A CONVERSATION WITH CONOR BRACKEN
BY GARRETT BIGGS
Conor Bracken’s poems, which have been nominated for the Best of Net and received grants from Inprint and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, appear or are forthcoming in Adroit Journal, Forklift OH, Muzzle, The New Yorker, and THRUSH. A graduate of Virginia Tech, a former poetry editor for Gulf Coast, and the assistant director of a university writing center, he received his MFA from the University of Houston, where he and his wife currently live.
Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour was released September 5, 2017. It is available to the trade through SPD, or on the Bull City Press website: https://bullcitypress.com/product/henry-kissinger-mon-amour/.
Conor—first of all, thank you for taking the time to talk with us, and for writing such an evocative collection of poems in Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour. To begin, I suppose we might as well jump right into the heart of the text. What was the impulse that first drew you to Henry Kissinger as a subject?
CB: Thanks for reading the collection, Garrett! I’m glad you found it evocative. When I first found Henry and started poking at and prodding him, I never imagined that those weird experiments would see the light of day.
Henry came sharply into view for me after reading a blog post at The New Yorker that revealed two things: the extent to which he advocated for state-sponsored violence in Argentina, and how remorseless he is now about the staggering human toll of his realpolitik policies. He’d always been on my radar—his voluminous autobiography looms over all the other books in my father’s bookshelf—but not until I saw how pitiless he was, despite the benefit of decades showing more starkly how bloody the results of his advice and official positions were and still are, did I realize how paranoid, aloof, and cold he is.
When I discovered this, I was writing poems off and on that were thinking about my time in Buenos Aires, an aristocratic and sleepless (and slightly seedy) city in which the aftermath of Operation Condor—a state sponsored campaign of ostensibly anti-communist but ultimately antidemocratic violence and suppression—is still very palpable. Families are still waiting for accounts of loved ones who were disappeared in the 70s. Adult children are finding out they were ‘adopted’ by families in the military junta, and that their biological parents were (disappeared) dissidents or students. Anniversaries are commemorated regularly outside the Casa Rosada (the president’s residence). And the U.S. played a significant part in Condor, thanks to Cold War paranoia in general, and Henry in particular.
I was also writing poems at that time about what it is to ‘be a man,’ because I don’t really know what that means. And when I looked at Henry, I saw a howling lack of introspection, at least on an embodied, ethical, and personal level, which is the antithesis of the kind of human I want to be. So, in short, Henry poses a sharply-defined example of the kind of man I would never want to be. It felt necessary to vigorously explore the contours of that.
I am intrigued by what I see as gestures toward a more transnational literature in this work. Your poems travel from Ezezia to Harar, among other global conflicts, and then there is your title: its use of the French language for a collection written in English. Is globalization an incidental feature of this book due to its subject matter and our socio-political climate? Or was it a concerted effort to open the scope of an at-times insulated American poetics?
CB: That’s a really good question, and makes me wonder if I did at some point think subconsciously about American poetics as insular. I’m not sure if I do, really. This might be due to my being in Texas for the past five years, where the U.S.-Mexico border is a very adjacent reality, which allows the literatures to cross-pollinate with exciting frequency and depth.
No matter what, though, I wish I could say that I have or had a grandiose vision of mapping the many networks of U.S. neo-imperialism or the neo-colonialism of the West, but it actually started out (years before I found Henry) as me mapping the peregrinations of my own life (admittedly, the two do fit on top of one another rather seamlessly, pace the fact there are more points of neo-imperialism than there are places I’ve been by a long shot). My concerns about globalization are deeply interwoven with my own life experiences: since my father was a diplomat, we moved every two years (mostly sub-Saharan Africa, with France and Morocco and lots of stateside posting thrown in there). So, for a long time, I saw and felt and was confronted by the vast discrepancies between a typical U.S. lifestyle and, say, a typical Ethiopian lifestyle. These were wonderful and troubling experiences, hiking the highlands, rafting the Awash, going on safari. As kids, my sisters and I were often reminded how lucky we were, that we’d ‘won the lottery,’ which was true and important as it’s hard to acknowledge and work with privilege if you don’t know you’ve got it, but it didn’t tell the whole story (granted, it would be a big story to tell four kids under ten). We understood that it was arbitrary we were born white cishet middle-class Americans, but we didn’t understand that white middle- and upper-class Americans had been working hard for a long time to consolidate those gains and exclude others. In a way, the work in HKMA comes from the work I’m doing to fill in the other half of that story. It is, I hope, the first of many forays into that touchy but important territory.
