On Poetry with James Longenbach

An Interview by Bryan Michielsen

 

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Forever by James Longenbach comes out June 22, 2021.

 

BRYAN MICHIELSEN: Joseph Henry Gilmore, as you know, was a professor at the University of Rochester in the late 1800s until his retirement in 1908. Explain what it means exactly to be the Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English as opposed to just a professor of English.

 

JAMES LONGENBACH: George Ford was the Joseph Gilmore Professor of English just before me. He was responsible for building a little department into a great department. He started the Ph.D. program. He doubled the size of the department. And he was a gracious, lovely man. I saw him with a martini in each hand just a few days before he died. He was very tall, and he had distinguished white hair, and he was a great Victorian. He wrote a book on the readers of John Keats, on Dickens, and other books on lots of other things. He was always retired when I was around in the 80s and the early 90s, but he came into my class more than once, and he was always funny and a bit distinguished without being pretentious. I really admire that. I liked him a lot. So, the fact that he had this title for decades meant a lot to me.

 

BRYAN: Explain briefly what led you to this position.

 

JAMES: There are several ways to answer that question, I suppose. I earned a Ph.D. in English at Princeton University. Professionally, my work has always been as a literary critic. I’ve been lucky enough not to have to use my poetry in that way. So, I got a Ph.D. in English, and I wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in the early 80s. 

 

When it was time to do so, there were, in the world, seventeen jobs I could apply for. These were the fabulous old days. Now, you’re lucky if there are three. I was offered two jobs; one of them was at the University of Rochester. So, I started teaching here in 1985. 

 

And a few years later, I published two books, one with Princeton University Press and one with Oxford University Press. This university not only tenured me after just two years—which usually takes seven years—but they also hired my wife, the novelist Joanna Scott, which was prescent. She’s been, if anything, even more prolific, and she’s won a MacArthur. I’ve won things too, but that’s a really big deal.

 

Of course the University of Rochester is a job, and so, there are things to improve, things to complain about, but we’ve also had a lot of freedom here. We’ve lived lots of places, and I’m grateful for that.

 

BRYAN: Your perspective on workshops was something new to me when I first met you. A lot of writers feel like they need to be in workshops, that it’s a crucial part of their process. Explain a little more your thoughts on workshops, what their function is, and why writers shouldn’t be in them forever.

 

JAMES: I’ve never taken a workshop, but I’ve taught scads of them. I try to organize those workshops—and certainly I do this better than I did thirty-five years ago—around the serious learning of skills. And I say serious learning because I don’t want to be sanctimonious about it. I don’t want to be humorless or joyless. I suppose every now and then I am, but workshops don’t ever need to be unpleasant; no class does, given that they are classes, and every now and then, they will feel like classes. 

 

So, I suppose the greatest influence on me in this regard is the poet who you know, Ellen Bryant Voigt, who also conducts workshops not as fix-it sites, where you drive your poem in, we fix it up, and you drive it out the other side. Nobody learns anything by doing that. Also, by doing that you become dependent on the workshop. I would rather—this is harder, and I appreciate that—that people learn the skills that are necessary to fix themselves as it were. Other people are really necessary for that. It’s far easier to see what’s wrong with someone else’s poem than to see what’s wrong with your own poem, and this is true whether you’re sixty or twenty. 

 

Ideally, you won’t be in workshops forever. You’ll have a few trusted readers. And teaching workshops is brilliantly interesting. It doesn’t matter how good the poems are. What matters is the kind of observations people make about the language of that poem. And that can be thrilling no matter what.

 

BRYAN: How does a writer know they’re done with workshops?

 

JAMES: Nobody does. I suppose that was a somewhat cagey answer. But I think in this business of art, if it is indeed a business, there’s very little that you can know. You can have strong hunches. The wonderful 20th century poet Paul Valery once said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. I think that’s true. You get to a point where you just can’t do anything, or you’re so fricking bored with it, you don’t want to do anything. So, you take what you learned, and you put it into something else you’re writing, the next poem. That’s great, I think. The only thing certain is that if one takes this process with the kind of seriousness it deserves, the future will be better than the present. I’ve never seen a student who did not improve. And some improve massively. That’s exciting.

 

You get to a point where you just can’t do anything, or you’re so fricking bored with it, you don’t want to do anything. So, you take what you learned, and you put it into something else you’re writing, the next poem.

 

BRYAN: In an interview with Loggernaut Reading Series, you say “writing poems would be a will-driven activity, and I need to wait until the poems demand to be written; otherwise, I’d end up repeating myself rather than discovering something new.” So, is writing more of a when-the-inspiration-strikes kind of thing? If it is, how do you hold yourself accountable to keep producing creative work?

 

JAMES: I think that’s kind of true. I wouldn’t use the word inspiration. I don’t know what that is. I think that’s sometimes another word for I’m really great. I think you have to write badly all the time, and you have to be okay with writing badly all the time. 

 

The poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every day, which I think is kind of silly. But an interviewer once asked him, “what do you do on days where you don’t feel like writing a poem or on days that you have nothing to say?” and he said, “I lower my standards.” That was eye-popping to me because it’s hard, as you know, to lower your standards. The inner voice that says this isn’t good enough, or this isn’t interesting, is strong and well honed. And it should be. You can’t ignore that. But you also have to work with it. 

 

What you’re quoting I probably said too quickly, or too epigrammatically. I may have been thinking that certainly there are writers who write a lot of poems and do seem to repeat themselves, and then there are other writers who maybe don’t write that many poems, but each book seems like a discovery of something new and something strange. You go “woah!” You put it down and you want to figure that out, you want to know, you haven’t thought of that yet, you haven’t felt that yet. I find that way more exciting than reading a version of what I’ve read before. So, I’m always on the lookout for things that seem a little different.

 

I think you have to write badly all the time, and you have to be okay with writing badly all the time. 

 

BRYAN: What do most poorly written poems have in common?

 

JAMES: A lack of concrete language.

 

BRYAN: Give an example.

 

JAMES: “I feel really sad today. It’s a bummer. I want to go back to bed.” I have no idea what any of that means. I don’t know what’s wrong. I have no idea what kind of day it is. I have no idea where the bed is. I have no idea which state this is taking place in. It’s a terrible story. We’ve all felt it. So what? You don’t learn anything from that. A poem has to be about a specific thing that makes you feel that way. The job—a really good and coveted job—of any reader is to feel because of those words. If the words tell you how to feel, then there’s nothing to do, and the poem is boring.

 

BRYAN: I know from our time together that you’re drawn to poems because of what the language does, rather than what it says. What is your favorite element of poetry, be it line, syntax, imagery… and why?

