The Goal of Writing is Being Alive: An Interview With Traci Brimhall
Updated: Mar 30
This month, we had the honor of sitting down with Traci Brimhall to talk about her new collection, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon Press 2020), grief, ritual, and intuition.
Jacqueline Boucher: The “Dear Eros” and “Dear Thanatos” poems sometimes read as tribute to their respective gods, and other times as intimate as letters to a friend. Can you speak about this collection’s connection to Eros and Thanatos as figures, as well as to them as ideas?
Traci Brimhall: Thanatos was my one-night stand god for many, many years. Whenever I needed a creative break from the books I was writing, I would write to Thanatos, and Thanatos seemed to always write back. These were often weird and lyrical, and now that you point out the intimacy, I think these were often more distant, more god than friend. Eros didn't come along as something/someone I’d address until close to the end of the book, but it also got a different voice out of me. If Thanatos brought out my leaping and lyrical side, Eros brought out my chattiness.
As far as them as idea rather than just as figures, Thanatos was definitely a way to talk to/about my death drive, and writing to Eros definitely came out of the strong desire to live and love and be loved.
JB: There are so many threads at play in this collection: divorce, birth, wonder, and of course, grief. Each thread is so intentional. As you were creating and assembling this project, how were you able to divine what was part of the project and what was a foray into something else?
TB: One of the most amazing—and frustrating—things about writing poetry is that every book turns out differently, and no amount of previous experience has helped me understand, write, or order subsequent books. Many of the things that feel intentional to a reader through ordering were not at all purposeful in the writing. Some of the pieces were written almost 10 years ago now, and some were slipped in before I handed the finished book to my publisher. My really annoying and imprecise answer is that I follow my intuition on what fits and what doesn’t. But here are a few things I consider: 1) what’s the book’s question? (I think of books as creative investigations, and what’s included in the book should serve that.) 2) How do I beckon a reader in, and where do I leave them in the end? (these tend to be early decisions when ordering a book.) 3) What’s the tonal movement in between those two other points of emotional entry and exit? (Is this a long descent and return? Or many small waves of feelings?)
JB: To speak a bit on grief: I was especially struck by the poems in which the speaker grappled with the murder of her friend, particularly ones that involved a sort of tender crime scene recreation: the field, a stretch of road, a second death as moth. What role does imagination play in grief?
TB: For me, the best grief rituals have engaged the imagination. I have grief rituals, such as cooking my mom’s favorite meals and watching movies or shows that we would’ve watched together, that are part of the grief theory of Continuing Bonds. However, the grief rituals that feel the most satisfying are the ones where I get to be creative—making hospice blankets and writing poems. The balance of these two is probably important, but the cooking and the watching makes me feel the gone-ness. The imagination lets me feel the ever present-ness of the dead, and like many grievers, I like how close those creative acts can bring me to the people I’ve lost.
JB: One of my favorite things about you as a poet is that you lead with wonder and curiosity. In this collection, so much of what you’re grappling with seems to be the transmutation of wonder and grief. What role does curiosity play in finding your way to the truth of a poem?
TB: Oh I love this question. I think the most direct answer is just that my revision process is a series of asking the poem question, which I guess is like interviewing your tarot cards. You see what images came out and start to ask why it matters, what it’s risking, has it said anything yet, and hopefully that gentle interrogation leads you to something real and honest and brave that you said or were trying to say.
JB: If you could tell any one thing to the version of you that was just beginning this collection, what would you tell her?
TB: Write even more bad poems! Grief makes my brain function poorly, but I wish I could have written during more of that time to get a record of that time when time itself felt slippery. I felt like I struggled to think in general, but the goal of writing isn’t great poems. The goal of writing is being alive, the get your mind on paper, to remind yourself who you are or were or are trying to become. I wish I would have forced myself to just write some more lines with dates next to them so I could look back and see how I found my way out of the labyrinth.
JB: What are you reading right now that excites you?
TB: In poetry, I recently finished Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm and thought it was excellent! In nonfiction, I’m in the middle of Joni Tevis’ The World is on Fire, and in fiction, I’m starting Richard Powers’ The Overstory today and excited for that. The last journal issue I read that I loved was the brand new one out from Adroit, which is exceptional.
JB: What’s your favorite bone?
TB: I love the nasal bones of bears and dogs! These fenestrated bones look like lace among animals with sensitive sniffers.
Traci Brimhall is the author of Saudade (Copper Canyon Press), Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The Believer, Best American Poetry (2013 and 2014), The Nation, The New Yorker, Orion, Ploughshares, and Poetry. She has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s an associate professor of Creative Writing at Kansas State University and lives in Manhattan, Kansas.