Brad Aaron Modlin wrote Everyone at This Party Has Two Names, which won the Cowles Prize and contains the poem “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade.” His short collection of short stories Surviving in Drought won the Cupboard contest. His essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He has received residencies/fellowships with the Banff Centre, Artscape, and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. He is the Reynolds Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at University of Nebraska, Kearney.
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?
Quite a few readers have reached out about Everyone at This Party Has Two Names, and I think about them when at my writing desk. Sometimes I envision these folks reading my new words aloud with me. That companionship makes my work feel more collective to me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve long hopscotched among poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. It’s a game of testing your skills as they change. Poetry approaches time differently. It allows for slowness and time-out, which fits well with daydreamy mind.
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?
My ear sometimes slows me down. The poet in me knows that every comma or prepositional phrase carries weight—even in prose. While some writers like to get it all down and pretty it up later, the music or friction between sentences is part of how I spring forward. I seldom say, “This is a first draft,” or “This is a seventh draft,” because I can’t tell when one “draft” ends or begins.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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 like small objects that get to know each other.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I look forward to readings the way I looked forward to primary-school pizza parties. The experience is lively. The words happen in real time, and I get offer them to the listeners. I plan readings out carefully to give the audience my best combination of energies. It is one of my favorite aspects of being a writer, and I’m always glad to accept the invitation.
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 often wonder about loneliness and community. I’m really interested in (the concept of) strangers. Just because you don’t know someone doesn’t mean you don’t need them.
At the coffeeshop where I write, there’s another frequent customer. I used to think she was a professor of biology, but now I think it’s English as a second language. I’ve overheard her talk about religion and what matters to her. We’ve never spoken, but I see her a lot. Recently I waved without thinking, as I would with a friend. She reacted as if she didn’t recognize me. No bell rings to say, Now you know each other! But if we bumped into each other elsewhere, if we were tourists on a Calgary sidewalk, we would say, “Oh hi, I know you; fancy meeting you here; have you seen the cool library yet? What’s your name?”
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 recently gave the keynote address at an international poetry conference in India. The conference theme: The Poet in Service of Humankind. A big topic for one poet to address. I said poetry teaches us to pause from speed. To listen, and to plug up our ears against distraction. It teaches us how to seek words and silence while Notre Dame burns. Don’t we need this?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. Do I have lettuce in my teeth? Does this shirt bring out my eyes?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A friend and colleague used to quote Quakers to me: “Proceed as the way opens.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
For me, moving among genres isn’t so different from, say, moving from one essay to the next. I, ignorant, come blank to the blank page each time.
Often the idea chooses its genre. For some time I worked on a lineated narrative poem called “Election Night, Missouri, 2016.” When I realized it was a flash essay—that its nonfiction nature was central to the piece—the puzzle began to unlock. I have written short stories and poems about the same characters. When the world floods, the characters need the scenes and progression that fiction offers. When the world spins too quickly, they need the momentum of a long, single-stanza poem.
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?
Everyone talks about the clean slate of the morning. So have I for years. But lately, I work in the evening, after some of my emotional energy is spent. After I’ve finished with the day’s teaching. After I’ve heard the good/bad news of my students’ lives and the good/bad news on the radio. A bit tired and more emotionally stretched, I find myself needing poetry. So I write some.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m lucky to have dear friends who are smart and ask big questions about how we live. Phone calls with them get me thinking.
Moving helps. That can mean a road trip, or a short drive to the next-over little town, or a walk to the park with the geese, or the weird sit-up machine at the gym.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
To answer the question sideways: In high school, I did an exchange to Japan, to a house that smelled of straw-like tatami mats and ginger household cleaner. Every time I smell ginger, I am seventeen years old, living this adventure of briefly creating a new home. A place where even juice boxes and driers had exciting newness to share.
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 like working with musicians. Writing poems to read at symphony concerts. Writing lyrics for choral groups. A couple of composers are currently setting my poems for vocal/orchestral pieces.
When I worked in an art gallery, we would coordinate collaborative experiments between artists and writers.
I have always enjoyed theater—from the seats or sometimes the stage. If I go to a play on a Friday night, don’t call me Saturday. I will be too busy writing and too busy thinking about the art that happened before me, live, in real time.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Some friends of mine are Benedictine monks, and over the years, the texts they chant—seven times a day—have stuck in my ear. It comforts me that they are in the woods reciting these old writings. If they aren’t doing so this very minute, they did it an hour or two ago, and they will do it again for the rest of the day and then tomorrow.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Play and sing a piano song at an open mic. Make cheese from scratch. Just so happen to sit next to British royalty on an airplane and pretend I don’t recognize them. Turn eighty-five.
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?
As I say, I have always enjoyed theater. I envy the baristas in my favorite coffee shop who get to greet half the neighborhood and wish people a good day.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? I couldn’t stop. Since childhood, I have described sights, emotions, or embarrassments in my head. Sometimes my mouth moves along with words and people look at me strangely. Words help us, so why not spend time with them?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Dustin M. Hoffman’s stories drive across the page. I liked One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist and I’ve just bought Secrets of the Wild and No Good for Digging.
Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine intelligently uses erasures and mashups to vary a theme. We keep watching the angel Gabriel tell Virgin Mary she’ll have a baby, and it’s new each time.
The movie ROMA made even switching off table lamps mysterious and interesting.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A book of poems that is funny, sad, embarrassed in familiar ways, and hopeful about who we can be. And a book of linked stories about an odd, desperate, friendly community living in a hot place.