The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Antoinette Brim
Antoinette Brim’s newest book of poetry, These Women You Gave Me, has been published by Indolent Books. She is also the author of two previous collections, Icarus in Love, and Psalm of the Sunflower. Brim is a Cave Canem Foundation fellow, a recipient of the Walker Foundation Scholarship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut, Secretary of the Board of Directors of Indolent Arts Foundation based in New York City, and Board Member of OneWorld Progressive Institute.
1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?
When I was about six or seven, I read Langston Hughes’ poem Dreams. Something about that poem – its musicality, its seeming simplicity – captured me. Even at that age, I was an avid reader. But somehow, this was different from what I had been reading and though I didn’t really understand dreams (in the context of the poem), I knew that I needed to get some and to hold fast to them. Soon after experiencing this poem, I sought out other poems and ‘discovered’ Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Bean Eaters. I began writing poems shortly thereafter.
I often say that if I am not sure of what I think or believe, I go the page. Somehow, sorting out language helps me to organize facts, feelings, and alternate ideas. By the time the poem is finished, I have a more complete grasp of where I stand. Sometimes, I find that there is no definitive answer, just a range of possibilities with an over arcing theme. This is what happened when I wrote Icarus in Love, an exploration of love in its various incarnations.
After having written for so many years, I think in metaphor. My ear is alert to the musicality of everyday conversation. I study most every shade of color, the movement of shadows, and my every twinge of emotion. Everything is a poem – or could be – but, most probably should be.
2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?
When I first began workshopping my poems, sometimes my classmates struggled with them. For example, if I was writing about race, I would hear my classmates stumble through the poem misunderstanding the vernacular, misjudging the poem’s intent, or sitting in uncomfortable silence. While the workshop process sometimes yielded good feedback, I often felt that I should avoid certain content. These two pieces of advice freed me. First, my mentor David Clewell told us that we write for the careful reader. So, I stopped “explaining” the metaphors in my poems and began trusting my readers. It also changed how I read. I took time to research words and their uses. I didn’t just read poems, I studied them. I asked questions of the poems and was delighted when, in time, they revealed themselves to me. The other piece of advice was that the poem will find its place. I write, and then, send my poems into the world. I trust that they will find those careful readers. I trust my will contribute to the larger discussion, whatever their content.
3. How did your new book come into being?
These Women You Gave Me is in three voices: Lilith (Adam’s first wife), Eve, and the Garden of Eden. Only the women speak, as they tell their side of the stories we have been taught through a patriarchal narrative. For instance, in Lilith’s story, she explains why she did not submit to Adam. She laments the cost of speaking the Ineffable Name of God, but challenges the fairness of being left out of the plan of redemption. Eve muses about her part in the fall of humanity, and her submission to the plan of redemption. The Garden of Eden serves as a Greek Chorus of sorts, giving wisdom and defending the women.
Responding to these ancient texts was a challenge for me. They are sacred. And, the stories they tell are sacred. From the time I was a girl, I learned they are not to be added to or taken away from. Subsequently, there were times when I could barely breathe as I wrote. But, I knew that the way women see themselves and the way men see women are in rooted in these foundational texts. We are Lilith – brash, demonic, seducers. We are fallen Eve. The way we understand these narratives need to be challenged. The way we see women needs to be challenged. This what I do in this book.
4. Is there a generative prompt, practice or ritual that you find particularly helpful, or that you would recommend to students, friends, or other poets?
Free Write X 3:
1. Free Write: Choose one of your selfies. Describe the image. This is an exercise in creating imagery. Try to evoke all five senses.
2. Free Write: Create a dialogue between two of your selfies. It can be about anything. Just put them in dialogue.
3. Free Write. Take a look at the myth of Narcissus. Now, borrowing language from your earlier Free Write(s), imagine the water is speaking to you, the narcissus flower. Here are some other ideas for working with the myth of Narcissus.
Imagine an aging narcissus lamenting its failing beauty.
Imagine the narcissus berating the Kardashians for stealing their neurosis.
Write a poem that comments on the narcissism of our time, i.e. beauty and body obsession, etc.