Several times in these poems, you redact information and leave a sense of erasure. Can you speak to the importance of the unsaid, or perhaps the forgotten in poetry?
CB: I’m glad you picked up on that. I think that poetry is an incredibly durable yet nuanced set of intellectual and psychological exercises that conform well to the work of memory, on many different levels. Initially, I turned to it (like many of us do, I presume) as a means of remembering and processing complex emotions, so the consideration of memory, the unsaid, and the difficult is kind of genetically encoded in my approach to writing. As such, my work tends to be interested trauma—both individual and community, historical and personal—and how we do and do not process it. Generally, it seems we don’t process it very well, for myriad reasons. Whatever those reasons may be—discomfort, lack of ritualization, other external exigencies like bills, work, or other traumas—it’s important that it not be suppressed, as it often is, because otherwise we let time instead of ourselves do the work of rectifying wrongs, which often leads to more violent or destabilizing rectifications. In other words, not talking about it—whatever it is—only makes it worse.
Most of us know this on one level or another, but we also know that in practice, it can be really hard to confront trauma and the way erasure compounds and deepens that trauma. It’s awkward. There’s no time for it. Our minds wall it off inside us. But so then why poetry as a means of recovering or airing out the overlooked? For one, by using its musical and imagistic intelligences, we can associate ourselves, beyond the walls our consciousnesses or societal conditions or what-have-you build around traumatic experiences, thereby unlocking repressed energies which can then be channeled into vigorous, cathartic, musical structures. This is part of what Dickinson means, I think, when she advises us to tell the truth slant—we won’t get past society or ourselves by running at the walls head-on. We need to bring angles to them if we’re going to get over them.
Additionally, I’d say that: 1) poetry is ontologically designed to be remembered and 2) it’s one of the few forms of expression which lives and works symbiotically with silence.
Being built initially out of breath and tone and timbre, poetry inscribes itself inside the bodies of those who recite or proclaim it aloud. It is (or, in my opinion, should be) both a pleasant/invigorating physical and intellectual exercise. Practice poems enough, as for instance Nadezhda Mandelstam did in order to save her husband’s poems from state-sanctioned oblivion, and you can remember any number of poems. Poetry has always been mnemonic, a series of verbal phenomena like meter and rhyme, not to mention generic conventions, which contribute to making it a technology for remembering itself, despite the lethal interest of repressive regimes or the general slippages of the human mind. Like trauma, poetry lives as much inside the body as in the mind, and so (I hope, at least) can act not only as a cathartic sorting of potent volatile emotions but also as a counterspell to the embodied curse of trauma. Of course, poetry can’t dispel all the residuals of post-traumatic existence, but it can help one gain an upperhand, by creating in the face despite the impulses to recoil and destroy.
And then there’s the fact that poetry and silence are two sides of the same coin. Probably 60% of the time I sit down to write, at some point I think of Rimbaud and Oppen giving it up, or Auden renouncing the earlier more politically inflected verse of his youth (in favor of a consistently less enthralling precinct of his mind), or the uncounted millions of poets who, for whatever needful reason, abandoned it. Silence is always threatening to overtake the writing, because the more one sits down to write, the more on loves the world and drinks good writing in long draughts, the harder it is to summon the energy to perform the many thrilling, sublime, surprising tasks of writing a poem, especially in a hypercommodified late capitalist society which considers poetry, and the time it takes to make it, a luxury (though I’d bet most of us here think of it more like water than cognac). Poetry respects the silence out of which it springs and which it attempts to tame, if only for a moment (otherwise it’d take up entire pages, like prose, instead of hanging like finger- or handprints on the frosted pane); sometimes that respect can morph into veneration, or infatuation, or subjugation. The danger of lapsing into that idolatry needs to be present, for me, in poems—the pendulum of silence should always swing above the poem. That danger, though, needs to be balanced by the other danger of saying nothing about trauma. I always seek to put these two in tension. And poetry, at least as it seems to me, is uniquely designed to thrive on that tension.
