Jul/Aug 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Tony Brown

Interview by Lea Deschenes

Tony Brown has been involved in poetry since publishing his first poem at age nine in a children's magazine. Since then, he's developed a style that draws equally from his love of traditional and contemporary poetry and his long involvement in the performance and slam poetry scene, earning three Pushcart Prize nominations as well as the honor of being identified as one of the "Legends of Slam" at the National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX in 2006.

A new chapbook of his work, Flood, will be published in 2009 by Pudding House Publications. He's also released two CD/chapbook sets of work with his bass and guitar playing musical partner, Steve Cafaro, performing together as "Duende."

Tony lives in Massachusetts.


LD     So many of your poems revolve around questions of self-definition and identity. Do you find that the process of working through those poems helps you to explore the issues in your life?

TB     Short answer: yes.

I find that the process of working on a poem involves digging deep into the layers of my life. There are lots of layers to explore. I'm biracial; I'm simultaneously a white collar consultant and a broke artist... contradictions and tensions abound. It's a complex process to write about those contradictions.

Trying to get a poem to say what I want is also all about discovering what is true, what's deeply present and then describing it accurately. The harder I work on a poem, the closer I get to the truth—and being able to offer the contradictions and tensions in a way that the reader can understand helps me to see them for myself.

I'm not afraid of contradiction and tension—at least, not as much as I once was. I think it's a function of age and maturity that I can be as comfortable as I can with those things within me...not that it's always that comfortable, of course.

LD     You're also a musician and music fan, and work extensively with a musician in your poetry / music project, Duende. Do you listen to music when you write? How do lyrics and lyricists influence your work, if they do at all?

TB     Oh, I never listen to music when I write. When I listen to music, I listen to music intently. It takes all my attention.

I tend to write with the television on. Usually, it's police procedurals—the various "Law and Order" series, "NCIS". I've seen them all a dozen times at least. I don't really watch them. I don't have to think—it's just background noise.

But I still take a lot from music for my poetry. What I listen for in poetry is the same thing I listen for in music. Playing and listening to music help me understand the nature of artistic exploration.


How the artist works within the boundaries of their chosen field—whether it's the narrow boundaries of things like punk and basic rock, or in the wider field of inquiry that is jazz, or even the world of orchestral music—the way the composer approaches that set of problems is worth examining for me, and it mirrors the process of creating a poem.

LD     So, you see poetry as similar to music—perhaps formalist poetry is like classical music, free verse is like jazz, slam is like rock and roll...

Yes. And they work differently. When you're writing, serving the piece is critical. If I'm writing a three-minute, relatively simple slam poem, I'm not going to approach it the way I will a longer, more complex work.

LD     You have feet firmly planted in both the performance and "page" poetry worlds. Who do you like on page right now?

TB     Li-Young Lee has that willingness to let the reader jump for the stepping stones in his work, rather than spelling everything out.

Patricia Smith's latest work, Blood Dazzler, kills me. She's an old friend, and I've seen her a million times in performance, but with this book and her previous one, Teahouse of the Almighty," she's made that huge leap in the public perception of just being a great poet without need of a qualifying adjective.

I always come back to Rilke. Whitman. I also adore Tomas Transtromer.

I've been reading and re-reading Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw—still think Didactic Elegy" is the best work yet on 9/11. I like reading work that makes me struggle for comprehension in a good way.

LD     I know what you mean. Work on the page seems to let you fill in ambiguity, and that's not always true in pure performance poetry, which too often leads you by the nose to its point.

TB     The metaphor I use is that too often, performance work brings you to a stream and then takes you by the hand to lead you across a bridge to the other side. I prefer work that brings you the stream and then shows you stepping stones. You have to leap across them, finding your way. The objective is the same, but there are two different approaches to getting there. I find greater engagement in the second approach. It's more fun.

My own challenge is in making that same approach work in performance. It is difficult, but it's worth it. It's about learning to let your breath dynamics and gestures do some of your work for you—to lead the audience into the flow when it's not as obvious.

LD     Whose performance work do you like?

TB     Rachel MacKibbens. Tara Hardy. Daphne Gottlieb—for someone who can really be alive on the page, especially with her cut up and text experimentation, she's really figured out how to make it work in performance. Karen Finneyfrock. Ellen Maybe (who I haven't seen in years, but who just leaves me breathless.)

It's interesting—I find myself naming women. There are not a lot of male performance poets right now who really shake my tree—Khary Jackson out of Minneapolis is doing some cool stuff, and I always love to see Mike McGee, Anis Mojgani, etc... but it's the women I've named above who are most impressive in terms of wedding the page and the stage.

Tomorrow of course, it'll be a completely different list!

LD     Your poems are often full of characters, often sketched with very brief descriptions. How do you find the telling details to bring a character to life?

TB     A lot of the persona and character work I do comes from things I've overheard.

Once, in Boston, I was walking down Tremont Street and listening to two older men, perhaps homeless but certainly down on their luck, talking about the recent mugging one of them had suffered. The other said, "Yeah, and that's why I always leave my money in the liquor store."

