No Things But in Places: A Conversation with J. Scott Brownlee
I met J. Scott Brownlee during my first workshop as a graduate student at New York University, where, early in the semester, I heard him read his poem “Mockingbird” the same way it was written—with slow, accumulating thought and ponderous pauses. I began to look forward to hearing his poems each week because, never having strayed far from the east coast myself and knowing very little about the southwest, I felt each of Scott’s poems was acquainting me with a secret version of Texas that he knows and uses as a landscape on which to build his poems. When his book Highway or Belief won the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, he generously agreed to discuss the workings behind these poems with me in an email exchange.
Amanda McConnon: So tell us a little bit about what we can expect to find in this book.
J. Scott Brownlee: Highway or Belief, as you might intuit from the title, is a book concerned with how the physical world (i.e., highway) dictates and creates the metaphysical world we superimpose on it (i.e., belief). All of the poems address life in my hometown: Llano, Texas. They are especially interested in capturing the mindsets and perspectives of a variety of the town’s citizens, both living and dead. The poems’ speakers/subjects include Aron Anderson, one of my high school baseball teammates; military veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; an angel; Christian meth addicts; my junior high football teammates; and several iterations of my “self” (past, present, and imagined future). That is quite a litany, isn’t it? This is definitely a collection interested in the “we” more than the “I,” if that makes sense. While writing these poems, inhabiting other people’s circumstances and experiences proved much more generative and rewarding than plumbing my own subconscious. If anything, the “I” in these poems feeds off the “we” in unexpected—perhaps even “spiritual”—ways.
AM: When in the process of making the book did you know that this relationship between the physical and metaphysical was going to be its focus? Was that something that you discovered as you went along after writing many of the poems, or was it more of a lens that you used while calling up all of these subjects.
JSB: I would be lying if I said I had a good sense of where the metaphysical yearning in these poems originates. “Yearning” may be the wrong word—”wandering” seems more appropriate, since the landscape this collection arises from is windswept, deserted, lonely. Consequently, it asks to be walked through, wants to have its empty spaces filled by a thinking/feeling consciousness to which it can feel connected. I like the idea of poems being prodigal sons and daughters who wander the proverbial earth of the blank page in search of homes on their own terms—metaphorical children that, unlike the Biblical prodigal made famous by Jesus, never quite return, remaining always just a bit out of reach. That separation between me and them is ultimately what creates meaning between us: energy, movement, a call-and-response interplay. Our relationship’s core is made stranger and stronger—and, I’ve found, more apparent—by the terms of our separation.
AM: I like thinking about poems as our prodigal children not bent on returning to us. Can you remember any times when you could feel any one these poems taking flight from you—when you felt it was crossing a threshold between being something under your control into something that exists on its own?
JSB: “English 301,” from the beginning, was all about tone and developed an identity separate from me fairly quickly. Aron Anderson, its speaker, is a sort of rural alter-ego: a clear and honest voice representing Llano from a perspective very different from my current position as a graduate student at a private university in New York City. He is based on a good friend of mine from back in high school with whom I played varsity baseball. I distinctly remember our first day of practice senior year because he got to the field well before everyone else on the team and was smoking a blunt in the batting cage while simultaneously taking these long, smooth, effortless swings at the ball. Our coach was, as you might expect, not very pleased. But Aron’s ease of movement—combined with his lack of concern for other people’s opinions of him—made him unforgettable to me. To some degree, I think the poems in Highway or Belief carry themselves similarly, especially the poems written in memory of him.
AM: How important was that physical/geographical distance from Aron and your other subjects in order to write about them? Did you work on these poems at all while in Llano or strictly while away from it?
JSB: “The Last Time I Saw Aron Anderson” was written when I still lived in Texas, during a year I spent working and writing in Austin, which isn’t too far away from Llano, where the poems are based. “English 301” and “The Addicts of Llano Speak Out” were written during that time as well. All of the other poems, though, were written after moving to Brooklyn back in the fall of 2012. Some of them feel older than that, but they are relatively new in reality. So the distance between the town and me has definitely been important in their creation. It’s been easier to write in prayerful, elegiac modes about the town because of that separation, maybe. It’s geographical but definitely not metaphysical. I feel more “Texan” now, more “rural,” than I did before moving up here—which I certainly did not expect. Working with Yusef Komunyakaa on many of the poems in this collection has been crucial, as he is also originally a rural Southerner and has helped me harness the poetic energy emitted from the spirit/consciousness of the land. He believes that as poets, our internal landscapes mirror the external landscapes we experience growing up—that we carry the land around with us, in a sense, in our minds and bodies. And I agree with him completely about that.
AM: Besides the opportunity to work with Yusef, in what ways has being in the MFA program at NYU influenced Highway or Belief? In what ways could you anticipate this book being different had you not been involved in such a community while working on it?
JSB: Moving to New York City and attending NYU has led to a lot of useful tension in my work which is directly related to how productive I’ve been the past two years. Since the dominant poetry aesthetic here in the city is one that emphasizes formal experimentation and language itself over narrative and the image (my proverbial wheelhouses), I’ve been forced to weld together more tightly my poems-of-place and think long and hard about exactly what it is I want them to do. Their singing has to be even more urgent, more plaintive, than it would have to be in other poetry communities/contexts. I think their lyric registers are higher as a result.
Unexpectedly, representational ethics have become quite important to me as well. Now more than ever before, I feel a responsibility to accurately portray and speak for my town and its gradual disappearance due to shifts in the economy, social fabric, and climate that continue to negatively affect it.
