Interview: Brian Spears
Written by Tabitha Surface
Cobalt: As I was reading your book, “Witness in Exile”, I noticed that you use form frequently and don’t shy away from hard rhymes. Do you have any thoughts on their place, or their absence, in contemporary poetry?
Brian Spears: It seems to me that the world of contemporary poetry is defined as much by its variety, by its fractured nature, as anything. I see formal poetry in a number of journals as well in collections that come across my desk as poetry editor for The Rumpus, so I don’t find there to be a particular absence. What I tend to see in collections is a combination of forms – sonnets beside prose poems beside free verse lyrics beside some more experimental piece. There’s not so much of that in my book – the experimental stuff anyway – but I’m comfortable playing with forms if they work for me and abandoning them if they don’t. And I suspect lots of people writing today do the same thing.
Cobalt: You write about intensely personal subject matter both in your poetry and in essays for your blog and The Rumpus. When writers put the personal into their work, people often feel they know the individual which makes it acceptable to discuss the writer’s life, instead of the work, make assumptions about the missing pieces, and judge the author’s life choices. What are your feelings on those types of assumptions and how do you handle these situations when they arise?
Spears: It’s understandable that people do that, but it’s a really sloppy way of reading, whether you’re talking about poetry or essays or blog posts. I remember back in grad school being warned that all writers are liars, or that you should at least assume they are in their work. I don’t go that far, but I do assume that if a person is writing personal stuff, they’re holding something back, even if they don’t intend to. I mean, there’s no way to be objective about your own life, right? So there’s going to be some sort of filter in place.
On the rare occasions when someone makes that sort of assumption about me and I’m able to respond, I try to give more context. I don’t really care if someone makes a judgment about my life choices. I’ve been disowned by my parents because I left the church they’re still members of. What can a reader do to me that can top that?
Cobalt: When publishing your book you worked with a small press, Louisiana Literature Press, run by Southeastern Louisiana University. Could you talk a little bit about what that experience has been like and why you chose to publish with a small press.
Spears: Ha! I chose to publish with a small press because they would have me. I received my undergraduate degree from Southeastern Louisiana University, which meant I had a close relationship with the people at the press. I’d published a handful of poems in the journal Louisiana Literature (and had been rejected more than once as well), so I approached them with my book. I was frustrated with the contest model and was looking for other possible avenues to publish and they were interested.
Working with them has been terrific. Jack Bedell was very open to the way I wanted the book to look – he let my partner Amy Letter design the book cover, for example – and was really great about working with me on making sure it came out the way it did. He’s doing that on half a shoestring, by the way. There was some real concern that his budget, limited as it was, would disappear before the book made it to print.
The upside of working with a small press is that you get to really be hands-on. That’s the downside too, at least in terms of the amount of work you have to do, both putting it together and in selling it once it comes out. There was no money for a book tour or for advertising, so I had to hustle it. I made a nuisance of myself on Facebook and Twitter, I set up readings, I sent out review copies from my author hoard. But that’s the reality of today’s publishing model for the most part, especially for poetry. If you want to sell books, you have to sell them yourself.
Cobalt: As poetry editor at The Rumpus you’ve also recently published “The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology” which makes use of audio and video alongside selected pieces. Since I am woefully behind in technology (the book is only available for the iPad), I haven’t yet had a chance to see the book, but I’m excited by the integration. What kind of impact do you think technology and this multimedia approach to bookmaking will have on poetry?
Spears: It opens up all sorts of possibilities for experimentation, and I’m as excited as anyone to see where it will go. I’m especially excited about the multimedia side of things, because while it’s nice to be able to read poetry on an e-device (it’s actually easier on my eye than a paper book is at this point), there’s this huge chance to really expand the way we perceive poetry. Plenty of people are already doing poem/movies for example, or integrating animation into the work. This gives people the chance to access poetry in a whole new way.
It won’t be the only direction poetry goes, though. I think there’s been a renaissance in hand-made books and book art that’s another response to the problems with the current publishing model. And I suspect the printed poetry collection will continue for at least the near term. The contest model, much as I dislike it, does work from an economic standpoint.
Cobalt: As someone who operates on various levels in the writing world, how do you shift between these roles? Specifically, how does your treatment of poetry vary from being a reader, to being a poet, to being an editor?
Spears: Shifting is really hard. I haven’t really figured it out yet.
When I read for myself, I’m looking to be captured by a book, and if you want to know what captures me, check out the books I’ve selected for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club over the last year and a half. If you find a pattern, let me know.
I find that what I tend to be captured by as a reader is not what I tend to write myself, at least not lately. I’ve been tending toward more experimental stuff (for me). The manuscript I have out now is a series I did in 2010 built around the play-by-play of Cubs games mixed with found text from online and meat world sources. I did one for every game of the season that year, which completely destroyed my ability to listen to baseball games for all of last year. And I just recently started an erasure project I’m tentatively calling Founding Documents which digs into the Journals of the Continental Congress. We’ll see how that one goes.
I don’t really edit poetry other than my own. I solicit poems for The Rumpus, and I may make a suggestion here or there, but not often. Editing reviews–and we run over a hundred a year–is another matter. It’s been really helpful for me because I see tons of stuff I never would have heard of otherwise. There’s just so much being published that it’s impossible to keep up. I don’t read every book that we review, but I read a lot of them that I wouldn’t have even heard of if I didn’t do this.
Cobalt: Speaking of all of the different roles you play, you are also a parent and a writing educator. Do you feel that poetry is losing its place in today’s education? If so, what do you think is causing this?
Spears: I wonder how much of a place poetry has ever really had in today’s education? My memory of poetry in high school was being forced to memorize “All the World’s a Stage” as a freshman, learning about forms as a sophomore and reading American poets as a junior, and the only reason any of it really stuck was because that last teacher, Nancy McKee, wrote e.e. cummings’s “in just Spring” on the chalkboard from memory, and I thought “you can do that?” I was hooked.
I honestly don’t know how much, if any poetry is taught in high school classrooms, but I suspect that the people who are going to be hit by it are the ones who have teachers like I did, who throw something on the board in, I am convinced, a desperate attempt to connect with someone in the class.
About Brian: Brian Spears is the Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and Editor of “The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology”, a multimedia collection of poetry for the iPad. His first collection of poetry, “A Witness in Exile”, was published in 2011 by Louisiana Literature Press. He currently lives in Des Moines, IA, where he teaches at Drake University.