 

JAMES: You know, they may not say it, but I think everyone, every single person, is drawn to a poem because of what the language does, not necessarily because of what it says. You might say that the poem says “I’m really sad today. The world is a bummer,” and the poem might say that. That’s totally fine. The language of the poem will have concrete particularity and create a story and a situation with people in a particular setting in a particular place at a particular time and will not be about feelings generally. It will devastatingly provoke specific feelings. 

 

That said, I find over and over again that I come back to line. It’s always very exciting as a teacher when students understand what that is. I like it because great lines can be in a metered and rhymed poem, and great lines can be in a free verse poem. It kind of doesn’t matter. I never committed this to print, but when I hear a poet dismiss one or the other, I stop listening very hard because I think “oh, there’s a person without an ear.” How can you hear only half of poetry? That’s crazy. The fact of line and how that works with the ongoing—or not—syntax of a poem operates in every single poem written in the last 26,000 years.

 

If the words tell you how to feel, then there’s nothing to do, and the poem is boring.

 

BRYAN: What is, for you, the hardest part about poetry?

 

JAMES: Believing that the world you’re making in the poem is worthy of attention from yourself or from someone else. On a bad day everything seems really bad, and on a good day everything seems really good. And that’s what Mr. Stafford meant when he alluded to lowering one’s standards. One has initially to begin a poem by putting that inner censor somewhere else, or to quiet that inner censor. It might come back later. This is why in so many poems, the first fifteen lines or something are junk, and then you come up with the beginning and you go “wow!” It takes some time to see that. In my own case, especially when you’re young, and when you’re learning, this is one of the values of workshops. You see it in other people’s poems perhaps before you see it in your own. By attending meticulously to other people’s poems, you learn to attend meticulously to your own poems, and that realization about those opening lines that used to take a month may only take an hour.

 

BRYAN: For emerging poets who are trying to put together their first collection, what advice do you have?

 

JAMES: Make poems. I think in my own experience it’s impossible not to think about grouping poems. You have one poem, and then you have two poems. They both seem pretty good. Should this one come first, or should this one come first? You learn something from that, the same way you learn from rearranging lines or rearranging stanzas. The order in which you learn about the world through poems really matters. It takes a long time to make a book. That doesn’t happen quickly. I think many poets do it too soon. One of the greatest poets, Wallace Stevens, didn’t publish his first book of poetry until he was almost fifty. He was also an insurance lawyer, so he didn’t just sit around or anything, and he had a kid, so he did lots of other stuff. That all contributed to the poetry. Though people don’t see it, they often speak charismatically of his double life. And I think, double as opposed to what? 

 

The poet Richard Howard was born in 1929, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for a book called Untitled Subjects. He said, “no poet ever became famous for writing poetry.” In my experience, that’s pretty much true. The world might like that poet’s circumstance, or the world might fancy that the poet is translating all of Marcel Proust. But generally, the world doesn’t read those poems. Very few people do, and that hasn’t changed. How many people over the last ten years have read Tennyson, one of the greatest poets in the English language? Poof! 100 years later, gone. You have to be really committed to that act of making poems, and I think you have to be committed in the arts generally to the idea that you yourself will never live long enough to know who’s great and who will last. All that we can hope to do is be part of a climate to make the possibility of poetry alive. And that’s a big deal, I think.

 

All that we can hope to do is be part of a climate to make the possibility of poetry alive.

 

BRYAN: In five words or fewer, how would you describe your forthcoming poetry collection, Forever?

 

JAMES: Stalwart, honest, moving, important-to-me… Was that six?

 

BRYAN: Important-to-me could count as one.

 

JAMES: I don’t mind saying, since the poems in that collection certainly make clear, I have for the last five years been dealing with having cancer. The poems are looking back over a lifetime of experience, but always through that lens. When I was first diagnosed, I thought that I had done this mortality thing, but I hadn’t. I think this is why COVID has been so strenuous for people. But often, for people like me, and I think this sounds a little glib, I’m like “what pandemic?” The fact that we’re all going to die? Yeah, soon. I was forced by circumstance to do a lot of thinking and feeling, and this book, especially, is the outcome of that work.

 

BRYAN: It’s sounds very powerful. I’m excited to read it. What was the most challenging part of putting any of your collections together?

 

JAMES: As I’ve said, it starts right away. You’ve got two poems, and one of them comes first. This after years of asking what is the first poem? A good answer to that question is that you want a book to be a book, to be an experience, in the same way that you want a poem to be an experience. And if a book of poems is just a collection of poems in the best order you could muster, then what’s the point? A book has to be about something, and more importantly it has to do something. So, you want to make that arc that you’re always trying to make in an individual poem, even a short one, from the first line to the last line, to feel that there’s something you don’t know in the first line, and then you feel that there’s something you do know in the last line. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what it is. You have to read the poem again and figure it out. I’m not talking about a lack of clarity or about confusion, but I’m talking about the acts of thinking and feeling. You yourself know this. And you can recognize it in things you yourself have written where you know that the end of the poem gives you information that feels charged because you get to it, because it’s something that you come to. You’re not just told, but you’re allowed to uncover it in a particular way, not this way, not this way, but that way. And that process can be very moving. A good book of poems does the same thing. The struggle is indeed to find that beginning, and then to find that ending, and to get there.

 

If a book of poems is just a collection of poems in the best order you could muster, then what’s the point?

 

BRYAN: If I’m not mistaken, all your books, poetry collections and otherwise, have been published traditionally. In the last five years, thanks to Amazon and others, self-publishing has really blown up as a method for writers to get their work out there. How do you feel about going down that route, not for you specifically, but for writers in general choosing to do that? What do you think the pros and cons are as opposed to going the traditional route?

 

JAMES: The pros are that as in anything, really good things can happen because of that kind of availability. The really big con is that it’s too easy. What should take decades takes minutes. And that seems typical of our culture. We watch a movie and boom! Everybody knows what they think. How’s that possible? You read Chaucer. Boom! Everyone knows what they think. That’s really stupid. Think about it. If you’re really intrigued, you want to know what other people think. There are people that have thought very beautiful things about Chaucer. 

 

I have no automatic beef with self-publishing, but I have seen younger people misled by it and get disappointed when it goes nowhere. You can publish a book of poems with Alfred Knopf, one of the finest publishers in the world, and go nowhere. As I hear myself say that, maybe for self-publishing that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. If one is doing it at all to congratulate oneself, then the only thing to be sure of is failure.

 

BRYAN: In your book, The Resistance to Poetry, you say “poets tend to be suspicious of their own designs, forcing their best discoveries against the wall of their limitations.” How do you fight any self-doubt you might experience about your work, and what advice do you have for other writers who might be doubtful about their work?