Yeats has that idea of the center not being able to hold, which I’m really drawn to and try to incorporate in my poems. I definitely see them as existing on the aesthetic periphery here in the city. Part of the reason my friends and I founded The Localists at NYU was to create a new community for poets from marginalized communities: writers from the cultural and economic peripheries of the United States and elsewhere. So far, the idea has spread like the wildfires that span across the pastures of the Texas hill country every summer. In our collective, there are writers from the mountains of North Carolina, the backwoods of Mississippi, the mangrove swamps of El Salvador, the coast of South Korea, the old-growth forests of Washington State, and the bustling city-centers and villages of Cambodia. We wouldn’t be as differentiated as we are if NYU didn’t have such a large, diverse MFA program in which forming communities like ours is possible. Sharon Olds and the rest of the faculty accept students from across the globe. There is a lot of care and attention paid to that idea, I think. In the future, I hope the momentum we have created carries over to the next generation of creative writing students.
AM: Can you talk a little more about The Localists? How has subscribing to a certain clearly delineated aesthetic deepened or altered the way you work on poems?
JSB: The idea for The Localists movement started back in 2012 when I became close friends with poets Matthew Wimberley and Javier Zamora and novelist J.T. Dawson. We were all writing about peripheral places that the canon had not yet included—and likely wouldn’t ever include if we didn’t continue to document them in our writing. We also decided that the collective ought to not have a lot of strict aesthetic rules, with a new writer’s inclusion being as simple as identification with the idea of writing about a peripheral place or marginalized group of people.
In the long-term, what we’re attempting to do is unify all writers who are on the outside looking in when it comes to the current literary landscape—specifically writers whose aesthetic goals may be antithetical to the more accepted, traditional, “highbrow” ones—creating a safe space for those writers in the process. The idea of belonging is at the heart of what The Localists movement is and, hopefully, will be.
I was asked by a friend the other day, “Why go around calling yourselves The Localists? Why do you need to do that?” My answer was simple: “community.”
As a young writer, it’s instructive to think about the alternative to community-building: aesthetic isolation and social isolation are what you’re left with. There are many examples of writers throughout history being successful while isolated, definitely, but there are even more examples of writers whose friendships with other writers have greatly impacted and improved their own writing. My friends and I felt isolated until we founded the collective, and I think it’s safe to speak on everyone’s behalf when I say that our individual lives as writers, while not dictated day-to-day by our identification with the movement (which is more of a loose confederation than an aesthetic catch-all), have been significantly strengthened by our knowing we have brother and sister Localists to lean on for the rest of our writing lives. That’s a powerful thought.
AM: Now I understand it more clearly. So, The Localists movement is less about confining a writer into writing one type of poem or story and more about celebrating and feeling safe about sharing work that doesn’t necessarily fit into what is the accepted set of standards among today’s literary world?
JSB: Absolutely, yes. At a time in literary history when identity poetics has taken the form of collectives organized around gender and ethnic identity, we want to put class on the table as a marker of aesthetic identity as well—providing a space for writers whose work focuses on forgotten and/or marginalized groups of people. We want to bring those groups into the imagination of the contemporary literary world by writing passionately and convincingly about them. We want our poems, stories, and novels to speak for themselves moving forward, without the need for argument or justification extrinsic to them. “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams wrote in Spring and All. We take that idea a step further, adding, “No things but in places.” For us, the external landscapes in which we were raised remain accessible in our imaginations—no matter where we end up geographically. That interplay between external and internal landscapes is a source of inexhaustible interest to us.
AM: Since the founding of The Localists occurred right around the same time you began working on most of the poems in this book, in what ways do you think this collective has influenced Highway or Belief specifically?
JSB: It has been crucial to me. As a writer in New York, there is always a lot of doubt to go around—a lot of pressure to feel like you’re not accomplishing enough, not publishing enough, not writing enough. Being a part of the movement gave me a group of folks I could commiserate with, celebrate with, talk about poems with in complete honesty and safety. As a result, my poems found a freedom to say and be what they wanted to say and be. It was such a joy—such an ongoing pleasure—to follow them rather than trying to get them to follow me while writing Highway or Belief. Early in the drafting process, I remember reading some lines from William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All that have stuck with me from the first time I read them until now. I typed them up and hung them on a nail in my apartment in front of an impressively thick layer of rejection notes:Down past the brushwood
the rainsluiced wagonroad looms the artist figure of the farmer—composing —antagonist
If the kindling for Highway or Belief had any one aesthetic spark, these lines were it. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to finish the collection without Williams shaking me awake, saying, “You can write whatever type of poem you want about whatever you want—even one about meth heads and evangelical Christianity and the crack after easing open a second (or third) can of Bud Light.”
AM: What advice do you have for writers who have a hard time trusting that their subject matter is worthy enough to be written about?
JSB: I’ve watched many young writers try to create their aesthetics by attempting to over-think their formulation. They ask questions like, “Is my writing surprising? Is it fresh? Is it ‘new’?” Traditions and styles writers encounter in graduate school may actually delay the development of their own distinct voices—the ones they probably had coming into school and just need to have the courage and stubbornness to excavate and own. I believe we each have a style that is inherently ours that we just need to claim. Part of claiming it means accepting the possibility it may not be the most new-fangled or experimentally breathtaking approach to writing (at least on its surface). Instead of saying, “Get over yourself,” I recommend that young writers get into themselves—embracing whatever it is about them and their relationship with language that is singular and most emphatically sung both aloud and on the page.
J. Scott Brownlee is a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at New York University. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, RATTLE, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ninth Letter, BOXCAR Poetry Review, The Greensboro Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working-class, both in the United States and abroad. His chapbook, Highway or Belief, won the 2013 Button Poetry Prize and will be published by Button Poetry in the spring of 2014.
Amanda McConnon is pursuing an MFA at New York University. Her poetry has appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and BOXCAR Poetry Review.