Brooke Larson is the author of Pleasing Tree, published by Arc Pair Press, and Origami Drama, published by Quarterly West.
Brooke! Hi. Thanks so much for doing this Q&A.
I recently finished reading Origami Drama, which has a few overlapping essays / prose poems / dramas with Pleasing Tree and the one emotion that felt really solidified from reading both books is joy. Both books contain feelings of angst, loneliness, even something like existential despair, but instead of trekking into an abyss, you and your speakers seem to find a haven in these liminal spaces, between the sacred and the profane so to speak, the body and soul, in the folds in the Origami pieces, and in those liminal spaces, there is a lot of laughter and silliness and a love of life. Why do you think that is?
Maybe the most basic answer to that is language cheers me up. It's not enough to say I enjoy playing with words. The real rush is in feeling the words play with me, when the sounds and textures and histories of words trick me out of my usual ways. Whatever state I'm in, the joy shows up if I feel that live tug and pull from language. Same goes for nature. If I can just get outside, into the desert or the woods or the water or whatever, then I can feel the interplay of other forces and ways of being, and it invites playfulness in kind.
A Jewish mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, said that it may be impossible to achieve happiness without some measure of foolishness. He saw silliness as a serious spiritual tool. I tend to agree. One of the most dangerous things about depression for me is how it takes itself dead serious. That literalism kills the imagination. The literal has no room for liminal space. So that's when silliness can break in and open things up.
Pleasing Tree and Origami Drama both tend to point the reader toward the uglier side of physicality and earthiness—we’re encouraged to see blood and piss and shit, toe jam, saliva and dirt. I suspect “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is not your motto. Instead there is a real sense of the divine within the stuff of life, yeast infections and all. I’m trying to figure out this Brooke Larson brand of spirituality, one that finds joy and a sense of communion with the world through all aspects the body, but one who also eats meat and writes, “Some vegetarians I know say they find animals too much like us. Somehow this is exactly what fails to make me take them seriously.” I wonder, what is next to godliness, for you? And where does the human body fit?
When I was sent to a wilderness therapy program as a teenager, they hand you these basic things you'll need to survive, like canteens and a blanket and rice and salt, and included with these essential survival tools is a journal. So the first time I started to write down my thoughts is intensely entangled with being outdoors. I think I came away from that with a sense that language is a physical experience.
Another part of these piss and shit meditations is a confrontation of a silence I've felt more and more as I've gotten older. It's acceptable to talk about what we're thinking and what we're feeling emotionally (to an extent), but there's a lot less openness and heaps of shame when it comes to talking about what we're dealing with physically. Especially if you're a woman. You can see this issue getting better somewhat, but still not where it needs to be. By now I just assume that every person I meet is dealing with some unspoken physical hardship. Maybe it's obvious, but often it's invisible. Enter yeast infections. I heard recently that a woman in London baked loaves of bread leavened with her yeast infection for her art dissertation. Why does that make me so happy? It's such an irreverent but honest sacrament. The bread is transformed—from a symbol of basic nourishment and domesticity—into an embodiment of our basic unruly aliveness.
I'm not against cleanliness or the god it sits next to. I do the dishes and take great pleasure in brushing and flossing. But as a writer, cleanliness for me means space and clarity enough for chaos to freely work itself out. I'm definitely of the persuasion that what's wrong with us is part of what's right with us. There's a saying I love, from a Hasidic Rabbi, "There is nothing as whole as a broken heart." Maybe my motto would be something like, "If it's not broke, nothing can fix it."
Sometimes I wonder if you are a masochist. Are you?
Sure I am. But I don't think that explains a whole lot. There are so, so many different flavors of masochism. So the question for me has been how have I acquired the taste and what is the taste preferred? I'm still figuring that out.
When you're in the zone, when you're connected to yourself and the ground that holds you up, there can be this marvelous surrender to the force of life, and it moves and bends you in ways you didn't know you could, all this pain and joy at once, and you feel alive. I've felt that. The magic surrender. And so I suspect that because I've felt that, when I don't feel connected and when I don't feel movement, I try to manufacture the flow by putting myself in difficult, emotional contortionist situations. Like, if I do the hard thing, the bright thing will manifest. This is bad magic. It doesn't work. And it's difficult and maybe takes lifelong attention to learn the difference between surrendering to life or taking yourself hostage.
For example. Right now I'm in the process of applying for a Fulbright scholarship in the Republic of Georgia, and I have all these reasons why it makes sense and why I need to do it. And then my boyfriend points out the obvious: "But Eastern Europe kicked your ass. Why would you move back there?" It's a good question. I'm taking it to heart.
I’ve always hated when political candidates are asked for their favorite Bible verse during debates, but, alas, it is debate season and the question will no doubt be raised. If you were running President, how would you answer that question?
Seems fitting that this favorite Bible verse is as obscure as I would be as a candidate. Lamentations 2:13: "...For your ruin is as vast as the sea—who can heal you?" Forgettably bleak, right? But I fell deep in love with this verse through the Zohar. "Who" in Hebrew is "mi" or "??." Numerically "??" correlates with "Binah," the mother goddess of wisdom. "Who can heal you?" The word that begins the question is also the name of the answer. That's poetry. It's bold and deep and pure wink wink. I don't study scripture anymore but I think growing up with rigorous scripture study trained my eyes to see living layers in the word. Which I've become grateful for.
Finally, what does your next creative project look like?
It looks like sound? Or it really wants to. I have this side obsession with throat singing and overtones, and I'm trying to create a text that works with these sounds. People who hear throat singing often describe it as "unnatural," which is interesting because it uses the harmonics present all around us in nature. Caves are unbelievable when it comes to eavesdropping on these innate harmonies. So the pieces I'm working on are trying to bring in environmental acoustics, vocal anatomy, animal sounds, and the ballad. So far I have zero idea how these will harmonize. For right now it mostly means sounding like a one-woman zoo and driving the people I love insane.