Not Digression, But Addition; or, Dear Erica: A Conversation with Brian Teare

A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Brian Teare is the author of six critically acclaimed books, including Companion Grasses, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, and The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. His most recent book, Doomstead Days, was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle, Kingsley Tufts, and Lambda Literary Awards. He’s also published eight chapbooks, including Paradise Was TypesetSORE EROS, and Headlands Quadrats. His honors include Lambda Literary and Publishing Triangle Awards, and fellowships from the NEA, the Pew Foundation, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the MacDowell Colony. After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.


July 18, 2019
11:07 AM

Dear Brian,

As we were arranging the details for this conversation, you mentioned that you were in the process of moving, and because I am obsessed with houses and inhabiting them, I thought of one of my all-time favorite poems of yours, one I teach all the time: “Dead House Sonnet,” from Pleasure. I sometimes use it in a game the poet Robyn Schiff calls “Sonnet or Not Sonnet.” The conversation usually begins with students saying the poem is not a sonnet, but by the end of it, the general consensus is that it IS a sonnet.

How do you use (and not use) form in your own work, and how do you talk about form with your own students?


July 24, 2019
11:26 AM

Dear Erica,

Apologies for the delay in my reply to your question. I’m writing this from my new office space, which I just got into a provisional working order last night. I’ve always wanted to be the poet who can write anywhere and at any time, in any weather, who can open their notebook and enter into what Joanne Kyger calls “the page of the moment,” but the truth is that mostly I’m not. A large part of the reason I’m not is that I live with chronic pain, which makes its own demands, though I have figured out ways of writing on foot outdoors when I’m well enough. And right now I have a very hard meditation cushion supporting my fucked-up spine, a prosthesis that helps me sit in a desk chair without too much discomfort.

I start with this fact because my body is a form that makes demands, and form constitutes the body of the poem, and is also its mind, because the patriarchal fiction of mind-body dualism has long been proven to be just that: fictional. The evidence—from neuroscience to microbiome research—that our minds are found not only in our brains is overwhelming. When in 2009, while healing from an until-then undiagnosed celiac disease, I learned that our guts have more serotonin receptors than our brains, I was not surprised—it took many years for the cognitive fog and persistent melancholy of that autoimmune disorder to clear my system.

Why can’t I answer your question directly? Perhaps it has to do with the singularity of the word form—which seems so fixed, so singular, like the phrase “the body,” which suggests a kind of Platonic ideal. I don’t believe in the abstraction of “the body,” but I do believe in bodies, in my body and your body—in all their similitude and difference—and thus I don’t believe in “form.” But I do believe in forms, that each poem, like each body, is its own occasion, both deeply willful and totally contingent. Which means I believe that even a sonnet—“received” form though it is—has to discover its own embodiment, has to articulate its own relationship to the givens of tradition.

Of course I myself am attracted to fixed forms or nonce formal games (like the “zipper” form of “Eden Tiresias” from Pleasure) that are very particular and fussy, but I tend to write out of an improvisatory response to lived experience that suggests the ultimate form the poem takes on the page. Much of what I write is marked by the tension between law and improvisation, or formal choices that precede the composition and those that arise from it, such as the “renga” that opens Doomstead Days. I suppose, then, when I teach, I don’t talk about form per se—but about an attitude toward composition? I hope I model a way of letting form emerge from writing, of letting poetic language remain open and responsive to the occasion of its making.

I look forward to your next question—

With gratitude—


July 26, 2019
1:12 PM

Thank you for tackling my question, dear Brian, and I’m thinking about the connections between “rules” and “laws” as they apply to poetry and the games we play with language. Sure, there are rules about sonnets (and rengas and pantoums and villanelles), and it often seems to me that the cliché about knowing the rules in order to break them comes into play here. As people who teach poetry and attempt to contextualize some part of our students’ experiences with language, perhaps we think about the absurdity of rules when it comes to poetry. (If you disagree with me vehemently, we can pretend I’m employing the “royal we” here!) I’m glad you brought us back to your newest book, though, and I find myself returning to specific phrases in “Clear Water Renga,” especially the idea of “aftermath / as the start of thought,” and how you connect the human mind to the trees, to the idea of a controlled natural burn, perhaps. Is this an example of what you were talking about in your earlier response, remaining open to the occasion of the poem’s making?


July 30, 2019
11:52 AM

That’s a great question, and really well-suited to that poem in particular. “Clear Water Renga” was written in the aftermath of first the Cosco-Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay and then the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as after several small forest fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains that occurred in the years between those two oil spills. And though I started drafting the poem in 2007 during the cleanup of the Cosco-Busan spill, it was in fact adhering to the “rules” that got in the way of the first draft of the poem, which I’d already decided would be a renga.

