BRIAN TEARE: a state of mind that has no designs on it, that is free to move as it pleases
A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Brian Teare is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony and the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. He has published poetry and criticism in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Ploughshares, St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, Seneca Review, Verse and VOLT, as well as in the anthologies Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century and At the Barriers: The Poetry of Thom Gunn. He’s published three full-length books—The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map, and Pleasure—as well as the chapbooks Pilgrim, Transcendental Grammar Crown and ↑, and his fourth book, Companion Grasses, will be out from Omnidawn in the spring of 2013. After a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s now an Assistant Professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.
Brian Teare is currently one of my favorite poets. His poetry is beautiful and combustible, often weaving themes of sexuality with place and the economics of rurality. I read his work in a seminar at Lesley, fell in love with one of his poems in particular (“Trick Noir”) and emailed him up. Fortunately for me, he was receptive to having conversations about his work, and to being interviewed.
July Westhale: What books do you love and are currently reading?
Brian Teare: Your question addresses two different categories—books I love and books I’m currently reading—and it also suggests a third—books I’m currently reading and loving at the same time. I’ll just give you a list of what’s on the shelf next to my bed, a list whose primary virtue is that it contains all three kinds of books:
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
- Joan Didion, Blue Nights
- Sarah Dowling, Security Posture
- Larry Eigner, The Collected Poems, Volume III
- Kathleen Fraser, m o v a b l e TYYPE
- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
- Petra Kuppers, ed., Somatic Engagement
- Nathaniel Mackey, Nod House
- Agnes Martin, Writings
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
What writers do you admire?
I admire writers now for very different reasons than I did when I was younger. When I was in graduate school and for a few years after, the writing mattered most to me. A poet’s biography might have added some spice or glamour to the poems, but I didn’t think of the writer holistically because I understood neither the writer’s life I was signing up for nor what it would take to remain committed to writing poems. In my ignorance I could admire a writer whose life was nothing but troubling to me. Now I might love a writer’s poems or novels or essays, but I can only admire them if I know how writing as a vocation, intellectual pursuit and literal practice fit into their lives and their politics or ethics. So I holistically admire Virginia Woolf, June Jordan, Grace Paley and Brenda Hillman, for instance, because I need the writer to have a politics, ethics and sense of vocation I admire as much as their writing.
How did you get your start? Did you attend an MFA program or not? If not, how did you learn your craft?
I dropped out of high school halfway through my junior year, but a year later entered the University of Alabama through a scholarship competition. I went to college to be a musician and composer, and I got my start in poetry by taking an undergraduate creative writing workshop during the summer after my sophomore year in college. I was still a music major then, and I took the class to get rid of some humanities requirements. But poetry—and the professor’s support of my poems—planted a seed that grew during my junior year, after which I switched to English and creative writing. I had a lot of support from that first poetry professor who went on to become a crucial mentor, and after I spent three more years in school as an English major, he encouraged me to apply to MFA Programs. I ended up going to Indiana University, where I received my MFA, and later to Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow. And though I would say that I “learned my craft” at these institutions, I would argue that I only became a writer after I left them—when, on the one hand, I learned to fit a writer’s life into the daily grind of earning a living, and, on the other, I began to write the poems I had long wanted to write. That began to happen only once I left the workshop environment, where my writing practice was, on the one hand, vulnerable to my need for external approval and, on the other, inhibited by my fear of not being understood.
How has your career evolved over time?
Because the evolution of a writer’s career is better judged by others, I’ll defer to my peers to make that kind of evaluation. All I can say is that between 2003 and the present, I went from having published some poems in literary journals to having published three books. But as regards my writing, I can say that it has evolved over time in ways that are clear to me. I began with a strong sense of my self as a poet in the post-Confessional tradition that overlapped with a post-Gay Liberation tradition of poetry. I was inspired by Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath—as well as James L. White, Paul Monette and Mark Doty. But my sense of the writing I wanted to be doing very quickly began to change while I was in grad school, though it took three or four years for my poems to register the changes I wanted to make.
