B r a d R o s e
Democracy of Secrets
we have questions
for Brad Rose
with Laura M. Kaminski, Associate Editor,
Right Hand Pointing
Laura M. Kaminski: What is the shortest poem you've ever written? What is the longest?
Brad Rose: The shortest poems I’ve written are about six words long, of which “Democracy of Secrets” is an example. The longest poem I’ve written is, “Some Assembly Required,” which is 4 pages long and appears at the Commonline Journal. “Some Assembly Required” is a poem that intersperses product assembly instructions from various consumer products, with lines from the first book of Genesis. It’s kind of Ikea-meets-the-Bible. One of the first one-sentence poems I wrote is "Titanic," which appeared at sleetmagazine.com a few years ago. Although "Titanic" is one-sentence long, it’s composed of 160 words. By the way, when I’ve been asked why I like the short form, I’ve pointed out that some people like golf; others prefer miniature golf.
Could you speak a bit about your short-work process? Do you write something longer first and then strip it to the bones, or wait until you've essentially completed it in your mind before putting it to paper?
While I always edit my poems and micro-fiction—indeed, I spend a lot of time editing and revising—I seldom pare down a longer work to make it a substantially shorter work. My writing is by first reflex, concise and stark. I tend to write from “the ground up,” by which I mean I start with the first line or two, and go stumbling forward from there. (Although I will occasionally start with the last line and work backwards.) I wish I could say that I was able to mull over a complete poem in my mind, then sit down and write it out, but my writing doesn’t seem to happen that way. I have to write for a while, before I know what it is I want to say. I recently read a sage observation by Madeleine LeCense, an 18 year-old from New Orleans, and one of this year's National Student Poets, who describes poetry as "the art of getting lost. Getting lost and going along with it, being okay with not knowing where you're going."I think this beautifully describes my approach to, and experience of, writing—both poetry and short fiction. Derek Walcot made a similar observation, when he said, "If you know what you are going to write when you're writing a poem, it's going to be average."
When I begin a poem or short fiction piece, I start with the language (a few sentences, or phrases that I’ve collected in a notebook) and precipitously begin writing. I later find out what the poem or story “means” and where it will take me, as it unfolds before me. I saw an interview with Junot Diaz, which was conducted in 2008. He observed about writing, “If you are not lost, then you are at a place somebody’s already found. If you feel familiar and you feel comfortable you are in mapped territory. What’s the use of being in mapped territory?” I agree.
When I started, or should I say, re-started, writing poems and fiction, in 2006, after a thirty-year hiatus from creative writing, I became a member of a short fiction web-based community, called Six Sentences (which is now defunct.) Six Sentences asked contributors to write whatever they liked, but also asked that they restrict the length of their work to no more than six sentences. Over a three- to four-year period I wrote about 600 short, short fiction pieces. I also began a novella, Lola Loves Richard, which remains to be finished. Lola Loves Richard was written in six-sentence mini-chapters. Writing in these very abbreviated formats was wonderful practice for what would later become my habit of writing short fiction and poetry.
I’m now a member of another community run by Mike Handley, which is called “House of Writers.” There, one can write fiction pieces of 10 sentences, or less. One of the attractive features of “House of Writers” is that Mike selects visual prompts that you can choose to write in response to. He has a wonderful eye for provocative art and photos, and I find these really help me to imagine a range of characters and situations that become short fiction pieces. I’ve published a few of these in online and print journals. My favorite is called “Naked to the Waist,” which appears at Cease, Cows. It was written in response to an oil painting by the magnificent Texas artist, Teresa Elliot. You can see the painting and read the unbelievably short fiction piece (eight sentences) here.
How much time, proportionally, do you spend reading to writing? How much of your reading is in the same genres as which you write? What part of your overall reading is of online journals?
This is both an excellent and difficult question. I read quite a bit, and I read a lot of different kinds of material. I’ve always been a diverse reader. I read a lot of non-fiction, which I feel somewhat guilty to admit. I read quite a bit of science, psychology, sociology, political theory, neuroscience, and philosophy. (I’m a sociologist by training and profession.) Over the last decade, I’ve made it a point to read a lot of writers I was unaware of when I was younger (or who weren’t then writing). Probably the best way to address this question however, is to mention some of the books I’m currently reading: Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines; Fernando Pessoa’s A Little Larger than the Entire Universe (Selected Poems); Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham’s An Introduction to the Prose Poem; Daniil Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing (Selected Writings); and Alan Ziegler’s anthology of short prose and poetry, Short. I’m also reading John Elster, who is a social scientist, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. I’m waiting for John Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway, to arrive.
I prefer to read three-dimensional books (or as a New Yorker cartoon once put it, “books on paper”), but much of my reading is done online. My online reading is pretty desultory. I’m on some listserves and subscribe to Facebook pages of poets. For example, Ron Silliman’s website and Facebook posts are always instructive and extremely helpful, as I try to deepen my understanding of the poetry universe. I highly recommend that folks take a look at his blog. Also, the Academy of American Poets’ Facebook feed and daily e-mails, are marvelous.
