Interviews, Recent

Interview // Irregular Life: A Conversation with Brandon Brown

by Claire Tuna | Associate Editor

Brandon Brown
Atelos, 2020

I came upon Brandon Brown’s book-length poem Work in late November. I read it in one go, stopping frequently to laugh or press down a page-marker or say to myself, No way.

Work, among other things, is an intimate field guide to the East Bay, as seen by a speaker in transit to and from their job. In Work, Brandon articulates something about the conflicted glory of “life in the city, / or, you know, Berkeley,” how its deepest currents—of wealth inequality, leftist idealism, perfect produce, good basketball, and increasingly automated forms of consumption—manifest daily; he walks alongside a cutting edge sushirrito delivery bot, eavesdrops on Berkeley high students who discuss a ‘dick appointment,’ gives cover to a stranger as he hops the BART turnstile, and reluctantly listens to a busker singing Imagine off-key. Anchoring this mobile meditation on place is the concept of work, which the poet studies in a wide range of genres, including translation of an ancient Greek tragedy, cultural criticism, docupoetics, and food writing. 

Thanks to an allusion in Work, I arrived (late, but grateful) to the party that is Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. Two days after I got my hands on a copy of Midwinter Day, Mayer passed away. 

I met Brandon last Thursday in Berkeley, near the office to which he is no longer required to commute. We talked about Bernadette Mayer, experimental writing, and courting uncertainty.

CT: This interview will go up on December 22nd in honor of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day and your book-length poem, Work, which takes as its occasion another “midwinter day”specifically, a workdayforty years later. I wanted to ask you how Bernadette Mayer was important for you as a writer and how you first encountered her work. 

BB: Bernadette. I was trying, when she died, to do some of that reconstructive memory, to remember first hearing her name or reading her work. I know that it was around the turn of the century. I was maybe twenty or so? I started studying Latin and Greek to read and translate poetry. I’m sure it was Stacy Doris who said I should read Bernadette Mayer’s translations, which are a small fraction of her oeuvre. Her approach to translation is unique because of her particular form of permission, her ease in having her cake and eating it too, sometimes choosing to be “faithful,” other times turning her back on the text to do something else.

She had great taste in the classics, too; she would translate Catullus (who’s been translated a billion times) but she was also finding obscure Greek erotica and translating that in her particular Bernadette way. It totally blew my mind. 

It was probably several years after that when I read Midwinter Day and some of those other canonical books of hers that changed how I thought about poetry and life, a poet’s life. Part of Mayer’s project—not the whole thing, but part of it—is to model a way of living. There’s another book that she wrote around the same time with her then husband, Lewis Warsh called Piece of Cake. They would trade a notebook back and forth every day to compose the book, and they’re writing a lot about their babies and their money, and their lack of money, and their car being broken, and their family being fucking annoying and wonderful. Before reading Midwinter Day, I had never read a poem that went into that level of detail about regular, or I guess quite irregular, life. Mayer showed me something about what can go in a poem, but also something about how to give cadence to life if you’re going to be a poet.

CT: She has a gift for restating the most basic things in unfamiliar terms. When she gives the plot synopsis of The Three Little Pigs, it is so funny. “Three pigs who have hair on their chins are too poor to continue to live with their mother. They must support themselves.”

BB: Almost no poet is as funny as Bernadette Mayer. Not only funny like, I made a joke. I think a book of hers like Utopia feels funny before you even start reading it.

CT: I think you have a similar skill. I’m thinking of your description of YMCA pool etiquette: “One of the rituals which precedes swimming / in the pool is to to wet / the body with shower / before wetting it with / pool.” How do you stay open to seeing things that are in plain sight?

BB: Thank you! I mean, when I’m writing a book I go into the space of the poem, and when I’m in the space of the poem, I find this extra power. There is something extra-sensory about it. I feel like when I’m writing a book the trash is smellier, the wine more delicious. But I’m also conscious of wanting (sometimes) to charm someone with my poem, and one way to try to charm someone I guess is to express something mundane or unheroic—like standing in the shower at the gym—in a way that is funny or sad or dramatic or exaggerated. 

CT: One of the joys of reading Work is that it pulls off a kind of stunt, as the publisher writes, “a sustained lyric study of all that happens in between the poet leaving their office at 4:30 in the afternoon on Midwinter’s Day, 2018, and returning to it at 7:45 the next morning.” What are you willing to reveal about the writing process? I’m curious to what degree the day was planned ahead of time.

BB: Well, I hate to show my hand totally, but the evening, night, and early morning I narrate in the book are collaged. I really did all those things, from the swim to the dream tincture to listening to Britney Spears, just not necessarily in one continuous stretch. The book started actually as one single poem, a couple of pages long, that I wrote in about five minutes, which usually tells me I’m onto something. And the more I lived with my little lyric poem, I thought I’d try to see if I could make this a very long, overly long, desperately long, deranged, deranged in its details, long poem.

I didn’t know if it would be a book that anybody—including myself—would want to read, but I believed in the idea enough to try to do it.

CT:  Why did the notion of an “overly long” poem speak to you? 

BB:  I mean I was thinking of Midwinter Day. I was thinking of Piece of Cake. At some point Lewis, I think, writes something like, “I guess next I’ll tell you about going to the bathroom. Well, why not?” I like to think of the gruesome TMI-ness of Work as a mirror of the drag that so many workdays are, as if they may never end. And finally, I had the hunch that Work would be okay as some sort of thumbnail highlight reel of part of a day of my life, but (I hoped) more amusing if it was disproportionately long, specific, digressive and extra.

