An Interview with Alan Britt
Mark Danowsky: First, let me say that I very much enjoyed your interview with Grace Cavalieri for the Library of Congress. I’m a huge fan of The Poet and the Poem series. In the interview you were identified as a “political poet.” You then mentioned a friend who used the term “Humanitarian poet” and seemed to prefer that. In any case, it’s clear you have an interest in addressing social issues and civil rights issues in your poetry. In the interview you also mentioned the importance of women’s empowerment—how do you address such an expansive subject in your poetry? Maybe the more general question is really how do you address “big issues” without being didactic (with the assumption that using poetry as first and foremost a teaching tool somehow damages artistic merit).
Alan Britt: During the Library of Congress interview with Grace, I referenced David Ray, a well-known “humanitarian” poet, as someone who enlightened me to what he was doing and what I was aspiring to do, which is to write poems that spotlight attention on human suffering at the hands of a callous entity called the power structure. David made it clear that his poetry is not political but humanitarian, which I took to mean poetry that transcends political rhetoric to focus on the human condition. Since I’m a political independent, (to me labels such as liberal and conservative are meaningless), it’s easy for me to relate to the term humanitarian.
As for the expansive subject of “women’s empowerment,” I wouldn’t presume to clarify that issue once and for all. I was, however, raised by a single mother, an educated, intelligent and talented journalist/novelist who had to contend with one imbecilic male boss after another in order to put food on the table for her two sons, thus forcing her to abandon her love of writing for many years. My mother, Roberta Crawford Morency, has since written several novels, plus founded the Iron Overload Diseases Association (IOD), the world’s foremost clearinghouse for cutting-edge research on iron related diseases. I watched my mother battle for equality, a battle which has no place in any intelligent society, and became shocked and ashamed of a culture that public school teaches is the most civilized on the planet. I’ve since witnessed many falsehoods about my culture that public education attempted to brainwash into me, and occasionally these moments of awakening infiltrate my poems, which brings me to the question of poetry avoiding didacticism.
I don’t think of poems as teaching tools, perhaps as sparks of creativity that stimulate various ways of looking at the world, yes, but as wooden rulers stinging our palms, no. Humans are a strange breed—highly enlightened on the one hand but dull as leaden stars on the other. Of course, there’s the occasional grumble by folks who read topical poems then complain they dislike being told what to think. In recent conversation, humanitarian poet Lilvia Soto rebuffed, “Do they realize they’ve been taught by their culture how and what to think since the day they were born?” I’m reminded of Blake’s aphorism: “Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.” Still, I don’t consider poetry to be a teaching tool. Sometimes there’s cultural wisdom embedded in poems, such as many that Pablo Neruda wrote. But in my culture the herd has been led to a giant watering hole called consumerism, and its primary clientele worships pop culture. At best pop culture pays lip service to important human endeavors such as women’s empowerment and civil rights, but when competing with pop culture, serious poetry doesn’t stand a chance.
MD: In the introduction to your collection Alone with the Terrible Universe you write, “The first two poems are indicative of where the manuscript might have gone, but then September 11th. From that point forward, ending June the following year, a cycle of poems grew like an anti-garden.” Bearing this in mind, what are your thoughts on the role of poetry as a form of activism?
AB: As I alluded to, good luck. Our citizens have been trained to cheer loudly for political nonsense, for political rhetoric completely devoid of content. Democracy in the United States is a sham. We exist in a plutocracy, an oligarchy. Democracy has been eroding in the U.S. a lot longer than we realize. I doubt that poetry can challenge the Brave New World pop culture watering hole alluded to earlier. However, if poets refuse to play dead, preferring instead to embrace quality of life over quantity, then I say go for it. Right now a movement called 100 Thousand Poets for Change (http://www.100tpc.org/) inspires poets locally, nationally and internationally to hold creative events to promote positive change. Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion co-founded 100 Thousand Poets for Change in March 2011 and, according to them, “There are now over 100 countries participating in poetry readings, music events, day-long festivals of poetry, dance, art, public lectures and workshops to promote peace and sustainability for serious social, environmental and political change.” I support this wonderful activism for the artistic community, but I’m also aware that dragging the larger portion of our culture away from their big screens is a grueling challenge. As they say, inside every cynic is a disappointed idealist, but I can’t shake this feeling that humans can do better; we can create quality of life for all creatures on our planet.
MD: How does The Personal come into play in your poetry?
AB: Well, to write public poetry, poetry that some refer to as “plain language poetry,” especially language that embraces the cultural Zeitgeist, is to walk a tightrope between pandering and philosophic ingenuity. If you’re dying to be understood and to connect with people, you’ll likely follow the road most taken, which these days is more like a twelve-lane highway. Such levels of connection can be superficial, which is the risk every poet takes. While I certainly do enjoy connecting, I also look for exit ramps leading straight to dirt roads that didn’t exist before I stepped foot upon them. Metaphorically speaking I forge new roads through the jungle of my imagination. These roads are obviously cultivated by my life experiences; hence, the personal is always with me. In this manner all my poems are personal. It’s just that most of my poems exist somewhere off the beaten path.
MD: What is the role of writing in your daily/weekly routine?
AB: My teaching schedule is so heavy that during semesters I have little opportunity for new poems. Writers carry stories and poems around in their head 24/7, but 24/7 hardly exists for most of us. Although rewarding, teaching consumes tremendous time and energy. Most of my writing during semesters consists of rewriting, which is vital. I tend to be a night owl writing well into the night and early morning, which unfortunately, separates me from my favorite inspiration: nature.
MD: Parabola Dreams contains both your poems and those of poet Silvia Scheibli. How did this book come together? Would you call it a collaborative text?
AB: Silvia Scheibli and I have been friends since our college days at the University of Tampa. In fact, we are original members of a group labeled Immanentists—poets whose work was inspired by European Surrealism and a Native American sensibility that views nature and human spirituality as inseparable. The genesis of our book was a simple one: Silvia and I chose poems to fill half a book each with some thought given to the compatibility of poems chosen, hence the title Parabola Dreams.
MD: You’ve written flash fiction as well as poetry. Can you discuss when and why you decide poetry is the appropriate mode and when another medium seems more suitable?
AB: Flash fiction, sudden fiction, micro fiction, short-shorts are terms applied to their close cousin, prose poetry. A lover of prose poetry, I cross the vague border between flash fiction and prose poetry from time to time. Although I write more poems than prose poems, I don’t know if poetry is a more appropriate medium for me or anyone else, for that matter. It’s just that more often than not I seem to focus on word economy. It so happens, however, that I’m currently working on a book of prose poems, some of which drift across the ambiguous border into flash fiction.
MD: What writers/poets are essential in the here and now? I came across a list of poets/writers as well as texts you listed as your personal favorites. Many were from a bygone era (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Who are contemporary poets/writers you enjoy?
AB: There are currently many essential writers, and as a poetry teacher I enjoy the luxury of discussing their poetry, prose poems and flash fiction in the classroom. No better way to investigate writers than to deconstruct their writings in an environment that encourages insightful group discussion. These essential writers seem to emerge daily, which merely means that I discover them on a daily basis. There are, as you mentioned, wonderful writers from a bygone era who luckily for us are constantly being replaced by exciting new voices. For me, there is no shortage of inspiring new poetry. Some “recently discovered” poets include Christine Boyka Kluge, Shawn Fawson, Kristiina Ehin (Estonian), Gabriel Cisneros Abedrabbo (Ecuadorian), Patrick Lawler, Alex Lima (Ecuadorian-American), Lara Gularte (Portuguese-American), George Preston, John Amen, Brooke Bognanni, Sean Thomas Dougherty, José-Flore Tappy (Swiss), Tom Holmes, Flavia Cosma (Romanian-Canadian), David Chorlton, Olivier Bochettaz (French-American), Alan Catlin, Serena Fusek, Philippe Rahmy (Franco-Egyptian) and Katherine Sánchez Espano, to name just a few not mentioned in previous lists.
MD: Can you talk a little about the goals of the We Are You Project? After reading about the project it seemed only natural that you made the effort to publish in many journals abroad. Would you say your interest in publishing abroad is related to living in a global community?
