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Monday
Jul072014

"The Past Inherits Us Again": An Interview with Russell Brakefield

Russell Brakefield teaches in the English Department at the University of Michigan. His most recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Southern Indiana Review, Hobart, The NY Quarterly, and Language Lessons: An Anthology of Poetry, Prose, and Music published by Third Man Records.

His poem, "Effigy," appeared in Issue Fifty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer, Christina Oddo, about poem-statues, art as permanence in an impermanent world, and the fight to quantify time and define ourselves. 

What helped shape the text for you, in terms of a one-stanza form?

This poem started as a single stanza, as a clump, as many of my poems do. It made sense to me to keep the single stanza form in terms of the subject matter—statues, animated columns, monoliths, etc. I wanted to visually evoke the idea of a statue or plinth. The form allowed the poem to be one solid object, relying then on the syntax, language, and line-breaks to indicate some possible movement, to convey energy, to produce anticipation that the poem-statue might leave the page and “lurch against the sky.”

An effigy, as a representation of a person through sculpture, and as the title, holds weight in this context. I focus on the last three lines; resurrection is paralleled with life, and “the forgotten beasts are left to forage.” Arriving at this last line, I am immediately reminded of the “stone sparrows and frogs crafted from a long gone mother’s hands” and how they “suddenly see themselves, alive.” “Forage,” for me, obtains a positive connotation. What/who do “the forgotten beasts” signify for you, beyond the “stone sparrows and frogs,” and what is the relationship between “a long gone mother’s hands” and the stone animals that “suddenly see themselves, alive?”

I was thinking about how obsessed we are with the apocalypse right now. I find myself drawn to those narratives as well, even though I’ve read/seen them so many times. It is as though we have so little faith that there is any frontier left for us to explore (apart maybe from technology) and so we look to rebirth or resurrection as a possible future. Bleak, but also maybe not? We know what we are doing to the planet and to each other. It is obvious that the questions at the center of these apocalypse narratives are important and compelling to most people: how do we deal with our collective impermanence and how do we deal with our individual impermanence? And it isn’t just about environmental concerns or something like that. It has quite a bit to do with the individual, with consciousness, and with art.

Art often gives us an idea that we are creating some sense of permanence in an impermanent world. Particularly something like a sculpture seems to exist by its very nature to make sustainable something that is not—the human form, animals, architecture. And yet we know that even statues are completely ephemeral in the big picture. Dust to dust and all that.  I was trying to think about how all this would be complicated if, after our fleshy bodies were long gone and even the cockroaches were turning to ash, those effigies that we created were given life, the things we deemed eternal became animate. Does that mean that they then become terminal and transient and the process starts over? Do those new creatures create effigies of their own? And of what? 

Also, at the most basic level, I was just really attracted to the image of all these statues coming to life, disoriented and creaking into consciousness at the same time—Christ the Redeemer stepping down off the Corcovado mountain at the same moment that the statues of frogs playing flutes in my mom’s flower garden suddenly lift their heads and start to play.

Contrasting images weave through this work, highlighting the living and the forgotten (“…the statues will inherit the earth. The founding fathers will lurch against the sky and finally take their place as great distinctions—white granite against a fiery lake”). The “Spindled lampposts,” too, are “alive like tyrant trees.” The stiffness and inanimate nature of the forgotten is constantly being replaced by living, active versions. What pushes these sculptured objects to retain or obtain life, to envelop or signify the past that “inherits us again?”

I can’t say quite what pushes these things to life in the poem. I don’t think it matters. The poem starts beyond that point, in a place that says to the reader “you are dead and these things have come to life, now think about that.”  I wanted the poem to ask questions about what we deem important, the way we cast things into lasting form to commemorate that importance.  I was just watching something on TV today about the football player Lionel Messe’s striking foot cast in gold. And the average football player’s career is something like six years? I wanted to call attention to the way we fight and claw to understand and quantify our time and experience here,  how hard we work to define ourselves even though we know how it all ends.

At the same time, there is also something in this poem, I hope, about all the things that we can’t capture figuratively. The reason that we set about to all this effigy business in the first place is not always political or historical. Part of it is that wonderful thing about art, the way we  keep trying to express the ineffable experiences of living. Even when we inevitably fall short, we still learn a great deal about ourselves and our place in the world. Holding tight the memory of a mother’s hand is not an important biological weapon. It is not an important moment in history. It does not give you an advantage in the

event of a zombie apocalypse. But it is also most likely the place in this poem that  people will look at and connect to intimately, the moment people will draw a line to from their own experiences. Perhaps something made from her hands, a frog or whatever, has in some way stretched the bounds of human experience.  

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading quite a bit of fiction at the moment—We Need New Names by  NoViolet Bulawayo and Conversations by Cesar Aira. I’m rereading parts of Third Reich by Bolano because I’m on vacation, sort of. Poets I’m looking at right now—Brandon Som, Bianca Stone, Sarah Vap, Mary Ruefle, and Charles Wright’s new book Caribou.  I’m always reading Carl Phillips and listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

What are you currently writing?

I’m working on a book about American folk music. The subject of the book is American folk music, but it also deals with artistic innovation, the way music gets moved and translated across time and geography. 

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