In their split book Boyfriend Mountain (Poor Claudia, December 2014), Tyler Brewington and Kelly Schirmann negotiate American geography—not mountains per se—but certainly what it means to be a person who puts one foot in front of another and keeps going. How does one go on? In one poem, Kelly writes: “whenever we drove up the mountain for sage / I knew they would be our death / the way that first cold river was / & all that money / & those things you saw / high up in the trees / that I could never spot /even when you pointed” and it’s like she’s testifying to her friend Tyler (and thankfully also to us) who testifies right back, soul-whippingly: “A skeleton wedged between boulders / But we too would pick a mountain on the map / and drive there, just to sleep with it / We too wanted invigorating mists / cross-country skiing, Bigfoot, the lodges / little gems cupped in depressions / In love and asleep” This is a firmly American book, and like walking uphill, it communicates with your body, raises your heart rate, and makes you a little bit scared because there’s no mommy or God or daddy holding your hand anymore to keep you on the path. It’s just us.—Amy Lawless
Amy Lawless: Hi Tyler! Hi Kelly! What’s up? I’m drinking coffee in my bed in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. It’s my day off and I couldn’t be more thrilled for having just finished reading your collaborative book Boyfriend Mountain, which is formatted head to toe—in other words, you each have your “own half” of poems that you’ve individually written. And I’m no book, but it looks pretty cool. And I’d like to talk to you about this. I have some questions. I’d like you to start by each telling me where you are (geographically), what you’re up to!
Tyler Brewington: Hi Amy! I’ve just left my office for the day & now I’m enjoying a “shift drink” on my favorite little patio at my favorite little bar in downtown Portland, which I’m loath to name in this public forum because literally no one else is ever here & I’d like to keep it that way.
Kelly Schirmann: Hi Amy! I’m sitting in my living room in Tucson watching my cat “hunt” a giant moth. He’s got it pinned in the corner near a lamp & he’s sort of just torturing it. Should I do something? It’s as big as a small bird. Simultaneously, I am roasting a butternut squash & writing on pictures from the sixties, per usual.
AL: I’m now daydreaming about how we are so far from one another geographically and yet we’re poleaxed together via poetry and kinship. Could you tell me a little bit about how your collaborative process came about, and what it looks like? How does writing a poem with each other vary from writing an individual Kelly Schirmann Poem or a Tyler Brewington Poem? Why this is not your first trip to the collaborative poetry rodeo. In your chapbook Nature Machine (Poor Claudia), you managed to fade the line between your individual poetic voices in order to deliver something of a third voice: that of KellySchirmannandTylerBrewington? And by all means, feel free to disagree with me.
KS: I think when Tyler & I first started writing Nature Machine, we developed a system of poetic exchange that felt to me, & still feels to me, like a kind of call & response. The call gets called out (or whispered or hollered or sighed) & the receiver filters it through their own set of truths & experiences, so that when the call is returned, some of its parts are illuminated or expanded or stuffed in the back of a dark closet. In that way, I think the poems are like hikers circling the same mountain & trying to describe it to one another in their own languages. Maybe that third voice you notice is the fact that this is happening at all, or else maybe the way it all looks to the thousand-year-old tree at the very top.
TB: I think the call/response/filtering dynamic was very much in play during the writing of BFMT. We went into Nature Machine, though, with a much more refined sense of the poems’ about-ness: we knew we were writing about the feeling of being in motion, specifically in motion on a train. Other ideas & feelings crept in too, obviously, but everything felt really located in that train-space. We also started NM by passing a notebook back & forth across our table in the dining car, & we were consciously aiming for that blend-of-voices or “third voice” feeling. But BFMT was right away a different kind of animal. We started by posting poems back & forth on a private Tumblr that Kelly set up for us, & we would borrow a line or a phrase as a jumping-off point & write from there. Most of the collaborating happened when we saw each other IRL—we’d be like, oh, I really loved this & I think I want more of that, & then it’ll probably need more of this other texture (which always, always meant more sex stuff). So it’s like we’re climbing up the same mountain on different sides but constantly telling each other what we see via walkie talkie, & we’re both allowed to go anywhere.
