Friday, October 30, 2015

"I can remember being happy and wondering if that meant I wasn’t deep."

John Brantingham with Archie Goodboy
The truth is, as human beings we all suffer. But suffering is not the only wellspring of creativity. It's possible to be happy and be a writer, as John Brantingham and I discuss in the latest installment of my Books That Inspire series:

You told me that you hope your book The Green of Sunset offers people a way to focus on small, seemingly unimportant things to help them through difficult times. Can you say more about why you think poetry has the capacity to heal?

So much of what hurts people is self-inflicted. The way we see the world creates our reality. Poetry and the arts in general give us a way to understand the world. The arts are a global conversation, and much of that is a discussion that helps us through the difficult times.

When I was younger, I read novels constantly, and they helped me. One year, when I was going through religious questioning, I read nothing but Brian Moore and Graham Greene, and the two of them let me know that other people had the same kinds of questions that I had, and that they were important questions. At the very least, poetry lets us know that we’re not alone.

There are times in your life when a book, movie, or painting hits you just at the moment when you need it, and in a flash you understand, and that artistic moment stays with you and drives you. Ted Kooser does that to me a lot. Tolkien did that for me when I was a kid. I was hard of hearing and lonely then, and Tolkien gave me a world beyond myself.

And I think that most of the time, it does more than that. It gives us multiple perspectives on the world’s chaos, and I always want my poetry to be healing in some way. It needs to affirm hope and courage above all other things. Art can do that too.

My wife, who is an artist, led me there and I can see the larger conversation of the arts now. It’s beautiful if you follow the right artists. The cynicism and negativity that often drags people down is easy and childish. If people hit my poetry at the right moment, I want them to see the beautiful possibility that there is for them.

Even if you don't normally read poetry, I bet you'll like this book.

In the title poem of The Green of Sunset, you write: "I hope you realize bitterness comes only from moments that stick out in our minds like pustules on a tongue. We chew on them, given them an importance they don't have to have." Do you think being bitter is a choice? Can you say more about how this idea might be important to you?
There are people out there who have been through a great deal, and it’s hard to fault them for bitterness, but yes, to some degree I do [think it's a choice], at least it is for me. I wrote this book at a very difficult time in my life. We’d wanted to adopt a child and had gotten to know the mother very well, but it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. In part it was written for me to remind me that I need to focus on what is beautiful in life.
I’d been drinking pretty hard, often a fifth of bourbon in an evening, and had put myself into a kind of spiral. I realized that the way out for me was through the arts and by not focusing on those things that depressed me. I started volunteering and working with other people. I started writing more and reading more. I haven’t ever been to therapy, and I won’t as long as this is working for me.
We didn’t need all of the big things as long as we had all of those little things. We had daily art and long walks and the joy of seeing people doing amazing things. There is so much profound joy in the world, I knew that we shouldn’t focus on those couple of moments that had been terrible.
The second key to this was being with someone all the time who I feel I can trust and talk to. I don’t know how far the arts would go to keeping me out of my head if I weren’t with Annie. She helps me and I help her to focus on that which is larger than we are. I don’t think people need to be with a husband or wife for this, just around other people.

The depressed, suicidal writer is fetishized in much of literary history. Do you think we must suffer in order to write well? How do you think such a view of the artist affects you as a writer--and your students?

It’s difficult to write about writers and poets working on craft. It’s not dramatic, and therefore, bad writing. The alternative then is to write about those things in their lives that make them interesting on a human level. It’s much easier in a class about Hemingway to talk about his suicide or his alcohol abuse. I’m saying this as someone who teaches literature, and I have found myself focusing on those things, which is a mistake that I’ve made in my teaching career.

The truth is that Hemingway did abuse alcohol and he did kill himself, but a lot of people have done that. No one would say that good bridge engineers really should drink and be depressed or they wouldn’t be in the right headspace to construct great bridges, but there aren’t many good movies about bridge engineers. If there were, it would be hard to make them because the internal life just doesn’t translate well into movies, stories, or biographies.

