3 Questions for John Brandi

1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? How do
you understand it, use it, etc.

This question sends me back to my childhood beginnings as a poet and
painter. My parents, neither of whom were artists, gave me paper, pencils,
and plenty of solitude in which to simply sit, imagine and squiggle
imaginary labyrinths. My language was the line, a ceremonial thread
extending from body to page, procreating as it unraveled, bestowing
dimension to the paper. The line was a sonorous filament intimate with the
pronouncement of my dreams. I sang as the line unrolled, and the more I
sang, the more I “saw.” My parents also introduced me to the natural
world: the California coast, the High Sierras, the Mojave Desert. After
our trips, my father would ask me to draw something from the places we
visited; my mother would suggest I write a line to express how I felt in
the place that I drew. When my drawings and “lines of feeling” began to
pile up, they would gather and staple them into pages, ask me to make a
cover and add a title. “There, now you have a book.”

Fifty-five years later I still do what I did then: travel out, feel the
world, return home, and allow the line to unravel into a poem, a picture,
a book. In 1985, after my first fifteen years in New Mexico, That Back
Road In was published, a collection of  64 poems with ten “word maps”
culled from my journals. The word maps harkened back to the sinewy lines
of my childhood drawings. My type-set poems were sinewy, too—each line a
topographic, or typographic, projection of the high desert. I didn’t, and
still don’t, adhere to a flush-left format, my preference being to keep
the poems as close as possible to the way they came into my head, out from
my hand, into my journals.  The flush-left format is clean and readable,
but it doesn’t bear a close relationship with music—the essential drift of
song which poetry celebrates. Nor does it allow me as easily into the
poem, or into the poet, as does a more visually seductive format.

Physical geography is very important to me—geography was my favorite class
in school, and maps were an essential part of growing up. In a sense,
geography begins from within, erupts from the imagination, becomes real as
we walk, disappears when we stop. A trail through the land is a path
through the mind. In my own poetry the shape of a line can have to do with
the terrain of a hike or of a psychological amble into deep solitude; it
can sound the depths and record the musicality of wildly-rambling
consciousness or become an isoseismic graph measuring an emotional abyss.
It can unroll as a calligraphic Chinese scroll, a jagged labyrinth of
automatic writing, or strange telegraphic teletype spelling out metaphors
for a world beyond. It can leap with juxtapositions and record the
sensory, extra-sensory and emotionally expressive realities of an outward
journey: a high-altitude summit, a hop-skip-jump over rushing whitewater,
a surge through warm currents after a deep-water dive, a crawl through the
cosmos of the backyard garden.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human
body? Or between your writing and your body?

Absolutely. The poem is liquid, manufactured in the body, not in the
brain. It doesn’t agree with logic, it is not separate from the soul, it
is a secretion; a cosmopolitan third-eye nerve-ending “seeing” (in the
manner of the ancient rishis). It is blood equation, alchemic fusion,
soma, spittle, light cycled through the flesh to be made word. Thus, not
“created,” but there before creation. Erupted, spewed. As is magma. The
drunken boat of Rimbaud is a poetic evolution of the body’s journey. Pure
secretion, fluid word pictures. As are those of Wang Wei: exaltations,
pulsing mindframes, moody hues—mauve, pewter, apricot—sifting from mind
and mountain, into the body’s garden, through rustling bamboo into elusive
poem-pictures re-conjugating in mid air. Flesh and world as one. Body and
word as song. Energy as eternal delight (Blake).

3. What’s to dislike about being a poet?

Funny question, but a good one. Sort of like asking the farmer what’s to
dislike about the hoe. What I like: I’m out of the money loop, I’m content
with the hardships, it’s interesting to break through the hardscrabble and
look for water (or gold), and it’s okay to stumble (no career loop, thus
nobody watching) while mixing and fusing the alchemic brew. Poetry is the
perfect anecdote for the world of speed and distraction that has gobbled
people’s lives. I enjoy its process: the “not doing,” the pause within
everyday details, the wake-up clonk! that lets me see/feel/absorb the
familiar as if for the very first time.  Even though I can get cranky and
hard on myself during the final stages of honing a poem (elbow grease,
donkey work, re-seeding the furrows that didn’t produce, etc), it’s all
worth the toil. Eventually a garden ripens—profuse with blooming weeds,
unexpected wildflowers, bright tomatoes, eatable greens. Painting is also
a wonderful dance, no mind, all action. Over the years I have been
fortunate to enjoy the patronage of a small circle of collectors, and
this—tacked together with miscellaneous invites to teach, lecture, build a
fence, or create a one-of-a-kind book—has kept the financial rivers
flowing, though just barely in the dry season.

