Issue 13 is out, and that means the Adroit Blog’s Conversations With Contributors is in full swing! To get things off to a great start, Audrey Zhao sat down with Ian Burnette, Issue 13 contributor and winner of the 2015 Adroit Prize in Poetry, and Brynne Rebele-Henry, runner-up for the 2015 Adroit Prize in Poetry.
Audrey Zhao, Blog Correspondent: To start: who or what has most influenced your writing and why?
Brynne Rebele-Henry, Runner-up for the 2015 Adroit Prize in Poetry: It changes constantly. I have certain books or paintings or writers I associate with different manuscripts. But currently, I really love Marlene Dumas’s paintings (which I often reference in my current poems) and Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch because of the way it portrays sexuality and girlhood and overthrows a lot of male institutions regarding girlhood and psychosis. Also, The Dead Girls Speak in Unison by Danielle Pafunda and Body Thesaurus by Jennifer Militello (though really everything they both write) and Jenny Saville’s work in general are all incredible.
Ian Burnette, Winner of the 2015 Adroit Prize in Poetry: Matthew Dickman and Terrance Hayes are the poets who have influenced my writing the most. Before reading them, I had this idea that good poetry had to be solemn or controlled in order to do its job. They taught me how valuable, and ultimately heartbreaking, it is to write with verve, to be wild with language and to have heart in everything. If there is any amount of spirit in my work—which I can only pray there is— all credit is due to these two amazing writers. Both of them changed my life in ways I can’t even begin to describe. If you want to read them, which you should, I’d start with Matthew Dickman’s Mayakovsky’s Revolver, and Lighthead, by Terrance Hayes.
AZ: Do you have any music recommendations? What are some great songs to write poems to?
BRH: I don’t really have any specific songs I like listening to while writing, though I have certain songs that I listen to as a form of immersion/association for various projects (when I was writing my first novel, I only listened to “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield for nine months when writing in the voice of one protagonist). Currently, though, I’ve been trying to write a piece about Amy Winehouse, so I’ve been listening to her.
IB: I wish I did, but I don’t listen to music when I write poetry. Much like it’s hard to sing one song while listening to another, I can’t seem to manage it. But, I do listen to music when I write fiction. Youth Lagoon is a great band to listen to while laying out a story, and somewhat opposite to what I said about music and poetry, I find their music in particular actually helps to establish atmosphere in my fiction. Someone please explain this to me if you are a neuroscientist and know how this works.
AZ: Let’s shift gears. In a world that is becoming increasingly technology and STEM-oriented, do you think it is more difficult or simple for teenagers to immerse themselves in art and writing?
BRH: I think it is more simple, since technology provides a platform to make it less difficult for teenagers to access art and writing.
IB: I don’t see much of a distinction between technology and science vs. art and writing. I’m convinced that everything—especially writing—is really just hard labor. Everything worth doing takes a lot of time and involves moving meaningless parts around to create something meaningful. Sometimes the goal is to produce something heartbreaking, as with a poem. Sometimes, as in science, the beauty of a creation is in its correctness, and what that correctness can reveal to us about ourselves or about the world. When you look at why we write vs. why we do science, there is little difference between the two. So, no, I don’t think immersion is a problem. If teenagers choose to be immersed in writing, they will be. Anyone who wants to can lead an artistic/poetic/thoughtful life if they are willing to make the time for it.
AZ: Both of you are fantastic at creating visceral and textured poems (Check out Ian’s poem “dear radio” and Brynne’s poem “Purple” in Adroit’s Summer 2015 issue!). Can you talk about how you build your poems (inspirations, process, etc.)?
BRH: Thank you! My poetry doesn’t really have a set process. Sometimes it’s based off words I found in magazines or the dictionary, but mostly it’s just surrounded by flesh (almost all of my poems are based off certain body parts or various images of flesh/skin, as well as queerness/womanhood/sex/sexuality in general). I like trying to write poems in a similar process to that of the construction of skin grafts.
IB: Okay, so I’m going to start with how I try to not write my poems. There are these things I call Poetic Moments, and I’m always grateful for them when they happen to me. This includes when it’s late on a Friday night and I’m walking down a dark country road in central Ohio beside someone I am happy to be with and a white farm house appears on the crest of the hill with a single yellow window spilling light onto the world and in my head something cements itself and I know I have to preserve this moment. Except I shouldn’t and I don’t. The problem with Poetic Moments like these, however enriching they are to our lives, however sentimental and sensorially pleasing they might seem, is that they’re not about anything. They fail to challenge themselves. There is no danger implicit in a scene. Nothing is at stake. Remember what your mother used to tell you about the prettiest people at school? It’s a lot like that.
For me, poetic moments never make good poems (though they certainly have their place in good poems), by which I mean I never, ever impress myself when I allow myself to be seduced by them. Instead of fixating on a single image or concept I want to write about, I try to find at least two things I can constellate or bounce off of one another. Kurt Cobain, trash in Pittsburgh. Matrimony, helicopter tours. The weather, sex. I think a good poem is all about making something you didn’t know had a hold on you completely heartbreaking, and the best way to find that configuration of elements is to discover what two seemingly unrelated things have to say to one another when you bring them into a vacuum and lock them up together like a couple of strangers who had too much to drink and end up spending the night in jail. This doesn’t always work, but I find it’s often the best place to start.
AZ: Let’s talk about something light! If you could write anything into reality, what would it be?
BRH: I’d probably attempt to abolish problematic systems/institutions in our society.
