Brooklyn Copeland: Interview
Brooklyn Copeland is the author of several chapbooks, the recipient of a 2010 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, and the editor of a limited-run print journal of music, poetry, and translation called TAIGA. Her first full-length collection, Siphon, Harbor, is scheduled to appear in the spring of 2012 from Shearsman Books. She lives in Indianapolis.
TriQuarterly Online: How did you start writing poems?
Brooklyn Copeland: I started writing poetry as a freshman in high school. I would buy blank notebooks as souvenirs because I found the idea of a bunch of blank pages really appealing. My friends and I would take turns with the books, filling them with our (really terrible) touchy-feely verse and sketches.
My junior year, when I was supposed to be going to a Swedish-language high school as an exchange student in Finland, I skipped the entire second semester of classes to go sit in the back of a café with a bottomless cup of tea, a pastry, my Discman, and my little blank notebook. I was listening to a lot of Tori Amos at the time, so you can imagine that my poetry was still pretty terrible, but I wrote the heck out of it. I think the school called my host “parents” periodically to make sure I was alive since they’d go weeks without seeing me, but no one ever confronted me outright.
It was a very formative time in my young adulthood—and it wrecked me as a scholar. From that point on, I’d continue to skip school to go hole up and read or write. During a year in college, which I spent in Canterbury, England, I skipped philosophy classes and went to pubs with my laptop. I got good grades and loved to sit in lectures, but I did drop out of college after that. As silly as it sounds, I knew that my professional ambition was to be a writer, not a philosophy professor, and I knew that I couldn’t “become” a writer by wasting more money at a university. I’m only twenty-seven years old, so I won’t say I’ll never go back to school; I might someday go back to study history or to learn a new trade.
TQO: So you would buy empty notebooks because you found “a bunch of blank pages appealing.” Was it the emptiness of the pages or the filling of the pages that most appealed to you? I ask because your poems, specifically in Laked, Fielded, Blanked, seem to interact very intentionally with the white spaces on the page. Can you elaborate on this? Have you always gravitated toward sparseness?
BC: The short answer is yes, I have. My poems have never been too long or wordy, and a length of blankness, for me, holds nearly the same value as a string of words. In my notebooks (which I still use), I enjoy the challenge of nailing my image in as few words as possible and leaving as much space as is appropriate. If you write poetry that is meditative (which I think describes my work right now) and is more of an offering to the reader, the amount of blank space becomes even more important. In small poems, dead weight’s not allowed. You find out quickly that one misstep ruins the whole poem—small poems seem to require extra trust from the reader in the writer. (I mean, sometimes there’s this weird suspicion to overcome: “Why are you able to say in fifteen words what other poets say in fifteen lines?” “Is this a joke? My four-year-old could have written this,” etc.) Even other poets can be dismissive of (or perhaps intimidated by) small poetry. The poetry teachers and professors I’ve had seem to begin and end the lesson with petals on a wet black bough, almost as if to say, “Look at this kooky experiment from a hundred years ago!”
As a reader, I think words come to life when you give them room to breathe. When I see a lot of space on the page, I know that I should read the poem slowly. Even poems made up of a single word can be read slowly, you know. Once you’ve read the poem, you have enough elbow room to work out your reactions to the poem and relate the poem to your own experience. Poems that don’t give me enough space or that I feel talk at me instead of with me actually bore me at first glance—-it’s more of an effort for me to commit to reading the work. It’s not because I’m lazy or an unconditioned reader; it’s because I have the opposite weird suspicions to overcome: “Why did it take you fifteen lines to say what could have been said in fifteen words?”
There are areas of my life where I’m splashy and larger-than-life and baroque. I admire poetry that is like that, too, but it’s not the kind of poetry I’m capable of writing authentically.
TQO: And what does it mean to write authentically?
BC: I mean, writing beyond imitation or self-consciousness. I feel like “authentic writing” is what they used to call “writing like something is at stake” or “writing that takes risks.” I still get confused when editors use those terms. You don’t have to pretend your life depends on your poem in order to write a great one, dig. Authenticity might be a (slightly less) relative (urgent?) measure of whether a poem is successful. It could be the most casual little piece or some unreadable conceptual word mag. It’s a balance of “WHOOSH!” and “Aha!”
TQO: You mention image as central to your writing. What about sound?