As to the “dislikes,” I’ll tackle what comes to mind randomly:

Because the American mainstream puts art, especially poetry, behind more
profitable and less mysterious tasks, poets often get cornered into the
idea of volunteering their craft, as if the making of poetry were some
sort of spare-time hobby. It is demeaning to hear a school celebrate the
“art saves lives” rap, then turn around and offer you a pittance of pay,
or none at all—not even a gratis book—for coming in to teach, save a life,
save the endangered species of human imagination. A couple years ago a
university asked me to return to read and lecture, but, because of “the
times,” they asked if I would come back for half of what I received the
year before. When your roof leaks, I asked them, do you ask your plumbers
to return and do the work for half of what they were paid the year before?
I wondered if the faculty was used to asking gas station attendants for a
cheaper rate before filling their tanks.  It also occurred to me that,
because of “the times,” poetry might be even more important than it was
the year before!  Poets shouldn’t have to kneel and explain their worth.
Surgeons, attorneys, and pilots don’t. A dedicated craftsperson—at his or
her vocation for decades, accumulating experience, growing a diverse
library as a horticulturalist would a garden of rare plants—is a
professional! When my relatives, who had worked in the auto industry their
entire lives, called on me to write a poetic tribute for my father’s 85th
birthday, they said: “You’re the wordsmith in the family.” And I thought
to myself, I’m honored, somebody really gets it!

Here’s another gripe: the poet-in-the-chair position. The
face-the-blank-page notion of duty that is often associated with poetic
process. Give me the active state! Walking, weeding, hammering the roof,
fitting stones into a path, splashing the brush across paper, splitting
oak for the hearth. Anything but the unnatural position at a desk, staring
at a blank piece of paper, waiting for the poem to come. How about a blank
sheet of sky! Walk out under it, and hundreds of sensations flutter into
the head that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Another dislike: competition in the world of poetry. That strange, and
strangely ongoing, literary scramble that fills the eager-to-get-ahead
with the need to  hobnob for opportunity, profile, recognition, gig
getting, etc., as if poets were business people selling their products, or
worse, selling themselves. Can’t imagine Mirabai, Kabir, Ghalib, Blake,
Basho, Chiyo-ni, Lorca or Dickinson opening their briefcases and flaunting
their résumés.  I once got paid to judge a poetry contest, a little dinero
for teeth repair (which turned out to be less painful than reading the
contest submissions). The poems seemed to be shaped by rivalry, written by
authors standing on tiptoes, painfully aware of the kind of awards-in-mind
“craft” one learns in MFA programs. Each manuscript was over-baked in the
same mold, cupcake look-alikes, taste-alikes. The work would have
benefited if the authors had loosened up, taken chances, left the
superhighway (and its rules) for a zigzag trail. Tearing up the images and
reassembling them with some ragged edges might have helped; or opening a
window to let the breeze rearrange the pages. Mostly, the poems would have
profited if the authors had had some real life experience. A good
non-academic head shake, an impromptu burlesque, a stint as a butcher,
steel worker, farmhand, midwife.

A poet of the 1950’s generation recently reminded me: “we didn’t need
awards, gigs, recompense. We had each other. We just went out and read! We
drank, listened, devoured!” I think of this whenever I encounter clever,
elbows-out poetry opportunists rushing forward with the weight of “where
going, what means.” I’d rather shoulder the tools of the trade, hold out
an empty bowl, see what falls into it. The essence of poetry is dust and
chaff—all that is unfinished, half-formed, charged with its own
energy—that settles on the plate.

John Brandi has been faithful to the craft of poetry, painting, and
journaling for the majority of his life. He is the recipient numerous
awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship,
four Witter Bynner Foundation teaching residencies, and a White Pine Press
World of Voices internship in Buffalo, NY. A former Peace Corps Volunteer
in highland Ecuador, he moved to rural New Mexico in 1971. He is an ardent
traveler, with over 36 books published in the US and abroad. A prolific
visual artist, his paintings and collages are in collections worldwide. In
2008 a wide selection of his art, including hand-colored letterpress
books, glyphs and word maps, were shown at Loka Gallery in Taos. In 2009
he lectured at the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe, where he
also co-curated the “Jack Kerouac and the Writer’s Life” exhibition. That
same year he gave the keynote address at the Haiku North America
conference in Ottawa, Canada. In 2010 the Bancroft Library at the
University of California, Berkeley, acquired his archives. His most recent
book of longer poems is Facing High Water, from White Pines Press. A
tri-lingual selection of his haiku is forthcoming from a publisher in
India. John lives with his wife, poet Renée Gregorio, in El Rito, New
Mexico, where he plants a garden, sets stone, and continues to teach, as
he always has, apart from the academy, as an itinerant scholar and


1 thought on “3 Questions for John Brandi

  1. Does John Brandi ever say anything that is NOT inspiring, thought-provoking, soul-searing or heart-touching? This is a delicious and much-needed reminder not only of the rocky road of poetry but of lifecraft…and to learn from a master is always such a pleasure. I remain ever a fan…

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