IB: I would write working air conditioning into my dorm room because contrary to popular belief it’s still incredibly hot and humid here in central Ohio. “Hell yeah,” says my roommate [Adroit contributor Frances Saux] from across the room. They say it’s broken, but we all know it’s just a budgeting scheme.
AZ: Brynne: Can you speak on your hybrid/poetry book, Fleshgraphs, and your poetry collection, Weird Atlantic? What inspired these works?
BRH: Yes! The idea behind Fleshgraphs stemmed from being a young lesbian and feminist intrigued by online confessions, which run the gamut from trivial to homicidal, as well as by a society that seems obsessed with people changing their corporeal forms. Fleshgraphs is meant to be a multi-voiced manifesto of the body, as well as a sort of unifier since every person has a body. The voices meld the trivial with the suicidal, the amazing with the horrifying, kind of like the Internet does. It’s always amazed me that you can watch videos of baby pandas and then witness someone being stabbed immediately afterwards on the Internet. The concept also pertains to how being a woman with an online presence is a form of warfare, as women can’t even make knitting videos without being virtually attacked by angry men. In this book (and the rest of my work), I try to change the way that LGBTQPIA individuals are portrayed, since in many pieces of writing, queer people are portrayed only as queer, or are fetishized and viewed as accessories, with no other facets to them as people. I also try to subvert female invisibility, as well as the expectations surrounding what queer women are supposed to look like. Weird Atlantic was inspired by sexuality and girlhood and the ocean. The poems in the collection are designed to be like individual body parts as well as their own oceans/planets.
AZ: Ian: Your poem, “Harvests” (selected by Richie Hofmann to be the runner-up for the 2014 Adroit Prize for Poetry!) was also selected by Tracy K. Smith for inclusion in Best New Poets 2015. First of all, congratulations! How does it feel to have this poem included in Best New Poets?
IB: Thank you! I was so excited to find out that “Harvests” had been selected, especially since I grew up reading Tracy K. Smith’s work. I don’t think fourteen year old me could have ever imagined writing anything worth her time. Hell, I don’t think nineteen year old me could ever imagine writing anything worth her time.
AZ: Brynne: In addition to being a poet, you are a prose writer and visual artist. What draws you to art and writing and what drives you to continue producing poetry, prose, and art?
BRH: I think that, for me at least, art and writing are very different but fundamentally similar vehicles, which is why mine often overlap so much in both content and style and the way that I produce them, and visual art and writing can affect people in very different ways because of the way that the work is processed. I try to make my visual art and writing political vessels, but I want them to be received/perceived differently.
AZ: Ian, you’re a graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and are currently an undergraduate at Kenyon College. How is studying creative writing in high school different from studying it at college?
IB: I am probably the wrong person to answer this question because I haven’t taken a creative writing course at Kenyon, but I can tell you what my experience has been in general. As logic would suggest, it is much easier to write consistently when surrounded by people who are also writing and while under concrete deadlines. That said, I think being a part of a system like this can also be deadening to one’s work. By the end of my senior year of high school, everything I wrote was pretty much the same thing, if that makes any sense. I was not taking the risks I needed to be taking because I had become comfortable with the identity of my work. College changed everything. Suddenly, I was in a much bigger ocean, a much bigger ocean in which I was no longer surrounded by people who were actively interested in reading my work or giving me feedback. Realizing that I do not matter that much and experiencing the obscurity and anonymity of being in the (semi) adult world really motivated me to change the kind of work I was producing. It really put the fire under me to discipline myself and figure out how I was going to hold myself responsible for pursuing this thing I still loved with so much of me.
AZ: Brynne, in an interview you did with the Visual Arts Center of Richmond earlier this year, you said you write political essays. In your opinion, how—and in what way—is art essential for social and political change?
BRH: I think that all art can affect a political climate, even if it’s not intended to, and in some ways it both transcends political concerns and feeds them.
AZ: Ian, to somewhat go off the last question, in your opinion, how important is it for young writers to be a part of a community of creative writers?
IB: I think being around other creative writers can be either extremely useful or entirely useless. Useful, because people tend to amplify one another. So if you are around other people who are writing, it gives you this kind of strength you might not otherwise have. On the other hand, it is stressful to be around people who are trying to pursue the same craft as you with completely different brains that have completely different ideas about what is valuable and what is not valuable, what they and the people around them should be doing and should not be doing. I’m still not sure I know how to be around other people who write, but I don’t know how to not be around them either.
Brynne Rebele-Henry’s poetry, fiction, and visual art have appeared in The Volta, Souvenir, Alexandria Quarterly, and other magazines. Her work is forthcoming in Revolver, So to Speak, Ping Pong, PANK, and Pine Hills Review. She was born in 1999, won the 2015 Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne award from the Poetry Society of America, and was named the runner-up for the 2015 Adroit Prize for Poetry by Tarfia Faizullah.
Ian Burnette is an undergraduate student at Kenyon College and an Associate at The Kenyon Review. His work has appeared in The Forward Book of Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The 826 Quarterly, and elsewhere. His poem “dear radio” was selected by Tarfia Faizullah as the recipient of the 2015 Adroit Prize for Poetry, and his poem “Harvests” was selected by Richie Hofmann as the runner-up for the 2014 Prize, as well as selected for inclusion in plain china: Best Undergraduate Writing of 2014, and by Tracy K. Smith for inclusion in Best New Poets 2015. He lives in central Ohio.