Cobalt’s first issue included four poems by Brian Russell, who – in a sense – became the first “featured poet” of our small literary publication. Jill Williams, our poetry editor, had a chance to chat with Brian about the work he contributed. Read on, good people.
Cobalt: Talk about how you get inspired to write/what inspires you in general.
Brian Russell: The easy and perhaps not entirely original answer is that my inspiration for poems comes from everywhere. Whatever I happen to be reading at the time, lyrics of songs, TV shows, people I see and conversations I overhear on the subway, particular images that strike me and stick with me, phrases that suddenly materialize in my head—they all tend to find their way into my work. Though, my relationship with “inspiration” has changed recently. For most of my writing life, I’ve waited for inspiration to come to me. When I was pursuing my MFA at Houston, it wasn’t uncommon for me to write six or seven poems in a couple days then nothing for a month or more. Over the past year or so, I’ve approached things differently, knocking on the Muse’s door, so to speak. The poems I wrote in Houston, which make up the majority of my first manuscript, were beginning to feel foreign to me. I went through a bit of an existential crisis in which I decided there was nothing more I could do for those poems (I’ve since overcome the melodrama), and I set out to create something new (for me), something very different from what I had written before. I gave myself 6 months to produce 90 poems, from which I would begin to craft a new manuscript that reflected and represented my changing tastes, sensibility. 90 poems in 6 months translates to producing a poem every other day. So, in that sense, inspiration either went out the window or else I forced myself into a heightened awareness of it. I didn’t have time to think or time to consider what’s worthy of becoming a poem; I had to keep writing or I’d fall behind. The poems included in Cobalt (and thanks again for including them) were written during this time.
Cobalt: Tell us about any specific inspiration stories for the poems we published in Cobalt.
Russell: As I said above, I’m basically inspired by whatever’s in front of me at the moment. When I wrote these poems, I tried to write from the moment of inspiration without allowing contemplation or meditation to enter the equation (I tried to leave that for the re-writing). The poems in the first issue of Cobalt are probably a good example of that. “Awash” was written not long after I read Jonathan Franzen’s article, “Farther Away,” from the April 18 issue of the New Yorker, which describes his trip to a remote South Pacific island and also explores the death of David Foster Wallace. Neither of those things is especially important to the poem itself, but the article served as a springboard for thinking about isolation and self-sufficiency.
“No One in Particular” follows a similar path. The italicized lines are taken from Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments, which argues a particular relationship between economics and politics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I was struggling to make sense of the book at the time and that sentence simply caught my attention. I typed it up and began to form a poem around it. In the end, the poem only responds to the book to the degree that the speaker dismisses years of careful, critical study and analysis of Western capitalism by invoking his own fear of death. To me, the speaker takes the easy way out, but given the situation, I’m not sure what else I would expect of him.
My guess is that my own path from original inspiration to “finished” poem is probably not so dissimilar from most writers. We take what we need from the world and leave the rest behind.
Cobalt: Talk about what it feels like for you to be a poet, how does it shape your life and/or shape who you are and how you walk through the world.
Russell: I wrote my first poem when I was six or seven (I still remember the first couple lines, unfortunately). By high school I was already prematurely and somewhat pretentiously considering myself a poet. So it’s difficult to separate what it feels like to be a poet and to simply be. I see the two as inextricably linked. I’m not sure what I would be if not a poet. Again, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way. Though, what it means to be a poet is something I find interesting. Whenever someone asks what I do, I’m left with two options: I can either tell them what I do for a job, which does not involve poetry in any way, and simply describes how I spend most my time (which I guess begs other questions); or, I can tell them I’m a poet, which I feel more accurately describes “who I am,” but inevitably results in the person repeating the question. “Oh, interesting. So what do you do, then?” I think most people understandably link who they are with how they make money, how they spend the majority of their days. Poets certainly don’t have that problem. I, for one, have always found this liberating. No matter what I’m doing, I’m still a poet. I don’t need angel investors to enable me to do what I love to do. To be a poet is, paradoxically, to undertake a very private and very public (in theory) endeavor. Nothing can stop me from writing. Except, I suppose, death.
Brian Russell holds an MFA from the University of Houston, where he served as poetry editor of Gulf Coast. His manuscript, Nights under Water, was a finalist for this year’s Miller Williams Prize (University of Arkansas Press) and Cleveland State First Book Prize. The poems included in this issue are from a new manuscript.