An Interview with Poet K.A. Brauchler
K. A. Brauchler is a poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a graduate of The State University of New York at Buffalo where he received both a Bachelor and Masters of Arts degree in English. While at the University he worked with Mac Hammond and Irving Feldman and won The Arthur Axelrod Award for Poetry by an undergraduate. Brauchler is the author of a poetry collection titled To Travel Without a Map. He will read at Scarritt Bennett Center’s Poet’s Corner on June 25.
Describe your relationship with poetry. How has it developed and changed throughout your life?
I began writing in my early teens but it was not until I was in the university that I wrote my first ‘real poem.’ By that I mean the poem that I first realized the real dimension and work involved in truly writing something I took seriously as an art form. After that I worked very hard, reading, starting an off-campus writer’s workshop; poetry and being a poet was the most important thing to me. If I had a paper due for a class and suddenly had an idea for a poem, the poem came first. I wrote in a long narrative line, for the most part, never in a confessional style, always looking for that thing in something that I could turn into a poem; always looking for the ‘twist’ as I like to call it—the thing that turns the everyday, mundane into a special event. I struggled and learned my craft. After graduating I was faced with the real world, working in the restaurant industry (there were no teaching positions to be had in a recession) and slowly my time to work with poetry, to think, became scarce. Eventually around 25 I was not writing at all. It was not until I turned 60 that it began to click in again. Understand in all that time I read voraciously (anything), time permitting, and always considered myself a poet. Those 35 years gave me what I didn’t have when I was younger, experience with life. As immodest as it may sound, I found I had acquired a certain amount of wisdom about the world. I was retired and had one thing every artist hopes for—time to practice one’s craft. I threw myself into writing and found my joy in working again, making art happen. My hiatus provided me also with an unexpected boon. Because I had matured outside of writing I did not have any one particular style I had fallen into. I found myself working the form to fit the function. There were no rules I was concerned with and failure at one thing meant a step in a forward direction. In it all I found my voice again though now I had all new tools at hand and became more expansive in my outlook as to what poetry for me was and what it was possible to do to make a poem. I work 10-12 hours a day doing something that has to do with writing. I never let an opportunity slip past that might glean some wealth in using the language. I think if I had planned for things to happen this way it could not have come out better. I still recognize the poet I was earlier, but know now I have so much more to offer a reader in what I attempt to accomplish. For me the way I wrote 6 months ago is different than what I am writing now, yet I still can go back to those ways discovered back then and not look at it as going backwards. I believe with each poem there is a synergy that happens with all I have done before it, while still pushing myself into new areas.
Writers and poets write for a myriad of reasons. Some write primarily to speak a message to their audience, others write because to stay silent is not an option. Why do you write?
The other day I ran across a quote by Giacometti: “Basically, I no longer work for anything but the sensation I have while working.” That more than anything I think holds true too for me. I have no theories. I am not bursting with things to say—they more or less find me. I always keep the reader in mind. But the feeling I get when I am working, involved with a poem, goes beyond any other. It is not euphoria, but being in touch, in the moment. It is the discovery of something new, even the risk of failure has an allure to it that finds me always wanting more. Sometimes I finish a piece that at the moment seems very good—always thinking it is the best I’ve done-and feel so bereft that the ‘chase’ is over; what, or where is the next thing? I am not saying I think everything I attempt comes out well. But even in the midst of them I am so caught up in what I am doing, surprised at seeing my mind at work on something outside myself that it is stimulating and I am focused. I have said I work a lot. So I am constantly trying things. There is that moment when the first line appears and I recognize it as something, a key that unlocks the whole host of all the experiences and thoughts I’ve ever had and even ones I haven’t but can imagine. It is something like Keats’ ‘negative capability.’ I am able to find a place where the world drops away and my center is there on the page/screen in front of me and there is nothing else. I liken it to method acting—putting yourself in another place and actually being there in your mindset. I am like a thrill addict in a way. The act of writing, though not always easy, always brings with it the sense of mystery—what am I going to say next, how am I going to say it, will it be the best I can do? It is for me a process of engagement and detachment which I think any artist who does the work out of the joy they feel in it must embrace. You must be in the moment and yet be looking back and forward at the same time.
