Spotlight on Issue 120: Q&A with William Brewer

Chris Carosi

As a poet originally from a former steel-town outside of Pittsburgh, I have a thirst for stories and writers coming out of the area, especially Appalachia and what is known, by turns accurately and inaccurately, as the “Rust Belt.” I am most interested in the writers from this part of the country that have been writing essential books that highlight the personal experiences of working-class communities. I’m thinking of presses like Belt Publishing and West Virginia University Press, not to mention the dozens of books from other small and university presses that seek to give writers from these areas platforms to tell their stories. There are more books being published now than ever before that offer much-needed Black and LGBTQIA history and experiences from within the region. 

After moving to San Francisco and maturing as a writer on the West Coast, I never relied on my experiences growing up in these kinds of communities as material for my poems, although I acknowledged to myself at some point that I had been clandestinely coding them into pretty much everything I wrote! It was a poet friend of mine who finally asked me, with eyebrow raised, “Have you ever considered just writing about what happened to you?” And so, the time came to start writing more outwardly personal poems, which to my surprise as a lifelong syntax and line-break fiddler, came out as prose blocks. 

It was right as I was passing through that turnstile between being private and not so private in my writing that I encountered the work of William Brewer. His first book of poems, I Know Your Kind (Milkweed, 2017) was a touchstone for me, a book about what happened certainly, and a book set in a small community in West Virginia (specifically the town of Oceana, closer to Kentucky than Pennsylvania, which was nicknamed “Oxyana” after it became a capital of OxyContin abuse). I was interested in that background to start with; then I noticed William was a poet from West Virginia and this was his hometown; and of course, there was the arresting book cover of a spoon-shaped piece of the cosmos. It was an automatic purchase for me in the City Lights Poetry Room. 

I was then pulled in by the laser-focused voice in these poems, especially since these were poems of memory and difficult acknowledgement, something I was striving to do. Remembrances of horrific experiences filtered by a voice resolute with knowledge of the surreal and what is too strange to be untrue. A powerful affirmation of nature in relation to suffering that touches on the primal as well as the majestic; matching one’s fears and mourning of friends and loved ones with the rugged natural world’s environment of predator and prey, growth and decay. Only a complicated relationship to one’s hometown can produce poems filled with such contradictions: pain and peace; the stone-cold surfaces of a town and the expressive voice wheeling as firmament in the night sky. Such things are demonstratively tied to a poet’s path through the world—that is, a world they are a part of and a world they create in each moment. 

In my journey for a new kind of “Rust Belt Surrealism,” where a life that is supposed to be benign or forgotten or even suppressed takes on a new kind of fantastical affectation, I spoke to William Brewer about his work, including his poems that appear in the Technology Issue.

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ZYZZYVA: I want to start with something that continues to interest me about I Know Your Kind after all this time: there is certainly a cosmic sadness and acknowledgement of pain that drives many of the poems. But the voice sometimes is apart from that suffering, not “above” it, but perhaps coming from some place beyond. When you write into or encounter your memories or take on “the past” in your work, are you working to inhabit those memories? Do you view it as a retelling or are you “looking back” in those poems?

WILLIAM BREWER: I know what you mean about the voices feeling beyond suffering, and I agree that “above” is the wrong word, but I feel like “beyond” is wrong, too. Or not completely right. Instead, I imagine those voices as speaking from the deepest possible point within an experience. I’m talking the quantum level, which, like in physics, is a timeless space where the givens of reality have fallen away. It has been my experience, and I know I’m not unique in this, that the most extreme moments of life, both good and bad, suffering and ecstatic, eventually sent me into a place where even the particulars of those states fell away, resulting in severe clarity, presence, and realization. I think much of my writing calls from this space. But as for consciously inhabiting, retelling, or looking back—I’d be lying if I said I knew. Writing for me happens when Will, the Will responding to these questions right now, falls away and my imagination takes over. That force is way smarter than me.

Z: The images in your poems are so crisp and drenched in your personal experiences to a point where it becomes hard to parse the real and imaginary. One thing I learned when writing about my own difficulties growing up and the absurd circumstances of my town is this: the things that sound strange to other people are always 100 percent true and, at times, I feel like a fiction writer parsing what things to intensify and for whose benefit. Have you encountered this phenomenon at all? 

WB: I’m a very visual person. I started out as a painter before I switched to writing. Visual experience is a big part of my day-to-day reality and my imagination and it’s certainly a central engine within my work. I put a lot of effort into making the reader see. And while some of the stuff I’m trying to make the reader see comes from my imagination, I don’t relate to that stuff as “imaginary.” If anything, I feel like I’m trying to get people to see reality more precisely. We can see quite a lot, but most of our brains have become lazy, allowing the world to fade into a blur of generalities. I’m always resisting that.

As for disbelief, I find that often happens when writing, or even just chatting, about a place like West Virginia or Appalachia. I’ll mention some detail or image or story and someone will resist it. I’m used to it now and have even grown to like it: it’s helped me see that all the stuff that I thought was totally crazy while growing up is, in fact, kind of crazy. Two Christmases ago a dear friend visited me in West Virginia and at one point while I was showing him around, he stopped, rubbed his eyes, and said, “This place…it’s very beautiful, but then it’s really not. It’s fucked. It’s very confusing.” And he’s right. It’s a place where visual experience is almost always some sustained experience between deep planetary beauty and total human wreckage. Through that tension, my visual mind was made.