BC: What’s interesting is that I see my world in the words themselves. If an image moves me somehow, I will literally see black words on a white page in my head as I work out descriptors. The sound is important, too, but I guess I don’t attach the same mystique to it, or it’s so deeply intuitive to how I come by the words that I don’t notice it until further in the process. I prefer natural language and the regular old flow of words. Sometimes I’ll verb-up a noun or vice versa—that’s usually in the interest of word economy more than it is me trying to come across as “poetic.”
My words do rub against each other with intention, sure. It’s mostly a matter of arranging the words on the page in a way that optimizes those sounds. I stack and space words so the eye pauses where the ear should add the “heard dimension.”
TQO: I like that phrase: heard dimension. What’s your writing/editing process like?
BC: It changes slightly with each project, but I usually keep a small notebook in my bag and jot down lines or images as they come to me. I might keep things in that book for months, even a year, before they become part of a poem. That transition from the original note to a fresh, clean Word document is never easy for me: I’m always wondering if I’ll remember how to “write a poem.” Once it’s there, though, I leave it alone for a week or two. Editing is my absolute favorite part of the process. I love going in, being objective, getting rid of the “clever” bits, moving words around, making decisions about punctuation, et cetera.
I’m never in a rush to write or edit. I’m not on any deadlines. I’m not turning in assignments or bringing projects to a workshop. I used to worry that I wasn’t publishing often enough—my poetry has turned into something that many editors see as “fragments” rather than neatly titled pieces that fit nicely in tables of contents, so I’ve abandoned a regular submission schedule and worked more toward completing chapbook-length projects—I’ve had more success with that.
TQO: Who are your influences, literarily speaking? Who are you reading right now?
BC: Literarily, my influences and “favorite finds” are all over the place. I don’t limit myself. I collect books, chapbooks, and literary journals faster than I can read them.
Anyway, there are the obvious influences that people tend to pick up on right away: Lorine Niedecker, William Carlos Williams, H. D. . . .
And many of the poets published by Shearsman Books in the UK. From that press I’ve read and reread books by Harriet Tarlo and most recently Anna Reckin and Laura Walker.
Then there’s George Oppen’s Discrete Series, Barbara Guest’s The Türler Losses, Laura Moriarty’s like roads . . .
Anne Shaw’s Undertow knocked me on my butt. So did Sarah Menefee’s chapbook In Your Fish Helmet, Anne Carson’s Sappho fragments, Jennifer Denrow’s California, Lucas Farrell’s Bird Any Damn Kind, Joshua Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, Michael Palmer’s Notes for Echo Lake, Gustaf Sobin’s Breaths’ Burials, Robert Kelly’s Kill the Messenger, Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar, Stacy Szymaszek’s Emptied of All Ships . . . Greying Ghost Press put out a tiny chapbook of neologisms (Naturalistless) by Christopher Rizzo a few years ago—still a favorite from that press along with B. J. Love’s Michigander. A few weeks ago I got a copy of the terrific little clothbound chapbook Matryoshka by Jamie Townsend and I’m still re-reading it . . .
The book of poetry I’ve carried all over the world with me, even before I knew much about its contents, is The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry—twelve years later those poems still scare the crap out of me.
TQO: What is it about that specific collection—The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry—that’s stuck with you?
BC: Honestly, I’ve developed a sentimental attachment to the poets themselves. I mean, these are intelligent, literary, well-meaning men watching their friends and cities get blown to pieces and wondering what for. These are Reality Check poems. There’s so much confusion, all kinds of nervy, rattled-existence stuff in those pages. Also, the poetry itself is mostly straightforward war verse. WWI was the subject that fascinated me the most in history classes. You feel transitional energy in this collection. It’s huge transitional energy—it’s more than some guy telling the Internet, “Oh, well, poets. Now we’re done with that trend and here’s the new trend.” With Ezra Pound and company, some of these soldiers helped make readers understand that poetry was losing currency in its romantic state. I think they went back and made a second edition, which included other poets (women, nonsoldiers), but I have the first edition and it’s one of three books I’d save from a fire.
There’s an equally gripping book along this line out recently from Birds, LLC: The Kings of the F**King Sea by Dan Boehl. It’s certainly one of the most remarkable books to come out in a long, long time. I had similar reactions reading it that I did to reading the Penguin volume: fear and guilt and a shaky excitement that poetry could be so powerful. It’s such brutal matter-of-factness and coolness and strength in story. I mean, compare this:
The sea shouldn’t be
Oh but it is.
Oh but it is.
The gunner pointed
to a ship on the horizon
lighting up the vessel for us.
