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Fall 2004, Volume 22.1

Conversation

 

Sundy Watanabe

An Authentic Voice: A Conversation with Ken Brewer


"The whole idea is to come to the truth."
            —Ken Brewer

"Any voice you write in becomes a character, even your own voice."
   
         —Ken Brewer

Ken Brewer

"I don't split humans from nature," poet Ken Brewer says to his audience during a reading for Weber State University's 2004 National Undergraduate Literature Conference. That quality, that writing gift, resonates with all readers for whom nature is intertwined with human nature. Here in the West, we like to think we are particularly blessed with that sensibility. We think we are blessed to have poets of Brewer's caliber living and working among us, illuminating our human experience in "the context of our particular culture."

During March and April of 2004, I observed Ken Brewer working in his newly acquired position as Poet Laureate of Utah, a five-year position conferred in 2003 by then governor Mike Leavitt. I visited with Ken by phone and email, attended and videotaped a workshop he conducted with AP English students at East High School in Salt Lake City, and conducted two interviews, one at Weber State University's 2004 National Undergraduate Literature Conference and one at his home on Canyon Drive in Logan,
Utah. I talked with him about many subjects, and throughout, he was gracious, humorous, and insightful. I have also gained a deeper appreciation for the man who had been my mentor at Utah State University during my master's program.
Creativity, Notebooks of the Mind, Writing Without Teachers—Ken Brewer recommended these three books, and now they sit on a shelf directly above my computer, where I can access them easily and often, just as I do memories of sitting in his USU office discussing line breaks and word choice in my poetry. Many claim Ken Brewer as a progenitor in their "literary lineage," to use Ken's phrase, and I make that claim, as well.

Brewer has published eight books of poetry, including The Place in Between, Sum of Accidents, Collected Poems of Mongrel, and most recently, Sum of Accidents: New and Selected Poems. Additionally, he has published more than 300 poems, essays and reviews in literary journals throughout the United States and Canada. His poetry can be introspective and brooding, feisty and jovial. Brewer retired from Utah State University in 2000 after teaching thirty years and is now an emeritus professor of English.

Ken Brewer came west from Indianapolis to attend Western New Mexico University. He earned a master's degree in English literature from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces. He earned a PhD from the University of Utah in 1973. Hired in 1968 by Utah State University, he describes driving through the canyon and his first glimpse of Cache Valley as breathtaking. Most people have the same reaction today as they drive from the relative hustle of Salt Lake City into that farmland valley surrounded by mountains. The place demands a person stop and expand his/her lungs for a deep cleansing sigh. It is a good place to be a poet.

At a dinner party a few years ago, Brewer was introduced as "a poet":

One person at the party marveled that I would waste my time on such a dead art form. I have never felt that I have wasted my life on poetry, nor that poetry is dead. On the contrary, poetry has survived hot wars and cold ones, novels and movies, teachers and critics, Hallmark cards and Madison Avenue ads, television and the world wide web. Some of the changes in the past hundred years have been so terrifying that they could have left us speechless. Still, we found words to speak, and we found audiences to hear them. I believe we always will.

Jazz and blues connoisseur, hunter, husband and father, lover of radio, reader of mystery novels, researcher—Ken Brewer is all these. In his poems, such as "Concession," "Flood," "Why Dogs Stopped Flying," and "Scarlet Penstemon," Ken Brewer creates characters, events, and moments so sharply real we believe they are part of us.

"The Persistence of Memory"  a poem by Ken Brewer.  Read other poetry by Ken published in Weber.

 


Sunday Watanabe

 

 Sundy Watanabe received a master's degree in English from Utah State University with an emphasis in the theory and practice of writing. She pursues her own "theory and practice" through writing and teaching. She was Assistant Director of Composition at Weber State University. Currently, Sundy is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, pursuing a joint degree program in English and Education with a rhetoric and composition focus.

 

Governor Mike Leavitt appointed you as Utah Poet Laureate on January 24, 2003. What is a Poet Laureate, and what does the job entail?