AB: The We Are You Project or WAY (www.WeAreYouProject.org) began as a means for Latino and Hispanic-American painters and sculptors to direct attention to the plight of all Latino and Hispanic-Americans suffering the indignity of prejudice in the United States. Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Brazilian-Americans, Argentinean-Americans, etc. deserve the constitutional equality promised to all U.S. citizens. Gifted Latino artists in the U.S. joining forces with their remarkable talents have generated WAY exhibitions nationwide to standing room only audiences who witness incredible works of art that deal with the issue of equality for Latino and Hispanic-Americans. Two founders of WAY, Carlos Hernandez and Duda Penteado, desired to expand the WAY voice to include poetry and invited me to participate. Though I’m not Latino or Hispanic, I do believe that we’re all related somehow. My interest in journals abroad stems from my interest in poetry written by everyone from everywhere. I want to know what inspires poets from Greece, Ecuador, Finland, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore. Emerson’s desire to create a truly American literature, particularly in this global day and age, is old water under the bridge.
MD: What sparks you to begin writing a poem? When do you most enjoy writing? Is this also the time you feel you write best?
AB: Many things spark a poem: music, mockingbirds, reading poems, wine. Where the poem travels after inception depends not only upon my environment but also where the poem determines it must go. With some poems I extend more directional control than with others, but typically poems have a mind of their own, which requires sensitivity to their imaginative flow. I am most conducive to writing poems when I suspend conceptual authority over my imagination. As mentioned earlier, such a mindset occurs late evening into early morning. I prefer to write while immersed in a natural setting, but since that’s often impossible, I make due wherever I happen to be.
MD: What are the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process for you? When do you decide a poem is complete? What factors leave you satiated? At what point do you decide to abandon a poem/project? Do you finish every poem you start and what is the average number of drafts/iterations/edits for a poem?
AB: Of the many enjoyable aspects that make up the writing process, I have to say that allowing imagination to flow unrestricted is the greatest joy. At times I’m able to enter a creative zone, a mental state that expands sensibility into pure imagination which lasts from minutes to hours. Such a mindset feels like the proverbial “Eternity in an hour” wherein I become sensitized to a poem’s evolution, since sooner or later every poem reveals how it wants to end. I know it all sounds rather intuitive, surreal-Blakean—imagination weaving levels of consciousness into a visionary tapestry—but it suits me. Still, there’s the matter of making each poem as good as it can be. Some poems are destined to explore more depth than so-called throwaway poems. Poet and critic Paul Sohar recently referred to them as “throwaway jewels.” I appreciate how he understands their importance to me. Such “jewels” I enjoy since for me all poems are a source of daily nourishment with some nourishment existing in the form of a light snack. In any event, the rewrite process requires dedication. This rewrite process, unfortunately, could go on forever—remembering that poems are never finished, they’re merely abandoned—but I don’t have forever, so the refinement process often takes years until I’ve determined that nothing more can be gained by altering a poem further.
MD: How has your writing process changed over time in terms of style/voice/themes/tone? And what are your thoughts on audience?
AB: My writing style over the years has changed. Teaching a variety of poets, along with interest in reading disparate poets, has expanded my appreciation of diverse writing styles. I’ve made a conscious effort to stretch boundaries; although, I don’t actually believe in boundaries. Also, along the way I’ve realized that in connecting with readers, I don’t want to restrict myself to a lexicon that simply repeats what is already familiar via a language that produces what could be deemed conventional wisdom, that is, if it produces wisdom at all. To be clear, I’ve written many poems that are straightforward and conventional, but if all my poems were written that way, I’d give up writing. Really, we could say that all poems are written for an audience; otherwise, why bother to record them and publish them. It’s just that audiences are diverse in the manner that poems are diverse. Some readers—to my mind, lazy ones—scoff when poems don’t make conventional sense, when poems appear to defy logic. Poetic language can retain rationality without following linear logic. There’s no rule that says readers shouldn’t make an effort when reading a poem. Again, if you’ve been programmed by your high school or college professor to be a lazy reader, thus, expecting poems to read a certain way or expecting one poet to mimic another, then that’s on you. Change your expectations, get excited about poetry again and defy those preconceptions that you paid good money to learn in grad school. I believe a Stockholm Syndrome sometimes results between students and their professors, but that’s a different conversation. So, bottom line, audiences are great; just don’t require preconceptions to dictate your poems.
MD: How do you feel about the concept of the Muse?
