Personal Mythology, Ever-Shifting Topography: A Conversation with Traci Brimhall

Traci Brimhall is the author of four collections of poetry: Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon Press), Saudade (Copper Canyon Press), Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry. She’s received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and is currently Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.


Kylie Gellatly: This collection is an explosive burst, and I imagine the pieces appearing suddenly, fully formed, and am unable to conceive of where it begins and where it ends. The poems are not “free of April, of receipts, of knives in between ribs,” but seem suspended in a metaphysical void. When did you realize these poems were becoming part of a whole? When did you discover the through-line? What questions were answered?

Traci Brimhall: I love that ordering can create cohesion! It’s one of the pleasures of book-making for me. None of my past books has taught me how to write the next one, and I love that I have to make new decisions and look for new structures to bring it together. And honestly, I can’t take full credit. I had the pleasure of having Elaina Ellis as an editor for this book, and she gave me lots of advice about restructuring, especially the beginning.

As for time, I wrote many things while pregnant because the trials for the men who murdered my friend happened to coincide with that moment in my life. My mom also died a few months after my son was born, so even though I didn’t feel I was making a lot of logical sense at the time, I had the need to try and make something that had a shape during grief. And now my son is 6, so that’s how long some of these pieces took to find their way into the world.

I don’t think I even knew my question was about forgiveness until I began ordering. I know I thought a lot about forgiveness for years, but I didn’t understand that those were the thoughts that permeated the book most heavily. And frankly, I’m not sure I have THE answer, just a series of answers that let me keep going.

KG: At what point during all of these events were you in the Arctic? I’ve read a lot of narratives of people being drawn to that region, seeking out healing from grief or trauma, seeing it as a place of not only escape, but clarity and survival. What were your intentions or expectations for going up there, and how did the experience of being in that location inform writing this book?

TB: I was in my second trimester of pregnancy (side note: the Arctic is NOT a great place for pregnancy). One of the trials about my friend’s murder has already happened, and I’d begun thinking about Nod, the Biblical land of exile for Cain. My intentions were selfish, and I’m not sure they even were about healing. I wanted to see something I’d never seen before, to know the world by experiencing it. And to circle back to my Old Testament references, I’ve got deep Eve instincts. I wouldn’t even need a snake to talk me into the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge. Give me that old school temptation of facts, and I will disobey with gusto.

And that knowing did permeate poems. There was a whole other vocabulary for what alive means there. I felt very empty and ecstatic at the same time, and my dreams were potent and strange things. Both of those things seemed a combination of place and pregnancy, which each have their own tidal pulls on the body.

KG: Imagining another vocabulary makes sense for being in a place where humans are not meant to survive. What concepts or words found footing up there and what did you come to know from giving into the temptation of an experience so strange and new?

TB: I got to use great things like saxifrage and zodiac! But I don’t think it changed my vocabulary too much, just taught me new flora and fauna to populate my poems with. What the experience taught me was that the Arctic was the wrong metaphor for a land of exile and punishment. Maybe it’s hard if you’re a scientist and your hypothesis is wrong. As a writer it’s more of a “Whoopsie, better enjoy this ship for the next two weeks and come up with a new idea.” Exile used to be a punishment next to death. When Romeo is banished, he even gives a whole speech about “Damn, Verona, why you so harsh?” But my idea of seeing the Arctic as some sort of corollary to Nod was wrong. It appeals to my very old school heart that thinks suffering can make it clean, but exile now has social media and freeways, not polar bears. We are already in the wilderness, waiting to be forgiven. God won’t find us easier in a new location.

 KG: You explore suffering through its historical roots in religion while also processing its intimate role in your life. How did the process of writing this book change the way you were living with the content and source material?

TB: I wish I could say it helped me accept something, but at best I think I can claim it helped me see myself. My poems are basically just Grumpy Heart Selfies. I get the ugly tangle out of my chest and onto a page and try and make it something beautiful. But, like any mirror, I’ll also look at what part of myself I tried to make beautiful and think, “OMG is that really what I look like?” The poems don’t help me accept the loss of people any better, but I have been trying to be more honest about how hard and ugly grief can be. I know this is a bit of a tangent, but grief is the ultimate origin story for the majority of both superheroes and villains. The difference seems to be the choices these characters make about their suffering. And so I guess for those messy and human among us who are neither heroes nor villains, we have to figure out how to hurt without hurting others.