It took an hour to cut the lock
from the hold
And in the pile
a woman still alive
her hands a couple of wolves working the darkness.
Her eyes have seen the darkest version
of this world.
I was a lamb.
(from “Cobra[Sombrero])” by Dan Boehl)
This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman—a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of a crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.
(from “Antwerp” by Ford Maddox Ford)
TQO: Do you read much poetry is translation?
BC: I try to. I tend to collect from the Swedish (and other Scandinavian languages) and French because those are the languages I’m best able to “decipher” poetically. I have a pretty generic collection of the twentieth-century “standards,” otherwise. I recently discovered a press called Tavern Books and would recommend them to anyone looking for an entree or just something new. I prefer bilingual editions to those that publish only the English versions—even if you can’t read the other language, you can’t help but scan the lines and let your imagination play laterally in them. I think that’s an important part of reading in translation; you’re cheated out of that connection if you’re only reading the poem in English.
TQO: As an avid reader of poetry, what do you say to someone who just doesn’t get poetry—someone who can’t see any pragmatic purpose to it? What about the accusation that poetry can be understood and enjoyed by only a select group of people?
BC: I can empathize, but I think there’s usually a difference between those who don’t get poetry and those who don’t think there is a pragmatic purpose to it. Basically, you just have to allow that poetry serves a purpose the way that music, theater, comic books, and graffiti serve a purpose: creative types can’t help but make their commentary through their art.
And, honestly, there is a point where poetry can only be understood by select group of people. Poetry as we write it in 2011 is a wild animal for most readers who don’t also write it; it doesn’t offer the same access points that a news article or a blog post or a novel offers. And there’s an element of poetry that is like philosophy: readers know it can be skillful and rigorous and smart and taken seriously, but there simply is no “right or wrong” to it, there are lots of variables and opposing approaches. Once readers allow that a poem can be understood “correctly” more than one way (intuitively, contextually, critically, artistically, etc.), they get poetry just as well as any practicing poet. It’s up to that reader to dig deeper into the poem to get the most out of it.
TQO: What does it mean to be a contemporary poet (beyond being someone who is presently writing poems)? Or maybe a better way to put it: What do you see happening in poetry right now— where is the artform heading?
BC: I do think the term contemporary poet can only mean “someone who is presently writing poetry.” There is so much going on and most of it is very exciting. In fact, many poets I know are still (candidly) lacing back through poetry that was written in the first half of the twentieth century. I don’t think we were done digesting that poetry, or the poetry that came just after, before certain people started declaring we were past modernism or past-past modernism or whatever.
I think we’re at an interesting point: there is, honestly, a glut of “poets” in my generation, and, apart from those teaching positions everyone covets (then kvetches about), there really isn’t much competition amongst ourselves—just the opposite. I mean, we publish each other, we buy from each other, we hold parties and readings for each other, we assign our friends’ books to our creative writing classes, we enlist each other for anthologies, we review each other (mostly favorably). I think it all comes from a place of sincere intentions—none of us are thinking we’re going to get rich or famous writing poetry, so we might as well bond-up and support each other. That lack of criticism (not “critical thinking” but “criticism of each other”) can stifle you in its own way. People lose the ability or desire to be objective because it’s easier to be polite or encouraging or not say anything at all. It can also mean that a lot of people who wouldn’t have necessarily “become poets” or “become poets, yet” consider themselves “career poets” in their mid-twenties or late twenties because they’ve gotten comfy in a community where they feel valued and like they belong, even if no one actually addresses their work. Without much life experience or time away from academia, I feel that many of these “lifers” are writing poetry that is, essentially, only about poetry. That, to me, is boring.
Sometimes that’s awkward: you can genuinely enjoy someone’s company and you can be friends with them and hug them at parties and buy them drinks when they’re in town, but be totally indifferent to their work. And I sometimes can’t tell if I’m part of the problem or a whiff of the antidote, myself. But I think that goes back to what I’m talking about with “authentic” poetry. I can’t read authenticity in much of what gets published—I think so many poems could be titled “This Is a Smilingly Self-Conscious Poem in Response to That Poem My Buddy Published in That One Journal Last Year.”
That probably sounds kind of harsh. I mean, is a glut of poets who all love each other really such a terrible thing? Nope. The more the merrier, I guess. Two or three times a year you read a poem by a poet you’ve never heard of and it strikes such a deep chord that you google them and you write to them and before you know it you’ve made a new friend and you feel slightly less awkward for a little while.
TQO: Or you ask them for an interview.