The renga’s a Japanese literary form codified by 15th-century court culture as a literary game played by two to twelve people, who would trade off writing syllabic verses of 5-7-5 and 7-7. tanka during that time also developed complicated rules about including seasonal keywords, etc. The initial draft kept three aspects of what I understood about the renga: 1) the tanka as a basic building block (which includes syllable count as a basic measure), 2) the form’s collaborative nature, and 3) its expansive length, which allowed for the changing of seasons and for many shifts in tone. To achieve the first, I sieved my notes and research through the syllable count. To achieve the second, I alternated strictly between a stanza of my own writing (5-7-5) and a stanza of language sourced from research I was doing around the spill and its aftermath (7-7). And I failed to achieve the third because the 2007 draft was a stilted failure, foiled both by my strict adherence to #2 and by being too wrapped up in my own response to visiting an oiled bird rehabilitation center.

But “I couldn’t get over it,” as I write in the poem—first the spill in the Bay and then the one in the Gulf, and then the spraying of Corexit over the Deepwater Horizon spill by the Coast Guard. I couldn’t stop thinking about these events, taking notes, even as the poem itself languished. I came back to the poem in 2011 as a way of linking the two spills, but also because at that point I’d figured something out about my relationship to ecopoetry and the problem of its inherent anthropocentrism. A poem is of course always a record of the poet’s sensibility, but there’s a way that our infinite capacity for responsiveness can be its own ethical problem: it keeps us from thinking beyond our own affective response to climate crisis. Between 2007 and 2011, I realized I needed my poems to push past my own habitual responsiveness toward a more nuanced apprehension of the world around me and a more complex implication in crisis, an aftermath that wasn’t just all about me. I don’t know if I achieved that, but the poem that I drafted in 2011 at least acknowledges that problem.

And while that draft did keep the tanka form with its syllable count as a basic building block of the poem, I gave up the strict alternation between my own words and quotation, and let that emerge more organically, a choice that also allowed narrative to come to the forefront. During the Deepwater Horizon spill, I’d turned to the landscape of Tomales Point (part of Pt. Reyes National Seashore) as a kind of comfort, a counterbalance to crisis, before understanding that its beauty is in fact a palimpsest of longstanding, ongoing ecological crises—of colonialism, invasive species, and biodiversity loss. But that’s part of what I mean by “aftermath / as the start of thought”: the direct encounter with the oil spill in the Bay precipitated kinds of thinking and seeing I could not have otherwise done, made climate crisis real in a way it hadn’t been before that. I’m a bit ashamed that it took seeing an oil spill in person for that to happen, but I also honor that somatic knowledge is different than intellectual knowledge. The whole book really came out of that experience, “watching an oiled Western grebe / thrash against capture…the bird slipping / in the clear plastic tub slicked // by its own feathers.”


July 30, 2019
3:07 PM

When you talk about ecopoetics and its troubling tendency towards anthropocentrism—to say nothing of pastoral poetry and its problems—I think of one of my favorite poems, James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child,” which also came into my mind when I was reading the penultimate poem in your collection, “Sitting Isohydric Meditation,” maybe because of the sexual images, but also because of the work your spacing achieves on the page without resorting to conventional punctuation. In your poem, we consider various “stress responses” as ways to answer the question of “how to keep going,” and sex is one, like gambling or going out into nature to “find” oneself. Is writing, for you, also a stress response to what you see in the world now? Do you feel a sense of social responsibility as a poet, perhaps more so now than ten years ago? Sorry for all the awkward “quotation marks!”


August 3, 2019
7:20 PM

Ha! Well, I have always felt a sense of social responsibility as a poet, though throughout my career I’ve maintained a simultaneous commitment to the freedom to experiment with poetic form. The academic poetry workshops of my early education liked to pretend the political poem and experimental aesthetics were mutually exclusive, but in the writing communities of the Bay Area, where I came of age as a poet, that just wasn’t true, and I soon learned it never had been, from the anarchist salons of Kenneth Rexroth to Gay Liberation to June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. And for a lot of the Bay Area poets whose work I came to admire, questions of ethics and aesthetics are always already intertwined.

