Andrew Hincapie Interviews J. Scott Brownlee
Scott Brownlee’s first full-length collection of poetry, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, balances the metaphysical influence of natural landscapes with the concrete struggles of urban existence as he explores the ideological framework emerging from his native Llano, Texas. Violent devotion to the physical world often strips down the expectations of small-town Southern spirituality, so that the lyric embellishes another grander world far removed from Brownlee’s roots, and yet still returns to the haunting narrative voice of his Southern home.
Front Porch: Despite your living and working in Northeastern cities like New York and Philadelphia, much of your writing reaches back to your roots in central Texas. How might this regional disparity influence your work as you look back at open natural landscapes in the midst of crowded urban environments?
J. Scott Brownlee: Reading my bio online, I sound firmly like an East Coaster, certainly. Though the truth is I lived in Llano, where the book is set, from birth through high school, and then lived right down the road from Llano in Austin for about five years after that. I remember a poet reviewing an issue of The Greensboro Review referring to me as an “NYU grad student” in his critique arguing the journal had too many urban poets in it, and I started laughing while reading the review because he hadn’t Googled me and realized that I write exclusively about rural Texas. For better or worse, I’m firmly a poet-of-place who writes about a specific place. Being from “the sticks” didn’t seem like a literary opportunity until I had some separation from Texas. I lived in North Carolina while in grad school and started writing what would become the book, though the collection didn’t really take off until I came to New York to study under Yusef Komunyakaa, who is from rural Louisiana and understood what I was trying to accomplish poetically in ways that weren’t clear to me yet. He kept advising me to “let the city into the poems,” and I hope to do that someday, but have not yet. Living in cities the past few years has provided a nice juxtaposition to the rural landscapes I conjure in poems, which results in a tension that helps generate new writing. I am especially interested in the idea of emptiness / nothingness / erasure. I think part of that comes from living in dense, frenetic urban settings and dreaming about their metaphysical opposite, while another portion comes from growing up in a place where emptiness dominates the landscape and horizon. The God of Llano is enormous, I think, because people there need to believe in something as large (or larger) than the absence surrounding them.
FP: You incorporate destructive imagery like shotgun shells and broken bottles, and even soldiers wrestling with notions of the Divine, while always returning to meditations on the natural world. How do you see this kind of violent futility informing the environmental concerns of your work?
JSB: I’d say the destructive imagery provides an opportunity for the lyric world to intersect with the everyday world we perceive and inhabit, and that in order to come to mourning and contemplation, we sometimes have to be tested by the proverbial “fire” in our lives. Erasure can get our attention in ways that viewing growth or renewal often cannot. We perhaps would not even have a need for a lyric register as poets if there weren’t acts of violence interrupting and reconfiguring our lives and memories. Balance is very important to me as a poet, and my poems cannot get to any semblance of balance without that Shiva-esque figure entering them who is half hellion and half healer—burning the pasture down even as he seeds it with next spring’s wildflowers.
FP: Speaking of allusions to divine intervention, many poems focus on metaphysical aspects of wildlife and natural landscapes, and several titles even include direct religious references that suggest a kind of prayerful or even repentant voice (Ascension, Doe Rapture, Ritual, etc.). What was the impulse to emphasize this divine presence among your physical and oftentimes destructive imagery?
JSB: Llano is a staunchly religious place—with an evangelically aggressive Southern Baptist Christianity serving as the dominant mode of belief. Growing up immersed in that world and attending prayer sessions at the flagpole at school, and talking about religion with my best friend, who was Pentecostal, the language of belief was the metaphysical water I swam in for nearly two decades. I think the reason the prayerful, repentant voice entered the poems was that it had to in order for me to reckon with the religiosity I once claimed, and now use as an instrument I borrow rather than claim as my own. I know how to play that proverbial fiddle by heart at this point in my life, and letting its music enter the poems helps make the working class lives and landscapes they highlight more aesthetically beautiful and memorable than readers might initially presume them to be.
FP: Immediately from the opening poem, Llano River Sunset, the stress of war and the presence of death influence much of your book. How do you see this confessional quality as poetry of witness functioning in your work?
JSB: I’m glad these themes immediately leapt off the page for you, because I think America’s presence in the Middle East is always humming beneath the surface of these poems—even those that don’t specifically address the post-traumatic stress soldiers return from combat with or the negative psychological affects of Bush and Cheney’s war on rural America. I was a freshman when 9/11 happened, and it took a bit for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to reach us in Llano, but they finally did when many people I knew, unable to pay for college and seeking an escape from town, joined the armed forces. Some of them survived. Others did not. I think about war’s effect on the psyches of rural people all the time as a result of the lives lost (often from suicide post-combat). Part of that rumination is a guilt I feel at not having to involve myself in the difficult decisions my peers who served made and make on a daily basis. It is a small thing, writing poems that meditate on [PTSD] and what it means to be a forgotten soldier in a forgotten war, but it also felt like an inexhaustible subject I had to plumb the past six years, so I embraced it and did the best I could to bear witness to the experience of Llano’s veterans in this book. I think the poems could say more. I think they could be more politically active. They could better articulate how [PTSD] has killed small towns one life at a time… slowly… over several decades.
