Interview with Cliff Brooks: The Modern Dervish
Everyone knows there is no money in poetry and, of course, no poetry in money. The reason why this is: supposedly, no one reads poetry, and when we discuss poetry today, the question begs to be asked, is it still relevant to the modern condition? As new as the question may seem-it is in fact a very old one, and if it reveals anything to us, it’s not that the death of poetry is imminent, it’s that there is much out there that is cryptic and impenetrable-a language that is only spoken by the initiated.
But every generation has its great prophets of the word, men and women who, shaman-like, translate the verities of the sublimely spiritual and render it into terms the rest of us can understand.
I first met Cliff Brooks in my home-town of Athens GA. Athens is a town that, as anyone will tell you, is a nexus of events, a strange singularity on the Earth where events unfold and march across the world, changing it in fashions that are of greater accord than its apparent width and depth.
Cliff was a humble, soft-spoken man with the gentlemanly demeanor that the South instills in the best of its children. We became fast friends with natural understanding like we recognized each other from previous incarnations. We hung out, drank Scotch and discussed poetry and as the conversations unspooled into greater and greater narratives I saw that before me was a shaman, a dervish of the word, someone who has gifted us all with poetry that not only is worth reading, but compels us to read, visceral, muscular verses that don’t describe things, but are things.
It is fascinating to observe, but more, in an attempt to understand, I asked Cliff if I could interview him (both for me and posterity) and he graciously complied:
Where are you from?
Tell us your latest news?
My book, The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics, was published in April 2012 by John Gosslee Books. Since its release the book has been nominated for a Pulitzer, 2 Pushcarts, and Georgia Author of the Year. The first printing sold out faster than expected. The second printing did likewise. When this blog is published, the fourth printing will be on its way to distributors. None of us expected these bad boys to race off so quickly.
Besides Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you can get a copy from the press’s affiliated literary magazine website, The Fjords Review http://www.fjordsreview.com/. You can find first edition printings at Avid Books in Athens, Georgia or Peerless Books in Alpharetta, Georgia.
It’s definitely helped sales that I’ve been on constant tour the past eight weeks. New poets can’t underestimate this part of the process as well as intense self promotion. On October 12th I attended the 26th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN as an invited speaker/reader. I explained my methods and read a few poems in a two-poet segment called Observations, Memories, and Meditation. I shared the podium with a bind-blowing wordsmith, Daniel Nathan Terry. In the coming months there are more readings I do solo, and then another I share with a folk musician, Clayton Jones.
When and why did you begin writing?
I started writing creatively in fourth grade. I wrote because it entertained me. It was/is an escape. When I began it never struck me to show anyone my stories. Prose focused all my mental energy, and that made it easier to slide through another day of classroom soap operas. I didn’t grasp the importance of school my first years on the playground. I was cast early as the class Huck Finn – constantly bored, and thus, always into mischief. I needed a time-consuming, quiet hobby. In fifth grade I started writing serial short stories. My mom saw the promise in my prose and talked to me immediately about where my ideas came from/how I developed storylines. She hasn’t let up on me since. When I moved into poetry she was immediately/ equally supportive of its music and potential.
As time passed writing became ingrained in how I interpreted the world, and thus crucial to maintaining a comfort zone outside my own head. Once high school started I discovered that the public education experience became increasingly tedious. Even though I was accepted by my peers and embraced by a loving home, I felt detached from the social circus around me. Don’t get it twisted: I wasn’t a goth kid, or a snob beyond reproach – no, I simply felt I felt too much about everything. I kept the self consciousness quiet. I wrote to vomit this outside my cerebral cortex apparently dedicated to brooding. Poetry has allowed me more relief than prose in that regard.
Music was the muse that helped me find a home in poetry. I play the guitar, but I’ll never be able to beg out on those strings what I hope to in words. I want to write poetry, smudge its words around, create pauses that sneak a harmony in the reader’s mind. I don’t believe rhyming poetry is the only way to achieve that miracle. I wanted to use that voo-doo in free verse.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
My first clues were in high school by winning contests and trips through my fiction and essays. In college I decided creative writing was my ticket to Costa Rica. I loved doing it, and at that point both poetry and prose were grabbing me positive attention. I started getting published in established literary magazines. I felt completely in control of my faculties when my fingers scribbled away whatever real problems I had on me. The fact that writing didn’t hurt my stock with the female student body gave a (small) nudge to succeed.