 

It's an honorary position. I'm more familiar with it from England, the traditional English poets' position. It's fairly new to the US—twenty years or so. We have a national poet laureate who serves for a year back in Washington. In most cases, it's an honorary position. In Utah, it's an honorary position, but the governor said he wanted me to work. He doesn't pay you, but he wants you to work. That's why there are no fiction laureates. (They wouldn't work for free.) I'm available to go to schools, give readings, do workshops. I'm an ambassador for the arts. It's a five year position. David Lee was the first Utah Poet Laureate. Thirty-one states have poet laureates, and we've never all gotten together. A group in South Dakota, I think, is working to make that happen.

 

What do you enjoy most about being Utah Poet Laureate?

 

Well, it is, of course, an honor—and I am honored. Public readings are probably the most important thing. They're the scariest, too, because they're social. (People who don't know you are listening.) The act of writing, in many ways, is a very lonely act. In my office, I'm by myself. I don't want anyone else there. But the public performance is, indeed, public. In most cases, it's the most fun. There's the immediate feedback. Of course, there's the potential for immediate failure, but most of the time it's positive. In the act of writing, you don't get that. In fact, when you publish a work, the response can come years later. But public presentation is a completely different experience. The excitement is beneficial.

 

Where do you go to write?

 

I have an office. I retired from teaching at Utah State in 2000 on a good retirement package, and thought I could write at home. Couldn't do it—two dogs, laundry to do, and I wasn't getting much writing done. So I rented a little office space downtown in Logan, and I go there in the mornings. There's nothing in there but tables, chairs, books, pencils, paper. I write longhand. I keep journals. I always have a couple going. One is a day book. I call it a craft journal. One is for poems. Whatever I write in the office, I'll take home in the evening and put it on the computer. I don't even have a computer in the office. That's a distraction, too. I try to commit to a four-hour block every morning.

As a writer you have to teach yourself to write—teach yourself to actually do it. There are so many distractions, and most of us, rather than write, will go for the distractions—Café Ibis and coffee. There are so many other things to do if we let ourselves, so we have to carve out time. If you're teaching, you have to learn to protect writing time. That's a hard thing because teaching demands a great deal of time, too. You take the job home with you.

On a positive note, an incredible number of people are writing poetry. On the negative side, many people ask, "Why write poetry? It's a dead art!" Well, I don't think it is. The website PoetryDaily gets 5 million hits a month. Someone is reading poetry, but obviously, it's not the publishers. I have a long-standing argument with publishers. They won't publish poetry because they say no one is reading it. I say more people will read it if they advertise it, the same way they advertise famous white-collar criminal stories. Martha Stewart will certainly have a book. It will either be about her trial or her prison experience. It will be a best seller, and I'll bet she doesn't write any better than most ordinary people. Publishers think they won't make money publishing poetry. Well, they would if they invested in it.

* * *

Many times people who write in a specific area become labeled as regional poets. I don't think there's anything wrong with that…

 

Oh, no. I'm quite fond of regionalism myself! (smiling) It's nothing new. We've had regionalism as long as we've had writing.

 

What's the difference between regionalism here in Utah and regionalism in, say, Boston?

 

I don't think it's any different. I think you become attached to the place where you are. I'm from Indianapolis. I grew up in Indiana, and in my earlier poems, when I first started writing, I was trying to write about Indiana. And that was okay while I was still close to it in feeling and time, even though I wasn't actually in the place. But over, oh, three or—I won't say exactly how many years—but over…some… decades…you know, this is now my place…so you can see my poetry shift. I only have one manuscript now that really focuses on Indiana. It hasn't been published. It's called the Fat Boy Poems. It's about growing up in Indiana.

I still like the poems, just haven't found a home for them. But now, this is where I'm grounded, so I write about where I am. Even though I'm not writing very personal poetry, it's still grounded in where I am because it's what I know. I think one role of a poet is to observe as closely as possible everything around him. So if we're following that tenet, we're obviously going to be regional. We're going to be grounded in the very local, and the very particular.

Of course, I'm a literary child of William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, and my mentor Keith Wilson, too, who is in that literary lineage as well. Williams taught us to ground everything in the particular and the local, and that's where you find the universal. You really write from where you are and ground it on that very solid foundation of time and place. And I mean, by time and place, not just everything around you, but where you are inside yourself. So the detail and imagery that I want to instill in an audience is grounded in where I am now and where I've been since 1968.