CT: In The Four Seasons there’s a moment where you’re listening to “a beautiful new song by Rihanna called ‘Work’” and you write that you’re making it your aubade. I was just wondering if you had already started at that time to conceptualize Work as a project? 

BB: Ha ha. No, not quite yet! Not Work as a project, but certainly the irony of listening to “Work” on the way to work hit me. Often those fringe times before and after work were the times I’d really dive into pop music on my headphones, and these tunes scored the submission to my shift and, later, my release. I guess since I had to start working when I was seventeen or eighteen, work has been this ugly thing my life folds around, and I try to keep that life as beautiful as possible. And so I thought at the time there was something ironic in listening to such a beautiful song, “Work,” on the way to work.

There’s a similar sleight of hand in Work where, you know, some might experience the title and even start the book anticipating that at some point I’m going to talk about being at work or being in my job, which is of course, the only material I’ve erased out of the day.

CT: You quote Keats’s letters in The Four Seasons and Schuyler’s letters in Work, as well as Goethe’s travel writing. What is it that draws you to private forms of writing, like letters and daybooks? 

BB: I mean, I like gossip. And I like poetry, and I like when something is both poetry and gossip.

CT: Do you tend to work with your project known to you?

BB: That’s my comfort zone, a comfortable way for me to write. Beginning with something certain helps me find uncertainty, or something. So like for The Four Seasons, I knew I was going to write four long poems, but I didn’t know what I’d say in them and that was the pleasure of writing the poems, to find out what I would write.

But I’m also the kind of fool who feels uncomfortable about too much comfort, and during the pandemic, for really the first time in my life, I wrote a book of one-off poems. It really was not a project. I’d just make one night a week my writing night, go upstairs, eat a very strong cannabis gummy, and stay up there until I finished a poem. 

The finished book, Lemonade, doesn’t resemble my other books, which mostly depend on some structural ground, but I followed a few rules, like deciding to cherish lines that made me wince, blush, think Jesus Christ I cannot put this in a poem. Like in one of the poems I digress about how great the 72 San Pablo bus is, and I remember feeling like, What am I talking about? What the fuck am I talking about? And in writing the poems of Lemonade, these were the moments of triumph.

CT: In Work, you provide a definition of a certain class of worker that we now all refer to as essential workers: “. . . nurses, garbage / collectors, grocery store / clerks, and teachers, [without whom] the world as we know / it would cease to be.” How did the pandemic affect your contemplation of work? 

BB: Right, that bit was quoted from the late David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, an entertaining and confusing book that super got under my skin. I mean it’s a brilliant book, and most of it resonates with me, but I couldn’t settle for the irony of Graeber neglecting to analyze his own job, as a professor of anthropology, as he eviscerates the facilities staff at his university for their bullshit job.  I felt a little bad for teasing David Graeber in Work when he died in 2020. David Graeber ruled.

Anyway, people have of course been working in different configurations for a long time, but in my day job, before the pandemic, there was no sense that we were all about to start working from home. In that sense, Work is a relic. It weirdly memorializes a reality that, as I was writing this book, I thought was going to be forever, but which, hopefully, will never return. 

CT: In retrospect, it’s good to have a document of that moment. Peak office culture. I would read a version of this book done in many times and many places.

BB: Totally! Because I did not invent this form, I’ll risk saying something that will sounds pretty self-satisfied, but I know some people who have read my book in a formal setting have been assigned to write their own version of it, and I love that, not just for the egotistical reasons one would think, but because Bernadette gave me this form (I don’t know where she got it from exactly) and the most I could hope for really is to give it to others. 

CT: A former teacher of mine once mentioned the importance of reading books from both of these categories: books that make you feel like you should quit writing altogether, and books that fill you with the energy to write. For me, Work is one of those books that puts me in a mood to write. I’m wondering whose work fits into those categories for you. 

BB: Thank you! That is like literally the highest compliment you can give me, because when I read something that gives me that kind of otherworldly energy for writing, I come alive with true gratitude to whoever has made it possible.

I’m interested in the first category your teacher describes. It’s a little foreign to me, and that might be because I don’t have a professional or competitive relationship to writing and publishing. I mean of course I’m jealous when someone writes such a good poem, but I am not motivated or energized in my writing by, oh I dunno, awards or retweets. I’m writing poems for my friends. And I am also writing for randos, and the dead, and future people, and the standards of this group of readers is quite high. I will have to try very hard to charm them all. Or I remember at the Alette In Oakland symposium someone asked Alice Notley who her audience was and she said, I write for the rocks. The rocks are a difficult audience to charm!

But yes, the mood to write. What could be better? There are a lot of writers who put me in this terrific mood, and not always because I love their works, but because they’re trying something, like really trying to do something they don’t know for sure they can pull off. I think that’s yet another category? I like writers who let themselves try what is uncertain, risky, uncomfortable. I aspire to be like these writers, to write books like theirs, and I most often find that really evasive spark when I’m in their presence.

Brandon Brown is the author of several books, most recently WORK (Atleos, 2020), THE FOUR SEASONS (Wonder, 2018) and The Good Life (Big Lucks.) He has edited the zines Fuck You Longhair, Dee Dee’s Kids, Sleep is the Enemy, Commonweal, OMG!, Celebrity Brush and currently edits Panda’s Friend. He lives in the shadows of Albany Hill in El Cerrito, California.

Claire Tuna is at work on an MFA in Poetry at the University of Montana, where she teaches creative writing and composition. She is an Associate Editor at Poetry Northwest