The Way a Map Is a Unit of Time: A Micro-interview with Traci Brimall – curated by Lisa Olstein

Traci Brimhall is the author of four collections of poetry: Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon Press, 2020); Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017); Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), selected by Michelle Boisseau for the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award.


Lisa Olstein:  What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Traci Brimhall:  I didn’t know it when I began but the question that I think lurks its way through the book is about forgiveness–what my friend’s murder made me question, what my mom’s death made me confront, what divorce made me understand about the limits of forgiveness, and what my child helped me realize about how easy it can be and how anger might be necessary first.  I’ve always wanted to believe I had a heart with a sort of talent for letting things go. I even had a therapist once tell me I had a Jesus complex, and I said thank you before he corrected me and said it wasn’t a compliment. And what I have come to realize with all of the grief and joy of the last 8 years of my life is that my sense of self might have been aspirational. When I let myself get angry before I forgave, I had to realize how messy it is to be human, but I also got to exercise my heart in the best ways.

LO:  “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

TB:  After my friend’s murder, I found poetry difficult. The essays in the book are the parts where I deal most explicitly with his death, which I found so much more difficult to do in verse. Very early on I knew the book would go back and forth between poems and essays, though it took several rounds of revision with my editor, Elaina Ellis, to get to the final arc. Even the sections with poems range in their forms (and formlessness). The oldest pieces are letters to Thanatos, the death drive. My love letters to what is darkest in me were honestly my “one night stand” poems. When I was done working on previous books, I would spend a few weeks with Thanatos. I always found that an easy way to write, but I never expected they would be more than one off dalliances. Some of the newest poems are the ones I wrote to Eros. I wanted to know what I would say to that urgent life force in me instead of the darkness, and it was wild to discover the voice and form were completely different if I talked to love. There are also lullabies shuffled in and poems that try their best to abandon form altogether.

LO:  What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

TB:  My “I’s” are unapologetically similar to me. The reason I’ve written and why I keep writing is to figure out how to be alive. I think it’s difficult work being a person, and I care very much how I exist in the world, what I do with my life, how I put some language around experience to try and understand it, how maybe sometimes I’m trying to scry the future to better understand my own life.

LO:  Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

TB:  As I mentioned above, initially I was just trying to have one night stands with my darkness. But often when I’m writing, I am thinking about it as an act of love to whoever reads it or trying to love some future person who’d read it. When I obsess about something, I try to be mindful of what wounds I’m opening to debride them, and which wounds I’m licking open and refusing to let heal. If I ask myself if I love whoever is on the other end of a poem, and the answer is no, I should throw it out. If the answer is yes, I can let it go out into the world because I have tried to be careful with something painful.

LO:  What felt riskiest to you about this work?

TB:  Two things: 1) there are poems that are only meant as delight, as only expressions of giddy love and pleasure. I’ve long avoided love poems because vulnerability is risky. 2) My own human ugliness. I tried to be honest about the less flattering parts of myself. I wanted to admit to the angry and frustrated and grieving and icky things in myself.

LO:  How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

TB:  Oh, I love this because I don’t think beauty has an ethics, but I so want to make beautiful things! I think I try and use aesthetics for safety–to communicate a form of control in a poem that can feel overwhelming–as well as a balm or at least a balance for some of the harder things I want to look at/say in a poem.

LO:  What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

TB:  I love a good knotty music in a poem. One of my favorite tests for a poem is to read it backwards line by line to just hear the music of a line. I also always love when I can make the private utterance of a line distinct from the public utterance of the sentence.

LO:  As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

TB:  Maybe the poems are a unit of time the way a map is a unit of time, an image of where you’ve placed your boundaries and names you’ve given to parts of your emotional landscape. I don’t know that others will experience its time that way, but it feels like distance, a looking back. I hardly recognize the person I was when I wrote those poems. I always feel like reading a book is discovering something about the intellectual and emotional life of who someone was 5 years before.

LO:  What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm?

TB:  Since this book was interrupted by death and a new baby and move and a new job and a divorce and so many other complicated life events, it’s hard to keep track of those other artistic companions, though I do remember watching old interviews with Francis Bacon around the time I also got obsessed with the show Hannibal. I read Lorca’s essay “On Lullabies” numerous times. I learned how to make paper. I got very little sleep. I watched Six Feet Under again. A joyful little being called me mom. I started adopting plants.

LO:  How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

TB:  The more complete something feels to me, the less I mourn it. With poems, I try and give them what I got, raise them to 18, then send them into the world and tell them to get a job. With books, I feel similarly. If I get close to achieving my aims for something, it’s easier to let it go. The times I felt I wasn’t the poet I needed to be to achieve my goals for my writing are when it’s hardest to be satisfied. Right now, I’ve been working on a collection of essays and a few new poems are squeaking out. The new poems have either been about love post-divorce or historical medical dolls, and how that will end up coming together remains to be seen.