How It’s Made: Traci Brimhall’s Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Traci Brimhall’s newest collection from Copper Canyon Press, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, which was written during the trial for a close friend’s murder. With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being.
What were the most joyful moments of Come the Slumberless to the land of Nod‘s journey to publication?
Traci Brimhall: Maybe it’s corny, but the first joy I thought of as each time I felt I got a poem “right”, where a revision really brought something out of the poems. But if it has to be the book as a whole, maybe that ordering process, taking that pile of poems (and essays) and figuring out what its central question is and then how to say it. I *do* appreciate good reviews and making it to “must read” lists and whatnot, but I think that feeling is almost more relief than joy. My joy is very closely tied with making.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
This time around I was lucky enough to be with a publisher I was pretty sure would take the new one. For my previous three, I sent around to contests and open reading periods to try and find a publication home. It was an intern at Copper Canyon who read my last book and was like HEY EVERYONE YOU HAVE TO READ THIS! And apparently I hadn’t even put my contact information on my submission, likely not believing I could end up at a press like CCP, so the editor, Michael Wiegers, had to look up the friends I listed in my acknowledgments and ask for my number so he could call me with the good news. This time when I sent to them, I definitely made sure they knew my number(!), but the earlier waiting and fingers crossed and the long marathon of no’s was hard, especially when I was sending out work I felt was pretty darn good.
As far as what I’ve taken away, I think it’s pretty similar to what I take from all my rejections–the no’s help you really appreciate the yeses. It still sucks to have a publication you feel is a great fit for your work turn you down, but I like to tell myself that’s just going to make the acceptance feel that much more celebratory.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod not have made it across the finish line?
Before reaching my publisher, I showed it to a small handful of friends, but the biggest advisor for this book was Jenny Molberg. She was supportive and specific in her suggestions, as well as incredibly generous with her time. Once my book went to Copper Canyon, I got to work with the incomparable Elaina Ellis as my editor! She gave the book such an incredibly amount of time, attention and care. She followed up with incredible and insightful suggestions for the book and notes about habits I had in my poems and word choice that really helped me see some things I don’t see when I work on a poem-to-poem basis. Then I had so much support from John Pierce on the cover! They really worked to track down permissions for the image I wanted to use, as well as providing some truly amazing options for covers. And then getting it out in the world, Emily Grise and Laura Buccieri have done an amazing job sending copies of my books for reviews, setting up readings, and helping me with marketing materials. It’s genuinely incredible to have this much support from a publisher for a book.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of these poems?
The first thing that occurs to me is what having a child taught me about the lyric. In the book, the most lyrical poems are the lullabies I wrote with the precious conscious minutes I had when my son was a newborn and not attached to me. In those days/week/months, only moments seemed to be real. To write about my friend’s murder, I needed prose. I don’t know why but it’s interesting to me that certain emotions or impulses feel better in certain forms and either deeply attached to linear time or freed from it. Mostly, though, I don’t find that by book 4 I’ve been learning much that’s new. I’ve mostly been working on staying true to my first lessons and learning how to stay in love with poetry. I think keeping those fires burning is the struggle of all long terms loves. What makes it fresh but also ties you to the history you have with something? What are the book or prompts to take you back to how you feel in love as well as the reaching towards the new work that will inspire you? I think sometimes people think of writing as this constant deepening or growth, but a straight line in the right direction. I think it’s more like a circle or a spiral where you keep in touch with your poetry-love’s first wellspring.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
Hmm…the oldest poem in here is 8-9 years old, so it’s hard to put my finger on a single thing. I also believe in being promiscuous in my influences. I think that’s a great way to keep from modeling too closely on a single poet or artist. So, for instance, one poem might be influence by several poets I was reading at the time, plus artist interviews with Francis Bacon, plus the TV show Hannibal, plus a random fact of biology or history. So if I keep my interests varied enough and consume multiple forms of media, I don’t end up repeating someone’s images/ideas (hopefully). Also, those interviews with Francis Bacon are rad and so is the show Hannibal. You can’t watch/listen to those and NOT write a poem.
I think that often what this promiscuity of influence gives me is new language. I like discovering the different vocabularies of different art forms, as well as arts that are more of a window than a mirror. By that I mean I like the media that challenge the way I feel/think/see and invite me into new ways of doing that rather than the media that confirm what I already feel/think/see. For me, these arts and entertainments are often generative because it gets me asking questions and excited by the encounter with a new way of being in the world.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Hmm…maybe that I think of books as a creative investigation and, for me, figuring out the order of a book is figuring out its question. This book’s question was about forgiveness, and I had a sense of how I wanted the tone to move in really small waves rather than a deep dive and rise (does that even make sense?). But for me, a person of great doubts and questions, determining what I was digging at with the spade of each poem helps me give a shape to that driving question.
Traci Brimhall is the author of four collections of poetry: Come the Slumberless from the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon Press), Saudade (Copper Canyon Press), Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry. She’s received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and is currently Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.
Praise for Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod
“The questions posed by this stunning collection will remind readers of their own mortality, while reawakening the power and fury within them.”
—Publishers Weekly starred review
“With each successive book, there’s even more grandness to Brimhall’s narrative voice. She writes with a commanding sense, with some poems feeling like the voice beaming to Job, and other poems arriving like a hypnotizing whisper at night… Another masterful book from one of our finest poets.”
“Traci Brimhall’s Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod unfurls like a series of dispatches from the shores of grief, and then the burning wildfire of divorce. …[H]er poems feel as intimate as a handwritten letter.”
—John Freeman, Literary Hub
“Brimhall’s style is part brutal directness and liquid elegance… [P]repare to be bewitched until the journey ends at the approach of lightness and hope.”
—The Arkansas International