 

JAMES: You often have to fight it, but you also have to embrace it. You have to recognize that there are writers far greater than you’ll ever be that have embraced it. I wrote that book, in part, because I was tired of people who didn’t necessarily do poetry saying that it was inconsequential, and I was like “Of course it’s inconsequential! Grow up!” You know, what led anyone to believe a poet would be elected to the presidency of the United States? It hasn’t happened. It’s never going to happen.

 

I think that in my experience, poets have been far more suspicious of poetry than anyone who doesn’t make poems. John Keats, one of the greatest poets in the English language, said in a letter speaking of poetry, “the marvel is to me that people read so much of it.” That’s a little funny because almost nobody reads it. And he was astonished that that many people read it. Callimachus, centuries before the birth of Jesus, said to keep your muse slender, and don’t try to write a long poem because nobody wants to read it. So, that effort to put pressure on the act of making poetry has been really instrumental. It not only isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be easy. It takes a lot of what is, in my experience, most of the time, really enriching work. And every now and then, you want to pick up the whole of poetry, throw it on the floor, and walk out. And every now and then you do.

 

BRYAN: As writers, we know it’s very rare that we’re going to make our living off just writing, so for someone who loves to write and create, what are good paths to embark on or next steps to take after earning a bachelor’s degree.

 

JAMES: That’s rough. It used to be—I don’t think it is anymore—that the path, which was never easy, and that I took myself, was to exist in the academy. That is increasingly difficult to do. I think the poet I mentioned before is a good example. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer; he went to law school and worked for the Hartford insurance company. He also wrote poems, and very great poems it turns out. So, no matter what you do, if that kind of thinking and feeling is important, it will happen. I don’t mean to be pollyannaish about this. Sometimes work is exhausting, and sometimes poetry can’t happen, so one has to be a little careful about it I suppose. At the same time, I’m hesitant to imagine there are rules about this. 

 

I also think of the great poet George Oppen, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1960s for a book called Of Being Numerous. And he wrote his first book in the early thirties. He didn’t publish his second book until 1958, twenty-five years later. In between, he worked as a labor organizer, moved with his wife and daughter to Mexico to avoid being hounded by the US government for being a communist, made furniture… Did all that work contribute to the making of poems? Maybe. It’s a little mysterious, but what I find really moving about him is that he’s a person of really stalwart political convictions, also a really stalwart, unexaggerated, need to work for himself, and he didn’t complain about it. And he didn’t imagine that poetry could be an answer. He went on to write really great poems. I’m not recommending his path at all, but it’s out there as an inspiration, and he’s been an inspiration to me.

 

And every now and then, you want to pick up the whole of poetry, throw it on the floor, and walk out.

 

BRYAN: What’s the last thing you read?

 

JAMES: There’s a book that was just published called Plunder by Cynthia Saltzman. It’s about Napoleon’s invasion of Venice in 1797, and in particular about his confiscation of a number of fabulous paintings, specifically the painting Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. It’s enormous. It’s like forty feet long and twenty-five feet high, and he moved it to Paris. He had it ripped off the monastery wall, cut into pieces, rolled up, put on shipboard for six months, and then he installed it in the Louvre, where it still is. That’s how the Mona Lisa got there, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace too. These are all war spoils. So, this book is half a military history about Napoleon’s extraordinary hubris—I wasn’t inclined to like Napoleon, but I rivetingly despised him by the end of this book—and the other half is an art history, the making of these paintings. It’s beautifully proportioned. I never was bored for a second. I just wanted to read the book. It’s not that long. It’s less than 400 pages, and there’re pretty pictures. I found it fantastic. I should also say that I love the city of Venice. I’ve been there nineteen times, and I’ve lived there, and I like it now. I think a lot of what gets said about it, especially in the New York Times, is so uninformed. It’s very easy to have opinions. In my experience, it’s a wonderful, endlessly interesting place, and I’ve barely scratched the surface despite having been there a lot.

 

BRYAN: Venice is the Italian city with all the waterways, right?

 

JAMES: That’s right. They aren’t just waterways though. It’s built on small islands in the middle of a vast lagoon.

 

BRYAN: How long did you live there?

 

JAMES: My wife and I lived there for about three and a half months. We also lived in the city of Florence, Italy with our two daughters for about two years. As those canals suggest about Venice, it’s magical, but it’s not a very practical place to live with small children. So, we lived in Florence, but we spent a lot of time in Venice. I love Florence too.

 

BRYAN: What was your favorite part about living in Italy?

 

JAMES: Food. The cool thing about it—we lived in Florence as I mentioned—you can’t get a bottle of wine or a cheese made in Rome if you live in Florence. It’s still that parochial. We’re used to going to the grocery store and getting avocados from Argentina. You can’t get stuff from ten miles down the road there. Everything is really indigenous. I didn’t understand the extent of that at first, but if you embrace that, it’s really interesting. Real born-and-bred Italians tend, sweetly, to be very proud of these things. [in Italian accent]: “Oh, no, no, no, no. You can’t go there.” And “you can’t eat that.”

 

BRYAN: Do you speak Italian?

 

JAMES: I can certainly go to the grocery store and do pleasantries on the street, but I couldn’t have this conversation. My two daughters, who went to fully Italian school there, know the language far better than I do. But they’ve also forgotten a lot of it. Both of them hear it beautifully. They have fantastic accents. I love to hear them speak. It wasn’t easy, especially for the younger one. I think Americans have a kind of romance about knowing another language and living in another language. All the alienation and difficulty, and the jeering of other children get left out of that.

 

BRYAN: Finish this sentence: I am…

 

JAMES: The first thing that came into my head, and I think it’s true is: I am a teacher. I think the most important thing that I do, both for me, and in the little way that I can, for other people in the world is to try to find ways to teach what I’ve learned. And I find that extremely invigorating. This is why I really like teaching beginning poetry writing. I really like to find ways to explain, and then explain again, how things that might be taken for granted work in these little packages of words. And that ramifies in lots of different directions, that effort.

 

I think the most important thing that I do, both for me, and in the little way that I can, for other people in the world is to try to find ways to teach what I’ve learned.

 

Into the Killbox with Brian Wood

An interview by Bryan Michielsen and Xavier Millerd for the 73rd issue of Cabbages & Kings

 

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Brian Wood is the author of Joytime Killbox (BOA, 2019). He has served as the Managing Editor of Reed Magazine and the Fiction Editor for POST. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Jose State University, and his work earned him a Ludwig Scholarship for Excellence in Creative Writing, as well as the James Phelan Award for Short Fiction and Familiar Essays. He lives in Rochester, NY, where he is a writing instructor at Writers & Books and the co-host of the Two Month Review podcast produced by Open Letter Press.