I was so taken by “The Many Other Cars of Henry” and in particular, this isolated line: “he sees in eras.” What role did you set out for history to play in this text? And is it a contemporary Cold-War era history, or did you wish to encompass a greater whole?
CB: Ooh that’s a great question. My answer to it is somewhat along the lines of my answer to your one about globalization—it may have worked out that way, but I came to it via more personal avenues.
That being said, though, I think it’s fair to say that the history of Western civilization is also the history of white male heteropatriarchal hegemony. So, to the extent that I am interested in analyzing my, my country’s, and my forebears’ complicity in, as well as the general contemporary ramifications and operations of, that hegemony, I am interested in history. This is why, I think, I was able to fit “The Albigensian Crusade” into the collection. Though the poem deals with a campaign of papally-sanctioned violence in the 13th century against a small network of ‘heretics’ in southern France—which is, on its face, very different from the circumstances, politics, and machinations of Cold War-era history—it is still a story of white men asserting their dominance (in a particularly brutal, and demonstrably un-Christ-like, way) over a minority.
So, yeah. I’m hoping, in Henry and beyond, to deal with the ideology of white heteropatriarchy that has shaped so much of the historical events that have brought us to this moment (fun fact: the Albigensian crusade was the first time the Catholic Church mobilized against a sectarian ‘enemy’; it functioned, in many ways, the blueprint for the Spanish Inquisition which, some have argued, was a proximate cause for the Spanish crown financing Columbus’s journey west).
Did you always know where you were headed with this collection’s progression, particularly the turn toward the visceral that its final poem takes?
CB: I honestly had no idea—it took me more than a few tries to get the sequencing right, mainly because a lot of these poems were composed without Henry in mind (about half of them, I’d say). Some of the poems are four years old, while others were written in quick succession once I identified Henry as an antagonist who helped focus my plights and gripes with toxic masculinity, neo-imperialism, American exceptionalism, white savior complexes, and so on.
That final poem, though it was written without this collection in mind, did help me work through some of the speaker’s complicity, anger, and vengefulness, as well as his impotence to affect change on as a grand a scale as the one on which Henry operated (and to some degree still operates). An individual can cut the head off a chicken, but it takes a larger group to take the head off a condor.
(That final poem comes out of real life, by the way. My in-laws live in Vermont, and instead of having his meat-birds processed that summer, my father-in-law wanted to try doing it himself. With some help from neighbors, we killed (as humanely as is possible), dressed, and vacuum-sealed close to 400lbs of chicken in under a day.)
Switching gears a bit—as I’m sure you know, we’re fortunate to have a wide range of emerging writers as readers. I was wondering whether you might be willing to share the story of how you started writing, and then a bit about what led you to begin identifying as a poet (rather than someone—a student, perhaps—who writes poems)?
CB: Yeah I love the work you guys do to support, advise, entice, and engage emerging writers—it’s so unique, and brings in so much vitality and exuberance. So thanks to Peter, you, and the entire Adroit crew for being the rising tide.
But so me as a writer: after having won second place and 25 Best Buy dollars in a fiction contest in seventh grade (for a story about two sons of a drunk Irish widower, which is not anything I have ever had even remote experience with) the well apparently ran dry. I didn’t really write again until my last year of high school. I’m not sure why the hiatus happened, but I do think I know why I turned to poetry in a moment of deep angst and post-traumatic fury. My English teacher senior year was one of those storied high school English teachers, who unlocks inside her students their own potential. This wasn’t so much Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society as a good bartender making recommendations based on your garb and gait. She introduced me to Vonnegut, for one, which showed me that prose could be weird, lucid, and oblique (til then, I’d been a Tom Clancy fiend).
