Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Words Count With Mama Zen: An Interview With Nathan Brown

Not too long ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop given by poet, photographer, musician and incredibly nice guy, Nathan Brown.  As the 2013 -2014 Oklahoma Poet Laureate, Nathan has made it his mission to rescue poetry from the inaccessibility and elitism that renders so much poetry irrelevant to us "regular" folks. And, he's the perfect poet for the job.  Nathan's work is beautiful in its brevity, textured enough to touch, and completely authentic.  This piece (from Two Tables Over, winner of the 2009 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry) is on my list of poems I would cheerfully engage in felonious behavior to have written.

Too Far

Hunched down over a rectangle table
back in the poetry section,
I heard, over the tops of bookshelves,
the clerk tell a customer

If you get to Religion,

you've gone too far.

Like a deer reacting to gunfire,
I shot back—without considering
what an appropriate volume might be—
a rather vociferous I agree!

A suburban soccer-mom in the “A’s”
of the self-help section moved away
nervously and as quickly as she could
without making it painfully obvious.

Despite my stalking (or, perhaps, because of it), Nathan generously agreed to be interviewed here at the Garden.  As I said, he's a really nice guy.

MZ:  I know that making poetry more accessible is a cause that’s close to your heart.  As poets, how do we do that?  Where have we failed?
Nathan Brown:  “Accessible” is a bad word for many of the elite in the field of poetry. They believe that making our artistic selves understood lowers the bar somehow. Though they might say something more like “it denigrates the discursive ideals of poetics and the sublime aspirations, as well as erudition, of the true esthete and, therefore, kowtows to the hegemonic forces of pop culture,” or some such nonsense. Which 98% of the population knows is bullshit when they step in it.

For me, it comes down to this: I want to connect with readers and audiences. And I don't know why in the hell I should apologize for that. I want to have some kind of effect on someone other than myself. Otherwise, it’s masturbation. Something I believe should be done in private. And carefully articulated federal laws agree with me on that.

How we accomplish this as poets is tricky at best. But for starters, we might imagine a reader in Yellowknife on the Great Slave Lake of the Northern Territories in Canada. If you are cruising by regional landmarks and cultural details in your writing that she would have no earthly idea what you're talking about, maybe you should pause and think about what she might need to know in order to enjoy your poem. There’s a lot more, but we'd need a weeklong workshop for all of it.

Where we have failed is in allowing ourselves to believe that open mic night is the perfect venue for revisiting our most recent sessions with psychotherapists, and that our long roads to healing are somehow interesting to audiences. All of us are screwed up. Some more than others. But no one is special. And I've said this many times before: Look… people are already depressed. And so don't subject them to anything that’s going to make them want to increase their medication.

MZ:  As poets, do we have a responsibility to speak to issues of great social and political import (sorry, channeling Janis Joplin)?  Or, is it perfectly okay to stick with Hallmark cards if that's our thing?

Nathan Brown:  The problem isn't “whether or not” we do it… but instead the lackluster, unimaginative—or even worse… righteously indignant—way in which we do it. Intelligent audiences do not like to be preached at by someone standing atop his Prius and pointing downward, and all around his feet, at the idiots of the world. We've got to dig deeper than that when it comes to making a political point. And we need to remember that humor has been one of the best tools for this, historically. Not triteness… nor silliness… but well-crafted satire. Mark Twain reminds us that tragedy is the real source of most humor. And what is politics, if not tragic.

If I might separate the two, I believe issues of great social import need better “stories” to carry them. A good story will heal more cultural and societal damage than any academic treatise or polemical sermon on the problem. 

MZ:  (Selfish personal question) You’re not only a poet, you are an extremely talented singer / songwriter.  When you're writing a poem, does it “read” to you or “sing” to you?  Is songwriting a part of your poetry, or do you treat it as a separate discipline?

NB:  A poem has to sing to work. At the same time, songwriters should pay more attention to the laws of poetry, imagery, plot, and good storytelling than many of them do these days.

Poetry and songwriting are two very different “swings” to me. Like racquetball and tennis. One is in the elbow and the wrist, while the other is in the shoulder. And I don't know why songs are harder for me to write. But I write much fewer of them because of it.

One clear difference is that a sung melody allows for a held-out duration—a lengthening—of syllables that is very difficult to achieve on the page, and especially in live readings. You can do it, I suppose. But if you're not gifted at it, you'll look pretty stupid.

MZ:  Gotta ask . . . favorite poets?

NB:  William Stafford (here in the year that would've been his 100th birthday).

Stephen Dunn. Maybe my favorite. Period.

Billy Collins because he’s fun to read and brings people back to poetry.

Tony Hoagland because he’s so wonderfully “out there.”

Sharon Olds because she makes me uncomfortable.

Adam Zagajewski and his Eastern European unease.

Charles Bukowski because I can't help it.

Matthew Dickman. At least that first book of his kicked my butt.

Among others I'm forgetting
Nathan, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Nathan's latest book, Less is More, More or Less, is available on Amazon.  I highly recommend that you pick it up.  You won't be disappointed.


So, do you feel like writing?  Since I haven't had a decent night's sleep in forever, I've got insomnia on the brain.  Give me your take on insomnia . . . or, bless your heart, a cure . . . in 60 words or less.


Fireblossom said...

I *love* what he has to say on the subject of accessibility, and I totally agree.

