When I first heard Tyler Brewington read last winter from Boyfriend Mountain (Poor Claudia, 2014), the most recent of his three publications, the pent-up nonsense from sitting still and quiet through seven days of intensive lectures and workshops in my row of fellow MFA students disappeared. In the midst of our unwinding wooly scarves and peeling off gloves, unsnapping winter coats no longer needed to ward off the Vermont winter chill outside, we were hushed; I was mesmerized. Not only does Tyler read beautifully, his poetry is exquisite: deceptively simple, brief, like flashes of syntax and light, with a visceral, vulnerable quality that made me feel he was speaking directly to me, someone who had seen him around the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus, his tall stature and easy smile seemed trademark, but not in his circle.
Forty-five minutes of trying not to bawl outright wasn’t nearly enough, so I went to see him read again at the student readings later in the week. I finally approached him, a little tipsy from the warm room and cold beer, and proclaimed my ardent love of his work. I study fiction, not poetry, but there is something in Tyler’s poems that transcends genre, that feeds my fiction. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Portland, Oregon, where he makes magic with words. Here’s the scoop on how he defines poetry, his favorite dinner, and what is so damn magical about the co-author of two of his three collections, Kelly Shirmann.
Laura Jean Schneider: Nature Machine (Poor Claudia, 2013) the chapbook you and Kelly Schirmann—who has co-authored your last two publications—wrote, reminds me of poetry in conversation—like Ted Hoosier and Jim Harrison in Braided Creek (Copper Canyon Press, 2003). Time and again a word, color, or phrase is mentioned by one poet and redefined by the other one. How much of this was intentional? And when did your platonic love affair begin? It’s clear you two have amazing writing chemistry.
Tyler Brewington: Kelly and I met by pure chance in the fall of 2012. We had both enrolled in the poetry certificate program offered by Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, and we just hit it off immediately. Nature Machine began on a train ride to Seattle––we camped out in the dining car & passed a notebook back & forth across the table. We already knew we liked each other’s work, & we clearly get along; so we were just like, why not, let’s try this. I hope every writer tries a collaborative project at least once, though honestly it wasn’t until quite recently that I really understood how extraordinary it is to find that kind of chemistry. I feel so lucky.
With NM, we were very intentionally trying to cause a blurring or a confusion of our voices in order to hear a third voice, new to both of us. That repetition & redefinition you noticed was entirely intentional: we were trying to talk (to each other as much as to anyone else) about the feeling of being in motion on that train, in that moment. Of course, like all moments, the train moment opened ever outward. We wanted to feel free to investigate all kinds of things, but it was important to both of us to stay grounded in the emotional reality of that shared train-space.
Plus, we happen to notice & revere––or insistently, brattily, not revere––lots of the same things. In some ways, the chapbook & the book function as extended in-jokes between us. We laughed so much while writing, & we laughed even more while editing. But we were trying to make something generous, too, something that would make a reader feel welcome. It’s easier for a reader to feel invited in to a project like this, I think, when writers draw from a similar vocabulary of words & images.
LJS: When I started listing some of the themes in Dear Stay Volcano (alice blue, 2013), it looked a little like this: lake / volcano / forest / rain / rain / bear / river / salmon / fish / lava field, etc. While the poems are brief—the longest is thirteen very short lines long—and often have little to do with the nature part of the natural world, there is no doubt they are grounded and connected by this theme. Your books are as well: a volcano is almost a foil for the mountain of Boyfriend Mountain, your latest book (Poor Claudia, 2014). Puns aside, is it natural for you to draw from nature?
TB: So natural! I think this is one of the great gifts of having been born & raised in Idaho. Bears, wolves, rattlesnakes, mountain lions: I wasn’t at the top of the food chain, & to forget that, I was taught, was not only dangerous but stupid, a shameful personal failure. I know why it feels like seeing a bald eagle or a bat or an owl or an elk or whatever is not just a sighting but a visitation. Experiences like that are way more powerful than anything I felt or saw during my family’s brief, weak stab at Presbyterianism. Idaho’s got a lot of growing to do culturally & politically, but it’s more beautiful than anything else. Everything about my sense of spirituality is informed by those landscapes. I love how human beings have been obsessing over the same mountains forever, & most of all I love how deeply the mountains do not give a shit.
