An Interview with Bryan Michielsen

An interview by Scott Knapp

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SCOTT KNAPP: Can you give me a brief personal history: where you grew up, what your parents do, do you have any siblings, what are some of your interests outside of school?

BRYAN MICHIELSEN: I grew up here in Rochester, specifically in Gates. My parents are still together. My mom is working in the dean’s office at the University of Rochester. My dad is a probation officer for Monroe County. I have one sister. She’s in graduate school at the University of Rochester, and she just got married this past year. For my interests… writing is really a big thing for me, obviously, but it’s something I didn’t discover until recently. I’ve always been interested in creative things, so music’s been a big part of my life, playing instruments and being involved in the music community.

I’ve always been interested in creative things.

SCOTT: Do you play in a band or anything like that?

BRYAN: Not currently. I played in a couple bands a while ago.

SCOTT: Oh, well that’s something I didn’t know about you. Two of the stories I’ve read of yours are short. I would say they’re both under 750 words. It’s impressive how much you can convey to the reader in such an economy of words, and I’m wondering if this is on purpose, if this is the length of story you prefer to write, or if you have written other pieces that are longer?

BRYAN: Yeah, I have the desire to write something longer. I don’t know if it’s the way I’m thinking about it, but I’m not really sure how to approach something longer. And I feel like you have to know more about what you’re writing when you’re writing something longer, whereas when I write something shorter, I can just sort of start writing and see where it takes me, and I kind of like that unexpected element to it. I like to say “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but we’ll see what happens.” I’d like to develop it and go further in the future, but most of my work tends to be in the flash form.

SCOTT: When the topic of discussion turns to poetry, both of us preface our responses with the same disclaimer of “I’m not a poet.” But for this interview you sent me a prose poem you wrote titled Darkness, and I think maybe you are a poet. Do you think poetry is something you might continue to explore?

BRYAN: That’s funny. I think technically anyone can be a poet. Anyone can be a writer. Anyone can be anything. For me, when I say I’m not a poet, I mean I don’t fully understand all the elements, like iambic pentameter and enjambments and all that extra stuff. There’s a lot that goes into writing a good poem. I have a lot of respect for poets. The poem I sent you is prose, so it’s a little more in my wheelhouse, I guess, but I’d be interested in expanding my horizons.

Anyone can be a poet. Anyone can be a writer. Anyone can be anything.

SCOTT: Well, I have a follow-up question. You told me that the poem was about being inside the abandoned Rochester Psychiatric Center. There’s a line: “The day we went, one board was chopped opened by an axe, so we could enter without breaking in.” So, you didn’t have permission to be there. What’s the story behind that?

BRYAN: A while ago when I was in high school, my friend and I loved to explore abandoned places. We took it upon ourselves one summer to explore everywhere in Rochester that was off-limits. So, we went to places like the Rochester subway and the old psychiatric center, which can be difficult to get into. We were lucky that day we went to the psych center, and we didn’t need to do anything… you know. We also went to places like the garbage incinerator, and there’s this mansion in Victor–I’m not going to detail how we got in there. I feel like there are good explorers and bad ones. There are people who just go because they’re bored, and they like to destroy things. Then, there’s me and my friend. We did some legally questionable things, but it was all for exploring the history, getting in there, looking around and saying, “wow.” We’d think about how it used to be before it was left to itself, and it was more of an experience than just to mess around and have something to do. It’s just about being in this space that’s been empty for so long, and you’re just there taking it all in. The psych center was definitely a crazy experience. I can remember standing on the very top of the building and the wind blowing through my fingers.

We did some legally questionable things, but it was all for exploring the history.

SCOTT: Was it intact? Like, was it dangerous being in there?

BRYAN: Yes, it was very dangerous. A lot of abandoned things have either structural or asbestos issues; this one had both. We wore masks to protect us from the asbestos. It was very eerie, being in there. It’s so dark. We went at like four o’clock in the morning before the sun came up and pitch black is an understatement of the bottom floor. Like, flashlights really didn’t help; it was that dark. It was crazy. It was like being blind, literally. It wasn’t like we could see shapes or our hands when they got closer to our face. We couldn’t even see each other. It was that dark. I’ve never experienced something like that before. We spent a long time looking for the stairs. It was creepy.

