It’s always fascinating to talk with fellow artists about their process, about what inspires them, and so on. The truth is, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we’re all different, and we all have our own motivations for becoming artists.
Today’s post is an interview I did a while back with K.A. Brace. Some of you may have read his poems. If not, you should.
1. First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Cristian, I should begin by saying I am somewhat of a private person. My pen name is K. A. Brace. Everyone on knows me as KB. Suffice that to say, I am 61 and live outside of Nashville, Tennessee with my three dogs-Thunder, Lucy and Rocky-and four cats–Mister Macavity, Cali-Cat, Duke and Pearl. I graduated high school went to a community college for four semesters and in the middle of the fourth withdrew to hit the road. It was not quite the Jack Kerouac hitting the road but I traveled through the country and held many different jobs from boxing ‘above the ground pools’, to installing cable affordable). In school I have majored in Psychology, Theater, History, Philosophy but very little English. When I entered the University I had to really declare a major so I took a semester of classes as a sophomore in four different areas-Political Science, History, Philosophy and English. When it was over I had enjoyed the English class and the department so much I went with it.
After school life intruded and I ended up working in the restaurant business for the next 35 years and didn’t write a poem the entire time. It’s not that it wasn’t a priority, but I just couldn’t get to that point in my head where I felt it enough to write something. But in all that time I never thought I ‘used to be a poet.’ I am a poet and if I stopped writing tomorrow—knock on wood—I would still be a poet. It’s a state of mind. You know it when it happens to you. It’s a better feeling than any drug, adventure or sex that I’ve ever had. It is a sea change in the way not only you look at the world, but how it looks back.
I also now have a site on WordPress—themirriorobscura.com–where I do quotes, commentary poetry of well and less-well known poets as well as my own poetry.
2. When did you start to call yourself a writer?
I started writing poetry when I was 13, but it wasn’t until I was at the university that I really started to write, but it was blast writing (though they didn’t have a name for it) and all over the place. Mac was teaching one of my first creative writing-poetry class and he assigned us a prompt to write a series of poems surrounding a myth or mythic beliefs. Coming from New York State and being a history buff, I decided to research the myths of the Iroquois Indians. It was the first time I really focused on an idea and communicating its complexities in a ‘rational’, non-obtuse way. It was after that I had an idea to write a poem surrounding an adventure I took with some friends when we hitch-hiked from N.Y. to Florida on a whim. I began writing and it was different than anything I had ever done because I was thinking of it differently. It took me a week to write. I had to research the flora and fauna—no computers then—and re-wrote it, tore it up started again until I was happy with it. I read it out loud to myself and it was good!(I’d hoped). It was called, “Rio Del Nieve Gansu,” (River of the Snow Geese)-it is posted on my site.
From then on I took what I wrote about very seriously, always trying to write in a way that I thought a reader would be captured by what and how I was saying something. After that moment I understood that the most important thing, besides doing my best, was that the reader felt they were ‘experiencing’ the poem, what is happening in it, themselves as a different way of looking at the world. I realized there was a difference between calling yourself a poet and actually being one and an artist at the same time.
3. Where do your words come from?
Everywhere; from all my reading, films, graphics and they are in my head waiting for the right moment to be used. It has much to do with what I write about more than anything. Sometimes I bastardize words to get my vision across, or have even made words up. I just recently wrote a poem called ‘What the Dying Teach Us,’ which may or may not be posted at this point in time of the release of this interview. In it, at the end, I wanted to use the grid lock of rush hour traffic on a highway as a metaphor but didn’t want to use ‘grid lock’ or ‘traffic jam’ because they didn’t fit the tone I wanted so I hit on ‘enjambed.’ Linguistically, it worked into what happens within the poem itself. I looked it up and found only ‘enjambment’. I decided I needed that word ‘enjamed’ so I used it and just added it to my dictionary on the computer. But that is on the tame side. There have also been times when I’ve used a word my computer has redlined and I’ve gone to my OED and not found it, but because if its sound and my belief that it is not a crime to coin a new word I go with my gut. Isn’t that how words come into being and the language expanded? I also have a notebook and journal that I store things in.