BC: Yeah! As a matter of fact, I’m working up to interviewing a poet for the journal I publish whose work I typically love but whose last book really perplexed me. He was gracious enough to agree to the interview, and I’m excited because I know I’m going to learn a lot from it. I love it when poets don’t mind putting themselves out there, even if it’s on the defensive sometimes.
TQO: Have you had any writing mentors—anyone who has taken you under his or her wing, so to speak—or has your writing developed solely within the context of your peers?
BC: Honestly, I’ve received very helpful feedback from a few writers over the past few years, but I wouldn’t call anyone my mentor. I always want feedback from different types of writers—an even non-writers. Somehow it’s easier to trust someone’s take on your work if they aren’t reading it already assuming they’ll enjoy or understand it, if that makes any sense.
TQO: You said earlier that people—editors specifically—have understood your writing as “fragments rather than neatly titled pieces that fit nicely in tables of contents.” It seems that the three poems constituting Laked, Blanked, Fielded can fall under this (mis)understanding as well. What is the chapbook about?
BC: That chapbook is divided into three series-poems: “Morse,” “Notes on Vanishing,” and “Seall.” They were all written at different times over the course of a few years under the spell of different inspirations. “Morse” is about the reservoir where I grew up in the rural part of the county just north of Indianapolis. I wrote that poem right after I left my ex-husband. I came home to this place from Oxford, England, and was both so sad over the breakdown of our relationship and so comforted by the reservoir that the poem is in fact me reflecting and working toward renewal (which water is for me—reflection and renewal—and that’s why it is so present in my work right now; I’m a swimmer of cycles). The original poem was slightly longer and addressed the failure of marriage head-on—it was published in a run of twenty-five copies by Spooky Girlfriend Press a few years ago. It sold out quickly and the “dear husband” poems were removed, as I’d made my peace with the situation and those no longer seemed appropriate.
“Notes on Vanishing” was actually written as part of a much longer series about tribal Baltic-Finnic languages (some of which are truly vanishing—in some cases the number of speakers is down to single digits). The idea runs parallel to vanishing natural landscapes, particularly in a part of the world that feels like my second home.
“Seall” is a poem about my boyfriend—that’s his last name. Our relationship over the past few years has also been a constant source of reflection and renewal. Writing poems for him is the closest I’ll ever come to tattooing a guy’s name on my arm.
TQO: But if you did have to get a tattoo, what would it be or say?
BC: I worked for the public library in Carmel, Indiana, for ten years off and on. My favorite section was (of course) the 811 section (which in this library is very extensive)—more specifically, the 811.52 section. My friend and fellow poet Danielle Wheeler is the first one I know to have the 811 tattoo, and I was crazy with envy when I saw it—but I’d have to go all the way with 811.52. I haven’t ruled out getting that one but keep bumping up the literary milestone that will warrant it. At this rate, I’ll need to win the Nobel before I get it done.
TQO: If I may ask, what do you do for a living? How does this interact with your vocation as a writer?
BC: I am an auditor and I teach several yoga classes per week. Both vocations play into my writing, the way working in a library or a winery or for an airline played into my writing. I don’t live in a literary world 24/7. Auditing plays to the part of me that wants to find patterns and repetition in massive amounts of data; yoga plays to the part of me that wants to be in the moment, acting out that moment with my entire body. I’d say at this point in my life I’m balanced and appreciative and content. I’m good at weeding out or ignoring things or people who disturb me. So my poetry isn’t the poetry of someone who is angry or demanding or offended or seeking to offend or to confuse. It’s probably the poetry of a well-adjusted auditor / yoga instructor. I can’t say I’ll always feel this way or write this way, but for now it’s the only way I know how to write, and I’m glad (and grateful) that resonates with a few readers.
TQO: Where can readers find more of your work?
BC: Nothing pending for journals right this minute, but my first full-length book (which kind of scales up what Laked, Fielded, Blanked summarizes), called Siphon, Harbor, is out on Shearsman Books in March 2012. It’s the best birthday present I could receive, and I’m over the moon with anticipation. Also, a new press out of Pittsburgh, Hyacinth Girl Press, has picked up a crazy hybrid chapbook: translations of Edith Södergran and new original work. That one’s called Salt Ballads. I’m still working on translations but don’t have much else in the pipelineI’m just hanging out and enjoying what is sure to be another unpredictable Midwestern winter.
For more information on Copeland’s upcoming work, check brooklyncopeland.blogspot.com.