How has your idea of what poetry is and what poetry can do changed since you began writing poetry?
When I was younger and the romantic image I tried to embody of being a poet was foremost in my mind, I used to think of poetry as being so important to the world, that the world needed poetry, needed art. I have come to believe that the world needs nothing to fill it. There is nothing about art itself that fills a void that does not yet exist—this is true of all art before it is created. The world did not need Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but now the world cannot do without them. The world did not need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but now it cannot do without it. All art, poetry in particular, will always be a reaction to the world by an individual, by one who is mesmerized by the connections they are able to make at a specific point in time about a specific set of circumstances. It is part of human nature from the beginning of time for the individual to want to express what they see in an attempt to explain that. The concepts of mythic cosmologies are the result of that. When a poem is written that expresses to others what they cannot express themselves, when it makes unseen connections visible beyond the poet’s thoughts then the need for that is made. That is why to me poems are more important than poets in particular. The tendency is to revere the maker when what we should do is admire what they made. Good art, the greatest art, takes on a life of its own regardless of who the author was because it explains something about the human condition in the world by making connections that help us understand ourselves in the world. For me now, at this point in my life, being the poet who has written a poem that accomplishes this is less important than the work itself. Every poet longs to be published and recognized for their ability to make this happen. So many fall short because they are too concerned with themselves as opposed to what they write. For me now that a poem I write reverberates with a reader means the poem is no longer mine. It belongs to those it says something to. Poets, all artists, need to work with the thought of engagement in the act of creating but detachment from the work after it is completed. That is why I think to me Modern poetry (not Contemporary poetry) was such an important period for poetry. The work I see being created today lacks stamina to sustain itself. It is obtuse much of the time, even gimmicky and skirts the larger issues of life itself, is too narrow in its vision. For me the best poetry is a poem that is expansive in breadth and scope that by having been created makes a need for itself to be there.
What poets inspire you?
I think to answer that I would have to say it is not so much poets but poems. No artist succeeds every time they create something. So to say this poet or that poet really means nothing. I love Frost but only certain poems. I love Wallace Stevens but again certain poems. I love Dylan Thomas but only certain poems. And this is true for over probably 50 poets, George Barker, Laurence Durrell, Cavafy, T.S. Eliot who I could read anything by but wouldn’t say he inspires me other than to want to write something beautiful. Sometimes it might be just a line or two here or there. I have a fairly extensive poetry collection in my library and there is always the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry close at hand. Sometimes I will pick a book and just thumb through it and come upon a word or phrase that registers for some reason with me and I am off to the races. I have mentioned mostly Modern poets and if anything that is where my heart lies—oh to write one poem better than Auden at his best!
Which poems have stuck with you over the years?
Anything by Eliot—I may not know what he is saying but damn I love the way he does it. “Birches” by Frost, “Sheep Child,” by Dickey, “Anecdote on a Jar” by Stevens, “Marriage” by Corso, Ginsberg’s supermarket poem—the title escapes me, “Steeple Jack” by Moore. There is a poem by Ai—who I think has changed her name to something longer–about an old whore who wants to build a concrete walkway so she can do something with her hands other than make a “make a man hard.” There is “Musee des Beaux Arts,” by Auden, “Entry, May 11” by William Benton.” It makes my head spin trying to remember them all. That is just few, oh and, “To His Coy Mistress,” by Marvell. There are others. As I said before I gravitate to poems more so than poets in general. I can’t say why a poem sticks with me. But for me those I mentioned reverberate in some way with my inner core as an artist that communicates directly with his audience through language. There are so many facets to it. In these poems I can see the piece evolve, how it all works in a symmetry of lexical artifacts. How its meaning seems so omnipresent.
