Lily Brown lives in Athens, GA, where she is a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia. Her first book, Rust or Go Missing, is forthcoming from Cleveland State University Poetry Center in fall 2010. New work is forthcoming in the Colorado Review, American Letters and Commentary, and Lo-Ball.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook made me feel like maybe I wasn’t insane for loving poetry and wanting it to be a significant part of my life.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was a kid, my mom used to read to me from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. The funny thing about this is that my memories of the book are more of the illustrations that accompany the poems than of the poems themselves. But I wonder if something about the imagistic memories I have of the experience of reading poetry led me to want to create my own images in writing. I wrote a tiny book of poems when I was between the ages of seven and ten, and the first poem in there is labeled “with Mom, 7 years old,” so clearly my mother encouraged me to write, which I’m sure was important in the sense that I felt it was a valid thing to do. Most of the poems in that book are invectives against friends I was apparently fighting with, or celebrations of places and people I liked. So, I would venture to say that something about the brevity of the poetic form appealed to my young self, along with the ability it gave me to express my feelings. That sounds corny, but as a kid I wasn’t always good at verbalizing my thoughts and feelings, so I think writing poems helped me to process my experiences in the world.
I tried writing fiction and non-fiction (at one point I started writing a book on pollution from smoke stacks!) and even songs as a kid, but I think something about organizing lines on the page gave me a feeling of control over the material. I also liked to record thoughts that were by nature non-linear, and poetry must have seemed to be the genre that most permitted those kinds of leaps and semantic elisions. At a certain point, I had been writing poems for so long, it became what was familiar to me, and also served as a way of finding out about the world through language play.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
When I write, the writing generally comes quickly. I’ll spend 45 minutes handwriting in a journal, and then type my notes up if I think I’ve written anything worthwhile. So, poems generally start as prose—though I sometimes work in verse from the beginning of the process—and I later work and rework the form until I’m happy with the lines, stanzas, etc.. Usually I try a number of different formal iterations as I revise, so a draft of a poem might start as one long stanza, and end up in couplets or tercets. I think the “real” writing happens in revision, when I feel like I’m thinking with the language, which might have to do with the speed with which a computer allows one to work and to move language around.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up
combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem usually begins from a kind of daydream while I’m reading another text. I often think of poems as coming out of the mind wandering, or the imagination’s engagement with some other kind of text. I would include visual texts in “other kinds of texts,” and even conversations, because plenty of poems have come out of conversations with family or friends.
I am unequivocally an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project. Poems are very much discrete entities for me, even though my poems are clearly linked to each other thematically, syntactically, formally, lexically.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m not sure that readings are either part of or counter to my creative process. I do enjoy doing readings; I think a lot about sound when I write, so reading the poems aloud might be the ideal expression for them. I suppose readings allow the poems another kind of life off the page, but it’s simply a different experience than that of reading the poem on a page, and I think both are important. Reading on the page allows the visual and formal characteristics of a poem to emerge, while reading aloud showcases the aural aspects of the poems. I sometimes wonder if the visual experience of a reading isn’t distracting—I once saw Joe Wenderoth read in Berkeley (“saw” isn’t literal here), and he sat out of sight, in the dark, behind a podium while he read. I actually felt better able, in that situation, to concentrate on the language, without the figure of the poet in front of me.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think the theoretical concerns behind my work depend on what I’m reading. Issues I’m constantly mulling over, however, include negotiations between the interior and the exterior, the human versus the natural/animal world, how language can mean in different directions simultaneously, and how form influences and extends this simultaneity.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I hope that writers offer up alternative realities and ways of thinking than the one’s provided by the mass media, political rhetoric, etc.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I appreciate editorial input. I learned to be a better reader and reviser of my own poems through the input of teachers and friends, so without editorial input I don’t know what I would be writing now!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My dad once told me that if you work hard at something you love, things have a way of working out. I like that advice because it takes uncertainty into account, but it’s also hopeful. And it’s not based on wishful thinking, but on something we can presumably control, which is how seriously we take what we love, and how hard we work at it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
My writing process for poetry and critical prose is very similar, so in a way I see both types of writing as part of the same activity. Writing is always an act of discovery for me, and not something premeditated. When I write poems, I find out what ideas or thoughts they’re circling around during the revision process (or after), and it’s the same for essays or reviews. Now that I’m in school again, I write prose all the time, and I’m always struck by how similar that writing process is to poetry. Usually, I’m taken by something (a quote, an idea, etc.) in a text I’m reading, I start to write about it, and connections emerge as I’m writing. The same happens in a poem—moving a line or phrase, making a cut that brings two lines closer together, paying attention to the sounds a poem makes—all of these things lead to further connections and resonances in the language of the poem, but these connections are never planned. Rather, they happen organically, which is to say, unexpectedly. And I would say that 75% of the time I write poems when I’m reading, so the two genres share an impetus, as well.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a writing routine. I tried to for many, many years, and I found that it was counterproductive to the way I write, and only resulted in my feeling guilty for not writing. So, now I essentially let it happen when it happens. I do believe in setting the stage, though. Last summer, I set myself the task of going to the library at Loyola in Chicago three or four days a week for two hours, with a bag of books and a journal. I figured that if I wound up writing while I was there, great, but if not, not. And I try not to beat myself up when I’m not writing, though I inevitably do a little bit anyway.
