Cobalt: We featured several of your poems in our first issue (September 2011), so let me start by saying thank you for helping us get off the ground two years ago.
What have you been up to over the past couple years?
Brian Russell: Thank you right back. Cobalt was the first magazine to take any poems from the book I had been working on that year. Best friends forever. The past couple years…well, I’ve gotten about 10 haircuts (approximate).
Cobalt: Oh, Brian, you’re being modest. Last year, your book, THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW (link) was selected for the Bakeless Poetry Prize. That’s a huge honor. Can you speak a little to your experience with the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and receiving this great award?
Russell: Thanks; it hasn’t ceased to be exciting to me since the day I got the call. I actually don’t have any experience with Bread Loaf, though I’m eager to go in August. I’ve never been to any writing conference/retreat, in fact. I’ve got a regular old office job which means I have a precious collection of vacation days that I have to use judiciously. I’ve been saving them up for close to a year now for Bread Loaf. They will be well-spent.
Cobalt: You also received your MFA from University of Houston. Is this how you landed the gig as safety for the Houston Texans? How do you balance life as a poet with the strenuous career of being a professional athlete?
Russell: It was purely coincidence. Prior to my time in Houston, when I was playing for the Seahawks and applying for MFA programs, I thought that I would have to choose between the obscure but meaningful world of professional football and the lucrative but potentially dangerous world of poetry. Thankfully I didn’t have to make that choice.
Seriously though, when I was in the program at Houston, we used to play pick-up football in the park on weekends, poetry vs. fiction. Poetry always won, obviously.
Cobalt: While you were at Houston, you served as the poetry editor for Gulf Coast. Did you find that your own writing was influenced by the work you did for the journal?
Russell: I do think it was influential, though mostly in indirect ways. By making choices (in individual poems, in establishing a larger vision for an issue or a magazine as a whole) editors are forced to define what they think is and what isn’t worthy of space. To some degree, I think that probably helped me articulate what I was trying to do in my own work. Editing (I’m currently the Managing Editor for Phantom Limb [shameless plug]) also provides an informative cross-section of the State of Poetry. At the very least, it allows me to see where I stand in relation.
Cobalt: Tell us a little bit more about your upcoming collection, THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW (Graywolf Press, July 2013).
Russell: THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW follows a loose chronology of a woman’s sudden illness, her extended stay in the hospital, and her eventual release. The poems are narrated from the perspective of her husband. The book presents the hospital as a kind of parallel universe with its own rhythms, language, and time. The longer they’re inside, the more they feel detached from the outside world. Confronted with his wife’s mortality, the husband begins to see more clearly what their life together has meant and what the world would be without her.
Cobalt: Do you have any secrets to your process? When and where do you write, and how do you get that first draft on paper?
Russell: When I set out to write THE YEAR OF WHAT NOW I was more or less abandoning the book I’d been working on for the previous five years. I had an overwhelming sense of urgency to get the new book written. I gave myself six months to write 90 poems and two months to edit and cut. In doing so, I forced myself to stop thinking (read “second-guessing”) so much and just write. It also gave me a kind of built-in permission to write bad poems, which felt very freeing. Since finishing the book, I’ve actually written very little. I haven’t felt enough separation yet to start again in earnest.
Cobalt: So what comes next?
Russell: In the long-term, crushing anxiety over the thought of writing another book. In the short-term, I have the incredible fortune of joining Stephen Burt and Sophie Cabot Black for the Graywolf Poetry Tour this summer. We’ll be reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn on July 8th, Prairie Lights in Iowa City on July 9th, and Common Good Books in St. Paul on July 10th.
About Brian: Brian Russell is the author of The Year of What Now (Graywolf, 2013), winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize. He lives in Chicago with his wife and dogs.