The 2013 National Book Award Finalist on magical thinking, never breaking a vow, and why she wants her poems “to have long legs.”
Photo by Karen Meyers
In the reading materials Lucie Brock-Broido gives students attending her “Practice of Poetry” seminar at Columbia University, she references an anonymous passage I feel compelled to quote whenever I talk shop with a younger poet:
“Yesterday I told my girls, I told them, if somebody interesting talks to you, you say a few things too. You might as well breathe at the same time & let the words out in the air. Don’t just ask questions, I told them. Give things away. Give yourself away.”
This and other passages are compiled in Brock-Broido’s course reader, an anthology she has shaped for the past fifteen years. If memory serves me right (I was once one of her students) it is produced in Cambridge and then driven down I-95 and shared with her students. Even More Trouble in Mind, as it is titled, has become a kind of Bible for some young poets, and a point of departure for my own work and the work of my former classmates. It is a statement of poetics, as instructive as the anonymous passage above; as playful, dangerous, and deeply serious.
The following interview, conducted just three days after the first government shutdown of this century, is occasioned by the publication of Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion: Poems, which is now a finalist for the National Book Award. It is her fourth collection in twenty-five years. Stay, Illusion “sheds light on the dark chambers of life and death, arguing artfully for compassion and against cruelty,” writes D. A. Powell. In the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson was similarly admiring, writing of the “frolicsome gravity” of Brock-Broido’s work and the way that, “from her very first poems … Brock-Broido has shown how to bring maximum dazzle to every detail.”
A recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as awards from the American Poetry Review and the Academy of American Arts and Letters, she is also the author of A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995), and Trouble in Mind (2004). Lucie and I met at her apartment on the Upper West Side. We shared Riesling, crackers, and gruyere. Her cat Nicholas, a most regal Maine Coon, was a frequent participant on the interview.
—Ricardo Maldonado for Guernica
Guernica: How did you come to poetry?
Lucie Brock-Broido: I came to poetry because I felt I couldn’t live properly in the real world. I was thirteen and in Algebra class. That was the day I decided I would be a poet for all time. I walked out of class and dropped out of school. That doesn’t mean I became a poet, but I did have this absolute severance with one period of my life where I felt I was being made to live in the world I was brought into—Straight-A student, The Most Perfect Little Girl—that I couldn’t inhabit anymore. And so I went to a place I felt I could inhabit which turned out to be, as we know about poetry, more hellish than the one I left!
Guernica: Were there poets whose work you were drawn to, back then?
Lucie Brock-Broido: The poetry I was taught in school was useless, save for Dickinson. I did not really fathom Dickinson until I turned thirty. My early reading was mostly in theater. When I walked out of school I joined a theatrical troupe where I grew up in Pittsburgh. We did Genet, Brecht, and Strindberg. I stopped my love affair with theater because I had irrevocable stage fright, which I still have. What I do with my life now is manage my stage fright, because when you’re the teacher, you have to be Miss Julie or Solange in The Maids. You have to live inside The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Or become Miss Jean Brodie “in the prime of her life”. Or become Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park.
Guernica: You have devoted your life to teaching. Why so?
Lucie Brock-Broido: I have made several vows in my life and I’ve never broken one yet. The first one, which I made when I was six, was that I would be a teacher. The second came right after that. All my hair was shorn off in a barber shop in Atlantic City. I swore, “as god as my witness,” that no one would ever again cut my hair, not against my will. The third vow was that I would be a poet. The fourth was that my mother would never die. That was the only vow, to my knowledge, that I have ever broken. It wasn’t that she would never die, but that she couldn’t die, and then she did. I am a compulsive practitioner of magical thinking. And poetry is the skin that I have between my body and the world’s body.
On the page, that which is withheld is purest speech. That’s what interests me in poetry.
Guernica: In what ways is poetry magical thinking—what does it effect that no other art form can?
Lucie Brock-Broido: Well I’m not sure that poetry is singular. There are more powerful arts, such as music. Maybe twice in my life, if I were lucky, have I wept from a poem. Get me near music and I can be bent into tears. It holds my heart and manipulates me more than poetry. Language itself, though, is at the top. Real speech: what people say and what’s withheld from being said is of the essence to me. In real speech, that which is withheld hurts. On the page, that which is withheld is the most pure form of speech.
That’s what interests me in poetry. That withholding, that white space, the pressure, and my long-term faith in violent concision, is still with me. When I feel most powerful, as a writer, is not in the art of composition. I feel I am at the mercy of the hour, the moment, or the eccentricities of my own circuitry. As an editor of my own work and others’, that is where I feel at my most powerful. I am Edward Scissorhands. For something—an image or a phrase to get to live in a poem, it has to be a big deal. Earned.
Guernica: Does this “something” presuppose a kind of confession? Is confession, in poetry, a big deal?
Lucie Brock-Broido: Confession may well be a dirty word in poetry. I know when I was a much younger poet, in my twenties, I promised myself, having been through Plath to the point where I had to take to my room for a couple of weeks and stay under the covers with The Bell Jar and Ariel, that I would move in the other direction. Plath remains one of the masters to me. You have to fall in love, retreat and then come back. Any poet I have come back to is one who stays.
Perhaps I’ll disavow the word “confession.” Perhaps the true word would be “admission.” Here are lines from Denis Johnson’s “The White Fires of Venus”:
“Greetings. You will recover
or die. The simple cure
for everything is to destroy
all the stethoscopes that will transmit
silence occasionally. The remedy for loneliness
is in learning to admit
solitude as one admits
the bayonet: gracefully
now that already
it pierces the heart.”
