In her poem “Sibylline Translation,” Translucent Issue poetry contest judge and past contributor Traci Brimhall tells us:
Fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.
Meanwhile, the dead trample the psalmic grass as they line up
to ride bald angels like horses through the graveyard.
Like a chessboard whose squares alternate between image and statement, her poetry offers a balance between the cerebral and majestic. Equally at home crafting an “Aubade with a Broken Neck” (“the wallpaper’s moldy roses means/ all can be lost”) as she is weaving bossa nova through couplets devoted to a diving bell, her collections Rookery, Our Lady of the Ruins, and Bright Power, Dark Peace (co-written with Brynn Saito) will be joined by Saudade in 2017. An assistant professor at Kansas State University, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Kenyon Review, among others. A poet whose words are as oracular as they are resplendent, Brimhall shares her thoughts on creating a haunted fantasy for oneself, in addition to coining the best literary genre this side of the fairy tale, the autobiomythography.
Jon Riccio: I benefited from your writing prompts, having taken back-to-back poetry workshops with you during your Kalamazoo Ph.D. days. Please describe the two prompts that had the most revelatory impact on your work.
Traci Brimhall: Most recently, one of the things that helped me understand the book I was writing was to write letters to myself in the voices of the poems. I know I’m in my poem, of course, but they also feel separate from me. It was like writing back to myself as the characters in a novel, or maybe the character in my autobiography. They never ended up becoming poems, but they did the kind of work I hope a poem does—teach me about myself something I didn’t know before.
This isn’t a prompt per se, but I guess the other reason I like doing prompts is that they usually teach me something, too, and often it’s delight. I went through a period where writing felt like punishment, and I would hate everything I wrote before it was even out of my pen. I feel like prompts are a wonderful way to make the stakes feel lower, like all you’re doing is playing, so if something wonderful comes out, great! If not, that’s fine, you were just playing. It’s something I’ve found is true of parenting a small human. Everyone talks about the importance of play for learning. Somehow we stop having that as a value, and I don’t know why.
I think the practice of using prompts to begin writing is also incredibly useful for another reason. One of my guilty pleasures are Lego Creator sets. Those sets always come with a set of pieces and instructions for three different ways to construct something using those blocks. I never keep those buildings intact after I build them. I try each way it’s been shown and then I tear it apart and try to freestyle for my fourth time building. Maybe it’s not as balanced and artful as a Lego designer intended, but I feel more competent in that freedom because I learned something before I sat down to play. Sometimes it’s good to follow someone else’s lead or take direction and try a prompt written by someone else. It might teach you what to make of your freedom.
JR: You discussed world building in a previous interview with our editorial assistant, Lucille Randazzo. So, the world’s built; someone has to rule it. Be it a mantra or a mythical beast, what features adorn the Brimhall coat of arms?
TB: Gosh. Well, I guess I’m the Doctor and traveling through poems with my Tardis because I’ve written wildly different worlds. And instead of a living companion, I think I’m traveling with ghosts. It gets more and more crowded in that time machine every year.
For the next book perhaps it would be a green shield with a pink Amazon dolphin on one side and an electric eel on the other, and in the center, the little white house my mother was raised in. And inside that, my mother, and inside her, a rusted conquistador’s helmet with an anaconda coiled inside. The mantra/motto would be “Matar as Saudades,” which is untranslatable but sort of means “Kill the Longing.”
JR: There’s something remarkable about the way diversity and inclusion navigate the fairy-tale landscape, particularly when “otherness” triumphs over the extraordinary, as is the case in Daniel Errico’s The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived. What could the real world glean from this, and how can we put it into practice?
TB: I think the reverse might also be true, though. Think of the treatment of witches or giants or certain kinds of “otherness.” Perhaps diversity is only celebrated when it doesn’t upset the hierarchy of power, or as long as it only upsets the lower orders of power and doesn’t upend every system above it. The idea that in a constructed world where there’s a great variety of diversity might necessitate inclusion is a way in which the fantasy part of a fairy tale comes in. We live in a world of remarkable diverse abilities, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, and phenotypes and can’t seem to make that acceptance happen.
Since that’s a little pessimistic, I will say, I appreciate that this is a question. I think that making the discussion more pointed and overt can be a part of understanding difference and one’s own shortcomings in that conversation. Culturally, so many people seem to believe that silence or lack of dialogue around issues of diversity means we’re beyond. We are post-need-to-discuss-it. Why is silence equated with progress? Maybe that’s why people like and need the fairy-tale landscape—to construct a space for conversation that they haven’t been able to otherwise engage in.
JR: Your third book, Saudade, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press. Do any of its poems venture into the fantastic?
TB: Pretty much the whole thing. It’s sort of a fantastic genealogy, an autobiomythography. I was always fascinated by my mother’s childhood. My own childhood had little appeal for me, but I loved imagining hers. Initially, I thought it was a book investigating the origins in my own imagination through this idea of pretending to be my mother as a girl, but my mother died when I was halfway through the book, and I realized I was asking the wrong question. What I wanted to know was my mother’s past, and her mother’s past, and the past before that, and that’s a history that is lost to me. So I made myself a history to find where I began. I’ve made a beautiful, haunted fantasy for myself, but I think I might have been doing that my whole life.
JR: Jedi or mutants—whose origin story (as a whole) is better suited to the epic poem?
TB: Hmm…I think we’ve seen extended narratives of each, and not only extended narratives but seen them change based on who’s in charge of telling their story, which is also true of epic poems. I think it depends on what kind of heroes the audience of the poem wants. To continue from one of your previous questions, Jedi’s are (generally) marked for their otherness in a way that makes them special, extraordinary. Mutants are (generally) marked for their otherness in a way that makes them feared. I think people have always been interested in heroes because it’s something they hope to believe about themselves, and whatever extraordinariness, whether it marks someone as special or fearsome or both, speaks to what is best in us, that’s the epic I think we need.
JR: As a successful veteran of past writing contests, what, in your opinion, elevates a poem from an entry to a winner?
TB: I never make a decision on a first read through. It’s a little like gold panning—I go in several rounds, letting this sift and settle. When I’ve taken a small pile and gotten down to a few good nuggets, I test them between my teeth. I read aloud towards the end. I walk away. I sleep on it. I read them again. And rinse. Repeat. What ultimately makes my choice for me is the one I’m left thinking about days later, the one that’s left me a little changed, that’s grafted itself on my heart-brain. I want every poem to become a part of me. And maybe they all do, but the ones I choose for winners are the ones I’d like to have melted down into fillings so my dentist will open my mouth and gasp and ask what I’ve been reading.