Fleda Brown Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
I love the daily intimacies in these poems: a person finding a pair of glasses after a mudslide or someone sitting in a hospital waiting room, expecting news. What is the importance, for you, of using intimate detail in poetry?
Well, of course, all sorts of news arrives through the loudspeaker of the news media or Facebook, or Twitter. The specialty of the poem is the sotto voce, what can barely be heard or barely even said. The whisper in the ear. Or, sometimes it can’t be said at all. I doubt that the man who found the glasses could say how he felt, holding them. So the poem looks for ways to get close to what can’t be said. What can stand in for it. Don’t we anchor our yearnings, our inarticulate anguish, in images? In the hospital room, the needle and thread. The other, earlier, details in that poem feel stitched into the fabric of that moment, which ends up being felt as an artful suspension of real life.
There’s another intimacy I admire in these poems, and that is the one between writer and reader. For instance, in “Glasses,” the speaker states “What I imagined, reading this,” referring to a worker picking a pair of glasses out of mudslide sludge. Not only does this phrase create a bridge between images, but it connects writer and reader by inviting whomever might be listening into the speaker's thoughts. Could you talk more about how you encourage this intimacy with the reader in your work? What are some ways writers can develop closeness with readers?
I think there’s always a danger in turning pontifical in poems. At least I am likely to start preaching if I don’t bring myself down to earth by reminding myself, in the poem, that it’s only me here, trying to work through this, trying to say something in the middle of a feeling that really has no words, but I’m slogging away at it. That does, as you say, create a bridge. I like to turn to the reader. In “Stump,” when I write, “Find something else to look at, I’ll bet you’re thinking, /the old man is about worn out, find another poem, / but this is the one I keep writing. . . “ I’ve gotten myself in a dark place and thinking of how to justify it. So I want to talk to the reader about that. It’s a conversation I’m having with her.
Sometimes when I run across parenthetical expressions in other people’s poems, I copy them down to have them available, like: “let the record show,” “I know, I was there,” “that’s it,” “oh, I should mention.” And so on. They break into the poem and actually make a different poem, one that, as you say, feels like a collusion, a vulnerability. Like Whitman when he says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” The charm—shall I use that word?— of those lines is that he both interrupts himself to acknowledge what the reader must be thinking (Do I contradict myself?) and he makes himself vulnerable by admitting, yes, true, he’s contradicted himself.
Your poem “Suspension” states, “You can sit there and be inside / of art, sort of, nothing falling,” and in this poem is a single moment (or series of moments) taken into account by the writer who has come to a place they want to figure out. What happens in the journey of the poem might seem, as the poem states, “the exaggeration,” but in light of the last line, art is much more than a journey of the imagination. Could you talk more about the poem as a work of art?
Art has a quality of exaggeration, partly because it concentrates the ordinary, so we can see it differently. But when you’re in the middle of ordinary life, when there’s tension and worry and collapse—all utterly human—if you’re able to look closely at what's there, it’s hard to tell “life” from “art.” But then again, you have this poem! Something about it is “not falling.” It is holding up these disparate pieces, all together, in a form. In a poem. You can sit and have your coffee and read this. There is that separation (and suspension) that actually allows for a deeper seeing. I think that’s what I was doing there, but I’m only the writer. Don’t take my word for it. I was sitting on the balcony of our building, feet propped up, listening to the sounds around me. That’s how it started.
I’d like to go back to the vulnerability in poetry that you mentioned earlier. Not only are your poems filled with intimate detail, but they examine the fears we experience as humans. “Ode on Terror” is a wonderful example of this. There’s a word, terror (“Tear and Roar”) that represents everything we can and can’t see. “You can see the teeth, / you can hear the barking dog. You can’t / see the thoughts that caused the killings, the bombings, / flying loose, thumbing against the sky.” This isn’t the only vulnerability in the poem: by the last line, terror itself seems to be vulnerable. I love the movement of this poem from thought to thought, and wondered if you could talk about the genesis of this poem.
I’ve been writing these things I call odes, for no particular reason except that they seem to praise or glorify. They don’t have the classic three-part structure of an ode, though. You ask about the genesis. I think it was way back, after 9/11, when one day I was driving along and thought, what’s to keep the oncoming cars from crossing the yellow line? Only a mutual agreement. It’s law, in its broadest sense. Such a thin line. Then I started thinking of all the other safeties I’ve taken for granted (we all did), until they weren’t there. And cancer? Whoever thought my cells would go haywire? The root fear is fear of dying. I finally had to get to that in a poem about terror.
Actually, as I look closely at this poem I realize I unconsciously did organize into strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The terror, trying to escape the terror, and finally, when the worst happens and there is no Me. Is that so terrible? I write from a Buddhist perspective. Not the death of Me, but the death of the fear of not being. It’s the ego that’s been so fearful. When the ego gives up and falls into the great, grand, mutual sea, then terror will finally have to give up. Again, don’t trust my exegesis. I’m only the writer.
Fleda, thank you so much for talking with me about your poems and your process, which are both inspiring. On that same note, what are your current sources of inspiration?
They’re nearly always the same for me—images, visual triggers, that ignite feelings which often I find are attached to things far-flung from the original image. Then those feelings send up a whole new batch of images. And so on. I usually don’t know what the heck I’m doing. I often feel total despair that anything will arrive. I’ve been writing all these years, and still I begin with the belief that there’s nothing there, that I’ve emptied the bucket. Lately it seems harder to bring up what’s needed, but when I do, it’s better than before, I think. Harder to get to—maybe because it’s more complex (I’ve lived a long time)—but better for it. But I have no initial confidence. I head out across a wilderness.
