by Russell Bittner
Interview with Bradley Paul
December is a good month to curl up with something warm. Who better to curl up with than with Bradley Paul? Or if not with Bradley directly, then at least with his poetry.
My introduction to Bradley came indirectly via the Academy of American Poets. The Academy, as I’m sure you already know, publishes a thing on the ‘Net called Poem-A-Day. I found Bradley’s piece (“Anybody Can Write a Poem”) on May 16th and sent him an e-mail of congrats. Why congrats? Because, in my all-too-humble opinion, most of what the Academy chooses to publish at Poem-A-Day is rubbish. Caveat lector: de gustibus, non est disputandum. Bradley’s piece—which I’ve reproduced with his kind permission just below—was not.
But, as always, proper introductions are first in order. And so, to Bradley’s bio:
RRB: Bradley, when we first exchanged e-mails about “Anybody Can Write a Poem,” you told me you hadn’t even known about the publication until a friend informed you it was up at Poets.org. I found this rather surprising. I mean, it’s quite flattering to have a piece published by the Academy. But that no one would inform you beforehand? Odd….
BOP: It’s kind of funny: One day I got a bunch of Facebook friend requests by people who’d received the poem through the “Poem A Day” mailing. I was like, “huh?” But whatever—I’m thrilled it’s up there! AWP and the University of Pittsburgh Press have so far been extremely communicative and great to work with, and they considered and used my input very seriously during the publication process. It’s important to point this out and give credit where credit’s due, because many times I’ve been on the other side of the coin, where a journal or other publisher accepts your work and does little or nothing to promote it, or isn’t interested in your input.
Once upon a time, I might’ve affected a pseudo-punk “I don’t care who reads it—it’s about the poetry, man, not the audience.” But that’s not true any longer—at least not for me. You don’t become a writer because you want to be ignored. All poets experience “the great silence” upon sending their work out into the world, and it sucks. The joke I often make about my first book is “It never got a bad review!” One day, I was Googling my own name (let s/he who is without sin post the first catty blog comment!) and I found a copy of my first book on a used-book site. So I went to check it out, and under “Condition” it was described as… “Unread.” Ouch! So if a poem of mine is up on a site where a lot of people will see it, I’m very thankful.
RRB: All of this, Bradley, is quite amusing—and I thank you for your candor. It’s also useful to our readers, I believe, to understand that even published poets know “the great silence.” Two of my favorite quotes are from Don Marquis and Richard Ford, respectively: "Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo." (Marquis); and "It is no loss to mankind when one writer decides to call it a day. When a tree falls in the forest, who cares but the monkeys?” (Ford).
In the opening paragraphs of a short story I wrote several years ago, I suggested (on behalf of my poor protagonist) that “life is a competition for attention.” Not a very poetic sentiment, I know, but unfortunately all too real.
And speaking of “competition” and “attention,” it was your piece at Poem-A-Day that first got mine—then ultimately got us together. And so, let’s now turn our attention to it, then let you give us some of the background to what moved you to write it in the first place.
BOP: Two things motivated me to write the poem. First, the circumstance I described in the poem is real. I actually was arguing with someone online about this topic; the person in question was making the claim that nothing can stop you if you really want to write a poem. It’s a ludicrous suggestion—poetry is speech, and many things can keep a person from speaking even if they want to: shame, fear, inability. And this person really did make the claim that he would keep writing even if someone chopped off his hands. How irrelevant! One might type or physically write a poem with one’s hands, but of course the poem comes from somewhere else. “If you can’t speak, it’s just because you don’t really want to speak.” This is somewhat akin to telling a paralyzed person that he can’t walk because he just doesn’t want to badly enough. Your voice, your brain, your heart—these, too, can be paralyzed.
The second thing that motivated me to write this poem—as well as most of the poems in my second book—is the death of my mother, in 2006, from pancreatic cancer. (My grandmother, who also helped raise me, and whom I most resemble in personality, died just three months after my mother. Many of the poems in the book deal with her death as well, and the combined weight of two deaths so close together.) Grief, guilt, confusion—all the usual death stuff. But this certainly altered my aesthetic. While I fear being prosaic, I found I could no longer write as hermetically and ironically as I had in my first book. There are obvious overlaps between the two books in voice and technique, but the poems in this second book are more clear in the ways they describe events and emotions. To write more abstractly—or with more such focus on tonal shifts or image narratives or what have you—seemed a bit false. It’s essentially the experience Wordsworth described: an undue emphasis on artifice is lost because “a deep distress” humanizes your soul. Perhaps I’m being unfair to the earlier poems—there is emotion there; they’re not just intellectualized playthings. But the emotional or personal content in them is often obscured by surrealism or linguistic play.