4. Tell us a bit about your writing habit. Do you write every day?
Yes, I write every day. I write or do something that has to do with my writing at lease 10-12 hours a day, sometimes much longer. If I’m not actually writing I’m looking at pictures, reading anything, at times simply sitting at my desk thinking. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.” I have on a number of occasions worked two or three days straight without sleeping (I can be a bit manic at times) if I’m getting ideas or working on something.
As for composing, sometimes I will get an inspiration for a poem and work on it until it’s done enough to not be embarrassed to show it to someone-usually my friend of 45 year, Rick, who is also my ‘go-to’ editor and has a working knowledge of what I’m capable of as far as re-writing and my sanity. I also have a ‘Work Bin’ folder in my documents that has probably 25 poems begun that I will go to and pick one to work on a bit—usually things that I’m unsure of where I want to take them, or, in some cases where they want to go. I have another folder that is made up of a list of titles.
Much of the time I’ll begin with a graphic or a title and work from there. I often get an idea for just a first line and work from there. Then there are poems that are ‘finished’, but I know there is something missing but I’m not in the place I need to be to have the idea that will really polish it off.
I also have a small note book that I keep in my pocket that I use to write in when I’m not at my desk, like waiting in the vet’s or doctor’s office to be seen. I almost only wear cargo shorts or trousers so I always have a place for it—I can’t tell you how many pairs of pants have ink stains on the outside where the bottom of the pocket is from leaky pens.
But the biggest and most important habit is to do it every day. It is work. It’s what I do. I’m a writer so I write.
5. Can you recognize certain themes in your art? What are they? Can you say why?
Yes, I have a number of themes that weave themselves in and out through all my books. I should clarify that when I say ‘books’ it is in a figurative sense, they have not been published. They are set collections. To date there are six: “To Travel Without a Map,” “Where the Country Changes,” “Field Notes,” “Truth Lies,” “The Mirror Obscura,” and one I’m just finishing up, “The Quiet Air.”
One theme has to do with people and the things that take place in their lives. If you envision our world of experience as a large pond in the rain, each drop striking the surface of the water creates concentric circles, ripples. As more rain falls the ripples overlap and affect each other. In the first poem of my first book, ‘The Things That Happen’(posted on my site) there are six vignettes in which things happen, a moment, a snapshot in the lives of the participants. There is a man who is reminded by the space between seconds in the ticking of a clock to buy flowers. In the next a woman watches children playing hide and seek below on the street. Then there is a woman confessing to her priest. Next, a young couple is having an argument, followed by an older widow who meets a man who has loved her from afar. It ends with a young boy experiencing going to a baseball game with his father for the first time.
“On the subway for the first time the boy grips his father’s hand.
They are going to see a baseball game, another first in this day
Of firsts. They must change lines. His father sweeps him up into
His arms. Closer to his father’s heart he thinks, nothing else matters,
Even if the Yankees win.”
All of these are seemingly unrelated, like the lives of strangers around us. But in their singularity of taking place they are the same thing. Like the ‘butterfly effect,’ we don’t know how an event happening in one place effects our lives in some way like a line of falling dominoes. We are all connected to each other by the invisible filament of our humanity. We love, hate, discover, lose, destroy and create in the experience of being of ‘our’ small worlds. But those worlds are part of the world at large in which everyone experiences things. How we react to those experiences is what makes us individuals. One last example concerning this is in a poem entitled ‘Bus Stops.’ In the poem I watch an old woman every day as she makes her way to the bus stop where she waits for hours for just the right bus to come. He watches as she gets on and then at the very next stop gets off, crosses the street to the bus stop there and waits again for just the right bus to come which she takes and gets off across the street from where she began and walks home. He tells us he wants to go with her, do everything she does so that he can understand how she feels in dealing with her loneliness.
“There are those days
When I think more than I should.
I want to go sit next to her
As she waits on the bench and do
All that she does, to experience
How to fill the loneliness
Which echoes inside a heart.
It’s nothing you can prepare for
Like the cold, but waits, anticipating,
Until all the busses
Pass on by.”
