Traci Brimhall first appeared in our pages back in Issue 14 in 2010. Since then, she has published Rookery, the winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award; Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Saudade, just released by Copper Canyon Press. She is also a co-author with Brynn Saito of a collaborative chapbook, Bright Power, Dark Peace (Diode Editions, 2013). Brimhall’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, New England Review, Ploughshares, Slate, The Believer, Kenyon Review, and The New Republic. She received a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the 2012 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi, and the 2008-2009 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Other awards for her work include scholarships and fellowships to the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Writer’s Center of Bethesda, Vermont Studio Center, the Disquiet International Literary Program, and the Arctic Circle Residency.
She kindly took the time to answer our questions about her new book, Saudade, a brilliant and imaginative narrative that takes place in Brazil and delves into histories and mythologies of family and place.
What was the inspiration for this project? How did it begin?
Part of the inspiration for this book was my mother’s stories about her childhood in Brazil. On the one hand, her stories were a great gift to my imagination. They were full of flora and fauna I’d never seen, foods I’d never eaten, and a language I only knew how to speak to say I love you or shut up. But on the other hand, my mother wasn’t much of a storyteller and a person who was not interested in the past, and the stories were often repetitive and unembellished. However, I was gifted with a hyperbolic imagination and a gift for accessorizing language.
The seed of this idea was actually planted in Tina Chang’s graduate poetry workshop at Sarah Lawrence in (I believe) the fall of 2007. I wrote poems for her persona project in which I invented a wild girl who wrote poems on trees in the Amazon. None of those poems appear in this book, but that girl I named and birth and wrote as in 2007 is the secret heart of this collection.
Saudade is described as “part verse novel, part lyric play.” What novels and plays, or hybrid poetry books, influenced you in the writing of this book?
I really love verse novels, even though I know they’re a more popular YA genre than adult genre, but some beloved hybrid books for me are Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Jane: A Murder. I like books that want to be at least two things at once, books that embrace their strangeness and straddle lines or obscure it. People are more than one thing so why should a book be limited to its genre categories? One of the best pieces of advice I got on the book (which I don’t think I took fully enough and kept trying to make things tidy) was from Natalie Diaz. She told me to let it go wild and then let it go.
One of the highlights of the book is the chorus, and the chorus in this book is built of individual Marias– Maria Helena, Maria Thereza, Maria de Lourdes, Maria Madalena, Maria Aparecida. What drew you to the idea of building a chorus with individual voices responding in threaded conversation?
Cinco Marias is actually a game in Brazil that’s very similar to the game of jacks that most Americans might know, although in Brazil it is played with stones, seeds, or little sand bags. You would play with less than five players, so the Marias in my chorus aren’t really like playmates playing this game of picking up individual stones/lines, although that’s part of the idea. I also wrote with a chorus in mind when I wrote my last book, Our Lady of the Ruins, and one of the things that often troubled me was how to talk about a collective experience but honor individual voices. Utilizing the format of a play or script let me differentiate a bit among the voices. I only ever imagined them as children–and I believe they are permanently stuck in childhood–which seemed like the right set of guides for the book.
What was the research process for this book? How did you find your balance between history and imagination?
A great deal of this book was written when in an apartment in Kalamazoo, MI in my grad program. My closet there had folding doors, and I spread pieces of paper across them to keep track of the various timelines. There were three timelines I tried to make cohere: this historical timeline of events in the cities I mention; the events of my mother’s life in those cities; the events I imagined around my mother’s life. My mother’s literal experiences never appear, but their nascent forms shadow certain poems and events. There’s also a timeline I didn’t track, which is my own. Even if my mom’s life and historical events are part of the inspiration and influence, these voices are very much parts of me–angry parts, ugly parts, grieving parts, pleasured parts, nostalgic parts, naive parts. And the timeline also changed after my mother died. I completely reordered the book because I started asking the poems different questions, and all of a sudden they suggested a different shape, a different history.
If you were to draw yourself a poetic family tree, what poets do you see yourself descended from?
If love makes a family, then I guess the tree has ancestors like Rilke, Dickinson, Lorca, Plath, and Dylan Thomas. And my parents are Larry Levis and Brigit Pegeen Keely. And my aunts and uncles include Terrance Hayes, Diane Seuss, Robert Hass, Louise Gluck, James Dickey, Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, Steve Scafidi, and big brothers like Patrick Rosal and Ross Gay, and big sisters like Tracy K. Smith and Tina Chang. And I have siblings and cousins like Kaveh Akbar, Lo Kwa Mei-En (my sister in ecstatic excess), Jericho Brown, Erika Sanchez, Ilya Kaminsky, Allison Benis White. And many of my press siblings are on that tree too, like Victoria Chang, Ocean Vuong, Natalie Diaz, Roger Reeves. And really my love family is so huge and encompassing and uncontainable and growing still.
Now that Saudade is out in the world, what are you working on?
After finishing Saudade, I couldn’t let go of that world and those voices. I wrote a novel that’s the prequel to the poetry collection which follows the rubber baron’s wife and mistress and other characters I invented to populate the opera house and rubber plantations of turn of the century Manaus, Brazil. I let it sit for awhile and just went back to edit it. Paragraphs are exceedingly difficult.
For original poetry, fiction, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.