Brandon Brown’s most recent books are Work (Atelos) and The Four Seasons (Wonder). He is an editor at Krupskaya Books and edits the zine Panda’s Friend. He lives in the Bay Area of California on unceded Ohlone land.
His poems “HOW I’M FEELING NOW,” “MY MENTAL HEALTH DAY” and “A SONG OF RAIMBAUT D’AURENGA” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “HOW I’M FEELING NOW,” “MY MENTAL HEALTH DAY” and “A SONG OF RAIMBAUT D’AURENGA.”
A: These poems feel in so many ways quite distinct, both in how they move and what they try to do, and the occasions for their coming to be. “How I’m Feeling Now” was written in response to a call by the pop composer and singer Charli XCX on the occasion of her 2020 album, How I’m Feeling Now. She was soliciting fan responses to the record, and I decided to take the challenge. Incidentally, it seems as if I didn’t make the cut, as I haven’t heard from Charli or her squad. “My Mental Health Day” was a poem that wrote itself in about five minutes late one night, and by contrast “A Song of Raimbaut D’Aurenga” was part of a translation I worked on at a very slow pace for most of 2020 and early 2021. Raimbaut left us 39 poems, and I translated his poems a stanza or two a day. D’Aurenga died in a pandemic in 1173, one of the first medical events called influenza.
For all of these distinctions, and to risk stating something very obvious, they all feel like poems of 2020 and Covid-19. From the delicious sweat of a packed club, to the sudden appearance of boss-endorsed “mental health days” at work, to the daily translation project enabled by spending a lot more time at home with my Occitan reference materials, I think of these poems as residue from that year and time, which of course doesn't feel concluded or over in any way.
Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: For the past several years most of my work has been in prose, and when the pandemic began, I had just finished writing a novel called The Tragicall History. But from the very beginning of Covid, I’ve struggled enormously to write in sentences. I don’t have a theory for why that has been the case, but to the great relief of my sanity I have been able to write poems and do translations. I’ve always been a writer with routines, and I’ve settled into new ones. As I said, Raimbaut D’Aurenga’s poems gave me a little bit of work to do every day, and I honestly feel grateful I had spent the year before the pandemic studying enough Occitan to be able to sort of read his writing. As for the poems, I’ve been obsessed with Joanne Kyger’s poetry in the past year, and I’ve tried to introduce elements of her approach into my own routines as a writer, savoring the time I make to work on writing and revising poems. But it’s still a quite different, for me, way of writing, to write poems without a project or overarching sense of the structure of the book in advance.
Q: What is it about Kyger’s work, specifically, that appeals? What of her approach or structures are you attempting to engage with in your own work, and how has that engagement been revealing itself?
A: Thanks for the opportunity to say more about Joanne!
First of all I want to recognize that I’m late to her work, for no good reason. I moved to the Bay Area in 1998, and Joanne was around, so close up in Bolinas, and I had a few chances to be in the same room with her and experience her magnificent big Scorpio energy. And plenty of people around me were advocates for her work, none perhaps more than my friend Cedar Sigo, who has been an amazing steward of her work, person and legacy. I just couldn’t find my way into her poetry, until I did.
I think what’s been most profound in reading her over the last couple of years is the quality and range of permission in her writing. Kyger’s poems are so often about what’s happening right now, whatever that is. Steam coming off a teacup, a negligible looking plant in the garden, a memory of something sweet or sour, a reflection on the essence of the fucking universe. She accommodates so much in her poems: her emotional and spiritual intelligence, her vast study, her friends and community in Bolinas, wit and savagery, grouchiness and pleasure.
I’m also deeply interested in her way of publishing, especially the many iterations of “Selected Poems.” These volumes are all distinct, aspire to select poems from differing periods of her writing career, and always include new work, but they often stretch back to her earliest writing. The number of these volumes relieve so much of the precious pressure on the tired, heroic “Selected Poems” form and feel so natural to how she approached individual poems, a steady alchemical blend of history and immediacy.
Q: With a handful of published poetry books and chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: There’s a song I really love by the country musician Jake Owen called “Down To The Honkytonk.” The basic conceit of the tune is, I may not be rich, famous, well-respected, sophisticated, or important....but one thing is for certain: I’ll go down to the honkytonk. “I may not go down in history...but I’ll go down to the honkytonk.” I think one of the things that draws me to the song is this sense I have that poetry is an exercise in permission, play, study, collaboration with the living and the dead, and all of those things are also what you find when you go down to the honkytonk. It can also be risky (the nightlife ain’t no good life) and I hope that I continue to experience a little whiff of something like danger when I’m writing. Or at least uncertainty.
Q: What do you see as the value to uncertainty? How does uncertainty present itself in your ongoing work?
A: I think what I mean is I feel on guard against settling into one way of writing, especially a way of writing I learn how to do well, that becomes familiar and easy to do. I don’t want to write the same poem five hundred times, even if it’s technically a “good poem.” I’m most satisfied when I write something that initially makes me feel queasy about sharing it with someone else.
Q: I’m curious about your work as an editor at Krupskaya. Has being an editor shifted the ways in which you approach your own writing?
A: Well, I should say first that long before I was an editor at Krupskaya, the press was legendary to me. As a really young poet in San Francisco at the end of the last century, Krupskaya offered me a universe. When Jocelyn (Saidenberg) and Kevin (Killian) published my second book, The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, I was constantly pinching myself to make sure it wasn't a dream. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I really had “grown up” reading those books and intuited that the press and authors offered me a new and powerful direction for life.
I don’t know how to trace how my editorial work with the press has caused shifts in my own writing, but I guess I can offer a couple of thoughts. Especially when we had open reading periods, working with the press gave me the chance to read so many writers who were new to me, several of whom have become real friends since encountering their work. And then I’ve been given the chance to become obsessed with the titles we’ve published, living with them for weeks and months and years, absorbing them into my RNA or whatever it is. That’s certainly had an impact on my internal cadence and attention, and I’m really grateful for that.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Ah of course there are too many to list. When I return time and time again to something it’s often to try and study something very particular to the artistry of the work, usually because I’m trying to figure out how to do something in my own. I return to books to borrow their mood, to put myself in a mood. And in general I try to be as catlike as possible in my life as a reader: I know there’s food somewhere on this floor and I will fucking find it if it takes all night. And sometimes of course the thing I can’t help returning to is something I haven’t even read yet. But in the spirit of wanting to answer your generous question, if I’m stuck, and I am often stuck, but if I am really stuck, I think of Bernadette Mayer as a source of immense permission, study, prompt, and play, and her work has been a buoy for me countless times.