TRACI BRIMHALL: mastery is the beginning of a practice and poetry… it loves you back

Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (forthcoming from W.W. Norton), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award.

Her poems have appeared in New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review Online, FIELD, Indiana Review and Southern Review. She is a former Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and a current Emerging Writer Fellow at The Writer’s Center. She has also received scholarships and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Disquiet International Literary Program.

She holds degrees from Florida State University and Sarah Lawrence College. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University where she is a doctoral candidate and a King/​Chávez/​Parks Fellow. She also serves as Poetry Editor for Third Coast and Editor at Large for Loaded Bicycle.

I know Traci through the internet. A friend of mine sent me her book, Rookery, while I was on a trip to Georgia for a wedding. I spent most of the wedding curled up at the base of a giant tree, devouring her aubades. When I returned home, I looked her up and emailed her immediately. She was wonderful in her response, warm and excited about the possibility of being interviewed. She made me feel immediate gratitude towards all poets for being willing to share her story so readily.

July Westhale

What books do you love and are currently reading? 

Brimhall: Marquis de Sade. No, seriously. I have to do a presentation on him for class on Monday. The last poetry book I finished (which I loved) was Eduardo Galleano, The Book of Embraces. Before that it was the new Adonis translation. I’ve been trying to read as much international poetry as possible. I feel like i have a good handle on contemporary American poetry, and even poetry in England and the U.S. over the past 150 years, but I have very little sense of what poetry has been written in other countries.

What writers do you admire?

Brimhall: Writers who’ve lived great lives and not just written great poems, like Muriel Rukeyser or Adrienne Rich. Of course I love great poems. They help me live. They make me feel less alone in the world. But I also love discovering poets who’ve been extraordinary people and lived extraordinary lives. That’s an art, too, and if I get to master anything in this life, I hope it’s that.

How did you get your start? Did you attend an MFA program or not? If not, how did you learn your craft?

Brimhall: I attended the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College from 2006-2008. I learned a lot from my teachers there, but I also learned a lot by attending conferences like Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Sewanee and BreadLoaf. The faculty at SLC is amazing, but the wonderful thing about conferences is that you can find a way to study with tons of people in the country, albeit for a short time.

How has your career evolved over time?

Brimhall: Well, for one, I started to call it a career, which is weird in itself. It’s also strange to think of it as “over time” because I feel like I’m just starting. While I have written stories and poems since I was a kid, it wasn’t until 2005 that I decided I was going to “be a poet.” So you could say that I’ve evolved from a person with a U-haul and a lot of illusions moving to New York City, to a person with a desk, coffee poet and electric bill in Michigan with fewer illusions and a lot more school debt.

Did you have a mentor—and, if so, how valuable was that? How did the relationship come to be?

Brimhall: No, I’ve never had a mentor, or at least my vision of what a mentor is. There’s no teacher I go out to coffee with or that I send my poems to after the class ends. And honestly, it has kind of made me feel that I must not be a “real” poet if no one has reached out to me and declared me one by virtue of their friendship. However, I have had some really brilliant and encouraging teachers. I had a great poetry teacher in undergrad who was the reason I became a poet and a great teacher and thesis advisor in grad school who really believed in me. But some of the best teachers I’ve had have just been my friends. They are the ones that know my work and give me advice that I need to hear. In my vision of mentorship, the mentor and the mentee are at least a decade apart in age, if not a generation, but that’s not what my experience has taught me.

What’s your daily working method? How much time do you spend writing each day–and how do you make that happen?

Brimhall: I started a PhD at Western Michigan University last fall. Since I made that choice to give poetry everything I had in 2005, this is the least I’ve ever written. Part of that is being a student and a teacher. I have a lot to read, grade, and prep every week. I also work for New Issues press and on the University’s literary journal. Another part of losing time is going on the road to do readings from my book and guest teach classes. These are all great ways to be busy, learn and connect with other people, but the only thing that has kept me writing lately is a coffee date with a friend every week. We read each other a poem or two and then write for 20 minutes or so. Of course I wish I had more time. I wish I wrote poetry every day, but the facts of my life have shifted, and I have less time. However, I wrote quite a bit over summer, and I’m sure I will get some writing done over winter break. I never stop. Even if the pace slows, not writing is not really an option.

How do you balance work and life?

Brimhall: Sometimes I don’t. Something always has to give in a day. Lately, I’ve given up yoga. Over winter, I’ll probably give up on everything but writing and sleeping. I will always write, and I will always remember to privilege my writing when I can, but the best parts of my day are usually spent with people I love. I can’t hang out with friends every night of the week or have a great phone conversation with my best friend, but those are the things that make a life. Given the choice between a morning to write and brunch with a friend, I would choose the brunch.

How do you make money? Does most of your income come from your writing, or not?

Brimhall: I’m a graduate student, so my light bill is paid every month from teaching. Occasionally I make a small poetry paycheck, but I usually try and return money made from art back into art.

Do you feel teaching helps you to be a better writer, or is it a necessary evil?

Brimhall: I don’t think teaching is a necessary evil. It’s a privilege. I get paid to talk about literature and poetry every week. What job could be better? I learn a lot from talking about these things with students, and I also do research so I will know what I’m talking about, and I get a great deal out of that. A PhD wasn’t something I ever intended to do, but now I am really glad I am doing it. I’m glad to be filling in gaps in my education and spending time with really bright, talented people who love many of the things I love. Teaching is a blessing.

Based on your background, what advice do you have for me?

Brimhall: I think one of the great things about a low residency MFA is that it teaches you how to integrate your writing life into your daily life already. That will be a great skill to have when you are done with the degree. My husband practices martial arts, and he says getting a black belt is the beginning. Mastery is the beginning of a practice. I love applying this idea to the MFA. You are just beginning. You have years of poetry ahead of you, both reading it and writing it. You’re getting lots of knowledge of craft and lots of practice, and now you can apply that to all the poems you will write from this point forward. You’ll still discover a thousand new things when you write. And I hope you either have someone in your life or someone you’ve met at school who’s a great friend and a great reader. I had a very good MFA experience but the best thing I got from it was my best friend. Oh, and love the shit out of poetry. It loves you back. No matter how much of my time and energy I put into poetry, I always feel like I get way more in return.


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 at Copper 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.”