I’ve written a series of prose poems that are letters to artists about their paintings. I’ve written a series of odes (you have one of them here). The odes started after I read some poems in American Poetry Review by Barbara Hanby that she called odes. I liked the shape of the poems, every other line indented, so I started with that form in mind (unusual for me). No reason except that it gave me something to hang my hat on, so to speak. That’s how the image works for me: something to hang my hat on.
I don’t believe in inspiration. This is not an original thought, of course. You plod along, you fill the white space, you have nothing, then at some point, if you’re lucky, the unconscious finds a way to poke through the barrage of words. There’s one phrase, one sentence, that feels inspired. It didn’t seem to come from anywhere, it’s unparaphraseable, yet feels utterly true. That’s the divine, in the root sense of the word “inspiration”—under the immediate influence of a god.
Quickly came the mudslide, turned the air
the thickness of pudding in the mouth, the ears, the hands.
The glasses slid to somewhere
and were found, picked out of the sludge,
the worker picked them out of the sludge, came upon this
intimacy like brushing back a hair
from a face, something that doesn’t want
intruders, came upon this artifact, like a name, only not.
Her particular myopia, corrected.
He took them, that spoke for the actual body
in some sense, that only the secret mind knows, the mind
ferrying itself back and forth across
the life-death border until it feels like gossamer.
What I imagined, reading this. Because of these other
glasses. I feel the border, not a border but
a sliding, there it goes, like that, an avalanche of suddenness,
being only the suddenness of awareness:
I take my father’s glasses, he not yet dead,
glasses edged with superglue, string wrapped around
the hinge and smeared with glue, his clever repair.
I take them up and fit them for him
over the hearing aids, the oxygen tube. They will be left,
and then what? Everything comes and goes.
Someone is left. Something is left.
The worker held the mud-covered glasses, not knowing
who would hold them and cry. I think he had come
as far as he could with them.
I think he touched the hard edge, sliding his forefinger
and thumb against the concave glass.
You’re leaning back against
the wicker, legs propped—
invisible noisy birds, lawnmower
never ceasing, and there’s also
a police car whop-whop,
its wavelike siren, the shush
of cars, and a laugh—a surprise,
the way death is a surprise,
first, maybe, the small pain
in the chest, a peculiar throb
in the groin, even while the sun
is shining and the lawnmower
is doing its work. Or maybe
a great shudder of the earth,
Icarus falling as the fields
are plowed. The Venetian casino
in Las Vegas has a whole canal
with gondolas, and a painted
sky you can almost believe,
except for the buttons.
You can sit there and be inside
of art, sort of, nothing falling,
which—there it is, the pleasure
of art—you can sit and have
your coffee. Meanwhile, death
is suspended, your father
in the hospital having his CT scan,
his old arteries paper-thin and
wanting to collapse, but held by
stitching and stitching, how small
the needle, how delicate
the thread! You might say art
is the exaggeration, if you’d
never sat waiting to hear.
His stump of a leg shoots up involuntarily—
that surprised lightness and quivering—
shed of responsibility, but when the solid body
leans over the bed to reach the phone
that dropped on the floor and the battery falls out,
he is sliding as if through water off the bed,
and he is crawling now after the parts
and also after the red cord that calls for help
and when he can’t reach that, he’s crawling
into the bathroom, not crawling, with only one
knee, but scooching for the cord and pulling it.
Find something else to look at, I’ll bet you’re thinking,
the old man is about worn out, find another poem,
but this is the one I keep writing to see if it’s
the same one, year after year or different.
This is the one that keeps ringing for help,
this is the one building itself up, getting a prosthetic.
“It’s worth it,” we say. “Even if you live only
a little while longer, you can donate the leg.
Someone else can walk.” He wants it, really,
I see that, something to stand on. With amazing
levers and hinges, like the Wizard of Oz’s
behind the curtain. That was all illusion, but
it didn’t matter. The lion, the scarecrow, the tin man,
taking the long road to ask for their own selves.
What do I need? I want this to have a heart,
an answer. But he doesn’t care about that,
he only wants the phone, the clock, the book.
Ode on Terror
I used to think that whole yellow-line thing between
me and oncoming trucks was natural, before
they started swerving across sidewalks, across center
islands. Also, I’ve become aware that
the complicated organs necessary to allow me even
one more breath could refuse to collude
anymore. The way I see it, the cracks in logic are all
filled with gunpowder. When I want to see
terror up close, I can think of chemo, radiation.
There it is, the word, slathering everything
with implications: Tear and Roar. You can see the teeth,
you can hear the barking dog. You can’t
see the thoughts that caused the killings, the bombings,
flying loose, thumbing against the sky.
Thoughts didn’t cause the cancer, maybe, but the mind
multiplied it faster than cells could. Nothing
is safe. I could hide under the duvet where the truck roar
is muted. All those people on the sidewalk!
Under the duvet, it’s only the old fear of dying, hunched
down. The old, “Who will I be when I’m not?”
When there is no pray-er and no prayer. When you walk
into the living room and forget what you came
for. When the talk show host is the Buddha, silently
holding up a flower, when Nothing is preparing
an attack, Nothing is strapping on an explosive device.
When everything’s elegantly in sync. Like music,
or love. You find you have dived into the great grand
mutual sea with its rising and swarming and easing
and spilling. Under the circumstances, what can terror
do, clinging to a limb? It has always tried so
hard, I think, but the later it gets, the tireder it grows.