When I was a child and I would be in the car looking out through the windows, especially on a highway, as our car would pass others I would look at the people in the other cars and wonder what their lives were like. As individuals we are so connected to ourselves it is hard not to wonder who other people are. I think that’s why so many people enjoy ‘people watching.’ We have a fascination with ‘the other.’ A curiosity that I believe is rooted in simply amazement about being: living, breathing, feeling and the gamut of emotions that wash over us every day.
Another theme that recurs in my poetry is a sense on ‘mythos.’ This is completely apart from any sense of an organized religion or having to do with Classical Mythology. Science and to a great extent technology, have by their very process demystified the world around us. Myths began with early man as a vehicle for him to attempt to explain the world around him, to give meaning to things he otherwise could not understand. My belief is that such a situation still exists but on a much smaller and personal scale. To this affect I use a lexicon of words throughout such as breathe, clouds, dance, air, memory, the act of remembering, water, birds, and distance for examples. Few of us are scientists and can explain all the things that happen around us in a day. I believe all of that falls into the realm of the small myths. Yes, it is a romantic notion, but even though we understand how birds fly, can anyone say they haven’t ever been mesmerized for a second or two by the actual act of a flock of birds all alighting at the same time and then going up together and swooping like they were one entity, like a school of fish all turning at the same time on a Nature Channel Special.
To me the world is vibrant with meanings, mythic, personal, poetic meanings that we pass by without noticing the beauty that is inherent in them. I see mountains and I think of them as almost having a consciousness. I would like to know all the things they have seen. I have a poem called ‘The Memory of Mountains,’ at the end of which I write:
“Who’s to say what the memory of mountains is?
Who can say where it is to be found; how it is kept?
What can anyone imagine it is that they remember?
Who can think of anything they would forget?”
To finish this up let me just read again from a poem called ‘Mythos,’ which sums up my point:
“I see the possibilities for myths
That waits to be discovered,
In places we never think
To my mind it helps feel less insignificant because looking at the world like this gives us a belief that we are part of something that we can name.
Another theme I’ll talk about, is age old, tried and true, Love. I write about it in all it permutations in various kinds of relationships. I believe strongly in it. We crave it, we fear it, we even hate at times what it does to us and how it affects our thinking and our actions. We run after it, or run away from it, are comforted by it, led by it, stripped bare by it, broken by it, and sometimes even destroyed by it.
After anything and everything that has taken place in our lives we still desperately yearn to believe in Love, and the power it has to make the empty part we feel in our individuality full and for us to be whole.
There is also the theme running through the poems about myself and my personal experiences and growth as a person and a writer, such as the poem “To Travel Without a Map,” concerning my place in the world and where I fit in. Here is the first section of that poem (not posted as yet):
To Travel Without a Map
In measured steps of caution,
I have begun to caress my past life
Into the fullness of the present.
Old ground becomes new landscapes
Because I see the enigmatic shapes
Shadows take from the substance
They mimic must still have
Their genesis in light.
Before, that subtly was lost on me,
My focus set on footprints thought
To be signs of someone else ahead
I followed. Tracking myself in circles
I became a lost man stammering,
Who had sinned against himself.
Who had found he could not bear
To hear his own confessions.
I thought the opposite of the light
Was dark, but found the other side
In its purity of intent was nothingness
Something I would like to add is that more than a few of my readers have called my poetry ‘unpredictable’ in that I don’t keep myself to one kind of style. I write in long, medium and short line, sometimes all in the same poem. I am always looking for a new way to present them. I enjoy that aspect of writing. The ability to go anywhere I want in any form or format. To me, for a reader to see that I have posted a new poem and come to it not knowing what to expect, either stylistically or content wise, is very important. It immediately creates a curiosity and excitement about what they may encounter and hopefully come away from the reading with a new experience.
