blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Brian Brodeur
Conducted October 14, 2022

On October 14, 2022, Brian Brodeur participated in an email interview with Blackbird managing editor, Waverley Vesely. Three of Brodeur’s poems appear in this issue of Blackbird: “Phantasmagoria,” “Playing Dead,” and “Woman Waking Early in Late Fall.” This interview centers on the three poems being published in this issue; however, the correspondence also discusses Brodeur’s forthcoming book, Some Problems with Autobiography (New Criterion, 2023). Several themes touched upon are the psychology and language of art, the stability and instability of self and speaker, and the ways writing confronts the ambiguity of truth. Brodeur writes: “From one perspective, naming is the act of reading the world . . . From another perspective, naming conceals, falsifies, or even destroys an object.”


Waverley Vesely: Many of your poems focus intently on the sound of language and have a complicated, precise sonic structure that develops as a poem progresses. How do you see the music of poetry functioning to generate meanings of its own parallel to the definitive meanings of words?

Brian Brodeur: I’m grateful for your compliment about the “precise sonic structure” of my poems. In a 2010 interview with Terry Gross, Keith Richards spoke hilariously about “vowel movements.” His method of writing song lyrics involves “choosing the right sound at the right time to put the right ooh or ahh and whether a word should contain that vowel or not.” My method of drafting poems is embarrassingly similar. Like Richards, I try to write lines that sound somehow right to my ear, but with the added pressure of saying something more compelling than ooh and ahh.

As an angsty teen, I started out writing songs, playing shows, and busking on street corners. Then, in college, I found Hopkins, Stevens, and Lorca—poets who make loud sounds on the page. I hawked my Yamaha for a laptop. Ever since, I’ve been negotiating between sound and sense in poems that incorporate meter and rhyme. Valéry writes somewhere that “The power of verse is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is.” Though John Crowe Ransom dismissed the idea of “a sound which . . . ‘suggests’ the object it describes,” I’m inclined to agree with Valéry.

Sound and sense are reciprocal elements. I’m not sure the sound of a poem has a decisive meaning independent of the semantic denotation of the language itself. What the sound of a poem does have is the capacity to complicate or augment semantic meaning. The oldest way of accomplishing this is through mimesis (imitation). Think of Larkin’s “The Trees” ending with that re-greening imperative: “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” Here, meter, assonance, consonance, repetition, and rhyme all harmonize in imitation of those nearly articulate leaflets stirring in a May breeze.

WV: While your poems feel profoundly engaged with philosophy and psychology, they rarely approach the ideas of those fields of thought through explication; rather, your poems work toward such ideas through the emotional contexts of the—often multiple—speakers or figures in your work. How and why do you embed ideological exploration inside narrative, dialog, and characterization?

BB: For me, a poem most effectively develops ideas through embodiment or incorporation—by fusing ideas with the body of the poem. My poems are often narrative or narrative-lyric. In such poems, embodiment takes place through a unity of action, idea, and sound—by making the gestures, dialog, images, pacing, and sonic textures one with whatever philosophical or psychological principles these figures in tandem suggest. Yet poems, like grocery lists or legal briefs or tweets, are comprised of language and therefore of vocalizations intended to represent ideas. Even tree is an idea—and a big one, which ginkgo, beech, and sequoia refine. Poetry organizes language in a way that exploits semantic sounds, a lyric accumulation of phonemes grouped in such a way that their arrangement makes sound and sense at least seem the same.

In my narrative poems, character, situation, and form are primary concerns; ideas (or “explications” of ideas) are secondary. I guess I’m disagreeing here with Emerson, who argued that “the thought is prior to the form,” which sounds a lot like “the Child is father of the Man.” The thought is afterthought to form—that’s how I might put it. Yet even this sounds too definitive. The relationship between these elements needs to remain somewhat elusive, difficult to define, but undeniably there: audible, like a compelling melody merged with the right words in the right order in the right key. (Keith Richards again!) The melody may be dissonant, as long as this dissonance is productive, evocative, and feels inevitable.

WV: Your work often deals with historical figures—for example, Nietzsche in Natural Causes (Autumn House Press, 2012) or Whitman in Other Latitudes (University of Akron Press, 2008). What draws you to research and portray lives from the past, and do you see those vignettes as being confluent with the present?