AL: Interesting. I’m always curious about how technology and poetry intersect. When I’ve collaborated on poems with my friend Angela Veronica Wong in the past, we mostly just grab a title from the body of the previous person’s poem. But it seems like this collaboration has grown out of an already existing friendship. How important is that thing between two people (a friendship connection) to these poems?
TB: Essential. After Nature Machine came out, a few people who didn’t yet know either of us very well (& who had never heard me speak, apparently) assumed that we were a couple. Obviously that’s hilarious, but it’s also really interesting–the automatic assumption that there must be a romantic connection when a collaboration or a mutual creative undertaking occurs between a lady & a gent. I don’t feel like at this point in human history there’s anything revolutionary or surprising about the bond between gay men & straight women, but maybe the depth of that bond–especially when poetry is forefronted as the shared passion–is still a little new to folks? Anyway, the whole manuscript is basically a really intimate look at how Kelly & I talk to each other via poems. The idea of being in conversation with Kelly made me feel safe & brave & able to write whatever I wanted.
KS: (Sorry, I’m just giggling at Tyler referring to me as ‘a lady’) I definitely second that an emotional connection is central to these poems. Trust seems like a crucial part of any successful collaboration—it allows you to be weird & nude & intimate with someone else without fear of being misinterpreted. I was almost proud of the fact that people assumed we were a couple post-Nature Machine, if only because it showed we had achieved a kind of intimacy through the poems that people assumed must be romantic. In real life, of course, I’m lucky enough to be great friends with Tyler, & many of the conversations that we started in writing were picked up at a bar & then revisited at coffee & then brought back to the book to conclude themselves in completely different places. Many times, I don’t know what I know until I say it out loud to someone smart. In that way I feel like Boyfriend Mountain reads like the bitchy pillow talk at a high school honor student sleepover, & I’m pretty proud of that.
AL: Another thing I wanted to talk about were some common images and themes in these poems. I saw a lot of ghosting. In Kelly’s poem, I found: “In Seattle I walked / in the wet street with you / eating pineapple spears / with our orgasm’s ghost” In Tyler’s poems, I found: “I’m trying to figure out / who I am based on what’s going on / knowing children are the most apt/ to smell ghosts, the day after Valentine’s Day” Is this a coincidence? I guess I’m mostly thinking about the way fantasy and absence are working here. Deepak Chopra recently said in a podcast I was listening to recently, something like (I paraphrase), “anything outside of the present moment is pure fantasy.”
TB: Oooo, I love that quote. I don’t think the shared imagery & shared vocabulary is coincidental. We saw a lot of each other’s drafts, & once we’d decided that we weren’t doing a line-by-line collaboration, it felt important that we both draw from the same palette in order for the whole thing to feel connected & not just like a random mashing together of individual work. Also, I think that the poems are kind of a way for us to admit responsibility or take ownership of the fact that we’re constantly constructing our own narratives around our respective romantic entanglements. I think that rescues us from sounding too victim-y or too passive or something, you know? Like, here’s my version of events, the fantasy I built out of certain experiences, but no need to claim supremacy. The absent others have their versions, too, because as much as it sucks that’s just how being alive works.
KS: I’m glad you brought Deepak Chopra into this, because to me these poems are very much rooted in the human agony of wanting to remain present while simultaneously walking through the haunted house of our personal emotional histories. I’m not sure if that classifies more as fantasy or rumination (just as I’m not sure if the haunted house is awful or cathartic) but either way, I think the ghosts are fixtures to everyone, just as emotions are fixtures to everyone. Maybe it’s just that Tyler & I are okay with calling attention to them, though as a poet I’m not sure how you could avoid calling attention to what you drag around with you. We wanted to write through & into & around & inside the same mountain, & so I guess naturally we ended up sharing a lot of the same equipment (orgasms, fruit, phantoms, & smallish coastal cities being equipment). It also seems worth noting that children, animals, & paranoid psychotics are the ones most likely to see ghosts.
AL: What is the connection between lived human experience to your poetics? Are you confessional poets? LOL.
