A view of exile: Brian Spears’ first book of poetry.
If a book contains a poem that makes me stop in my tracks, read it over and over, think, put the book down, pick it up again, read the poem again, then I know I’ve found a poetry book I like. Brian Spears’ A Witness In Exile is such a book.
Brian is the poetry editor of The Rumpus, and an Instructor of English at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition. He also blogs at what else? Brian Spears. He recently completed a week’s stint at No Tell Motel with a series of multitasking baseball poems. (NTM – our own Reb Livingston!)
I don’t usually read a poetry book from front to back. Often I’ll just open it randomly. Or read the title poem first. But there is no title poem in this book. More about that in a bit. So this time I started with the first poem: Pastoral, a prose poem that relates a childhood fishing trip. Pine woods, blackberries, unripe persimmons, squirrels–then this line: “The walk home is never long enough.” With that line, he hooked me.
With the last poem in the book, Jubilate Patro, which I read soon after that, I was reeled in. A former Jehovah’s Witness, since Brian left the church he has had very limited contact with his family. I think this poem did it for me because for the last several years of his life, my father and I were estranged, and Brian’s litany of all the things he loves and hates about his father took my breath away. Literally. I held my breath for part of it.
Brian and I are “Facebook friends” and I bought his book through his website and devoured it when it came. He was kind enough to answer some questions.
Robin: I read that you discarded the title poem, but kept it for the book. Care to discuss your reasoning?
Brian: The first poem titled “A Witness in Exile” was this long, crazy, 36-part series of small to medium poems just offering slices of life of life as a Witness and life in exile. But it couldn’t survive in that format, so I broke it up, discarded some pieces, modified others, but I could never make it work. In the end, I discovered that what I liked wasn’t the poems themselves, but the title.
Robin: How long did you work on this collection?
Brian: The poems cover a range of about 7 years, but I wouldn’t say I was working on them as a collection until the last four or so, and the first manuscript I put together bears little resemblance to what’s there right now. I’d say it really started to come together in the last couple of years, when I decided to limit the number of Witness poems. At one point, it was all about the church, and I think that was a little overwhelming for readers. Plus, some of the poems just weren’t very good. I think I managed to keep the strongest of those and they form a solid core for the rest of the book to rotate around.
Robin: What was the hardest part?
Brian: Cutting poems that I’d had in there for a long time that I loved, but that I also knew in my heart just weren’t up to the rest of the collection, and that there was no way of fixing.
Robin: The easiest? The most fun?
Brian: Walking away from the contest model of publishing answers both of these questions. I understand that it’s part of the current fabric of poetry publication, but I think it’s so tremendously flawed that I don’t want to be a part of it. I’d rather never publish another book than pay another reading fee.
Robin: How happy are you with this collection?
Brian: I’m happy with the collection, and I’ve been pleased with the responses from people who’ve already read it–those who’ve told me what they think, at the very least. I’m too close to the poems to be objective, obviously, but I’m not looking to buy up the copies and burn them or anything, so that’s probably a win.
Robin: What do you think of the cover image? Which by-the-way I love.
Brian: I got incredibly lucky with the cover image. My partner, Amy Letter (who also designed the cover), went to a show by the artist Judith Berk King in Palm Beach and we saw a plate with a snake hunting down a donut with pink icing and sprinkles on it, and we thought “that would be perfect for the cover.” So we emailed her, and she sent a photo of both that plate and the one on the cover, and the second I saw the candy apple I was in love. It’s just perfect for the title, and it pops right off the cover.
Robin: In the was-it-intentional-or-a-happy-accident category: Your poem i sing of Brian, born of God has a “widow” at the end, which normally bugs the hell out of me in poetry books (I remember spending what seemed like hours trying to fix something like that in my self-published chapbook – grrrrrr), but here, it really pounded the last two lines home. What are your feelings about that?
Brian: have to say happy accident, since I hadn’t even noticed it until you mentioned it. That’s another one of those poems that has a far more famous forebear–E. E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf, glad and big”–I loved the way he took such a bouncy rhythm and wrote an incredibly dark and disturbing poem (though more than a little preachy at the end). I wanted to try that. Mine’s not as dark, and it’s probably a little too preachy in spots as well, but I think the form and the content bounce off each other fairly well overall.
Robin: Jubilate Patro – I was wondering how you came to use Christopher Smart‘s Jubilate Agno as a jumping off place. How was it to write this poem, since it’s filled with such intense anger and love?
Brian: I really got into Smart’s poem when I assigned it for a writing class even though I didn’t know much about it, and the more I researched it, the more I fell in love with it and with him. Smart was filled with an incredible religious fervor–he probably wasn’t really insane, but he spent some time in an asylum where he wrote this mad poem full of praise for the divine, and in the famous section, how he sees it in his cat Jeoffrey. Now in the anthology I was using, Smart’s poem was followed by a parody of it by Erica Jong titled “Jubilate Canis,” which is a funny poem filled with puns on dog versions of writers’ names–Poochkin, for example–and I decided I wanted to do my own version of Smart’s poem.
But my problem was that I didn’t want to do a parody, and by that time I was well on my way to being an affirmed atheist, so where could I go for the divine, for the transcendent? I went to my dad, who when I wrote this poem hadn’t talked to me for about eleven years, I guess. I can’t hate him, you know? But I can tell the truths I think I know about him, which means the things I love and admire, and the things I don’t. I just went for honesty to the greatest extent I could, and I still get a little choked up when I’m reading it aloud and I get to the end. Smart’s version of the divine is sublime. Mine has warts.
Robin: “Until I Learn” - As an inveterate list maker myself, I enjoyed this poem. Have you ever done the reverse exercise of making a list of everything you do in a day?
Brian: I haven’t, but now that you mention it, I think I might have to look through the journals of former Senator Bob Graham for found poems. The level to which he detailed his days is legendary for its tedium, and I suspect my days would be just as boring.
from Until I Learn
I’ve stopped making to-do lists
because 1) I’m never done
2) I forget to put things on them
and feel silly adding items
to the top just to cross them off
3) There’s rarely anything
not-tedious on the list so reading it
causes me great anxiety and makes
it less likely that I will actually do
what I need to 4) I am like my mother
who often said when asked why she
had us call her by her first name
replied “I have no problem being
a mother; I just prefer not being
reminded of it every moment
of the fucking day” 5) My mother
never said “fucking” 6) At least
as far as I can remember 7) I am
easily distracted back to the list…