 

BRYAN MICHIELSEN: What are common traps for aspiring writers?

 

BRIAN WOOD: I think a common trap for, I can’t speak for all writers, but for myself is resistance. There’s a wonderful book by Steven Pressfield called The War of Art. The whole book is about overcoming resistance. Resistance comes in many forms like procrastination or self-doubt. I have all of those things, and the cure for thinking you’re not a good enough writer is to shut up and write. It’s like the easiest simple fix, but it’s also the hardest. I’d rather take classes on ten ways to develop plot or how to make your character better, but it’s as simple as sit down and write. For me it’s just having the discipline to sit down and write and realize that resistance happens to everybody and it’s a battle we all have to face. Sit down and write; you’ll be all right.

 

Shut up and write.

 

XAVIER MILLERD: If you could tell the younger writer in you anything, what would it be?

 

BRIAN: Read more. You have to be a really good reader first. I wanted a shortcut to be a writer. I started writing short stories and I’d read some as well, but I wasn’t reading enough. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school where I started reading a ton, and my writing increased exponentially.

 

BRYAN: What did you learn from publishing your book that impacted or changed your creative process?

 

BRIAN: I like writing and creating a lot more than publishing. For the longest time I would go to every author interview, every reading, and I would have these starry eyes. I thought, one day that’s going to be me, or one day my book is going to be on the shelf. For the longest time that was the motivating factor for me to not give up. I’m realizing now it’s the process and the joy of writing that’s where it’s at. Don’t worry about the results; it’s the process and the creation that’s everything. I know that’s easy to say now that I’m finally on the other side where I have something that came out, but it doesn’t make it any less true. We’re here to create beautiful art and put it into the world, so create, create, create. Getting wrapped up in the publishing part of it, that’s not fun.

 

XAVIER: What’s your favorite part about teaching creative writing?

 

BRIAN: My favorite part about teaching creative writing is getting to share that the process is hard for everybody. Sometimes it’s not fair because they’ll look at some piece I have that’s polished and ready to go, and they’re presenting a piece that’s in a rough spot, and my favorite thing to do is just share with everybody how rough my own writing is and how crappy my first drafts are. I just like getting to interface with other writers at the ground level and build each other up together. I love that community that we have as writers. We’ve all been through it, that terrible burning feeling when someone’s reading your work, and you feel like your face is on fire because you’re so embarrassed. I love trying to make that as enjoyable or as manageable as possible. Usually I just make fun of myself though.

 

I just like getting to interface with other writers at the ground level and build each other up together.

 

BRYAN: What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex or sexuality, and how do you overcome that?

 

BRIAN: I had the hardest time with this. When I was doing my MFA, I was really worried about telling a story from a different point of view other than my own. I thought, who am I to try to speak with a female voice or if I had a gay character versus a straight character. Who am I to tell someone else’s story? I brought it to one of my professors and she said, “what you need to do is, when you’re telling your story, instead of using ‘he said’ say ‘she said.’” You know, humans have a lot of the same needs, wants, and wishes. If you want to tell it from a female perspective, have those same wants, needs, and wishes and change he said to she said. Think hard and deep and be empathetic with what it is for them to go through the same human situation. We’re all human beings. For me it was getting the idea out of my head that I’m writing about a different gender, and it became more about being empathetic, and getting really deep into the skin of that character. What are their wants? What are their wishes? How do they pursue them? That made me feel much more comfortable with being able to do that. But I think you have to come from a place of empathy, otherwise you’re just using them as a tool.

 

XAVIER: What’s your favorite part about being in Rochester?

 

BRIAN: I like the seasons. Where I grew up, there’s no seasons. It’s just sunny and warm, that’s it, which it great, but I like the changing. I like seeing things die. I like seeing fruit freeze and become miserable, and this wonderful hope for a melt in the spring. Also, the summers here are fantastic. It sounds weird but I would always take a sunny day for granted, but here it’s like this magical gift from above. The sun is out! The birds are chirping! I like that there’s actually seasons here.

 

I like seeing things die. I like seeing fruit freeze and become miserable, and this wonderful hope for a melt in the spring.

 

BRYAN: What was your hardest scene to write?

 

BRIAN: There’s a really rough sex scene, which oddly wasn’t hard to write; I was just not sure how it was going to be received, which made me nervous about sharing it. I’d probably say that was the toughest scene to write, but it ended up being easy to write because I wasn’t trying to be super sexy with the sex scene which made it a lot easier to write it. If I was trying to write a really serious passionate love scene, that would be hard for me to do, I think.

 

XAVIER: What resources do you use to research?

 

BRIAN: One of my favorite tools for research is the collegiate dictionary because it gives you the dates of when the words came into use. I don’t write a lot from the past, but if you’re writing something that takes places in the 1600s, you better not use the word electrocution because that didn’t exist yet. A decent thesaurus is good. I try not to use the internet too much, but sometimes you can’t help it. The other thing I use is this book I have on architecture that shows you what different houses look like from different times. For the most part though I write based around characters, which don’t require a whole lot of research for what a character is feeling or thinking.

 

BRYAN: If you could spend the day with any of your characters from your collection, Joytime Killbox, which one would you choose and what would you do? 

 

BRIAN: Oh dear, I don’t know if I want to spend time with any of these poor fools. That’s a great question. I would probably want to spend it with the Gregory gentleman in the title story “Joytime Killbox” because I wonder what that experience, what that contraption, that thrill ride would be like, but I don’t think I’d want to ride it myself. To see somebody go through that would be an interesting thing. I wouldn’t mind having a drink with Roberta from “My Roberta” because she seems like a pretty cool cat. Having drinks with Roberta I think would be fun too. I liked writing her.

 

XAVIER: What are you currently reading?

 

BRIAN: I’m currently reading this giant book called Ducks Newburyport. It’s a thousand pages long and a total of eight sentences. It’s by a writer named Lucy Ellman. The book is about this housewife in Ohio and she has this long monologue about everything that’s frightening her about the world, like concealed carry people, MAGA hats, school shootings, the fact that she can’t get her lemon drizzle cake to come out right, the fact that her daughter doesn’t love her anymore… We know stream of consciousness, but this is a torrent of consciousness. It’s just this wonderful thousand-page book. I don’t like long books because for me it’s about bang for my buck. If I’m going to read a thousand pages, I could knock out five or six books and feel really good about myself that I’m so well read, but it’s been a really awesome challenge to read this thousand-page book. It reads so fast and she’s so amazing; it sounds so beautiful. I encourage anybody to pick it up and read a little bit out loud. It’s a really cool experience.

