How Did that Poetry Blog Happen?
An Interview with Brian Brodeur, Issue 75
Conducted by Ashley Nicole Montjoy, Minnesota Review Blog Editor
Brian Brodeur is the author of Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize, and So the Night Cannot Go on Without Us (2007), which won the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Poetry Chapbook Award. New poems and reviews are forthcoming in The Missouri Review, Pleiades, and Quarterly West. Brian lives with his wife in Fairfax, VA.
Brodeur’s poem “On Hearing Congress Has Declared October Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month” is forthcoming in Issue 75 of The Minnesota Review. In 2009, Brodeur created the interview-styled blog ”How a Poem Happens: Contemporary Poets Discuss the Making of a Poem.” Brodeur’s format is simple and focused, designed to get at the heart of a poet’s process. We decided to riff off of “How a Poem Happens” to discover How a Blog Happens. And, for a little fun, we turned the blog pages on him, asking him the very same questions he’s posed to such authors as Dan Albergotti, Mary Biddinger, Tony Hoagland, Maxine Kumin, and many more.
Part I: How a Poetry Blog Happens
What inspired you to create the blog How a Poem Happens?
The project began in selfishness. I wanted an excuse to contact some of my favorite living poets and ask them how they wrote some of my favorite poems. So I came up with this scheme of an online anthology, like the print anthology Alberta Turner edited in 1977, Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process.
“How a Poem Happens” is an archive of interviews with poets who discuss the making of specific poems. I choose one poem, ask the poet ten to fifteen questions about it, and post the Q&A on the blog. As of November 24, 2010, one-hundred and twenty posts have gone live, featuring interviews with Stephen Dunn, Claudia Emerson, Linda Greggerson, Marilyn Hacker, Robert Hass, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Dorianne Laux, Philip Levine, and Richard Wilbur, among others.
What was your intention for using the blog format? Why did you choose Blogspot.com versus, say, WordPress? What was the launch date?
I decided to use the blog format because it’s free, and because it allows you to post unlimited content that can be viewed by anyone anywhere anytime.
I chose Blogspot because it looked accessible. The blog launched on January 12, 2009.
Did you always know you wanted the blog to focus on the writing process? Were you dissatisfied with a particular style of interview that you were reading at that time?
My intentions for the blog were always craft-related. I wasn’t dissatisfied with any particular style of interview as much as style of poetry blog. I didn’t want my blog to focus on me, in the ways that the blogs of other writers do. I just didn’t think anyone would be particularly interested in what color boxer briefs I was wearing on any given day.
As I understand it in order to be interviewed for “How a Poem Happens” poets must have a published a book. Why? Other than writing a damn fine poem are there other criterion the poet must have met?
Part of the purpose of the blog is to support poets and poetry. The only reason I choose poets with at least one book is so that the poets might sell more copies. In this respect, we’re also stimulating the economy!
When you first began the blog, how did you go about soliciting poets for interviews? Did you have a list of poets and poems in mind?
I have a “wish list,” yes. It keeps expanding.
Who was the poet you were most nervous contacting for an interview? Why?
Nervousness hasn’t really been a factor because I send e-mail or snail-mail solicitations. If I had to talk to the poets on the phone or meet them in person, besides having significantly less interviews, I might not have started the blog at all.
Two years later, “How a Blog Happens” is more established and well-known. And you’re a featured presenter at the 2011 AWP conference. Has this changed how you request interviews? Do others recommend poems and poets for you to interview for your blog? Do you assume that authors are unaware of “How a Poem Happens”?
I don’t assume the poets I solicit have read the blog. I’m grateful to Christian Teresi, Dave Fenza, and the rest of the staff and board of AWP for choosing to “feature” my Craft of Poetry panel, “How a Poem Happens: Five Poets Explore How Their Poems Are Made.” This event will take place on Saturday, February 5, 2011 from 3:00 to 4:15 pm in the Regency BR room of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. The panel will feature discussions with Adrian Blevins, Bob Hicok, Dorianne Laux, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Eric Pankey.
The blog hasn’t really changed much in two years beyond a re-design. I’ve been thinking of altering the format or starting an off-shoot blog in which I’ll ask past contributors to interview a poet they admire (and come up with their own questions).
What inspires the interview—the poet then poem, or the poem then poet?
Egg then the chicken.
When you post new interviews to “How a Poem Happens,” you also make a wall post on your Facebook page. How successful is Facebook at promoting the blog? Do you pursue other forms of marketing and advertising?
Facebook has been useful in this respect. I don’t “market” the blog in any other way.
In your biographical statement, you don’t mention being the creator of “How a Poem Happens. Why? Are you worried about becoming “that poet with that blog” rather than Brian Brodeur the poet?
I’m probably not as calculated or designing in my bio as I could be. In whatever permutation of it you’re referring to, the omission was probably unintentional. I certainly don’t mind being associated with the blog. If that were the case, I would’ve created it anonymously.