SCOTT: You’re very involved with MCC’s literary magazine, Cabbages & Kings, though you’ve told me, and you mention it in your bio, that you’ve launched your own literary magazine, Burgundy Balloon. First off, I love the name Burgundy Balloon. Is there a story behind the name? And secondly, do you prefer one creative endeavor over the other between doing your own writing or putting together a magazine?

BRYAN: Burgundy Balloon is a reference to the heart. Burgundy because that’s the color, but the balloon because it represents how vulnerable we are when we’re expressing ourselves in our writing and art. So, that’s where Burgundy Balloon came from. And I guess I wanted to put that together, because from my time here with Cabbages & Kings, I’ve found that I love surrounding myself with other creative people. I wanted to create something of my own, so that’s why I started Burgundy Balloon. It’ll be available this summer. I forgot the other part of the question.

I love surrounding myself with other creative people.

SCOTT: Do you prefer one over the other: your own writing or putting a magazine together?

BRYAN: I enjoy my own writing a lot. It’s difficult and it’s hard work, but it’s rewarding when it comes through and it starts to develop. Nothing beats those aha moments when the gears really get cranking.

SCOTT: I’ve come to understand that you have what I perceive to be a strong sense of humor. Your normal outward persona is rather gentle and measured. What’s something about you that might surprise me? I think maybe you’ve told me a few things already.

BRYAN: I mean I already told you my friend and I broke into a few places. I don’t know. I guess I feel like I’m a very energetic person, but I naturally don’t let that out for a lot of people to see unless they’re in my inner circle.

SCOTT: This is kind of a stock question. What writers, if there are any specific ones, have been your biggest writing influences?

BRYAN: The group of writers I’ve read is pretty diverse. There isn’t really anyone in particular that has influenced me, but there’s one poet I love named Rudy Francisco. I’ve always had this difficult relationship with poetry, so when I found this writer and I read his work, I was like “Okay, this is what I like. This is the kind of poetry I like.” He has a book with Button Poetry called Helium and I love his work in there.

SCOTT: I’m not sure I know what Button Poetry is.

BRYAN: Button Poetry publishes collections of poetry, and they hold slam poetry events. So, he has a book with them. On the fiction side, I have a love-hate relationship with Dean Koontz. I read his book Intensity and loved it, so I bought maybe ten more of his books. That was a huge mistake. I probably should’ve cooled off a little. I think my thing with him is that I like realism and literary fiction, and I can handle a little supernatural, but once you start going too far, I lose interest. I like the thriller stuff though. I want to read Stephen King, but I don’t know if I can get through some of his books, they’re so long. I’m sure if I just jump in it’ll be fine, but I feel so intimidated.

I like realism and literary fiction.

SCOTT: My wife’s a big Stephen King fan.

BRYAN: I just bought my first book from him this week.

SCOTT: Oh, really?

BRYAN: Yeah, and I know he writes a lot of thriller stuff, so I’m definitely interested. I’m just intimidated by his work, I guess. He’s a big name and his books are like a thousand pages.

SCOTT: My wife and I have a writing joke about how prolific he is. I say “I hate that guy.”

BRYAN: This first book of his I got is smaller, probably like 500 pages, which is generally bigger than most, but for him…

SCOTT: Do you think you’d want to write in that genre?

BRYAN: Yeah, I would love to. I want to be able to execute it well though, so I should get to reading!

SCOTT: So, you told me that you were into music, and you want to explore poetry… would you ever write lyrics?

BRYAN: I’ve tried in the past. It’s difficult. I’m very much an instrumental person when it comes to performing or making music, so I’ve played euphonium for 12 years. I don’t know if you know what that is.

SCOTT: No.

BRYAN: So, it pains me to say this because I hate describing it this way, but it’s like the universal way that everyone understands. The euphonium is a baby tuba. It’s not, but it looks similar to that. It’s smaller but the tone is different. No offense to anyone who plays the tuba, but the euphonium sounds so much more pleasant. I’ve played that for a while, and then near the beginning of high school, I started taking lessons at the Eastman School of Music for trumpet. So, I’ve played that for a while now too. I also self-taught myself a little piano.

SCOTT: So, you’re pretty accomplished.