BB: I read and write to augment the self with the thoughts and deeds of others, or to find historical precedents for present circumstances, or simply to speak with someone else’s voice and live in someone else’s skin. This is one way that I understand what social scientists refer to as “radical empathy.” Writing about Whitman, Nietzsche, Audubon, Lady Caroline Lamb, or even Julie Baumeister (the wife of an accused serial killer who lived down the street from my wife when she was a girl) allows me to confront aspects of my own character and experience that I might not feel comfortable accessing without these conduits. This might explain why Frank Bidart’s dramatic monologues about Nijinsky and Ellen West have a confessional intensity. Good poems are windows. Great poems are mirrors—held up to nature, sure, but aimed at the self, which is, lest we forget, also nature.

WV: In “Woman Waking Early in Late Fall,” you write: “birds her father taught her how to name / before she learned to read.” What do you see as the relationship between naming and reading? How do you conceive of naming as an act of language?

BB: I’m of two or three minds on this issue. From one perspective, naming is the act of reading the world. Auden talks about finding “the Proper Name of a Sacred Being,” using the word pyrites as an example—how no other word could possibly do, at least not in English. From another perspective, naming conceals, falsifies, or even destroys an object. I’m thinking here of certain tensions embodied within Rilke’s Dinggedicht (thing poems)—how, for the caged panther, no world exists beyond the bars, only more bars.

My hope is that “Woman Waking Early in Late Fall” exploits the essential slipperiness of naming, which is not an act of translation or transformation, but a way of locating the individual human psyche within an increasingly large, terrifying, and unspeakable expanse. “There is no thing itself,” the poem claims. Poets name not to control a chaotic environment but to orient themselves within it, which is maybe a form of control after all. Poetry clarifies language and perhaps even the objects it names in the process. Like an ice storm, the poem encases the world in glass, making the familiar strange.

WV: Your poem’s title “Phantasmagoria” indirectly suggests that this phenomenon of sight/mind relates to the momentum and architecture of imagery in poetry. What goes through your mind as you create the imagistic arc of a poem? What kind of meaning making do images generate as opposed to, or as composite with, other modes of making meaning in language?

BB: I often tell my students: I’m not a writer, I’m a reviser. Much of what I do as a poet and critic involves slopping a bunch of language onto pages and pages of drafts; feeling dejected, useless, phony, stuck; then returning to the work to see what’s worth salvaging. It’s a messy business. As much as I love your descriptions of what happens in my poems, an “imagistic arc” and “architecture of imagery” don’t occur to me until much later—after days or weeks or months or years of slog. I first started writing “Phantasmagoria,” for example, in 2012, returning to it periodically over the next ten years until it seemed—if not finished, then strong enough to abandon.

This poem stems from a general frustration with the diffuseness of French Symbolism and the overblown occultism of Yeats. I love Baudelaire, Laforgue, Apollinaire, and especially Yeats. But at the time I began drafting “Phantasmagoria” I’d grown impatient with the Symbolists’ privileging of synesthesia and collage over precision of detail and narrative presentation. I saw a similar tendency in Yeats’s plays; the epigraph of “Phantasmagoria” comes from The Shadowy Waters. What irked me most was Yeats’s habit of inventing a mythological realm inhabited by types and emblems rather than people and things. In a Yeats play, a seagull never shits on a ship’s deck as it pilfers bits of bread from a sailor’s lunch. The gull is there to merely symbolize. Yeats treats his dramatis personae like elements of scenic design, mythologizing instead of humanizing his figures. This sense of unreality pervades his plays and holds the reader at arm’s length, rather than plunging us head-first into a more recognizable world.

But let me try harder to answer your question. Though many of us appreciate poetry because it slows us down, it’s been my experience that poets and poetry readers also desire instant gratification. Image gives us both: immediacy of effect and a figure that intimates, that points us beyond the object to larger concerns. For symbols or metaphors to work, tenor and vehicle need to achieve a balance, albeit a tenuous one. When writing, I worry a lot about pacing, especially in narrative poems like “Phantasmagoria.” Pacing involves elements of story (characterization, plot) and song (meter, rhythm, alliteration, rhyme). There’s something else, though—a buildup of dramatic tension and release akin to suspense, a titillation and manipulation of expectations in an effort to keep the narrative humming and the reader reading until the inevitable climax and dénouement. As my terminology suggests, the origin of all this is fundamentally sexual. At least, that’s my take.

WV: Visual artwork and photography make their way into a number of poems in your books—in particular, I am thinking of “Figure Drawing” in Other Latitudes. Could you speak to the relationship between visual art and written art, between a model and their transposition into aesthetic representation?

BB: I began drafting “Figure Drawing” twenty years ago (2003), so my recollection of this poem’s genesis would be more fiction than fact. It’s a longish narrative poem, a double dramatic monologue, spoken by a female figure model and an older male professor who teaches studio art at a local community college. The professor speaks in prose (excerpts from letters he’s written to the model); she speaks in free-verse tercets. When the model ends up sitting for private sessions after hours, sexual tension ensues. The characters never have sex, but the professor acts—well, inappropriately.

In my mid- to late-twenties, when I wrote “Figure Drawing,” I wanted the poem to move beyond the cringy and rather pathetic behavior of the professor to consider more psychological and aesthetic questions about perceiver and perceived—to accomplish, in other words, what your question suggests that the poem accomplishes. I’m not sure it does. But I thank you for your kind assessment.

I will say that for over ten years now I’ve been exchanging work regularly—sometimes weekly—with the painter Paul X. Rutz, a friend I met at George Mason University around the time I started writing “Figure Drawing.” I’ll email Paul whatever poem I’m working on (often bugging him with multiple revisions) and Paul will share his paintings-in-progress via high-res photos.

Paul and I often talk about the differences and similarities between poetry and painting. Contrary to the implications of that hackneyed phrase “the music of poetry,” these arts strike me as being more companionable than poetry and music, especially poetry that values clarity of representation. Paul is a figurative painter who depicts rather than expresses, innovating within familiar subgenres like the landscape, the portrait, etc. In my poems, I’m interested in issues of narrative representation, experimenting with traditional elements such as meter, rhyme, rhetoric, and genre. Of course, any poem and painting will be emotionally expressive in some way. But Paul and I are both interested in work that refracts the personal, projecting our experience and temperament onto whatever figures we’re working out and working through.

While I don’t have any grand theories about “aesthetic representation” (only preferences), I do have an anecdote. During a recent Zoom conference with one of my best undergraduate creative writers (a distance-education student), she told me something surprising. My student, a young poet living in Brooklyn, works as a figure model who sits for various art classes across the city. When she told me this, I choked on my coffee.

WV: Many of the poems in your forthcoming book, Some Problems with Autobiography (Criterion Books, 2023), are concerned with how the self is formed and manifested. How do you see poetry—or, more broadly, language—as not only reflecting selfhood, but also as a part of the continuous process of forming a self or selves?

BB: As you suggest, the self is not static. There’s no monolithic “Me” that, once formed, shoulders through a scrum of other Selves fighting for supremacy over the field. Likewise, a poem always speaks with other poems. These conversations can be amicable, adversarial, and everything in between. But this communion of poetic selves is always at least civil. Sure, poems argue. But these tiffs are more “I declare a thumb war” than “Pistols at dawn!”

When teaching, I try to encourage students to find not their voice but a chorus of voices. I introduce dramatic monologues early on in order to illustrate that the character who narrates a poem is almost always some amalgamation of selves, and that students should feel free to invent the world of each poem. In other words, I stress that poetry has a closer generic relationship to fiction and drama than creative nonfiction. If I were a braver (and wackier) teacher, I might use James Merrill’s Ouija board as an objective correlative for the practice of drafting poems; sometimes the ghost of Wallace Stevens shows up sticky with concupiscent curds, sometimes a dead relative makes the poet weep. Even Lowell’s Life Studies, that paragon of the “confessional” mode, features four dramatic monologues, including the rightly famous (or infamous) “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” a sonnet in heroic couplets spoken by a character half-Wife of Bath, half-Elizabeth Hardwick. This contrast makes the “real Robert Lowell” poems about the poet’s confinement at McLean Hospital starker and more compelling.

We’re all a cacophony of voices. If I’m picking a dramatic voice to use in a poem, it’s one of many available to me—I defer here to Yeats’s idea of persona (Latin for “mask”). Even when a voice is historical, the person on which this voice is based doesn’t have to have said a line. But the line does have to seem as if it were spoken by that person or could’ve been. Art is about collapsing the incongruent world into a smooth and approachable chunk. The self inevitably gets edited or whittled, changed.

WV: Part of what the title poem of Some Problems with Autobiography suggests is that our place as a speaker of our own experience is not as stable or accurate as we may like to think when writing the self—or simply accessing the self for our own introspection. The poem’s speaker reflects on “faces glimpsed again through gaps in mist / as you revive quarrels with the dead.” The speaker also says “certain erasures / still gape in the landscape.” How do you see intentional absences and unintentional absences as elements that structure meaning-making in poetry and life?

BB: Everything is always half-seen. I like your paraphrase: “our place as speaker of our own experience is not as stable or accurate as we may like to think.” I mentioned Hobbes earlier and his conflation of memory and imagination. This is the essential tension that this poem and this book continually scratch at, like a scab that’s not allowed to heal.

I’ll share another anecdote. When I was a kid, my father worked as a contractor in central Massachusetts where we lived. On weekday afternoons without a babysitter, my sister and I went with Dad to whatever site he was working on. One afternoon, he sat me down to play by myself outside a house he’d been framing. I have a distinct memory of watching my sister bounce around inside the cab of Dad’s pickup, which was parked at the top of a steep driveway. I remember seeing the truck start to roll backwards down the drive with my sister in it (she must’ve kicked the gearshift into neutral). The truck surged across the street, bucked up the curb, then hit the opposite house with a thud. Everyone ran after the truck. My sister was fine, totally unhurt, if a little rattled. Hugs, kisses, tears, admonishments.

Enter Thomas Hobbes. Years later, I wrote a poem loosely based on this episode and published it in my second book. Soon after the book appeared, I brought up this story with my father, sister, and mother. All three told me that it was not my sister in the pickup who kicked the shift into neutral—it was me.

WV: The first poem in Some Problems with Autobiography opens with an epigraph from the Aeneid: “Lacrimae rerum,” the tears of things. Part I of the book, in particular, is concerned with the way technology is shaping our landscape of being—I’m thinking of poems like “Algorithm” and “Space Junk.” How do you think objects and technology shape our perceptions of self or alter the ways language is being used and comprehended?

BB: I realize that you’re asking about satellites and smartphones. But let’s not forget that language is among humanity’s most useful, beautiful, efficient, and dangerous technological advances. Poetry is the culmination of this advance. As another invention, the self, or at least the self that speaks a poem, does seem shaped by what we might call the “technology of poetry”: meter, rhyme, syntax, diction. Though digital technologies have changed the way some poets compose poems, our fundamental concerns are still Virgilian, Horatian, Ovidian, et alia.

I understand poetry as essentially tragic, comic, terrifying, or some combination of these. (When I say “terrifying,” I’m thinking of how Brodsky noted Frost’s preference for “terror” rather than “tragedy.”) No matter how many digital personae we maintain across multiple social-media platforms, even the curated self has to contend with this triad. During COVID lockdowns, digital selves were all many of us had. Even the mirror started to seem less real than a Facebook profile, especially for those quarantining in cities without even a park to escape to. This brought to the fore issues relating to how technology alters the self, or our perceptions of the self, which many of the poems in Some Problems confront: computer simulations, medical information storage and distribution, how societies account for public tragedy.

This book, though, really begins with an epigraph from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a kind of alt-fact autobiography of a writer who doesn’t believe that the self even exists. Pessoa is known for the more than seventy personae he invented and dubbed “heteronyms.” Pessoa claimed that these heteronyms actually wrote his poetry and fiction, going so far as to order calling cards for alternate identities like Alberto Caeiro and Raphael Baldaya.

Ironically, the logical conclusion of Pessoa’s thinking about the innumerably fractured or non-existent self is not an erasure of identity but a fuller, stranger expression of one’s true nature. Pessoa argued that “to pretend is to know oneself.” I might take the liberty of adjusting this idea for the sake of our conversation and say that “to pretend is to make oneself.” What’s left of a poet after they shuffle off this mortal coil but the poems themselves? Barely any facts remain about Shakespeare’s life; we know him through his work (most of which is spoken by fictional characters). I think Pessoa was entirely in earnest when he said that he couldn’t tell whether Shakespeare or Hamlet was more “real in truth.” I love that Pessoa made little distinction between the factual and the true—or that he preferred, as I think most poets do, truth over fact. Though truth and fact are not mutually exclusive, truth has its own reality, and has perhaps the greater claim over the imagination. But I’ll defer to Pessoa and my epigraph, which eerily informs the last few years of COVID fog: “I’ve lived in a state of mental slumber, leading the life of someone else. I’ve felt, very often, a vicarious happiness.”  

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