First Books Poets in Conversation:
Traci Brimhall & Gary L. McDowell

Traci Brimhall is the author of Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She was the 2008-09 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and currently teaches at Western Michigan University, where she is a doctoral associate and Kings/Chavez/Parks Fellow.
Gary L. McDowell is the author of American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize for Poetry. He’s also the author of the chapbook They Speak of Fruit (Cooper Dillon Books, 2009) and co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems and essays have appeared in New England Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, and numerous others. He can be found online at

Traci Brimhall: Hi, Gary!  Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me.  It’s been a pleasure to get a sneak peek at the book.  One of the things I love in American Amen is how you use several poems titled “Aubade” as section breaks.  I was wondering how you arrived at this organization for your book, and also about the relationship of the aubades to each other.
Gary L. McDowell: Hey there, Traci! First of all, thanks for inviting me to do this interview with you. It’s been a pleasure getting to know Rookery. So, about the aubades. I had been struggling at the time (early 2009) trying to find the appropriate organization for American Amen. I knew the book was written, was done: I knew I'd written all the poems, I knew I'd written the right poems, but I just couldn't find the 25th poem that Frost talks about—Frost said somewhere that in a book of 24 poems, the completed manuscript is the 25th poem. I'd experimented with two sections, three sections, no sections. None of it worked.  I wanted there to be, for the reader more than anything, a clear sense of organization, but I also knew that couldn’t force it.  I tried grouping poems thematically: fatherhood poems, fishing poems, “voice” poems, wife poems. Nothing seemed to create the arc I was looking for. I wanted the book to sing its song, to marry its many, diasporic themes cohesively, but I didn't want to force it into the neatly contrived thing that unnecessarily breaking a manuscript into sections can lead to.

Around that same time, I gave a copy of the manuscript to my good friend (and brilliant poet), Jennifer K. Sweeney, to see if she could help me find its shape--she’s an incredibly gifted close-reader. She agreed that splitting the manuscript into sections (I think at the time it was in three sections) wasn't working. She asked me, “what about these aubades? What's their function here? What if you organize around them?” So we got to talking, and it dawned on me that the aubades were barometric of the manuscript's myriad concerns/themes. Over and again the aubades funneled into and sprang out of the image narrative of the entire book, culled those images, shaped them anew, and, essentially, moved the book both forward and backward simultaneously. Once I dispersed the aubades evenly (one every 7 or 8 poems or so), the rest of the poems gravitated, almost preternaturally, to their now-cemented spot. It was unreal, and it made perfect sense. Jennifer further suggested putting the aubades in italics to further differentiate them, and that helps, I think, cement them as, you rightly suggest, “section breaks.”

I notice that you also employ the mysterious and sexy aubade in your beautiful Rookery. Would you care to talk a bit about your use of the aubade? Specifically, perhaps, could you talk about the tonal differences in your aubades versus the other poems? I’m thinking specifically of “Aubade with a Fox and a Birthmark.” I sense a difference in tone.  To my ears and eyes, the aubades feel a bit more attached, a bit more ecstatic, a bit more, if you will, Dickinsonian.
TB: Thanks for your kind words about Rookery.  I think it’s interesting that we got to know each other’s work by looking at each other’s second manuscripts before we’d read each other’s first books, but more on that later.

In between my first and second year of grad school a couple of people asked me the same question: What was at risk in my poems?  In many of my early poems, violence and madness were present, but the speaker was always a witness to the events, safely out of harm’s way.  So I took their challenge.  I went back to the most vulnerable poem I’d written, “Aubade with a Fox and a Birthmark” to look at its risks and to try and take them again.

A director and good friend of mine Carie Donnelson talked to me about the film“The Five Obstructions” by Lars von Trier.  In the film, von Trier approaches the director Jørgen Leth and asked Leth to remake his favorite movie “The Perfect Human” five times.  In each of these remakes von Trier is actually trying to--hoping to--lead him into a mistake, not because he wants to see Leth fail so he can glory in it, but to see him rendered more human because of his vulnerability.  Carie took this approach with the aubades.  She emailed me prompts and kept making me write through the experience again and again from different points of view, before betrayal, after the knowledge, backwards, beneath the house, with scissors, in the snow, each challenging me to get closer to the truth, to say what was hardest to say.  I wrote many bad poems this way (some successful ones, too), but excavating an experience this way taught me a great deal about myself and a lot about writing.

It’s interesting you mention the difference in tone from “Aubade with a Fox and a Birthmark” and the other aubades without knowing their history.  I think it’s the least developed in tone and the most emotionally removed, although it was written first.  

