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Four Questions for Fleda Brown

PS Managing Editor Marianne Kunkel interviews Brown on her poems featured in the latest issue

Fleda Brown’s memoir is Driving with Dvoˇrák. Her most recent collection of poems, Reunion, won the Felix Pollak Prize. The author of five previous collections of poems, Brown has won a Pushcart Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and her work has twice been a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware and past poet laureate of Delaware. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program.

MK: In your terrific poem "God, God," you include the question, "My God, why did I turn my eyes upward when / we were all there, then, in the flesh?" It represents a central theme in the poem—the distraction that religion can be from the needs of one's own family—but why phrase it as a question? How do your questions, in this poem and others, help move along poems? Would you say your questions in poems are often rhetorical?

FB: It wasn’t so much that religion was a distraction. It was a deliberate (although unconscious) way to turn away from what’s there, what’s right in front of me. It’s the way we use religion to escape life rather than to look at it straight on. There are many things to say about that, but you get the idea. It’s not that religion is bad. It’s that by looking to something/someone beyond, it’s easy to not see what’s here. I had this life, rich and wonderful and awful. The question is really rhetorical, as you say. I suppose they are usually rhetorical in my poems, since I’m seldom speaking directly to someone. I think what the questions do is put the speaker right in the crux of not-knowing. Why-oh-why did I do that? is a way of finally looking straight at loss. It’s the epiphany of the poem, the moment of seeing what hasn’t been fully seen.

MK: The title of your poem "On a Day that It Bombs" is so provocative and attention-grabbing. How did you choose the title of another poem, "Letter from Battle Creek"? In it you describe a scene at Battle Creek so vividly, but what about the word "letter"? What made you decide this poem was a kind of letter?

FB: It felt in that poem as if I were explaining—that I had a need to explain—to someone not there, someone who might be asking about my life. There I am, in Battle Creek, and even the name of the creek reminds me of the battles in my life, the marriages. The explanation of how it was, how it happened, requires careful language, careful consideration: it is like this. It is like that. The entire scene reminded me of a war-zone after the artillery had pulled out, which reminded me of the emotional strife of my marriages, and finally, reminds me that no matter what the devastation, things survive and change until they’re not at all what they once were. Maybe this is my version of Emily Dickinson’s “. . .Letter to the World.”

MK: The matter-of-factness and worldwide sensitivity in "On a Day that Bombs" reminds me of some of Gerald Stern's poetry. I love how frankly you write, "I am writing this because / I don't know what is appropriate in this world." The poem straddles the inner and outer worlds, the very local and the global. How else does your poetry resolve or negotiate these two worlds and has this changed over your career?

FB: I am a great, great fan of Gerald Stern’s poetry. I would like to be able to straddle worlds as gracefully as he does. I don’t so much “negotiate” those worlds as feel their presence as multi-layered and simultaneous. That’s what I hope the poems do—layer and offer and open the territory of one day, in this instance, to all occurrences of that day and that moment.

I am more inclined in that direction as I get older. The linear is a lie, but a convenient one. We need to use it. We count 1, 2, 3, among other things. But what I want in my poems is a moment of utter opening where all the impulses of that moment meet and/or collide. I’d say I wish for a moment of awareness, whereas when I was a much younger writer, I was looking more for a moment of discovery. New territory. I now doubt that there’s anything new to discover. There’s only more to be aware of. And of course, that’s the discovery.

MK: As the author of six books of poetry and a memoir, you obviously stay busy. What's your writing schedule like over the summer? Can you recommend any excellent summer reads?

FB: Summer is my worst writing time. Traverse City, Michigan, where we now live, is crazy-busy in the summer. We escape to our cottage, but still, there are family and friends who come. I write as I can, a little. But I am very disciplined—whenever there are no visitors or family, I’m at the computer all morning, no matter what.

Summer reads? I just read Ellen Airgood's South of Superior¸ a novel that will keep you interested in both characters and plot all the way through. She and her husband run a diner in Grand Maris, in the Upper Peninsula. Then I suggest Katheen Flenniken’s Plume, a collection of poems about growing up in Richland, Washington, where plutonium was being produced for bombs. It’s gorgeously written and shocking. Todd Boss’s new book of poems, Pitch, is also great reading.