A Virtual Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

Background

J. Scott Brownlee will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas and a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he taught poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative MagazineHayden’s Ferry Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Highway or BeliefAscension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County. Honors for these collections include the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison
Poetry Prize. It also won the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee writes about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes the aesthetically marginalized working class. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

JSB: I think the first poem I actually read and paid attention to was Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Emmett” in Bat City Review. It was lying on the floor of the UT-Austin English Department, and as soon as I got to the end of the poem, I was mesmerized.

CH: When did you become interested in writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

JSB: I wrote some bad love poems in high school but thought initially I’d be a fiction writer as an undergraduate student. Things didn’t work out that way. I came to poetry as a result of a nudge or two from Michael Adams, a professor and mentor who told me to read Larry Levis and encouraged me to consider the “you can be a poet” idea.

CH: When did you first begin to consider pursuing an MFA? What were the influences that led to that decision?

JSB: I’d been dreaming of going to Michener ever since I figured out what it was, and so for a couple of years I applied there and was rejected. The year I cast a wider net and applied to multiple schools, NYU was the last one I applied to, and I did it on a whim after meeting some New Yorkers at ACL and thinking, “I kind of like these people—might as well apply to school there.” You’d think it would have been a more well-conceived plan, but it honestly wasn’t.

CH: How was your work received by fellow students during your time at NYU? What effect did this very urban location have on your process of writing about place?

JSB: I’d say there was probably about 50% positive support (which was very positive—Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds lit a fire in my writing life) and 50% negative feedback. At times I found the negative feedback frustrating (students with Ivy League undergrad degrees honestly just didn’t understand the context of rural Texas at all and would generalize to no-end in workshop), but ultimately I think having something to push against—a cliquish and never-appeased criticism of the rural—was helpful. I don’t know if I’d still be a poet-of-place without it.

Living in Brooklyn really helped me write strong poems-of-place as well. Being physically removed from the rural Texas landscape meant I had to imagine it, and I think the myth-making and imaginative leaps my poems make were in part made possible by being in a state of exile / dislocation.

CH: What kind of responses has your work received from the community in which you grew up?

JSB: I thought it would be negative initially, in all honesty, but it’s been 100% positive overall. There aren’t necessarily many poetry readers in Llano, Texas, but many members of that community still gave my first book a try, and I’m grateful that they did. Accessibility is important to me. I wanted to write a book of poems non-poets could access, and so far the reception of the book has aligned with that intention.

CH: Over what time period were the poems of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap written? Was this book conceived of from the first as a project, or did the book coalesce in a different way?

JSB: I wrote the poems over the course of about six years (the oldest poems are from around 2009, and the newest are from 2015—just several months before the book was published). My first plan for the book was for it to follow a church service in terms of flow and the order of the poems, but in the editing process Luke Hankins (the editor of Orison Books) and C. Dale Young (the judge of the contest I won) proposed some changes to the order that really helped the book take a more organic final shape.

CH: For me, Requiem’s title is deeply evocative. How did you decide on this as the title of the book, and of the poem that shares it?

JSB: The title comes from the poem of the same name that appears near the end of the book, which I wrote as a kind of metaphor for several people I knew growing up who took their own lives with firearms. Technically an “ignition cap” is a car part, but I was thinking of it as the small ignition cap on a bullet that, when struck, can leave so much emptiness and pain in its wake. Both definitions work when considering the meaning of the book’s title (Llano is one of those small towns where people will leave an old car out in the sun to rust down to nothing), which wasn’t intentional but is something I’ve come to appreciate after the fact.

CH: When I read “Disappearing Town,” I was struck by its reflection on the failure of journalism located in urban centers (e.g. the New York Times) to take the time and effort to truly engage with people in rural areas. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this seems especially important. What kind of feedback have you received since the election regarding the news your poetry brings?

JSB: Thanks for noticing that! You are the first person to catch the intention behind that poem and ask about it. It’s a theme I’ve continued in my second book, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, which has a poem responding to the “poverty porn” mentality journalists and photojournalists tend to take when they cover the lives and landscapes of the working class.

Honestly, the election has had a mostly negative impact on my writing and its reception (which I think is justifiable given the current state of race relations in this country). I find myself in a position where I vehemently disagree with the current administration and feel like they have lied to and manipulated rural people (including rural white people, my primary subject) to no end, but there’s also that element of racism / xenophobia that individual rural people are responsible for themselves, and capturing that while also trying to draw attention to misinterpretations of rural America that are unfairly negative is a very difficult task.

CH: What are you working on now?

JSB: I recently finished and am sending out my second full-length poetry collection, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and am about 70% finished with a first draft of a novel called Diamond Kings, which follows a fictional rural Texas high school baseball team on their path through the state playoffs and centers around an episode of racially-linked gun violence that threatens to tear the team and wider community apart.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JSB: I have too many favorite poets to bore you with list-wise, but right now I’m re-reading Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec and want to check out Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio, which I’ve picked up several times in the bookstore but still not gotten around to purchasing quite yet. I try to read local Austin poets as well and so have Lisa Olstein’s new book Late Empire on my coffee table as we speak. If I had to pick only one poet I could read forever, I’d probably pick Larry Levis—mostly because we are both narrative poets-of-place, and I feel like I have more to learn from him each time I revisit his writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s