TB: Yes. I am unabashedly a confessional poet & a nature poet & every other kind of poet, LOL. I use “confessional” pejoratively, too, but I want to point out that I think when a lot of people use “confessional” in a negative way what they really mean is “feminine,” & fuck those people. When I use it in a negative way, I mean to imply that the poem feels like a one-way communication. I think (I hope) BFMT saves a place at the table for everyone who chooses to engage with it. It’s a dialogue. I guess I sort of touched on this above, but the poems are clearly drawn from lived experience. Ripped from the headlines in my head (& various texts to Kelly & other friends). That said, I think a key part of my poetics is the understanding that the poem comes first. It’s more important to me to try to make a good poem than it is to be 100% faithful to events as I experienced them in “real life.” Some of them probably read like straight confessionals—& I’m fine with that, I embrace that, absolutely everyone alive relishes gossip—but they’re also more often than not a mashup of different experiences & times, with a dash of pure fiction (to the extent that anything to do with memory is not already pure fiction) thrown in. SPOILER: I’ve never actually been to Hawaii or to Las Vegas. Sometimes things that went down with dudes I only knew for one night (ish) are given as much weight as things that went down with guys I hung out with for months & maybe believed I loved. But who gives a shit? I wanted a consistent tone more than I wanted “truth.”
KS: In No Direction Home, Bob Dylan goes, “sometimes you say things in songs even if there’s a small chance of them being true. And sometimes you say things that have nothing to do with the truth of what you want to say and sometimes you say things that everyone knows to be true.” While I could absolutely care less whether anything that happens in a poem is “true,” I have no interest in reading poems that aren’t TRUE. & on my rubric, I guess I think personal experience is the only way to begin to articulate those kinds of truths. I want to be convinced that people have lived through things. I want to be convinced that I have lived through things. So whether I am reading or writing, that’s my goal. Being a human & being a poet are the same thing, & we have no choice about either one except which kind to be. I guess for both I am the kind that really only knows how to talk to myself.
AL: You guys are so smart.
Kelly I need to talk to you. (That was said in a Mom voice.) In a poem entitled “Boyfriend Mountain” (ha haha they’re all entitled Boyfriend Mountain), you wrote:
My worldview is so serene
about its inability to know itself
I know there must be a word for this
I get inspired by springtime’s joyful murders
The way the flowers scream
so purely at first, then calm down
into an easy kind of talk
She didn’t like me using the word hobo
until I filled it with my big elation
& then it looked like the American West
nothing more. When I see a landscape
I people it, what can I say?
Where could we go
except around the reservoir
one more time, leaving the same words
& picking them back up again
& returning them gently to the ground?
I think about them when the night is purple
with weed smells, & children in the jasmine
Waves & waves
of honey-colored god fall over me then
Ghosts watch me, crying endlessly
I carry none of you with me
I love how this poem addresses in part a conversation that we had regarding hobos in your poem.
KS: Hahaha! Well, I guess I knew this day would eventually come. When you were (graciously!) reading through an early draft of Popular Music, I fucking LOVED that you took such issue with me using the word “hobo” in one of my poems. It did make me think about the politicizing & fetishizing of words, & how different regions (specifically, east coast vs. west coast) reacted to them. But mostly I was just like, “oh shit, am I an asshole?” & quite frankly, being forced to consider whether or not your poetry makes you sound like an asshole is a pretty great place to be. I mean, of course we all want to be intentional with our words, but we also want to be trusted & believed. I felt like I had to defend that hobo’s existence in my poem, which is what I should always be doing! Reaffirming myself to myself, over & over, all my life. Here is what I found, Amy: that hobo is a part of me. So while I couldn’t remove them entirely, I could at least contextualize them somewhere else. P.S., does this response make me sound like an asshole?
TB: Hahaha! I know this wasn’t addressed to me but I love everything I’ve heard about the hobo convo.
AL: I love this answer. Keep the hobo in that poem. It’s Kelly. Yea! Humans are messy and we get all over the place! When I was in grad school at the New School, I would write the most offensive poems sometimes. I shake my head sometimes when I look back to how kind all my peers and instructors were as I found myself through offense. I mean hobos also have a rich history in America. I remember watching a film called Riding the Rails with a boyfriend in 2007 and I remember feeling really protective of the hobos! Like protecting their place in American history!
Words are our tools, and as I recall the word hobo just struck me as tonally off from the rest of that poem, but I think the conversation we had about that was really important because we were ATTENDING TO OUR TOOLS. It’s fine to be bold with our choices. I’m so glad that hobo is part of you. I also love how our poems are often conversations with one another!