Before, I was in New Mexico for about eight years. I was living just outside the Gila Wilderness Area. That really was the transition from Indiana to the West. Really, for me it was the eight years in New Mexico.

 

So was that where the first chapbook you had published, Sum of Accidents, came from?

 

That chapbook was one of the first I had published, and there are some New Mexico poems there. Some of the first poems I published in `67 were really New Mexico poems because that's where I was grounded, so the transition really was from Indiana to New Mexico, and then from New Mexico to here, going from the desert to where we are here, in this kind of alpine country. I still like the desert; I still have a lot of desert poems.

 

Even the minimalist aspect of your poems seems to reflect New Mexico.

 

Yeah, I kind of chop away at it. (chuckling) I get it down to what's essential.

 

One of the finest examples of what is essential is your "The Scarlet Penstemon," a very minimalist poem.

 

Oh yeah. That is a Southern Utah poem. I've spent a lot of time in Southern Utah. Not too long ago, when I wrote this poem (2002, the Olympics year), I was teaching for a semester at Southern Utah University, in Cedar City, at the invitation of the English Department. I lived in St. George. David Lee was the department head and lived in St. George, too. I'd ride over with him to teach classes. We had a great time.

But I spent a lot of time out in the desert, especially the Joshua Forest. Forest is a hard word to use with joshua trees—they don't get very close to each other—but that's what it's called. It's just out of St. George, through Santa Clara, and then over the mountains—not on the new highway but on the old one, past the Shivwits Reservation—then you head up the mountain, and just as you start to break over, there are these giant joshuas as far as you can see. I spent a lot of time there. So that's where some of these newer desert poems come from. "The Scarlet Penstemon" is dedicated to Keith Wilson [Brewer recites his poem "The Scarlet Penstemon"]:

Bees can't see red
but hummingbirds can
so the scarlet penstemon
curls its lower lip,
picks its lover as certain
as Cleopatra picked Caesar.

In the Southern Utah summer,
in the late afternoon
of long shadows, shimmering,
the scarlet penstemon pouts,
and, oh, sweet Jesus, to be
a broad-tailed hummingbird then.

 

When people say "regionalism," sometimes it insinuates inferiority. What are they implying when they say "regionalism" with a negative connotation?

 

Well, I don't know, really. To me, it's a badge of honor. I don't think of it in a negative way at all. Growing up in Indianapolis, I lived two blocks from the railroad tracks that divided the school districts. I was two blocks away from Sherman Drive where the railroad tracks ran, being just inside the boundaries of Thomas Carr Howe High School, which was the college-prep high school. Two blocks away, across the railroad tracks and just a few blocks beyond to the west, was a black neighborhood. Everybody on that side of the railroad track went to technical school, which was an enormous high school but not known as a college-prep school. They had all the auto shop and all the wood working, all the home economics. They were really strong in mathematics, too, so they did have some college-bound, but Howe was considered the college-prep high school. Two blocks.

So that idea of place and geography had an incredible impact on my life, and also my interest in accidents. I didn't choose to live there. It was my grandmother's house. My granddad built that house in 1930—sometime before I came along. So a whole series of accidents placed me in that house by the time I had to go to school. That geographical marker changed my life.

Those little kinds of place markers have that kind of impact on who you become. Our lives follow those kinds of little moments—historical markers. The geography of my neighborhood marked a moment in my life, marked a way of determining who I was going to be and who I actually became.

So, in a sense, I don't know how you escape regionalism. It's got to have an impact on who you are.

* * *

Tell me about publishing. How did you begin publishing? What is the process? Did you seek out certain publications? Do they seek you out?

 

Oh, boy. When you're starting out, you just go for everything you can. My routine would be to put together about a dozen packets of poems, maybe three poems in a packet. Do my research—find the magazines I wanted to send them to. And then around August—first part of August—I'd send a batch out. I kept 3x5 note cards with the title of the poem on it, where I had sent it, what had happened to it. I learned not to get involved in the decisions that editors make.

 

Such as?