AB: Artist and art historian, José Rodeiro, says the following: “In his 1933 essay Play and Theory of the Duende, Federico Garcia Lorca revealed three primary supernatural entities, which inspire all creativity: 1) muses, 2) angels, and 3) the duende. According to Lorca’s 1933 essay, angels always direct their flashes of inspiration toward the future, igniting creative inspiration that is generally farsighted, prophetic, and telepathic. These atypical aesthetic occurrences are extremely rare, and [as such] the duende affords angels, as well as muses, little kindness, forbearance, or sympathy.” Duende, as we know from Lorca, stares death in the eye without flinching, thereby creating something eternal in the present moment, a concept thoroughly explored in Marvell’s “Coy Mistress.” So, each of these three forms of inspiration can empower imagination for poets to enter the clairvoyant intoxication I mentioned earlier. Greek mythology says the Muse consists of nine goddesses of inspiration for literature, science and the arts and is closely associated with memory. When I write, I sometimes believe I’m on track to create a fresh linguistic reality, one that isn’t mimesis or based upon the past; therefore, the Muse proper shouldn’t be in my room. However, since my poems are all over the place, the Muse hides behind curtains, beneath the couch or deep inside a cat’s sandpaper purr. So be it. On the other hand, the Angel appears when words and sometimes entire lines echo inside my skull. Such intoxication occurs when I don’t exert conceptual authority onto anything in particular. Entire poems have echoed inside my head while I write as fast as I can to keep pace, and the sensation is one of achieving direct connection with some invisible spiritual dimension—sounds anti-Blakean, I know, and I adore being inspired by physical sensations flowing through my imagination—but that’s what happens from time to time. Is this sensibility the Muse, Angel, Duende or some other myth humans require to clarify what cannot readily be conceptualized? Who knows?
MD: From what I’ve read, you write primarily in free verse; how do you feel about the use of form in poetry?
AB: Well, I was weaned during a time when the Beats and the Deep Image poets were sweeping away the ashes of academic poetry. So, my initial inspiration was engendered by the physical sensations of language and not by how well accents lined up. Formal poetry made a comeback in the ‘90s, possibly due to the expanding enterprise of MFA programs. Obviously, wonderful poems can be written in form, but form is often emphasized because like mathematics it’s a quantitative system that can be taught in the classroom. The dilemma here is that showing young poets how exciting and profound surreal imagery is can be difficult for teachers who themselves vaguely enjoy such mysterious language. It’s true that dull-minded students will turn away from applying effort to reading and writing such challenging poems, thus resulting in shrinking MFA enterprises, so the answer then is to focus on aspects of poetry that are teachable: trochaic heptameter, assonance and parallel stanzas that mimic form. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s extremely difficult to induce inspiration for imaginative exploration in students who dwell in a culture so utilitarian as the United States. Recently, poet and consummate music critic, Geoffrey Himes, suggested that if such inspiration cannot be induced in the classroom, why not teach students the skills necessary to at least improve their poetry? It does make sense. Learning a few forms and understanding mechanics behind the music in language is vital to writing well. Form is not the enemy, but not introducing students, however challenging, to the magic and mystery inherent in certain immeasurable aspects of language, a la Symbolism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, is to commercialize poetry, thus promulgating an ever-expanding ocean of poets to write what Donald Hall refers to as McPoems.
MD: What are your thoughts on what makes for a “lasting” poem?
AB: I don’t know exactly what makes for a “lasting” poem, except to say that poems that seduce you again and again, poems that over and over resonate and inspire you as you evolve throughout your life are obviously “lasting” poems. There are, of course, poems for each of us that are “lasting.” I never tire of rereading Marvell, Keats, Baudelaire and Lorca, and what a diverse group they comprise.
MD: General advice for writers? “Read, observe, write. Read, observe and write some more. And fall in love.” These are your words in your interview with Grace Cavalieri. Care to elaborate further?
AB: I still believe in the age-old advice for all poets to read, observe, write, read, observe, write some more and along the way fall in love with writing. Every poem is a learning curve. The curve might broaden after your one thousandth poem, but if you haven’t become jaded or hoodwinked by success, you just might continue to sharpen your sensibility and accidentally create a “lasting” poem.
By Mark Danowsky
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