Prose Feature: “Can’t Be Created or Destroyed: An Interview with Mark Jay Brewin, Jr. by Emilia Phillips”

March 13, 2015

Mark Jay Brewin, Jr.

Mark Jay Brewin, Jr. is a graduate of the MFA program of Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Southern Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Hollins Critic, Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, North American Review, Greensboro Review, Southern Humanities Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. They have also placed as finalists in the Guy Owen Poetry Prize, the 2011 Third Coast Poetry Prize, and the New Letters Literary Award Contest; won the Yellowwood Poetry Contest at the Yalobusha Review; and have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. His first book manuscript Scrap Iron won the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize at the University of Utah Press. Brewin is currently a Contributing Editor for the poetry journal Cave Wall.

Emilia Phillips, 32 Poems Prose Editor: When I heard you read recently, you read from some new work that covers your journey across a traditional route of a religious pilgrimage in Spain. Talk to me a little bit about this project and the history of the pilgrimage. Did you see yourself as taking up a tradition, in the spirit of The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales, of the poetic quest or journey? Do you see this as a valid form, and how does that form inform your formatting of the poems? Do you see this tradition at work in contemporary poetry, why or why not?

Mark Jay Brewin, Jr.: The Camino de Santiago is one that’s been traveled since the remains of St. James the Apostle have been found—we’re talking well over a thousand years—and there is some evidence that there may have even been a pagan route established time before that. It’s incredible. The particular way I walked is known as the Camino Francés, which begins on the French side of the Pyrenees and ends at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela (some pilgrims choose to take the trail all the way to the sea at Cape Finisterre), but there are dozens of different routes, with some that begin in other countries like Portugal, or as far away as Germany and Italy.

I first heard about it, though, in an Art History II class back in undergrad, and it’s rattled around in my mind ever after. The idea of taking everything I have, distilling it down to a rucksack’s worth of clothes and walking for a month and a half, up to twenty miles in a day, sounded to me like a romantic journey. The idea of just walking, of the centuries-old churches, of the pilgrims and their faith, all struck a chord with the lapsed Catholic inside of me. It worked out that my wife could come along, and so we planned it for the Easter season as an end to a semester I spent living in Ireland, studying as part of an exchange with the University of Ireland­–Galway. And you’re totally right: the Camino de Santiago—to have a destination in mind, to rub elbows with countless others, for weeks on end, swapping stories, and maybe seeking a little salvation if not a good meal—is pure Chaucer, but me taking it up as a poetic quest wasn’t what drove me at first (though it did function as that later when I started writing about it). For me, personally, this experience was an opportunity to confront—in a different outlet other than writing—three things I am haunted by: guilt, forgiveness, and love, all in their simplest of forms. Maybe because I was forced to attend mass on Sundays and went to an all-boys, Catholic high school, but I got used to the church as a place to sit and think about everything I’ve done wrong, and so I wanted to use the simplicity and history of the Camino as a possible means to feel not so much like a schmucky human being.

This possible second book manuscipt/project that the poem you heard (titled “Santiago de Compostela”) is in, is one that has built off of those three initials concerns (again, guilt, forgiveness, and love) and thus far expanded beyond Camino works and into other narratives that touch on my grandfather’s mortality, failed relationships, my parents’ marriage, even a letter to a friend that covers everything from how I love my wife and working on a receiving dock of a big box hardware store, to a piece of glass in my eyelid and how much I drink. I’m still working through the heart of the book—close but no cigar quite yet. The form of the poem you heard and this project in general has that epic, Arthurian tone hopefully because I try to elevate most experiences in my life to that status; I hate to invoke the t-shirt cliché of “Life’s a journey,” but for better or worse it’s kind of true, at least in my mind, and I like putting things on pedestals, anyway.

Although I am the only one (as far as I know) who’s written about the Camino in contemporary poetry, there are plenty of poets who chronicle these types of journeys. Traci Brimhall’s second book, Our Lady of the Ruins, is an INCREDIBLE example of a post-apocalyptic pilgrimage narrative. Spooky and grand. I’d even say that Jake Adam York’s posthumously published collection “Abide” (his whole canon of work, really) is a poetic quest through the South engaging martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, elevating records playing in dance halls to that of choirs chanting in a cathedral, exclaiming the sanctity of every life. Yes, indeed. The poetic journey is alive and well in contemporary poetry. No question.

EP: In my own poems about journeys, specifically driving American highways, the act of constant movement lends itself to both narrative and to lyric. Narrative craves the change which abounds in the journey, but lyric thrives too, as the regularity of the movement drives internal thought, dialogue, even recollection. Your poems, the ones I heard at your reading and those in your collection Scrap Iron, walk the state line between narrative and lyric. Do you think that the ultimate poem is one that doesn’t claim sole residency in either territory? Why or why not? Can you provide us with an example of a poem that lives up to your ideals?

MJB: Hot dog. Now you’ve got me thinking about driving—I’m on a road trip in my mind—and I’m afraid I have to extend the “driving” shtick a bit longer.

Experiencing a poem should be like hauling ass in an Airstream along a stretch of interstate you’ve never been. The landscape is the poem’s event—it’s narrative. The Airstream is the reader’s history, baggage, etc. The map is the poet’s voice, his/her view navigating us through the moment. And, much like any road trip, there must be tunes; the music is what keeps you awake, helps your eyes stay focused on the road. Story and sound: that’s what gets my motor rolling. Alright, I’m done with the interstate and cars, I swear. Sorry. Sometimes I don’t know how to treat nice things.

Whatever the case: without a doubt, that ultimate poem—for me—must be a perfect balance of narrative and lyric, it “doesn’t claim sole residency in either territory.” I love how you put that. Yeah. Poetry is this ancient thing—part song, part recollection—that harnessed auditory signatures to help the poet engage listeners, to make the task easier for him when it came to re-telling the tale. I don’t know how this primordial deal was struck (“Alright folks, listen up, when you write poetry—whenever we invent cuneiform or Linear B or whatever—you gotta have both narrative and lyric, you dig? Now let’s finish this goddamn cave painting already, I’m sick of mammoths . . . “), but it is the perfect marriage. In fact, it reminds me of this one summer evening when I was a boy. My great uncle was telling the story of how my grandfather rolled his car on the way to a baseball game in which he was playing. Mid-way through the story, my grandfather stops him and starts yelling, “Jesus, son, you’re saying it all right, but you’re givin’ it no finesse!” and goes on to start over but this time focusing on sound (I remember it was the first time I heard the phrase “goose egg” in reference to a bruise on your head). Now, my grandfather would probably confess he isn’t a poet, but his storytelling sensibilities are dead balls for what it is we should be accomplishing in our writing, how we are going about it all.

The purest example of lyric and narrative in a poem, what could be a “perfect” poem (according to my standards) is Rodney Jones’s “The Bridge.” Any line you pick works to both further the story along as simply and engagingly as possible, and is incredibly crafted for sound. I am just taken away, begin to hold my breath, as it opens, “These fulsome nouns, these abbreviations of air, / are not real, but two of them may fit a small man / I knew in high school . . . “ and goes on and on from there, looking at one physical place, weaving together several diverse histories surrounding it, all the while examining the failings of language, scattering about these lyric niceties all over the place like wildflowers. Good Lord, I just want to read it to you, read it out loud to anyone right now, or include in here each perfect thought and line (which is to say every line of that poem), but that’d be over the top for sure. It’s a poem I offer to anyone who asks me what poetry “is”. It’s one I am constantly going back to, holding up beside my own works, showing me how much reading and writing I have to do in order to get to that level of genius.

EP: I wish I could hear it! You were talking about your grandfather’s storytelling. Do you think that poetry should play to that oral tradition? Do you think that contemporary poets have moved away from or more into the act of oral storytelling in our poems? Why or why not?

MJB: Poetry should most definitely play with storytelling. It’s our roots. Our foundation. If not, it’d be like a bird deciding, “Nah, I’m cool. No need for this ‘flying’ thing anymore. I like the sound my talons make on the kitchen floor.” We humans first created language as a means to tell a story. The advent of poetry was the first way to help sharpen that magnificent tool; it’s our first and oldest attempt to give dimension to and understand our world. Prose is just the business savvy, long-winded younger brother. With that being said, though, I am still so very thankful that the boundaries of poetry have been tested, tried, pushed, broken, and broadened beyond pure and simple storytelling.

