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Your Serendipity: An Interview With James Brush

7:40 a.m. — Atlanta

Hello everyone. Today’s announcement comes in the form of an interview. Along with my questions to him, I have lines of the interviewee’s poetry interspersed.

I spend summers in Texas and have come to know and love the grackle. The name alone. I saw my first grackles on my lawn in San Antonio. They are  feisty, full of character and intelligence. I saw my first vultures on the lawns of The Red Fort, in New Delhi. I find them compelling. It has been a couple of years now that I have followed a young writer [he says not so young], who lives in Texas, who has a passion for these two birds.

Let me introduce you to James Brush, poet, novelist, English teacher; that’s if you don’t already know James and his websites a gnarled oak and Coyote Mercury. And, yes, he does have a talent for interesting names. Witness the naming of his first major chapbook [James has published two, creating them by hand]: Birds Nobody Loves: A Book of Vultures & Grackles. I find it a hard title to resist. If it were on a bookstore shelf, I would pick it up for a look, glance at the Table of Contents…and then I would buy it. Titles like “Patton’s Army,” “God Hates Grackles,” “A Cackle of Grackles,” and “A Committee of Vultures,” would, and do, charm me.

So, I asked him: What was the initial thing that drew you to the vulture and the grackle? What made you think: “Now this is a great subject for poetry”? Feel free to wax poetic, James.

I started noticing vultures when we moved to Texas while I was still in high school. We went to a church that sat on a cliff overlooking Lake Travis. It was made mostly of glass, and I spent many a Sunday morning watching the vultures soar over the lake. That’s the beginning of my interest in vultures and the source of the poem “While Sitting in Church.”

I didn’t hear a word the priest said,
but I saw the vultures circling              “While Sitting in Church”

And, grackles, well, they’re everywhere around here. If you see a city bird in central Texas odds are it’s one of these guys. They’re everywhere and most people consider them a nuisance. Still, they have a bit of a cult following. A great-tailed grackle is the mascot of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

summer here, [they] throw their cash around and
leave without learning the culture or our ways.     “My Tourist Yard”

As to the poetry, I kind of fell into it. I’d written a bunch of small stones that had grackles and vultures in them, mostly because I see them so often and when you set out to pay attention around here, you realize they’re all over the place. They’re just part of the scenery down here. Then back in 2009, I wrote “Circling Vultures” and “My Tourist Yard” and the two seemed to go together if for no other reason than that they were about these birds most people don’t really like. They were also two of the first to be published so that kind of got me interested in pursuing the subject matter.

What sustains the draw?

The more I thought about these birds, the more I began to discover things in the poems, and the disdain for these two species led to ideas of fear of the other and some of the things that spark those fears like ugliness, alienation and fear of change. Also the fear of death but underlying that, especially in the vulture poems is a sense of interconnectedness and rebirth. I’m also interested in the interrelations between the human and natural worlds. There’s some of that in there too.

I started posting them on my blog and oftentimes the old Read Write Poem and Big Tent Poetry prompts led to vultures and grackles. People reading my blog seemed to enjoy them, and I liked writing them. Plus, I just like watching these birds. Especially the vultures. I love watching them soar, the way turkey vultures wobble a bit in the air.

Especially the vultures. Your feelings for the vulture comes through the poems in a speaker who is full of compassion, passion, humour and a sense that he is one of them.

The vultures watch the cars approach,
watch the deer stand still or sometimes
whisper, Run, just a moment too late.     “In the Time of the Automobile”

I always thought they’d like death metal,
but I’ve got it on good authority
vultures prefer smooth jazz.     “Good Authority”

You have written many poems about these birds, especially the grackles as far as the poems I have read. How do you keep the poems from sounding alike? To keep the poems individual, do you have strategies?

I never really thought about that. Everything I write eventually starts to sound the same to me and I don’t have strategies to cope with that other than to revise and let them cool and then revise some more. Listen to the poem and then work it to where it seems to want to go. Okay, maybe that’s a strategy.

I have read the twenty-four poems several times now, and not one sounds like another. When you say, “work it to where it seems to want to go,” the key is that each poem takes a different direction. So, yes, a strategy.

Grackles are socialists. They weren’t born in they U.S…They’re plotting the reconquista!     
“Quiscalus Mexicanus”

Do you have ideas still percolating re these birds, or are you looking around for [have found?] the next passion?

I guess I’ve kind of consciously avoided writing vulture and grackle poems at least for the time being. Mainly because I don’t want to keep trying to mine the same ground. I suppose I want to try to push myself in some new directions. Also, I didn’t want to wind up wishing I’d included some as yet unwritten poem in the book. But now that the book has flown out into the world, these birds may start showing up again.