What’s been most beneficial about creating and maintaining “How a Poem Happens”?
Having the privilege of contacting so many poets I admire, starting new correspondences and even friendships. This has been invaluable.
“How a Poem Happens” offers its readers an online archive of free content relating to the craft of poetry. The site is distinct from other poetry-related blogs in that it focuses on how one specific poem was made. It has the potential to be used in the classrooms of graduate, undergraduate, and even high-school creative writing classes. In concept and design, I’ve tried to honor this spirit of openness and accessibility. The blog is not “necessary.” Poetry is.
Part II: How “On Hearing Congress Has Declared October Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month” Happened
On Hearing Congress Has Declared October Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month
Stalled on I-94 outside Bismarck,
I laugh at the AM-station news announcement
that thirty-one days have been dedicated
to the total dysfunction of the human heart.
Indian Summer. What better time to praise the mystery
of the Ford Focus’s transmission, the wind thrashing
grit in my eyes, piles of bison shit hardening
on the highway, Coke cans lodged in tufts of prairie grasses
(how long they last out here through so much weather).
Season of Hangovers and Infinite Bliss.
When You Die You Stay Dead a Long Time
Awareness Month. Month of Breaking Down
with a Full Tank in East-Fuck North Dakota
where herds of blackbuck inquire over the sage
as the sky flashes and dims, flashes
and dims, nimbostratus pulsing in huge
swells overhead, starting to tap on the hood
and make the asphalt hiss, hemorrhaging rain.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started writing this poem in the fall of 2008 after taking a two-week road trip from Indianapolis to Portland, Oregon with a friend about to get married. We took our time, stopped at his folks’ house in rural Minnesota for an engagement party, stayed a few nights in a cabin in the foothills outside Boulder, Montana, dipped into Yellowstone, got stupid drunk in Spokane, ate steaks at a strip club in Portland. I can’t remember why I wrote my friend, Paul, out of the poem. I guess I needed to be alone.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem underwent between eighty and one-hundred drafts, like many of my poems. Maybe two years passed between the note-taking stage and finished poem.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The poem used to be significantly longer, maybe by forty lines. Many drafts were in tercets, too. Losing the tercets allowed me to trim the poem down to its essentials, clear away the dead wood.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
This depends entirely on when Issue 75 of The Minnesota Review appears. You tell me!
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
No rules, but I generally try to wait a good five or six months after I’ve put the poem away. I’m trying to shake the bad habit of submitting poems before they’re ready, dropping a manuscript in the mail only to return to my desk and immediately start revising. I’m grateful to many journal editors who have graciously agreed to consider revisions of poems they’ve accepted before the issue went to press.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
My friend Paul and I actually did break down (or came damn close) in our rented Ford Focus. But we were in Montana, not North Dakota. It was July, not October. I was with Paul, not alone. Facts should be in service of the poem, not the other way around. The utter desolation of the prairie-scape on I-94 between Fargo and Dickinson seemed better suited for the broody pissed-off moodiness of the poem. And Congress, one month before President Obama was elected, actually did make the declaration stated in the poem’s title. At the time I found this to be absurd, to be voting on something so trivial (not cardiac-arrest awareness, but cardiac arrest awareness month) with two wars raging and at the height of an economic meltdown.
Is this a narrative poem?
A lot less so than my other poems. It has a scene, occurs in time, but nothing really happens. Actually, the poem is sort of about nothing happening. Rather than telling a story, this one has more to do with a confluence of tone, landscape, politics, the behavior of big game animals (bison, blackbuck, Congress), and a nod to Keats’ “To Autumn.”
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don’t remember exactly, but I think I was reading G. C. Hanlicek’s The Cave: New and Selected Poems (Pitt, 2001), and the short stories of Andre Dubus. I probably had in mind James Wright’s poems and Jack Spicer’s Minnesota Poems. Yes, that was the year My Vocabulary Did this to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan) appeared, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
At some point in the revision process, usually toward the end, I imagine a reader like me, with similar aesthetic commitments and political leanings, but slightly smarter. I try to imagine what he or she might think of the poem, whether they’d continue reading past the first few lines. Sometimes this exercise helps, sometimes it hinders.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
My wife, the poet Kiley Cogis, reads basically everything I write. Most contributors to “How a Poem Happens” say the same thing. I mean, they show their poems to their spouses, not mine.
I also trade poems with other friends and former teachers, including a group called The Portland Accord, which consists of a painter (my friend Paul, actually), a sculptor (he does Cornell boxes and collages), and two fiction writers. I’m the only poet in the group.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’m not sure. This poem is part of a manuscript in-progress titled “Natural Causes.” Most of the poems therein are much longer, verse narrative, story poems. Others are dramatic-monologuey character studies. This poem is neither.
What is American about this poem?
The desiccated prairie, the bison shit, the Ford Focus. Also useless congressional declarations during a particularly troubling historical moment, though maybe that’s not particularly American.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Both. No, neither. No, both.