She also assigned us, halfway through the year, poems to read/perform in front of the class. I don’t remember the assignment, its rationale (maybe something about feeling poems as declamatory objects, not just lifeless scripts trapped between pages?), or when it was assigned. In fact, I didn’t remember it then, either. I showed up and had to read Countee Cullen’s “Incident” to the entire class, while very, very stoned. Needless to say, I did not do well on the assignment. I do, however, remember the experience, because the poem—which for the first stanza and a half is understated and spritely, in rhymed quatrains built from ballad meter—gathers most of its power from a well-timed, deeply affecting, rupturing usage of a racial slur. Finding this out at the lectern, baked and struggling in front of my classmates, was extremely uncomfortable. Having to decide whether or not to say it (I believe I murmured it quickly and shamefully) brought me out of myself so much that I still remember that moment, despite prevailing hypnagogic winds to the contrary.
This stuck with me not just because the poem forced me to reckon with how different my life and experiences were and are from those of people of color in the U.S., but also because this poem, written nearly a century ago, by a human long dead who never knew or probably even imagined me, rocked me. A little piece of paper inscribed with words had the power to shock and reorient. This was the first time anything had affected me like that. From then on, I understood that art—poetry in particular, but all other forms too—wasn’t just about celebrating the sublime or the beautiful. And since I had roiling in me things that were not beautiful (though perhaps sublime), I was then able to turn to poetry to convey them.
Obviously, my first poem wasn’t that great (rhymed quatrains, vague gestures, a maudlin mood). My next couple hundred poems weren’t either (they lost the rhyme but went stream-of-consciousness with some Modernist affectations sprinkled in :/ ). It took a very long time for me to identify as a poet and not just someone who wrote poems. It was actually this summer, when one of my uncles told me about a client of his who, having read some of my poems after a conversation with that uncle, said “whatever he [i.e. me, Conor Bracken] calls himself, he is a poet.” If a stranger who’s never met me feels confident enough to call me it, then I guess I can be confident enough to start doing so, too.
To that end, I was wondering—what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, and what’s the best piece of (additional) advice you’d like to pass on to teenage writers?
CB: Read longitudinally. Read contemporary poets and find some favorites to follow, absolutely, but make sure to read who came before and influenced them as well. That’s probably the single most helpful piece of advice (maybe the only one I really ever mustered enough patience to obey?). When I started reading poetry, it was T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and then contemporary poets, like Simic, Dean Young, Laura Kasischke, Terrance Hayes. But there is a huge arc between the 1920s and the early aughts (not to mention before 1920). Once I started filling in that chasm with the first wave of the New York school, the Deep Imagists, Rukeyser, the Confessionals, the Black Arts movement, even poets like Espada and Levis, new corners in the hall of poetry became visible and accessible. I got a fuller sense of the scope and stride of American poetry, which was indispensable for getting a sense of where I might fit into the arc of it.
Finally, who are the writers and non-writers that have most influenced you? And what are you reading at the current moment?
CB: Jack Gilbert, Larry Levis, Anne Carson, and Terrance Hayes together made the largest cumulative early impression upon me poetically. Matthew Zapruder, W.S Merwin, and Wislawa Syzmborska, too, to a lesser extent, along with Kasischke, Amichai and Heaney. In terms of non-writers, the comedian Mitch Hedberg, the weirdo Aphex Twin, Steve McQueen’s Deadpan, Ellen Bryant Voigt and John Crowe Ransom (in their critical, not poetic, capacities), my mother’s piano, In Bruges, Pootie Tang, my grandfather’s birthday card poems, autumn in the mountains, dogs, airports, and parties at ambassadors’ residences have also been big influences on me.
Currently, I’m reading Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (wrenching, frank and beautiful), Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness (gruesome, seductive), Rilke’s Duino Elegies (finally; what majesty), Walcott’s The Arkansas Testament (he could boil water and make it an epic quest), and everything Adroit, Sixth Finch, Horsethief, and Poetry publish.
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Garrett Biggs is managing editor of The Adroit Journal. His most recent prose appears in CutBank, The Offing, and Nashville Review, among other journals. He lives in Denver, Colorado, and is a MFA candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches creative writing.
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