Regarding the next passion… I’ve been writing  a lot the past year or so about the extreme drought we’re experiencing here in Texas. Some dystopian stuff. Lots of poems without water, now and in the future. Some of it takes on a mythical feel.

After the weather extremes of the past year, it’s hard not to turn that way. I have a folder full of notes. The dystopian approach sounds interesting, but then I taught Atwood.

I have a gnarled oak chapbooks you made, and thoroughly enjoyed them. What pushed you into the more formal self-publishing? Why did you set up your own Press? You  mention other projects… any sneak peeks, or tantalizing hints?

Thanks. I’m really glad to hear that. I went round and round about what to do with Birds Nobody Loves and how to release it. I did submit it to one publisher and one contest, but really I wanted to do it myself. At first I thought I’d make them on my printer, like the gnarled oak chaps, because I really like those homemade chapbooks, but as the book got longer (44 pages) and my time got shorter, the idea of filling orders and shipping them myself seemed more and more untenable.

I set up my own press because I wanted to go all in on self-publishing… buy the ISBNs, register the business and all that. There’s something official about it that I like. It might make it easier to get the book into brick-and-mortar stores. Probably won’t, but it might. And sometimes I think it might be cool to open to submissions and publish other writers one day. For now, though, I guess I’m like Dr. Jekyll testing the potion on myself. [I love the allusion, James!] Anyway, setting up the press came from all those places.

As far as other projects go, I have two other short collections. One much closer to completion than the other, but my next project is going to be the e-bookization of my novel A Place Without a Postcard, something that’s a few years overdue. I’m working up the nerve to reread it after almost 10 years, since I’ll have to resist the urge to change anything other than a few typos.

I’ll be interested to hear whether you feel, on rereading, that more revision, other than editing, is required.

What surprised you about the self-publishing process? What is the most important thing you learned? Any tips for those teetering on the edge?

I self-published my novel back in 2003. Social media, other than blogs, was nonexistent back then and blogs didn’t hit my radar until 2004 (I started mine in 2005, though Coyote Mercury went up in 2003 but not as a blog). These days it’s easier to spread the word, but not really any easier to sell books. With self-publishing you don’t have anyone marketing for you so whatever books you sell will be sold because of your own efforts at publicizing.

As far as tips go, I suppose it depends on what you want to get out of it. For me, it’s about finding readers and the experience of doing it. I like making things and making books excites me. I enjoyed making the e-versions as much as the print and if you like doing things, I say go for it. It’s exciting that we live in a time when this sort of thing is possible. Writers can now do what musicians and filmmakers have been doing for years and that is take control of the process and attempt to reach an audience directly. It is, of course, not a way to get rich.

Also, I always say to people considering self-publishing: take your time. There is no rush. I kicked the Birds Nobody Loves manuscript around for 3 years and thought it was finished a year ago. It wasn’t, but by not rushing things, I wound up with a book I’m very proud of.

You should be. I already feel like the book is an old friend.

Keeping a specific focus over such a long period of time will have given you some different insights into, or perspectives on, the process of writing. What have you learned about writing from this?

Good question. Maintaining the focus was exciting for me. I always wondered what people coming to my blog would think (Oh, it’s that grackle guy again), but in the end it was cool to explore both the actual birds that travel the sky and the ideas and thoughts that those birds brought to mind. Several of the poems in the book really are only tangentially about the birds themselves and that’s an important thing for the writer to keep in mind… new ideas are everywhere even in the birds we see every single day.

It was surprising all the various roads those common birds led me down, and I think that’s the most exciting thing about writing, that not quite knowing where you’re going but being surprised by the discoveries along the way even when we think there’s nothing to be found. Writing is in many ways about being and staying open to experience and the world around you and the resulting surprises. Watching and listening to these birds and writing the poems reminded me of how easy it is to tune those things out, but those ordinary things are often the most interesting things if we but stop to know them, and that’s a useful thing for any writer to do.

Overhead turkey vultures soar
on steady outstretched wings,
folding sky                                        “Summer Solstice”

At night, I roost in city trees and sing
wild croaking sound, toasting jolly grackles.     “Grackle Ghazal”

Resentful and secretly wishing they
too had wings and beautiful iridescent plumage, they
drove back north, never once leaving the ground.     “God Hates Grackles”

I need to stop typing lines. I could happily type out all the poems to share them. James, thank you. I hope you convert a lot of readers to the grackle, vulture fan club.
There you have it. Curiosity piqued? Good. Reading James Brush’s poems is like being shown a secret handshake that lets you into an exclusive club, only, the patrons inside happen to be grackles and vultures.

I’ll see you tomorrow for the Friday prompt round up; Tuesday for an exercise on place, looking at a poem; and next Thursday for announcements — if you have any send them in, people!