But I do think that reckoning with climate crisis shifted the balance of politics and experimental aesthetics in my work toward politics, and shifted my aesthetics toward formal choices—like increased narrativity—that in our culture traditionally convey political content more readily. Given the arc of my career so far, these shifts felt experimental too—especially given the length of many of the poems, particularly the great length of “Toxics Release Inventory.” The extreme urgency of the responsibility I feel also created aesthetic problems that necessitated solutions that were certainly new to me. To avoid simplistic didacticism, each poem had to embody its environmental politics in an unpremeditated way, had to arrive at knowing the world in a way I didn’t already consciously know it.

In “Sitting Isohydric Meditation,” the question is not just “how to keep going,” but also how to suffer and still be open to the world. The poem situates the psychic effects of my ongoing medicalization for spinal degeneration alongside the physiological effects of a drought year on the maple outside my old house in Philadelphia. Maples are isohydric trees: during drought, they close the stomata on their leaves in order to keep from losing water, but it also means that they can’t take in carbon dioxide and continue to grow. Too long in crisis, they deplete their carbohydrate stores and begin to die from being closed off. Writing the poem allowed me to see my own psychic response to physical pain in the tree’s physiological response to drought. The analogy amounted to a confession—even when fucking, “I remain hidden”—which prompted the pained question—“how to keep going”—which, you’re right, refers not only to my own medical situation, but the larger situation of global climate crisis.

It was a hard poem to write. At the time, chronic spinal pain had left me feeling closed off in some essential and damaging way. Medicalization offered no real treatment for the degeneration, only diagnosis of its origin, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to change my relationship to my damaged body, and that the psychic closure would be as permanent as the changes to my spine. But the book’s final poem records a rather dramatic opening back up, even as it provides perhaps the most direct analysis of the direness of our shared situation. Through our bodies—through water, food, air, and toxins—we are always already connected to everything, whether we are open to feeling that connection or not: it feels like I have to relearn that fact almost every day. Which is why I like the arc of the book, and am really proud of the final (title) poem, which feels like an arrival that departs into a new kind of openness to the world in all of its beauty and crisis.


August 6, 2019
7:24 PM 

Well, you should be proud of it; it’s stunning! One element I admire about it—something I’ve always admired so much in your work—is the amount of terrain you cover, intuitively, literally and emotionally. The space between the fish laying eggs in the Wissahickon to the landscape of the migraine, and then the industrial elements and pollution, but always bringing the reader back to gender, where the poem both begins and ends. I don’t know how you control all of these elements, how each digression in your work is not really a digression, but an addition. Does this make sense? How do you keep all of these threads from tangling?


August 15, 2019
11:01 AM

Sorry for the long pause! I was off in the woods for a little vacation before the semester starts up. This is such a generous reading of “Doomstead Days” specifically and of my work generally. I’m really humbled and honored you experience the poems this way—as apparently digressive, but built so that each new fact or experience somehow eventually fits. I love the way you describe it because that’s what happens to me as I write the first draft—I improvise a structure that I hope in the end will hold everything. And if that first draft is rife with tangles, perhaps revision is kind of like carding wool, getting out the burrs and knots. In “Clear Water Renga,” I write that

This passage arose from tracking the after-effects of the Cosco-Busan oil spill in the Bay and from breathing the smoke and ash that drifted into San Francisco during one of the fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains; I experienced it as both a moral and existential reckoning. It articulates a simultaneous sense of tremendous vulnerability and tremendous responsibility: if the real can’t help but accept everything we put into it, shouldn’t we be far more careful? At the same time, this reckoning also made me aware of what parts of the real I don’t include in my poems, which made me want to make my poems stretchier, more capacious, more like this definition of the—accepting of anything, including the worst, including my own fear and complicity. Of course, the poems are also reflective of my mind and of the human tendency to respond, so they can’t and don’t accept  absolutely everything.

But writing the book was a way of pushing myself and the poems to dilate outward as a way to articulate the peculiar existential and moral position of humans now: we are both victims deliberately poisoned by manipulative and malicious corporations aided and abetted by our government, and polluters who knowingly poison the earth with our appetite for consumption both goaded and enabled by fossil fuels, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and industrially grown foods. I wanted the poems to move like appetite out from and back toward my body, and to make visible the watersheds that always already flow into us and into which we spill our waste and without which nothing could live.

Of course this desire to dilate the scope of the poems created craft challenges: the poems got a lot longer and thus harder to track and control. Because, as you point out, the process of writing and researching them included the discovery of new sounds and facts that would take the poems in unexpected directions. My general rule was to see where such surprises would take the poems, and worry later. That would get me through the first draft, which was usually fairly complete, if not particularly well-written. After that, I used two techniques to help me edit the poem. 1) I employed some kind of formal constraint that seemed to me to arise from the material; some poems are syllabic and some are accentual, and in the case of “Doomstead Days,” the constraint was that no line could be longer than six syllables. 2) I read each draft out loud to make sure that it sang on the level of the line and/or stanza, and to make sure that it actually held together as a whole. This process helped squeeze out truly digressive material and/or baroque ornaments the poems didn’t need, but with which my ear was a bit too in love.