I’d characterize the direction I’ve pursued with the shorthand phrase “lyric postmodernism” (to borrow my dear dead friend Reginald Shepherd’s term)—but I’ve been as inspired by Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, gay poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, as I have been by Modernist women poets like Marianne Moore and Lorine Niedecker and contemporary experimental writers like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Kathleen Fraser. I’ve tried to pursue a poetic practice that can contain many kinds of diction and subject matter—spiritual, erotic, philosophical, ecological—without having to commit to any one particular line-length, stanza form, or prosodic or conceptual approach. I begin each poem with improvisation and hope each poem’s form responds to the occasion of its making.
Did you have a mentor—how valuable was that? How did the relationship come to be?
Though I never seemed to realize how much I was being mentored when it was happening, now I would know enough to say that I was lucky to have had mentors when I was a younger writer. When I write “mentors,” I mean I had someone who cared if I kept writing, a reader who may have harshly criticized my most recent poem but was always available to read the next one. These mentors weren’t friends—and given my over-eagerness and neediness, I’m glad they had good boundaries in that regard—but their attention was affectionate enough to make me feel supported.
As an undergraduate I had mentorship from the faculty poet I mentioned above; he definitely took me under his wing and schooled me in the mode of Confessional writing that he had studied and which he himself practiced. And then my thesis director in graduate school was incredibly supportive in crucial ways, especially by giving me permission—and reading lists—that allowed me to pursue a path away from Confessional writing.
Since leaving school I’ve certainly had less direct experience of mentorship, but my peers have replaced mentors as my regular readers and critics. This was an especially crucial transition, one that gave me two gifts: 1) a measure of self-sovereignty and independence that I find crucial to writing the poems I most want to write; 2) a network of intellectual friendships with poets roughly my own age, a group of writers to whom I can turn with poems and questions about the writing life.
What’s your daily working method? How much time do you spend writing each day—and how do you MAKE THAT HAPPEN?
I’m a hard worker and fairly disciplined, but long ago I found that during the academic year I largely give that hard work and discipline over to my labor for others. Once I came to accept this fact about myself and let go of the fiction that all “real” writers write every day, I began to be able to utilize the free time I do have to facilitate a writerly frame of mind—that is, if I’m not writing. Over time I found it crucial a) to learn to be okay with what I need as a writer and b) to learn to work with the time I do—or do not—have in light of those needs. For instance: I know that I need a lot of time to write (four or five hours minimum), and that I need to be as free as possible of interruptions and responsibilities to others—my mind has to be free to think about whatever it wants to think about. Because for many years I taught year round and lived with my partner, this meant I rarely wrote poems except during brief windows when I was totally alone—either when my partner was out of town or when I was at a residency or on a long weekend at a retreat—and that this only happened two or three times a year, when school was also out. During these years I might have been writing sporadically and very slowly, but I nonetheless managed to write a couple of books this way, and I learned to treasure the times when my mind was fluid and creative, and to make sure that I spent an hour each day in a more fluid, free state of mind. This means that each day I tried to write something that is not goal-oriented: a letter to a friend, a journal entry, a poem, some notes, whatever. I also made sure that each day I read at least one poem or book of poems. It meant a lot to me to keep in touch with a state of mind that has no designs on it, that is free to move as it pleases. This meant that when I did have time to write poems, I could enter into the writing mind quickly and without the feeling of rusty gears turning.
How do you balance work and life?
I don’t, I never have been able to, and I don’t know anyone who feels that they do. By which I mean, everyone I know manages to find time to write or to do their art, but that almost all of them privilege their jobs and/or their loved ones, and they never seem to feel they’re doing as much writing or reading as they would like. Outside of the time I’ve spent at The MacDowell Colony, I’ve never felt I’ve had enough time to do my work—and even at MacDowell, I was aware of the finite amount of time I had there, and what it would mean to leave. Nonetheless, I’d like to stress the fact that I’ve accepted this struggle as an inevitable and essential part of my writing life, and once I let go of the fantasy that there was this ideal balance that kept evading my search for it, it became much easier to use what time I do have. In her essay “In a Ring of Cows Is the Signal Given,” C. D. Wright has this beautiful passage in which she reflects upon motherhood, the “ideal” writing conditions, and their relationship to her writing life:
I was asked by a poet who reluctantly chose not to have children what
conditions I would require to become the best poet I could. And I had
to allow, I had them, though I struggle for the opportunities to enter
that clearing where I am alone and afraid and humbled and pregnant
with the anticipation of thinking, dreaming, creating, writing without
interruption. I had to allow, I require the distraction, that I require the
attachment, and that unencumbered I merely dissipate; I come undone.