 

If you get a rejection, you send the poems right back out. You're going to get rejected. I get rejected. I haven't been sending things out to magazines lately, though. It's a chore to do that, and you really need to keep up with it. My model for that is William Stafford. William Stafford was excellent at it. He did it all his life—he kept poems circulating—and with that kind of determination and discipline, by the time he died he was one of our best known poets—and rightly so. He's still one of my favorite poets.

Publishing takes a lot of work. You really have to go after that. You have to get organized and do your homework. You can't just chuck things out there to places you don't know about. I still subscribe to a lot of poetry journals.

 

What do you recommend for someone who wants to write? What suggestions would you give to get published?

 

Write a lot—as much as you can—and read a lot. Read broadly. Don't just read in your own genre; that's just your craft. You need to know what others are doing. I think of it as a community of writers. I read a lot of philosophy, creative nonfiction, murder mysteries. I read in lots of different areas, and all of that eventually gets translated into what I do as a poet.

The kind of things I'm writing now I'm putting into a book where the poems are linked. They don't do as well on their own. I haven't been sending things out for a while; I don't have the confidence in them as stand-alone poems. I think they work better in the context of the manuscript.

 

And that's okay. I don't know that poets choose what they will write, just as they can't choose what will be published. Whether it's a series of poems linked in a book or a stand-alone poem, you write what's in you at the moment.

 

Oh, yeah. Sure. Write what you want to write, and you'll find an audience.

 

The irony is that to keep working writers must have an audience of some sort.

 

I think so. It's certainly important to me. I get that mostly from readings. And that's what I prefer to do, really. I like to give readings. I like to be in front of the audience where people can hear my voice. Robert Pinsky says the poem is a physical act.

 

I remember that from The Sounds of Poetry. He says that poetry is "a vocal, which is to say, a bodily art. The medium of poetry is a human body…in this sense, poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing."

 

It certainly is for me. My entire body is involved in the reading of the poem—I sort of beat out the rhythms with my hand. When somebody first told me I was doing that, I tried not doing it. But it flattened the poems. It flattened my voice. What people don't notice is that I'm beating the rhythm with my feet, too. So it is, indeed, a physical act.

 

Don't you have some theater background?

 

I did. I used to do a lot of theater. More than anything that helped me overcome some shyness.

 

But that sense of performance must be useful. For someone who has experienced theater, that kind of performance must change the way poetry is delivered.

 

There's a line you have to be careful not to cross. I'm walking it. I'm real close to the edge of it, and that bothers me sometimes. I think people are remembering me more than they are remembering the poems, and that's a problem. I don't think you should be too dramatic. If you get too dramatic, then it's you and your presentation that's more important than what you're saying. I'm in danger of that, but I can't do anything about it. This is just the way I'm going to do things.

 

Who would you say crosses that line?

 

Performance poets intentionally cross that line. Alex Caldiero, here in Utah, intentionally crosses that line because he's doing something else. He's creating an art form that isn't the same thing that I'm doing. I'm pushing the edge. I'm coming close. Alex goes all the way with it. He's a performance artist. He does some wonderful things. I've also attended readings so flat and monotone that they don't do the poems justice. The poem is a physical thing, a voice. I've heard people argue that they want that flat presentation because they want the words to take over, but you're not doing justice to the words if you deliver them monotone.

 

So, testing out the rhythm of your poems as you read is a way of paying attention to your own voice and making sure the audience pays attention to the rhythm.

 

Yes. Rhythm comes first. I never paid enough attention to the form on the page, I guess. When this new and selected poems came out [Sum of Accidents: New and Selected Poems], I first looked through a copy and thought, "These are awfully short lines, really skinny lines!" I don't think about it when I'm reading, but when I saw them all together there in that one book, I thought, "Boy, those are short lines." I've been trying to write a little longer line.

For me, the line isn't the same marker of rhythm that it is for many others. For a lot of poets, the line is the marker. For me, it's the whole poem. It's not so much how the individual lines stop and start. Sometimes I think it has to do with visual formatting. But I like the shorter line on the page. That's just my sense of what the page looks like.

What most often happens is the natural rhythms of the language dictate how you might break the lines, without your knowing it. For instance, prepositional phrases, clauses—there's a kind of rhythm that goes into things, obviously changed by context. But, if you're just starting out and not thinking about where those lines break, I'll bet you're breaking just before you start another grammatical or rhetorical structure. You're really not counting syllables or anything else. It just breaks there because it feels right.