KG: Would you say that poetry is a way of doing that?

TB: No, I don’t think poetry has that power, but people do. Poems can give us a place to put the hurt, and in that way maybe it helps. Wittgenstien said, “If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit,” and I think the healing and work we need to do comes from ourselves first. Or maybe I’m wrong and changing a line break can change a neurological pathway and break a habit. Jane Hirshfield said that “the process of revision is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.” Honestly, I’d like to believe Jane.

KG: I’m reminded at times of Anne Carson’s mythological weavings and Alice Notley’s storytelling. Can you talk about any personal mythology that went into writing this book?

TB: Those are two of my literary beloveds, so thank you for that. As far as personal mythology goes, the closest I can get is just a quote from my friend Enrique Ureta, who sent me books in my darkest summer and told me to write as often as I could, because the landscape of grief would keep changing. If there’s a personal mythology here, it might be the ever-shifting topography, the way place can be both real and imagined at once as it attempts to be both literal and emotional allegory.

KG: Charting the landscape! Was that writing helpful to you later, as draft or reference, when putting this book together?

TB: I think everything I wrote at that time failed to be a poem, or to be a satisfying one, but a chronicle of failure is maybe all that grief is. I’d always felt that poems were this net of language to cast over the invisible—it doesn’t yield a perfect seeing but you can make out a shape. But with grief, it didn’t feel like something or someone invisible, but a chasm, something totally unnavigable. More than getting it “right” in a poem, I think what ended up mattering was that I tried and kept trying. I logged my failures. I was both consoled and sad that I was the one left alive.

KG: I’m curious about your use of repetition in titles as structure, seen in titles such as the Dear Eros poems, the Dear Thanatos, Lullabies, and Murder Ballads. How did you develop this structural approach and what guidance did it give you in combining the narratives?

TB: For years, whenever I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about, I would write epistolary poems to Thanatos. For whatever reason, the darkness in me has always been responsive when I talk to it. I thought of these as “one night stand poems” and a way I would play when I didn’t have any other monogamous obsession projects going on. And it didn’t occur to me until later that I’d caught the feels for those one night stands. But all those years later, I was also tired of darkness being the generative source for me, so I tried writing to Eros to see if love could be the wellspring of creativity for once. It turned out it could be, and its voice was so much different.

Lullabies and murder ballads came quite naturally since that’s what was happening in my life—murder trials and a new baby. I liked that the titles suggested different songwriting impulses and let me into different forms, but deep down they seemed to share an origin in night and darkness.

KG: Where did this idea of writing to Thanatos come from? Were there others that you tried to write to?

TB: It was so many years ago that I can’t remember exactly why I settled on the word Thanatos, though I do remember it was at a time I met a friend in grad school at coffee shops where we would write. It’s hard to write on the spot, but somehow when I said, “Oh hello, dark thing in me,” there was always some weird image ready to respond to that question. I can’t think of any other abstractions I tried to write to, though that would be fun to explore.

KG: The sectioning by murder ballad is an arresting technique, and the fragmented narrative in each works opens up fathoms in the rest of the book. Were there specific writers or texts that informed this book and what inspiration drew you into this sequencing?

TB: Anne Carson is always a touchstone for me, though this particular kind of weave I can’t say drew direct inspiration from her. I loved the boldness of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections and writers like Joy Harjo who seem to always be formally hybrid.

KG: Can you speak to how Freud’s theories of survival and death informed the “Dear Eros” and “Dear Thanatos” poems?

TB: Since I mentioned how those title repetitions kind of came to be, above, I guess I’ll say a little about what I think/hope is what’s next for me in my (writing) life. Duende and Thanatos have just been a constant presence for me and probably much of what has driven my urgency to write. I have not conquered this death drive, and I’m sure it will always be with me, but I hope the way I’m using it is changing. I’m a hospice volunteer and want to both pursue a certified nursing assistant program and policy change for hospice equity in the near future.

