Persistence, Beer, and Beards: A Conversation with Brian Brodeur, author of Other Latitudes
by Frank DePoole
Other Latitudes is Brian Brodeur's first full length collection of poetry, selected by Stephen Dunn as the 2007 Akron Poetry Prize winner, and published by The University of Akron Press. Dunn states that, “Brodeur's world is one of layers and shadings. His diction is limpid and precise, his ear a fine-tuned instrument for registering nuance.” The poems illustrate an artist's perspective on existence, death, and life, not just a poet's view of the everyday world. Recently I was given the chance to talk about the book with Brodeur.
Your first book, Other Latitudes, was the 2007 Akron Poetry Prize winner. What did it feel like to have your book selected in this contest by Stephen Dunn? Do you see any parallels between your work and Stephen Dunn's?
When I received the phone call from Elton Glaser, then editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, letting me know that I'd won the prize, I was at work. I remember sweating through my socks and later asking my supervisor if I could leave early to go to the bar. Dunn was and still is a long time personal favorite contemporary American poet. Hearing that he'd selected my manuscript for the prize made the moment much sweeter.
About a week after the call, I asked Elton if he wouldn't mind giving me Dunn's e-mail address so that I could write to thank him. After two months I worked up the nerve to contact Dunn, who was gracious and even complimentary. When he heard that I lived in Northern Virginia, he actually invited me out for a drink after a reading he'd scheduled later that month at the Library of Congress. We had a fine evening at a Greek taverna near the Capitol, laughing and exchanging stories late into the night.
If my work resembles Dunn's in any way I suppose it would be a shared fidelity to narrative, or at least a desire to be understood. Most of the poems in Other Latitudes seek to draw the reader in through a general spirit of accessibility, a spirit (I hope) that begins to get complicated within the first few lines of each poem. While I think of Dunn's poems as being a lot more meditative than my own, we seem to share a love of human behavior in all of its absurd beauty and befuddled ignorance. I'm not sure how Dunn would feel about that assessment, but I suspect he'd agree.
What was it like assembling the manuscript Other Latitudes? What advice do you have for writers organizing and sequencing their first book manuscript?
The composition and sequencing of Other Latitudes happened over four or five years. I'd write a new poem, see how it measured up against those already in the manuscript, and decide where it would seem most evocative. Once I had a respectable page number, I started sending the manuscript out to contests and open-reading periods, kissing the envelope each time I dropped it in the slot.
This may sound simplistic but it's true. Many of the poems were included in my MFA thesis, which I completed in August of 2005, and were then revised beyond recognition into their current versions. The manuscript itself probably went through two dozen major overhauls and a few instances of me throwing my sixty pages into the air to see if the order in which the poems landed wasn't better than the order I'd contrived. In many instances, it was.
If I have any advice for poets struggling with a first manuscript, I guess it would be threefold: persistence, beer, and the acquisition of as many good readers as will tolerate you. Any success I've had I owe to the abiding interest of folks like Eric Pankey, Peter Klappert, J.D. Scrimgeour, Kiley Cogis, Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Brian Heston and others too numerous to name here.
Five poems in the book are in two or more parts. Did you find it hard to get these picked up at journals with all the sections? Do you want your reader to see them as parts of a poem, or to read them as individual poems?
In my experience, long and longish poems are difficult to publish. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try! On "Figure Drawing," for example, the longest in the book, I received both helpful and frustrating snatches of feedback from the editors of a dozen or so journals, feedback that for better or worse chided me into revisiting the poem. You know how it goes. I'd open my SASE and find scribbled on the back of a form letter comments like: Good, but slow in parts ; or locally brilliant but not quite right for us.
The poems in numbered sections are meant to be read as single poems. I do, however, imagine a pair of these, "Snapshots" one and two, to be sequences rather than poems in parts. In these two poems, each individual section was written and published separately (when published at all), and never composed with the idea that they'd one day be part of the same sequence. But this says more, I think, about the blind and bungling nature of composition than it does about the poems themselves. I've found that some of my best writing has revealed itself to me only gradually over time.
The first section of the book stands out to me with the pervasive theme of death, most notable in the poem, “The Brunch.” Has the role of death influenced your writing? If so, in what ways?
Has death influenced my writing? Yup. How could it be otherwise?
There are three prose poems in the book, and prose is used in “Figure Drawing.” How do you feel about the prose poem? Does it free your writing to say something without the worry of line breaks?