 

If I’m going to read a thousand pages, I could knock out five or six books and feel really good about myself that I’m so well read…

 

BRYAN: What’s your favorite literary journal?

 

BRIAN: Oh dear, that’s a good question. For the longest time I would read a lot of stuff from GrantaThe Paris ReviewZoetrope, and McSweeney’s. Those are the big ones that I read. If I had to pick one out of all of those, maybe Granta, but I really like A Public Space. They have some really good criticism and awesome short stories. They have a really cool editor, Brigid Hughes.

 

XAVIER: Have you explored other forms of writing like playwriting, poetry, or creative nonfiction?

 

BRIAN: Starting off, I wanted to be a poet. I love reading poems. When I first took creative writing, the poetry packet was probably my favorite, but I realized I wasn’t really the greatest of poets. Then I discovered short stories and I really liked short stories, so I focused on that. I’ve written some essays–won some awards for some essays I’ve written. I have not done plays, but currently I’m writing a script for a short film, which I’m nervous about because we had the funding for the film to take place, but I haven’t started writing it yet, so I have to get my ass moving on that.

 

XAVIER: Ah, procrastination.

 

BRIAN: Resistance!

 

BRYAN: What was your first writing related job and how did it bring you to where you are now?

 

BRIAN: In Northern California I worked in the wine industry. I worked with fine wine for about eight years and when they found out I had an English degree, they wanted me to start writing all of the descriptions of the wines. So, my first writing job was writing about the color of wine, the taste, the finish, all that kind of lame stuff, but then I started writing all the copy that went on the labels for the wine bottles and on all the brochures. It was all beverage related. If you need me to describe wine, I can hook you up with some really good descriptors. But yeah, this overly romantic language about wine was my first writing gig.

 

If you need me to describe wine, I can hook you up with some really good descriptors.

 

XAVIER: How do you spend your time when you’re away from your writing?

 

BRIAN: Hobby wise, I snowboarded for about twenty years, so if I get a chance to go snowboarding, I love doing that. Oddly enough I still enjoy wine and food. I’m really never away from writing because if I’m not physically writing, I’m thinking about what I should be writing, or when I’m out and about, I’m always trying to piece together interesting concrete details, or thinking about an overheard piece of dialogue that I want to use and have germinate into something bigger. It’s almost like it never leaves you; it’s always right by your side. The writing is always there. Or I read something, like a menu or a sign on a train and think, this could be edited way better.

 

BRYAN: Do you have any spots around Rochester that inspire you or that you go to write?

 

BRIAN: I write from home for the most part. For the longest time, I’d want to go to a café or a coffee shop to write, but it costs money and I realized when I was going out, I almost wanted people to see me writing more so than I was actually writing. It sounds silly and it might be embarrassing to admit, but I wanted people to think, oh, he’s a writer. For me now, I like to be home, preferably alone, and I turn off my phone because it’s too much of a temptation. Before you know it, I’m watching YouTube videos rather than writing. So, I turn everything off and just focus. As far as inspiration, I live by the Genesee River, near the library, so I like to walk to the library and look at other books. That gets me inspired. Or, if I go for a walk, I don’t take my headphones with me, that way I’m not listening to anything; I’m actually observing and thinking. Too often if I have music going, it’s a way of bifurcating my mind and not letting it focus on being creative. Hearing the wind, people saying things, and the clattering of bottles if there’s trash around helps inspire me to want to write.

 

XAVIER: Do you ever write outside?

 

BRIAN: No, not often. The weather is too terrible here, are you kidding? I typically write at my dining room table; it’s got a window that faces outside. I write there.

 

XAVIER: Do you believe in writer’s block?

 

BRIAN: Certainly, writers can get jammed, stuck, or feel overwhelmed. I hate the thing “there’s no such thing as writer’s block,” because I’ve had it, so it exists. The best way to combat it is to just write. It’s like the most obvious thing to do, right? For me it’s about forgiving myself or allowing myself to write poorly. Sometimes I just hold myself to too high of a standard and it puts too much pressure on the act of writing. Allow yourself to be bad. There’s nothing wrong with it. Bad writing is only bad writing if it’s in your final draft. You can’t edit nothing, so just put some words down. I have to keep telling myself that. Another way to combat it is I set a timer. I call it my power hour. I set a timer for 25 minutes and as soon as I hit start, I have to write without stopping for 25 minutes. No excuses. Once the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break and do something mindless, like folding laundry or washing the dishes. What you’re doing during that ten minutes is you’re going to be thinking about what you just wrote and kind of get excited to get back into your story or whatever you’re working on. Why do all the great ideas come in the shower? It’s because it’s just the mindless act of showering. Then you have your second timer of 25 minutes. You can get a lot done in one hour. That’s one way to combat writer’s block because it’s only 25 minutes at a time. That’s not long.

 

Allow yourself to be bad. There’s nothing wrong with it. Bad writing is only bad writing if it’s in your final draft.

 

BRYAN: Do you see yourself sticking with the short story form or exploring other avenues?

 

BRIAN: I’m currently working on a novel. The thing with publishing is short story collections are nearly impossible to get published; it’s so hard. You can get individual pieces published, but the whole collection is such a grind. I kept running into this weird catch-22 where literary agents would see my work and really enjoy it and say to let them know when I have a novel. A literary agent is your gateway to major publishing houses and apparently, they’re real people who have to live and pay rent and eat food, and short story collections don’t make them a lot of money. If money were not a thing, I would just write short stories all day. I love the form; it’s amazing. I’m enjoying the process of writing a book but as soon as I finish the novel, I’m going right back to getting a new collection together. I like them both, but if I had to pick a favorite child, I’d pick the short stories.

 

XAVIER: What is your support system like for writing? Have you participated in any writing groups?

 

BRIAN: I have participated in writing groups. They can be extremely helpful, but it’s a double-edged sword; they can also hinder you figuring out what to do with your work because you get like four or five different opinions and you can get kind of lost in that. My favorite thing is to find somebody who you think is a good, caring reader and is willing to give you some of the hard feedback. Try to find one or two really close readers, and I’ve found that for me to be more helpful than a larger group. It just helps me stay more focused and understand a little better where I need to go. For the most part I tend to be on my own in the early stages and when I get to a pretty good spot, I like to share it with a few readers.

BRYAN: How do you select the names for your characters and the titles for your stories?

