Poet in the Mirror: S. Brook Corfman
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, S. Brook Corfman—author of the New York Times Best Poetry of 2020 My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites (from Fordham University Press)—shares insight into the labels of “professional” poet vs “artist” poet, their writing energies pre-pandemic and during a pandemic, and a bit of advice on the importance of “absences as much as presences” in our work.
On Rejection & Revision
I wrote the prose poems of My Daily Actions all together in the summer of 2017 (mostly). Because they are interested in the insular & private, I left in a lot of what might otherwise be ambiguous or unclear in favor of creating a kind of emotional world. (I love poems whose language warps as it gets closer to a poet’s interior.) That made it really hard for me to re-enter the poems for revision! So I did even more re-sequencing of the pieces and switching out of the epigraphs and titles than I would have otherwise, and sent out both chapbook and book-length versions of many of those iterations. Mostly, they were rejected (I think I was a finalist for contests twice). But DoubleCross Press took a sequence which would go on to be the first big section of the book, and published it in a really beautiful letterpress chapbook edition. Having that object helped me trust that these poems would find their readers, even if they remained partially mysterious even to me. The book was still out at seven places when I got the call from Fordham saying Cathy Park Hong had picked my book, and in a humbling turn of events it was rejected from all of them in the time between that call and signing the final contract.
On Becoming “Professional”
The boring answer is that I fell for poetry as an undergraduate student, as a side effect of continuing my English major while I applied to medical school. I deferred med school (thankfully!!) and applied to MFA programs in order to find some creative community instead. A more nuanced answer is that I was thinking about possibilities and limits of particular pieces of language—what language can or cannot do, can or cannot communicate—and poetry turned out to be a much better place to start than fiction (in which I wrote mood at the expense of plot) or medicine (I realized thinking about how patients understand and communicate their experiences to doctors was only the first part of the job).
Like “professional,” “career” can sometimes seem like a Bad Word for poets because it suggests a poet is sacrificing “true” art for some other kind of commodity, but I’m not sure that’s true (maybe!), nor am I sure it’s necessarily a bad thing if it is. Plus thinking of myself as at the beginning of a “career” is useful for its orientation to the future. I don’t mean that I’m planning for national prestige or something, only that imagining I’ll have a career over time (even if I don’t actually!) means expansively imagining what might be possible in my artmaking across a life.
On Re-Energizing (Even During a Pandemic!)
I used to write only when I felt moved to, which was often when I was obsessed with something. That worked out pretty well because I both enjoy an immersive experience and am somewhat easily moved. If I feel drained, I have a shelf of books (including art books) and a set of movies near & dear to me that help remind me of what a complex and compelling aesthetic experience feels like. (I’m a “high-input” writer, rather than one who needs a lot of time away from other work to make my own.) Unfortunately, the pandemic has pretty much totally disrupted that process! Because it has flattened the kinds of interactions I have and also over-saturated my media receptors. So I’m trying to create my own attention and energy, but it’s slow going—I have a lot of scraps from pre-pandemic and a lot of little starts that I’m whittling on. It’s slow-going, but I’m trying to be kind to myself and remind myself that this is in fact a pretty new version of my process.
On Advice for Emerging Poets
(1) A good book, like a good poem, is made out of absences as much as presences.
(2) It’s often intangible and unpredictable how certain kinds of recognition translate to the circulation of your work, and you’ll wear yourself out trying to figure it out.
Before the pandemic started, I’d begun writing more lineated poems. I think most poets start with those, but the prose poem has always been my “home base” instead—breaking the line sometimes feels very dramatic or too extreme to me! So I’d been thinking a lot about what I think is a pretty common idea that you should only break the line on an “interesting” or “strong” word. I think craft advice often feels like a trick, but this one has been surprisingly helpful, because part of what’s wonderful about the best lineated poems is how each packet of language transforms as you move from line to line—and part of what’s challenging about line breaks is that they’re so finicky, so it can be tempting to say “this is good enough” or to say “let’s do something that creates a smoother path.” It’s a way to name for myself why I’m making the decisions I’m making when I write.
On the other hand, in the first poem of My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites I finally broke a similar rule I’d held onto for a long time. Claudia Rankine was my first poetry teacher, and she once pointedly observed that we should never start a line with “so,” which only served to stall the line from getting into gear. I learned a lot more from her, but this one stuck in my head because it was so precise! When I finally did begin a line with “so,” and consciously decided to keep it in, I felt like I must have come pretty far.
Winniebell Xinyu Zong
Winniebell Xinyu Zong is the winner of Columbia Journal's Womxn’s History Month Special Issue in poetry, the Associate Editor of Pleiades Magazine and Frontier Poetry, and the EiC of Touchstone Literary Magazine. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Meridian, and Poetry Daily, among others. You can find her online at winniebellxzong.com and on Twitter & Instagram @winniebell_zong.