Franklin Bruno is a writer and musician, born and raised in Southern California’s Inland Empire, and now based in Jackson Heights, Queens. He is the author of The Accordion Repertoire (poetry, Edge Books) and Armed Forces (music criticism, in Continuum/Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series). His poetry, criticism, and scholarly writing have appeared in Brooklyn Rail, Oxford American, The Village Voice, Popular Music and Society, Paideuma, and Critical Quarterly. Since the 1990s, he has released 20 albums of original music as one-third of Nothing Painted Blue, under his own name, and (currently) as frontman of The Human Hearts. Collaborative projects include writing, recording, or performing with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Jenny Toomey, Laura Cantrell, and the Schramms. He holds a Ph.D in Philosophy from UCLA, and has taught at Northwestern University, Bard College, and SUNY Purchase.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Not much, outside of the occasional invitation (like this one) that wouldn’t have come about otherwise. I’m not a literary academic and have never taught creative writing, so it hasn’t been a calling card in that sense. It’s gratifying to have gotten my act together to the tune of the proverbial perfect-bound collection, particularly with a press I respect and own scores of other books from, but it hasn’t changed my self-conception as a writer. I didn’t arrange a book launch or reading for its publication – it seemed corny at the time, but I regret not making the occasion.
In case I sound diffident: I had been submitting something resembling this book for a few years before Rod Smith/Edge expressed an interest, and revised it quite a bit after he took it on. The manuscript also went through a kind of workshop led by Lisa Jarnot and including Jennifer Bartlett and Emily Brandt. It includes work written and initially published over at least ten years; the title sequence and other anchoring poems stayed in place, but others got tossed out, replaced, and reshuffled. So I don’t strongly associate the book with a concentrated period of writing; I also published other poems and sequences over the same period that didn’t fit.
I’d like some of what I write in the future to be less tightly controlled, but I can’t say how that will play out. I’ve also done work with found texts that isn’t represented in this book.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote both fiction and poetry in high school, and one undergraduate writing workshop. (It wasn’t great: my interests in Ashbery and language poetry were dismissed as intellectualized.) But fiction fell by the wayside — I don’t have an imaginative gift for narrative, world-building, or “realistic” characterization and dialogue. Maybe I could have turned those weakness into strengths in some other fictive mode, but I had internalized a “literary quarterly”/Best American Short Stories ideal I was never likely to meet. What I was better at, perhaps, was musicality, figurative/allusive/connotative language, and compression; so, poetry.
I wrote music criticism in my high school and college newspapers, and have done that semi-professionally since. I’ve also been writing songs and releasing records regularly since 1990. Between them, I’ve devoted more time to those two activities than poetry as such.
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?
I don’t know what counts as starting, but I’m not a fast writer. Once in a while I ride a wave — the material in the book’s title sequence showed up rapidly — but most of what I end up committing to print is composed, in the sense of being assembled, and worked over at length. This is no knock against spontaneity, flow, or the lyric occasion — it’s just what I have to do to arrive somewhere in language. That said, I write down a great deal I don’t or can’t use, most of which I wouldn’t dignify as drafts or even notes. I once read that Ginsberg was asked how much of what went into his notebooks showed up in published poems, and he said something like one percent. And he’s the first thought, best thought guy, so I find that heartening.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?
There’s no “usually,” but accumulation is a figure in the book, and some pieces (like “Distribution Hub”) proceed from the piling up of bits that are gradually arrayed in some kind of larger structure, which may or may not pre-exist the material. “Balance” is a better word for what I’m going for than “order” — I think I want a nonhierarchical sense that everything is in play at every point. Borges’s treatment of Pascal’s image of “an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” seems to have some purchase on my sense of rightness or completion; hence “distribution.” For Pascal, the sphere was God, and I don’t know what to do with that bit.