Of course, I read a range of small on-line journals, especially ones, like Right Hand Pointing and One Sentence Poems, which have been so kind as to publish my stuff. I subscribe to some YouTube poetry feeds, like SpokenVerse, which allow me to hear a multitude of classic poems, some read by their authors. Spoken Verse is a wonderful and extensive archive of poetry. .
Based on your experiences with writing, editing, and publication, if you could offer one piece of advice to writers, what would that be? What advice might you offer to editors?
Only half in jest do I highly recommend that writers make it a point to be paired with a wealthy, or, at the very least, steadily employed, partner/significant other/spouse. And one who is supportive of the writer’s work. I’ve been immensely fortunate to have a wife who, although not an artist herself, is hugely supportive of my avocation as a writer. My daughter, Hannah, is also a huge support to me. She is the designer of the covers of my new book, Pink X-Ray, from Big Table Publishers, and she often suggests a line or topic that I steal to use in one of my poems or stories.
I would also counsel writers to persevere with the submissions process. If you get a rejection, don’t hesitate to first do a little research to find a more fitting home for your work, and then by all means, submitting to additional journals. It helps to depersonalize the process, and to think of it as an often protracted effort to find the “just right” home for your piece. Rejections, of which I have probably had nearly a thousand, are an integral part of the process of getting published. I also keep an Excel file of all of my submissions, so that I can keep track of them, and avoid re-submitting the same piece to the same journal.
I’m not sure about the advice I’d give to editors. I’ve been lucky, and most editors I’ve encountered have been either very kind to me regarding my submissions, or at least, have been civil in their rejections. Editing is a difficult task, and I respect (although I can only imagine) the sacrifices and herculean efforts that editors make in order to produce print and online journals. Again, when I receive a rejection from a journal, I try to imagine an overworked volunteer sifting through hundreds and hundreds of submissions in order to select just a few pieces.
What trend(s) in the world of contemporary poetry do you find exciting? Any nostalgia for trends vanished or fading?
Regrettably, I don’t feel like I’m sufficiently qualified or informed about what feels like a vast and complex universe of poetry, to be able to comment on contemporary trends and developments. Although I’ve published a fair amount over the last years, I still feel like an entire novice exploring the many worlds of poetry, and regrettably have only a faint impression of the different corners of the poetry universe. I’m always trying to learn about the traditions that have informed my work, but these have often been largely unconscious to me, for better or worse. I believe that I work within a pretty modernist ambit. I like concision, strong juxtapositions of images, the use of colloquial, but re-contextualized, speech. (I’m reminded of something that Ry Cooder said, “I like beautiful things, and things that are tough and serious,”) I continually console myself with Wallace Stevens’ observation that, “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.” I hope that is true.
Thinking back to the first time you ever had a poem published—have your personal tastes and reasons for writing changed significantly since then? If you had written that first published poem today, is it something you would still submit?
My style and tastes have changed over the last few years. As I mentioned earlier, I think of myself as primarily a modernist—although I realize that designation is a pretty big tent. Until about two years ago, I wrote mostly lyrical and narrative, free verse, poems, and was strongly committed to a kind of plain speech “realism.” I wrote (and still do, although in a different vein) about themes of love, loyalty, sex, death, betrayal—you know, all the “usual suspects.” About two years ago, however, I found myself moving toward a more surreal, prose poetry, which felt in some ways much freer and less constraining than my earlier lineated poetry. My recent prose poems are character-driven, surreal, but accessible, and compel the reader to ask questions, like “Who is this speaker/narrator?” and “What can I learn from her/his implicit struggles, aspirations, defeats, and possibilities?” Many of these poems feature a speaker/narrator who is operating on the outer edge of rationality and clear thinking, but who hasn’t quite stepped over that edge. Not quite.
To give you a sense of what animates these recent prose poems, I’ll quote a letter I wrote to a friend, in which I tried to explain my new focus and thematic concerns. “I’m interested in people, in their inner lives, what makes them tick. I’m interested in their questions, their fears, what they love to do, what they think, what they are afraid to think, afraid to admit to themselves. I’m curious about what they’re curious about. I’m interested in what they are uninterested in. I like the details. I’ve been interested in what’s inside individual people, inside characters. I’m interested in what makes them brave, what they’re hiding from, what their wives and husbands would say is their mate’s most admirable strength, most loathsome foible. Basically I’m interested in peoples’ minds, their psyche’s, and yes, their souls.” I’ve found the prose poem form most conducive to exploring their speakers’/narrators’ inner lives.
To address the other part of your question—about my attitude toward my first published poem—I think I’m pretty shameless. The first poem I published, “Roundhouse,” which appeared thirty-five years ago was based on my experience working as a railway worker for Southern Pacific Railroad. It wasn’t a great poem, but it was OK. I like to think it was authentic, and I’d be happy to consider its re-publication today. (It appeared in a small political magazine which still exists, so I might actually be able to find a copy of the issue in which it appeared.) More recently, about 2007, after I returned from a thirty-year hiatus from creative writing, I published a second “first” poem, called “Clown Car” in a small print journal based in New Jersey. I would be happy to republish that poem, although it too, was not Pulitzer Prize material. In fact, come to think of it, I did republish it in an online journal that accepted previously published work. You can see it here. I guess when it comes to re-publishing my early work, I AM shameless.