 

Then you have to follow up with revision to tweak those "moves," to reach a level of perfection in a particular poem. What are you looking for when you revise?

 

Lots of things. I can come up with a poetry draft in a few minutes, but I revise it for a long time. I keep a notebook, a pop-open style. It's really easy to use—take pages out, redo. I'm constantly tinkering. I had to quit drafting on the freeway, though! (chuckling) I write everything on notebook paper, then transfer it. I'll read it out loud and beat out the rhythm with my right hand. As we talked about earlier, it's not something I recommend; it's just something that comes naturally. They don't teach you to do it. It just helps me check where the rhythm is—it's not just the beat but also the duration and the percussion, how heavy or light the beat is, and I'm looking for all those things. I'll start changing words, finding stronger images. Sometimes, the way I start a poem is not really what the poem is going to be about in the end. I don't know where I'm going when I start out. I like that surprise, when you're creating for the first time. The surprises occur again when you revise. I enjoy revising. Things open up to you, and it's a wonderful surprise.

Endings are hard. I had to teach myself a little trick with a 3x5 note card. Once I've worked on a poem a bit, I'll start checking the ending to find an image—or something ironic—to end the poem. I'll cover up the last line, then the next, and I'll keep going up until I find the image. If I'm lucky, I already have it. I'm not often lucky. (smiling) Usually the ending is somewhere up into the poem, and it just needs to be juggled around. Images won't shut the door on people. An image will keep the poem open to the audience. It will keep the audience engaged, even after the poem is over. It's like listening to music on a really loud system. You turn it off, and there's still something crackling in the air—I like a poem to have that electricity. An image is like a rocket—it just keeps going. An image is more open to translation. Statements tend to slam the door.

 

So the initial impulse may be right, may come from natural intuition about the language, but any poem gets more interesting when the poet identifies those important lines or images, the germinating kernels, and works to make them more visible, to give them even more impact.

 

Yeah. I've taught a lot of students, probably close to 4,000. The ones who have talent and never do anything with it are the ones who don't like to revise, who have never caught on to revision. They think—I don't know, I guess—they think they're god-like somehow, that whatever comes out of their heads has got to be right.

I'm human, and whatever comes out of my head is flawed to begin with. Revision has never been an obstacle to me. I enjoy revision. It's not a chore. It's not something to hide from. It's re-vision. It's seeing the whole thing again. And that's a terrific advantage that humans have and language gives us. We have that opportunity to see again and to change it. It's almost always beginning writers who have the sense that they can't defile their pure thoughts. If you find students who already accept revision as part of their process, they actually have a chance of doing something as a writer.

The most successful poets I've had as students know that they must revise. They may not have been as naturally talented with the language, but they had the drive, and they understood revision. They know the work that you do to come up with something that looks pure and flawless. The audience doesn't see the process. They see only the product. That's a hard thing to teach. Sometimes you teach it by modeling. You let students know what you do. I was always quite willing to show students poems that had gone through several stages. I also show them my rejections. I have two sets that I often pass around to classes—each set has 19 rejections and one acceptance.

I have some great rejections. Some are hilarious. I've got one—it's one of my favorites—it's a corner of a piece of paper torn off with a frown face on it. That's all.

 

(chuckling) Oh, that's sad.

 

I used to send poems to Kayak. The editors never took anything, but I loved their rejections. It was always a great broadside that came back. My favorite rejection from them was a drawing of a Turkish soldier with a scimitar chasing a little-bitty British character around. The caption was, "No, No, Never, No!"

 

(laughter) That's great!

 

I love that one. So I get all kinds of things. Sometimes you get a little postscript from an editor. One of my favorites: "I almost like these very much." I have no idea what that means. (laughter) So you get all kinds of things. Very seldom do you get an actual response. Editors don't have time for that. They're overwhelmed. Having been an editor, I know. And if you do get a response, you know there's a little more interest.

