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"Don't Be Afraid to Kick Teeth In": An interview with Brynne Rebele-Henry

The Sillerman First Book Prize is now open through December 1st. To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, poet Brynne Rebele-Henry discusses inventing a new language for women's bodies, and her first collection, Fleshgraphsout from Nightboat Books just this week.

1.    How many books have you published, and where?

Fleshgraphs is my first! It’s coming out with Nightboat Books.

2.    Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

I wrote each fragment as a response or in juxtaposition to the next graph piece, so the whole manuscript fits together like a puzzle. Then I added some new pieces and cut a lot of older pieces during the revision process. Mainly, I wanted each fleshgraph to fit into the next but to be different, so I tried to curate them like you would with a group art show: complementary but not similar.

3.    Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

There were a lot of combined words, or words that I made up or altered, or jagged paragraphs with missing words. I realized when I was writing this book how limited the vocabulary for sex and women’s bodies is, so sometimes when I felt like I used one phrase too much, I’d just invent a new one. I do that a lot, actually. I think words surrounding bodies should be feral and improper.

4.    How did you decide which stories or poems to include in the collection?

During the revision process, I tried to cut every fragment that didn’t seem important or that overlapped too much with other fragments, which was mainly how I decided what to include where.

5.    How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

I submitted to a couple presses that published authors I admire.

6.    What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Don’t be afraid to kick teeth in. I think the best writing does.

7.   Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

I think it helped me see poetry manuscripts differently—how to make a book whole, how to make the work interact with the page more. I used to study the figure—specifically, how to sculpt bodies. One of the things that I thought was most interesting, was that when you’re sculpting a figure, you literally start by creating a skeleton, and then you sculpt clay organs and put them inside the skeleton, and then muscles, flesh, limbs, scars, features. I try to make each poem like those sculptures, I have skeletons and hidden architectures inside my poems. It’s also kind of related to the ancient voodoo practice of creating a small figurine in the shape of the person you’re cursing, then placing their hair or an object of theirs inside the figurine to give it power. I write about figurines and voodoo and womanhood a lot in Autobiography of a Wound, which is this new manuscript I’ve been working on. It’s a book-length lyric about girlhood, female pain, and ancient fertility runes and sculptures. Each piece is addressed to a figurine of a woman’s body. In ancient female fertility carvings, the artist would drill holes into the woman’s body to signify penetrability. I try to make my poems the opposite of that, which is why when I format my work, I try to frame each poem on the page, like a painting, to make the spaces between the words impenetrable, or part of the poem itself.

8.    What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I was so excited! When Kazim (Ali) said he wanted to publish it I kind of forgot how to speak for a little bit. And then I told my parents and a few friends and we all celebrated.

9.    What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

I think I was surprised by how much I loved getting the book ready for publication! It was wonderful to work with Nightboat on Fleshgraphs.

10. What is your favorite part of your first book? 

My first book is actually a (still unpublished, but you can find an excerpt online) novel, The Glass House, that I wrote the first draft of when I was fourteen, a few months before I wrote Fleshgraphs. It’s about a lost painting and lost people, loss in general, queerness, the experiences of existing in a queer body, and building a life after catastrophe. My favorite part is the letters one character writes to another but never sends.

11. In her judge's notes for the Adroit Poetry Prize contest, Tarfia Faizullah called your images "synesthetic"--and your images do seem to cross senses, defy boundaries—especially when you're describing or viewing the bodies of women. How do you think of your image-making?

That’s so interesting that you asked that—I actually had synesthesia as a child, something which has since faded, which is an experience which informs a lot of my poetic work. A lot of my poems (like “Purple”) have colors in the title because they’re informed by the synesthetic myths that surrounded colors for me.

As for the images surrounding women’s bodies, I try to write queer female sex and sexuality and bodies in a way that’s devoid of the male gaze, or men entirely. I kind of try to reclaim queer women’s bodies and sex. I have a theory when it comes to writing that there are five types of sex scenes: 1. The male gaze sex scene, which just lists and fetishizes women’s bodies like they’re animals at the zoo. 2. The intentionally awkward sex scene, which is usually just characters chastely bumbling around. 3. The anti-narrative scene that’s not a scene and usually begins after the sex. 4. The scene that’s purely a plot-line advancement device. 5. Lastly, the animalistic sex scene, which is kind of wild and bodily and generally not a narrative piece but more a taxonomy of flesh/desire and is usually devoid of the social expectations or proprieties surrounding women’s bodies and sexualities. The fifth one is the type of scene I try to write. Having a scene centered around only women’s bodies/desire/pleasure is very political in its negation of everything else, I think.

12. Advanced press for your book is calling you a "wunderkind"-- which I think is more in response to/in awe of the assuredness of your voice than in response to your actual age. Does your age feel important to the art you're making? 

I write a lot about gay girlhood and queerness, which is definitely based off of being a lesbian and having come out very young. I think those experiences reinforce my work, but my age itself doesn’t feel important to me. I’ve never really felt like I identified as a teenager (my friends have a running joke that I’m secretly 35), which is also why a lot of my writing is about misplaced-feeling people who don’t really fit into the worlds they inhabit—I think for me being young can be kind of odd, because I started making art very early in my life (I published a chapbook when I was five), and because of that often feel like a straggler of sorts: not being viewed as an adult but functioning like one, but also not fitting into the teenage world very well, the misplacement of which is an experience I write about a lot in my fiction and nonfiction. 


Brynne Rebele-Henry’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in such journals as Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Fiction International, Rookie, The Volta, and So to Speak, among other places. Her writing has won numerous awards, including the 2015 Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America and the 2016 Adroit Prize for Prose. She is a founding editor of Fissure, a magazine dedicated to young LGBT+ writers and artists. Her book Fleshgraphs appeared from Nightboat Books in September 2016. She was born in 1999 and currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.