Guys, was thinking a lot lately about how your poems are very much placed in the now. I am thinking about time. I am thinking about the questions “WHAT IS POETRY’S JOB?” and “WHAT ISN’T POETRY’S JOB?” I’m thinking about current events. I’m thinking about how Tyler’s poems are like Tyler talking to me and telling me with no filter about how things are. I’m thinking about wanting to know. I do this. I do that. I’m thinking about the pain that we experience being people. I’m thinking about black men killed walking down the street. The choke hold death. I’m thinking about how shitty people are. What am I supposed to do? This is my last question and in a sense it’s the only question there is.
KS: I feel like this is all I ever really think about. How to be a person. How to have a voice, a real voice, when our greatest contemporary mode of empowerment is our ability to consume. I was talking with the poet Brandon Shimoda recently about how art was a war of volume. Whoever makes the most noise gets heard. We scream so loud we lose our voices, & meanwhile the system protects police officers who murder unarmed American citizens. So, yeah: what are we supposed to do? How do we maintain our beliefs & boundaries while still leaving space for our minds to change? How do we avoid being consumed by hopelessness or rage? How do we remain unafraid of speaking, moving, others, ourselves? I don’t know the answer. But I do think it’s our job as human beings to keep trying to figure it out.
TB: Wow, yeah, that is really is the question, & I think I’m struggling to come up with an answer every single day. I don’t have a concise one. I want to respond to this by trying to synthesize a few things that have been heavily on my mind lately: obviously, the fact that our country’s justice system is a sham, a ridiculous, shameful failure. I’m so grateful to you for asking this question because I firmly believe that the conversation about dismantling white privilege has to occur among white people. This is exactly what we need to be talking to each other about, insistently, all the time.
This Friday night I attended an event in Portland called Poetry Press Week, in which several different poets present their work fashion-week style, on a runway, with the rule that the work has to be performed by people other than the poet. I bring it up because on the first night the event’s organizers asked for a moment of silence & reflection about Eric Garner’s death & the current state of affairs re: police murders. (Murder is in fact the correct word here, no matter what grand juries decide about indictments.) Anyway, I was on a date, a second date, & afterward the guy I was with said he thought the moment of silence was offensive & inappropriate. I mumbled something sort of noncommittal in response, but I wish I would have been like, When the fuck do you think it would be appropriate? I do not think there will be a third date.
Poetry Press Week is a two-night affair, and on the second night I watched a poet burn money onstage. That morning I’d read about the uprooting of San Jose’s Jungle, the largest homeless camp in the United States, & I thought that to have a white person burning money for “art” onstage was … misguided, at best. I thought that thinking the very best thing to do with a spare dollar bill is to burn it was a pretty severe failure of imagination.
I’m feeling so nervous about sounding preachy & “strident” here. Also, I wish more people would sound like that.
I thought about seeing Alice Notley read from Alma, Or The Dead Women several years ago in Boise. At that reading, she talked about how she hoped that each poem functioned as a sort of amulet for protection against Dick Cheney. She emphasized that she thought that to be in a poem—reading one or writing one—was to willfully enter a space in which you can neither be harmed nor do harm to anyone else. I love that. It feels like such a small thing to do but maybe championing that kind of space is the very best way to be helpful right now.
AL: Thank you for these wise and necessary answers. I have nothing else to add. Thank you both for talking to me!
Tyler Brewington is an MFA candidate in poetry at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of Dear Stray Volcano (alice blue, 2013) & the coauthor of Nature Machine (Poor Claudia, 2013). He is from Boise, Idaho.
Amy Lawless is the author of two books of poetry, most recently My Dead (Octopus Books, 2013). Her next book Broadax is forthcoming (also from Octopus Books) in 2015. She grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and lives in Brooklyn.
Kelly Schirmann is from Northern California. She is the author of Popular Music (Black Ocean, 2016) & the co-author, with Tyler Brewington, of Nature Machine (Poor Claudia). She sings in the band Young Family & runs BLACK CAKE, a record label for audio-chapbooks of poetry & other experiments. She lives in Portland, Oregon, & at kellyschirmann.com