I admit, I require the struggle though it brings me to my knees when I
most long to be standing free.
When I first read this passage, it felt to me like a reprimand: if C. D. Wright requires the struggle, then what’s wrong with me? It took me a while to figure out that though this is what C. D. Wright requires, and though I admire C. D. Wright, what she requires is simply not what I require. I had to admit: under the prolonged encumbrance of distraction and attachment and interruption, I dissipate. Given the given working conditions of my daily life, and given how much I need to be unencumbered in order for my mind to feel its most coherent and un-dissipated, uninterrupted time to write is a blissful gift, and I will always need it. When juggling three balls—writing, work, love—I’m always dropping one of them and I feel a sharp pang of guilt each time I do. It’s a blessing to have a period of time when I just don’t have to juggle.
How do you make money—does most of your income come from your writing, or not?
Writing and publishing poetry doesn’t pay, and when it does, it pays very little. When I published my first book, I got $1,000.00 in prize money, and since then a few hundred dollars in royalties have trickled in over eight years. My second book paid nothing except for two years of royalties at something like .24 per copy sold, and so far my third book has paid me nothing at all. Upon signing the contract for my fourth book, however, I did receive $1000.00, so I’m back to square one. All of which is to say that, with some negligible exceptions, all of my income comes from having a job. It is, of course, possible to receive writing fellowships, but these are comparatively rare—and not what you would call “income” so much as miraculous one-time gifts from the writing gods.
Do you feel that teaching helps you to be a better writer, or is it a necessary evil?
There’s no reason a poet should become a teacher unless they actually want to be one, especially because the rewards of teaching are totally dependent on the individual’s commitment to teaching as a vocation—working is a necessity, but teaching is in no way an inevitable career path for a poet. (See D.G. Myers’ excellent The Elephants Teach for a history of the relationship between creative writers and the academy in the US.) The conventional wisdom that teaching leads to more time to write is largely a fiction, and many of my former students who have chosen other day jobs have far more time to write than I had when I adjuncted year round and taught three to four classes every semester. That said, I love teaching, and chose an MFA program with a heavy teaching component because I wanted to train to be a creative writing teacher. I have always gotten a lot out of preparing for classes and from my interactions with my students, and I certainly believe I’ve become a better thinker concerning poetry than I would have been had I never been forced to articulate and interrogate my beliefs and writing practice—this kind of accountability has allowed me to keep growing as a poet. It must be said that teaching does not allow me much time to actually practice writing, and in this sense, it does not help me to become a better writer, but it has, however, helped me to become a better cultivator of my creativity and my connection to my writing mind. And it has also helped me to see how precious is the time I do have to write—and to use it wisely.
Based on your background, what advice do you have for me?
There is no single way. And there is also no right way. There is the poetry that you must continue to write, your ongoing relationships with the poets in your chosen community, and your commitment to your vocation as a reader of and advocate for poetry. Everything else—publishing, “po biz,” teaching, a public career—is optional. You’re free to choose.
July Westhale is a writer, femme shark, activist, and archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She writes poems, long curly letters, academic articles, art criticism, travel essays, interviews, book reviews, & the occasional terrible short story. She does not normally wear blazers, or drink lattes.
She was recently named a 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry for LLF’s Emerging LGBT Voices Writing Residency, an Artist in Residence at Dairy Hollow Writers Colony, a runner up in the Femme Bot & Arsenic Chapbook competition & an indentured servant atCopper Canyon Press. University of Wisconsin at Madison’s lit journal Women in REDzine just named her one of their “top 10 inspiring political poets of 2011.”