BRYAN: I haven’t played in a while. You know how it goes. I miss it though. I want to get back into it.

SCOTT: So many years doing music and then you just went into literature. Did you get tired of it?

BRYAN: No, I definitely didn’t get tired of it. I visited a lot of schools for music. I visited Mansfield University in Pennsylvania and Nazareth College right here in Rochester. I didn’t want to ruin it for myself. For me, it was very much an enjoyment thing and I think theory and all that is great and it’s important to know certain things in order to do well as a musician, but I just wanted to play, not study it. And plus, writing really is my true love.

SCOTT: You say you just came to it recently, but did you write when you were younger too?

BRYAN: So, “came to it recently” is just my way of saying I realized how much I enjoyed it and started doing it seriously, but’s it’s always been there. There’s this company–I think it was called Illustory, or something like that–that allows you to draw pictures in these boxes and write things on the lines beneath the box. You send it back to them and they’ll put it in a picture book, so it’s like you wrote a book. And then you’d fill out an about the author page and all that stuff. So, in elementary school I wrote a book. Looking back, it’s kind of cheesy, but it was a fun experience.

Writing really is my true love.

SCOTT: What grade?

BRYAN: I was in fifth grade at that point. I think what really prevented me from realizing that I liked writing so much was middle and high school because English classes are very standardized. You have a structure and you need to write this essay like this. It’s not very creative; it’s very restrictive, and I guess that turned me off. When I was in my first semester at MCC, I had this professor for English 101 that was just incredible. I loved his lectures. He was a fantastic professor. There was this one essay I was struggling to write and he said “write it as a letter.” I was like “huh?” In high school, it’s hammered in your head: introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. And he’s just like “write it as a letter.” It reminded me how to be creative and how open writing can be.

SCOTT: When you went to MCC, did you come in thinking English or did you start not sure, just taking the basic courses?

BRYAN: I was sure when I started that I wanted to be a graphic designer. I’ve always been involved in creative things whether it’s music, writing, or art design, but I had the realization in that English class that writing is really what I love to do, and graphic design is great, but it’s not what I wanted to do. At the end of my first semester I immediately changed my major to creative writing.

SCOTT: This well-roundedness is good for your magazine. In your bio you also said that you want to be a teacher. So, an English teacher?

BRYAN: Yes, specifically a creative writing professor. I’d love to teach at a university in creative writing. I love surrounding myself with other creative people. They understand me, and they get me. I just love the energy I get from other writers. I also love the classes I’m in.

SCOTT: Yeah, for me it was a real rebirth at my age. I do like it, and we have a good group; we have a very eclectic group. In your story, The Woman Who Peeks, do you know why the police have come after Jess?

I just love the energy I get from other writers.

BRYAN: Not exactly, but I have a few ideas.

SCOTT: So, is that story done?

BRYAN: No. It’s super close, but not quite done yet. Stay tuned.

SCOTT: It’s changed a lot.

BRYAN: Yeah, did I send you the revised version? The other one was even more revised. Bus Stop has gone through some drastic changes, specifically the character change. That one is different.

SCOTT: You know if we can talk about Bus Stop for a second… You did change it a lot and personally I liked the older woman.

BRYAN: Really?

SCOTT: Yeah, but why did you change her to a younger woman? A younger girl?

BRYAN: I needed to figure out an internal struggle for the main character, and it was difficult for me to do that with an older woman. I’m not sure why, it just wasn’t working for me, so I switched her.

SCOTT: And I have to say, too, I liked the clover in the first version rather than the bus, the little bus. But, that’s your choice.

BRYAN: I’m going to be honest. I wrote Bus Stop last summer, and I don’t really know why I chose a clover; it was just kind of random.

SCOTT: I think I liked that about it. The randomness, because I didn’t think it had to mean anything.

BRYAN: Yeah, I don’t know. I guess it was brought up to me in the workshop as a cultural symbol which I didn’t like. I didn’t think of it as that. I thought of it as being lucky, but I didn’t think of the overall cultural impact of that symbol.

SCOTT: Yeah, I almost pictured it as a clover flower. The little white flower.

BRYAN: Oh, I pictured like a four-leaf clover.

SCOTT: Thanks for sitting down with me. This was fun.

BRYAN: Yeah, definitely. Thank you.

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