Paul Dean interviews Greg Brownderville
Paul Dean: Recently, I sat down in Oxford, Mississippi, with Greg Brownderville, a poet from Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas, and an assistant professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Brownderville’s new book Gust was released in October by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. The night before I interviewed him, he read from Gust on the local radio show, Thacker Mountain Radio, at Off Square Books.
PD: Can you talk a little about how Gust came together as a book and maybe why it’s twice the normal length of a poetry book?
Greg Brownderville: Well, my MFA thesis was pretty long, around ninety pages, and it just didn’t feel complete. At first, I thought I could solve the problem by cutting, but that didn’t work. Hilda Raz looked at my manuscript and helped me understand that the last section needed to return to the autobiographical material that figures prominently in the early pages. I work several personas in the middle sections: a poetic sheriff, talking palm trees, Jephthah’s daughter, and others. Given the welter of voices, the autobiographical poems early and late in the book provide some necessary stability. When I finished “Holy Ghost Man,” a twenty-page poem about my friend Jack Langston, and placed it near the end of my manuscript, Gust started feeling like a book.
PD: You use a lot of form in these poems. Have you always written in form? Is it something you normally go to when writing?
GB: For me it depends on the material. The material tells you what form it needs. Take for instance the Spenserian stanzas in “A Soldier Gets Home.” I wanted to set up a certain tension between the content and the form of the poem in order to underscore the theme. But there’s a lot of rowdy free verse in this book too. I’m not a partisan in these matters—I just want the right marriage of form and content.
PD: This book has a middle section where you use the voice of an Italian immigrant. Did you originally envision this historical part for Gust?
GB: Yes. My Italian friends in Arkansas had told me so many fascinating stories about their families’ struggles. Also, I wanted to write about hot tamales, which are very popular in the Delta—my grandmother used to make them. Somewhere along the way, these two subjects got mixed up in my imagination. I read a book by Paul Canonici called The Delta Italians that provided some of the raw material for that section of Gust.
PD: I see a lot of Frank Stanford in some of your lines. Also, there’s the comparison to the “widening gyre” in Yeats that some of these blurbs are talking about. Any other influences that have helped shape your poetic identity or writing along the way?
GB: I had read only a little bit of Stanford’s work before grad school. Gary Short recommended that I read him closely. I love The Singing Knives, Stanford’s first book; I like a lot of his work. Yeats is one of my favorite poets—I’ve learned a lot from reading him.
PD: What about the tornados in the poems?
GB: In Arkansas I grew up fearing tornadoes but also being fascinated by them. They remind me of those gyres you mentioned. There’s one poem in the book about a little girl who’s carried a thousand feet by a tornado in South Dakota. I read about her on the Internet, this girl named Sharon Weron who, in 1955 in Edmunds County, South Dakota, was taken up by a tornado and put back down. I found her number and called her up. All my life, I’d wondered what it would be like to ride inside a tornado, but Sharon, now in her sixties, couldn’t explain it to me—she couldn’t find the words. I got the impression that it remained a mystery, even to her. As the poem has it, “there’s something unsayable here.”
PD: How did your writing develop over time? Did you see the MFA program at the University of Mississippi as particularly valuable to your development?
GB: I liked living in Oxford—a small town with a lot of literary sizzle—and being part of a thriving community of writers. I’ve never been anywhere else quite like it. Beth Ann Fennelly, the director of my thesis committee, helped me a lot with my poems, as did Ann Fisher-Wirth. Also, I appreciated the freedom to take workshops in different genres; I took a fiction workshop with Tommy Franklin one semester, and it helped me as a poet. I also took a class with Barry Hannah that I enjoyed a great deal. Other MFA students—Alex Taylor, Danielle Sellers, Jake Rubin, Jennifer Malesich, Chris Hayes, Chrissy Davis, and several others—taught me a lot too. And apart from all the benefits of being in the program, Mississippi was simply a good place for me. Just thirty miles west of Oxford, you get into some country that’s a whole lot like the world I write about in Gust.
PD: Where do you see your writing going next? Do you think it will always be rooted in the Arkansas Delta and the surrounding landscape?
GB: I think I’ll keep writing about the Deep South for now. There’s so much to say. I grew up down here; plus, I’ve done a lot of folklore fieldwork in the South, and the material I harvested continues to feed my writing.
PD: You have some beautiful lines with the last poem “The Mysterious Bar-B-Q Grill of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas”:
There’s time within time, many thens inside
one now. The fireflies blow like neon snow
forever, a boy ghosts through a dirt devil
in every joy of your imagination.
Go love the world, the past’s a future ago.
Whatever fruit, whatever fire, you’ll feel
us meaning in the middle of it all.
We’re yours. A pawpaw tree. A homemade grill.
PD: Do you want to reclaim the region? In a way it seems mythic, but the last line tries to bring it back to the South.
GB: I think the mythic voice at the end is saying to trust the strange poetry of home to stay with you, no matter where you wander.
PD: What about the role of religion in your writing? You have many poems in Gust that seem autobiographical and are in dialogue with the church.
GB: I grew up around country mystics in a Pentecostal church in rural Arkansas. The ritual emphasis was on ecstatic communion with the Holy Ghost. The holy tizzies, the sweating and moaning in the music, the romp and color of the preaching—it’s all inside me, and has probably influenced my poetry as much as anything I’ve read.
PD: That seems almost poetic in a way. Maybe that you need to feel poetry, experience it to a certain extent.
GB: Yes. I would say the ecstatic element of hearing or reading is what Emily Dickinson was thinking about when she wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Sounds like the Holy Ghost to me.
Greg Brownderville, a native of Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas, is the author of Gust (TriQuarterly) and Deep Down in the Delta (Butler Center). He has received many poetry prizes, including awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Missouri Review, and the University of Nebraska. Brownderville has published poems in Prairie Schooner, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. He completed an MFA at Ole Miss in 2008, and is an assistant professor of English at Southern Methodist University.
Paul Dean is a second year MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Mississippi.
His poems have appeared in Burnt Bridge, Mary, and Palooka.