Z: There’s a rich constellation of poets that I can connect to your work: I am reminded quite a bit of Frank Stanford at times, especially in the rich descriptions of dirt, plants, and animals where there hovers always some kind of darkness or violence. And  your very strong, sometimes blunt voice in that particular outdoor setting of West Virginia, similar to his Mississippi or Arkansas. And I am forever learning from a book such as The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyeser, which serves as a document of witness for the coal miners in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. And Pittsburgh poets like Ed Roberson and Jack Gilbert, the latter of whom has a beautifully written prose-like style similar to how you write in I Know Your Kind. Or someone like James Wright who writes haunting poems with carefully constructed and crystal-clear images. Do you mark any of these writers as influences? And what poets have you been reading most recently?

WB: Gilbert, Wright, and Rukeyeser were definitely influences. I dig a few moments of Stanford but, to be honest, most if it feels way too coked up for me. Roberson wasn’t on my radar until after I Know Your Kind, but he certainly is now. Ultimately the early work was influenced by everything—I tried to read as much as I could and trusted that what mattered would make it into the poems. Recently I haven’t been reading as much poetry because all my efforts have been dedicated to finishing up edits for my novel. That said, I will stop whatever I am doing and read a new poem by Maggie Millner, Margaret Ross, or Solmaz Sharif. If I was an editor, I’d be on the phone every day begging for Millner’s debut and Ross’s second. I hope editors are doing that because if they aren’t, well—that’s insane. Sharif’s second book iscoming out and, judging by the poems I’ve seen, it will be excellent. No surprise there. She’s one of our best. But all three are doing something totally unique. Singular visions. Completely unafraid. Gloriously uninterested in trend. Technical wizards. When I read them, I think, that’s what a poem can do that other writing can’t. I’ve also been lucky to recently read books and manuscripts by friends. Everyone should go buy Noah Warren’s The Complete Stories, which just dropped, and then pre-order Brian Tierney’s Rise and Float and Richie Hofmann’s A Hundred Lovers, both out next year, both exceptional.

Z: So glad you mentioned the new book by Solmaz Sharif that’s coming out. I’m excited about that one, too! Now let’s turn to the two new poems of yours in the newest issue of ZYZZYVA. First, “Anthony Bourdain” is a poem where the future is this dubious invisibility cloak one can wear while touring the Old World. I love the way the poem ends. You’re questioning how one could not “see” evidence of Bourdain’s future suicide in episodes of his show(s) (and also failing to get through the episodes to begin with) and then, on an IRL Bourdain-like adventure, you and your partner disappear in the pitch dark of a cave together, but you still know, can feel, where the other is. I find the linking of those sequences in the poem to be really wonderful. Can you elaborate any further on this idea of togetherness amid an uncertain future, or in the midst of “darkness”?

WB: Thanks for the kind words about the poem, Chris. I’m hesitant to say too much about the ending. I think I’d prefer people to take from it what they will. What I can say is that, growing up in West Virginia and wanting very much to get out of there, watching Bourdain travel the world became a very important part of my life. I learned so much from him. Not just about food, but also how to move through the world like a guest, with curiosity, gratitude, enthusiasm, and non-judgement. And yet, for as long as I was watching him, I was also suicidally depressed. It was very bad. When he died by suicide, I was gutted. Maybe that’s an embarrassing thing to say about a celebrity’s death, but I don’t care. It happened at a very difficult time and this poem came out of that. Maybe what I’ll say is that love can see you when you can’t see yourself. That’s why I’m still here.

Z: That’s marvelous. That openness about “love seeing you,” even just beginning to describe it, is such a palpable feeling in that poem. And I am with you as far as how influential Bourdain was to so many (Americans, especially) on how to simply approach the idea of traveling to unfamiliar places. In the second poem in the issue, “Will,” the plasticity of the future and self-harm is explored further. And it starts with an examination of the meaning and implications of your own name. I am obsessed with the actual meanings of our names, which we take for granted, no matter their complication. Again in this piece there is a tenderness, an understood connectivity, with someone you care for within the logic of thinking about death that I find very similar to some of the best moments in I Know Your Kind. When thinking of the “will” to act or to question an act, and the meaning of names for the living and dead, I am struck by the logic in this poem. Can you comment further on this?

WB: Like above, I’m hesitant to comment too much on the logic, not because I’m trying to be annoying, but because I’m trying to get better with letting the poems live their lives. That stuff going on with etymology, grammar, etc.—I kind of stumbled into it all while trying to articulate how depression, at least for me, took on the power of another voice in my mind, a voice that was at once me and not me. Gradually over twenty years that voice became incredibly powerful and savvy, finding patterns, signs, and justifications for its thinking at every turn, to the point that I couldn’t even trust my own name. Luckily, that’s behind me now.

Chris Carosi is from Pittsburgh. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks, bright veil (2011), FICTIONS (2014), and Funerals and Others (Inverted Church, 2019), and works for City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. He lives in San Francisco with Rebecca, Georgina, and Eddie. His poem “Take care of me on the earth” appears in ZYZZYVA Issue 120 and is from a recently completed manuscript of poems.

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