July 2011

Elizabeth Hildreth


An Interview with Brandi Homan and Becca Klaver

In July 2011, Bookslut interviewed Brandi Homan and Becca Klaver, founding editors of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books, about their respective poetry collections, Bobcat Country and LA Liminal. Both collections focus on place -- Brandi's on working-class Middle America, and Becca's on Los Angeles.

In this interview, they discuss, among other things, the risk of sliding into the sea, recording crazy shit, growing up and making poems that enact ambivalent feelings, being called "the most successful person to come out of Bobcat Country" on Facebook, level-7 reality, memory theater, the state of Iowa (specifically: as an easy place to put things), and, finally, LA-Milwaukee-Chicago-Brooklyn-New Brunswick amalgamonsters.  

How would you describe your books? For instance, I might describe Brandi's Bobcat Country as an exploration of personal identity and class, using Marshalltown, Iowa as an anchor. I might describe Becca's LA Liminal as an examination of the underbelly of the American Dream, "citizenship," and national identity. But how would you describe them? 

Homan: Wow, first can I say that I had a physical reaction to seeing my hometown called out so clearly as one of the subjects of this book? I mean, yes, you're spot on, Liz, about what the book is and how it functions. But it was startling to see the content so blatantly aligned with Marshalltown by name in writing. 

Other than the title, and the corresponding poem from whence it came, I don't think Marshalltown is mentioned specifically, except in the last poem. Maybe it's because you know me personally, Liz, that you made the connection so clearly. Otherwise, there's a Bobcat Country radio station out of Virginia, and the phrase is used for marketing a university in Texas, another place where Bobcat Country exists. A reader once told me he didn't know for sure where I was from, but he guessed it was the south. I like the idea of "Bobcat Country" being small-town anywhere, I guess. Small-ish town, really, because a population of around 30,000 makes Marshalltown one of the biggest cities in the state. 

And yes, I do think the book works just like you said, Liz, but I think that along with class, you have to include gender. How gender affected my life and the lives of others was extremely important to me when writing this book. 

Klaver: I feel like I have a different answer to this question every time I'm asked, so let's see what happens today. First, the book takes LA as a symbol of a lot of things: of paradise; of (manifest) destiny on a national and individual level; of hyperreality, postmodern reality, or something other than reality (my movie pun on this is reel/real); and, of course, of liminality. I could give you a top-ten list of LA's liminal qualities, but this paradox pretty much sums it up: people go there to follow their dreams, but it's also a place at risk of sliding into the sea. When you live there, you feel that tension. 

LA Liminal is also a book about being young and homesick and losing trust in master narratives and trying to make sense of your own gloominess in a place where the sun's always shining.

Can you explain what motivated both of you to write these? 

Homan: I'm continually fascinated by people from bigger cities or different parts of the country and the world who think that small-town Midwest, or small-town anywhere, is somehow more simplistic, naive, innocent than where they're from. In some ways that's true, but people are the same anywhere, and a lot of crazy shit goes down. I wanted to record some of the crazy shit.  

Also, after moving to Chicago, it was like I had lived and was living two separate lives -- who had I been in Iowa, who was I in Chicago? Are these people the same? What do other people expect from them? What do they expect from themselves? I'm still working on that last one. 

Klaver: Compulsion, I guess. Once I'd graduated from our MFA program, I took apart my thesis and noticed I had enough poems for an LA chapbook. So, that was what it was going to be for a while, but as soon as I put them together in manuscript form, more LA poems kept coming out of me. I also realized that the book was about place and narrative, and the relationship between the two, so I started putting in poems about cities, storytelling, screenplays, or dreams -- poems that didn't hit the "LA poem" category so squarely on the nose. At that point, it had been about four years since I'd left LA, and I'd lived in LA for four years, so I think it was a magic number -- I had to be gone as long as I'd been there in order to see things clearly... or distort and mythologize more effectively. Take your pick! 

Now that you've looked at your own set of perplexities through the frame of poetry, which questions of yours have been answered?  

Homan: Some rather large ones, actually. I looked at my time in Iowa juxtaposed against my time in Chicago, and decided I needed another alternative. For me, this meant packing up and moving to Denver. And I love Denver. Love! 

Klaver: When I lived in LA and went home to the Midwest and told people I lived there, they would often say something along the lines of, "Omigod, do you love it?!" I disliked it so much at the time that I found it really funny to make a face and reply, deadpan petulant, "No, I hate it." Writing LA Liminal vastly complicated my feelings about Los Angeles. I couldn't just get pouty and say I hated LA and write some poems that dissed the place. I had to grow up and make poems that enacted my ambivalent feelings. So, when the manuscript was done, I found myself confronted with an unexpected result: I felt a fondness for LA that I hadn't felt before. We had made something together! And that something was my first book. And I was who I was partially because I had lived there, so how could I hold onto my scorn? I had to let it go. In the end, it was healing, a reckoning -- but I never wrote the poems with that goal in mind. It was like a surprise ending. 

