Tuesday, November 15, 2022

TtD supplement #228 : seven questions for Brenda Coultas

In the mid-90s, Brenda Coultas moved to New York City to work on the staff of the Poetry Project. Her poetry can be found in Bomb and the Brooklyn Rail. Her latest, The Writing of an Hour, an ars poetica, was published by Wesleyan University Press this spring.

Her poem “Fun House” appears in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Fun House.”

A: I wrote “Fun House” with my basic composition class and is based on one of Lewis Warsh’s non sequitur poems from Avenue of Escape, which are made of veiled and random sentences. My goal was to get students to experiment with surrealism and surprise and collage. It didn’t work, instead, it left them baffled!

The Kathy Acker reference was for surprise and because sometimes I like thinking about her, even if it was just a brief mention.

Q: How does this poem compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: Most of the work in The Writing of an Hour, is made of short narratives that build towards what I hope are transcendent (mind blowing) conclusions.

I like to have my senses realigned, for example, the section Cave, was written in Wyoming, where I was surrounded by iconic American western landscapes, Bald Eagles, buttes, antelope and log cabins. I had to find a way to approach that loaded iconography without feeding into a conservative narrative. So I wrote about how it made me feel rather than describe what I saw. For example, looking at a pair of magnificent bald eagles, I wrote “Hot tissue paper in the wind, like a flag was raised from the dirt and the flag of dirt had powerful feathers. At first it was like ice skating into a watery hole beneath the dirty flag roosting on serpent’s arms.”

For A Forest in Berlin, I was enchanted by that city and Robert Walser, even with my awareness of darkness at the edges.

Q: Is that a normal part of your compositional process, attempting to shape or discern a narrative utilizing surrounding materials?

A: No. The Marvelous Bones of Time contains two hybrid works, “The Lonely Cemetery” an experiment in the genre of the ghost story and included actual interviews with poets about paranormal encounters as well as an active investigation into events involving the Winchester house in California. And “The Abolition Journal,” an investigation into the Civil War border (Ohio River) that I grew up on. And in that work, I researched underground railroad activity, and visited alleged sites of underground railroad stations in Spencer county, Indiana, where Lincoln spent his boyhood, and directly across the river from Owensboro, Ky where Josiah Henson, the model for Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, escaped.

I had always heard about the Ohio (state) activity, but there is very little evidence in Southern Indiana for underground railroad stations, so I sought to find evidence of our better selves in the history of my county.

Q: How do poems, or even full-length manuscripts, normally begin for you? Do you seek to compose smaller pieces that might shape themselves together into something larger, or are you always seeking out the larger structure through small steps?

A: For The Writing of an Hour, I gathered poems that I had written separately, without an idea of how they might connect. The key to the book was the organization. I had help from my dear friend, the poet Kay Prevallet, who asked the book what it wanted to be.

For The Tatters, Wesleyan University Press as well, I began with pigeon feathers and street furniture. And it became elegy organically. My father had died as had my close friend, Brad Will, a hero squatter (rescued a cat from a squat as the wrecking ball was swinging), and indy media journalist. He was murdered in Oaxaco, Mexico While he was covering a teacher’s strike. Eleven teachers had already been killed, most likely by the same forces.

Q: With a handful of poetry collections published over the past twenty years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: I have moved away from the gothic and transgressive tendencies of my very early prose, like in my first book, Early Films (Rodent Press) where I wrote about the secrets of Southern Indiana. I needed to rip off the veil and show the reality that I lived as a working class young woman, dodging creeps and partying hard.

My friend, the visual artist Elana Herzog, talks about going beyond the obvious and that’s what I aim for when looking at something. And I see myself collaborating with visual artists in the future. Refreshing to get out of my poet’s headspace.

I am an incredibly slow writer, and that can be a frustration. I’ve been writing an essay for the past 8 weeks, and only have 1800 words, and I am stumbling with the last page. Arrgh.

Q: You might work, as you suggest, slow, but your work certainly covers vast distances. You mention Lewis Warsh; are there any writers or works in the back of your head as you write? What poets have triggered your attentions more recently?

A: Bernadette Mayor is a touchstone and guide. I even included her as a “spirit guide” (even though she is alive) in The Tatters. I mean, her spirit, her work and example as a dear friend helps sustain my practice. My mentors in their 70s, such as Anne Waldman and Cecilia Vicuna also inspire, and I am so happy for Cecilia’s success on the international level. Her show at the Guggenheim just closed, and last year she invited me to perform in Insectageddon, her residency on the High Line in NYC, that she used to highlight the extinction of insects. Knowing that in many ways, if one’s health and mind are nurtured, the best years are ahead.

I am in conversation with my peers. To name a few: Eleni Sikelianos, Julie Patton, Marcella Durand, Renee Gladman, Edwin Torres, Stacy Szymaszek, Lee Ann Brown, Hoa Nguyen, Sara Riggs, Tonya Foster, Peter Gizzi, Anselm Berrigan, CA Conrad, and many other dear ones.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Still interested and excited by Robert Walser, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, and other early to mid 20th century prose writers. Walser’s work continues to surface in translation, and time, along with recent biographies, has burnished their work.

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