Maybe that’s all just a fancy way of saying that, as your life goes on, you get more sincere and have less patience with irony.
RRB: Yes, Bradley, I think it’s fair to say that as life goes on, the game gets more serious. The death of a grandparent or of a parent is pretty serious stuff if you had a meaningful relationship with either one (or with both). At that point, irony—never mind wordplay—necessarily takes a back seat.
And yet, poetry is wordplay. Poetry is a conscious manipulation of words for effect. To pull another favorite quote out of my hat: "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic." Let’s consider Oscar Wilde’s conviction as we look at your next piece.
“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”
My best friend in Texas is a rock named Big Boy. I estimate his weight at nine hundred pounds. His ore is green, and in the rain greener still. The rosemary about his base is green as well.
A grackle lands on Big Boy. Not the Common North American Grackle but the Mexican Great Tailed. “Shoot me with your BB gun,” he says.
BOP: There are different types of obviousness. I think the primary narrative of this poem is pretty clear: there’s a rock; a bird lands on it and asks the speaker to shoot it with a BB gun; the speaker declines.
But is that it? The emotional content of the poem isn’t as obvious as in the first poem we discussed. While I guess one could argue that the grackle is metaphorical, I don’t think of it that way (and I certainly don’t see it as “symbolic”). Instead, my hope for the poem is that it comes from a metaphorical origin, or from a metaphorical state of mind, and that it makes some connection with the reader at an intuitive level. Maybe this is the objective of all poems: that an inherently verbal thing has, to some extent, a non-verbal meaning. Though it’s something of a workshop cliché, it’s true: you have to trust your subconscious. As far as what this poem ultimately means, I have a feeling about it, but I’m not sure I can summarize that meaning neatly. This may seem like a cop-out, and many poor writers use their resistance to meaning as an excuse for the inability to be clear. At any rate, the poem feels—to me at least—simultaneously obvious and obscure. Whether that’s effective or not is for the reader to decide.
You’re right, though. Poetry is wordplay; it is artifice. So I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve abandoned such things, or that I no longer indulge in irony or surrealism; it’s just a matter of degree. My recent work overall is just less surreal.
RRB: You say, Bradley, that your own poem feels to you both “obvious and obscure.” This troubles me a bit. If the purpose of poetry is to communicate clearly, obscurity, abstruseness, la-dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah have no place in it. ‘Ambiguity’ has a place in it, but only if that ambiguity is quite intentional. Some of the best literature I’ve ever read uses ambiguity—intentionally—to force the reader to consider at least two alternatives. But if a poet is unintentionally ambiguous or obscure, I have to wonder…too many drugs?
Here’s another one of my favorite quotes from Oscar Wilde would seem to support my argument: "I spent the morning putting a comma in. Then I spent the afternoon taking it back out again."
Allowing for a bit of hyperbole here, we can assume that what Wilde was getting at is the poet’s need to pay very close attention to every word—dare I say, every mark of punctuation?—(s)he uses.
I read a quote just this evening in a press release from the interim CEO of Borders, Mike Edwards:
Now mind you, this is from the guy who runs a chain of bookstores. He’s a businessman. But—one would like to assume—a businessman with an ear for language.
I dare say the Tin Man had a better ear—and more of a heart.
Let’s move on to “Healing Mass” and let you continue the discussion in light of that poem if you feel so inclined.
BOP: I have to disagree to some extent; obscurity does have a place in poetry, if artfully done (always the big “if”). One could argue that a certain level of obscurity demands a place in poetry, or at least that uncertainty is often a necessity in the writing of a poem. The poem frequently has a mind of its own, and part of the trick of writing is learning to listen to it. (As Paul Éluard said, “the images think for me.”)
But even clear poems have a certain level of obscurity and/or unintended meaning. Thomas Hardy once conceded there’s an entire level of meaning in any writer’s work that can’t immediately be seen, and that the writer didn’t intend, yet I don’t think anyone would characterize him as an esoteric writer.
There’s a continuum, of course. Not all poets should, for example, be Paul Célan. He’s great, but his evasiveness in the hands of a lesser poet would be nothing less than baffling. And there are also plenty of bad poets who use “obscurity” as an excuse for bad writing. By contrast, there are some poems or poets whose meaning is never in doubt, and there’s nothing beyond what is immediately intended. These, to me, are often the most boring poets.
