Editor’s Note: Today we give you Brendan Constantine, our October Poet in Residence, taking part in our traditional Take Five interview with equal parts delight and torment. As per usual, the questions are endcapped by a poem. We’re delighted to reprint “Smiling Back,” which first appeared in Red Headed Step Child (Fall/Winter 2015).
Easy Street: We’re so glad to have you here, Brendan. Thanks so much for celebrating your second week as our Poet in Residence by answering our favorite five questions. To start things, off, can you tell us about your writing environment (an office or a coffee house or the whole world)? What are the essentials you need around you, if any?
Brendan Constantine: First, thank you for asking me to visit Easy Street. And thanks for these questions, they’re forcing me to think!
Honestly, I was asked a similar question last year and it really forced me to address some things. I’m still unpacking it. But the simple answer is I need very little. I didn’t know that until recently. I’ve spent years thinking about (what might be) the ideal conditions under which to write; fantasized about long retreats to villages with no electricity where I could spend months staring at a comma while brewing tea from twigs over a burning shoe.
And then I realized that my entire career has been built without any frills. I write in pencil, pen, and on devices. I have no favorites. I write at a desk, on a tablet, standing in line or waiting for traffic signals. If I’m writing by hand and it’s a poem with special concerns, I may see if I can get graph paper and thus isolate letters in the grid. Thus I can see the “shape” of the poem. Failing this I may turn lined paper on its side and put the letters into columns. But that all depends on what the poem “wants.” More about that later.
I have no set time of day, no ritual, and may go for weeks without writing a word. If it stays dry, that is, if I can’t write, I’ll paint or draw or take pictures, all the while thinking about hundreds of unwritten pieces (for which there may be notes … umm … somewhere).
ES: Where are you from and where are you now? How (if at all) does sense of place factor into/inform your writing?
BC: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, the second child of two former beatnicks from the east coast. Right now I’m living in the Miracle Mile part of town, which puts me near “museum row.”
I honestly don’t know how (or if) place fits in my work. I’ve written poems that were set here, but I have yet to write a poem to Los Angeles. I’m not sure about this question. When I’m writing, my mental and physical location is the page. If that sounds pretentious, you should try it from this end! I actually winced while typing it.
But it’s as close as I can get. When I started to write seriously, I was in another country, thousands of miles from home. Since then I’ve never had a regular schedule for writing, no routines, not even in college. I write as much as I can, wherever I happen to be. It always feels like a struggle, time stolen.
ES: What are the basics of your process (if applicable)? Do you start with a word or idea? Do you write immediately or let it simmer for a bit? How do you edit? Do you ever give up on ideas?
BC: I have no single process. Every poem is different, every poem “wants” something else. Sometimes I feel as though the poem already exists, that it’s floating somewhere over my head. When I write and revise (and revise) I’m in negotiations with the piece. We, the poem and I, are discussing how it wants to arrive, under what terms it will deign to be written. Some poems are a capricious, others eager. Some are confused and some just plain frightened. Again, I know how this sounds. I’m just saying how it feels, which, as far as poetry goes, is the truer answer.
But let me try to satisfy the question this way—I tend to write all at once, then start over. Depending on the conversation I’m having with the poem, I may churn out multiple drafts or set it aside for days, even months. The poem may need to catch its breath, get some sleep, recover itself. The poem may need to cry or call old friends. It may even pack its bags. Years have passed, five, ten. But I can’t say I’ve ever given up. There’re groups, colonies of half finished poems living in camps around my office. The talks are ongoing. They know nothing’s over, yet.
ES: What other art forms factor into your work? From what and where do you draw inspiration?
BC: God damn this question. Well, gosh, I’d have to say many art forms factor into my work and I draw inspiration from being alive, absolutely everything I notice. Painting, drawing, photography, movies (perhaps the most important art form of our age), dance, music (music, music, music), sculpture, science and nature, travel, dreams, my relationships, food, dark chocolate.
I’ve even come to terms with stuff I don’t “like,” things that aren’t “my thing.”
I’ll explain—I used to think it very important to have exclusive critical opinions. I could rail for hours about “bad art.” But something happened; I had an epiphany about inspiration. I was reading a book of poems by a poet who frustrated me. One more time I set the volume down and shook my head. “Why on earth,” I asked aloud, “would anyone bother with this? What would drive someone to write such crap, let alone publish it?”
As I said, I tossed the book aside and began to write antidote poems to the ones I’d just read. I had an urge to un-make them, to write “better” poems. And then it hit me; I wasn’t angry, I was inspired. Just because I thought the poems were pointless didn’t mean I hadn’t been “reached.” If I changed perspective (even just a little) I realized I WAS in dialogue with this work. It DID connect. There’s a difference between paying attention and merely listening to have your tastes confirmed. I like to think everyone has something to teach me.
When I write and revise (and revise) I’m in negotiations with the piece. We, the poem and I, are discussing how it wants to arrive, under what terms it will deign to be written.
ES: If you had to give a good friend three books to read while spending winter in the dark of Reykjavik, which books would you give them and why?
BC: No fair. Nope. Can’t get it down to three, FOR ANYBODY.
OK, hell …
If the friend is a young poet, then I’d say a good collection of Gwendolyn Brooks, the same for W.H. Auden, and Howard Nemerov’s essays on poetry, “Figures of Thought.”
If it’s just someone who wants to read good poetry—there’s no way. No. Don’t pursue this. There’re just too many.
If it was just an avid reader—for novels I’d say Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and a big anthology of Flannery O’Conner.
OR—Any collection of Conrad Aiken containing “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” any collection of Saki with “Shredni Vashtar,” and Oliver Onions’ “Widdershins.”
OR—Anything by Shirley Jackson (The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House, or We Have Always Lived In The Castle), Dashiel Hammet (either Red Harvest or The Maltese Falcon—both make me want to write better), a good collection of Chekhov’s short stories.
OK, stop it! Don’t make me do this anymore!!!!
by Brendan Constantine
I remember when snowmen came right to our door
Some mornings it looked like a rally
You’d wake to a couple dozen, facing
the vague street, brooms & pitchforks raised high,
as if they expected some invading army
Back then you could still find emeralds
in pine cones; the grocer took them for cases of beer
His smile was like the spine of a leaf
I don’t recall smiling back, I may not have
had a mouth, yet
Now everyone does; we all sputter like damp coal
& carry shovels to bed for protection
from whatever follows us to sleep