Emilia Phillips: Tell us a little bit about your arrival into poetry. When did you write your first poem? When did you start thinking about seriously writing poetry? Was there a specific moment in which you said, “Yes, I want to do this”?
Traci Brimhall: I can’t remember a first poem. As long as I’ve written, I’ve written poems. In high school, I definitely wrote lots of poems about my feelings that rhymed, and I took creative writing workshops in college and wrote poems about relationships that didn’t rhyme. But the moment when I said “Yes! This! This is everything!” was a few years after graduating college. I settled down in a good job in the arts, had a house, a dog, a comfortable relationship, and I was utterly miserable. I can’t remember another time in my life that felt that numb. I needed to love something enough to change my life, to quit, to move, to feel again, and that thing was poetry.
EP: Do you have any recollection of the first definition you were given for poetry, perhaps from a teacher or parent?
TB: I don’t remember a first definition of poetry that was given to me, though I remember one I made for myself. In college I discovered the work of Louise Glück, Adrienne Rich, and Sharon Olds, and I remember thinking that poetry should somehow haunt you and heal you at the same time. A great poem makes me feel less alone in the world, but it also pushes around the boxes in the attic and moves in whether you like it or not. I also like Emily Dickinson’s definition of how she defines poetry—“it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me…If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
EP: Rookery, your first collection of poems, invites the reader in with Bergmanesque portrayals of characters that are quietly cinematic and marked by the strange and threatening: “My mother told me it’s always the best swimmers / who drown,” “We found a dead cub in the snow, / something so innocent it could not be saved,” “You counted the days by their cold silences. / At night, wolves and men with bleeding hands // colonized your dreams.”
Your second collection Our Lady of the Ruins, however, exists in a more lyric place, an alternate reality charged by ecclesiastical concerns. Can you talk about the shift between the two projects? Despite their differences, both are distinctly Traci Brimhall, and the last poem of Rookery, “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse,” even seems to take us into the setting and concerns of Our Lady.
TB: The shift occurred in a single poem—“Our Bodies Break Light.” It was the first poem I wrote in Our Lady of the Ruins, and it was also how I knew I was writing a new book. It came as a strange, lyrical, polyvocal gift. I felt kind of shy of my own poem. I wasn’t sure where it had come from or why or if I even wanted that kind of gift. I took my cues for many of the other poems from that poem, and it grew into a glorious mess. In order to make a manuscript out of the subsequent poems, I had to be pretty brutal about cutting poems from the book.
“Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse” turned out to be a prelude to the second book, though I didn’t suspect it at the time. When it comes to obsessions, I can’t seem to help myself. I’ll create writing challenges for myself to steer poems away from the same images, subjects, and language, but those obsessions always sneak in. Lately, most of my poems have ended in rapture. I’m so exhausted by transcendence, but I can’t seem to stop.
EP: What were you reading while writing each collection? Can you narrow it down and, if so, do you feel that those other writers wormed their way into the projects? How so?
TB: That’s a tough one to narrow down. During graduate school when I wrote the greater part of Rookery, I was reading a book of poetry every day. When I wrote Our Lady of the Ruins, I was living in my car and wasn’t reading much but road signs, trail maps, and a few books that were boxed up in a storage unit. I can say that the books that I’ve reread lately that still blow my mind are The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley, Tsim Tsum by Sabrina Orah Mark, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, and Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright. What keeps me returning to these books is not just their clarity of vision, but each represents something forbidden to me, whether it’s a craft choice, a subject matter, a particular deployment of language. These poets de-center me, and I love them for it.
EP: What are you working on now?
TB: Right now I’m working on poems based on my mother’s childhood in Brazil. It’s not meant to be a biography, but more of a biomythography. I’ve taken stories she’s told me and painted my own obsessions and inventions over them. To quote Eavan Boland in A Journey with Two Maps, I used poetry as “a magic permission to make time a fiction and the imagined life a fact. A way, in other words, of making a visible history answer to a hidden life.”
EP: Have you ever tried working in other genres? How did that go?
TB: I love both fiction and nonfiction, though my attempts at fiction tend to only be a couple of paragraphs and my nonfiction requires section breaks every page or so. I can’t seem to create anything longer without stacking discrete moments on top of each other.
EP: As editors, we all have our pet peeves. Is there one thing—a trend, a technique, etc.—that really irks you when you see it come over the transom at Third Coast?
TB: Since most of my role as editor doesn’t involve screening submissions, I can’t say that I have a pet peeve in the slush pile. My greatest frustration as an editor is having too many ideas and too little time. Since I’m a graduate student working on a graduate student run journal, we rotate positions every year or two. There are tons of things I would love to do with Third Coast, but it’s hard to take the long view when we pass the reins off so quickly.
EP: Now, despite that, what are you excited about in contemporary poetry?
TB: I have to quote Emily Dickinson again and say, “I dwell in Possibility—A fairer House than Prose.” One of the things I’ve loved the most as an editor is reading the selections made by the genre editors. There is an overwhelming amount of brilliant work being written. I love seeing the formal innovations, the language play, and the strange and indelible images that come across my desk. Poetry isn’t dead; it’s growing extra limbs to accommodate all the possibilities.
EP: What’s the next step for you?
TB: I hope what’s next in my own writing is more risk and more joy.
EP: Now, provide us with a question that you’d like us to ask the next poet we interview.
TB: I’m interested in how a writer’s relationship to their work changes over time. Has the process of writing different books felt like serial monogamy? Do poets change their writing practice over time, writing in coffee shops one year and in a converted chicken coop the next? Have their obsessions narrowed in or broadened? Spill the beans, poets!
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), winner the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (SIU Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Slate, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the King/Chávez/Parks Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at firstname.lastname@example.org.