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Susan Elliott Brown
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When someone hears I recently completed a Ph.D. program in English with a focus in creative writing (poetry), I know what the next question will be: “So, are you going to teach?” No, I’m not. Hear me out. I’m not going to teach because I already have a job I love where I get to be creative and write for a living. Last year, while working as a freelance proofreader for an advertising agency, I discovered that lots of talented writers worked there. As the proofer, I got to see tons of different projects they worked on, from print advertisements to video scripts to website copy. Until I saw advertising copy writing in action, I never considered the advertising industry as a place I could land. I stumbled upon this field, but I found a place I could flex my creative muscles from nine to five and still have time and energy to write poetry in my off time. Plus, I never have to grade papers. I hate grading papers. While writing for advertising and writing poetry certainly require different approaches, the two disciplines actually have much more in common than I ever thought they would. You have to get the audience’s attention. Right away. In my experience reading for and/or editing several literary journals, I found that the first three to five lines of a poem were particularly crucial. When you’ve got a stack of hundreds of submissions to go through, you’re looking to be blown away at the beginning of a poem—something that makes you stop and say, “Wow, this poem is up to something.” If an editor isn’t on board with the poem from the opening lines, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to get them to come along for the ride later in the poem. Poet Alexis Rhone Fancher worked in advertising for several years as a copywriter and a sales executive. “The headline, like the poem’s title, has to draw you in,” Fancher said. “Writing ad copy taught me to be succinct, economical with words, and to focus on impact—the poem that moves you, the ad you can’t get out of your head.” In advertising, this initial hook is sometimes called the “three-second get.” Stephanie Naman, Vice President/Creative Director at Luckie & Company and founder of the Auntie Venom blog, finds that there is a “general resistance to both advertising and poetry,” but for different reasons. While poetry can be perceived as “dense and impenetrable,” she says, audiences can interpret ads as “talking down to them,” which compounds the need to get the audience’s attention immediately. Therefore, one of a copywriter’s (and also a poet’s) greatest challenges is “finding ways to win over an inherently resistant audience,” Naman said. Every word matters. Part of what makes poetry so special is the careful consideration given to each word and its placement in a line. And the line itself, of course. All of this is also true of advertising copy. Space is limited, and you’ve got a... Continue reading
Posted Feb 10, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
When faced with anger and fear in times of political distress, there are many ways to react. Some people take to Facebook or Twitter to express their concerns, some take to the streets (or the airports) to protest, and some take out a pen and start writing. Writing—and in fact, all art—can be a powerful means of demonstration against oppression, in whatever form that oppression takes. Responding to the 2016 presidential election, three writers, Kit-Bacon (K-B) Gressitt, Sara Marchant, and Rae Rose, came together to create Writers Resist, a weekly online journal featuring writing and visual art of the resistance. In his recent piece for The New Yorker, “Poetry in a Time of Protest,” Edwidge Danticat says she is turning to poets, both living and dead, for direction and vision in this current moment of political uncertainty. I find myself doing the same thing. The founders of Writers Resist must have anticipated this reliance on art in times of crisis because they’ve dedicated their efforts to culling the best resistance art from the United States and around the world. They graciously answered my questions about their project. With Writers Resist and similar outlets, I hope readers can find a new place to look to when the going gets scary. And, more than that, I hope artists and writers are inspired to create—rather than cower—in times of strife. Susan Elliott Brown: How was Writers Resist born? Writers Resist: A day or two after the November 8 election, Sara sent a message to K-B (we’re both grads of the UCR Low-Res MFA program), asking “What do we do now?” K-B figured it was die or write. We agreed the latter was preferable. We asked poet Rae Rose, a Goddard MFA grad, to join us. Within the week, we’d created a social media presence, started building a website, and invited friends and colleagues to direct their creativity to the resistance movement. Writers Resist, a weekly online journal, was