Last fall, I went back to LA for the first time since I'd left -- seven years -- to do a reading at USC, and I was bracing myself to feel really overwhelmed about being there, but instead I just thought, Hey, this is kinda fun. My friends live here! 

You're good friends, you studied together at Columbia, and you're both involved with Switchback. With your close personal and professional relationship, I just assume you have a close artistic one, too. Did you ever share poems with each other when working on these collections? How much were your collections influenced by each other? 

Homan: This is kind of the best question ever. I wrote the texts at Columbia and during the two years immediately following "Me and You and Everyone We Know" came from Arielle Greenberg's class that Bex and I took together. Ian Harris was a peer of ours at Columbia. "Welcome to Bobcat Country" and "A History" were inspired by David Trinidad. Becca's and my shared experiences are all over this book, and some of the text was workshopped in our official academic environment. 

More importantly, though, after school was over, it was Bex who provided me with the fairly constant reassurance I needed to write this type of work. We traded manuscripts and gave each other comments, but it was the support that she gave me that was most desperately necessary.  

I once was asked during a Q&A session who my ideal reader was, and I said "Becca," who then replied that she was hoping I would say that! It was a great moment.  

As a reader and editor, there is no one better than Becca, excepting maybe Hanna Andrews, the other founding editor of Switchback, who is equally as astounding. Both of these women have an immense capacity for getting to the heart of a poem and respecting what the poem is trying to do, seemingly without projecting any of their own aesthetic preferences on it, although I know that's impossible.  

Klaver: As a matter of fact, we swapped these manuscripts while we were working on them. Brandi was actually the only person who saw LA Liminal in its entirety and gave me notes, though others commented on individual poems, in workshop or elsewhere. It's funny -- at the time I didn't think they had anything in common -- Brandi's book being so much about family, home, and high school, and mine being about solitude, homesickness, and college, but now I can see how much they have in common. Even formally, there are things in common: the use of prose, the trust in dream logic. 

I also learned a lot from watching Brandi order and rework her first book, Hard Reds, while we were in MFA school. A thesis workshop together plus Switchback meetings meant that we were talking about manuscript structure all the time -- besides our professors, BHo was probably my biggest influence on that front! 

What do the natives think of your work? Any comments from current or former residents of Marshalltown and LA?    

Homan: You know, I don't know for sure if anyone -- other than my mother, that is -- from M-town has read the book. But I did get one of the best compliments of my life on Facebook after posting about the book's release. A woman I went to high school with posted that she thought that maybe I was the "most successful person to come out of Bobcat Country." 

I cried. I cried a lot. 

Klaver: I'm really not sure what they think. I think they recognize the LA in the book as mine or ours. Or maybe it fills a gap, like, Here's why I left and never came back. ("It's complicated.")  None of my LA friends have called me out on anything yet, even though the first poem in the book sort of dares them to!   

Whether or not they love LA, people seem to respond to this idea of LA being unreal or surreal or hyperreal or postmodern-real. LA gets called "fake" all the time, but eventually I realized that it's not fake at all -- it's like level-7 reality! This has to do with Hollywood and weather and geography but there's also an element of it that is just felt, and I was trying to wring that ineffable feeling into words. 

Other people who have never lived in LA seem to be able to relate to the book because they, too, have lived in a place that was odd or unreal, or where they just didn't feel like they belonged. I don't think the book's all sad -- at least, I tried to make it funny or playful, too -- but it's made at least two people that I know of cry. Out of homesickness, world-weariness, that sort of thing. 

How important do think these particular places and settings will be to future works? In other words, is this a one-time thing? No more snapshots of L.A. or Marshalltown?

Homan: I've just discovered the idea of memory theater. (For an educated person, I need to read a lot more.) Anyway, I was talking to a friend about it last night, and he was all like "What do you mean you just discovered it? That's what you do in your book!" And he's right, that's exactly what is happening, especially in the Recurring Dream House series, to some extent. Iowa is where I grew up, the place and space that I'm most familiar with. It's childhood, the springboard that all other ideas come up against, bounce from. Iowa is an easy place for me to put things. 

Also, I keep reflecting on a specific time as a teenager that was hugely influential, realizing as I get older to just what extent. There are stories in there that need to be told, and I'm working on how to tell them. So yes, there may be more Bobcat Country, but probably not in the very near future. Consider yourselves warned. 

Klaver: A few months ago I wrote a poem called "Last LA Poem," and when I was done, I thought, That is such a lie. There's a poem in LA Liminal called "Leaving the Matinee" that probably gives a more accurate vision: "you make it across the bridge as the late spring sun sets on the cities layered like lemon cakes inside you." All my future poems will probably be some sort of LA-Milwaukee-Chicago-Brooklyn-New Brunswick amalgamonsters. A little sweet, a little sour. The sun's out, but it's going down. And so on, and on and on... 

Elizabeth Hildreth lives and works in Chicago. Sometimes she blogs at The Effect of Small Animals. http://theeffectofsmallanimals.blogspot.com.