Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Julie Phillips Brown
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The structure of “Goshen” seems to suggest or allow multiple ways of reading, and we’re interested in the heteroglossia in the poem. Is there a specific way you envisioned it to be read?
Julie Phillips Brown: In “Goshen” some elements of order are normative for English: two columns advance two voices, juxtaposing one’s confession against the other’s apologia, and their arguments proceed, linearly and side-by- side, from one stanza to the next—or so it may seem. If readers choose to move through the poem otherwise—perhaps resisting the downward momentum of the columns, and reading corresponding lines or stanzas across the divide of the column break, or perhaps reading the stanzas against the given numerical sequence—they would not be mistaken in the least. The more I wrote my way toward the problem at the center of this poem—an untimely, ineffable loss—the more its heteroglossia multiplied and expanded, and the more I thought about building tensions between fugitive experiences (and syntax) and fixed, structural constraints. Many of my poems contain dialogic or constellatory structures, since they’re a way for me to engage in a poetics of relation—to explore the opacities, lapses, and precarity of connection between oneself and an other.
RR: How do you approach formal structure in your work? Is there a particular form or style that you’re drawn to?
JPB: Most often form for me is needful and responsive to the larger poetic project (I say “project,” since I tend to work in serial form, but this is still true of my standalone lyric poems). I am just as content to invent a form as I am to engage a received form—I try to feel my way toward whatever structures, discourses, or styles will best serve the poem’s purpose. Part of my training as a visual artist was always to hear some version of “form follows function,” and so I still think a lot about intention and the integration of form, in all senses of the word. In her essay, “Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse,” Alice Fulton observes that the best formal verse approaches and approximates elements of free verse, while the best free verse flirts with form. Her intuition seems right to me. Fulton introduces a third term, “fractal verse,” to articulate a poetics of “infinite regression of details, a nesting of pattern within pattern (an endless imbedding of the shape into itself, recalling Tennyson’s idea of the inner infinity).” The “digression, interruption, fragmentation, and lack of continuity” she writes, “will be regarded as formal functions rather than lapses into formlessness.” Fractal verse attempts to trace, respond to, and to make (in the sense of poïesis) within and against the limits and possibilities of an emergent, chaotic world. Many of the poets I deeply admire—Fulton, as well as Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, Robert Creeley, Susan Howe, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Amaranth Borsuk, Cecilia Vicuña, M. NourbeSe Philip, Susan Tichy, and Martha Collins, to name only a very few—work in ways that might indeed be called fractal. Why is it so thrilling when a poetic work takes on these qualities? I don’t know, but suspect it has to do with animation: witnessing a poem as it unfolds its limbs like a new-formed organism, all its energies and gestures vibrant with potential.
RR: We understand you have a background in painting and graphic design. How has that inflected your writing? Is there any overlap between your writing and other forms of art and composition?
JPB: Painting and poetry have long been called the sister arts, even though much hay has been made over poetry as a temporal form and painting as a spatial form. But the idea that a painting might be perceived in its totality, suddenly and all at once, withers under scrutiny, and it would be an ahistorical folly to claim that a poem has no visual, material, or even tactile, dimensions. Whether I am writing or painting, in a much broader sense, I am aware that I am engaged in a material process of making, of translation—a kind of tactual poïesis. Most of my poems are written—I might sometimes say “drawn”—by hand, and then laid out and revised in Adobe InDesign or Illustrator. I experience the compositional space of the page, whether wood pulp or digital, as visual, tactile, and invested with potential: I wrest and nudge language from / in / through / with / against its white field of presence-absence.
RR: As a creative writing teacher, what advice do you have for students that are interested in pursuing writing?
JPB: Two things, perhaps interrelated. The first is compassion. One of my poetry professors, Greg Djanikian, once chided me for an image he called “ungenerous.” When I think of how much generosity and kindness my teachers—Greg, Susan Stewart, Ken McClane, Alice Fulton, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon—showed me, even when I should have exasperated them, I am humbled. Their work taught me how to receive and meet others with compassion in and through the space of the poem itself. The second is community. Find your poetic communities, both historical and local. Trace the conversations, intimacies, and drafts of the poets you love. Listen, then try to write your way into the conversation. Oh, and read your poems aloud. Though I have said much here about the visuality and tactility of poetry, if a poem has no music, it will suffer.
RR: How does a poem begin for you? What gets you started in your writing?
JPB: For me, there are many openings into a poem. Sometimes a fragment of sound, a part of a line, or a title wells up in the mind. I don’t know where such language comes from, but I am content to meet it when it comes. But there are more intentional ways of catching a poem, too—I say “catching” because I think it’s a matter of readiness and attunement. You have to be listening (and by that I also mean reading—a lot), open, receptive, and present. You have to show up, and you have to do the work. Cecilia Vicuña once lamented to me that she had spent too many hours one day with trivialities, and that she had not served poetry that day. She said la poesía, making a goddess of her, in my mind, as I listened. So poetry is also about devotion and service to something much larger than the self, and I now ask myself as often as I remember: how have I served poetry today?
Julie Phillips Brown’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.