Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s chat with Nickole Brown.
When was the moment that you thought, “I can do this,” about poetry?
Honestly? Last night. A few minutes before midnight. I had piddled all day, procrastinating and scared as ever to get back to the white expanse of yet another blank page. So after hours of cleaning the house and emailing and walking the dog and futzing around on Facebook and well, doing everything except what I most needed to do, I finally caved, got over myself, and found the courage to sit in my blue chair again. About halfway through a new draft, I thought, “Yes, yes, I can do this.” It wasn’t the first time I’d thought that but, like always, that realization is a revelation every time.
You see, working as a poet, for me, is a dream I don’t often believe, or worse, feel I deserve. Coming from a family that largely made money doing manual labor, it’s tough to give myself permission to write, to do something that has such little measurable value in a world that loves to measure every little thing. I mean, rarely does a published poem even earn minimum wage. And a poem certainly doesn’t accomplish anything that one can recognize right away as work—it doesn’t get the laundry done or fix a broken hinge or mend a torn sleeve. But make no mistake about it, writing is work. It’s just the kind of work that no one or no thing depends on, not really. Or at least not in a way we can readily see. No thing, depends on a poem, except, of course, for most of everything indefinable within me, quiet and stirring within.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Do you have a poem that shames you? That makes you downright nauseous, wild with discordant, blatantly contradictory feelings? That might just be a poem worth keeping. As are poems that are culpable and vulnerable and embarrassed as all get out—because let me tell you, any poem of mine that ended up being worth its salt I initially wanted to set to flame then bury in the backyard.
But trust me on this one. Honesty—when it’s scrubbed clean of all blame and self-pity—is the one quality that almost always transmits across the divide between a poet and her reader. When a poem manages this, it’s possible to get the best feedback like, “I didn’t even know you could write about that in a poem.” And as frustrating as it may be, most poems of mine that readers respond to have been dredged up from the place where so many things that make one a steady, productive citizen—polite conversation and sense-making, for example—are irrelevant, nearly fatal to a poem. But what makes such difficult dredging worthwhile, is when you’ve dared to read that poem aloud, is when someone comes up to you afterward and whispers, “Me. Me too.” And in that moment you both know you are a little less alone.
What is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?
Often in my writing and always in my teaching, I’m trying to do one thing: knock poetry off its pedestal. Looking at it another way, I try to get readers to stop putting poetry on a pedestal in the first place. I want encounters with poems to be straight on, squarely at eye level, and it’s my hope folks will take as much ownership of their own experience of reading a poem as they do when watching a film or listening to a song. It bothers me how afraid we are of poetry, how we hesitate to say we don’t enjoy a poem when instead we sheepishly (or angrily) say we “just don’t get it.” Poetry doesn’t belong to anyone exclusively; instead, it belongs to everyone with the openness to spend some time with its lines. Conversely, if you take ownership of your experience with a poem, you can’t say you’ve been left out of some exclusive club, because well, you’ve done your part—you gave a poem a fair chance and feel the way you feel about it. Put another way, don’t worry about getting into some exclusive “poetry” club. By reading a poem and having your own reaction to it, you’re in the club already.
How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work hard to “solve” the poem?
I wouldn’t dare speak for anyone but myself on this one, but I want my poems to sit across from you and speak plain. I want them not to just be understood, but to be felt. By my colleagues and by other poets. But also by waitresses and cashiers and secretaries. By my mama and my sisters and my neighbor who never read a poem before in his livelong life. I don’t write for all these people—to do so would be a disaster. Instead, I write to them.
Matter of fact, I continually have to remind myself not to try to write at all, because when I do, the poems feel, well, “written.” Instead, I use writing as a way of talking and wailing and singing and joking around; I want the reader to know I’m going to do my best to neither botch things up by dumbing things down or by creating an elaborate puzzle for them to solve. A lot of writers embellish and complicate their poems not because the poems require it but because it’s easier to be obscure than vulnerable. Lord knows I’ve done that more than once, and those poems always fall flat on their faces.
I know this is a controversial thing to say. The only caveat I would add would be that “meaning” should never be too narrowly defined. Meaning—if we think if it simply as the worth of a poem—means something different to the ear or the eyes, to the head or heart. Wordplay is a kind of meaning, as is the visual architecture of a poem on the page. Ideas can be pleasing as well. For me, story carries most of what I have that’s of any worth, so I’m primarily a narrative poet. Simply put, I write to remember. It’s when I write to be remembered that my poems fail.
Nickole Brown is the author of Fanny Says, a collection of poems published by BOA Editions in 2015; her debut, Sister, a novel-in-poems published by Red Hen Press in 2007; and an anthology, Air Fare, that she co-edited with Judith Taylor. She graduated from The Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Union Scholar, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She worked at the independent, literary press, Sarabande Books, for ten years, and she was the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until deciding to write full time. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry at White Pine Press and is on faculty at the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State and at the Writing Workshops in Greece. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs.