Mark Brazaitis interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Mark Brazaitis interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Mark, before we get to talking about poetry, I’d like to start out by saying that you’re best known as a prose writer. Last year I heard you interviewed on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show about your recent story collection, The Incurables. It’s a collection set in a small Ohio town where the residents struggle with a variety of things, including mental illness. You’ve not been secretive of the fact that you yourself waged a horrific battle with mental illness, and I’m sure all of us who heard you on the show were as moved as I was to hear you talk about it with such candor. In an essay in Guernica, you write, “When I wrote The Incurables, I thought I was universalizing my personal experiences of isolation, depression, and suicidal ideation, not speaking for my generation. But at age 47, I am in the middle of that vulnerable 35-to-64 age group—and, evidently, in harmony with it.” What effect has life writing about mental illness had on you as a writer? Has it proven therapeutic or perhaps the opposite? Are you afraid that this subject matter might now define you in a particular way?
Thanks for your question, John—and for this entire interview.
I am, for better or worse, a follower (most times, anyway) of the “write what you know” philosophy. Before The Incurables, I had written extensively, as in four-and-a-half books extensively, about Guatemala, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1990 to 1993 and a Peace Corps trainer from 1995 to 1996. But I was coming to the end, at least temporarily, of my creative engagement with Guatemala and wondering, “What next?”
A story: Jimmy Carter, when he was president, once claimed to have been attacked, in his fishing boat, by a killer rabbit. Although rabbit-ologists (or whatever they’re called) confirmed that this was indeed possible, he was mocked for it, as he was mocked—unfairly!—for so much he did, including putting solar panels on the White House. A political cartoon I remember from his post-presidency: Carter is in his recently opened presidential library, musing, “I wonder who will come visit me?” Behind him, outside a wall-sized window, is a giant killer rabbit.
So there I was, asking about my writing, “What next?” And, behind me (unbeknownst to me) was my version of the killer rabbit: depression.
(Next time I won’t ask, “What next?” Like Wordsworth, I’ll write about daffodils!)
For a year, as I struggled with depression, I couldn’t write a single meaningful word. But once I’d recovered, I thought: Okay, killer rabbit. I’ll write about you. I wouldn’t call my writing about depression therapeutic. I would call it revenge.
Sometimes I do find writing therapeutic: It allows me to escape my life and enter imaginatively into the lives of others. It’s a relief not to have to be myself for those few hours. But there are, I think, more effective forms of therapy, including conversation with a therapist and (deep and meaningful and true) conversation with a good friend or lover.
As for being defined by my subject matter: This implies (flatteringly) that anyone would bother to define me at all. If someone wants to characterize me as “the author who writes about mental illness” or “the author who writes about Guatemala” or, heck, even “the author who writes about lost baby blankets” (see my poem “Does God Exist?” in The Other Language—I promise it’s funny!), I’m all for it. The alternative might be: “Mark who?”
In “To the Bipolar Woman in the Quiet Room,” the speaker clearly identifies with the woman who has boxing gloves duct-taped to her hands. Is this a “true” story pulled from your experience, or is it a persona poem? There is a moment of humanity, of acknowledgment that breaks my heart: “I am not supposed to acknowledge you, / but I do—a wave . . .” You create such empathy for the characters in your poems. Has this always been an element of your poetry or have you found a way to bring it forth. It seems like your own natural empathy creates so strong a pull that it sucks the reader right in with your speakers.
I’m not good at imagining something from nothing. That is A-level authorial magic, and I’m still learning card tricks. All of my work owes something to experiences in my life. But one of the reasons I decided against becoming a journalist and turned to fiction (and poetry) was because I didn’t find life-as-it-is to be necessarily as engaging as life-as-it-is-plus-a-few-alterations. In other words, I like to make up stuff. But if someone said, “I bet ‘To the Bipolar Woman’ is autobiographical,” I wouldn’t dispute it.
It’s kind of you to speak about the way empathy works in my poems. I don’t have a good answer to your thoughtful questions. I guess I’ll say: What draws me to writing fiction and poetry isn’t only the challenge of finding one word to follow another in a beautiful sequence but the quest to understand, or try to understand, people (my characters or actual people) from the inside.
I have noticed that many of your poems exist in a tension between the humorous/ironic and the tragic. I mean, “The Search,” for instance, is a poem about a couple’s tragedy—a missing child—yet this is tempered (if that’s the right word) but the mild humor of lines like, “Our car broke down in a town without a name. / As we waited on the repair, / we drank beer in a bar / so dark it was called the Cave.” Is this intentional or is it a natural extension of your own voice and way of being in the world? Does humor help us in our pain? Did it help you in yours?
Humor can be a home-brewed remedy for anxiety and depression. At least, I’ve found it to be so.
In fiction and poetry, humor can be used in concert with serious subject matter in a manner that doesn’t dismiss or belittle it but highlights its importance. When used in a story or a poem with a serious theme—from The Incurables, for example: “The Bridge” or the title story—humor can (I hope) jar a reader into moving from this thought: “Oh, this is so f---- depressing, let me just get to the end of it and then I’ll have a drink” to this thought: “Jeez, this is hilarious, but it shouldn’t be because look at what’s happening here—yes, let me look again at what’s happening here.”
The darkness of “’Terrible Love’” is deposited in the future, in a foreboding sense that, even for a pop star like Birdy, the world “will one day break” on her innocence as it has on everyone’s. Dour. Not even the sober assurances of the closure in “To the Bipolar Woman in the Quiet Room” or whatever comfort might be wrung from a grief that is not shouldered alone, as in “The Search.” Such darkness suggests that you are still working your own way toward something redeeming?