There was such humor, such poignancy in that statement. I wanted to know more, but I couldn't—so it led me to a poem. I had to think hard—what else would these people say? What would lead you to being in a situation where your thought might be, "I'm broke all the time because I'm drunk all the time—but that's safer than the alternative?" Hell of a thing.

When I write political work, work about political and social issues, I prefer to tell stories. It's one thing to stand up and tell people about marriage equality as a right, a concept, and there's nothing wrong with the occasional slogan—but it's another thing entirely to make people feel passionate about a social issue by creating characters who are real, are right and true, and who can make the reader and/or audience feel what their pain is like as a result of not being able to marry. You have to get it right.

I struggle with getting it right. I really, really wish I could do a better job of capturing dialect and slang. But I'm not great at it. So I tend to work with snippets rather than with longer dialogs and monologues. I try to find phrases that do a lot in a little space. Just enough to make the reader think I know what I'm talking about (laughs).

LD     I love stealing jargon myself—science jargon, etc. You don't need to know a lot to give the flavor of a subject—it hearkens back to what you were saying about providing a map of the terrain in a poem versus a clear route.

TB     Exactly.

I also try to provide arresting detail—describe things and provide detail in a way that makes it come alive, outside of the normal ways of describing sensory things. I'm pretty decent at that, I think, in terms of visual description, and on aural stuff too—but I've never been good at smell and taste—can't seem to find a way to describe those without referring to another smell or taste! I wish I could do that better.

Maybe that's my next challenge.

LD     It's often said that poetry is good therapy. Any thoughts on that? You often speak of a need to maintain distance from inner turmoil to create good art...

TB     I wish it was better therapy, at least for me. I'd have saved some money.

Look, there are lots of folks who find that, after some traumatic experience, they need to write about it and get it out on page or in front of an audience. I think that's fine and worthy work.

But to take it to a level of better art, you need to have some distance—some time, and some space. You need to be ready to be ruthless with your self and see the experience clearly, and immediately following the break up or other trauma isn't always the best time to do that.

Your cathartic poem may be great for you right now, and that's fine. But only time will tell if it's great on its own merits.

I also think you have to write about stuff that's not traumatic—if you really want to be master of your art, so to speak, you have to be able to do this work without that sort of turmoil as your only source of inspiration. You have to discipline yourself to write daily, or regularly, about all kinds of stupid and mundane stuff—so that when you are so strongly moved by something tumultuous, your muscles for handling it as art are toned and ready to do so.

Nothing drives me crazy like the poets who say, "I only write when I'm sad, or happy, or in love..." Me, I only write when I'm breathing. I work at this all the time. It's part of me that I can't shake free of... and if I waited for "inspiration" to strike, I'd be in trouble.

LD     Do you think that that process of "vomiting on the page" itself is helpful? You speak of needing distance to be able to work with that kind of content—but do you find that that process and that distance help in terms of coming to terms with the turmoil?

TB     I don't know.

I am pretty up front about the fact that I have a bipolar affective disorder that's caused me a lot of trouble in my life. I've written about it a lot. I don't think much of what I've written about it is especially memorable, but some of it's OK. I work with that content a lot... and yet, here I am, almost 50 years old, and I still have a lot of trouble with bipolar disorder. Doesn't seem to have made much of a difference in the condition...then again, no idea where I'd be without all that writing. So... I'm not sure.

LD     I find myself wishing sometimes that some of our more troubled poets had gotten more help and less acclaim. Maybe they'd still be here.

TB     I hear that. I always say that I write in spite of my suffering, not because of it. And I've lost friends, and we've lost some artists, who were so invested in seeing their suffering as the source of their creativity that they didn't seek help. I think that's a shame.

But you know... some people seem to need it. I find for myself that I'm a better poet when I'm healthy and stable, and when I'm not, I can't focus as well. So I don't want to denigrate it entirely... I just don't recommend it as an overarching poetic philosophy.

LD     You've had a couple of poems published in non-traditional places...

TB     (Laughs) I know where this is going...

LD     Your poem "Snakes On A Plane" got some Internet notoriety because it was picked up both for the snakesonablog Website and eventually for a book called "SSSnakes On A Plane: The Official Guide To The Internet Sensation," and your poem "Theremin" showed up as a link on the Theremin World website. The titles got them noticed, even though the poems' contents weren't all that connected to the topics at hand. How did you feel about it?

TB     I have a practice of putting most poems I write up on my blog, and that's how they got the initial attention.

In the case of "Snakes," I was just amused by trying to write a poem with that title—I thought it was a fun image to work with, and I ended up with a meditation on mortality and dealing with suicidal thoughts.

"Theremin" is more about a weird neighbor and some surrealist thinking about the suburban life. Neither poem is really "about" what the title suggests they might be about—the movie, the instrument. But the titles got them noticed, and it all took off from there.

Frankly, I was thrilled. Still am. I love the fact that people who weren't necessarily part of the usual poetry reading public were seeing my work, regardless of how it got noticed at first. And some of the comments I got indicated that the poems were seen the way I intended them to be... so how could I be upset about that?

How the poems find their audience is irrelevant to me, in the long run. That they did, and they "worked," is all that counts.