Poet in the Mirror: Conor Bracken
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, Conor Bracken—author of The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (available now for preorder from diode editions)—shares insight into rejection, writing about Americanism, and the rewards of poetry.
You’ve previously published a chapbook and a book of translation. But this is your debut collection. What was The Enemy of My Enemy is Me’s relationship to rejection? How long and what did it take to find a home?
This book has had a long relationship with rejection. So much rejection! I was submitting versions of it for more than five years, though I’ve worked on it for over seven. Many of the versions I submitted early on were totally undercooked. Part of this was foolhardy, motivated by that thrilling jolt of completion that I often mistake for quality. Another part of it, though, was just the process. I found that using the submission deadlines of various contests as a goal was a good way to not just keep me active in working on the manuscript, but also trying to see it through eyes other than my own. (Ananda Lima talks about this really well here about 47 minutes in.) If it was going into someone’s inbox, then I had to think of how they might perceive it. What do they need to know narratively, thematically, lyrically, right off the bat? How is the scene being set, how are the tools being laid out, the main questions the book is asking and trying to answer? This was helpful, in trying to get a different read of the book as it developed.
But there were so many dozens of rejections along the way. A lot of times I was unsurprised (submission was a means, not an end, really) but other times I took it hard. What was helpful through it all was having the work to return to, and great readers and friends to keep hashing it out with, but also knowing the editorial process from the inside (I’ve screened manuscripts for contests, and have been poetry editor at a couple journals). Rejection is so rarely a comment on the work itself, and acceptance is a minor miracle. The work not only needs to know itself well enough to be confident and glisten, but it needs to pass through so many minds of varying tastes and fatigue levels, and hit them just right. It’s like trying to find a neutrino—it has to hit a water atom at just the right angle to flare. And when it does, it’s rare and pleasing as a dignified end! So many others slip by undetected for that one, though.
On Challenges and Surprises
This book combines masculinity with violence, but in a surprisingly moving way. I love the opening of “Damaged Villanelle,” which reads “To get rid of the sound of his voice / I take off my ears / but then they grow back. // I try a sharper blade.”
What was the most surprising thing—either a joyful or challenging one— about ushering this collection into the world?
There were a lot of challenging things about writing this book—violence and whiteness and masculinity oh my, right? And working to comment on not just those but my own involvement in them, without glossing over the ugly parts. But the hardest part of the book for me was the one that pulls from my experience being sexually abused by an older guy when I was younger.
My initial response to that experience was repression, and then various addictions, all of which I’m fortunate to have survived and then shed (though who doesn’t miss a cigarette when the seasons shift sometimes?). To write poems about this, though, obviously I had to dredge up some subconscious muck and sort through details I’d let sink a while ago. As I figured out, deeper into the writing of the poems, to make successful ones, I needed to develop a better relationship with my anger, as well as to understand that despite all the confusion and excuses, the hemming and hawing and years of explaining things away, that this did actually happen to me, and that it was wrong that it did. When you keep a secret like this for years, and there isn’t much in the larger culture that validates the existence of these kinds of experiences, it’s easy to deny them, and then believe that denial; I had to unlearn all these subconscious reflexes to minimize or dismiss it.
The harder part, though, than even that was trying to also step back and see the guy from my current vantage point, to understand him more, and try to sympathize with him. (Like so many people, he was also a victim of sexual abuse, not to mention virulent homophobia.) It was hard—still is—to hold this anger and sympathy in tension, but important because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to put any distance between myself and the speaker. That flexible space is, to me, where poems really generate a lot of power and surprise, not to mention the perspective necessary to make something with the clarity and mixed feelings Auden describes as poetry’s key ingredients.
On Finding Energy
This book is a heavy one. Gorgeous and necessary, but heavy. “Shock & Awe” opens with “My country destroys another country on TV.” “Dead-Eye” opens with “Here I am inside a firing range. / Loading and holding and aiming a pistol / the way America has taught me.” Henry Kissinger makes appearances.
In writing these poems (and continuing their journey through such heavy times in the publication process), what do you do to re-energize yourself?
You’re definitely right about the heaviness, and very kind about the gorgeousness. I’m glad that balance seems to exist, however precarious! As for me and re-energization, pretty much it’s been three things: spend time with different poems, spend time with others’ poems, or spend time away from poetry altogether.
On the first count, mid-way through the process of writing this book, I set it aside in favor of writing the
Henry Kissinger poems. He had popped up randomly in a poem, and I decided to follow his stout war criminal’s lurch, in part because I needed a break from the seriousness that the poems about mass shootings and sexual abuse seemed to require. Henry ended up becoming part of the book, but at the time it was really necessary for me to let my other poetic impulses for the screwball, the offkilter and zippy, get some time to breathe and flex.
On the second count, I’ve found working with other people’s poems, either via translation or reviewing them, extremely rewarding. Taking a break from my own work, when it’s feeling too intense or I’m just tired of trying to shove a needle through a rhino’s hide, lets things kind of sort themselves out in the background. Also, trying to see how other poets, from very different contexts (contemporary Haiti, 1960’s Morocco), make poems about similar subjects with different materials and/or experiences, is edifying, but even more it’s enjoyable. To spend that kind of time, intimately puzzling out the connotations of a particular idiom in French, or the shifting development of an image throughout a collection, is why I came to poetry: for the love of reading. Sometimes, it feels like I read so much (there’s so much to read!) that to really read something I need to slow down and write about it, if not rewrite/translate it.
Finally, sometimes I just renounce it all (ideally once a day) and walk my dog, and now my daughter, trying to see how the seasons are changing in minute ways the light and plant life around me.
On Changes and Revision
I love the (very long) poem called “Reassembling the Shooter” in this book. It grapples with whiteness, masculinity, and Americanism in a way that sets the tone for this book. But it also grapples with the speaker’s identity and place within those subjects.
