The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Dan Brady
Dan Brady’s first full-length collection of poetry, Strange Children, was recently issued by Publishing Genius. He has also published two chapbooks, Cabin Fever / Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press). Brady’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Apt, Big Lucks, Sink Review, and So & So Magazine among others. He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two kids.
1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?
I started writing poetry in high school, I think to help process difficult emotions. I had been a big reader, including poetry, beginning in freshman year and I remember the first time I wrote a poem was when my sister and her boyfriend were leaving for college at separate schools. It just seemed so sad that they’d have to be apart when the clearly wanted to be together. What I wrote was terrible. I remember looking at it a few years ago and I’m pretty sure it was a rip off of a cheesy Elvis song or something. That bad.
Ultimately, I still write for the same reason. There are lots of times I try to challenge myself to write a certain way, to capture a specific idea or a new way that language can move, but underneath all that is still the drive to write to understand myself and the world around me. That’s what comes out and that’s what I need.
2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?
I think the best piece of advice came from Steve Almond who said “set the bar a little lower” during his keynote at Barrelhouse’s Conversations & Connections in 2011. He was talking about the expectations we have for how our work exists in the world and maybe, just maybe being a little kinder to ourselves. You can read the whole thing, which is loaded with great advice here. Sueyeun Juliette Lee also has an interesting take on the life of a poem. She says some poems are just to be shared with those we love. Other poems belong in magazines. Some poems belong in books. We need to be able to discern what the life of a poem should be. All those potential lives are good—after all, which really has a greater impact, sharing a deeply personal poem that has meaning for that friend or spouse, or publishing a poem in a literary journal?—but it can be hard to accept that our own favorite poems may really be the ones that want small, private lives.
A practical application of the “set the bar a little lower” concept came from my good friend, the tremendous poet Tony Mancus, who taught me that I don’t have to tie myself to a chair to write. Tony suggested giving yourself 15 minutes. If something comes, go with it and write as long as it takes. If nothing is working, walk away and do something else. Try again later or the next day. I’ve gotten some of my best poems by simply trying for 15 minutes and seeing what happens. “To begin, begin,” as Wordsworth said.
3. How did your new book come into being?
I didn’t set out to write a book like Strange Children. I had been working on a few other manuscripts (which currently sit on my hard drive not doing much) and the poems in Strange Children where the more personal poems that I wrote in-between other things.
The book traces my experience of my wife’s stroke at the age of 27, just days after our son was born, the anxiety that comes with something like that, being told not to have any more kids, and our decision to grow our family through adoption. This was the life stuff I was going through so of course it showed up on the page.
I started writing these poems in 2009. Publishing the long poem “Stroke Diary” in apt in 2016 made me realize that there might be enough here to pull together into a collection. That was the crystalizing moment.
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?
Not from this book, but I’ve invented a new form that I’d love to see other people experiment with. It’s a modified erasure form; a kind of self-erasure sequence. First, write a paragraph of prose about anything you want. Next scan through the text and try to erase it down to a single sentence or phrase. The erased text becomes your first page and the full prose paragraph becomes your last page. Now see if you can add bit by bit to create a sequence that builds across several pages/iterations between the initial phrase to the complete text. An example of this can been seen in the poem “Anthropocene” at Always Crashing.
Another different example is the poem “How Love Starts Sometimes” at Sink Review. In that case, the last seven lines of the poem are the initial text block. Everything else was erased and added to and then set as a regular poem from there.
It’s a bit mindboggling and crazy-making, but it’s also freeing to see the language within language and how you can mess with meaning. What I like about this technique and erasure more generally is that you’re not really starting from scratch. It’s a bit like coloring. There is already a picture there, but you choose which elements stand out in the brightest colors. You can stay in the lines provided or make a mess of it. It’s up to you.