FP: You’re currently working on a novel set in Austin, TX, while also completing a second collection of poetry. Do you find any difficulty in separating these two mediums, or do you find yourself including more storytelling in your poetry as a result?
JSB: Confession time: I actually finished my second poetry collection several weeks ago, so I clearly need to update my bio! It’s called A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and is floating around at contests right now and a few of university presses I queried who took an interest in it. The novel, I could ramble on about for pages, because it has been and continues to be the greatest writing challenge of my life. In college, I thought I’d be a novelist and wrote a really terrible half-draft of a novel before quitting and switching to poetry, which ultimately worked out for the best, because now, when I work on The City Irrevocably, a coming-of-age novel set in Austin, Texas, I have the linguistic toolkit to make each sentence click poetically and flow into the sentence following it. This is a skill I didn’t have in my first incarnation as a novelist that certainly helps the fiction writing process now. I have to say, though, that novel writing uses an entirely different part of my brain than poetry and is intensely challenging. To combat the intimidating wall of words that appears in my head when I think of the word “novel,” I found a form that complements my training as a poet. The City Irrevocably moves in quick, page-long prose bursts that function a bit like prose poems. These help me contain my tendency to be too lyrical when I should be advancing the plot. Imagining each chapter as a track on an old vinyl record or a photograph has proved helpful so far, and I don’t think I would have come up with this form for the book if I hadn’t spent years writing poetry beforehand.
FP: As a note on forms, many of the poems in this collection appear sideways across the page, often in fragmented experimentations of space that force a more interactive reading experience. What freedom if any do you find in allowing longer lines to extend the range of your voice?
JSB: Those long lines are the first visual cue when you open the book that you’re about to spend the next hour or two reading definitively “narrative” poetry, and that is an intentional move. In composing the book, I tried to give each poem a distinct physical shape that fit its content while also paying attention to breath and clauses. Clauses tend to be my favorite place to snap off line breaks, which has to do with me being a proponent of the Deep Image (think Dorianne Laux, Larry Levis, and Yusef Komunyakaa, my literary forebears). To get you to remember an image, I like to give it to you in facets you can easily interpret and piece together. Readability is critical to me. Permission is critical to me. I want someone with a high school education to be able to pick up this book and engage with it the same way someone with two PhDs and a penthouse in Manhattan can, and one way to do that is using long narrative lines that don’t leave my reader lost or wondering what vague poetic truth I’m pointing toward. A great example of a poem that means exactly what it says is “Ars Poetica with a Dead Dog in It.” If you look closely, you can see the body of the dog physically represented by the second stanza in the poem, with the stanzas before and after it constituting the ditch in which the dog’s remains rest. Another poem for which spacing is crucial, “Ascension,” is a sonnet but doesn’t look like one at first glance. It makes use of space between lines and clauses due to the violent subject matter of the poem, which literally pulls the poem and its speaker apart at their seams.
FP: I couldn’t help but take note that you have extended a special thanks to your MFA brothers, whom you have come to refer to as “the Localists.” What was your motivation to organize multiple voices into a single collective like this, and how do you find this connection affects your own work?
JSB: The Localists is a poetry collective that emphasizes personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class, [which] my friends and I started in grad school, and I’m conscious of the fact I wrote “brothers” in the acknowledgments. The collective doesn’t only include men now (which seems important to mention). That shout-out to my “Localist brothers” is based on the fact that in New York, when graduate school was stressful, I first connected with Matt, J.T., and Javier, and from there have been working to grow the movement. We envision the collective supporting writers from as many different ethnic backgrounds and gender identities as possible, and I hope this book serves as a magnet of sorts to writers out there focused on representing working class life. We would love for you to join the collective if you are reading this and have that identity, or are just curious. Anyone who would like to get involved can get in touch with me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
FP: As a Brooklyn Poets teacher and a former Writers in Public Schools Fellow with NYU, do you find your own work influenced by what you teach your students, as if you might tell students something you wish you had learned yourself?
JSB: What a fantastic question! Teaching is my primary passion in life, and in the long-term, I hope I’m able to continu[e] doing it. In particular, my favorite students come from middle class backgrounds and are first generation college students. Philip Levine had this theory that kids who come from less end up writing the best poetry because they don’t approach writing poems as a hobby but instead as a vocation. I completely agree with him. Something I love about teaching for Brooklyn Poets is the work I get to do with folks outside the academy, which is refreshing in that you’re not influenced by prestige or the MFA program in which you’re situated, and just focusing on writing for writing’s sake. My students have taught me to be braver in my own work via the risks they take in their own. Thinking about someone else’s writing and helping it grow can be the best medicine for growing your own writing as well, it seems like. I try to be transparent with my students when I talk about publishing and the writing life, balancing the excitement of publishing with the frustration of rejection. On days when a big disappointment arrives in my inbox, it can be instructive to take that advice to heart and keep moving forward.
J. Scott Brownlee is a poet from Llano, Texas, and his work includes the chapbook Highway or Belief, which won the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, the 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize-winning chapbook Ascension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County, which won the 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize. Brownlee is also a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class. He teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member and is a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he earned his MFA. Brownlee currently lives in Philadelphia and has been working on The City Irrevocably, a novel set in Austin, Texas, as well as his second full-length collection of poetry, entitled A Little Bit of Hardly Anything. He can found online at http://www.jscottbrownlee.com.