You mentioned that you knew your book was written before the organization came together.  Were there any clues to you in your writing that this collection was finished?  Having read your manuscript in progress, I see many ways your poems have changed and developed.  Were these conscious choices, or did you stumble into a new voice in one of your poems?
GLM: That von Trier film project sounds really interesting. I'll have to check it out. It sounds mimetic of my own poetic process, too. Writing a poem from differing points-of-view is a great exercise; I've had my students try that one a few times with great results, too.

Octavio Paz wrote that “Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice.” As I was wrapping up writing the poems that would constitute American Amen I felt a distinct shift in voice in the writing. I had stopped writing about childhood as the child and was starting to write about it as the adult. My obsessions—and the angles from which I approached them—were changing. Charles Wright talks about obsessions somewhere in his Halflife or Quarter Notes, but it's his beautiful thought that “poems should be written line by line, not idea by idea” that really shoved me from shore, got me rowing in a different direction. As for clues that the collection was finished, I'd say that as soon as the speaker started wandering away, veering toward the ekphrastic (like so many of the poems in my in-progress second collection do) rather than the domestic comforts of my previous obsessions (new fatherhood—though that's still an obsession and will undoubtedly remain so with a 2-year-old and a newborn—and fishing and the mythology of childhood and a new marriage, etc) I knew that I was starting something new. I started writing line by line again rather than steering the poems, ruddering them into specific categories or tropes. I basically just let loose.

I like how you phrase the last part of your question: “did you stumble into a new voice in one of your poems?” That's exactly what happened. I stumbled. What was it that Yeats said, that “poetry is an argument with the self”? Well, I basically became tired, I guess, of trying to wring dry the mop of my father's (living) ghost as I wrote the final poems of American Amen, and so I turned to an old writing exercise my mentor, Amy Newman, used to prescribe me to shed my skin: ekphrasis. One of my favorite contemporary artists is Eric Fischl, the New York painter and sculptor ( His paintings, like “Sleepwalker” and “Bad Boy,” could be described as domestic macabre, dark and erotic (sometimes pornographic, even incestual), but for me, the paintings provided a window into a world detached from the one in American Amen. I started welding my new obsessions (the many facets of Self, the fears of raising children in an uncertain world, the voyeuristic nature of watching others raise children) into new configurations, new utterances, and I found myself scaffolding poems based loosely on the narrative of the painting combined with bits of overheard news, worldly atrocities, and neighborly experiences. The first result was a poem titled “This Summer with Fischl,” a long-lined, disjunctive thing that absorbs the world, my world, in new—to me—textures. It was the push I needed. I became from then on less idea-focused and have simply been letting my subject matter choose me, often changing course mid-poem, mid-line, mid-word, if the case calls for it, and it's opened me up to a new kind of poem.

I know it's an Interview 101 question, but I am very curious about your title, Rookery. I love how mimetic it is of a poetry collection in general: the poetry collection as nest, as gathering place, as a colony of breeding, breathing, feeding birds. Incredible. And then there's the other definition: the densely populated slums of nineteenth century London, which in itself indicates a sort of close-knit (forced or not) community. When you settled on Rookery as your title (where there others in contention?), where you thinking of your poems as a nesting community? How concerned were you with how the individual poems spoke to one another?
TB: I like how your obsessions underwent a chrysalis and left the living ghost of the father for the “ghosts” in the paintings, bringing the intangible closer but reinventing its story.  It seems to me the new poems are still domestic, although they seem to be looking into other people’s windows instead of your own.

My title changed a little bit, but title changes seem to be extremely common for first books.  My MFA thesis was titled The Rookery.  It became Asleep in the Rookery as I started sending around the manuscript.  I thought the title needed a little oompf, and “asleep” was added to address many of the dreams that appear in the book, as well as the idea of many figures dreaming in the same place.  The judge of the Crab Orchard contest, Michelle Boisseau, suggested to cut the excess and keep Rookery.  

The Rookery is actually a building in Chicago that I saw on an architecture tour.  It’s made of red granite, sort of gothic and formidable on the outside.  But inside, the part designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, there are birds on the elevators doors and light and winding staircases.  It feels like a place of magic, a less edible Wonka factory.  I loved the way this building possessed both this dominating exterior and this interior whimsy.  One day in a coffee shop I was trying to write away from personal narratives, so I started riffing off the definitions of rookery (1. Colony of rooks, 2. A  group of breeding sea mammals, 3. A tenement house) and ended up with these short prose poems about betrayal, family, pain, violence, and God.  I liked the idea that you could start with a word and it could contain everything.

I don’t remember questioning how much the poems spoke to each other.  The poems are largely based on personal experience, so I was more concerned with whether or not they would speak to anyone else.  I do like your metaphor for nesting though--the book as a tree and the poems as birds with their own separate hungers but living together.