LJS: “I allowed / myself to break / one tinkling / dessert cup.” Out of all the poems in your three collections, I’m most curious about the backstory of this one from Dear Stay Volcano.
TB: Haha! Oh, man. One of my proudest moments. When I was working on that I felt like it was essential to have the speaker reveal a certain amount of pettiness, or to kind of admit to being as human as anyone else, in order to avoid sounding like some disembodied oracle of pure sadness. But yeah, DSV was inspired by the aftermath of a traumatic breakup, & once, while packing my ex’s things for him, I put these fussy little dessert glasses into a box in a way that was, uhhh, deliberately careless, let’s say. He had moved out, it was the very last of his crap. Sure enough, one of them fell over & broke almost immediately, & I’ll never forget the sound of it.
LJS: You show such restraint in your work, and the result is complex brevity.
If a proposal surfaced
if a dorsal
from Dear Stray Volcano is the briefest of your published poems. Yet for me it was one of the most powerful, the omission of any following words or punctuation ominous. They seem to have been soundlessly snapped by the imaginary shark, owner of the dorsal. Yet this is just my reading of your work. Do you ever feel frustrated when readers respond to your work in ways you never intended?
TB: No! Every response is a generous response. It blows my mind every single time I hear that someone has even read my writing, let alone enjoyed it. Poetry’s my favorite because I like feeling invited to participate in the making of meaning. I want my writing to feel interactive that way. Nothing should matter less to a reader than a poet’s intentions, I think. Once the poems are out there in the world, they’re not really all the way mine anymore, you know? Not that I don’t take responsibility for everything I write, I do, but in terms of intention I think all writers can do is hope that the writing touches some readers where they like to be touched.
LJS: When did you decide to get an MFA? Would you do it all over again?
TB: I started applying to programs in the fall of 2012, but I knew I wasn’t yet ready to leave Portland, & VCFA’s low residency model seemed perfect for me. Yes, I would do it all over again, because the friends I made during that time are forever, we’re all bound, I love it. But I made my peace with debt before I started, & by ‘made my peace’ I mean ‘resolved to never ever think about it’. Terrible plan, I know, but still working?
LJS: The lack of attribution for the poems Nature Machine was striking. At first I was bothered by the not knowing. But soon I figured out which were yours, and which were Kelly’s. Is this something you both assumed your readers would do, and does that affect the style of your collaborative poetry, if at all?
TB: We guessed that readers would be curious, & we wanted to play with that a little bit. Like, what’s different for you about receiving these lines when you suspect they’re from a lady, from a dude, from a gay dude, etc. To be honest, though, it’s not really something we’ve talked about too much. I think what most excites us about collaborations is the possibility of creating dialogue, between our poems, definitely, but also between the reader & the book as a whole. While we were writing BFMT we shared drafts with each other via a private Tumblr, & then when we met in person, we’d share feedback about individual poems, & try to figure out what the overall vibe should be (I think ‘bitchy pillow talk at a high school honor student sleepover’, as Kelly once put it, just about sums it up.) With NM & then again with BFMT, the structure seemed to reveal itself to us, & we both went with what felt right & tried not to interrogate the magic too much.
Several people who didn’t know either of us very well assumed we were a couple, & we got a kick out of that. It’s interesting, though, how many people take a romantic connection for granted in the context of male-female collaborative work.
LJS: “When I ask for the ocean / he brings me / some chowder,” you write in Nature Machine. There are so many interpretations of, and meanings for, a word. How do you interpret poetry, and being a poet?
TB: Hee that’s actually one of Kelly’s poems! I don’t think I can say anything better about being a poet.
LJS: You are a five-course meal. What are you?
TB: I’ve never actually eaten a five-course meal! Not a fancy restaurant one, anyway. I bet I’m violating all kinds of five-course protocols here, but I am: chips & salsa (red & green), salad with aggressively citrusy vinaigrette, brothy soup with tomatoes, tacos in corn tortillas, & then vanilla ice cream & poppyseed cake.
Follow Tyler Brewington on Twitter, read about him on ink node, check out his interview on The Conversant with Kelly Shirmann. Then order Boyfriend Mountain here.