An Interview with Traci Brimhall

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos: Your second collection of poems,Our Lady of the Ruins, is mesmerizing – for all its violence and horror, I cannot look away, and I feel if not a desire, maybe even a need, to keep listening to the voices on the page.  In her introduction to the book, Carolyn Forché writes that the world of your poems is “our post-apocalyptic present.”  It’s true that the horrors in your poems seem both present and past, with the latter dimly remembered if remembered at all.  What is this apocalypse in Our Lady of the Ruins?

Traci Brimhall:  I suppose I think the apocalypse is the present, or what the present would feel like if we could feel all of history at once.  In one of my graduate classes several years ago we read Merwin’s The Liceand the teacher referred to it as mid-apocalyptic.  That idea awed and horrified me—the notion that the apocalypse is not a single cataclysmic event but a way of living in the world.  The fear.  The desperation.  The knowledge you were unwanted, damned.  As a child, I thought the rapture was imminent, and then I wondered if it was already here.

JB:  The language of your poems is pitched very high.  The poems swell, line after line, with intoxicating images.  And I sometimes feel an uneasiness with the beauty of the language because the images are often so violent.  Just from one poem: “Assassins kiss our fingers.”  And: “how the coroner found minnows/ swimming in a drowned girls lungs.”  From another poem (in prose sections): “We wipe snow from the sundial and tell a cardinal in the frozen fountain about women dancing in basements during the raids.”  This is an assonance of dread, a master’s portrait of death!  It is incredibly seductive.  Can you talk a bit about the relationship between beauty and violence in your poems?

TB:   Some dead poets will tell you beauty is truth, some will say it is a lie, some will say it’s the offspring of death.  I guess I’m in the last camp with Stevens.  It’s the temporality of the world that affords the love we feel for it and the beauty we see in it. Mortality is not a threat; it’s a fact.

And then there’s violence—not the natural decay of that temporary beauty, but the theft of it, and the aggressiveness of choice implicit in violence.

When I wrote most of Our Lady, I maintained a practice of gratitude.  I was living in my car at the time, either staying with friends or sleeping in parks/parking lots, and I tried to say thank you three times a day.  There were always at least three things to be thankful for.  I bring that up here because it was the time my life felt the most beautiful and the most precarious.

JB: Your account reminds me a bit of a similar time in my life.  I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me without the help of a few very good friends.  I know what you mean about gratitude.  And the precariousness of life.  And how sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can not only survive but make some of our best art during these times.  I want to ask an honest, and maybe ridiculous, question: Do you ever miss it, this time in your life?

TB: Absolutely.  Even though I would not welcome back the poverty or fear or loneliness, it also brought with it joy and wonder and a new understanding of my strengths.

JB: Your poems are often titled as prayers, novenas, dirges, requiems, nocturnes, and other musical forms.  And considering your title, I sense maybe you had a Catholic education.  Am I right?  If so, how has Catholicism influenced your work?

TB:  I had a very chaotic religious education.  My family changed churches often, trying everything from Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Pentecostal.  Perhaps the constant spiritual upheaval of changing churches made me desire ritual, but the only mass I ever attended was with my first stepfamily.

The way I see my religious upbringing most directly affecting my work is in the earnest doubt of my speakers.  I was always ashamed of my doubts growing up.  Knowledge, after all, is the most sinister desire.  To know is to no longer be innocent, but it’s a power humankind shares with its God, and that’s extraordinary.  That’s worth losing a garden over.

JB: Most of the poems in Our Lady are written in couplets, and a good amount are in tercets.  Can you talk a bit about the possibilities of each stanza pattern, and when you know a poem needs a particular kind of stanza?

TB: I adore the line.  I’m fascinated by how it functions in terms of tension and temporality.  I want the language to sing, but I see lines as measures of music.  When I revise, I often read my poems backwards from the bottom up in order to test their music and make sure they sing as fragments separated from their syntax and narrative/lyric flow.