Did you always set out to write such a book? What changed, or what do you wish you knew, between your book’s first and final drafts?
It means so much to hear that you enjoyed that poem, Saba. It’s the one I worked on the longest for the book, actually, and that underwent the most intense changes. It must have gone through at least a dozen different iterations (at one point, it was written only with words taken from the description of different parts of two pistols). Some other poems are older, but this one was always central to the book—a kind of axle it all turned on for more than seven years ago.
At the start, I didn’t necessarily know that I was going to write a book about masculinity, whiteness, and neoimperialism, but I knew that I wanted—needed?—to write about the particular violence this poem emerged from (the Virginia Tech shooting). Initially, I thought I was writing a book about trauma (shared and personal) and memory—the body knowing the score etc. This version didn’t work though, in large part because it took me and my experiences as the subject, not as manifestations of the larger themes that ended up becoming the subjects of this final version of the book. That early version flattened all the people in it into fixed types: victim and perpetrator, trespasser and trespassed against. It had no complexity, and didn’t consider that hurt people hurt people, and that the pain of the perpetrator has a kind of terrifying validity equivalent to the terrifying possibility of being someone who inflicts cruelty even after suffering it oneself. Once I began to realize that the people I was writing about—the speaker, the shooter, the cantor—all had a humanity, however wounded or stunted or truncated, that deserved some reference to its complexity, then the poem, and the rest of the book, began to take on a more dynamic shape.
From there, too, I was able to see how they were all these kinds of rhizomatic shoots from a deeper root system of pain and injustice wrought by white masculinity’s desire to hold onto slipping, ill-gotten power. Of course, this isn’t to say that those who commit crimes against humanity deserve blanket forgiveness—there needs to be accountability (though not necessarily via the racist justice system we currently have in place). But we do need to give them some understanding. The last poem I put in the book (“Next time I see him”) is the one that talks about this distinction. This took me the longest to understand: the understanding is not forgiveness, and granting one does not mean the other ensues.
In this book we have the compression or destruction of form. We see satirical aubades and love poems. There’s a poem that spans pages and a poem that’s four lines long. A poem about Britney Spears precedes a poem that calls back to Walt Whitman. What I mean to say is: The Enemy of My Enemy is Me takes risks and seems to expertly balance different kinds of craft.
What is one piece of craft advice that motivated you throughout the writing of this book? Alternatively, what is a piece of craft advice that you don’t practice yourself?
Saba, that summation is so wonderful—I definitely come out looking much smarter, with more panache than I tend to have. Thank you for that! In terms of craft advice, aside from “revise, but don’t revise the poem away,” the most important one was just surprise.
Instead of whole poems, I keep little excerpts from poems in my head (I have a not very great memory). For instance, the first three lines of Prufrock, or Merwin’s short poem “Separation” (Your absence has gone through me / Like a thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color) or Atwood’s short poem “[you fit into me]” or so many haiku from Issa and Buson. The list goes on but all these little poems and scraps set you up then knock you down, in different ways, but with the same effect of wrongfooting and surprising if not delighting you. As an effect, I think it’s essential (a comfortable reader grows glassy) but as a goal even more so—I’ve heard Stephen Dunn talk about really getting into writing a poem once it surprises him, and it rings true for me too. That’s what I aimed for in each poem during revision.
Whether it was a particular form, image, scenario, or character aspect that I was trying to address, I needed to write myself towards something beyond what I had in mind at the outset. Back in the day, they may have called this moment a visit from the muses, or genius, or if you’re Yeats the daemon—working diligently until some outer force deigned to flash inside you some afflatus and gift you something smarter than you could come up with. That’s what I think helps distinguish verse from poetry, ultimately: finding a way to let the poem be smarter than you. If the poem doesn’t try to grab the wheel from you, then you’re just going to end up where you were heading, and who goes to poems for that?
On Advice for Emerging Poets
What advice would you give to emerging poets who are yet to publish their first book?
Like any good advice giver, I’ll give advice that I wish I was better at following. That’s the measure of advice’s quality, right? How little the giver actually practices it?
In seriousness, though, the first is be patient (one I’m admittedly not very good at). There are those poems that come out the first time and they’re perfect, little Athenas peeled off of your Olympian (Parnassian?) forehead, but that’s not most of the poems. And anyway, though I love Ginsberg, “first thought best thought” doesn’t apply to every decision we make. It might in terms of topic, subject, approach, and other macro-order things, but the minutiae of how a book fits together, what it actually ends up being about, takes time. You’ve got to travel the landscape before you can draw a map of it.
Aside from that, do more than just write your book. Write poems that would never fit into it, work on a chapbook or two, try translating other poets (even homophonically, like Zukofsky, if you’re not comfortable with another language), read widely (and not just poems)—basically, do stuff that is absolutely not your book project, and that is not even poetry. You’ll learn stuff that’ll have some helpful, mysterious bearing on what you’re trying to do.
Finally, build community wherever and however you can. Nearby where you live through readings and lectures, and far away, too, if you can. Writing conferences, like Boldface in Houston, or the Inkubator in Cleveland, or the larger longer ones like the Community of Writers or Frost Place Seminar or any of the many others (especially on scholar- or fellowship), are generally worth it. Meeting other people to go wild about poems with—yours, theirs, the ones you love and the ones you don’t get and the ones you revile—until the crickets stop singing is immeasurably valuable. MFA programs can be great if it’s a thing you have the time and space and circumstances to do, but part of it is finding good readers. You can do that elsewhere. All you need is a couple good readers of your work (aka friends and mentors), and you’ve got the necessary stuff to make some kind rocket fuel: care, intelligence, candor, and joy.