I love the humor and the sharp-tongue of it, the irony and the almost ridiculous self-dramatization of the pronouncement “greetings.” However, that does happen to be true every day. Of course we all admit the bayonet every day. Johnson makes vast presumptions: that people do admit the bayonet because most of us would spend most days of our lives attempting, precisely, to avoid such a piercing. But then he adds “gracefully.” Could there be a tearing less graceful? Here Johnson is saying that the impossible, the unavoidable, already pierces the hearts of all of us. I would venture to say most of us would not admit to trafficking in that trade or in that image of how we must lead our lives. It’s too painful.
Guernica: Is that where most of the poems in this collection traffic?
Lucie Brock-Broido: There is not a poem in Stay, Illusion that happened easily. If each poem were a crime, they were premeditated beyond the first degree (with extenuating circumstances to boot). As a writer, I am hard on myself. I write so much more than I would ever publish. I don’t write manically, the way I did when I was in my twenties, when I was writing 300 poems a year and I would just conjure up the verses every night.
Now each poem must be, as Larkin wrote, its own sole, freshly created universe. At the heart of my life is the idea that I don’t ever want anything to ever change. That’s the basic tenet. This is not a very smart way to live, because that is the only thing you can’t change: that every thing is changing every minute. My title is a plea to the heavens, to fathers, to ghosts, to masters and the mistresses. I used to possess a quality that the fiction writer Charles Newman told me I was the essence of—radiating naiveté—many years later I wrote a poem with that as a title. I may have a lot of radiance, but my naiveté has been replaced by …
My poems are troubled into being.
Lucie Brock-Broido: No. Wisdom, I think. Which is a quality I am strangely ambivalent about. Wonderment I take as a word that implies luminosity, and I’m interested in that. But of some different metallic kind because my poems are troubled into being.
I think the reason I’ve published so few books is that I have a pretty high expectation of self-reinvention between books and I would prefer to have been in this world and published fewer works than I would publishing the books that would reveal the process of the changes. I have left many tracks in the snow in this book though—about transition and change, on purpose, wittingly, and with some embarrassment—because I don’t like to change in front of anyone.
Guernica: As a writer, you are generous with the high and the low brow. What kinds of narratives trigger work from you?
Lucie Brock-Broido: Maybe once I thought myself a narrative poet, but I am steadfastly a lyric sort. In the long past, I would write exclusively in personae. So frightened was I of “confession,” I would write no poem in my own voice. I wrote in the voice of Piggy from Lord of the Flies, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raymond Roussel riding on a steamboat down the River Nile. I had no interest in discussing my own life. I became known as a persona poet in part because my first book was peopled with people who were not I. All this has changed, and dramatically—it is I who speaks now. No masks.
Guernica: The American idiomatic expression is something that you seem seduced by.
Lucie Brock-Broido: I make a distinction when I’m teaching that there is a language called American. It is the language of our real life, in the exact moment of the quotidian. The extraordinary fluidity of American allows flux, unlike English. I think American is very democratic in allowing different hues of language and parts of speech to commingle. William Logan once wrote that I had something of a fetish for what he called “Haute Couture Vulgarity.”
Let me just say that the politics that I have are never the politics of poetics. I am not interested in politics. Politically, I am only very conscious of how we live and what we do right and what we do so awfully wrong.
Something I have “authority” on is animal rights. If I were not already so deep into the path I’ve taken, deep in the woods, I would probably work with animal rights activism because that’s really where my heart lies. I think our relationships with animals are sacred and horrific. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was sixteen. What God said we are allowed to eat anything that does not have thumbs?
Guernica: That spirit seems to inform the collection with regard to both animals and humans. I’m thinking of the two poems that touch upon capital punishment.
Lucie Brock-Broido: I am fascinated with criminal law because it is as rigorous as a poem and because it is based on what has been written down even before one has committed a crime.
In Stay, Illusion there was to be a third poem about the death penalty that did not make it to the book. The case history was of a man who lived in Texas. His name was Willingham. I didn’t find the way into that character, even though my heart was deeply invested in his case.
With Ricky Ray Rector’s story, I had a chilling realization about the sixth amendment, which states that not only do you need to understand why are you are being put to death, but understand that you are, indeed, being put to death. This man said he “understood” what execution was. And he knew of heaven, but he saved his dessert, hoping to eat it after his own punishment. He believed that, after the execution, he would still be alive to enjoy the pecan pie that he saved from his last meal.
Guernica: Stay, Illusion is a bitingly funny book on occasion. Can you elaborate on your sense of humor?
Lucie Brock-Broido: I find it odd that, in real life people think I am funny but no one ever suspects that on the page! Personally, I think some of my work is a riot! I crack myself up, but I know that the poems seem so relentlessly dark. Dan Chiasson wrote recently that this new book of mine reads not as a memoir, but as a “grimoire.” People read that and think, of course: “grim memoir.” Would that they knew that archaic term. A grimoire is a little black book with spells and incantations in it.
Guernica: How did the poems in Stay, Illusion happen on the page?
Lucie Brock-Broido: Their happening on the page was a willful, but—even to me—invisible process. It took so many years to discover what it was I was trying to do! I willed my poems into a different shape by trying to get over what I had already done. I loved the idea of a line stretching across the page. Charles Wright says each line must be a station of the cross. I would add to that that each line can be its own stanza. I find the intensity of that line extremely audacious and physically beguiling. I wanted many of the poems to have long legs. At first I was calling them clothespin poems, before I knew what I was doing. The lines seem pulled on either end, tight and taut against the wind.
When I’m teaching the line I use the time-honored master class on Picasso’s lithograph of his bull, a series of eleven or fourteen drafts over a series of time, which begins as something heavy and carnivorous. Over the study of the lithograph the bull becomes a tiny line-drawing that is fantastically complicated.