You mentioned the high pitch of language I’m fond of, and I think that’s why I stick to smaller stanzas. I love the muchness and strangeness of this world, and my choice of image and tone often reflects that. I don’t want to overwhelm the reader by asking them to confront too much of it at once. In that way, I see poems as a museum of wonders. Each stanza is a room full of wild and terrible beauty that wants to dazzle gradually.

JB: Oh, don’t think you can just drop the phrase “terrible beauty” without me bringing up Yeats!  I’m really interested in what you said earlier, about the apocalypse as “not a single cataclysmic event but a way of living in the world.”  I think of perhaps Yeats’s most famous poem, “The Second Coming,” and I shudder – as I do when reading the poems in Our Lady – with foreboding.  But I wonder if Yeats would sign up for this idea of apocalypse as omnipresent.  I mean, he seemed so seduced by ideas of historical markers, often occult and highly obscure.  What do you make of Yeats and his sense of history as chaptered disaster and rebirth?  Is he a big influence on your work?

TB: I think the disaster/rebirth, death/resurrection idea is everywhere—the Bildungsroman arc, the hero’s journey, the promise of some religions.  The problem I have with that idea is that it is something that happens once—you come of age, you travel to the belly of the beast and return, you’re born again.  Resurrection is a metaphor we constantly live, not something we live once.  We can save ourselves as many times as we need to.

JB: The title poem is the only poem in the book that has a dual voice: one on the left side of the page, and another (italicized) on the right side.  I hear the latter voice as Our Lady of the Ruins, and the former as a collective voice of people refusing salvation, insisting on a life of unclean hedonism.  I first read the poem left to right, hearing the two voices interrupt/continue each other; then I read the poem’s left column first, then its right column.  I don’t have a preference, as each reading was rewarding in different ways, but I’m wondering if you’d rather your readers read the poem one way or the other.

TB: I see the two voices as you do—one as Our Lady and one as the collective, although I don’t see them as solely hedonistic.  They desire more than pleasure.  I think they want a god worth believing in because everything they’ve trusted in so far has disappointed them.

This probably sounds absurd, but I don’t know how to read it either.  I imagine the voices occurring simultaneously. Perhaps that’s why prayers go unanswered—we’re too busy talking over each other to hear what the other is saying. I think that something gets communicated despite the competing voice since both sides of the poem end in a rhyme.

JB: Your poems often seem placed in ancient or medieval times.  We encounter hired mourners, whalers, monks, penitents, soldiers, butchers, prophets, amputees, and landscapes “where aspens quake with the old/ ecclesiastical terror.”  Despite the boasts of modernity and globalization, much of the earth’s population still lives in this kind of world.  Can you talk about prose works you’ve read, or any travel perhaps, that has shed some light on the kind of primeval suffering we encounter in your work?

TB: Some of the books I remember reading while writing these poems are Thoreau’s journals, Kabir’s poetry, an atlas of remote islands, travel brochures from towns I travelled through, and Nick Bantok’s postcards from an invented country that had no borders.  I don’t know that my reading list speaks to suffering.  Actually, much of it was filled with facts, observations, and a little ecstasy.

I never actually thought of the representations of suffering in the book as ancient or medieval.  Penitents, prophets, and hired mourners all seemed like corollaries for things I see in the modern, global world.  Suffering doesn’t seem to cease over time; it seems to change.  Metamorphosis is often a hopeful idea (other than the example of poor Gregor Samsa).  Transfiguration or being born again suggests an ascension, a better self, but time and experience don’t necessarily improve us or help us make better choices.  Surviving our suffering doesn’t mean we come out clean on the other side or with some handy lesson to pass onto others.  Sometimes it just means we’re still breathing.  I realize this answer contradicts my answer to the Yeats question, but I believe both are true.

JB: Can you tell us what you’ve been working on since Our Lady?

TB: I’ve been writing a strange and messy biomythography based on my mother’s childhood in Brazil. Every time I write a new poem, I seem to understand it less and love it more.

Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award.  Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere.  She was the 2008-09 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and currently teaches at Western Michigan University, where she is a doctoral associate and King/Chávez/Parks Fellow.