A former NEA Fellow, Brian Teare is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the American Antiquarian Society. He is the author, most recently, of Sight Map (University of California Press, 2009), the Lambda Award–winning Pleasure (Ahsahta, 2010), and Companion Grasses (Omnidawn, 2013). An assistant professor at Temple University, he lives in Philadelphia, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books. His poem “Clear Water Renga” appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poem “Clear Water Renga”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
A lot of stories meet in “Clear Water Renga.” Some of these stories are public—the 2007 Cosco-Busan spill in San Francisco Bay, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico—some of them are private—my own response to these and other environmental disasters—and some of them are still to be told—such as whether herring will return to spawn in certain parts of San Francisco Bay, and what the long-term effects of toxic dispersants on both human and marine life will be. There’s also the story “behind” the poem: years ago the poet Brenda Hillman gave me an assignment to write about dark matter. Of course I thought: oil. In recent years it has fueled some of our most destructive actions. But nothing came of the thought until the Cosco-Busan spill.
The hardest part of writing the poem: all of it. It took five years. I visited oiled beaches in the Bay, watched rescuers clean birds, read all the articles I could find, watched YouTube footage of the Deepwater disaster, researched the environmental impacts of oil and Corexit, and took a lot of notes. I had a ton of material, but I didn’t really know what was driving my archival impulse other than grief and anger. Though I wrote early fragments about the spill in the Bay in 2007, I wrote the first complete draft in 2010 while the Deepwater Horizon spill was still uncapped. It was far longer and more full of quotation, one way of conveying the idea of the “renga” as a collaboration collectively authored. But it felt rough, overstuffed, awkward, and unfinished; I didn’t yet have enough distance on the material and my years of collecting it. After another two years had passed, and after a move across country, I produced a fairly finished draft in July of 2012, and then revised it twice more with suggestions from the KR editors.
Your lines “Each piling ringed/ rainbow, rainbow from the dock,” echo Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” What other “ghosts” of Bishop are floating in this poem? Has Bishop been an important poet to you?
I’m so glad you heard that echo! I myself was surprised when it came to me in the course of writing, and all along I wondered if I should keep it. Of course the image in Bishop’s poem is also oil, and the major irony of the echo is that her oil comes to mean triumph, first of catching the fish and then of letting it go: “victory filled up / the little rented boat, / from the pool of bilge / where oil had spread a rainbow.” Of course there’s the famous, lovely, and curious rhyme between the final lines: “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go.” It’s so lovely that I stole it for my own poem, but I still find it curious. Bishop crafted her poem so that we notice that the rhyme asserts consonance, and completes a chain of figurative associations: catching the fish => victory => rainbow => letting the fish go => bigger victory. But if you think about it, the literal image is a pool of oily bilge water, hardly one redolent of victory, an image that the craft of the poem in fact asks us to forget in favor of a rather grander pattern of figuration. Why?
Bishop was one of my early poetry loves—I even named one of my cats after her. But my interest in Bishop has changed a lot since I was an undergraduate, and as I’ve become more committed to ecopoetics, I’ve thought a lot more about her relationship to the natural world. On the one hand, there are her fabulous powers of description, and the rapt visual and intellectual attention her chosen details convey—the kind of intimacy that speaks of familiarity, affection, and respect. On the other hand, like her mentor Marianne Moore, Bishop tends to allegorize her animals—not only “The Fish,” but also “Roosters,” “The Armadillo,” “Sandpiper,” and “The Moose,” as well as the seal of “At the Fishhouses,” “like me a believer in total immersion”—and, in doing so, makes animals make human meaning so that we often cease seeing the animal for its own sake. I would stop before faulting Bishop for this, especially given the time period in which she was writing, and the literary lineage from which she drew inspiration, but I would say that it’s something I’m wary of doing myself. Still, I took this risk with the Tule elk at the end of the poem, particularly because I was trying to figure out a way to write with animals, with the experience of them, without reducing their presence to allegory or metaphor, to merely human meaning.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Process is contingent, part of a life that is always changing. For much of the writing of this poem, I was overemployed and underpaid (i.e. an adjunct), and I was also uninsured and living with chronic illness. Even in ideal circumstances, it’s hard for me to predict whether a poem will get finished in one writing binge or over a longer period of time, though the poem’s length and ambition obviously can be accurate predictors. During the past five years I found that my process nonetheless remained largely the same in that it’s different—for each occasion that creates the desire to write, each poem I work toward finishing, and each book I find myself in the middle of writing. Because of the difficulty of writing “Clear Water Renga,” I learned to be more patient with how slow process can be, and inside of that patience I discovered more time for intellectual inquiry and deeper self-examination.