Outside of the most obvious recurrences (cities, money and its circulation, something more abstract I might call mediation), I’m more aware of connections among individual poems after the fact than while they’re being written. Otherwise, sequences of 10-20 poems/sections seem to provide the right amount of space for me to move in. Longer than that, I worry that I’m padding for ambition’s sake. (Remember when almost everything that appeared in experimental journals was from something?) I have ideas (and a few poems) toward a book-length project, but it’s on hold.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy reading, hanging out, and hearing other poets, though I also think some contemporary writing isn’t perfectly suited to being grasped on first hearing – mine included, aside from the occasional laugh line. I’ve changed clunky phrases after hearing myself, but can’t say that reading work-in-progress is integral to my process. Music is very different: I rarely record a song I haven’t rehearsed and played live a number of times, ideally with the musicians who will take it into the studio, since details of arrangement, dynamics, and vocal phrasing that show up in that process can transform the realization of even a carefully written song. So can an audience’s response.
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 have a background in philosophy, which might be evident occasionally, but don’t see my poetry as philosophy or theory by other means. For one thing, I want it to be open to contingency: if I can explain why everything in a poem is there, and in that order, it becomes less interesting, because more illustrative. When there are questions I think I have a shot at answering, I’m more inclined to turn to expository, argumentative, or polemical prose.
I suspect most “current” questions are species of older ones, though the terms in which they’re asked are shaped by historical conditions. But that’s what you’d expect a philosopher to say. That said, questions about the long-term survival of the species and the planet are, if not new, newly urgent.
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 know, am credulous of writers who claim to, and would not put forward my way of being in the world as a model for anyone else. It seems clear that if my main aim were to directly affect public life, I would write quite differently, and pursue different venues. I’ll venture to add that what many of us are doing by broadcasting our aesthetic/cultural/political views via social media is probably not what we think we’re doing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My prose has benefited immeasurably from good editors; I try to be open to the process. And music is intensively collaborative, which is one of its great pleasures, even if one doesn’t call one’s bandmates or engineer editors. I’m more precious and protective about poetry, for reasons that wouldn’t bear much examination. However, the book benefited from two specific suggestions, besides the workshop mentioned above. Rod Smith recommended switching the order of the book’s two halves - the first, as it now stands, is more abstract and synoptic overall, which helps set up the referential and observational strategies of the second. Also, Joshua Clover identified “Approach to Ziggurat,” which was buried later in the manuscript, as the best opening poem - which immediately seemed right.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The Canadian poet Sarah Dowling tweeted: “There are a bazillion ways to write well; people hate all of them.”
The novelist Alice Mattison writes, “Don’t revise just because you can’t imagine finishing anything.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose to songwriting)? What do you see as the appeal?
I may have touched on this above. Common concerns motivate all three kinds of work, but it’s usually clear whether what I’m working on is a song, poem, or essay/article. Nothing against hybridity, but it hasn’t for the most part my project.
I can add that writing songs and poems are fairly different. I’m an avid listener to improvised music, and have done some playing in that context, but most of my musical output deals in popular song forms, which are often highly conventionalized, relative to genre. Historically, that’s largely a matter of commercial and industrial considerations, as Adorno would be the first to tell you, but such conventions can also be generative constraints, and (since I’m also a historian of song form) I’m conscious of when I’m bending, breaking, or simply following them. In songs, I’m picky about rhyme schemes, stress, singability of vowel sounds, and similar craft issues. So it’s generally quite clear to me when a song is done or isn’t (needs a third verse, etc.), or when it’s too correct, to the point of being formulaic. This is less true of poetry: I’m concerned with the musicality* of language, but I rarely write metrical verse, and while I sometimes impose a structure (lines per section, syllables per line, etc.), I seldom use traditional, historically received forms (e.g., I’m not a sonneteer). So it’s not always evident – to me, or I suspect, readers – what counts as rightness or completeness.
(*And musicality, for me, is not synonymous with ineffability, or a catch-all for aspects of language that transcend mere meaningfulness.)
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 enjoy books like Daily Rituals, and interviews about painters’ studio habits, so I wish I had a better answer. But between frequent changes in teaching/work schedule and location, family responsibilities, the odd demands of music (a rehearsal here, a gig there, some very late nights), and struggles with depression and procrastination, a regimented writing schedule has been a will-o’-the-wisp. I’d like to be a more consistent morning writer, but it doesn’t always pan out. (I feel strongly about being forthright about not having this All Figured Out.)