I don't have anything theoretical or philosophical to say about the prose poem, except that it exists. As you know, writers as diverse as Aloysius Bertrand and Steve Martin have found the prose poem a useful and engaging form. Even Yeats relied on prose sketches to work out the kinks in many of his lyric poems, drafting some of his most memorable work in prose before he ever wrote a line. For me, the prose poem is a mule locked in a pen between her father, the prose donkey, and her mother, the horse of poesy. Hybrid, sterile, and thoroughly pissed off, she's dedicated her life to kicking the stable walls.
I am struck by how often you use colons and parentheses in your writing. You use the colon 43 times and parentheses are used eleven times. Is this something that is part of your writing or do you not notice them?
Yes, I notice them. Do I use parentheses and colons more than others? Maybe. But if each of us were assigned our own personal stenographers, I think we'd find that we use colons and parentheses quite frequently in everyday speech. Like most poets who feel an affection for the spoken word, I try to use both marks of punctuation in service of that speech, or at least my own idiosyncratic idea of what it is. Here's a conversation between a father and son I just overheard at Safeway. Father: "What did your mother (bless her) tell us not to come home without?" Son: "Stuff for the party: chips, salsa, wine coolers, tikki torches."
The poem, “To a Young Woman in a Hospital Bed,” stands out the most in this book because of the depiction of a young girl's need to hurt herself to feel her masochistic desires. What inspired you to write this poem?
A culmination of horrible incidents occasioned that poem. I'll give you the two most prominent. First, I discovered that an adolescent family member had started cutting herself. Then a close friend was hospitalized for doing more or less the same. About the biographical details, that's all I'd prefer to disclose.
The poem itself came unbidden and quick, which is rare for me, pouring out around the time when both of the above incidents occurred. My greatest hope for this poem is that it does some justice to the experience it describes, my greatest fear that it comes off as disrespectful or, worse, exploitative.
Tell me about the book's layout and cover art. What process did you go through with the University of Akron Press when making decisions about the book's physical appearance?
I was lucky. During that first phone conversation with Elton Glaser, he told me that the University of Akron Press was always interested in the cover-art ideas of their authors. A few months into the editing process I started bombarding Elton's inbox with links to images by contemporary artists like Eleanor Antin, Susan Rothberg, and Walton Ford. The image I remember pushing for (in my passive-aggressive way) was Ford's Audubon-on-Viagra painting titled "Falling Bough," which shows the broken and gargantuan branch of some ancient-growth tree mid-descent and completely enveloped by a swarm of a thousand or so carrier pigeons.
Elton sensibly rejected this and other ideas, telling me that he envisioned for the cover a simple female nude. (Which makes a lot more sense considering the centerpiece of the book is a double dramatic monologue between a Life Drawing professor and his model.) I immediately thought of Philip Pearlstein, whose work I'd admired for years. Soon after, we both agreed on Pearlstein's 1974 lithograph "Nude on Iron Bench," the use of which Amy Freels, the miracle-working Production Coordinator at University of Akron Press, managed to get for free.
How do you see your beard functioning as an asset for fitting in to the poetry scene? Do you have suggestions for poets who are considering growing a beard? Are beards and poetry manuscripts similar in any ways?
I'm glad you asked. Too many non-poets dismiss the beard as the obvious source of the poet's power. I encounter this kind of thing on the streets or in coffee shops and bars all the time. "Like Delilah," they say, "I could end your career with a straight razor and a pail of water."
Not so. Here's the secret. Each poet is born with a very small marsupial pouch on the inside of either the right or the left elbow, depending upon which hand the poet writes with. At around puberty, a tiny caterpillar-like insect emerges from the poet's ear, sliming its way down his or her jaw, neck, shoulder, and arm until it finds the pouch. Soon after—maybe two or three weeks— the caterpillar breaks through the chrysalis pouch and flies up into the world for the first time, trying for its freedom. If the poet is senseless enough to believe in the life-changing, poverty-inducing miracles of poetry, she or he will swallow the insect whole. If not, if she or he chooses the mortal life, they will let the creature flitter away into the ether.
Finally, how do you see Other Latitudes changing your career?
Having the book published means finally putting those poems to rest. It also makes reading the poems aloud publically a little less cumbersome: no more scouring my hard-drive for the most recent versions or fumbling with stray hard-copies in front of the mic. Most of all, though, I hope folks read the book! I look forward, perhaps naively, to an e-mail or two from some sympathetic stranger out there who found something in Other Latitudes worth reading. Oh, and a job would be nice.
Brian Brodeur was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. His poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Margie, Meridian, New Orleans Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Smartish Pace, and the anthology Best New Poets 2005 (Samovar Press, 2005). Brian is the author of So the Night Cannot Go on without Us (2007), winner of the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Chapbook Contest. Other Latitudes is his first full-length collection. Brian lives and works in Fairfax, Virginia.
click here to read an excerpt of Other Latitudes