What is your understanding of the role of art, specifically poetry, in activism and liberation movements?
My mentor once told me if you want to write a poem about boredom don’t make the poem boring. That is the way I feel about art in general where politics is concerned, even environmental poems. The problem about becoming specific about something politicized is the tendency to become preachy. Then it becomes propaganda. If you want to focus on a “cause” the way to do so is by getting to the root, what is the common denominator of the problem as it relates to the human condition.
Are there any poems that you want to write but you’re afraid of writing?
Never, everything is grist for the mill. I have my own feud with god—I am part of the a-loyal opposition—and living here in the bible belt has never let it stop me from making a point when I want. I never worry about offending people—hurting them, yes; offending them no. The other thing I am never afraid of doing is failing. I refuse to let my inability to make something work to keep me from trying. In the end I have nothing to lose, nor does anyone who tries and fails. You only learn from trying things.
What do you want your poetry to do? Where do you want it go?
I want my poetry to be accessible to anyone who reads it. That does not mean I want it to always be simple. I try to be as articulate as I can, looking for the hidden meanings in things and in words that explain the mythos of living. The word myth has been shrouded with a pejorative sense in modern life. But myth has always given meaning to things that cannot always be explained. We know why birds fly but what is it that makes us watch a bird in flight with so much awe? At heart I am a Jungian when it comes to this. I believe in a ‘collective unconscious’ that plays on our thoughts in everything we do. I want to tap into the reservoir of emotions and gut level instincts. I believe at heart that is what art does all the time on some level. It is what makes us gravitate to different things someone has created. It is the thing that makes us creative in the need to question and the need to understand. I think poetry, because its medium is so democratic, has the most potential to get to the heart in a way that can be explained. Poetry is an explanation. That is what I want my poetry to do. It doesn’t matter to me if people know I wrote something. What matters to me is that if what has been written speaks to someone in a way they recognize as also being part of their own experience. I believe that is what good poetry does, or should do—make us see ourselves in it in some way; make us stop and think.
If you could say anything to any aspiring poets, what would you say?
Work, work, work. Only through working your craft will you realize there will never be a satisfying end. If you find you are finally satisfied with yourself and what you have made, then work some more until you become uneasy. Only working from a cloud of anxieties will you discover the true nature of your art and what it means to be an artist. There is also a quote about ‘stealing which I like better than T. S. Eliot’s: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”—Jim Jarmusch. And don’t conceal your thievery. It’s not where you take things from but where you take them to.
What are 3 words that you embody?
Obsessiveness, persistence and willingness
How would you describe yourself?
I am constantly putting my shoes on the wrong foot, but I am too happy with the walk to want to take the time to stop and change them. Eventually, they will form to my feet and comfort return—at which point it may be time to switch them.
In the fillings and in the voids of my life
Is the touch waiting to be felt, needed,
More certain of itself than I can ever be.
Each edge I approach bears its own trepidations.
Should I, will I go past a point or let the visions
Of my heart be troubled by discretion?
When I do not step out into the night of emotion,
When I do not let the waters of circumstance bathe me
I belie the seed of desire I feel grow inside.
If I wait for the perfect moment to arise
I may wait forever and lose all momentum,
Become satisfied with where I am.
If I can imagine being gone out beyond myself
Then I should just as well go there and doing so
Will find nothing more than another edge.
A loss is not a loss if what is lost is unknown.
I do not want to feel so empty as to not know
The things that might have been.
And knowing say of where I am, have been,
It was a place to rest but there is another
Where stopping I will be the better for.
Do not wait for me beside the pillars of water.
Do not wait for me beneath the Kingfisher’s call.
I will be in the far distance of fire waiting for you.
Anita Peebles is a native of Michigan and has BA’s in Religion and Environmental Studies from Oberlin College. She will begin her Master of Divinity studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School this coming fall, focusing on practical ecotheology and children’s spirituality.