And, as far as I can tell, storytelling is thriving in contemporary poetry. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting at least one heavy-hitter of spinning a yarn in the current poetic sphere.

I know in my heart that so many talented folks are using the medium to tell new, compelling, heart-breaking stories—and I could go on at length, but I won’t—but there are most assuredly a few that just win me over time and time again. Of those I consider friends/role models, and others I play fan-boy to: Kerry James Evans, TJ Jarrett (Zion is so good!), Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, Travis Mossotti (his second book Field Study, which just came out, is a testament to pushing the boundaries of storytelling and pure lyric), Anthony Carelli (I sent him an email a year ago and haven’t heard a peep, though I imagine that I would come off as SPAM), Traci Brimhall, Kara Candito (she’s a FANTASTIC poet and a press-mate of mine at University of Utah Press!), and so on.

Like I said, the list of talented poets is endless, ad infinitem.

As a whole, I think that storytelling is just as popular in contemporary poetry as it’s ever been. Maybe even more so now. The gut-sunk drive that’s at the helm is one that incorporates unfolding experiences on social media (am I really a millennial, really?), the legacy of our families’ struggles alongside those of historical significance, politics, gender, sexuality—poetry is telling the stories of the masses. Rose McLarney’s evolution of southern waterways, southern living, South America’s swagger different from our own (Its Day Being Gone, from Penguin). The redemption and desire in L. Lamar Wilson’s collection, Sacrilegion. Walt Whitman said something to the effect that—O so many years ago—our very atoms, our existences are interconnected. They are. Truly. Honestly. And maybe we are delving into the purity of narrative again and again (especially here and now) because of the ease with which we can access and compare our thoughts to those that have been rattling around for some time (Inter-webs, is this you?). Or maybe we are pushing narrative because of the inundation of the instant—we can so readily look at journal entries from hundreds of years ago, ancient tapestries, stone chiselings, in the hopes that maybe we wish to last as long as they have. Whichever way you split the baby, storytelling is happy, comfortable, and whining in its crib. Amen.

EP: If our atoms are connected, I wonder how much of our poems are connected. There are so many quibbles about aesthetics that it’s easy to forget that everyone’s invested in the reading and writing of poetry. Do you see language as a kind of DNA we share with different expressions?

MJB: Oh, sweet Lord, are our poems connected! Like, for real.

So, I was on a reading tour just about two months ago, and a friend of mine and I had a stop in Lincoln, Nebraska. Before the reading, I had a chance to meet and have a bite and some drinks with the poet James Crews—he has a fantastic collection, by the by—and he told me a story about a poem he wrote some years ago in an undergraduate workshop. His professor, David Clewell, was collecting and passing out poems to the students, when he approached James about one he had turned in the class before. It was a poem in the form of a postcard written to his dead father. Clewell kept asking him where he came up with the idea, how did he compose the piece, was really interrogating him about it. Anyway, the poem gets workshopped, the class finishes. End of that. Some time later though (years, I think he said), James flipped through Clewell’s book (one written while Crews had been in his class) and discovered a poem that was also in the form of a postcard, written to his dead mother. The style, content, and idea, near exactly the same as James’s own poem, written at close to the exact same time; each one different and original, but somehow, something, a single idea had struck them both. It sounds like plagiarism the way I am telling it, but what had happened—James stressed this to me in his telling, his understanding of what occurred—was that these two poets, interacting with each other, wrote the same poem (or their versions of the same poem) unbeknownst to each other. Clewell never said anything to James during the class, never mentioned how he himself was working through an identical entry point. (As a note, I know I did not do that story justice; my apologies to James Crews for any details I may have missed or added.)

I don’t know about you, but something about that just gets to me.

Also on that reading tour, my friend and I were wrapping up our travels, driving to St. Louis, Missouri, and talking about our current projects, poems, whatever we were working on. He picked a poem from a manuscript he was thumbing through and read it aloud, and almost immediately I was struck by a longer piece I was writing—that I hadn’t shared with anyone, that I had been working on for months—and how both had not only a similar form, but were both speaking specifically to constellations, stars, spacey stuff like that (maybe I have Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey to thank for this). I said so, and he went on to say that a mutual poet-friend of ours was composing along the same lines, too. All of us with the same heart of a poem.