MZ hobnobbing with poet laureates; why am I not surprised!

Outlawyer said...

Wonderful. K. Manicddaily

Kerry O'Connor said...

Thank you so much for bringing this poet to the garden, MZ. I so appreciate the frank manner with which Nathan Brown has expressed so many concerns I have with modern poets and poetry. I fully endorse his view that what you say is second to how you say it. Say it well, and I am sold (even if it comes to a religious theme, though I do not practice religion myself). He has also made a very valid point about not allowing poetry to become more about self-gratification than a form of communication to others.

Many, many thanks for these thoughts freely shared.

Kenia Santos said...

Great interview, what a great man. I second FB above, love the way he speaks of accessibility in poetry.


Kathryn Dyche said...

Thanks for the introduction, love Nathan's honesty. I got no sleep last night either, hoping you get some decent Zzzz's tonight.

Susie Clevenger said...

Thank you so much for introducing Nathan Brown to us. I am struggling with some things in my writing and he has given me insight on how to proceed. Ironic you should have us write a poem about insomnia...I write under its cloud all the time. In fact my next poetry book will have insomnia in its title.

hedgewitch said...

An interesting interview, and I know many feel the way Brown does about tailoring poetry to a mass audience. I don't happen to share that particular view, but I do agree with many of the points he's raised here, including his remarks on how best to get beyond the pomposity of pretension and artifice, especially in his 'social and political' analysis. Thanks for the exposure to our state poet, MZ--lord knows we'll never get much of that here in the media.

Sumana Roy said...

I don't know why on earth I commited a mistake in writing my surname..instead of Roy I wrote down Ganguli, my maiden name :)

Marian said...

this guy speaks my language. thanks so much, MZ. though really, Sharon Olds is the only woman poet he likes to read? that's a sad commentary.
either way, this is interesting and i'll happily search out his book, thank you!

Susan said...

Great interview. I mostly agree, though I can't avoid a little sermonizing and prescription. Like today's poem. Something for me to work on--showing instead of telling.
"Too Far" spoke to me. I will read more by Nathan Brown.

hedgewitch said...

Apologies to all--I completely missed that there was a word count! I'm so sorry, Mama Zen--shows what a week of insomnia will do to your reading comprehension. I don't think I can cut it down now, though. I will have to owe you (a short) one. :C

Sherry Blue Sky said...

What a wonderful interview - and poet! Thank you, Mama Zen, for the introduction. I love what he says about topics needing good stories to carry them. That is really good advice. Putting a human face on the causes does have greater impact than ranting.

Unknown said...

Great interview. I was up all night and went off topic on you MZ sorry - but indirectly my lack of focus is about insomnia so ... He says that our long road to healing is not interesting to readers - if this is true I may be guilty. I do like, and write, poems that address the human condition. I think the key is to approach these issue from an angle and avoid coming across as a Teenage Lament (Alice Cooper).

Kay L. Davies said...

Oops, I forgot to count the words. I'm sure I'm over. Tsk. Insomniacs forget everything.
Will count them now.

Anonymous said...

One, thanks to Nathan and his hilarity. Two, thanks to Kelli for bringing him to the pond. Three, time to look up most of the names on that list, because I'm a caveman and have no clue. Three, because I can't count. Awesome. Perfect for my state of mind - couldn't be timed better. Thanks, MZ ~

Susan said...

Can't open Robert's link . . .

Grace said...

Thanks for the interview MZ ~ Will check out his book and his list of favorite poets ~

Wishing you all happy week ~

Kenia Santos said...

Those among interested in a fun, interesting reading on sleeplessness, here's an extract from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zaratustra which I find really cool.


Kenia Santos said...

Oh guys, the whole thing is there. Ctrl+F to locate the first occurrence of the word 'slepp'.


De Jackson said...

Great interview, too! :) Thank you!

Hannah said...

Thoughtful questions and intriguing answers...thank you both so much for this interview. :)

I always enjoy a practice in brevity with you MZ...thank you!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the thoughtful responses for the interview questions.
Great to mention Yellowknife for that bigger perspective.

Anonymous said...

funny - but not funny too. is actually a satire site that can be *spot-on*.

Side Effects of Insomnia ~

hedgewitch said...

Here is the short one I owed you, MZ--but you have to share it with the G-Man.

Slipping The Leash

Outlawyer said...

Thanks for cool interview, MZ. k. (Manicddaily)

Anonymous said...

Great job on the interview, MZ, great subject ... Nathan sounds perfectly positioned to be the poet laureate of Oklahoma, surely itself the title of a poem with wheatfields and oilfields of possibility. Hard it is to write poetry both intellectually and emotionally mature. And great the distance between academy and coffeehouse stage! Well, there's room for all of us. Long as we understand no one is supposed to get rich at this. And keep writing. Thanks again --

Herotomost said...

Great interview, and obviously I am wholly in agreement with Nathan's insight. I use a lot of things in my writing, (call it poetry or not, makes no matter) that help me help my readers feel what I'm saying I hope. Experience is the mother of all emotion, let them experience by identifying and if that happens for even one person, it was worth the time to share it in whatever medium you choose to do so. Thanks MZ and Nathan!!!

Ella said...

Wonderful interview! It is refreshing to see Nathan' poetic eye-thank you Mama Zen for sharing him with us! I could use his book ;D