birthed with our first issue on December 1, 2016. We publish creative expressions of resistance by diverse writers and visual artists, including poetry, narrative nonfiction, fiction, essays and digital images. The majority of submissions are from the United States, but we’re hearing from writers from around the globe. SEB: What is the ultimate goal of Writers Resist? WR: We are enjoying the virtual camaraderie of Writers Resist; it’s lovely and reassuring that the majority of people embrace civil liberties, human rights, intersectionality and compassion. As our audience expands, our goal is to share that message beyond the converted, to reach those feeling disaffected, with writing and art that touches them in unexpected ways. Ultimately, though, we hope that the resistance movement is gradually rendered obsolete, and Writers Resist with it. Wouldn’t it be a delight to live and write in a United States that thrives on the values articulated in our Constitution? SEB: How can poetry and fiction be used as tools of political protest and resistance, and can this type of writing lead to... Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
When I started writing poetry in high school, the first hundred or so poems were no doubt about love—the loss of it, the unrequited crush, the infatuation with that first love, attempts at writing about physical intimacy, and an extra embarrassing one I distinctly remember about why some guy would ever want to date me when he could date the homecoming queen instead. (I know now that the answer is: I'm awesome.) In the first real poetry class I took, we were gently discouraged from writing about love because "it's so overdone." It's all been said. Fair enough, I guess. But I was really into John Donne and wanted to write my own aubades. I wanted to write adoring, lilting lines about my new boyfriend and his distinctive nose and surprisingly hairless chest. But I had gotten the message: no one really wants to read that. It's probably true that everything you could say in a love poem has been "said" to some degree, and felt, and thought, by someone else. But that's all the more reason to write a love poem. Say it differently. The beauty of a good love poem, I think, is the writer's ability to mine the emotion of love to find something fresh. With Valentine's Day less than a week away, I gathered twenty-one of the best love poems around by contemporary poets for your reading pleasure. I think it's clear that no two of these poems even come close to saying "the same thing" about love. Some are sad. Love comes with death and loss and yearning. Some are funny because love (and especially sex) is weird. Some are a little off-the-wall and oddballish, but they're so lovely in their quirky ways. Some are more like anti-love poems. Some are doting and talk about that beautiful soul-consuming love that I so wished for when I read Donne. All are honest, and all are emotionally resonant. I hope you enjoy these, and maybe you'll even find a poem you want to read to your Valentine. Angela Ball Intercourse After Death Presents Special Difficulties I love you, I want to have sex with you. It is so damned awkward. So many explanations required, having to stare down the salacious and insist on a conjugal visit to the after- life. Nothing like a movie: some sexy actress roped in pearls, masturbating to a dime-store photograph. Nothing like ancient Egypt, men with false penises attached to their mummies, action ready. Just us, equipped with pairs of shadow towels and toothbrushes, an immense bedchamber kitted out for the impossible, the invisible, the never-again, the at-no-time. Nights I ingest the pill that lets me seem awake while in motion at home and at work. I note today’s horoscope: “a far-fetched hope is realized.” Forthcoming in Talking Pillow (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017) Second Elegy The first death was attended by a joke photo of the actor, Don Knots, as Barney Fife. Gun drawn. The second by daughter, sister-in-law, partner, and... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Reading Derrick Austin’s acclaimed debut collection Trouble the Water is a raw, emotional experience that stays with you long after you finish it. The poems are complex, and their subject matter and locations span the globe and the full scope of human emotion. Austin anchors the poems with a focus on what he calls “distressed bodies,” whether those are human bodies distressed by racial violence, bodies of water suffering from human carelessness, or saint's bodies anguished in self-sacrifice. Austin’s speakers uncover realities of life as a queer, black American, and the truths at the center of those realities surface in even the most unexpected places. Austin answered my questions about Trouble the Water and his approach to subject matter, form, and examining language. Susan Elliott Brown: In her foreword to Trouble the Water, Mary Szybist hones in on the title and its many connections and possible