather a poem end a bit flat, if that’s the best I can manage, than the alternative of distracting and, to appropriate your good word from earlier, self-aggrandizing pyrotechnics. Let me iterate: You don’t want to have to try to sound wiser than your poem, and you sure as hell don’t want to try to “impress” anyone. And remember: “You ain’t editing until you take out your favorite part,” right? Another reason my students adore me. As to your second question, I know any number of poems that could benefit from lots of things.
You write well-traveled poems. When you are abroad and experiencing the situations described in your poems, are you writing and taking notes? Or do you let things settle in your mind and work them out before writing them down?
I’ve talked at length in other places about the dangers of writing tourist poems and of the wonderfully terrifying and liberating challenge of the poem-a-day commitment I put on myself during a residency, so let’s address some of the other issues you raise. First, I only ever take notes in the most haphazard way: a brilliant title or phrase scrawled on a jagged piece of paper, to be returned to with shock and alarm (if I can read it), often to be lost or dismissed. I guess I’m a little bit mystical about this and think that jotting something down in itself can be useful. Whether or not you then remember the idea is its litmus test. Second, my travels are divided into two distinct types of trips. When I’m on a residency—I recently returned from a lively and productive stay in Finland—I write a lot, letting the scenery and society, customs and rituals creep in as they naturally will, directly or around the edges or some days not at all. When I leave the place, that’s it, it’s over. I’m on to something else. I can’t think of a single instance where I “carried,” so to speak, a country home with me and kept writing about it.
If I’m not on a residency—this is the other sort of trip—I generally don’t write a word about it. I’ve taught in Russia and in Kenya, for example. Both experiences marvelous, unforgettable, sensual,
challenging, but don’t bother looking for the poems. They don’t exist. India, in particular, seems a country that encourages distance, reflection, and sorting. I have a couple of friends who have been
organizing their “India notes” for years. That’s fine, but it’s not me. I wrote up a storm there, then I came home. I don’t know what psychological quirk this suggests, but that’s how I’ve always been
wired. I’ve been called “a poetry machine,” a comment not quite intended as a compliment. Anyway, I might throw in a little local flavor if I’m living a fully integrated and committed daily life of writing and that detail’s cogent, but to sit here now and regale you with tales of safari in the Masai Mara or the weirdness that happened at the Taj Mahal, you gotta be kidding. What did you ever do to me to deserve to be tortured so? If I didn’t or couldn’t use it at the time, or if it’s not a writing trip, then it’s history.
Why is that? I understand your aversion to “tourist” poetry, but do you really mean to say that if something profound happens to you on a non-“writing trip,” you still will not write about it? This seems to be a very calculated [non-spontaneous] way to write poetry and to live as a poet.
Fair enough, although not quite in the spirit of what I meant. I did say generally. None of this is chiseled in stone. All I can tell you is how it has worked for me. It’s just how it is. Also, one might argue that the other approach is the calculated, non-spontaneous one: Let me slip this Profound Experience in my wallet until I can figure out how to exploit it in a poem. I’ve hardly written anything about my childhood, either, although there are some good stories. It’s not by design, not really. Well, not wholly. But I’m not sure any of this is worth quibbling about. Use what works, leave out what doesn’t. Who knows how any given experience remains or returns sideways into one’s life and writing? How it might define? Two last thoughts: The distinct types of travel have tended to sort themselves that way because I know myself well enough to know what kinds of experience will tend to move me and also what elements create the time and space in which I will generate poems. And what won’t. Finally, I’m certainly not opposed to useful, or even guileful, calculation, nor am I convinced it’s necessarily a foe of spontaneity. We are all many people, Grasshopper.
Well then, can you elaborate on how your experiences do work themselves into poems? What is the course of time? I noticed poems mentioning specific dates such as New Years, Christmas, and specific years.
I appreciate your attention to and thoughtfulness regarding my work, and this new book in particular. Maybe you’re right, there are an uncharacteristic number of “occasional poems” here. I contribute this phrase I might normally have reservations about, but for this collection those poems operate as benchmarks, road signs, what have you, of time passing, its balm of healing and a return to a qualified wholeness. That’s a mouthful. Let’s take a different approach: If the poem is narrative, I would like it to engage the reader early, be fresh and immediate throughout, and be told dramatically, well, and with some facility of language. Ideally, all of these techniques and approaches would be in play and might involve recalling an event twenty years past as if it were happening this instant, or taking the useful, tasty bits of something that happened yesterday and giving it some distance, or simply inventing what’s needed. And, of course, using the “lens” or point-of-view as most useful—contracting, expanding, distorting time and events as all serve the individual poem. Nuts and
bolts stuff. Whatever works. Or maybe, whatever I can get away with. You’re right, I do sometimes like to nail the poem to a specific date or event or moment of history. Again, when it feels right instinctively and, forgive me, aesthetically. Call your witness. Name some names. Map and calendar as coordinates.
Can you shed some light on the significance of alcohol in your writing? Is it an escape, a deeper meditation? Or just drinking? Or does this just depend on the mood of the individual poem?
Ah ha. So the gloves are off, and here we stand at the bitter end, in the fading light! Seriously, though, I don’t think boozing in the poems amounts to much more than a motif I’ve exploited to explore a whole field of manners and ideas: control, indulgence, celebration, self-loathing, buffoonery, altered states of thought. Lots of different things. Yes, it’s an area where I have some mastery from long experience, but drinking has nothing to do with writing except perhaps that the study of its discipline is well accommodated by the generous schedule of the writer’s life. I’m a hell of a cook, too, and have a great enthusiasm—albeit the amateur’s—for ornithology. Strangely, nobody ever asks me why so much food and so many birds in my poems.
OK, I’ll ask—why so much food and so many birds in your poems?
Pretty much as I’ve insinuated: a spicy, sensual, and particularized vocabulary. A sincere engagement wedded to a modest expertise. Food, song, and drink. What else can I tell you, brother? Salud.