I also carry a journal around most of the time, just in case. When I lived in northern California, I found myself writing in traffic a lot. I’d be sitting there and the sky would do something amazing and it seemed not too dangerous, since more often than not I was sitting still.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Last summer, I wasn’t writing at all, and I decided to stop reading poetry for a while, and to try reading prose. When I was getting my M.F.A., I took a class in which we read long novels by Don Delillo, Henry James, and Herman Melville, and I think I wrote more during that semester than during any other semester. So, I decided to try prose over the summer as a source of inspiration, and I had a bit of success. I read Beckett’s Three Novels, and found that the destitution of the characters in those books wound up in a couple of poems. At the same time, I went to see a Cy Twombly exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago, and that unexpectedly wound up serving as an inspiration, as well. So I think that sometimes immersing myself in different artistic and written genres can spark writing for me. Anything that makes me think in a different way, or that unexpectedly engages my imagination seems to help.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’ve already addressed this question in a couple of other answers, but I would add that aside from conversation and visual art, walking often influences my work. When I was getting my M.F.A. I spent a lot of time hiking in the Bay Area, particularly in Tilden Park in Berkeley, and the landscape of that place seeped into lots and lots of poems. In fact, it’s still seeping into poems I’m writing even now. I recently moved to Athens, Georgia to go to school, and this landscape is starting to get into the poems.
Walking has also helped me to work out prosody in poems. Sometimes I’ll walk around when I’m trying to revise poems and recite them in my head as a way of thinking about formal, rhythmic, and sonic qualities.
Alongside walking, its context—nature—is and has always been an influence.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many, it would be hard to reproduce them all here. Usually, whoever I’m reading at any given time is important to my work. Reading other texts gives me a sense of permission to write poems. My friend Claire Becker’s poems always make me want to write!
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I wish I could successfully grow something, like a vegetable garden. I tried to grow herbs last year and failed miserably. When my plants finally started growing, squirrels climbed onto my porch and ate them.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I wish I could paint or sculpt. I think our culture tends to be much more forgiving of abstraction and non-linearity in the visual arts, and I love painters like Cy Twombly and Richard Diebenkorn; their art hovers between representation and abstraction in a way that I consistently find pleasurable. I also love Giacommetti’s sculptures, which I think distort reality in a similar way—his figures are recognizable, but elongated and textured in ways that reflect an interior reality different from the exterior, visual one. So, I sometimes wish I could do with paint or clay what I like to do with language.
I also think that if I hadn’t tried to make a go of it with writing, I would have become a social worker or psychologist.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Stubbornness, foolishness, necessity.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The serial poem “Cups 1-12” by Robin Blaser is really good. I also loved Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. I read some great Robert Duncan essays this semester. For films, The Gleaners and I, directed by Agnes Varda. And Fantastic Mr. Fox, too.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m just letting poems come as they will. When I’m really writing, I tend to write a poem a week, and I’ve been doing that lately. I’m hoping that over time I’ll accumulate a second manuscript. I’m also writing a lot for school, and I’m currently trying to write about Laura Riding and about Robin Blaser.
For one of my courses, I wrote a long poem as a final project. The poem has thirteen sections, and the title of each comes from one of the texts we read in the course. Writing in a longer form, or writing shorter pieces that are linked together, is a new experience for me.