 

BRIAN: It depends on the style of story your writing. For mine, they kind of have that dirty realism feel. They’re hopeless, sad characters or people that are kind of bumbling their way through life. So, I want to try to use real simple, salt-of-the-earth kind of names. I didn’t want to get too extravagant, but I wanted them to be memorable enough. So, instead of calling someone Bob, I’ll call him Curtis because you can remember it just a little bit better. For any characters, I try to keep it really simple, but with just enough twist where they’re a little more memorable. As far as titles, I try to figure out what’s the theme or what’s central to the story and how the title could relate to that someway. Sometimes it could be super obvious like, “What to Say to a Child in the Speedway Bathroom,” when it’s about a person trying to figure out what to say to a little kid. I chose that one just because it seemed liked an interesting title, and I’d want to read that if I just saw the title. Then other times, it comes to an overall feeling. For “My Roberta,” I like the idea of “my” being possessive and the character is losing control of what he thought he had, the possession of his wife, and he realizes he has no control over this person that he loves. I don’t know, I just throw stuff against the wall until it all sticks.

 

XAVIER: Who have been your biggest mentors or influences?

 

BRIAN: Starting out, my biggest influences in one of my first creative writing courses when we started studying modernism, in particular dirty realism, was Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, and Flannery O’Connor–for the short story form. I grew up poor, and I could really relate with those type of characters more than the ones in stories you read about in The New Yorker where everybody has martinis at country clubs and stuff. The ash stray overflowing at the table with the gin bottle–that kind of sadness resonated with me a lot more. I didn’t realize you could write seriously and have those type of characters, which was really eye-opening for me. In the novel form, one of the huge influences for me was getting into translated literature. You go through your core canon of war literature, American literature, but reading stuff that’s translated from other cultures is really important and eye-opening to different avenues of how you can write or construct your sentences. In particular, South American translated literature has been a big influence with me. One author in particular is Rodrigo Fresán. He’s an amazing novelist, unbelievably talented. He’s one of those writers where I don’t want to read another book for a week after finishing one of his because there’s just that echo of the way he writes and the joy I feel from reading his work. You pick something else up and it feels kind of hollow.

 

You go through your core canon of war literature, American literature, but reading stuff that’s translated from other cultures is really important…

 

BRYAN: What book recommendations do you have?

 

BRIAN: The first one I have is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s nonfiction, but it’s about writer’s block, am I good enough, what am I doing–all those kinds of questions, he addresses in The War of Art, and it’s been so encouraging. That’s a huge recommendation. As far as the short story form goes, a big influence for me was Airships by Barry Hannah. Also, anything you can get your hands on by Flannery O’Connor. A Good Man Is Hard to Find–you can teach anything about writing from that work alone. Then as far as a craft-oriented book, there’s one called On Writing Well by William Zinsser. There’s a chapter in there called “Clutter,” and it’s one of the best chapters on writing.

 

XAVIER: Before you were published, did you ever consider self-publishing?

 

BRIAN: No, I’m not great with computers and it wasn’t quite as huge of a thing as it is right now. So, I didn’t consider self-publishing oddly enough. I would now though, since it’s readily available and easier to do. There’s no shame in that game.

 

BRYAN: What was your favorite childhood book?

 

BRIAN: I was a weirdo. I had to go to Sunday school all the time and I loved all the stories you get from Genesis and the Exodus, the First and Second Samuel, all these stories about kings and people killing each other. I really enjoyed all those types of stories. I had a book on Greek mythology, which again, mirrors all those Old Testament Bible stories where magical things happen and if your character has some sort of flaw, it’s going to be their downfall. I read those like crazy more so than children’s books. But I loved Jack and the Beanstalk; I always wanted my mom to read that. There was something about growing big that seemed interesting.

 

XAVIER: How do you market yourself and connect with your readers?

 

BRIAN: I’m terrible at marketing myself. I feel super cheesy trying to market myself. So, to answer that, not well. As far as connecting with readers, there’s this old thing, “write what you know.” Well I tried writing what I know and had like four pages and that was it; I don’t know anything else. I realized much later that “write what you know,” doesn’t necessarily mean “I have a job in construction, so I can write about construction.” To me it’s about human emotion. You don’t have to know a lot about an astronaut to write about an astronaut, but if you understand loneliness and separation, you can write about anybody doing anything that has those feelings. So, to connect with readers I try to focus in on pure human emotion, like the drama of the character. I think anybody can connect with that no matter who the character is or what they’re going through. That’s the kind of stuff that reigns through. You could have a character that’s old or young. If they’re going through something that’s interesting and you feel for them, there will be a connection… I hope.

 

…if you understand loneliness and separation, you can write about anybody doing anything that has those feelings.

 

XAVIER: How do you feel about the traditional vs. self-publishing debate?

 

BRIAN: I don’t have much of a feeling one way or the other. The one thing that concerns me with self-publishing is there are a lot of people who probably shouldn’t be publishing their work just yet that have that platform. I worry that’s going to ruin it for writers that have really good polished work, but they get lumped in with other self-published works that maybe haven’t put in the time or effort to put their work on display. That seems really unfair to people who have put in so much time and effort. That’s the one thing I’d be worried about. With the traditional publishing route there’s enough filters in place where you have to be pretty decent to publish through that route. Self-publishing is just unfiltered and you’re not sure what you’re going to get. Some folks just have no business putting work out yet, but they have the platform, so they do it, and I think it’s unfair for the ones that really work on their craft and want to self-publish to be lumped in with people who just aren’t taking it serious.

 

Meet Maria Brandt, author of All the Words

An interview by Bryan Michielsen

 

***

 

BRYAN: Can you start us off with a brief introduction of yourself?

 

MARIA: My name is Maria Brandt. I am a full professor of English at MCC. I originated and chaired the creative writing degree when it started, and now I’m on that committee. Angelique Stevens is the current chair. My primary role at MCC is still to nurture the creative writing students. I write fiction and plays primarily, but I’ve had one piece of nonfiction published too. My son’s name is Will, and he’s fourteen years old. He attends the School of the Arts in the city. He plays the cello and Dungeons and Dragons.

 

BRYAN: What’s your favorite part about teaching creative writing?

 

MARIA: There’s so much. I’d say when I’m working closely with students on their writing, whether it’s questions of craft, or concept, or process, I grow too as a writer. I think that as writers we know it’s very rare that we’re going to make our living off of just writing. For me, having a career that allows me to nurture my own writing–in a selfish way–has been amazing. So, the work I do with my students does funnel into the work I do myself. So, that’s part of it.

 

The biggest thing is all of the students though. It’s so exciting watching you all have those aha moments where you understand something more deeply about a story you’re working on, yourself, your process or craft, or something about the world. There’s nothing that we don’t touch on. That’s part of why I teach in the classroom and not online, because I live for those moments. I love when those little explosions happen.

