Stephanie Brown is by far one of our most fearless contemporary American poets. Her first collection, Allegory of the Supermarket (University of Georgia Press, 1998) explores the dynamic extremes of suburban discord and the self. Her second collection, Domestic Interior (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) continues in a similar vein, just as strong if not stronger than the first, never once veering away from the societal grotesque.
Stephanie's recent work has appeared in Connotation Press, Green Mountains Review, and my own press journal with Lea C. Deschenes, Damfino Journal. I am overtly thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Stephanie about her work.
In your interview on Poetry.LA (5/2/2014) with host Mariano Zaro, you discuss moving away from writing long poems to writing shorter poems that focus more on the natural or mystical state of things rather than society. At what point did you decide to make such a dramatic change in both length and topic?
I think style and topic naturally evolve over time, and if you look at a writer’s work there will always be a signature or voice in the work that lets you know it’s the same person writing in different styles. I once saw a retrospective of an artist’s work where you could see the person was changing styles as each decade’s fashion changed—just copying leaders in the art form rather than natural evolution—I wanted to avoid that sort of thing.
For me I think it’s because that’s what I want to read. I am not really interested in a writer’s process being laid bare in the work—I want the scaffolding to be hidden and I want to read something that really moves me. I think I got bored of the way I write most often, which is a kind of slow warm-up to the point, with good details, but after a while, who cares? I’m thinking of a poem of mine like, “Library.” I don’t want to write that kind of poem anymore. I want to grapple more with the very strong emotions of life: DNA, if you will. That’s what we need artists to do. That’s what I need to read.
I like short, clever, pithy poems that reveal a truth about life. A poet’s job is to be a reporter and recorder and also to be a psycho-pomp, seer and mystic; a Pandora and a Cassandra and a spell creator and someone who can stir people deeply and even harm others. I have more moved into this area lately. I tried to make that transition around 2013-2014, I’d say. I’m not sure I really have, but I do feel the need to write in a different way. It’s hard to tell if I have. I have a desire to write shorter poems, but I’m not sure if I have really accomplished that. I think people want to be moved by what they read, hear or see. I want to write that way for them to have that experience. I am interested in pleasing the reader and making him feel.
You were born and raised in California, and you have continued to live there, raise your sons with your husband, and work. Has living in different locations such as Pasadena, Newport Beach, San Clemente, influenced your poems, specifically when writing about class? I am thinking about two of your recently published poems, "Thanksgiving Dinner in a Rich Zip Code," (Map Literary) and "The Questions" (Connotation Press, Nov. 2015) but you have also written about class structures in other poems such as "Feminine Intuition," and "Fashion and the Fat Girl."
This is the really big question about my work, and probably the dead-center of my intentions or what motivated me in life. I could write an essay on this, and so that I don’t go on too long, I’ll write some shorter impressions of what this makes me think of. I decided to put these into thematic parts—different angles in responding to the question.
Regional: I love southern California and feel very rooted here—I’m a defender of this place. I feel very much like a Californian and love Jerry Brown, for instance. I like my town, my broader county—much maligned in casual conversation and not accurate in fact. I am very much a part of California and love it a lot with a feeling like patriotism, I guess. This is where the future is; it’s full of élan vital and freedom.
Literary influence: I have always been interested in the “novel of manners,” and my poems are novels of manners, if you will. My favorite novel is The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. I’m the town mouse, not the country mouse. While I like to read a beautiful poem about a bird’s nest, it’s not my calling to write that poem. I am very interested in people’s behavior and what they do, what they tell themselves and how they act. I find human behavior fascinating. I’m a very good mimic and can accurately capture people’s voice, tone, inflections and mannerisms. My older son also has this talent. He is hilarious. I have a very accurate sense of people—too much so. I can pretty much figure out a person and where they’re from and what kind of background, and what motivates them. I find people interesting and I love people.
Fascinating! I never thought to consider your poems "novels of manners" but as I re-read and examine many of them in comparison to the nineteenth century criteria I can see it, including "Thanksgiving Dinner in a Rich Zip Code." Do you think attitudes between men and women have stayed the same?
That is a big question but: yes and no. I think we don’t emphasize the same things now—like you now don’t absolutely have to get married—but the same illusions and mental follies that you saw in the 19th or 20th century are often the same—or I think I mean to say that we can write about them in the same way—so the “novel of manners” never goes out of date. Tama Janowitz wrote a contemporary update of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth called A Certain Age. The novel is set in the social set of contemporary New York, and it was completely believable, and the end much more dark—to be alone and broke in New York (or any metropolis) today without any real skill, is to be extremely vulnerable. The point of that book, and it’s the same as Pride and Prejudice, is that some people need to compromise in order to get married—the example being Charlotte Lucas who married Mr. Collins. The woman in The House of Mirth should have taken the proposal of the decent Jewish man at the end.
