As per tradition, we asked our last featured contributors, Muriel Leung and Hieu Minh Nguyen, to give us a few questions to ask you. So, to kick things off: Is there anything you are too afraid to do in your writing but would like to accomplish in your lifetime? What do you think is the place of fear in writing?
MMB: I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the kinds of holes we felt still existed in the manuscript I’m currently working on, and I caught myself responding to her question by saying: I know, but I’m afraid to write those poems. For me, that fear is the clearest signal that those are the poems I ought to be writing. The best poems, I think, are acts of discovery, and we never discover anything if we aren’t willing to wander toward what seems difficult, or unknown, or fraught, or tangled, the edges of the map where there might be dragons. And what’s waiting over the edge of the map is different not just for every person, but for the versions of yourself you are from one year, or day, or minute to the next. Having just finished a book that is in one way very personal, but also centrally concerned with lives and histories and experiences that aren’t my own, the thing that seems scariest to me right now is writing very clearly and unblinkingly and directly into my own individual experience, and so that’s what I’m trying to do.
Let’s talk about the excerpt from your series “Another Dormitory,” which can be found in Issue Seventeen, and in your book The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, forthcoming from Persea Books in March (and a recipient o the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry–congratulations!). The book is centered on the Virginia State Colony–an institution deeply involved in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. What led you to this setting, to this topic?
MMB: The simplest answer to this question is that I was raised about 15 miles from the grounds of the Colony. I also have a neurological disorder called Cerebral Palsy, which effects my balance and my muscle-tone. Growing up in Central Virginia with a disability, I knew the basics of the Colony’s fraught history—that throughout the early and mid 1900s people with mental and physical disabilities were forcibly committed and sterilized there– and it hung around on the margins of my consciousness. In college, having moved far away from rural Virginia, I found myself thinking a lot about its history and landscape, and so the Colony was frequently on my mind. One summer, a friend and I decided to drive there and look around. I spent a long time on its grounds and in its cemetery, and kept thinking that if I had been born in the same part of the world even fifty years earlier I might well be reading my own name on one of those headstones. I knew from then on that I wanted to write about the place, although it took me a few years to figure out how to manage it. Patient accounts from the 30s and 40s, when the book is set and sterilizations were at their height are incredibly few and far between. The book is almost entirely in the voices of imagined Colony patients and staff, but I don’t intend at all for them to stand in for the actual lived experiences of people who were committed to the Colony. Instead, I hope they might draw attention to the violence of having sterilized and silenced such a large population of people, and make a space to acknowledge not only the things those people might have done if given the chance, but also the whole and complicated lives they lived behind Colony walls.
To zoom our, for a second: When and how did you first start writing?
MMB: My parents are both writers and I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I made whoever was around take dictation for me when I was too young to actually write things down myself— apparently I often woke my family up in the middle of the night with an idea I wanted them to transcribe, which I’m sure lost its charm very quickly— and then, as soon as I could hold a pen, that was it for me. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. My parents are novelists, though, and the joke is that my great rebellion was to be a poet and not a fiction writer. I can remember discovering my mother’s copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems at maybe seven or eight years old and, of course, not really understanding any of it, but reading: The soul has moments of escape – / When bursting all the doors – / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, and feeling the music, and the strangeness, and the kind of desperate compression of it. I can remember thinking: That. I want to do that. The fact that poetry’s been with me my whole conscious life is this huge luckiness. I have no idea who I’d be without it.
What poets are you reading right now? Which three poets would you most highly recommend to our readers (many of whom are in high school, and are hungry for your suggestions!)?
MMB: Over the holiday I got to sit down and read Donika Kelly’s Bestiary which I’d been wanting to get to since the second it came out and which is an absolute knockout. I also finally read all the way though Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval, which I adored, and reread work by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Lucia Perillo, both of whom died this fall, and whose poems I’m reencountering with renewed wonder and gratitude in the face of their sudden absence.
