Elaine Bleakney: What a pleasure getting into Cabin Fever/Fossil Record. You’ve said elsewhere that the form of these poems take their inspiration from the painting of Eugene Leroy. Would you tell me about how your attraction to Leroy’s work relates to this choice?
Dan Brady: I was first attracted to the physical depth of Leroy’s paintings. If you look closely at most paintings, you can see individual brushstrokes, but with Leroy you don’t even have to try, the paint rises from the canvas toward the viewer. There is a tactile element to them. I imagine if you ran your fingers over the canvas, it’d feel something like running your fingers over a keyboard — similar depths and ridges. Underneath all that paint, somewhere, is a figure, a representation of a clear subject. That obscuring of the figure through depth was interesting to me. Almost like the subject was drowned in the very media which gave it life.
How do you create something three dimensional in a two dimensional art form? Leroy took that from Cubism, but had his own approach. I wanted to explore how layers like those of Leroy’s paintings might be of use in poetry. Some of the poems I’ve written in this style, like “Fossil Record” and the two poems in my forthcoming chapbook Leroy Sequences (horse less press, 2014) build slowly, piece by piece, layer by layer until the “clear” prose subject is revealed. Others like “Cabin Fever” build and then fade away, revealing a 360 degree view, our understanding of the subject remolded layer by layer.
Your poems in 20 Paintings by Laura Owens are also responding to visual art and inventing their own form. How did these poems come about? How would you describe their relationship with Laura Owens’ paintings?
EB: I saw Laura Owens’s paintings for the first time in Los Angeles, in 2001. Years later (2012?) I googled her–and found that she was posting this new vivacious work on her website. It didn’t seem as grand and plotted as the paintings I’d seen back in 2001–the newer works were candy-colored and inscrutable in a way I wasn’t expecting. Her marks felt volatile, urgent, fearless–and they could accommodate all these projections from me. I started “tagging” the exhibition text to some of her paintings and sketches–and, just for fun, posting her images paired with my writings as status updates for my friends on Facebook, which added a bedeviling performance aspect. It was fun, and counter to my usual process.
Dan, do you remember what it was like, seeing Leroy’s paintings for the first time? Was there one that just got you?
One writer calls Leroy’s process “a byproduct of the open-ended search for the out-of-reach truth of the figure’s presence.” I’m curious if you feel an open-endedness in your writing–how has composing through this self-directed, painterly way of writing changed you as a poet?
DB: My natural tendency is to lean toward clarity. Writing these poems has been a great push to allow open-endedness into my work. Because the poems shift the way they do, there’s both concrete meaning and an evolving ambiguity. It’s kind of the best of both worlds in that for the most part I’m very restricted and have handed over control to the language within the poem and yet by using an original text for the erasure block I still set the boundaries within which I’ll work.
On the trip where I first encountered Leroy’s work, I had first seen an exhibit in Cologne, Germany which featured artists imitating and amplifying the styles of other painters. Before I had seen an original Leroy, I saw an imitation. The artist had laid the canvas flat and had these huge pink stalagmites of paint rising about a foot off the ground. That was my introduction. I had no idea what about Leroy’s work he was referencing at the time, but I thought it was interesting and from there on out, I was on the hunt to find some Leroy paintings. In Paris, I found the real thing. I don’t think I can say that one particular painting sticks out to me. His figures have a haunting quality about them. Those are the most emotionally resonant for me, but his landscapes are even stranger in a way. Our eyes are so trained to identify the human form that, with a little looking, you can find them pretty easily in Leroy’s paintings. His landscapes are a bit harder for the mind to deconstruct, so I tend to spend more time with them.
Given what you’ve said about your response to Laura Owens’ paintings, I also want to ask you about “triggers” and if there are any particular images or experiences that seem to generate poems for you? Visual art, or Laura Owens specifically being one, but there are passages in For Another Writing Back that begin with such a strong image, like the spider for example, that I wonder if they were part of an inciting incident.
EB: Yes, images like that spider web hanging over the walking path in For Another Writing Back–I think images are affairs and so have emotional timing–fleeting. They are often where I start and end up orienting in my writing. Looking at visual art and being triggered by images is such a different experience. I’m primed to image hunt, or the primed image hunter is operating more at the surface, so I’m more skeptical about my encounters. The frame or the form or the building or even the slightest whisper of a construct is there to tell me what to see. So an image in a painting or a film or whatever (for it to land as an image and for me to say “mine” to it) has to do some intense and immediate disarmament. It feels intimately related to what I have to do in writing: make it all sudden and disarming for the reader.
Rain here blurring the window. A good time to write to you about something you said about Leroy’s subject being submerged. I wonder if in “The Deep and Narrow Night” you felt there was something about this private address that was too submerged or obscured prior to your handling of it?
But now I’m also thinking of the quotation you use from Eugene Leroy to introduce your second chapbook: “The work of the artist is to be a maker of images, which in turn make the painting. But this is a secret.” What would you say about this secret in your poem-making?
DB: “The Deep and Narrow Night” is a very personal poem to me, more personal than most of the things I write, so I do feel that subject was submerged and layered and I had to do some work. I wanted to write something honest with that poem and honesty requires digging. I’ve tried to marry the form and content in these poems. The subjects are often things that slowly reveal themselves, that gather and then fade away.
The secret to making these poems in particular is that I start with the prose block, then erase down to the first phrases, build to the prose block, and then, if the poems fade out again like “Cabin Fever” does, I’ll work that out like a regular erasure but in phases until I’m down to the final phrases.
More broadly, giving yourself over to what the language wants to do, not limiting yourself to your own thinking, surprising yourself with the layers of phrases and images which in turn make the poem, I think that’s the secret. It takes awhile to figure that out as a poet. The poem is smarter than you are.
In addition to trigger images like the spider, there are also images that recur throughout For Another Writing Back. I’m thinking of the wave, for example. How did these through lines develop?
The poems in this book are strikingly personal–featuring your husband and your son–but they maintain a distance that gives you room to move from pinpointed, domestic moments to larger themes like the body, love, small town life, family, and more. Stephen Burt recently called the book an “avant-memoir,” which is the perfect description. How important is it that these poems draw from your life? What role does autobiography play in your writing?
EB: Through lines and through images arrive the more space I give to my writing. They are a sign to me that something’s going right. Like you say, “giving yourself over”: I have to in order for the writing to happen. I have to be sure-footed about losing my head to it.
While I was writing For Another, Whitman’s noiseless patient spider kept coming up for me: how attached I am to writing and being in writing, and how sweet it is to come to terms with the same-old ways I go about it. Images shake the web. Lines from others–“get crazy with the cheese whiz” or “Sadie was one of the livingest chits”–shake the web. How others draw such sparklehorses and meaning out of language urges me.
It’s imperative to me that my poems speak from my life. It’s imperative that they wonder about the world without me. I need to ask questions from my own web while I’m here.