Conversations with Contributors: Brian Tierney (Issue 11, Poetry)

The release of our Fall 2015 issue is just around the corner (Tuesday! Tuesday!)… but what about right now? Lucky for you, we’ve got a rockin’ interview to tide you over. What happened when journalism summer mentee Jane Levy (Staples High School, ’16) spoke with Issue Eleven contributor Brian Tierney? Magic, that’s what.

 Issue Eleven Contributor Brian Tierney.
Issue Eleven Contributor Brian Tierney. 

Jane Levy, Journalism Summer Mentee: It’s obvious we love your work, so first of all: what brought you to focus on poetry, rather than another genre?

Brian Tierney, Issue Eleven Contributor: Something like Saul being knocked from his horse. I guess I’ve been tinkering with words in one way or another for a long time. I studied English and journalism as an undergraduate, and was pretty far down the path of prose and literary studies graduate-level work when I realized I wanted to be writing poetry more seriously (i.e. not my embarrassing attempts to pen Neil Young songs). Suddenly, very suddenly, poetry was the most natural way of exercising my humanity. A fiction writer and friend of mine, John Fried, who works at my alma mater, put it this way: “I just woke up and realized I wanted to be doing it, not just studying how others do it.” There’s room for both, of course, but the point was well-taken.

JL: One of the things we admire in particular about your poem “Waking in the Year of the Boar” is its fresh treatment of grief and mortality. What do you think led you to address these themes in this way? (Whatever it is, please keep doing it.) 

BT: I arrived at “Waking,” which happens to share its title with the title of my first manuscript, after realizing autobiography was not a through street. I have a fairly small family, and many of them died in the last decade. My father was one of them. For a long time after he died, I wanted to make it mean something, say something, express something, as we all do, but I always came back to the particulars of our story, which to me becomes much less interesting since poetry is not memoir. As Williams wrote: “It is not necessary to count every flake of the truth that falls . . .  it is necessary to speak from the imagination.”

“Who are we to live forever? Along I-80, goats graze,
testing the fences, not knowing there’s no heaven— ”

— Brian Tierney, “Waking in the Year of the Boar”

So I moved away from a more autobiographically fixed “I,” even as the manuscript is trying to emerge from one I’s encounter (my own) with networks of losses. One person dies, then another person dies, then Death takes on a formal persistence. But all of that matters much less when you are simply telling readers about your life. I wanted the “I” to be recognizably me, and so, be able to hold the weight of authentic experience, but also be capable of multiplicity and difference, of expansion and contraction, of observation and experience that could mean something to someone else.

The poem took off from there, as many other ones did. That I could grieve, but also find a way out that had nothing to do with an afterlife, or religious beliefs, or any other preclusion. Grief, for a while, is a blindness that elevates dark matter into the allegorical, the narrative, the symbolic, and the metaphoric, and through the metaphoric especially, into the poet’s capacity for empathy. But one of the reasons The Bible continues to throb long after scientific explanation, despite all the hypocrisies and hatreds attached to it, is because at its core the Bible is about creation and existence, and consequently, is a myth.

And myth—in a general sense—is humanity’s way of mirroring its own conception of the gods we’ve nurtured and ordained as creators and clockmakers and seers, a powerful subconscious self-instruction and preservation. There were lots of stones rolling around in my head when I wrote this poem. I wanted to dismantle some of my own previously held beliefs. I don’t believe in a higher power. I believe in the relationships lives have to each other. Earthly, animal, spatial, temporal, human; there is more to tell there than in any concept of god, or merely self.

JL: Shifting to “Elegy for the Mattresses Sleeping in the Past” for a second, I noticed you referenced Pablo Neruda’s poem “Youth.” What does this poem mean to you, and what led you to incorporate it into the poem? 

BT: Neruda is a poet many young poets read to be mystified and enlarged. He was a great poet of the heart, and of joy-pain duende. I’m not sure there is any particular reason I referenced “Youth” other than the fact that the line I borrowed, which made its way into the title, caught me in its lights and got me considering what starts to fall away as one ages, but also what remains to remind us of all we have done to each other through time, whether or not we’d prefer to forget it.

When reading Neruda, I always get the sense that it is all about the inexpressible, about accessing an accumulation of images and emotional depth and experience. It seemed to speak to ideas I was having at that time about lineage and growing back toward zero, which, despite its numerical denotation, is still something visible, seeable, especially in the world we’ve littered with remnants of ourselves and our stories. We do, in fact, leave something sleeping in the past, but our bodies remind us what that means to the now.

JL: You’re, of course, entering your second year as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. What is something you have learned or realized during your time there that you can’t imagine your craft without now?