And Eros… I think my poems often seem confessional, and that’s certainly true to an extent, but the thing that makes me feel the most vulnerable is not the dark thanatological bent to my heart, but the gentle, goofy sweetness of love (and okay, it also comes with boundaries and frustration and a new tax form to fill out, but still). I really hope the terrifying vulnerability of love is where the new poems come from. Don’t get me wrong, there will probably still be something rotting or ugly or crawling with dermestid beetles or something, but I’m trying to lean harder into the love for that generative impulse.

 KG: Are you feeling your vocabulary change through your work in hospice and desire for the vulnerability of love? Are words entering the lexicon that were not illuminated before?

TB: There are certain terms like iatrogenic or terms like comfort measures only or intensive care that are interesting to take out of their medical contexts and behold in a new light. I feel like my vocabulary shifts a lot in general, in part because my crow brain is like, “Ooh! Shiny new thing!” And part of the danger of the new vocabulary is that it’s just a way to redecorate rather than say something true. I make a lot of beautiful, empty things, and I always have to drag myself back to a draft and ask what else is there, what am I avoiding, what’s true.

 KG: There is a tone throughout the book that could be read as commanding but also gives the impression of beseech. Between the many letters to Thanatos and Eros, the lullabies begging your child to sleep, and in the title itself, there is an urgency stretching beyond the personal to the infinite and timeless. What can you say about the line at the end of “Dear Thanatos [Not, I’ll not kiss…]” that says, “Now my wishes are down to two: / Staying alive. And wanting to” and the needs that drive this voice?

TB: Oh, that’s just those two oldest desires in me—I want that big life sailing the Arctic and loving as fearlessly as possible, and I also wish I wasn’t alive a good share of the time. It’s scary to feel the latter, and yet that’s how I’ve spent most of my life. I recognize it’s a valid feeling, but I also know it isn’t true. I love being alive. But I also find it impossible. Those moments of peace in between are rad, but I’m so content it rarely urges a poem out of me, though I’d love it if I could start writing more from the pleasures of a quiet day.

KG: In Lorca’s On Lullabies, he claims that “the letter of the song runs counter to sleep and its gentle flow. The text evokes emotion in the child, states of uncertainty and fear, with which the blurred hand of melody, that soothes and grooms the little prancing horses in the infant’s eyes, must contend. The mother transports the child beyond himself, into the remote distance, and returns him weary to her lap, to rest.” Do you see the book itself as a lullaby—a haven in which the experience of waking life is familiar yet distorted?

TB: What that quote is making me connect with most is how new motherhood’s waking life is familiar yet distorted. Those screaming small humans wake up A LOT, and in 6 months I’d had a baby, watched the judicial end to my friend’s murder trial, buried my mom, moved across the country, and started a new job. Many poems were written outside of that 6 months, but I think the unreality of all those events probably IS reflected in the poems, even if they seem strange or unreal at times.

KG: In “Murder Ballad in the Land of Nod,” you write, “two men will walk with me into a field, and we will all walk out. We will come slumberless to the Land of Nod and await the slow arrival of forgiveness—blood evanescing from their hands, my heart accepting the clean sadness of grief, God’s indifferent kiss insulting each of our wounds with its cure.” One question that stayed with me for a while after reading the book is, to whom does forgiveness belong and where are we without it?

TB: Honestly that’s still the question that’s with me too. Maybe that’s what we get from poems—not an answer, but a clearer question.


Kylie Gellatly

Kylie Gellatly is a poet living in Northern Vermont and a Frances Perkins Scholar at Mount Holyoke College. Her book reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Green Mountains Review, Pleiades, and The Rumpus. She is the Editorial Assistant for Green Mountains Review, as well as a poetry reader for Pleiades and Anhinga Press. Kylie has been awarded the Factory Hollow Press Scholarship to the Juniper Writing Institute, two fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, and is an upcoming participant in Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project.

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