Devil’s Lake


Interview with Traci Brimhall

Q: Your book includes several aubades, elegies, and a few sonnets. I wonder if you could talk about your approach to form, both your choice to use those traditional structures and also how you think about form when you’re not working in a received form.

Whether I work in a received form or not, I like to have boundaries in my work so there’s something to push against. After a poem is written, I often impose strictures on it. How would it change if it were limited to a certain number of lines? What happens when I change the syllabic count of a line? One of my common tests for my work is to read the poem backwards line by line to check the integrity of a line’s music. Reading it backwards keeps you from being trapped by the sentence or narrative progression and lets you see how that line reads as its own musical phrase.

Q: You’ve done lots of interesting things in the past several years—an MFA, a fellowship, and a year of traveling and living in your car. Could you talk about how your writing life has changed during that time?

The MFA really helped me be consistent because poems had deadlines. Classes often required revision portfolios, so I stayed in practice of creating and completing poems for a couple of years. However, I worked full time while I earned my MFA, so I spent a lot of time writing on trains. I also lived in New York City and there wasn’t room in my apartment for a desk, so I did a lot of writing on my bed. I still have a hard time writing at a desk; I’m most comfortable writing while sitting cross-legged on the floor. The fellowship allowed me a great deal of free time, and coming from my MFA where I was working full time including the weekends, as well as working on the school’s literary journal, poetry festival, and teaching in a correctional facility, I hardly knew what to do with myself. During that year, I liked to write when I had four to five hours of unobstructed time to write drafts longhand, transfer them to the computer, put them through a dozen drafts, and have them feel solid before I could walk away. When I lived in my car, my approach changed again. I often had long stretches of time, but that time was spent hiking or driving to the next national park. I ended up composing in my head quite frequently, both while driving and hiking, and when I’d get to my car, I’d record it with the voice memo function on my iPhone. I also wrote a lot of postcard poems. I would write a few lines and send it off to my friend Brynn Saito. There’s a story that Li Po did something similar. He would write poems, read them to his washerwoman, and then fold them into boats and put them into the river. I liked engaging in the creative act, and then letting it go. There was so much freedom in that. I didn’t have to nurture these lines into a coherent poem, I just had to utter them and drive to the next mountain I planned to climb.

Q: You’ve talked elsewhere about the importance of “writing buddies” with whom you share your work, whether it’s individual poems or a whole manuscript. I’d love to hear some examples of how that’s worked for you.

I mentioned sending the postcard poems to my friend Brynn. Right now she and I send each other a poem every Sunday, not so we can edit and critique it, but to show what we’ve been working on. I have a friend named Martin Rock, and we often write “ten-tens”, or ten poems in ten days. We take turns offering prompts, even if that means saying, “write without a prompt.” The prompts are often ways we try and frustrate each other by preventing our usual bad habits. He once made me write a poem without using a noun to begin any sentence. I hated that, but I played with syntax more in that poem than I ever had before. Writing that many poems in a row also keeps me from turning on my inner editor and becoming overly critical or from trying to make a poem work that keeps failing. At the end of ten days, I usually have at least one poem worth working on and lots of other scraps I can Frankenstein into later poems. Another important collaboration in my life was working with the director Carie Donnelson. She “directed” the aubade series in my book Rookery. It was great to work with someone who used the vocabulary of a different art form to talk about my poems. My friend Gary McDowell and I swapped manuscripts of our current work, and he told me I had a “ham sandwich.” What he meant was that he thought I had two large sections on either side of a long poem I hadn’t written yet. Somehow his pronouncement of this long poem helped it come into being. I don’t think I would have written a long poem otherwise. Sometimes the writing buddy you need forecasts your future instead of looking at present work or steering you away from past writing patterns. I know many writers feel like the work they do is solitary, but I seem to need a community.

Q: You’ve also talked about the importance of vulnerability and risk in your work. How has that idea of vulnerability and risk changed for you in your writing life?

Finding out where I’m vulnerable is how I know what I need to write. The first of these discoveries for me was writing about betrayal. The vulnerability inherent in that was an obvious place to start looking for risk. What I learned, though, was that it turned out to be harder to write about things like family or God. There are certainly general taboos, but I think everyone finds different subjects forbidden to them. I have a complicated history with religion, so finding a way to talk about that was harder than talking about heartbreak. Lately, I’ve been defeated by joy. I have no way to talk about it, no vocabulary for the ecstatic. I’ve also learned I can’t write love poems, and what’s more vulnerable than love? Don’t we have to make the choice to expose ourselves, to desire and wish to be desired in return? Is there anything more awful and terrifying than that? Risk doesn’t have to be our darkest thoughts or memories, although that’s where a lot of power and duende come from. We have to find the barest edge of ourselves and keep returning there to write.

TRACI BRIMHALL is the author of Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University, where she is a doctoral associate and a Kings/Chavez/Parks Fellow.