Brandon Krieg is the author of Magnifier (Center for Literary Publishing, 2019), winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry chosen by Kazim Ali, In the Gorge (Codhill Press, 2017), Invasives (New Rivers Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 ASLE Book Award in Environmental Creative Writing, and a chapbook, Source to Mouth (DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press, 2012). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, BOMB, Conjunctions, Crazyhorse, FIELD, The Iowa Review, West Branch, and many other journals. He is an assistant professor at Kutztown University and lives in Kutztown, PA with his spouse, Colleen O’Brien, and their son.
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?
I write poems, not books. That said, I love the poetry book as a form. So, there is always a little anxiety for me as to whether the poems I’ve been writing can hang together as a book. When the strange attractor of a book is vibrating the air, I print out all the poems I feel are done and I spread them out on the floor of a room and I stare at them a while until they start calling out to each other and then I arrange and rearrange them on the floor until it all makes sense to me. But I never know if it will make sense to someone else. I was thrilled, then, when Ander Monson chose to publish my chapbook, Source to Mouth, as a finalist for the New Michigan Press Chapbook Contest in 2012. It meant that an editor whose taste I respect thought that I had indeed put together a book that made sense. My most recent book, Magnifier, was put together in the same way. It feels different because I think the poems themselves are more playful and various than in my other collections. It was such an honor to have the book chosen by Kazim Ali, and, I must say, such a relief. Now those poems have a home, the book is done, they no longer require my attention, a big space is opened for whatever is next.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve loved the sounds of poetry for as long as I can remember. Early on it was Dr. Seuss, later Shel Silverstein. In second grade we read Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the repeated last line was so moving to me. I remember feeling like something had just happened to me and still thinking about the poem in a sort of daze on my walk home. I wanted to be able to do that with sound, too.
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 write constantly by hand in journals. A lot of observations, a lot of free association. I am in love with the process of discovery. Surprise is why I keep going back to the page. A.R. Ammons has an essay “A Poem is a Walk,” which makes so much sense to me. I love walking, too. I go for a walk not to see a particular thing, but to see whatever there is to see. I’d walk outside every day if I could. I am constantly surprised by what’s there. I write poems the same way. I flip through my journal, find some lines I like, type them on my typewriter next to other lines I like. Suddenly lines are calling out to lines and to new lines not yet written. If I’m lucky there’s an urgency at the core of the lines discovered as they came together that holds them together. If not, I try again the next day. I used to worry a lot about whether or not I was writing a poem and whether or not it was good. Now I just trust that something good will come of what I’m doing eventually and try to have fun with it.
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?
Poems begin very small for me—usually with a line or two. That line calls out to other lines. Pretty soon a group of lines is there. Sometimes it feels like they’ve reached closure. Sometimes it feels like I have more lines to work with from the journal and a new section might start. I’ve written quite a few long poems in very different ways. I wrote the first poem in Source to Mouth, “I,Inc.” in one sitting, without lines, all in my notebook, almost verbatim, and worked out the lines later on the computer. That’s very unusual for me. I wrote a poem from Magnifier, “Comedy of Mirrors” which has 6 or 8 sections, by actually trying to write a much much longer poem that had over 50 sections before I abandoned it and culled the best of it for “Comedy.” I did something similar in a poem from my second book, In the Gorge, called “Verges,” and with the poems in the second section of Magnifier (which are all closely related), except in those cases I went to a particular place over and over again, took a bunch of notes after each visit, wrote way too many sections of the poem (or way too many poems) and then culled down to the best. I think of something I came across I think in Thoreau’s journals where he is astonished by how many acorns an oak has to drop to make another oak. That’s how I think about my poems—I write maybe ten pages of notes and drafts for every 10 lines I keep.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are not part of my process because I don’t think about them at all as I write. I find I’m often not as inspired by poetry readings as I want to be. Even poets whose work I love often fall flat as readers. There’s a certain affect, a certain odd intonation many poets take on in performance that I find disingenuous and distracting, though I get where it comes from as I feel the pull of it too when I read out loud. The best readings I’ve been to recently have been open mics at our local bookstore in Kutztown, Firefly, and on campus, where students and community members come together and take turns reading their work in a pretty informal setting. I’ve seen students, positively shaking with emotion, for whom reading their work and being heard appeared to be a matter of life or death. Even when the work itself wouldn’t maybe be that moving on the page, you can’t help but get inspired by their belief in the power of language to express something meaningful to them. That gets me excited, and humbles me. Suddenly my poems feel stuffy or boring or stuck on the page. When I get up there, I try harder to bring the feeling in the poem out with my voice than I might if I were giving a solo reading somewhere and could get away with standard poetese.