A theory I’ve heard: Writers don’t write about what’s five years behind them but what’s five years in front of them. (It’s the “writer-as-seer” theory, I guess.) Perhaps the same theory holds true of musicians, even when (such as with Birdy in “Terrible Love”—a song written by the band The National) they are performing covers.
Perhaps we gain a little redemption by being able to name: name our pain, name our pleasure, name our love, name our sorrow, name our art. There’s control in this, there’s agency, there’s defiance—a small victory over life’s chaos, randomness, and uncertainties. (But maybe Whitman, who seemed to enjoy the chaos, had a better strategy: Just ride the wave. He would have been a great surfer!)
I find myself grateful for the humor of “The Naked Moment,” a poem that so perfectly captures our historical moment in these United States, at least for the likes of folks like us: academics, artists, and the culturally affluent. To me, it reads like a plea for something more basic and instinctual, more earthy and urgent. Is what’s wrong with us as a people maybe related to the distance we maintain between each other, the boxing gloves we duct-tape to our souls?
Your interpretation resonates with me, John.
And what, as artists, are we doing in the end? We’re writing and painting and singing about what it means to live, to love, to want, to worry, to dream, to die. Basic stuff. What surrounds our telling of the essential human story is adornment: incense and costumes and fireworks.
I’ve known several fiction writers who, as they’ve grown older, have given up on metaphor. Time is precious. Why waste it saying one thing is another? Why not just say the thing!
(I still like metaphor, however.)
As for “what’s wrong with us”: in addition to writing poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, I write op-ed pieces. Google my name and “gun violence” or “Planned Parenthood” or “climate change” or “college athletics,” and you’ll see what I think we, as a world, could be doing better.
What’s next for Mark Brazaitis?
Thank you for your great questions, John. I’m honored.
I hope good writing is ahead for me. Tomorrow, as usual: the blank screen. We’ll see what happens.
To the Bipolar Woman in the Quiet Room
You are alone,
but I see you.
How could I not?
Your hallway window
is as wide as your wish
and the lights in your room blaze,
illuminating what you might do to yourself
if only with the boxing gloves
duct-taped to your hands.
I understand every daybreak is your sacrifice,
each step from your bed
a step in quicksand.
I am not supposed to acknowledge you,
but I do—a wave,
not as to an animal in a zoo,
but to say you could be—you are—me,
and I am you.
I don’t know you.
But I know the fire in your brain.
I know the impossibility of your next breath.
But still you breathe.
And I breathe.
And you breathe.
We looked for him
in the usual places:
in his room,
on the playground,
in the skateboard park.
We looked in the library,
on the ball field,
below the bedroom window
of the girl next door
and the boy down the street.
We looked in the drugstore
and the liquor store.
We looked in the movie theater,
where we saw no one but a man
as bald as Buddha
throwing popcorn in the air
and catching it in his mouth. Every time.
We called his friends twice.
We called people he might not have known.
Most of them were polite.
Two hung up.
One thought we were the police.
We drove every street in town,
each of us taking turns calling his name
out the window.
Two dogs answered.
So did a woman with a blue bruise
under her right eye.
We drove by.
We crossed the borders of three states.
Our car broke down in a town without a name.
As we waited on the repair,
we drank beer in a bar
so dark it was called the Cave.
Every time the door opened, we thought,
Every time it wasn’t,
we had a sip
of our beers.
We consulted psychics and psychologists.
We used up all our sick days at work.
Our friends said routines would offer solace.
They do not. When we’re looking straight ahead,
we think, “He could be behind us,”
and it’s impossible not to turn around.
When we’re due a vacation,
we pull out a map of the world,
join hands, and let fate guide our fingers.
Biloxi, Mississippi; San Rafael, Argentina;
Vilnius, Lithuania, a mountainous place
in China with three rivers and six names.
We touch, we go.
We have outlived our life expectancies.
We have lived so long we know
there’s a good chance he’s dead.
We have now added graveyards to our itineraries.
You might see us and think
—for Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde
What could she know of love, terrible or otherwise?
She turned thirteen yesterday.
In her video for the song, she’s wearing braces.
She is closer to the womb than to suffering.
But sleeping pills, rabbit holes, spiders—
and the ocean, a metaphor
for what we hope love can’t take—
she sings of, Cassandra-like,
from the heartbreak of tomorrow.
The wonder is she doesn’t cry, run,
hide beneath her bedroom mobile of castles and crowns
but witnesses, in lilting voice and melodic ache,
what, like a flood over youth’s feeble damn,
will one day break.
The Naked Moment
Tonight could we do it without
the pomegranate seeds and the sassafras tea,
without the turquoise light bulb
and the pair of lava lamps?
Could we do it without the soundtrack of the London Underground
and the piped in scent of Audrey Hepburn’s favorite perfume?
Could we do it without Mexican jumping beans
in our pillows
and without Subcomandante Marcos sitting cross-legged
on our floor,
reading Spider Man comics
and dreaming of Moscow in the twenties?
Could we do it without once mentioning Love in the Time of Cholera
and without swallowing the yellow pill…or the blue…or the pink?
Could we do it without consulting our embassies,
without using our back channels
at the United Nations?
Could we do it like mail carriers, regardless of snow, hail, or heat?
Could we do it here, now, before
our next breath,
before our next heartbeat,
before either one of us blinks?