I think these comments are an interesting segue to discussing the poem above, because it’s so much about intent and concreteness. Some back story: I no longer go to church, but one never really escapes the ghosts of an early religious indoctrination. I was taught that it was wrong ever to pray for any material thing. It was amazing to me, then, when I first went to Mexico and saw the little wooden crosses that had milagros nailed to them—little tin cut-outs that represented the thing you were praying for. A heart—because you were praying for help with your heart condition. Eyes—because you were blind. But also, a pig or a chicken—so that your animals would be healthy and fertile, and you could profit from them. Or a car—because you needed a car. Seemingly small trinkets, but they left an indelible impression. So much of prayer and poetry is about big-theme stuff like “grace” or “forgiveness”—which is fine. But those big themes are only part of the story. There’s a material side to existence, too. As obvious as that statement might seem, seeing it portrayed in such a clear and sincere way was a shock to me. At first, I thought my poem might be a kind of anti-poetry (in the Nicanor Parra sense) or anti-prayer—but, really, maybe it’s just anti-abstraction.
I realize that those last comments might totally contradict the statements just above them. That’s okay—thanks to Walt Whitman, we can all accept that we’re vast and contain multitudes!
RRB: Ha! Saved by a quote from Whitman! How quickly and easily you wriggle off the hook!
In any case, this strikes me as a topic one could debate for hours on end—provided, of course, one had an unending supply of one’s favorite elixir. I think I’ll just settle in with mine and let you attempt to explain your way out of “El Siete Mares.” You might also deign to explain to us what is meant by “the Nicanor Parra sense,” as I, for one, haven’t the foggiest who he was or what his sense was.
BOP: Oh, Whitman has bailed me out many a time!
Nicanor Parra is a Chilean poet well known for his concept of “anti-poetry”—in other words, poetry that rejected frills, excessive abstraction or sound effects, and so on. His poems are frequently so direct and unsentimental, they can be abrasive (for example, his poem “The Viper”). He was generally hostile to over-poeticizing things I admire, though I know I’m guilty of over-poeticizing at times. But aren’t we all?
The problems of abstraction and concreteness come up again in this final poem. All of us who aren’t vegans get a little mercy from the fact that the meat we eat doesn’t look like the animal we killed to get it. There’s a process of abstraction going on: the cow (who, with her baleful eyes and her smell of manure, is pretty concrete) becomes a hamburger (nice and round and contained on a bun, and named for a pretty city in Germany.) TV cooking shows judge on “presentation”—i. e., how well the food uses geometric shapes and appealing color balances (which, by the way, are criteria typically reserved for painting).
And then one day, I ate at El Siete Mares, a family-owned place down on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and the scene described above took place. My wife grew up in Tennessee, and “fried catfish” there means a filet of catfish, breaded and fried in oil. The final product doesn’t even look like a fish. But the “fried catfish” at El Siete Mares is quite literally a catfish “thrown whole into oil.” When it’s brought out, it has a horrifying look on its face. The abstraction is gone; there’s no illusion that you’re eating something other than an animal that was alive a few minutes earlier and was then fried to death. It’s not a totally new experience—I grew up in Baltimore, so I’ve watched my fair share of live blue crabs go into a pot and come out a few minutes later with their eyes still in place, only red and covered in Old Bay (hell for them; heaven for me). In this instance, however, I think I was expecting one thing, while another, more scary thing arrived on my plate. Out of that jarring experience came this poem. Maybe that’s where all poems come from.
RRB: Could be, could be. The stuff of poetry is often just trivia—which someone with a poetic temperament is willing and able to look at (and has the leisure to wax lyrical about). One can always find a pearl in an oyster. We just have to find the right oyster.
And with that, Bradley, I want to thank you for your participation in this interview. It’s been a pleasure!
BOP: Thanks so much, Russell.
* me (by Keri Paul)
“Anybody Can Write a Poem”
I am arguing with an idiot online.
He says anybody can write a poem.
I say some people are afraid to speak.
I say some people are ashamed to speak.
If they said the pronoun “I”
they would find themselves floating
in the black Atlantic
and a woman would swim by, completely
dry, in a rose chiffon shirt,
until the ashamed person says her name
and the woman becomes wet and drowns
and her face turns to flayed ragged pulp,
white in the black water.
He says that he’d still write
even if someone cut off both his hands.
As if it were the hands that make a poem,
I say. I say what if someone cut out
whatever brain or gut or loin or heart
that lets you say hey, over here, listen,
I have something to tell you all,
As an example I mention my mother
who loved that I write poems
and am such a wonderful genius.
And then I delete the comment
because my mother wanted no part of this or any
argument, because “Who am I
to say whatever?”
Once on a grade school form
I entered her job as hairwasher.
She saw the form and was embarrassed and mad.
“You should have put receptionist.”
But she didn’t change it.
The last word she ever said was No.
And now here she is in my poem,
so proud of her idiot son,
who presumes to speak for a woman
who wants to tell him to shut up, but can’t.