 

BRYAN: In 2014, your novella, All the Words, won the Grassic Short Novel Prize. What inspired you to write about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938?

 

MARIA: I grew up on the southern coast of Long Island. The specific part on Moriches Bay where the novella takes place is where my father’s family–his polish parents–had a duck farm. I interviewed my grandfather before he died about what it was like to raise ducks, and what the line looked like with all the polish women who would kill the ducks and eviscerate them. I wanted to know what it was like during the Great Depression and how much he felt he was struggling.

 

My grandfather had ordered a barometer from Sears, and he went to the post office and took it out of the package, and everyone started laughing because the needle was pointed to the hurricane and they were like “look outside,” but then it ripped apart a couple days later.

 

Shinnecock Inlet on Dune Road is where I used to go a lot when I was younger. I used to climb over the rocks, and it’s a violent passageway where the ocean meets Shinnecock Bay. But that inlet was not there. That inlet was busted open by the hurricane.

 

The ocean is in my blood growing up where I grew up. Anything that has to do with the rage of the ocean and the cold, gray waters… I mean, I love beautiful, tropical waters, but they don’t get under my skin the way the cold, gray ocean does.

I knew when I was writing my first book that the ocean was going to be a big part of the world for the characters.


The ocean is in my blood growing up where I grew up.


BRYAN: How do you manage or keep up with your writing? Do you have a schedule or is it more of a spontaneous event when you have the inspiration or “the itch” to write?

 

MARIA: There’s no way I could just be spontaneous anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t spontaneous moments where I get the itch, but I’m a single mom who’s in a relationship with a single dad, and I have a full-time job that’s very demanding.

 

It doesn’t matter what your writing schedule looks like but at some point, it’s crucial that you develop one.


For me, I’ll use my calendar and write the name of something I’m working on and set aside time to work on it. I’ll also go through my submission log and see which stories I might want to send out. Once that day comes, I’ll pick another day on the calendar. All the things I want to do with my writing are somewhere on my calendar, so I know they’re there, and I don’t have to worry about it. If I get the spontaneous itch, great, but chances are I have to pick up my kid or go grocery shopping.

 

That’s the system that I use. It’s crazy, but whatever your system is, will probably be crazy too. Otherwise, I feel like months and months would go by and I’d start feeling anxious that I’m not doing this thing that I love to do.

 

BRYAN: In a previous interview with The Hickory Stump, you mentioned how it’s important to break out of the myth that writers are highly isolated. How have you personally fought that mindset and won?

 

MARIA: Yeah, there’s so many ways. Number one, I’m involved with two writer’s groups. I’m a founding member of Rochester Playwrights Group, and I’m a founding member of Straw Mat Writers, so I’m always writing in the community with other writers. Number two is involvement with local organizations–Writer & Books, Words on the Verge, MCC–and developing relationships with the creative writing series at Brockport and at Geneseo, and having a relationship with Nox, which is a cocktail place, allows me to host readings there.

 

The other thing is having a job that’s not just sitting in my room writing all day but being a teacher, being an active member of my neighborhood association, having political interests, raising a child and being a part of his various interests, just living in the world and paying attention. If I’m not writing about the world I’m living in, then it’s all solipsistic. It’s like masturbation. It’s not really engaging in the human experience, just a myth of my own whatever, and I don’t want that. So live, live, live. Get your hands dirty.


If I’m not writing about the world I’m living in, then it’s all solipsistic.


BRYAN: Do your characters have lives outside of the slice you’re showing your readers?

 

MARIA: That’s a great question. I’m trying to think. I don’t know. On one hand, no, and that’s a horrible thing to say, but people will ask what she is going to do the next day, and my response is always “I don’t know.” It’s really just what’s in the text. All the other stuff, I don’t know because I haven’t gone there yet. But on the other hand, because I do go so deeply into the text, I might not know why the guy said the thing to my character, but I know why my character thinks the guy said it to her.

 

There are lots of things about my characters that are real that I do know that aren’t explicit in the text, if that makes sense.

If I’m not writing about the world I’m living in, then it’s all solipsistic.

BRYAN: What was your hardest scene to write and why was it so hard?

 

MARIA: Right now, I’m working on a play, and I’m almost at the point of throwing it away, which is tough because I’ve been working on it for more than a year. I think a big part of it is that this is one of the few things I’ve written that’s started with a concept and not a character. So, I know what the concept is for the play; it’s very clear to me and I still love the concept, but I feel like it might be better served–because it’s so clear–as an essay.

 

My characters are struggling to be their own authentic selves because the concept is so heavy. When I sit with my characters, it just doesn’t feel like they’re living and breathing; it feels like they are still props for the concept. I’ve tried restructuring it, I’ve been workshopping it with both of my writing groups, and my boyfriend has read it with me out loud. I’m trying things, but I think that’s what it is, starting with a concept versus a character in a moment, and I don’t know where it’s going yet.

 

There is a story that I wrote where in the first few sentences, the character is talking about her mother’s copper-colored hair. I didn’t know why, but I knew that detail was important. By the end of the story I knew exactly why.

 

The story when I’m reading it always feels fresh and alive because I’m discovering what happens next as I write it. After I get a little into it, I start knowing what’s going to happen, but all the knowledge is coming from asking questions about why a character did something. I wonder, “why did she do that?” and I need to figure that out.

 

BRYAN: Do you have any spots around Rochester that you draw inspiration from?

 

MARIA: I write once a week in one of the Starbucks because I take my son to Dungeons and Dragons and I just go to Starbucks, but I don’t think that’s inspirational as much as it’s practical.

 

For my actual writing, it’s all inside me already. I don’t need to go somewhere to be inspired to write, but I love the parks in the city. I live right on Highland Park right now, so I spend a lot of time walking there and running there and riding my bike with my son there.

 

I love the city parts of the city, the dirty parts, the parts that feel very alive. I love spying and eavesdropping. If something catches my attention, there’s a little seed. Wherever I write, a lot of the time on my sofa with my laptop, that thing I saw or heard comes back and its the spark to something.


BRYAN: Your plays have been produced or been finalists not only in NYC, Boston, and Fort Lauderdale, to name a few places, but even in London, England. What has your experience been with that and how has that impacted your writing career?

 

MARIA: A lot of that is remote, so I didn’t go to Fort Lauderdale, I didn’t go to London, I didn’t go to Los Angeles, and I didn’t even go to the New York City one. My family went and videotaped it so I could watch.

