Antoinette Brim’s debut collection, Psalm of the Sunflower was a delight. We had an opportunity to correspond about her debut collection.
My first question is– Psalm of the Sunflower reads almost like a requiem. What losses and perhaps gains are you celebrating/remembering in this manuscript?
I hadn’t thought to use the word requiem. However, I like all that it implies. There is a melodic, sometimes liturgical quality to my book. And, though these poems were born in a time of divorce and the loss of loved ones, it was also a time of amazing personal growth. Subsequently, I learned a reverence for the pain that brings wisdom.
The book remembers how I lost myself, despite my very best intentions. I had expectations of myself that eclipsed me. I wanted to be a good wife and mother, as the poem A small house by the sea explores. Unfortunately, I believed that this required martyrdom, a level of self-denial that I was unable to maintain.
And, of course as I was going through this epoch, life continued on around me. I lost a dear friend, who left behind beautiful children and unfulfilled dreams. I lost my dear, dear uncle unexpectedly. I was broke and afraid. I was confronted with loss on all fronts. It was a painfully raw time. My poetry became a soothing balm for me.
Nature is featured prominently in your poems. You refer to nature throughout. How did the natural world engage your imagination as you were writing?
Nature will always figure heavily into my work. It is ripe with metaphor for perseverance, wisdom and beauty. Often, I find nature in travail with humanity; whether flowering branches are being forced to bloom out of season, or a wounded cherry tree is droping her leaves. Nature loses, dies back, and flourishes again. When I discovered that a sunflower will drive its roots as much as eight feet into the ground to find water, I knew that I wanted the sunflowers’ tenacity to be my talisman. Nature doesn’t have all of the answers. I am not a Romantic in that respect. But, it has a wisdom that lends itself to parable and fable in its process and systems. I realize that there is so much that I do not understand, so I am eager to find meaning wherever it presents itself. This has birthed in me, a reverence for nature and its desire for interconnectedness and order. So, I sit and watch. I research. And, somehow, nature makes sense of my very human existence.
What were your challenges, struggles in writing this manuscript? How did you organize it?
I began the manuscript in my MFA program (Antioch/LA). At that time, I didn’t realize that I was writing a book. I was writing because I wanted to learn how to become a better writer. I was writing my way through my pain. And, for a long time, the manuscript was just a compilation of everything I was seeing and feeling at the time. It wasn’t until I began attending my Cave Canem retreats that I began to see the possibility of creating a cohesive collection. The challenge then was to sit with the work and relive the experiences it chronicled. I was eager to move forward and forget. But, these poems deserved more of me. I had to engage the poems on their own terms, as if they contained revelations that I hadn’t yet discovered. I was pleased to find the manuscript created a narrative of hope and transcendence. I learned while assembling the collection that I had survived with my joy intact.
With so many references to music– Jazz, Blues, and Folk– in Psalm of the Sunflower, do you see yourself dedicating a future manuscript to musical influences?
Now, there’s an idea! However, my understanding of music is purely visceral. When I reach for musical metaphors, I am searching for a shared language. I don’t have a word, but perhaps the reader and I have a song in common and when I invoke that song, the reader understands. For example, we feel blues in our bones, and when I invoke the blues in haiku, I am hoping that the brevity of the form will read as resignation and the simple statement, Down so low/Don’t believe in up, will resonate with despair. Actually, my first forays into musical references began after I read Cornelius Eady’s Victims of the Latest Dance Craze back in grad school. I was in awe of how he created music and movement in his work. I thought, Wow! You can do that with words? Then I read his you don’t miss your water. The ironic juxtaposition of the titles of Motown hits with the poignantly stark reality of death and estrangement and reconciliation showed me the power of image and musicality imaginatively layered and scored. I have been playing with musical form and references ever since.
Antoinette Brim teaches Creative Writing, World Literature and Composition at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, Arkansas. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Antioch University/ Los Angeles and a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and Language with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Webster University. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and a Harvard University W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow, (the National Endowment of the Humanities Summer Institute) and is a recipient of the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation Scholarship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, her work has appeared in various journals, magazines and anthologies. Psalm of the Sunflower (Willow Books, 2009) is her debut poetry collection.