August 22, 2019
1:24 PM

I am so glad you mentioned tracking and controlling the poems in this collection; the digressive tendencies are part of what I think tether and fascinate me so much when it comes to your poems. Every time I’m pulled back in by something new. And to bring something new into this conversation, I also wanted to ask you about the stunning cover art by David Wojnarowicz. It reminds me of a Max Ernst piece I really love, too, “Painting for Young People,” that I saw many years ago in Houston. How did you decide on this piece for your cover, and how—if at all—do visual images inform or inspire your poems?


January 8, 2020
11:11 AM

I’m writing this after a very long pause in our correspondence—with profuse apologies! As you know, I moved from Philadelphia to Charlottesville just before I sat down to answer your first question, and the semester started just days after you sent the last one. While I still have the time and presence of mind (the spring semester starts Monday!), I want to make sure I get this down.

The writing, images, and activism of Wojnarowicz have been important to me since I was a young queer in Alabama during the early years of the AIDS epidemic (and by “early,” I mean to indicate that it’s still going on). His rage and incisive critiques were instructive and orienting, especially since I was coming out and trying to navigate the politics and sexual mores of the early ‘90s without the benefit of urban queer communities and activist organizations (or the Internet!). Given the epidemic, and given that I was also living in the heart of the heart of the Bible Belt, his work spoke to me with an immediacy and urgency that were necessary. Though I didn’t have the critical language for it then, what moved me most about his work was its understanding of and representations of structural oppression—he had a real gift for crystalizing the feeling of being subjected to power in simple, direct phrases and images. And he also had a real gift for resistance. “Meat. Blood. Memory. War,” he wrote in Close to the Knives, “We rise to greet the State, to confront the State. Smell the flowers while you can.” And of course both his understanding of structural oppression and his spirit of resistance came in part out of his lived experiences of poverty, abuse, sex work, queerness, and, later, HIV and AIDS.

Other than The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, which is in part a book-length dialogue with the writing and visual work of Agnes Martin, I haven’t written much in direct dialogue with visual art, despite loving photography, drawing, and sculpture, in particular. Like in Companion Grasses, the imagery in Doomstead Days derives almost entirely from walks in the field, autobiographical experience, reading, and archival research. That said, it didn’t take me long to find the image I wanted on the cover. I remember when Nightboat’s publisher, Stephen Motika, said it was time to work on the cover art, and I sat down to think about it and wondered: what would capture the book’s interest in the intersection of natural and industrial systems, its emphasis on water? I immediately thought of Wojnarowicz’s paintings—many of which are nonce cosmological image-systems that marry the natural and the man-made—and looked through the exhibition catalog of his 1990 show at Illinois State, Tongues of Flame. When I turned the page and saw “Water”—one of his four paintings on the Western classical elements— I recognized it as THE cover, and I was lucky enough that P.P.O.W. was willing to grant us the permission to use it. It captures Wojnarowicz’s thinking about water as an element that flows between and unites natural and industrial systems, and as a fundamental element of life. I love the elision between tadpole and sperm, water and cum, especially. That gay sex is also part of the fundament is intrinsic to Wojnarowicz’s cosmology, but of course that’s still kind of radical, to suggest all forms of fucking—from frogs to queers—are equally fundamental.

I got to see the painting in person not long after we got permission to use it. The Whitney retrospective ran over the summer of 2018, and of course I went—and was deeply moved by the whole of it, in part because of the museum’s troubling participation in the further gentrification of the lower east side where Wojnarowicz once lived and worked. All that beauty and rage and hurt and humor, at once cartoonish and numinous, filled up the rooms and felt as necessary and as urgent now as they did me in the ‘90s, timely today in the context of the current administration and climate crisis. And I loved seeing the painting up close, where the details—each tadpole/sperm contains a little inset!—came through. Though I’m not usually one for selfies, my friend Brenda Iijima took a photo of me with the painting:


Erica Bernheim

Erica Bernheim holds degrees from Miami University, The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her first full-length collection, 'The Mimic Sea,' was published by 42 Miles Press (Indiana University South Bend). She is also the author of a chapbook, 'Between the Room and the City,' and her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Denver Quarterly, New Reader Magazine, and The Missouri Review.

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