And, Oh, Lord, the three poets I’d most recommend? From all of time? This is an impossible question, and I think my answer to it would change depending on the hour when you posed it to me. I’m going to cheat a little and just talk about three great poets who’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I just re-read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s A Few Figs From Thistles to prepare for my graduate school exams, and honestly I think everyone kind of forgets about Millay a little bit, but that book is so strange and wonderful. Maybe that seems like an odd place to start, but I was so surprised to remember how much I love her, and how much I felt like I had to learn from her. In terms of contemporary poets, I think Ada Límon is doing some of the loveliest and most urgent work out there right now. Her poems are equally unafraid of darkness and of joy, and they teach me something every time I read them. I want to put them into everyone’s hands. I’m also crazy about Tyehimba Jess’s work. I think he’s doing something really exciting and significant with persona poetry and his poems are deeply intelligent, and energizing, and moving.
Speaking of which, do you have any advice for those interested in pursuing poetry as a career?
MMB: Honestly, it’s only in the last year or so that I feel like I’m starting to approach having anything close to a career in poetry, and every time a literary journal accepts a poem or I take care of a piece of business that moves my collection a little closer to publication I still brace momentarily for someone to jump out from behind a corner and tell me this is all an elaborate prank. It all feels more than a little bit magic to me, and I don’t know much useful practical guidance I have to give. That said, the best advice I have for any young person who wants to be a writer is to read, read like your brain is on fire: widely, wildly, and hungrily. Read outside of the contemporary moment, read work in translation, read work that you love at first blush and work that at first feels impenetrable to you. Read generously and ready to find something about every poem to learn from or fall in love with. If I feel certain of anything, it’s that the skills which make a good writer are the same as those which make a good reader– attention to detail, consciousness of both form and content, the ability to think analytically and creatively simultaneously—and that everything you read is like a little more fuel you’re adding to your own tank.
The natural extension of that advice, I think, is to start paying attention to which presses and journals are publishing work you really love and identify with and are doing a really beautiful and careful job with their product. When you’re ready to send out work, send it there: to venues you whose vision you respect and whose authors you admire. Out of all the places where I sent The Virginia State Colony for consideration, Persea was the one publisher whose recent catalog I could tell you about in detail, and I don’t think it’s an accident that my book ended up there. They’ve published the couple of collections in the last few years that have maybe meant the most to me personally—Alison Seay’s To See The Queen and Susannah Nevison’s Teratology—and I’m so glad I paid enough attention to know to send my work to them. I trust them completely to take care of my poems, and I feel incredibly honored and lucky that my work is keeping company with the writers they publish. I want that for every young writer.
You’ve previously written some stunning essays, two of which can be found here and here. There’s a sort of unifying power between poetry and prose–do you choose a particular medium to express different ideas? What has drawn–and continues to draw–you to both genres?
MMB: I think, for me, the difference between writing poetry and prose is less a question of wanting to express different ideas or experiences than a question of wanting to express ideas or experiences differently. That is to say, it’s more a matter of scope and angle then of content. A poem is like a pressure cooker, and I think I will always be most in love with the little worlds that their necessary compression and lyricism produces. A poem is somehow always both whole and fragmentary, and something about that feels like my first language. But I write essays when I want a little more breathing room, a little more space to unpack something, to provide context, to make digressions, and tell stories, and work my way from my usual essential uncertainty toward solid ground. There’s a lot of overlap between my prose and my poems, and I like to think they’re always to talking to each other. I’m so grateful to be able to write—and read—both.
We’ve, of course, just crossed the threshold into 2017–a year that seems critical and nerve-wracking in so many ways. What–if you believe in them, and don’t mind sharing–was your resolution?
MMB: I’m simultaneously really suspicious of resolutions and always making and revising them, which maybe says something about a general lack of self-discipline. I do think you’re right, though, that 2017 will be a critical year, the kind that calls for meaningful intentions and commitments, whatever you call them. I’ve promised myself that I’m going to be especially attentive to really showing up and supporting the institutions and the people I believe in—I mean this in smaller ways: subscribing to literary journals I admire, and being better about checking in regularly with all the far away people I love—and in larger ones: figuring out active, tangible ways I can be of service, and be a better listener, at a time when so many and so much seem at risk. I’m also going to better about not leaving my laundry until the hamper is towering, because doing it is never as bad or unpleasant as I think it’s going to be, and there’s really no excuse for it.
Lastly, give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor.
MMB: What was the last poem you read that really changed things for you, that altered something about how you see yourself or the world, or made the ground shift underneath you?
Molly McCully Brown is the author of The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017), which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Image, TriQuarterly Online, The Kenyon Review, The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Raised in rural Virginia, she holds degrees from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Stanford University. Currently, she is a John and Renée Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi.