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Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (available from W.W. Norton in April 2012), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her poems have appeared in New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review Online, FIELD, Indiana Review and Southern Review. She is a former Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, a current Emerging Writer Fellow at The Writer's Center, and the 2012 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She has also received scholarships and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Disquiet International Literary Program.

Traci holds degrees from Florida State University and Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University where she is a doctoral candidate and a King/Chávez/Parks Fellow. She also serves as poetry editor for Third Coast and editor-at-large for Loaded Bicycle.


Kim Grabowski for The Smoking Poet: First of all, I want to congratulate you on your new book Our Lady of the Ruins having won the 2011 Barnard’s Women Poets Prize selected by Carolyn Forché.  I’ve heard you describe the book as being darker and more experimental than Rookery.  Can you talk a little bit about the differences between your two books, and what prompted you to move in that direction?

Traci Brimhall: Sure.  I think saying “experimental” in poetry summons up a certain kind of poetry.  I’m not experimenting with language and form in a way that a lot of “experimental” poets are doing, but I would say that the experiment was more about not writing autobiographically, from personal experience, and to imagine a space and imagine a set of voices that I could speak through.  I feel like the experiment exists mostly in the imaginative space than in structure or language, which is where poets usually experiment.  I got really tired of mining my past for things to write about.  In a way, speaking through other voices or other things that were cloaked to not appear as though it was me speaking gave me a lot of freedom to say things I wouldn’t say otherwise.  I don’t know if I was right about darker.  I think I will always be drawn to the darker things, anyway.  I think it just might be a different darkness—or it’s a different question.  If the first book was more about love and betrayal, this one is more about God and loneliness.  

TSP: It’s interesting that you would mention that, because I feel like I’ve been grappling with writing outside of autobiography recently. 

Traci: What I loved about writing, in the first place, was invention.  I loved to imagine.  As a kid, I would make up these crazy, weird stories.  In fact, most kids make up crazy, weird stories!  It just seems like most poets, when they imagine, they imagine in the language form or in structural ways, to reinvent.  But I don’t see a lot of people making new stories.  I think it’s great to use poetry to write about your life—it certainly helped me.  But why doesn’t that crazy stuff that inspired us as kids…why doesn’t that happen in poetry?  Because I think it should.

TSP: Going off of the theme of childhood:  In her essay, “Charmed Objects: Poetry and Childhood,” Nancy Eimers quotes sculptor Barbara Hepworth as having said “Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood, and the rest of one’s life is spent in trying to say it.”  Does this ring true for you?  Is there a particular theme that seems to haunt you in your work?

Traci: Yes.  I think there are certain things that I can’t get away from.  In your previous question you asked ‘how did you make that decision’ or ‘how did you know.’  I’m a big fan of talking about writing as a serious of relationships.  I think poets are serial monogamists, most often.  You’re in love with one thing that you’re doing, and one set of poems or one series or one approach to writing, and you do that until it stops being helpful or useful.  Then, you have your break-up fight and you move on to something else.  I knew I was on to something else when the imaginative space felt different.  When I was imagining differently.  I made specific choices in terms of form and language to help me avoid writing the exact same poems again, but I definitely knew I was doing something new because the imaginative space was different.  But my obsessions are still haunting me.  In fact, somebody asked me “what’s your deal with the body, I noticed that there are a lot of poems about the body in the second book.”  In the first book I feel like every body part, all 206 bones, somehow made it in there.  But it’s so hard not to talk about the body, that there it was.  Even trying to consciously fight the desire to be attracted to what you’ve always been attracted to, you’re still going to drag those bones with you.

TSP: Literally! 

Traci: (laughs) Yes!

TSP: Poet Dennis Nurkse writes of the poetry in your new book “The poems are viscerally contemporary.  But they have the authority of the fundamental texts, spoken before there was a divide between myth and action.”  What, in your view, does the poet owe to the literary tradition.  How does it serve to create newness?

Traci: Harold Bloom wrote his famous book The Anxiety of Influence.  I think poets always feel self-conscious about it.  But I would say that is a difference that marks the first and second book.  In the first book, I could tell you, in each poem, which other poet I was trying to write like, what kind of poem I was trying to model.  I would look at a poet and think how did they do that with syntax, or what are they doing with line breaks that’s working so well?  I would just try and do something that they had done well.  In this book, I was less conscious of modeling.  It’s just that those poets are so integrated in me that I don’t notice anymore.  My husband does martial arts, and they do this thing called kata, which is where they do this dance-fight that’s with invisible enemies.  They have all these turns, things that will break holds, kicks, and punches.  It’s this fight with the invisible, so that, when they get onto the mats and are having a real fight, or kumite, they don’t think, they just move through it.  I feel like writing exercises or modeling yourself after poets is how you learn, and it’s the way that you do your fake fighting, so that, when you get alone with the page, you don’t have to think about it.  You’ve already thought about things like sound and line breaks, and you just write, and it comes out more naturally. So, I feel like, in the second book, I was less aware of modeling.  Although, in between the first and second book, I wrote my own poetry Bible, where I hand copied poems that I loved into one book.  Some of these were poems that I’d read dozens of times, or even poems I’d memorized.  But, when I hand wrote them, it was like I’d been hitting on them for years, and they finally asked me upstairs.  I understood them in a totally different way.  It was this whole new kind of intimacy with the poems, that I hadn’t had with them—despite how long I’d known them, or despite the other ways in which I’d known them.  It was a completely different way to engage with them.  I feel like I had that whole Bible within me—that whole practice of writing, and looking, and feeling—in me when I wrote the second book. 

TSP: So, do you write longhand, or do you write on a computer?

Traci: Almost always longhand. 

TSP: Speaking of modeling, what role has mentorship played in your career as a poet?

Traci: I’ve had a lot of really good teachers that have taught me a lot of really important things at different stages.  I haven’t had one teacher that has been more formative than another, or been in my life longer than another.  But, I’ve been fortunate enough to have really good teachers or attend really good craft talks or lectures, and been lucky enough to hear things I needed to hear.  Sometimes, even out of genre.  When Kevin Fenton came and read at WMU, I went to his craft talk, and he said things about fiction that helped me so much with poetry, and just the way I think about it.  It gave me a whole different set of language, or a whole different tool kit, with which to examine my poems and what they were doing.  I’m over-exposed to the poetry tool kit, so sometimes it helps to go outside of that.

TSP:  How do you strike a balance between accepting constructive criticism and staying true to your work?

Traci: I met a friend who wrote a top ten pieces of advice for writers, and number two was “listen to the experts.”  Then, number nine was “ignore the experts.” Not everyone’s advice on every poem, no matter how many poems they’ve published, no matter how many poems they’ve written, no matter how many awards they’ve garnered in the world, they might not always have the best advice for your poem every time.  At some point, you need to trust yourself, and know what your vision is, and just say “well, that would do what they said it would do, but that’s not what I want this poem to do.”  I feel like it’s damaging to try and listen to everyone in a workshop, because twenty people can’t all be right about your poem.  You cut out the heart of what’s alive in it if you listen to everybody.  You find a couple good readers, and you listen to some, or most, of their advice, and the rest of the time you listen to yourself, and what you want for the poem. 

The best cure for any of that, I think, is time.  When we meet with friends or attend a classroom workshop, then we get this advice and we’re like “I know how to fix this poem!” But there is no fixing a poem.  I don’t believe poems are broken.  They can get better, they can make better and more interesting choices and bring out emotions, the mystery, the images, and the things that we love about them.  But it’s like going to a parenting conference and going home and being like “here are all the new rules, kid!”  I feel like it takes time, and if you just walk away from the advice and the stack of paper that you have filled with comments, then you can just digest it and come back to the poem later, when it’s not so close to you.  Then, you can see what advice they said actually would work, and what isn’t going to work with what you meant that poem to do. 

TSP: Between your work as poetry editor of Western Michigan University’s national literary magazine Third Coast, your involvement with New Issues Press, and the Poets-in-Print Reading Series held at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, you have certainly made your mark on the Kalamazoo community.  How has it made its mark on you?

Traci: I feel like the community in Kalamazoo is the community I’ve been looking for my whole adult poetry life.  In New York, there were almost too many options.  There was no tight-knit community.  There may be people that you’d see out at different things, but, any given night, there’s half a dozen poetry events in the city.  So, it’s hard to form tight relationships with people.  When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, there were many great people, but we usually didn’t talk about poetry.  In Kalamazoo, I found that I have the best balance, where I have good friends, who are also good people, who also love to talk about poetry.  It’s the best blend of community.  I remember, in graduate school, after workshop people would be like “okay, now what can we talk about?” because they didn’t want to talk about poetry anymore.  And I would be like “where’s the closest twenty-four-hour Starbucks?!  Let’s go!”  My voice would be hoarse before I’d be done talking about poetry. 

TSP: Is there anything outside of poetry that you do that you feel feeds your work?

Traci: Lately, my love has been comic books.  I went to Michigan State’s comics forum convention. I TA’d for a comics class.  I’ve been collaborating with visual artists to create a poetry comic.  It’s just fun to love something that is still mysterious to me.  I’ve been so inundated with poetry for so many years. It’s not that it’s not still mysterious, but I feel like I almost know too much.  Because it’s still new and exciting, I’ve got puppy love for comics.  It’s nice to have puppy love for something.  I don’t know how that directly informs poetry, but it informs my life, in that it makes me happy, because I get to love something like that. 

TSP: How do you deal with the expectations people have for your work? 

Traci: A really smart person on a plane once told me that an expectation is a planned resentment.  I really like that, because I already get anxious and nervous enough in social circumstances.  When I read my work, I’m always nervous.  I think, sometimes, it’s hard for me to remember what it was like five years ago, without a book, just being really in love with poetry, feeling like I was probably beneath everybody’s time.  Going to conferences, sitting alone at tables and wishing to God someone would notice me.  The thing is, five years later, a book and a second on the way, and whatever else I’ve done, I’m still the same person.  I think, on the other end, if people feel the way I used to feel, they’re probably thinking “she doesn’t want to be bothered” or “oh my gosh, I can’t approach her or talk to her.”  But, the truth is, I’m just sitting there, nervously thumbing through a book, so it looks like I’m doing something. 

TSP:  You’re already extremely successful at such a young age.  What advice do you have for young poets?

Traci:  One of my former mentors posted about one of my successes on her facebook page.  The danger of that, now that it links, is that I can see what everyone else has said.  One person said “ack, she’s a kid.”  It really hurt my feelings for two days!  It’s so stupid.  But, one, just so that everyone knows, headshots are taken like five to ten years before they’re used.  So, those pictures are of me younger, anyway.  I don’t take a picture like “this is my happy picture of the day I received this news, with an accurate representation of how I look right now.”  It hurt to think that someone would feel I didn’t deserve it, or that I hadn’t earned it yet, because I was young. 

There are as many different ways to be a poet as there are poets.  There are as many ages to come into your own.  Some people write their best poems in their seventies, and, quite honestly, I think some people write their best in their twenties.  You just have to know what kind of poet you are.  Or, if you don’t know, fake it!  Just write the poems you love to write, and let the rest fall out where it will.  I can’t control that woman’s feelings, or where they’re coming from.  They probably say more about her than they do about me.  She doesn’t know my actual age—she just knows I looked young in that picture.  I can’t control the way anyone’s going to respond to any piece of news about my life, ever.  All I can do is write in a way that makes me happy, and satisfied.  If I want to tell young poets anything to remember, it’s that this is fun.  You loved this, once, and this set you on fire, and this lit you up, and this made you understand parts of yourself.  It’s about beauty, and it’s about the way you live your life.  And, not to worry too much about publications or prizes, because all of that stuff will come in the time that it comes.  What you do have control over is how good it feels to sit down and write, and that’s what you can do whenever you don’t feel good about writing. 

TSP: What do you have in the works currently?  Any new projects or artistic obsessions? 

Traci: Well, I’m working on the poetry comic that I mentioned. The other problem with that is that there’s a whole different political publication system behind comics that I don’t understand.  I’ve learned a lot about publishing, in terms of literary arts, but it works very differently in comics.  I’m having to re-learn what I thought I knew about all of that.  I’m done writing it, and the illustrator’s working on it.  I’m also writing poems about Brazil.  My mom was born and raised there, and moved to the United States when she was sixteen.  That’s been an imaginative space that was important to me as a child, because she used to tell me all these stories, and I loved to imagine Brazil.  It probably looks nothing like it looks in my imagination, but it’s one of my story-telling spaces.  She and I are planning on going there in December or January, so I’ll finally get to see it.  She’ll take me back to where she was raised and show me all sorts of stuff, so I can write better, more accurate poems. 

TSP: Thank you for talking with me for The Smoking Poet.  It’s going to be exciting to watch your future literary endeavors!

"Page 8 with Paint," Brimhall

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