I recently read the quote by Jorie Graham that said: “To place oneself at genuine risk, that the salvation effected be genuine (i.e. of use to us), the poet must move to encounter an other, not more versions of the self...Something the writer risks being defeated--or silenced--by.”  I was wondering if there is a poem in your manuscript that is like that for you, one you remember struggling with, being surprised by, one where you discovered something wholly unexpected.  Which poem was your Goliath?
GLM:I adore that Graham quote, and it’s one I haven't seen before, so double bonus. Anyway, yes, there's one poem in American Amen that I remember being particularly prickly in its initial stages that then emerged from its cocoon wholly three-dimensional, Goliath-like. The poem “Notes from a Sleepwalker,” a prose poem written from many selves, full of “I am...” and “I was...” pronouncements that, in some ways, go against Graham's advice that a “poet must move to encounter an other, not more versions of the self,” ended up being a watershed poem for me. What made that poem a discovery for me was that it opened up a new way of voicing the poetic: it was full of the lyric “I” but in ways I hadn't previously used it. In previous poems I'd mixed voices, taken risks in statement and sentiment, but never before had I been so outwardly concerned with creating those mixtures as the subject of the poem itself. In “Notes from a Sleepwalker” I strove to create a Whitmanian multi-textured self, one of contradictions and confusions, songs and political diatribes.

“Notes from a Sleepwalker” came at a time when I was coming off a brief, self-imposed hiatus from writing poems—this was the summer of 2006 and I was trying my hand at writing some critical prose on the prose poem, partially to fulfill an independent study for my MFA and partially to, perhaps, recharge my poetry-writing batteries. I was stuck, rutted, and when I came back to the poems I was looking to make a change. I remember coming across, ironically enough, this Jorie Graham quote: “The taking on, only apparently arbitrary, of stylistic devices—the inhabiting of them until they become the garment of one's spirit life, the method by which one touches the world, the means by which one can be touched oneself, and changed.... The changes I made in my 'technique' are changes that occurred to my life: I became the person I could have otherwise been by these small devices, habits....” In addition to reading and writing on the prose poem that summer, my wife and I also moved into a new apartment, took a vacation to Florida, spent significant time in the woods of central Wisconsin RV-ing with family, and fishing in random ponds all over the Midwest: none of these were necessarily life-altering changes, but all of them did create changes in my life enough to alter my stylistic choices. The result of these fractured experiences (moving, fishing, the prose poem) helped me to take more risk with my voice, and the result of those risks was the watershed poem, “Notes from a Sleepwalker.”

All of this talk about watershed moments, Goliath-like poems, has me thinking about influence. I just love the Dickinson epigraph to Rookery: “Split the Lark—and you'll find the Music—.” I see Dickinson in your work, her fierce independence, her sensuality in things cloaked, but I also see the antithesis to those ideals. Who are some of your poetic influences? Have you found your tastes changing or evolving in any specific way as you work toward a second manuscript and away from your previous obsessions?
TB: I think your battle with Goliath did you good.  “Notes from a Sleepwalker” is an amazing poem. I love its leaps, its catalog of beauties, its multitudes. Amen.

I really admire Dickinson.  I wish I wrote like her.  She has this rare capability to stimulate the ear, the mind, and the heart all at once.  That’s the holy trinity in poetry for me.  But I have a lot of influences.  I try to read a book a day, although I definitely have poets I return to again and again: Larry Levis, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Paul Zweig, Lorca, Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, Rilke, James Dickey, Carolyn Forche, Yehuda Amichai, Georg Trakl, Jack Gilbert, Yannis Ritsos, Linda Gregg, Li-Young Lee, Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, and younger poets like Sabrina Orah Mark for her fierce imagination and Joshua Poteat for his ability to leap and pull more into a poem than you thought it could hold.

I don’t think the obsessions have changed too much.  The second manuscript began with the same collaborator I mentioned before, Carie Donnelson.  The poems began as a defense of God, or at least of spiritual rapture.  They’ve grown wonderfully feral from there.  In addition to looking at poets with a great sense of rapture like Donne, H.D., Robinson Jeffers, Hopkins, and of course Dickinson, I’ve also been really intrigued by poets with a profound imagination.  So many poems derive from a poet’s experiences and the landscapes around them, and I find myself increasingly interested in fabulist poetry.  Mostly though, the major change in my writing has been that the poems are increasingly more like play and less like work.

Thanks again for doing this interview with me.  I look forward to seeing what happens as your Fischl poems continue looking into the domestic macabre.
GLM: The pleasure was all mine, Traci. Thank you for the great conversation, and I can’t wait to see Rookery live and in the flesh!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761