Laynie Browne is author of thirteen collections of poems and three novels. Recent books include You Envelop Me (Omnidawn 2017), Periodic Companions (Tinderbox 2018) and The Book of Moments (Presses universitaires de rouen et du havre, 2018). Her honors include a 2014 Pew Fellowship, the National Poetry Series Award (2007) for her collection The Scented Fox, and the Contemporary Poetry Series Award (2005) for her collection Drawing of a Swan Before Memory. Her poetry has been translated into French, Spanish, Chinese and Catalan. She teaches at University of Pennsylvania and at Swarthmore College.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was so long ago (Rebecca Letters, from Kelsey Street Press, 1997) it’s honestly hard to remember. I was definitely grateful, and felt and still feel a strong affinity with their list. After decades of writing books and working with many publishers I’m lucky to be in a position to travel more and share my work. My books are very different from each other. I’ve learned that each book speaks to a specific audience and that audience doesn’t necessarily overlap from book to book. You Envelop Me is an elegy and I offer this book particularly to those in mourning.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was nine years old I was given a book of poems by a babysitter. The volume contained Wordsworth, Frost, Nash, and others. I immediately memorized a Frost poem and then wrote my own very bad rhyming poem. Before that I’d written stories, and invented alphabets and plays.
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?
Each project is different. I tend to write quickly but revise slowly and endlessly. Beginning is easy. Finishing is challenging.
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?
I mostly write in a state of unknowing. Somewhere in the middle I begin to see a movement or direction. Often my initial thoughts about what I am doing are absolutely wrong. I think I’m writing a book but later it becomes clear that I’m writing two books, or three books, or no books. Or two strands become woven to create one cohesive series. Mostly I don’t know how to write individual poems. I can only do this for sonnets, and even with sonnets, they eventually speak to each other.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are incredibly helpful to my creative process. In reading for an audience I learn so much. I listen to—or read the audience. I focus on their attention and interest. When I am preparing for a reading I worry about how to frame the text and provide entrances through my selections. However, once I am reading I completely enter the experience and enjoy the process.
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?
The act of inquiry is essential to my work. Ongoing preoccupations include: perception, thought, the body, female identity, motherhood, sacred text and the material of language. I’m interested in contemplative poetics. How to inscribe the gap between thought and language? How to write and reinvent poetic forms such as: elegy, collage, homage, sonnet, letter, list, psalm, tale?
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 don’t believe in prescribing any role for “the writer.” I believe each artist must decide how to approach this question. I consider writing as an ultimate field of freedom that should be available to everyone. I am committed to working toward equity in education. For myself I can say that one aspiration is to inscribe the invisible. Another is to continue to encounter the question: what does it mean to be human? How can we, as a species, wake up? Writing can encourage compassion and provide insights needed for healing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Having an attentive editor who connects with one’s work is a wonderful gift.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I first met C.D. Wright, as her student, she advised me to “find my peers.” Besides reading, this is the best advice ever. My friendships with writers are invaluable.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I am always moving between genres, even within one book or one poem. I’ve never worked any other way. But when I say genres I’m speaking less of critical prose (though I have written some) and more the movement between poetry, the novel, short fiction and plays. Additionally I do visual work, collage and drawing. I am obsessed with this question of “the poet’s novel.” Does it exist? I am currently editing a large anthology on the subject, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2019. This book contains fifty original essays written by poets on novels written by poets.
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?
Ideally I write every day and begin first thing in the morning. However, I’m always learning how to make use of whatever time is available. Everything changes all the time. That’s the only constant. Sometimes I write the most when I have the least time. The process is mysterious to me.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When one project becomes impossible my best trick is to begin another. The challenge is that eventually I’ll end up with 2 or 3 or 4 or more unfinished books. Reading is always good. Bernadette Mayer’s infamous experiments and her writing are always encouraging. Art infusions help, seeing visual art, or dance, or music, or visits with poet friends. Lately I am doing lots of collaboration.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Orange blossoms. Gardenia. Jacaranda. Sage. Lavender. Rosemary. I grew up in California.
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?
Yes, all of the above. But to invoke some specifics: hiking, wildcrafting, making herbal medicines, mushroom hunting, the red fox who runs through my yard, and the owl I hear at night, my children. I’m married to a molecular biologist and spend summers at marine labs. I cannot work without music. At the moment I am listening to Nora Fischer’s new album titled “Hush” which breaks conventional music genres. She interprets classical works in surprising ways with her voice. The most recent art show I just saw was an opening by works in many mediums by Cecilia Vicuña at Lehmann Maupin in Chelsea (NYC). Contemplative practices including meditation, yoga, and chanting are essential to every aspect of my life.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I could never list all that is important. Everything I ever read. But at this moment what comes to mind are a number of female poets for whom I am writing homage texts. They are: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lyn Hejinian, Alice Notley, Rosmarie Waldrop, C.D. Wright and Cecilia Vicuña. I’d like to continue.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’ve been thinking about the book I will write for Leslie Scalapino. I want to travel to so many places I have not been. I’d love to collaborate with a composer, a dancer, a filmmaker. I’ve been fantasizing about learning to weave. I want to do more arts activism. I want to do more to uplift the work of other artists. I wish I had an entire parallel lifetime solely for reading. I’d like to really understand brain chemistry, study a new language, and have been gravitating toward doing more and more work away from screens, more work by hand.
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?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Love of literature. I always felt I had no choice but to write.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
A public art project for a new park on an elevated train rail that will open in center city Philadelphia this summer. I collaborated with artist Brent Wahl who created a large scale sculpture from a repurposed telephone pole, sculptural wire and cast birds. I curated poetry in 13 languages that is carved into paver stones in the park. http://creativephl.org/2017/03/16/for-immediate-release-%EF%BB%BFpercent-for-art-program-announces-new-public-art-commission-at-the-viaduct-rail-park-march-16-2017/
Also traveling and reading from new 3 new books:
My new collection of poetry: You Envelop Me
A novel: Periodic Companions
A book of short fiction: The Book of Moments