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?
Cultivating compassion for myself and others. Paying attention. Being in my senses. Cultivating an awareness of my emotions. I intend to fully inhabit my life and poems are one acting out of that intention. In a culture driven by status, possession, power, my work keeps asking the questions I keep asking myself: How can we make meaning and do less harm? How can we make meaning now, in the imperfect world, even as we long for a better world?
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 go in fear of self-righteousness and grandiosity because I know these things are in me and I see them in a lot of writers and artists. These impulses, though they might be indulged in for the most unassailable reasons, can quickly blind us to our actual impacts on the culture. If the politics and aesthetics of our work are righteous and yet we treat our loved ones with indifference, our colleagues with contempt, our students with condescension, our legacy on the culture will probably be to strengthen its worst tendencies. It is my intention, difficult as it is to practice, to cultivate compassion for the suffering of myself and others right where I am, to work to alleviate suffering, and to trust that the good of that practice will find its way into my work. In that way the work might have a positive impact, but probably secondary to the impact of my lived life. Many if not most writers I know have the privilege of being teachers or mentors at some time in their lives. I think by treating our students like their experiences and ideas are valid, like their lives matter, like they have tremendous capabilities, and by encouraging them and supporting them in their search for meaning, we have a wonderful opportunity to positively impact the culture.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My experiences working with editors has always been positive, though it has also always been in the fine tuning stages of a book or poem that has already been accepted for publication. Editors, particularly Pauline Uchmanowicz at Codhill Press and Stephanie G’Schwind at The Center for Literary Publishing and their teams have given me invaluable suggestions on what to cut, what to footnote, and what to line-edit and made me feel like my manuscripts were in the best shape they could be in before being printed.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” William Stafford, “A Way of Writing.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Difficult. I love to read critical prose, but I don’t like to write it. When I’m writing, I prefer to trust the connections between things as they arise rather than worry them out.
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 try to write in my journal every day and usually do. When I have more time I go through my journal, find lines that feel like the start of a poem, and type them out on construction paper with my typewriter, or jot them out in a larger notebook. Then I move things around, add new lines, follow the sounds, meander, wander, until I run out of time, feel I’ve finished, or abandon the poem. If what I’ve written feels finished, I like to type it up on a piece of cardstock and mail it to a friend. It’s like publishing a single-page literary journal in an edition of 1 whenever you want. Eventually, if I have a ton of time, I’ll type up the poem on the word processor and finalize it, then go back to it a month or two later and see if I still like it.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My writing doesn’t get stalled because I write all the time with really low standards, but it does get very indoorsy if I don’t get outside and walk around. When that happens I go for a hike or visit the city. I am incredibly fortunate at the moment to live 15 miles from the Appalachian Trail and a 2-hour drive from Manhattan.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wet bark dust, wet firs, wet moss, wet grass, wet earth. The scent of wet vegetation reminds me of Oregon, which is where I grew up and where my extended family still lives.
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?
Nature. I hike as often as possible, usually at least once a week. What I notice or think about while walking is a huge influence on my work. Music and visual art make me happy and attune me to the cosmic vibrations of the creative plane (vibes, etc.), but I find I write about them directly less than I once did.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
For my work: Lorine Niedecker, W.S. Merwin, A.R. Ammons, Gary Snyder, Jean Valentine, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Ed Roberson, Arthur Sze, Lisa Robertson come immediately to mind.
And so many more.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hike the Pacific Crest Trail—Maybe the section in Oregon first, but if I was really ambitious, the whole thing.
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 think I’d like to work in the Forest Service or be a therapist or be a mail carrier on a walkable route.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve wanted to do write as long as I can remember. As soon as I could write, in first grade or so, it was my favorite thing to do in school along with reading.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?