allusions, from spiritual songs to the Gospel of John. She says, “The title is a command, one that Austin seems to have given himself in writing this book. … These poems come to ‘trouble’ the still waters of old assumptions, to unsettle and renew.” To what extent is it a writer’s duty to “trouble the water” and challenge the “old assumptions” to which Szybist refers? How do you see this collection performing that duty? Derrick Austin: Why write poems if not to the refresh language and finely consider it? There are so many ways a poem can challenge our ways of being in the world, and it starts with how poems allow us to choose the right word. It’s the reason I started writing poems as a painfully shy high schooler: writing allowed me the space and time to say exactly what I wanted on the page that I couldn’t utter aloud. Seeing a word for what it means and has meant, the histories of a word, a way of being that feels all too rare these days, is a radical act. SEB: One of the things that struck me most about this collection is how many places you draw inspiration from. There’s Beyoncé, Shakespeare, tarot cards, European palaces, Virginia Woolf, and an installation in the Domino Sugar Factory, to name only a few. What was challenging about drawing inspiration from so many seemingly disparate sources (and time periods) and still making the collection feel cohesive and of the current moment? DA: Honestly, the multiplicity of subject matter always felt natural. I was never worried about that while organizing the book. There’s a unity of sensibility that connects the poems whether they’re set in a cathedral, a bedroom, or a coast. It’s also a fact of my life that I’m interested in and thinking about and enjoying all these things. While I’m looking up a painting by Fra Angelico chances are good I’m probably listening to a remix of Beyoncé. Or if I’m watching a Guo Pei fashion show on YouTube, I’ll be reminded of how light glitters off the coast in Florida by... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Catherine Pierce’s widely anticipated third book The Tornado Is the World takes readers on a frightening, perilous, and ultimately enlightening excursion as a deadly tornado threatens to decimate a town and its people. The poems in this collection shine a light on human fear and examine our response to danger and possible destruction, but they also move into surprising and unfamiliar territory by showing us what the titular tornado thinks, feels, and wants. Moving deftly between several characters’ points of view—including the tornado’s—Pierce exposes human truths about what we do when our livelihoods are threatened and how we understand the world around us when it is almost taken away. Pierce answered my questions about the The Tornado Is the World, letting us in on her writing process, the most challenging aspects of writing this collection, and how she shaped the book. Susan Elliott Brown: The pervading sensation I had while reading The Tornado Is the World was a feeling of imminent danger, not just of the tornado approaching or tearing through a town, but also of violence lurking at the edges of almost every poem, like the foreshadowed death by drowning of a starlet in “In Which I Am Famous,” or the multiple implied plots and escapes in “Heroines.” How do you see danger as a driving force in this collection? How does it move the collection along its arc? Catherine Pierce: Danger is this book’s engine, I think—it, or the threat of it, propels everything. There’s a line in the poem “The Tornado Visits the Town” that gets at that driving force—the tornado refers to the way that fear “makes life perfect and sharp /as a shattered plate,” and though the tornado is not the most reliable observer, there’s something to its claim here, this idea of fear as a great crystallizer or catalyst. In terms of arc, there’s a trajectory both in the book’s three sections and also in the middle, more narrative section, which chronicles an EF-4 tornado’s impact on a town—both the book and that section open with looming but ignorable danger, then shift into the actual crisis, and then finally arrive at the strange, glowing aftermath of crisis. The Tornado Visits the Town The tornado waits to become itself, slowly turning above the interstate. Radio words crackle through the air: major rotation, place of shelter, but also that was AC/DC with and so I said Lady, you can keep the ring! and folks, a donation today will— This, the tornado sees, is a town in need. Bankrupt of the fear that makes life perfect and sharp as a shattered plate. So the tornado gathers itself. Below, a few faces blanch in windows. Some cars speed up. Some cars slow down. The tornado dips and loudens, rises, then dips again. The tornado is gratified to see a man cowering in a ditch, a small girl racing from backyard to house. Everyone is learning. The radios are silenced. Then other noises filter up into the turbulence. A... Continue reading
Posted Feb 6, 2017 at The Best American Poetry