6. Why do you write?
I write because I have a great urge to say things in a way that I hope is interesting and will make a reader stop and think about seeing things in a different way, or in the same way but never had the words to express it. I also write for the reader. To me, the reader is the most important part of the writer/reader relationship. I write to be understood in as clear a manner as possible. Language is made to communicate ideas, experiences, desires, humor and even tragedy and despair. I believe that each time I approach a poem I always want to do something different with the language, but I want the difference to be accessible and done in such a way that a reader, someone who doesn’t read poetry usually, will read what I’ve written and it will be clear—of course there are always different levels of meaning, but on the surface a poem should speak to the reader, allow them to discover it. That does not mean I ‘cater’ to tastes for acceptance. I write what I want to write, I have core values for my art. If an idea comes to me to does something out of the ordinary I will do it. People may not like what I say, but not how I say it. They would be able to understand why they don’t care for it. In the end I also write because I love doing it. I love creating something that wasn’t there before and in the place my poem makes for itself leave something beautiful (even a poem about death or disappointment can be beautiful). Every time I write I learn new things about writing. But also learn new things about myself, how I think, what I think, am I good enough to tackle this idea I have in my head about an issue or experience. It’s all about creating. It is all about my desire and need to be a poet and an artist. If I were to lose that ability at this point after having so many years of being barren I would be crushed. I would survive, but not happy. But then remember what my Mentor, Mac, said about poets,”…one who has written a poem and may never write another.” I’ve been there already, but I never once thought I wasn’t a poet.
7. What is the best writing advice someone’s ever given to you?
In my office I have the walls covered with quotes about writing, breathing, doing art in general, being a better person. I have one right in front of me right now where it is all the time, “Too much EGO will KILL your TALENT” with a picture of a character sinking in quicksand. Also, what Picasso said about being ready by working is true. I have another that really gets me fired and you will laugh at this, “I don’t get it. I don’t like it. You can fix it.” I hate thinking there is an idea I have that I can’t communicate in a way that works. When my editor says or writes those things about one of my poems I hate it. He loves doing it and it works well because he knows how I think and what I am capable of doing and he makes me push the envelope at times. He never lets me slide. He’s been writing poetry for as long as I have. That quote about ‘fixing it,’ is his. When he say that or I get copy back that has it written in excruciatingly red ink across the top of a poem I know I haven’t worked hard enough. But he knows I can fix it and the two together encourage me to get it done.
8. What do you feel is the most important aspect any aspiring artist should try to achieve?
A dedication for not settling for something you know isn’t as good as it can be. You need to always put your best effort out there if you are openly saying you are creating art. There are many people who have many obligations outside of art, or perhaps are even only beginning. It doesn’t matter what the level of expertise and experience one has. Work with the time you have, the knowledge you have and the desire—even a small desire, but when you work always do the best that you can and you will always have one person in your corner who can honestly tell you that you can be better—yourself.
I work a lot. Not everyone can focus the way I do. I’m lucky in that respect. But, when you have the time, work, work, and work. If you can’t think of anything to write, look at your older work to see if it could use revision. If you can’t do that or don’t want to (and believe me there are many times I don’t want to look at older poems) then read. Or just make something totally silly. There is a lot to be said for maintaining a certain amount of silliness in your artist’s tool box. One other thing you can do is sit and relax yourself enough to think with a clear head. There is no such thing as a writer’s block—there is only the lack of the right inspiration. Sometimes you have to wait a long time. Most of the time you should still be writing, even if its crap (just don’t put it out there). Case in point, I just went through a month from hell. In mid-June my wife of 20 years says she wants a divorce. Without a lot of detail, there was a certain crushed feeling but it was the best for both of us. But I couldn’t write about anything other than being broken hearted or feeling betrayed, I even wrote love poems. Through it all I kept trying to make the best of what I was writing. There was also a long span that occurred about the same time of not being able to work with my editor, which we do over the phone. When we were able to meet once more, I sent him 20 poems like that. He made his suggestions—some he just said “I don’t like it. Fix it!” but after it was all done he told me that what he’d read showed pain and that confused sense one gets at times that goes deeper than anxiety. But he added what was good was very good and most important of all it wasn’t “goopy”, even the stuff he didn’t like. I’ve pushed though that now. It took about a month or so to do it. Finally, I wrote a poem that I knew was back on track with what I wanted and knew I was capable of doing. Just this weekend while I was getting ready for this interview I wrote 9 poems from Saturday morning to Sunday night. Only one was about dealing with a relationship lost. Have faith in yourself, you’re all you’ve got!