An Interview with Fleda Brown
I've followed Fleda Brown's work for many years now and am moved by the intensified directness of her new work (her ninth collection of poems, No Need of Sympathy, will be out in October, and her latest collection of essays, with Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, came out in April), the importance of all forms of curiosity and even awe in the creation of a poem (way more than mere "range," as we say of poets working various gestures into a collection), and how willing she is to be led by sharp and surprising moments towards authentic epiphanies. At first, Fleda thought her reponses, below, might be too "philosophical," but to my mind, they're consistent with the rare mix of lucidity, openness, intellect, and abundance of spirit found in her poems. And, they're full of brilliant bolts of wisdom and insight -- quotable, consoling, instructive, and profound.
Brown's work has appeared in Best American Poetry and has won a Pushcart Prize, Felix Pollak Prize, Philip Levine Prize, Verna Emery Prize, and Great Lakes Colleges New Writer's Award. Her work has twice been a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.
Let's start with that quiet yet provocative quote from Robert Creeley: "Poetry stands in no need of any sympathy, or even goodwill. One acts from bottom, the root is the purpose, quite beyond any kindness." This statement feels as if it's spoken by someone who's passed beyond the need for encouragement or understanding and into a kind of still point at the center of a practice. And yet -- your poems never turn away from their reader, always reach, engage, speak to... how do you work with/make sense of that paradox?
It doesn't feel like a paradox, really. I'm thinking of the Zen poets, in particular, one who calls himself Stonehouse, another who calls himself Cold Mountain, and then of course Basho, Buson, Issa, the haiku writers -- they're all are deeply engaged, speaking to the reader. Here's the end of one section of a Cold Mountain poem: "it's not the rain that makes the moss slick / and it's not the wind that makes the pines moan / who can get past the tangles of the world / and sit with me in the clouds." You can feel the voice drawing you in, saying "Come be here and ponder this with me." Not that I'm comparing myself! I do think stillness, if it's there, is actually is the most direct route to the reader. When there's a great deal of psychic noise in the writer, how can there be engagement? Then it's all about "me." You know the poems I mean, and I won't name names, the ones you feel a hermetic lock on. You are not important to the poem or the writer of the poem. You're an excuse for narcissistic effusion.
Who, though, can move past the need for encouragement or understanding? But a writer who's been at it for years can sometimes move through that need to write what is truest, no matter what. Part of it is just simple accrual. Once there is a body of work, there's a base that more and more allows for freedom.
In the deeply powerful poem "Child Labor," though you clearly have a "subject" and an attitude toward it -- what might be called a "political" stance -- you also seem to let the subject lead you, so the power of the poem develops by way of a mysterious combination of control and release, intention and discovery. How do you keep from being overwhelmed by the weight of enormous/difficult subjects?
Maybe the first step is to be overwhelmed. Wasn't Blake overwhelmed? And Hopkins? And Frost? And Plath? And Akhmatova? Your own King Baby poems, my goodness, how overwhelming, to need to talk about the divine in its relation to the mundane! Even, say, Maggie Nelson, overwhelmed by the color blue. You can feel it in the poems. You feel there's nothing that could be done but to write the poem. You feel it in just what you mention, the back and forth of losing and gaining control of the language, the image, the whole thing. In "Child Labor," you can feel my own helpless overwhelmed-ness in the way the poem throws itself back and forth, not being able to "solve" anything, only see and feel -- children at sewing machines in warehouses all day, pleading for bathroom passes, and the whole structure of society including glossy New York Times ads encouraging us to buy the T-shirts they've made, including my singing hymns at church camp, including large people at Walmart, Hericlitus, hot dogs, they all tore through my mind in a fit of anger, despair. All I could hope for is to somehow hold it together, my own mind and the poem, to illuminate how a mind struggles when it encounters bald-faced immorality. That's all I can manage -- to illuminate it. Attempting to solve the "problem" would be a cop-out, and less than useless. What is needed is to feel the anguish of the situation. To be aware of the feeling. Then one might act, and act out of the feeling rather than some sense of having the "right" answer.
One of the great achievements of this collection is the totally unselfconscious way the poems manage to talk about making poems. Writing about "the nature of poetry" can be deadly, yet your stance speaks to the necessity for art, and you articulate the deep and thoughtful moments that occur in the making of art, and the humanity those moments confer. This feels like something of a new direction for you in this book. Do you sense that?
I'm so aware that many poets and readers of poetry hate poems about writing poems! But then when I looked at my book as a whole, I saw how much I'd been thinking about the art of poetry itself, how often that's reflected in the poems. This may be a function of age: I've been writing a long time. What have I been doing? What is it "for"? Why have I given my life to this craft or sullen art? In "The Purpose of Poetry," I blatantly try to address the directive of the title, but the only place I get with it is in a Cherry Hill landfill, with a chance at last for the birds to sing. After all the trivial poetry is buried, the birds can begin to sing again. The real poems sing even while the trivial stuff is there, don't they? But they're harder to hear among all the clutter.