I believed in my very core that I was a writer because writing consumed my restlessness, quieted the prattle around me, and proved an art form that enjoyed my company as well. I will not rest until every word is perfect. If I’m trying to find a fix to a line in some new poem, I can’t shake it no matter where I am or who I’m with. I’ve lost cool friends and romantic interests composing my selfish music. Yet, maybe as a balance, this imagination has become an impenetrable space where peace stretches out.
To the original question: I think I have a few more miles to go before I can brag about being a real writer.
What inspired you to write your first book of poetry?
In 2002 an agent read my prose, which was the meat of my submitted work, and then a few poems I threw in for variety. To my surprise/dismay, he asked for 50 more poems in less than three days – poems I didn’t have. I was told the prose could wait. Over a weekend raw chunks of Whirling Metaphysics were bashed out. The manic energy that went into those poems would’ve powered a whole city block. Necessity inspired this book.
The Draw of Broken Eyes was written over four days in January 2010 during a snow storm in Watkinsville, GA. I was frozen-in at my father’s home, alone, with my laptop and little else. It wasn’t an accident I decided to go to my dad’s house to live-out the storm. I was forced to finally inscribe what was haunting me. I wrote Broken Eyes for a girl who kept to the highways instead of coming home. The book is an attempt to bottle hope. There is very little metaphor. It is all right there.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I don’t think I have a particular style. The stanza arrangements, the grammar, punctuation/capitalization are visceral, picky spirits that vary from poem-to-poem. I have grouped some poems in similar themes/designs, but there’s no predominant footprint anywhere. . None of it is planned until the composition begins.
Who are your influences?
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Rainer Maria Rilke
William Carlos Williams
How did you come up with the title?
The Draw of Broken Eyes: The title came up years before the book was written. The tale begins in the second stanza of “Three Nights at the Plantation”.
One Saturday night in 2003 I was sitting with two other hooligans in the family’s plantation house talking about women. It was in the wee hours of the morning. I mumbled aloud, mostly to myself, why women didn’t stay away from me, an obvious train wreck. One of my friends said, “It’s because of your broken eyes. Girls are drawn to your broken eyes”. He spoke quickly like he’d been thinking about the same thing. That’s all he added and I didn’t ask for clarification. It sat in the back of my mind until the book was finished.
Whirling Metaphysics: This title came to me in that fuzzy-middle place born after I hadn’t slept for three days. Since a very young age I’ve had constant issues with insomnia. There’s a great deal of talk in this book concerning that issue. Within that edgy gloom two words crashed together: “Whirling Metaphysics”.
“Whirling” came from “whirling dervishes”, their spinning dance that breathes love into their chest, deeper still, and then spun towards ecstasy. I find that calm elusive. “Metaphysics” came from my passion for philosophy, especially the metaphysical arm that tries to explain what transcends words; the truth behind what we accept.
The Gateman’s Hymn of Ignoracium is the epic. I invented the word “Ignoracium” much as John Milton introduced “Pandemonium”. Ignoracium is a fourth afterlife conjured by mutual agreement between Ole’ Scratch and the Celestial CEO. They decided Hell wasn’t bad enough for three particular groups of human behaviors. They chose The Gateman to run the madhouse.
The story is told by The Gateman. He was a lukewarm angel during the War in Heaven, and in an understanding that keeps him out of the Inferno, the Gateman is Lord of What Hades Shudders to Think About.
Is there a message in your poems that you want readers to grasp?
In the Draw of Broken Eyes there is a story of love quasi-lost, but that’s not the only thing to soak up. There’s also the echoes of a divorce, nervous breakdown(s), and restlessness that’s followed me for as long as I can remember. It is a love letter, but it is also a gathering of snapshots from ages 35-37.