Ideally, I write 2-3 hours daily, but can put in more in the late stages of prose revision, especially in response to editorial queries (and deadlines). I always have a half-dozen partly written songs hanging around my head, and sometimes use an upcoming show to complete one or two. If someone were clamoring for an album a year, I could step up to the plate, though at the expense of other writing. I kept a daily poetry notebook — or, let’s say, a page a day of lineated crap — between the summer solstices of 2015-2017, and may go back to that, but revising that material isn’t a priority.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Bracketing that word, collage-ish work (juxtaposing stray phrases from one or two texts, or a stack of books) can lead somewhere. I also have a silly Beat habit of scribbling in a notebook at jazz/improv shows. For prose, I often engage by taking notes on a text I disagree with but can’t dismiss out of hand.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Broiled Italian sausage.
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?
By the same token, music begets music; pop music is also the subject of most of my critical writing, but I’ve come to feel that jazz and even some “classical”) is more relevant to my poetry, perhaps because I don’t fully grasp its forms. After “books” and music, film (and some film criticism) has been the most influential medium; there are several poems in the book that describe particular movies, and passing references throughout.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ll forgo a long list; most of the names wouldn’t be surprising. I will say that Bertolt Brecht, Langston Hughes, and Kenward Elmslie — despite their differences! — are all important to me as poets who engaged seriously with (song)-lyric writing and musical theater. I might even include Auden’s songs with Benjamin Britten. Two craft pieces that have stuck with me are the Clark Coolidge and Ted Berrigan chapters from those old Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute volumes, which I bought on remainder at a mall in high school: I appreciate their matter-of-factness, compared to most of what surrounded them.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Be as confident, assured, or fluent in any creative endeavor as one tends to sound in this kind of interview.
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?
(1) Serious jazz/improvising pianist or advocate for the homeless. The juxtaposition makes this answer sound like a joke, but it isn’t. (2) If not for personal contingencies and changes in the job market, I might have ended up with a modest sinecure in a philosophy department, even with my odd array of interests. I regret the lack of security, but am not entirely unhappy to have dodged the tenured academic’s tendency to self-satisfaction with respect to deservingness.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The only answer I’ve ever really trusted to this kind of question is Ashbery’s: “I don’t know really — I just want to.” Now, that may be self-protective (his interviews can be as cagey as Bob Dylan’s), and may not even be admirable. But I suspect it is more honest than more instrumentalized descriptions of the motivations we’d like to ascribe to ourselves.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
“Greatness” sounds so Germanic; I’ll go with it. I finally read The Magic Mountain last year, and it lives up to the hype. It coincided with a period where I had to stay in California for an unexpectedly long time (though not seven years) to deal with family members’ illnesses, so it was personally resonant and affecting. And why had nobody ever told me that Hans Castorp spends a chunk of the last hundred pages playing with a new phonograph? The recent translation, by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn, of Brecht’s collected poems also qualifies, less because of the aesthetic perfection of everything he wrote (though much of it is very-good-to-great) than because of the consistency of his project and convictions across styles, forms, and circumstances. I even like his almost self-parodic attempt to create new Communist myths for the East German state by writing a heroic paean to a Soviet peasant who discovered more productive techniques for cultivating millet.
I’ll recommend two movies. (1) Von heute auf morgen (From Today until Tomorrow) (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1996) which documents a staged performance of a lesser-known one-act opera by Schoenberg from 1930, with a libretto by his wife Gertrud. It concerns a bourgeois couple’s argument and reconciliation over their respective flirtations; a sitcom plot set vocally and otherwise to violent, dissonant music. (I don’t know if it’s strictly 12-tone.) I’m fascinated by the disconnect between matter and manner, and the unobtrusively disciplined direction. (2) Nine Girls (Leigh Jason, 1944), a low-budget sorority-girl whodunit (other than two cops, there are hardly any men in the film) with an uncanny atmosphere (akin to The Seventh Victim), a good deal of comic relief, and engaging character performances. These are both filmed plays with limited “opening out” — one is supposed to find that uncinematic, but I don’t.
20 - What are you currently working on?
For the last few years, I’ve been writing a book about bridges in pop music, from the Tin Pan Alley period though the current charts. And my band the Human Hearts is close to finishing a new album; it’s recorded, but not mixed. I’m hoping both of these will be done, if not released, in 2020.