Happy writing.

 
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Posted by on 02/02/2012 in poetry, writing

 

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Thrsday Thoughts Part 2: More Questions Than Answers

9:28 am, Thursday, 20 January, 2011 – Atlanta

I have my coffee by me and have reread what I wrote last week, to make sure I follow roughly the same track. For those who have not read it, or who are a little fuzzy about what I said, you can go here. The curious serendipity that is life occurred again, as over the past week I came across an interview, a poem, and a couple of posts on the same question: Do I submit my poetry, or not? Part 2 is going back to that question, because I ended the week with more questions than answers. If I haven’t spent too long with the topic, I will go on to talk about resources, but that may become a part 3.

The topic has been a hot topic for a while. A few months ago Robert Lee Brewer, of Writer’s Digest, and a number of other members of the poetry community discussed the topic on twitter [#poettalk] with no real conclusion reached, but a lot of questions raised and a lot of confused writers, who, like me, want to know what the rules are now. And, therein lies the problem. In the pre-internet days, writers either wrote for themselves, or they wrote for themselves and for their work to be published, so that the truths their poetry told could reach others.

The internet has been a great leveler, which, in itself, raises questions and problems.  Anyone who writes, bad or good, can put their poems out there. I have, as I read through many, many blogs over the past four months come across some bad writing, but I have also come across poetry  that I find stunning, that moves me, that speaks a truth to me, and that I may not have ever seen if not for blogs.  So, posting in blogs, allows more opportunity for people to post their writing, no matter the quality and that’s wonderful for them, and allows more readers to read good poetry they might otherwise never have discovered.

Then why not have us all post, get our truths out there and be happy? That might be a place we reach some day, but it’s not where we are yet. I know that I submit because I want affirmation from the people who should know good poetry [publishers and editors], and their audiences, who become my audiences, if I am published. I want to work to a standard that requires me to hone and craft and continually [continuously?] work and rework my poems. That becomes another question. With posting, and even with all the ezines that have sprung up, because anyone can start an ezine if they wish, who sets the standards? Do we need standards set? Who says what a good poem is and what a bad, or weak, poem is? Do we need that?

For those who wish to post and submit, there is the dicey question of which poems to post. Of every poem I write, especially in response to the many wonderful prompts around, I ask myself whether it might be a poem I want to submit. I don’t like that I have to struggle with that question, but I am posting more. Magazines and journals seem more and more crystallized on the point that if a poem has been on a blog and been read, it, in effect, has had its first publication. And, I do see the editors’ and publishers’ point: when they publish a poem, they want to be the first to let readers see it. However, I also think that more and more writers will self-publish, and that the stigma that used to attach to that is lessening in some quarters.

There’s another question. Is having self-publishing made easy by the internet a good thing? I have two chapbooks that say yes. I would not have read them if they weren’t published at all. With the sheer volume of poetry being submitted now, there are many more poets, who might have been published in the days of snail mail, who find it much harder now to get their work out to an audience.

James, at a gnarled oak, says, in a comment on last Thursday’s post: This is something I go round and round with. I’ve also been in several categories. Lately, I’ve been developing a philosophy of submitting. Anymore, I am unlikely to submit to a journal/zine/site that does not a) take electronic submissions, b) publish online or at least have some kind of useful web presence, c) take simultaneous submissions, and d) allow submissions that have previously been posted on a personal site. I generally prefer to publish on my site. I enjoy the immediacy of it (even if the poem has been in revision for months or years) and I like the fact that people read my stuff and I (sometimes) get feedback. Occasionally, I’ve had to ask myself if my best stuff should appear first on my site where my readers can enjoy it or is it best to go elsewhere. Perhaps a balance is best and that’s why I do submit, but I focus submissions toward venues whose submission policies align with my idea of how submissions should be done.

You see, I knew once I got going this would be long and it has raised more questions than given answers. I am going to go give my poor brain more coffee. Let me finish with a point made by the writer over at The Rag Tree. I am going to give you his last point, but go on over and visit, because he has six other points worth reading. 7) A writer has only two obligations: to write as well as he or she can and to tell the truth. If you believe this, then you are writing for your community, whether it be the one that surrounds you, sympathetic souls on the other side of the world, or people who won’t be born for a thousand years. You may be published or not (or only in a minor way), but what counts are your words (not you) and the healing they bring. Many good people have died as a result of telling the truth as they see it.

I look forward to comments on this entry and will continue next Thursday with wrapping up if it looks like something needs wrapping and then, resources. Yes, I did mention a poem on the topic. Next week I will give you the link.

Tomorrow is Friday’s weekly roundup. See you there.

 
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Posted by on 20/01/2011 in poetry, writing

 

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