 

Obviously, it’s amazing. For the Fort Lauderdale one, I think I got a check in the mail for like $15. I was like “yay!” You want to give me $15, great; I will gladly, gratefully accept that.

 

It’s tricky because these are contests where there’ll be like 400 submissions and they’ll pick five, so I’m not saying I don’t value it. They’re just things that were super fun when they happened. I got to have conversations with these people. It’s the big stuff, the full lengths that really shape you.


I love the city parts of the city, the dirty parts, the parts that feels very alive.


BRYAN: What’s the most constructive thing you’ve learned that has elevated your work?

 

MARIA: Part of it is community. Starting and nurturing Straw Mat Writers has absolutely changed my life. We’ve hosted workshops for other people; we’ve hosted readings for other writers; we’ve hosted readings for ourselves. We meet regularly. We go on retreats like twice a year where we workshop the whole time. Finding that community has been the biggest catalyst for me.

 

BRYAN: Tell me more about Straw Mat Writers.

 

MARIA: For my 40th birthday, my family, who are all still in Long Island, wanted to know what presents to buy me, and I don’t really need things; I shop at thrift stores, like I don’t really need things. So, I said, “I would like an adventure.” My youngest sister, for our adventure, took me to see a play in Brooklyn. We went out to a bar, we played pool, we played this buck-hunting game, and then we played this game where you had to figure out which underwear were different for these male models. We won that game, so we had to put in our name, but since it was two of us, we wrote “Mae” because her name is Emily, so it stood for Maria and Emily.

 

Anyways, that same night–she’s a writer too, and she hadn’t really been generating, and I hadn’t been generating–we said that in June we were going to prompt each other via email every day by eight in the morning, taking turns. Then, we’d have a day to write. I would write a short play every single day and she would write a poem every single day. We called it Project Mae.

 

I ended up with thirty short plays, three of which I threw out, and twenty seven of them I chose to develop.

 

I had the plays and I was talking to Angelique Stevens and Pam Amy Murphy at a party, telling them about it. Angelique said “I’ve got some essays,” and Pam said “I’ve got some journal entries.” We started meeting and thought, Elizabeth Johnston writes poems, let’s see if she wants to join us, and she did.

 

On our first retreat we did a prompt with the words “straw mat,” and we all wrote something. Then, a few months later, Angelique was like, we need to name ourselves, so we came up with the Straw Mat Writers.

 

Pam doesn’t really work with us anymore, it’s just Angelique, Elizabeth, and me. Since we’ve started this, all three of our writing has gone from just closet writers to fully out in the public marketplace. We push each other. We get in fights–good fights. We love each other.

 

BRYAN: What was it like to visit Charles Dickens’ home in London? What did you take away from that experience?

 

MARIA: As a graduate student, I took a seminar on Charles Dickens, and I really loved his work. I’m an Americanist; that’s where my real heart is, but I really loved his work. When I went to London, I wanted to go to his home. You know, you’re sitting at the same desk where this person wrote some tough things. All of his work is tough. It’s just as simple as being in a place and the ghosts are there, the energy, some residue of this human being lingers in the air, and I was there for a moment being quiet, saying hi, and that was big.


It’s just as simple as being in a place and the ghosts are there, the energy, some residue of this human being lingers in the air.

 

BRYAN: In your experience, how do you feel the literary landscape has evolved for women and where would you like to see it go in the future?

 

MARIA: I think we’re in a really good place right now, and it’s not just for women, it’s for people of color and people across sexual categories too. Within the hierarchy of literature, there’s a consciousness that we kind of mess up. It seems honest, but there’s at least a spoken desire to rectify that. So, you’re seeing calls for only queer writers, only women, or only people of color. I think that’s necessary.

 

In large part, I don’t think in intentional discrimination, but because the water we lived in was so muddied with structural discrimination and invisible discrimination, we have centuries of this idea that good work was only by white men. The reason we have dead, white, male writers is because only they wrote the good stuff. Now there’s more consciousness, and that’s obviously not true, and it never has been true. To rectify that, there needs to be intentionality.

 

I think where all of us would like it to go eventually is that we’re in a more equitable and just society so that we don’t have to have calls for any particular group of people, but right now we do need those. It’s not going to fix itself, but I would love for the point where we don’t need that anymore.


Within the hierarchy of literature, there’s a consciousness that we kind of mess up.

 

BRYAN: In your play, Swans, you tackle some hard-hitting topics including domestic abuse and the way gender roles are defined. How has the community responded to this play?

 

MARIA: A big thing is that we partnered with RESTORE and Ignite. On two separate nights we had talkbacks. People in the audience were coming out and were sharing their stories and saying things like, “We never see this on stage.” I felt so silenced. People talk about it in dark rooms and we know it exists, but people will say things like, “nobody’s really like that,” but the people who saw the play were like “that’s exactly what it’s like.”

 

The mother in the play who was the victim participated to a degree in her own victimhood, and a lot of audience members were so mad about that, but then people were like “that happens too.” We raised a lot of money for those two organizations.

 

Another big thing was that Ignite wanted to do an all-deaf show. Their whole mission is to serve communities in Rochester who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who experience domestic or sexual abuse or assault. I learned through this process that there are high instances of that. So, they had an all-deaf cast and an ASL speaking director. I went as an audience member and I had to wear headphones for the interpretation. Someone from the crew had to translate the script into ASL English, which is different from our English, so what I heard was not the words I wrote. It was so weird and out of my own experience. Most of the people in the audience were not hearing, so I would hear people in the audience laughing before I would get to the joke, even though I knew it was coming. Then there was a talkback after that too for this very specific audience.

 

I went to XXI and I was on Fox News to talk about it, and I received feedback and phone calls after that too. This issue just hits so many people and it’s something that so many people are uncomfortable talking about, so we need to have stuff out there.

 

BRYAN: Thank you for being a part of Burgundy Balloon. It’s been great talking to you and learning a little more about you and your writing career. I think it’s important to have conversations like these because it exposes us all as human. Something I’ve learned since first starting college to now, is that everything in high school is so…

 

MARIA: Fake.

 

BRYAN: Yes, exactly. We all play these roles, you know, teacher, student, parent, etcetera, but after high school, in the real world, there’s more than just the labels that distinguish all of us or separates us. At the core we’re all human and these conversations expose that, and they expose unique perspectives, and I love that.

 

MARIA: I totally agree.

 

BRYAN: Thanks again for being a part of the conversation.

 

An Interview with Bryan Michielsen

An interview by Scott Knapp


***


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?


BRYANBurgundy 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.


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.


I love surrounding myself with other creative people.


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.


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.


I like realism and literary fiction.


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.


I just love the energy I get from other writers.


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?


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.