There was an article by Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic a few years ago about what it means to not get married, and I think this is very real and truthful. It was unpopular and criticized because it goes against the idea that women shouldn’t compromise on their suitors. More insidiously, there is this notion of, “I’m not looking for a husband,” because “looking for” is gauche, or part of the evangelical class today, or seen as extremely old-fashioned and dated. These kinds of women, who won’t “look” are, I think, another kind of House of Mirth today, or the sisters in Pride and Prejudice who get seduced and abandoned. The people who can’t settle for someone—to me they are victims of faddish thinking along the lines of the ideal of bachelorhood that was espoused by Hugh Hefner, et. al., in the 1950’s. What that created was a cultural characteristic that made a generation of men believe that wanting to be married was somehow unmanly. Not wanting to “husband as a verb.” In a way, “husband as a verb” refers to a poem of mine called “The Questions”. There is now that internal conflict for women. They shouldn’t want marriage unless it’s a perfect meld of minds, hearts, goals, etc., and there has to be a grand passion—or nothing. But life alone is lonely. So, yes, nothing really changes. The novel of manners can be about other topics besides marriage, too. Tony Hoagland said my work was “sociological.” I am interested in the world, institutions, and how people behave. This election season is fascinating, isn’t it? So much that it reveals about “how we live now.”
And the novel of manners today is to talk about that—how we live today—kind of like those wonderful Trollope titles: The Way We Live Now and Can You Forgive Her? (I haven’t read them, by the way, just watched the BBC productions, but I have always loved those two titles). A novel of manners today might be The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. It’s the whole entitled, rich world of not only money but endless possibility that was happening right before 9/11. I can even remember, myself, two days before 9/11 we had my mom’s 80th birthday, and I remember thinking that the world, life, everything was so perfect and lovely and full and prosperous. It was a sunny, beautiful day. I had even bought a car that used more gas than I had in the past because gas prices were lower. (I never did that again). It was the end of a generative time, of isolation, of Americans being out of the wide world. I think that novel captured that it ended. Another one of her books, I think it’s called The Woman Upstairs is spot on about a certain kind of woman who believes she is much more than she is, yet without enough talent, savvy or drive—she reminded me of women I know. There is even research about this: it’s called “Unskilled and Unaware of It.” I think Claire Messud’s book captures that person as well as the character of a reckless, well-connected artist, who is the other main character.
Aspiration: Ambition is exciting. Winning and achieving is exciting; prowess and sureness of oneself makes a person beautiful and charismatic. I like glamour and clothes and beautiful things and places. However, there is a terrible side to having class status: neuroses like learned helplessness, hypochondria, perfectionism, scrupulosity, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, and at its very worst, a lack of humility and care for others; inflated beliefs in oneself and one’s talents. A lot of what you make happen comes from fate, not effort. I think my poems address these subjects.
Feminist concerns: I think that the second part of “Feminine Intuition” says what I mean to say about all that I observed growing up and where I have lived. Also, a poem called “Marble Obelisk” in my first book, and “The Neighborhood of Successful Marriage.” “Marble Obelisk” was never accepted for publication but I included it in the book because it’s just about so many women I knew and observed; I used to see this one woman at my parent's club. I always imagined her feet cut off and struggling to walk. That poem was partly about her. Another one, “Mommy is a Scary Narcissist” is about a friend’s mother I knew growing up and other women I knew later in life; another poem that addresses this kind of woman is “Private School.” I just know these people inside and out. I think these are feminist concerns. Mothers are often the ones who perpetuate a lot of disfiguration of their daughters and teach girls how to be. There is a dark side to any kind of mothering. I never say this, but I probably should: these women are not my mother. My mother has a soupçon of this in her, but she was not a “debilitator.” I knew mothers who were devouring of their children—and fathers who were too, and the community of people falling into that category was also a huge influence. The rest of the world was easier than all that. I would say the probable truth I needed to write concerned the crippling power of money and patriarchy. I say that with the caveat that many people do not believe these examinations of class are necessary to write about. I kind of agree with that myself. I was lucky and had a lot of resources available to me. Working was a savior for me and provided me with ways ‘to be’ that didn’t allow neuroses to flourish. Being a chatelaine was the goal I rejected. They are not content; they are restless.
Class and social mores: Growing up, I spent 99 percent of my time thinking about my appearance. What a waste! And it was important in my family in a way that still makes me angry, though only maybe once or twice a year now. I can think of people I knew who became a sort of candied version of themselves, hollowed out and compromised and boring. There is a lot of boring, and wishing to be envied by others. Above all, even to be envied for being sincere and above needing others’ envy! To be charitable and show largesse, to be the kind of rich person who gets envied, along with praised. It is sincere, certainly, but very studied. I think there is a certain strata of people for whom their acts of charity and goodness are an effort to increase envy from others—to be so, above it all, and have so much excess money that one is forced to give it away. Or, if their actions are genuinely not about being envied, they are very out of touch. I remember listening to these donors talk about themselves with another group of donors, as if they were praising Albert Schweitzer or someone like that. It was pretentious and clueless, if not meant to incite envy. I’m not part of that world anymore. At all.
“Write what you know”: That’s what I did, and still do.