Whirling Metaphysics is a much larger photo album with some memories dating back to childhood. Other poems I wrote in college and into my 20’s. While writing this it felt as if I was forming another vocabulary to describe a tree, a torrid affair, or a ’67 Chevy Impala. Whirling exhibits my struggle with identity in the South, and where I stand with God. In a few poems there’s the discontent discovered after college in the Real World. Some pages are dedicated to the black dogs of bipolar disorder and addiction.
A message that’s not in the text, but on the cover is the design put together by the publisher. There were many photos, paintings, etc that John Gosslee Books considered while he took the lead role in choosing the book’s exterior design. When I saw the image I knew immediately there was no need to see another. The child is in the classic pose in some paintings of Saint Sebastian. I consider Sebastian my patron saint.
Sebastian is the only saint considered to be martyred twice. Shot up with arrows for pissing off the Man, then lucky enough to live, Sebastian goes right back to get his ass kicked again for sticking to his principles. That sentiment is mirrored in more than one self-destructive tirade I’ve gone on.
Also, there are many poems that record an idyllic youth, and my attempt today to retain some of that wide-eyed wonder. The child you see on the cover appears to have an expression in his eyes that’s already too serious for his years. Perhaps artists take on that intensity too early.
What books/writers/poems have most influenced your life most?
There are a few poems I consider indispensible – Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Poetry Readings by Charles Bukowski, Passer Mortuus Est by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke, Under the Harvest Moon by Carl Sandburg, and Possessed by Light by Emeya Warren.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Rainer Maria Rilke has been my only constant.
What book are you reading now? Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
I’m reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
What are your current projects?
My next book of poetry: Athena Departs.
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
There is a God, and that Hip Cat loves us very much.
Do you see writing as a career?
I see an exciting place opening up right now. I’m curious where this book is headed and how my freelance writing gigs will play into it. Right now it’s a career.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about your writing process?
I am an obsessive editor. The hardest lesson for me was to know when a poem is “done”. John Gosslee Books offered input to help me get a-hold on this shortcoming. It’s obvious from the press’ affiliated literary journal, The Fjords Review that their careful eye stays focused on everything they print.
Did you learn anything from writing your poems and what was it?
When you write about something intensely personal, there are buried emotions snarling for face time. That’s what pushed me sideways while pulling my book together. After honing my editing skills with Broken Eyes, I went back over Whirling. There was a great deal of unfinished emotional business waiting on me. I took out every shred of confusing or cryptic metaphor/simile. I made a decision to either be direct about my prophets/demons, or pull the poem completely.
Due to this editor’s blood-letting, I felt like a raw nerve for nearly a year. I distanced myself from those close to me. I didn’t date. No sex. I didn’t make any chaste oath to a Creator for literary success by isolating myself, I just couldn’t do both people and writing. Getting back in front of people, socializing, poetry readings, trying to open up again in-person proved nothing less than chaotic, and unfortunately, some got hurt during my growing pains. I have to make amends with that soon.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Do not vanity publish. Ever.
A Sneak Peek at Athena Departs:
After Rock-and-Rolla Lover Talk
The elastic nature of words, their wickedness and flair,
slipped into Athens last night
to help cajole a wildly good girl.
The ridges of us fall soft
against long talks
that speak of us
sharing a bed and blueberry pancakes.
Snug, the navel is your epicenter
where there’s Vishnu and a small forest cabin.
makes us less self-conscious.
There is only calm where organs lay wet.
You peer into the mirror
and I’ll show you a fool.
Beneath acne scars, make-up,
and shaving cuts
there are the bones of discarded lovers.
Meeting Old Man Scratch
Old Man Scratch hums to himself,
hunkered down my porch.
One foot is propped up.
Head back, the cat is
cool and smiling.
Iniquity seems in reverie,
like the first time I kissed a girl.
A gray suit, linen,
hat on in the shade.
He swishes a fan
with Jesus on it.
I hear him hiss.
Cigarette behind his ear,
Scratch pops out a pocket watch.
He pretends to wave away
he brought with him.
Your blood’s gettin’ black, son,
the bookie said.
He chuckled, brushed my shoulder,
then slipped away.
In the South,
ghosts cling too close
to let you forget
and a monster,
have their eye on you.