In a poem like "Roofers," I'm sitting in the box of my house under the pounding roofers, which reminds me of the shadow-boxes we used to make. The thought of poetry seems just under the surface -- "the little world I had going on inside / my grief that it was not the world."
In a way, I guess, all poems are ars poetic When the subject of poetry never emerges in the poem, still, the voice of the poem is aware of speaking in a particular way we call poetry, and of saying something about what it means to speak that way, and that awareness colors our hearing of it as well. In "Michigan." I don't mention poetry, but what about all that snuffling around in the Michigan dirt at the end? That begs to be read as looking for a way to "sing" about the experience of longing that the subjunctive mood carries with it. And "Felled Tree" ends with the "grand word/ whither standing" where the tree once stood. Can't get more obvious than that in speaking about poetry.
No Need of Sympathy contains many forms! Strict two-, three-, and four-line stanzas, prose poems -- and near the end, a set of ten sonnets. The collection feels stabilized by this range, rather than scattered by it -- was this part of a vision for the collection or were you moving poem by poem, responding to the needs of each occasion as it arose?
No, not at all a vision for the book. These poems were one-at-a-time poems, with no thought of an arc for the book until I was ready to put it together. I wrote The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives with the idea from the beginning of making a collection that would follow the course of Elvis's life. And The Devil's Child -- no question that was a book -- almost a novel in poems -- from the start. But the others not at all. Of course the mind has its obsessions, and even when we don't think of a vision for the whole, it's shaping in the mind as we work. Each poem came to its own shape. The sonnet poems were all over the place, all different shapes, before they became sonnets. Formal sonnets at that. I came to feel the argument in each one, that each had its own "turn," its own effort toward resolution. I feel in them the effort to encapsulate, as in "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" To hold each child in the arms of language this way. At least that's how it seemed to me.
I most naturally write in free verse. When I rhyme or write in traditional forms, it's that the interior of the poem has exerted a strong pull on me to do so. But I do love rhyming and chiming language, and if I fool around with a poem long enough, sometimes those sounds just begin appearing. They're fun for me and often lead me places in the poem I didn't know I was going. And stanzas -- who knows? Some poems seem to call for the marching regularity of four lines, others the off-balance of three. Some -- often the ones where voice is running the show -- want to step line from line, straight down. We tend to work those things out in the same way we work out word choice, don't we?
That phrase, "to hold each child in the arms of language" is so profoundly beautiful. If we can return to those "Grandmother sonnets" for a moment -- they're not just addresses to each of your grandchildren, capturing a core element of each individual child; these poems manage to tell stories about your own children and reflect on your own childhood -- why do you think the drive to tell stories led you to the sonnet (or what about the sonnet allowed for such a range of storytelling)?
I guess the sonnet is the tightest little story we can tell. It has an exposition, a tension arising from that, and an effort toward resolution. As I wrote each of these poems, the entire story of that child's emotional life, as far as I know it, came up in me. But then the form, as it developed, required me to choose only one moment with that child to focus all that. That moment, I clearly saw, was colored by my own life. How could I know that little life that's so connected with mine unless I also saw my own life, which is how I got to this moment with this child? My life led to this life. What my life was, a long time ago, affected what this child's life is. Every grandparent feels this, for good or ill.
You and Sydney Lea (both former poets laureate of your states) have just published the collaborative essay collection Growing Old In Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. Are there any issues you and he discussed in that collection that you're seeing borne out in this collection?
I'd say that both of us think of ourselves as highly educated simple people. We want to write poems that non-readers of poetry can hear with pleasure. In our introduction to that book, I quote my prose poem, "Reading Poetry at the Horse Meadow Senior Center." It ends like this: "I felt like a closing line / myself, made of nothing but words intended to swim out into the stratosphere, but caught, / luckily, among the wheelchairs and walkers." It seems like a lucky thing to remain caught in the midst of life, even when we might rather float away from its hard bones on clouds of abstractions, loose phrases, or obscurities.
Then there's our early connection with music, Syd's with jazz and rock 'n' roll, mine with hymns and rock 'n' roll. I was talking about the use of traditional forms in some of my poems, my tendency to rhyme, sometimes. I'm hearing the church music. I'm even hearing the old church music of Bach and Mozart. I'm also hearing Elvis. Something there is in me that loves a certain degree of regularity.
And there's the natural world. Both Syd's and my essays and No Need of Sympathy are full of water, fish, trees, chipmunks, swimming, kayaking -- a way of seeing, our natural metaphors. And we're both deeply embedded in family and community, its history, its stories. This probably has a lot to do with our mutual concern with readability of our poems.
My hope for the poems in No Need of Sympathy is that they're fastened to the earth but strain at their leashes. That the straining sometimes makes you laugh at their silly effort, but sometimes makes you cry at the sheer intensity of their desire. I think we come away from poems with a tone, a feeling, but it's pressed deeper into us when it's attached to a story -- even the bare story, say, of Keat's "Ode to a Nightingale." There's always a story lurking. Our brains can't wait to find it, right?