I’m always excited to find a fresh voice, and that’s the case with Traci Brimhall. I’ve had her collection Our Lady of the Ruins (Norton) next to my desk for months, but it was running across her on Facebook that prompted me to ask her for an interview and re-visit the poems. And they are brilliant poems.
In addition to Our Lady of the Ruins, Traci is the author of Rookery, which was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Plus, she recently won the first ever Diode Editions chapbook contest for Bright Power, Dark Peace, which she co-wrote with Brynn Saito. Learn more about Traci Brimhall at her website.
Here’s a poem I especially enjoyed from Our Lady of the Ruins:
The Visitation, by Traci Brimhall
In the new dream, we search for a sacrifice,
put our fingers in our own wounds,
wake with our hands over each other’s mouths.
Boys return from war as men who know
two languages. We learn three so we will know
the message when we hear it. The street prophet
says, If God is your enemy, rejoice, for the darkness
remembers you. In the old dream, we readied
our stainless altar, but a wolf stole our offering.
We were lucky enough to sing the song once,
but we couldn’t bring the dead any joy. Men ask
to borrow our sadness so they won’t have to feel
their own. Yes, we say and kissed their arms. Yes, trees
cover us with shadows. We give the prophet money
to save something we’ll never see. In the first dream,
men accept a new ecstasy. Our breath shows itself
to us and disappears. As we enter the woods,
the astonished wolf lifts its mouth from the lamb.
What are you currently up to?
I’m currently working on a series of poems set in a small river town on the Amazon where mysterious things keep happening and everyone has a different explanation for the miracles and curses plaguing them.
The poems in Our Lady of the Ruins tell a larger story. Do you write poems as one-offs, or do you write with a collection in mind?
I feel like the poems cohered as I chose a final ordering for the book, though I didn’t write the poems with a certain structure or overarching narrative in mind. I knew all my poems were about a mid-apocalyptic wandering, but the nature of the poems ranged really widely as I wrote. I cut over a couple dozen poems from the final draft because they didn’t fit with the narrative that emerged through ordering.
You play with form throughout Our Lady of the Ruins, whether it’s “Hysteria: A Requiem” or the title poem. How much do you play with structure when writing and revising your poetry? Do you go through a similar process each time?
Most of my poems have some formal play, whether it’s immediately evident or not. I often create some sort of formal restraint on my work (sometimes before beginning, sometimes after I’ve finished a draft), because it helps me decide what images and bits of language are essential to a poem and what I should probably cut. I’m a hoarder in poems, and I need rules to keep from cluttering up what the poem is trying to say.
Your chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace recently won first place in Diode Editions chapbook competition. It’s also co-authored with Brynn Saito. How did the collaborative process work on that chapbook?
Before we began writing together, we created a lot of rules. It was really important to me that we contribute equally and that one of us didn’t feel unrepresented or drowned out in the poems. One person opened the poem and set the structure (couplets, tercets, etc.), and the next person wrote the next stanza and passed it back. The person who began the poem also ended it, and since that person had a greater amount of creative control in that way, the other person got to edit it once it was done. Working out a balance of powers between friends is not something I’ve ever had to do before, but having boundaries seemed even more important because we’re such good friends.
Your collections have won several awards. Do you submit exclusively to contests for your collections?
When I started submitting my first collection, I wasn’t very aware of open reading periods and most of the books I read seemed to be contest winners. I submitted to a couple of open reading periods for my second book, but I heard back from a contest before I heard back from them.
Your best poetry moment—what is it?
There are lots of moments, I think. I’m grateful to the poems I’ve read by strangers and the dead that gave me clarity about myself and the world. I’m grateful to the poems I’ve been able to write that seemed to be smarter than I am. I’m grateful for all the things poetry has brought to my life, from travel to good conversations to the greatest friends a person could hope for.
Finish this statement: I think poetry should _____________.
Be read aloud in bed.
Who (or what) are you currently reading?
Coming of age narratives in graphic novels. The last one I finished was called Epileptic by David B.
If you could only pass on one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?
Just in case there are other poets like me out there who started writing because they loved it and then grew to judge themselves harshly every time they wrote because what they wrote wasn’t as good as they wished it was, I would say that every time you want to get mad at yourself or give up on writing, love it harder. Poetry has always given me way more than I could give it, and I believe it can do that for everyone.
Thank you for participating, Traci!
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