Q: I’ve read a lot of your writing over the years: your novel They Become Her, essays, short stories, and, of course, poems. A recurring motifs that I find is the accusation of madness, particularly with women standing as the accused (the female speakers in Mouth Trap, Delia Bacon in They Become Her). Can you explain what draws you towards this theme and why it remains relevant, even today, a century after Bertha Mason was locked in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre?
I wish I could say that I am merely drawn towards madness as a theme, with the presumption of distance, a fascination informed by the power of the gaze. Madness for me, as it may be for many (particularly for women and those who have been historically disenfranchised), is more than observation, beyond investigation or a seemingly scientific attraction. There is something electric and physiological with madness made manifest internally in me. Externally, madness is always connected to containment and control of a perceived excess that must be measured, managed, and often made mute. What is the necessity of art if it isn’t mad against, and at, and from, the world that informs it? Bertha Mason remains, of course, very much alive. It is often imperative to burn our most unbearable beds and familiar confines, tear veils, scale walls, try to escape institutions that encourage a tragic demise.
Q: I often describe your writing as “dark and lyrical.” There are lovely turns of phrase and a developed musicality, but there is also so much sadness. I wonder if “despair” is the right word and if you believe there is a connection between despair and poetry. Is despair “that sickness unto death” that Kierkegaard writes about? In fact, when I read about Kierkegaarde’s description of humanity as various kinds of tension, I think of your poetry, particularly of Mouth Trap, which I always read as a collection about the tension between entrapment and bonds (Kierkegaarde’s necessities and the finite) and the freedoms of independence, even at the expense of loneliness (Kierkegaarde’s possibilities and infinite). I’d love to see an academic write this paper. Does any of this make sense to you?
I think that’s pretty perfectly put for Mouth Trap: “a collection about the tension between entrapment and bonds and the freedoms of independence, even at the expense of loneliness.” I’d love it if you, or anyone, wrote that academic paper! In terms of “despair” and its connection to poetry, this is something I’ve been thinking about for many years. A long time ago, a musician friend challenged me about creating from a space of despair or sadness, since he claimed that when he played or wrote music it came from a place of joy. At the time, I found this unfathomable, possibly because I was young and also tormentingly in love with this musician. I have often shared this story with creative writing students, particularly because I don’t think writing, or any art for that matter, comes from a singular locus, emotional or otherwise. I also don’t want to suggest that students should abide by damaging clichés about artists despairing interminably, because this can be extremely limiting. My poetry is inherently connected to despair, sure, but it is also concerned deeply with the bliss that can bear a body’s brightness.
Q: Another Rebbecca Brown attribute is density. Each word in a poem and word is thick with meaning; each word carries enormous weight. At the same time, this kind of density challenges the accessibility of the poems: a reader must work slowly when reading (or rather, I must read slowly and carefully when I read your poems). Do you consider issues of accessibility when writing? What is the poet’s obligation, if any, to a reader?
When I am writing, I don’t consciously consider the reader, who lies latent. I also don’t think about accessibility if this means providing a singularly clear, incontrovertible meaning, especially with poetry. I am often bored by narrative lucidity pointed precisely to where one must abide. One person’s ease is often another person’s torment. Instead, I guess what I am trying to do is explore unfamiliar linguistic terrains that jar and shock, surprising selves and senses into unfamiliar cognitive and emotional terrains. I’m less concerned about saying something directly than I am about the unexpected, the way a phrase you’ve never come across might evoke a visceral state, a pleasurable figuring of manifold meanings that only illusorily play at being dead.
Q: There is so much to say when talking about sound in your writing. Different kinds of sound repetitions are used, as well as image repetitions. At times, the poems sound almost like witchcraft, like a spell, and maybe we’re getting back into the realm of madness again. Can you describe what you are listening for as you write, and why?
It is sort of bewildering and bewitching—the sounds and rhythms I’m following as I write. I listen in on cadenced repetitions that often end in gerunds or rhyme, but I don’t know if it’s because I am also a musician whose head is filled with fragments of voices tuned toward a delight in the disharmonious. I do know that I like multiplicity and variety when it comes to all of those voices hallowing along the halls of my mind.
Q: I’ll end with an easy question. What are you working on now that you are most excited about?
I’ve been working on a new poetry collection entitled Too Many Fathers, which is written in response to sexist comments men have made to me specifically within an academic context. I’m especially excited about this book, since it feels like my most vulnerable, which also horrifies me, since this collection is possibly the most direct exploration of verbal and sexual abuse I’ve ever attempted. While it has been difficult to write because of what felt like re-traumatization, it also feels necessary, relevant, and possibly courageous. It definitely feels like a book that speaks beyond a mouth’s feeble trap toward our time.