BT: Thanks to many great conversations around the workshop table, I became interested in the idea of dramatic context—the “staging” of material, and how important that context is to the success of any poem. That poetry is a dramatic genre, rooted in dramatic form, in a way other writing never can be. That is, of course, if you take “context,” as I do, to describe how the parts function in particular ways to create particular wholes, registers, consciousness, voicing, spatial realizations and all manner of poetic presence on the page, even if they may contain layers of meaning. So I realized context and staging aren’t relegated to monologues or soliloquies, or more obvious foregroundings of the performative, in which the dramatic quality and framework is almost literally the poem inside and out.

“…poetry is a dramatic genre, rooted in dramatic form, in a way other writing never can be.”

— Brian Tierney

In a way, staging requires a series of answers that make one answer, which is the poem itself, embedded as it is with many facets. Who is speaking? Why? Is this an address to a ghost? Is this present, past, future, visionary, autobiography? Is it simultaneous? Is it a singular moment? Is this historically anchored? Is it reclamation, or re-using? Is this about place, people, the earth, society? Is it a story? Is it narrative? Is it both? (It often is.)

The questions, to a degree, could be endless. I don’t mean to establish mutually exclusive terms, or false dichotomies. But how all of that (and much more) relates to words appearing and sounding on a page has everything to do with writing as an act of discovery and decision. I saw, in my own work at least, that the ills of individual poetic endeavors are often sets of lines that lead back to a failed context. Maybe this means an impulse started isn’t carried-through; or I hadn’t adapted, as one must, to how poems change and contexts change in the writing process. Not so much that the poem, on the page, in those instances, wasn’t there or wasn’t interesting, but that the poem had cut a shape that didn’t necessarily fit the staging, or fit it, perhaps, too well and so became predictable, dead, circular, or just plain one-dimensional. That can happen especially with ideologically driven poems that sometimes affix a narrow range of readings without concern for truths outside the will to order things and make meaning. It is a matter of emphasis; where to begin, how to begin, where to end and how; how the title frames what follows, or doesn’t etc. If you don’t know what a poem is, or pay attention to how it moves, there will inevitably be a mismatch that readers experience and recoil from. Then again, writing really isn’t as scientific or theoretical as all that.

JL: How do you envision your first collection taking shape? Are there any overarching themes that you either have explored or hope to explore?

BT: With my first collection, Waking In The Year Of The Boar, I became interested in mythology and de-mythology, and interacting with myths, stories, family and cultural histories. To some extent I’ve tried to rarefy and mythologize my own life in order to interact with a grief that is always usurping all the charms of promised resurrections. In that way, I wanted to participate in and undermine those myths, to see what was left. It’s why, for the purposes of these poems, the titular “boar” becomes my father (the year of the boar is both his birth year and death year, as it turned out), and so a type of grief that constellates life. At its root I hope the manuscript takes our coping devices, both personal and communal, historical and proprietary, and lays them out on the table in pieces, like clock-parts, to figure out the shape it all makes from fragmentation and yearning. Part of that required drawing together my family history (which includes my aunt’s suicide in the mid-1970s) with a much larger history marked by series of losses and inherited hurts. Many of the poems reach out to ghosts; many come up against futility; some find love in the ruins, to borrow from Percy Walker. I think humans are at a point in which we have gone so far into our humanity, so far away we have journeyed from the beginning—the natural course of things—that those organizing principles now fail us, or some of us. The space between those packaged stories and the real ones we live, is the space where certain belief systems outlive their efficacy. And so we fill them with questioning. I suspect it will be a subject of interest for me for years to come.

JL: And, finally, a classic for the road: What is the best piece of advice you could give to an aspiring poet?

BT: The old cliché stands tallest: writing and reading (poetry specifically) as often as you can. That is number one. I’ve heard some poets say otherwise, but I suspect that has more to do with self-assuaging than some arrived-at objective truth about writing and what it takes. It is up to an aspiring poet to find their own evolutionary course, and what works for them. I would say remember that poetry requires the wild thought or feeling—without it, and the arrangements it can gather in its course, the result is inherently a conservative one, and I’m talking on aesthetic terms, not political or ideological ones. Too much control in the initial writing process can mean not enough room for the mind to come up against the word, against language, in order to find new shapes for its passage into unrecovered country. That is where I want poems to arrive. It is a little paradoxical, to prescribe wildness to get to order, to the thing on the page, a sort of inverse relationship between wielding all you know and remembering to forget some of it sometimes. Kind of like that silly ’80s tune: “hold on loosely… if you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.”

Brian Tierney is a 2014-2016 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, and a graduate of the Bennington College MFA Writing Seminars. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNIBest New Poets 2013The Kenyon ReviewNarrativeHayden’s Ferry Review, and others.

Jane Levy

Jane Levy is a senior at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut. She recently studied at the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute and in the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, and currently serves as an editor for the student newspaper Inklings.

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