So, I think “fetishized” is right. It’s obsessive and irrational. Yes, a lot of writers have been suicidal because a lot people have been suicidal. The two things do not correspond. That kind of view affected me a lot. I can remember being happy and wondering if that meant I wasn’t deep. What a ridiculous thought.

I’ve had to talk to students about alcohol and drug use. I don’t think that they should stay away from alcohol necessarily, but if they think drinking and drugging is going to make them good writers they’re absolutely in for some trouble. They’re going to stop writing pretty soon.

The relationship of the arts to depression is this: the arts can heal depression to some degree for some people. Of course, I don’t mean clinical depression. However, people absolutely do not need to be depressed to create art.


I love the rhythm of your writing, the way it showcases how the mind wanders and connects. Because you use common vernacular, I'd call your style an accessible version of stream-of-consciousness. Have you always written this way, more or less, or has this style developed over time? What has influenced your progression as a writer? (I feel Walt Whitman in your you?)

I’m someone who believes very much in form, so much so that I wrote a textbook about it, The Gift of Form. The idea behind that book was that each form gives the poet something different, and if you approach formed poetry differently than you do free verse, you will have a unique experience but still gain something from the poetry. The formal poet should stay focused on the line not thinking about the ending of poem and trusting that the form will draw out ideas rather than starting with the idea and trying to force it into the form.

Anyway, that was the idea I had with these poems. Because of the way I was feeling, scattered and unfocused and confused about what the point of my life was, I turned to prose poetry, which focuses on the poetic sentence. It can go on and on and allows a kind of outpouring of emotion.

You flatter me with Walt Whitman. Yeah, he’s a big influence. The most direct influence for this collection was Gary Young, who is my favorite prose poetry writer. I read his collections over and over while writing. Then, there are a ton of others -- Thomas Lux, Tony Barnstone, Gerry Locklin, Sharon Olds, Donna Hilbert, to name a few.

I try to have a completely different style for each collection to capture the meaning and message of the poems and my mood. I just released Dual Impressions: Poetic Conversations about Art with a friend, and I often used a sonnet form. Other times, I’d use single stressed lines to help mute the tone of the poem.

What would you tell your younger self?

I’d tell him to slow down and not work so damn much. I’d tell him to quit his job selling clothing and live without money for a while so he could focus on writing. Also, I’d tell him that all of those feelings of self-loathing are ridiculous. He’s all right.

I’d tell him to get married sooner, to find a way to do that through writing. I’d tell him to read more. I’d tell him to care for his friends more and to listen to jazz.

I’d tell him to take Annie to Europe and live there as long as he can. I’d tell him to take Annie to the mountains and live there as long as he can. I’d tell him to take that internship at that magazine that he passed up and to work at Mt. San Antonio College because he’d really love the people there.

I’d tell him to watch as many movies as he can and subscribe to museums so he can write there. Finally, I’d tell him to find a way to own as many dogs as he can. There’s no joy in this world like a dog’s joy.
What else would you like to add?

For the last two years, Annie and I have been volunteering at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, teaching poetry and art to people in week-long sessions. We arrange it so the students are volunteers and as long as they agree to donate at least one piece of art or poetry, the week and park entrance is free. Some weeks, we backpack. Other weeks, we stay in the front country and work. In any case, it’s an amazing adventure, and anyone reading this can join us. The connection to nature and art is unlike anything you’ve experienced, and we have scientists along to give us insight into what we’re seeing. Please contact me for more information on that, or friend me on Facebook.

John Brantingham is the author of books of several books of fiction and poetry--as well as hundreds of poems, stories and essays. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College and lives in Seal Beach. He is currently working on a collection of flash fiction pieces with Grant Hier, meant to be the entire history of California from 10,000 BCE until now. He's also writing a poetry collection that explores the natural history of California focusing mostly on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.Visit his website here, and friend him on Facebook here.

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