Maybe I am blowing these types of happenings out of proportion. I know these moments exist all the time, everywhere.

A good many poets emulate other artists or poems they love, are moved by the precision/emotion/narrative, but I think it’s more the energy/language of the poem that links and connects us. This is a stretch—so I hope you can follow me—but talking about this immediately makes me think of Nikola Tesla (yeah, I know, I warned you: a “stretch”). Tesla believed there is free energy around us all the time, that we can take it freely from the air and use it to power all kinds of things (cars, houses, cities, etc.). What the hell was it they taught us in science class? Something like, “energy can’t be created or destroyed, but can change form.” The Law of Conservation of Energy. That’s it. Mrs. Eisinger (my third grade teacher) would be pleased to hear I can still remember that.

So, in reference to your question (forgive me for taking so long to come back it), I think I see language as a type of energy. Something that can’t be created or destroyed. Something on-going, infinite. Something in the air. Something we take into us—like breath—without even knowing it, and something we give out unconditionally. An involuntary response. Like energy, a moment in our own lives, maybe an idea or a word, strikes us in such a way, like a tuning fork, and changes form, begins its metamorphosis on the page, unfolds, develops, and comes into existence. When someone speaks that phrase (just right, near perfect), it echoes out around us and is snatched up by a perfect stranger. What is it the Bible says about the creation of the universe? God spoke and the universe came into existence. Religion may be above my pay grade, but I like to think this type of creation happens every second of the day with everyone on this planet. We speak, and awesomely/instantly language creates its own universe, with its own characters, stories, ideas, motives. Take a look at the root of the word, Universe: Uni-verse. One verse, one word, is all it takes to create and capture all. Coincidence? I think not!

But rather than end there, that poem, that energy (i.e. language), permeates time and space and all that junk above my own knowledge, and finds a reader, and when the right artwork and audience member are introduced to one another, it changes form again and becomes action, hopefully, ideally (maybe it’s childish or naïve to say this, but I do truly wish for the written word to create change, make better this ailing world). Or, maybe that poem finds another poet—randomly discovered in a journal or anthology or graffitied on a bathroom stall—and the energy of that poem changes again, into a new poem, or maybe a new way for the poet to look at the world (language becoming a state of mind). I don’t know if I’m even close to saying what I want to, but the cycle continues. And so on and so forth.

I can’t help, too, but imagine how it all began—language, poetry. Some cave dweller uttering the first words into existence. And then that energy (those initial sounds the predecessors of thought and reflection) moved others, hunkered down into the minds of his tribe, other near-humans, and—now that I am looking back to your question—it maybe somehow entered into the very core of our kind, rooted into our DNA, something like our souls. Kind of cool to think those grunts and moans are the seed of everything. The energy and language used to describe hunting ancient elk is the same as that which we use today to understand, discuss, wax poetic about loss, loneliness, or love. That’s some heavy shit, man.

EP: I know so many poetry students who want to be totally original. What would you say to them?

MJB: Firstly, I’d say to your students that being original is like breathing: if you have to think about doing it in order to do it, something ain’t right. At least to me, it’s something that has to come naturally, if you can even be original at all.

Secondly, I would tell them that rather than wanting to be original, I would urge them to instead want to be genuine, to strive for that end. Rather than struggle to be the first at or to something (poetry isn’t a game, there aren’t contenders; we shouldn’t have to sprint to invent a new poetic form; let it happen at its own pace), if our energies were put into being as honest and as familiar with ourselves as possible, then we as artists can make the strongest, purest piece of art possible. What more would we want? Remember the Delphic maxim: know thyself. That’s probably as close as any of us can get to being original, anyway.

Allison Benis White*: Last year at AWP, I went to a panel with Dana Levin, Carmen Giménez Smith, Cate Marvin, and Richard Siken on the life of the poet, the long haul—or the long con—how one keeps going, emotionally and psychologically and production-wise. If you were on this panel, what experience would you discuss, or what advice would you offer other poets, concerning endurance, sanity, and perseverance in the life of a writer?

