Wombwell Rainbow Interview Series with Paul Brookes, December 2018 (Transcript Below).
What inspired you to write poetry?
It was under the influence of the poet Susan Roney-O’Brien that I started writing. I was in grade school and she was the Language Arts teacher. She had great disdain for grammar lessons. Instead we read difficult novels, wrote short stories, and memorized poems. She saw some potential in me early on. Again and again she told me to never stop writing.
How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I had the good fortune to be taught by poets and lovers of poetry at all stages of my education. In middle school I was reading Ted Kooser, in high school I was reading Raymond Carver, and once I was admitted to Smith College, I was truly in literary heaven. At Smith I studied poetry primarily with Ellen Doré Watson and Joan Larkin. These women nurtured me, challenged me, loved me. I owe so much to them. They had me read everyone from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Muriel Rukeyser. When their contemporaries were in town to visit, I received personal introductions to W.S. Merwin, Alicia Ostriker, and Natalie Diaz. When I think back on it now, it all seems like magic, the way love of language manifested there, brought us close.
What is your daily writing routine?
I keep a journal. Most days I note the weather, what birds I saw, whose tracks were in the snow, where Mars was on the horizon— things in that vein. I write a lot of letters to loved ones. The poems themselves are few and far between. Since I left New England and academia a few years ago, most of my poems have come to me while I’m outdoors, moving through the world. During the summer I worked at Rocky Mountain National Park, a fellow Ranger named Sara Straub told me that she thinks in poetry while she hikes. We were beside the Colorado River, inspecting a rock that had been overturned by a black bear in search of ants or grubs. I loved when she said it then and I love it even more now that I realize it’s true for myself as well. Sometimes it takes a few miles to work up a rhythm, sometimes it’s just a matter of stumbling across something profound, but at this point in my life, it takes wilderness for me to write poems.
What is it about wilderness that motivates you to write?
Wilderness has the same pull as love or grief. Wilderness is inexplicable– and yet that would never stop a poet from trying. In the wilderness I am most human. There is so much fear and wonder. The solitude makes it all more acute. Everything comes into perfect focus and the details are great fodder for poems.
What is your work ethic?
I’m not sure I have one! In my writing life, or otherwise. Poems arrive when they arrive. I’ve been venturing into the realm of essays though and that does take more discipline. It’s been a tough transition away from all the workshops and support at Smith. In my post-graduate life, there’s less accountability. Without deadlines, it’s easy to be lazy. Or to prioritize other things. If I have half an hour, I’m more likely to meditate than write.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I think I’ve been influenced most in terms of form and length. I like my poems pared down to the essential. I was always enamored of Kay Ryan’s work. And it shows. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem that was more than a page long.
What is it about Kay Ryan’s work that enamours you the most?
In a Kay Ryan poem, there’s not a whole lot being said, but nothing is left out either. She can make a small poem feel very big. That’s what I admire. Her poems feel like eggs or acorns—tiny and yet so ultimately complete.
Who else of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
It’s easiest for me to admire most the poets I know personally. Chase Berggrun, a good friend from college, just put out a phenomenal book called RED. The poems are erasures from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I read it six months ago and I still get chills thinking about it. Margaret Wack is another name to watch out for. I expect she’ll have her first book out within the next couple years.
Why write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Writing is cathartic. It’s a tool for processing trauma, identity, the complexities of human relationships, grief for our abused planet. We all have obsessions to work through. Writing isn’t enough for me though. I hike, I meditate, I take anti-depressants, I watercolor, I nap with my cat. Writing is just one tool of many to get me through.
Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’m working on a manuscript called Wilderness Medicine. The idea is to explore the trajectory of trauma and mental illness through experiences in the wilderness. So far it’s slow going— a lot of poems about blisters and panic attacks in the woods. I’m confident that it will become my first book, but even the writing process has become painful. I’m happy to put the project down for weeks or even months at a time and just breathe. Soon I’ll be in the woods and come across a mountain lion kill site or have a good talk with a raven and feel like writing again.