Having readers is also important to revision, critical readers who you can rely on, a small group you can run your work by and who can give you some response. You don't give them work that you think is perfect. You give them work in progress because you want to get some help. You've got to find your group, though, that small circle you can rely on, one you can trust. It's a tightrope, a balancing act. You have to trust them, and you can't be upset by what they have to say because you want the truth from them. You want their honest opinion. Otherwise, what's the point?

 

And feedback doesn't have to come from someone with the same style.

 

No. It does need to be a peer, though. You want a peer group, those at the same level of involvement, the same point in their careers—real peers. That's why student-to-teacher relationships aren't good for peer groups. If the teacher enters, it's not a peer group. The teacher has a power that the students don't have. The power the teacher brings to a group destroys the sense of it as a peer group. As a teacher, you've got to have the courage to stay out of it. Let students do their peer group work, and don't you get involved. That's not easy to do. It's relinquishing some authority.

 

What a teacher needs to do is give encouragement, and you don't have to put a grade on it. The teacher situation is dreadful. I hated putting grades on poems. I still don't know how to grade a poem. I can evaluate and I can critique, but I don't know how to grade a poem.

 

Grading is inherently problematic when the goal is to teach people to write.

 

Yes. How can you evaluate and nurture at the same time? In workshops, where students are paying money, you'd better give them honest critiques because they've paid their money for it. But even then, you have to know how to evaluate and critique without taking over the poem and making it yours.

For the one receiving the critique, that's tricky, too. You have to be strong enough to resist—strong enough to say, "Well, I don't care what Brewer says about this poem. It's my poem." I don't know. As a student, that's a tough thing to do.

 

You take your chances and learn as much as you can.

 

That's right. The main value of workshops is to make connections with other people. The other students are the ones you make the most important contacts with. We used to run workshops at Utah State. I've been a faculty member at a lot of them. I see some people come year after year. Yet they never do anything with their writing. They just like going to conferences, I guess, and they must get something out of it. So, I guess it's still valuable. I would be uneasy doing that myself. I'd feel like I wasn't going anywhere.

Workshops are always a mixed bag, but I've been to some great ones.

Ann Stanford was great for me. She was a California poet—she passed away a few years back. I attended a conference at the University of Utah, a summer writing conference, which she was teaching. I gave her some poems to look at. She gave me some of the best advice I've ever had. She looked at my work and said, "You know, you've got a good ear, just trust your ear, don't worry about the rest of it." I took her advice, and it made a lot of difference.

 

Your poetry really does rely on sound.

 

I was fascinated when digital recording equipment came out. The first time I was at the radio station, KUSU FM, for an interview, they had a digital tape recorder. So, I went into the sound room after we did our interview and looked it over. I could see an image of my own voice! It proved everything I had been thinking about rhythm because it not only measured the percussion, it measured the duration of the syllable. I could see visually how my voice was making those kinds of lengths in syllables. It verified what I was thinking about my own rhythms. I'd still like to do some studying about that sometime.

* * *

Margaret Atwood made a comment about writing in her essay "The End of Audience?" She says, "Of course, all writing is based on personal experience , but personal experience is experience—wherever it comes from—that you identify with, imagine if you like, so that it becomes personal to you." Many audiences, when they read an author with a democratic or populist style, automatically assume that the content is personal.

 

It's not personal in the sense of confessional poetry, but personal in the sense that the poet is at the center of the creativity. But that doesn't mean the poem is about the poet. You know, you personalize research, too. For the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, I'm going to read a collection of poems that form a murder mystery. I had to do a lot of research, and I created a couple of characters for the book. So, even though the poems are not about me, it's still in my voice, and it's still my experience. The poems are set in my back yard, literally, so it's my observation of nature—my observation and interpretation of the flora and fauna, let's say. I had to do some research on forensics at the library. The Logan library has three or four excellent books for someone actually working in the field of forensics. Even as I studied, my personal framework or network or fabric of interpretation colored it. It translates it into what I'm going to do with it.

So you can have a personal, first—person voice, but it's not essential. You can change that and write from an outside, more detached voice and still be in that same tradition. That's not really what makes the difference. I think it's the way you formulate your work, thinking in terms of how accessible this will be for an audience. I could write a poem that hardly anybody could understand. That's not what I want to do. I want to write a poem that is quality work but still very accessible. Now, accessible is a tricky word because it can be accessible at different levels. But I want at least one level to be very accessible. I can put things in—and I do—I'll put things in a poem that a lot of people may not catch, but those things aren't necessary to follow the story line. But, if you do understand those inserted things, they take you to some other places.