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Life is mostly not the act of writing, but its randomness and variousness almost always feed what I’m writing about. Over the past five years, I’d say that environmental justice, Buddhist meditation, and traditional Chinese medicine have influenced my writing the most overtly. I experience the three of them as deeply intertwined. The traditional Chinese medical concept of bodies as dependent on their surroundings, open and vulnerable to the elements, and deeply responsive to changes in weather and environment informs “Clear Water Renga.” Such openness and vulnerability become a crisis in those moments and those places where human life and the surrounding life are most obviously interdependent and in conflict. I wanted to capture a sense of that crisis, of course, but I also wanted to counterpoint conflict with the pervasive mysterious grounding of our openness in the elements, in animals, in the lives that always touch us whether we realize it or not.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
For a long time, I was passionate about music alone. I spent my adolescence and many of my undergraduate years practicing the flute and writing music. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Though I did “discover” poetry in high school, I rarely read or wrote it outside of the classroom and largely neglected my other studies. When at last I took some college English classes to fulfill some gen. ed. requirements, I rediscovered poetry and quickly found that it began to rival music as a passion. After a few years of feeling torn between them, I chose poetry as a vocation, put away my flute, and never touched it again. Now that gesture seems like such hubris! Foolishly or not, I chose writing as my primary vocation because I had come to the point where I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Though I have imagined (and occasionally pursued) other careers than teaching, and I have engaged in a wide array of other activities from activism to bookbinding, I have never imagined I could be doing anything else with my life but writing. That certainty has only deepened with time and with practice, about which I’ll say more below.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I know every writer is guided by core beliefs—some well articulated and thoroughly examined, and others almost entirely latent and unchallenged by reason. Teaching constantly forces me to re-examine and articulate many of my beliefs, but usually on a case-by-case basis, and just as often on the fly, in response to classroom discussion. So it’s only when I answer a question like this that I revisit a holistic sense of my own writing life, which is precisely the value of such a question. That said, I’m old enough now to be aware that each time I’ve answered this question, my answer has been different—a fact that reflects how deeply Charles Olson’s line “What does not change / is the will to change” has haunted me.
Today, I believe my writing must show that its aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and political questions are rooted in my life as both private and public citizen. At the same time, I believe language must pursue itself as freely as possible, and that my writing must remain open to chance and to change, and that I as author must remain flexible, accommodating of whatever may happen. Taken together, these two core beliefs mean that the actual craft of my writing must account for the many paradoxes and conflicts inherent in being and writing, in being a writer—my line needs a particular rigor to keep the poem from dissolving into chaos. This is especially true because much is only apparently paradoxical or conflicted, and if examined intently enough, dissolves into another set of questions entirely. Why did I believe in this conflict? Why do I believe what I believe? The poem has to hold up under the scrutiny to which it subjects itself. If the act of writing doesn’t shake my faith—in language, in art, in humankind, in public good—then what use is it to me or anyone else?
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
For the past four years I’ve been working on a book called The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. It’s a very different book for me for a lot of reasons—in terms of narrative, it addresses living with and getting medical care for chronic illness; in terms of form, the book (so far) is full of short poems that combine the lyric mode with typographical experiments; in terms of inspirations, Agnes Martin’s writing and art provided the initial permission for these poems, which also cite Buddhist texts and Chinese medical concepts. Everything about the book—its narrative content, its form, its ekphrastic nature—makes me feel like a total amateur because it’s such a departure from work like “Clear Water Renga” or the poems in my most recent book, Companion Grasses. But I know enough now about my process to know that when I feel like an amateur, I’m actually discovering something new about writing, so at the same time I’m very excited to see in what manner the book will finally come together. And because of its visual nature, I’m excited to see how it comes together in 2015, when it will come out from Ahsahta.