I bring this up because I’ve been trying to promote the work of a woman who died, and who died in the process of building a legacy. I met Barbara Brackney in 2004. She was taking an online poetry class that I was teaching for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and she had an intensity that was arresting. She wanted to discuss prosody all the time. I suspect that poetry workshops often reverse that natural order of the world. In most places, you meet people through a shared interest or a shared task (a job, a class, a club) and the personal comes out on the side as people warm up to each other. In poetry workshops, the personal often ends up on the table as an unavoidable part of the work at hand, and you get to know people through their aesthetics, which come out on the side. It soon became clear that Barbara’s intensity grew out of her knowledge of her own looming death. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and after a life as a clinical psychologist (and professor of psychology), she wanted to leave a part of herself in the world through poetry. She wanted what August Wilson had—to be known after her death as the producer of works still read.
But Wilson had a lifetime, and Brackney did not. I was as direct with her as she was with me, and I expressed doubt that she would have the time to develop the skill to write the poems she wanted to write. She wanted, like so many of us, to reach that sophisticated stranger—to move someone with no other connection to us than that they love what we wrote. And in this way, death is overcome in the sense that my connection to August Wilson (or David Foster Wallace or Reginald Shepherd or Deborah Digges) is the same before and after their death. I am grateful for the work they did, not necessarily for the people they were. And in fact, I’ve learned many times that one should never confuse the work with the author. (Politics, on the other hand, reminds us not to confuse the work with the actors.) Still, I told Brackney some version of “you can’t love the destination without loving the journey”—ie, even if you don’t produce a book, it’s good to start the process of writing it. She took more classes with me, and she grew as a writer. She developed an amazing level of skill in a very short time. If she had been less talented, I doubt we would have continued to work together. But her work demanded my attention through its accomplishment.
In 2007, as her condition was worsening, we worked intensively on a manuscript of her poems. It ultimately turned out to be chapbook sized—seventeen poems in all. I tried to rush it into publication before her death, but couldn’t find a publisher to take it on—and I urged Barbara not to self publish. We talked about what she wanted from an audience, and basically, since her friends already knew her poems, publication was a way to find a larger audience. To find those people, she needed a publisher—someone who would support and disseminate the work; someone who would know how to get her work displayed. Barbara died in 2007, and I continued to look for a publisher for her chapbook. In 2008, Jack Estes took Late August for his press Pleasure Boat Studio, and in 2009, the chapbook was published.
I had thought that my work would be more or less finished once I had found her a publisher. I’m not in the habit of making death-bed promises. I certainly hope that it was out of character for me to promise to find someone a publisher after she died. But as moving as the story is, it hasn’t really accomplished what she wanted—she still hasn’t found an audience. The chapbook has sold very few copies, and every time I tell the story of how Barbara’s chapbook came into print, the story seems to take center stage. Everyone finds it a moving story—but they stop there.
Last Sunday, I invited a number of poets and poetry supporters to participate in a tribute to Barbara Brackeny. Melissa Broder offered me an evening slot in her wonderful Polestar Series at Cakeshop. Joan Larkin, Stacey Harwood, Nicholas Powers, Paul Romero, Joseph Rippi, Janice Sussman, Melissa Broder, and Jacke Estes all read from her chapbook. They each spoke about how they had been moved to discover Barbara’s work, and how much it had come to mean to them. I wanted to give you a sense of her work. Here is one poem from her chapbook:
You are bones.
I spoon a spoonful
and drink them,
taste in tact.
There’s a wound
that won’t heal.
You are in me.
And in the ash
of my bones
will be you
So here I am again, urging you to read her work. But why would you read a chapbook by someone who has died? Isn’t that like only reading the first chapter of a novel? We tend to think about the “importance” of authors in terms of their influence and body of work. Is there enough to say about them? Is there enough to read by them? In some ways the difficulty of finding an audience for someone who can’t do their own self-promotion has taught me how important it is to value a readership—to think about how reading is something the living do for the dead—but its something we do for ourselves. We read because we need to. We read poems for a multiplicity of reasons, but they all begin in personal desire.
I actually think that the intimacy that reading offers is a critical component to a full life. We all have siblings and parents and friends and lovers that we know everything about—that we know too much about. My younger brother is a brilliant singer/songwriter, so every song is not just the song—it’s everything I know and feel about him. Everything the people we love say to us is said in the context of our deep knowledge of their life. Then there are strangers—people who we don’t know at all—people that we agree or disagree with, but everything they say comes to us in a vacuum. But then there are writers—poets, novelists, essayists—people with whom we can feel an intimacy without being overwhelmed by it. I keep hearing that the future of the book is interactive—that authors better get tweeting and facebooking and networking—that we have to become responsive to our readers. But I love the intimacy of an author you don’t know… the way that what is revealed is just enough to feel close, but distant enough for you to be safe. The work of performing artists tends to have a shorter life than creative artists—in part because recording technologies have changed so drastically over the last four thousand years, while the first recording technology—writing—has remained essentially the same. The notations with which creative artists leave their work opens up a space for performance, either as you read, or as the play is acted out or the symphony conducted, etc. But that notation is a single road—it comes from the artist to the audience, and it can come across time and space. It can bridge death in a way nothing else can, which I think it makes it a form of love. But it can only bridge death in that the voice persists, without response. Reading makes us all a version of Echo for our space of reading. Even if makes us pick up our pens and broadcast our own voices back out in response. I love the single road of reading. I’m glad to have helped Barbara travel it.
And I left the crass commercialism to the end. Buy her book:
And the picture is of Barbara Brackney-- sorry, I couldn't figure out captioning.