* * *

You talk about the decision to become a writer as dangerous.

 

It is. If you're serious about this, at some point you have to make some commitments to it. I've had some students who were absolutely brilliant writers, but they couldn't make the commitment. I've had some who weren't brilliant, but they could make the commitment. They had to work hard, and they succeeded. That's a part that's hard to teach. I don't think there's a lecture you can give. It's something you have to observe, something in you that gives you the commitment to really work at it. Sometimes you make commitments to writing that you should make to your family or maybe you should be making to your friends or careers. Many poets have other careers.

 

Sometimes you make commitments in certain life phases.

 

You have to carve out time for writing, and if you're living a full and active life, you have to carve it from somewhere—it takes time. And, if you're not willing to commit yourself to that time and that discipline, you can be pretty easily distracted. That's why I have my office.

* * *

Do you have any personal projects pooling around in your mind?

 

Recently I've been doing research on "Down Winders." My head is full of information, but I haven't figured out how to turn it into poetry. I've written a few poems, so I've got some stuff I will eventually be able to use, but I haven't figured out how to put it into a book. What's the book is going to be like? How am I going to approach the voices? What voice am I going to use to write about this? All that is pretty nebulous, but I'm working on it. So, I've got that to do, somewhere down the road. I've still got a bestiary I'm working on. It'll end up like Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End. It might be that kind of manuscript—like a Leaves of Grass—one that never really has an end to it. And every once in a while, I get it into my head to tackle a long poem, a really long poem. There's absolutely no market for that. But you can't do it for that reason. You have to want to write it.

* * *

When you gave your April 2004 workshop to the East High Students [Salt Lake City], you mentioned you had some work for another audience—that reading here and reading in California might be different. What you choose to read might be different?

 

I used to plan most of my readings, put them together, practice and time them so I'd have the right kind of ritual opening poem and the right kind of ritual closing poem. I'd want something lighter in the middle. So it was this created, unified piece of work that I was going to give to an audience. Now I wait until I see my audience. I try to play to the audience more. In other words, I've gotten in the habit of not reading a long manuscript. I will simply start asking the audience what they mightwant to hear. When they make suggestions, usually I have a poem I can respond with.

The other part of that, the answer to your original question is that I have some poems that are a little rough around the edges. Sometimes I use language that I think is necessary for context. I'm not interested in offending people. If I have an audience that might be offended, I don't know, I'll save it for the California audience—the Berkley audience. The Pocatello audience—that's a pretty wild bunch. (chuckling) If I have anything frayed around the edge, I'll read it in Pocatello. I've got a reputation up there. I can get away with anything! (chuckling) Sometimes I want to challenge an audience, but I don't want to offend an audience. If I have a work in which the language is essential to its context I won't hesitate to read it—but I'll judge my audience. If someone asks, I'll give it. I'm not afraid to do that—but I won't go out of my way to offend.

 

These different poems, do they make up a completely different book—a really different feel—a different voice?

 

My voice changes from book to book, anyway. But what I want to keep is an authenticity—a "truth" particular to a poem, an experience, and even an audience. That is the key. If a poem is authentic, I don't see what the argument is.

 

And I believe that is your success—authentic poetry in all its guises.

 

Thank you.

 

Thank you.

The Persistence of Memory

Since 300 B.C. at Alexandria,
we have built houses for Mnemosyne,
hoping to remember who we are.

In this house, we save Ancestral Puebloan pottery,
Father Dominguez' maps, Navajo story baskets,
Ruess' woodcuts, shell brooches from Camp Topaz.

In this house, we see a pocket clock stopped
the moment one of 200 miners died in the blast
and the afterdamp gas of the Winter Quarters Mine.

We see the archived Probate of Brigham Young's Estate,
and in each wife's signature a story, different
as each touch to cheek, each kiss goodbye.

Under this dome of light,
between visions in glass and oil,
here is the home of memory.

—Kenneth W. Brewer
For the Opening of the Museum
of Utah Art and History, 25 June 2004


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