MJB: My advice. How a poet keeps going. I almost feel like I don’t deserve to answer this, that there are much more capable writers/human beings with much stronger, purer ideas of how to “go on.” Or maybe I’m put off by the question a little bit and have no clue how to respond to it.

Any other day, if you asked me to speak on “the life of the poet” (whatever that means), and the work that we do (which is honest, REAL, good work), I couldn’t help but think we are all the luckiest sonsabitches that may have ever lived. We are in love with the world, so much so, we have to capture it. How incredible. How awesome (and I use that word in the biblical, epic sense).

Is it easy? Fuck no. It’s hard as hell. I struggle to keep my thoughts straight. I struggle to get the right words on the page, and then I wrestle and bitch and moan about getting those right words in the right order, but I never worry about if I’ll write or what will inspire me (it’s always just a question of “when”), because this earth is filled with more crap than Carter’s got liver pills and all of it—every last little thing—is singing.

How does a writer sustain a career, balance life and craft? What tricks can be learned, what shortcuts or advice passed on, that would help a poet navigate these tumultuous waters?

Frankly, I am baffled and humbled by the thought of how anybody makes the long haul—not just writers or poets, but shift workers, grocery clerks, teachers, postal workers, welders, soldiers, students, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, mammals, humans, air-breathers, water-drinkers, sword-swallowers, cheese-mongers, every single goddamned one of us.

What makes us any different? What guidance could I give that wouldn’t benefit any living person? (Get plenty of rest. Make home cooked meals. Share your toys. Play nice. Be sure to stretch every morning. Don’t bite your nails. Use sun tan lotion. Etc, etc.)

What I can attest to that has gotten me this far, and what I reckon is going to get me through this con, is this:

  • I make up at least one lie about something every day, whether it’s the type of sandwich I have or haven’t had for lunch or the history of an international space program, or whatever—it makes me feel like an authority on something. That and it keeps things really interesting.
  • I rarely say “no” to anything ( . . . to one more drink, to an all-night scrabble game when I should be editing/working, to up sticks and hit the road, to any sort of hand-me-downs, to anyone asking for help . . . ). We only ever get one pass at life’s buffet, so why not try it all?
  • I try and act as kindly and genuinely as I can towards everyone. I could say that being kind guarantees good karma, and thus good writing, or that being genuine keeps conflicts from arising in my life, but I can’t say if either of those is true. I do know that when I am not good and honest towards others, I feel like shit (this includes in real life and on the page). Shit feeling = shit writing.
  • I am always thankful. When I sit and think about what I deserve, what I have earned (truly, really), versus what I actually have, what is around me, I am always, every single time, restored.
  • I have found that writing good, strong, clear poems is just as important as properly caramelizing onions, a good handshake, appropriate hygiene, breathing, eating organic, updating a wardrobe, knowing how to grout tile, watching every Charlie Chaplin film, mathematics, tax law, digging a hole and filling it up again.
  • I have chosen—at least for now—to only take jobs outside of the academic realm. This is partially because I feel like I am and will be a terrible teacher (I have such respect and admiration for anyone who does teach, the personal and artistic sacrifices these incredible human beings make every day), and because I don’t like to take things home with me other than ideas/imaginative leaps/sounds. Pushing shopping carts, stacking fruits and vegetables, hanging sheetrock in a shed is the most I can and want to handle in order for me to keep making art, writing poetry. To give myself to both, wholly and completely, whatever it is I am working on.
  • “Today, I am certain, / for all my terrible mistakes I did the right thing / to love places and scenes in my innocent way and to spend / my life writing poems, to receive like a woman / the world in its enduring decay and to tell/ that world like a man that I am not afraid to weep / at the sadness, the ongoing day that is draining our life / and is life.” Dick Hugo, “Letter to Peterson from the Pike Place Market”

EP: Now, Mark, provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

MJB: It breaks my heart that Philip Levine died yesterday. Such a loss. I could speak of how his writing, his voice, his pig iron has given instruction, command, and a foundation to my own work, but I just want to sit down with his books for a while in quiet. Instead of loss and legacy, let’s speak to work. Let’s let the question embody Phil for a moment. How about this: If the words in your poems were building materials, and you a builder/assembler rather than a writer, what would the work be like? What material would your words be? What would the edifice resemble or be like once put together?

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