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SubtleTea Interview - Louis Brodsky 



 SubtleTea Interview with Louis Daniel Brodsky


D:   Mr. Brodsky, you are responsible for quite an impressive literary repertoire (including 50 volumes of poetry).  Your years of scholarship and writing have culminated in the present establishment of Time Being Books.  Please share when/how TBB was conceived and the vision it's founded upon.


I began writing poetry and fiction in graduate school, at Washington University, in 1963. Work in the "real" world, for me, began in 1968, when I became assistant manager at a men's-clothing factory in a small town in Missouri, eschewing the academic world, with which I'd become disillusioned, taking a PhD in "factory." From 1968 to 1987, while overseeing the factory, I never stopped writing my poems, always dreaming of the day when I would know I had learned enough from the "real" world to settle into a full-time career writing and publishing poetry -- my own as well as that of other poets I admire -- without worrying about falling back into academic paralysis. The dream was to, one day, "harvest" my poetry -- turn it into books, books that would be more than mere collections of poems, thematically unified books that would read like novels. Time Being Books became the catalyst for this dream. I founded the company in 1987. Now in its sixteenth year, Time Being Books has published twenty authors, almost eighty books.



D: Which of your works to date would you consider to be your personal best and why?


Each of my fifty books of poetry is a child of my brain, a labor of passion. I have no one favorite. Having said that, they are all my favorites, because they represent myriad stages of my life over the past forty years. Each book, to some imaginative extent, chronicles who I was at a given point in time.



D: Your favorite author(s)/book(s) and why?


The book I found most compelling as a young man and still find seminal is the Old Testament. Though I don't know it intimately, I feel as though I sprang from it. So many of its stories and images and insights pervade my work, even that which is patently frivolous and secular. After that, in terms of lyrical quality, come Milton's Paradise Lost, Wordsworth's Preludes, Whitman's Leaves of Grass. And don't let me forget Shakespeare's Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet. For the sheer amplitude of their cynical and satirical brilliance, I have been inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. For scope, I have been most influenced and pushed to the limit by William Faulkner, especially by The Sound and the Fury. Among the modern poets who have touched me most are Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke. Franz Kafka holds a special place in my pantheon of literary geniuses, as does Dr. Seuss -- wordplay-meister nonpareil.  


My initial desire was to become a novelist. But my first six novels came out reading like recycled Faulkner. Only when I wrote poetry did I speak with my own voice. I liked my own voice best, felt most comfortable when I let it express my own emotions and intellect, because it didn't sound like Milton or Roethke or Swift or Faulkner or any of the others, not even echoically. And this, I knew, was the key to my potential, that I just might have a chance to create something solely from my heart, original, and maybe even moving to others. 



D:  In your political piece, "Fifty-First State" (featured on this site), you bravely and vehemently roast George "Dubya" Bush.  I happen to concur with your disdain, and I especially applaud your mention of his membership in the shady, secret society of the Skull & Bones.


      Care to share brief words on your inspiration for this piece?  (About the dubiousness of Dubya, so to speak?)


Most of my poetry is highly metaphorical, lyrical, and narrative. This poem is one of a number of exceptions I've written since 9/11 that makes an attempt at what I call "public" poetry, poetry that deals with issues rather than abstractions. It is undisguised and uncompromisingly disdainful in its tone. It reflects my inability to plumb the depths of our president's stupidity. I am equally astounded by the fact that our Congress has been so accommodating of the hard-line right-wing conservatives, the fundamentalists, and the military jingoists with whom Dubya has surrounded himself. Sometimes, even poets have to set aside their artifice to ensure that their audiences know exactly how they feel. Politicians should do the same.



D:   I believe the masses' tendency is toward fervent, or at least unwitting, support of Control.  History seems to show this, though the tendency fluctuates, of course. America is a result of a long and painful succession of ideas and lessons, forged as a grand social experiment in genuine liberty.  The realistic view of checks and balances on Humanity's baser tendencies helped strengthen America's intentions.


Earlier I mentioned fluctuations.  It seems desire for an evident liberty also fluctuates in a given society.  (Norman Vincent Peale once wrote: "Americans used to roar like lions for liberty. Now we bleat like sheep for security.")


Do you think, generally, that America's craving for true freedom is currently limp, especially in the shadow of increased government power due to the threat of ambiguous "terrorism"?


I believe that the Patriot Act is the most insidious piece of political architecture since Mein Kampf. America has had so much "true freedom" that its appetite for it has been satiated. We now crave insularity, security from a world that hates us for our hypocrisy in proselytizing democracy and personal liberty.

And it seems to me that George W. Bush has the perfect answer to satisfy America's hunger for security: the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, which advocates preemptive nuclear strikes as our newest deterrent against terrorism. It's as easy as this: you look like you're going to fuck with us, we blow your balls off. With a mentality like this, we're safe  . . . for at least the next twenty-four hours.  


Thank God we still operate, in this country, with a few civil liberties. Take freedom of speech. Were I Osip Mandelstam or Joseph Brodsky, I could have clandestinely written "Fifty-First State," but I could not have had it appear on SubtleTea's Web site without my risking incarceration or extermination.


And when I looked last, we still advocate the freedom to vote, which allows us to hold out hope of purging America of tyrants. We get another chance in 2004.



D:  William Faulkner is my favorite American author.  I consider Absalom, Absalom! to be the best American novel.


Thomas Sutpen's innocence-driven obsession to establish a dynasty, Henry Sutpen's decision to murder his half-brother, Rosa Coldfield's explosion of testimony and need to discover what remained at Sutpen's Hundred, and Quentin Compson's vicarious perception of it all applied to his own relation to the South: splendid pathos.  (One may argue that Thomas Sutpen, however, never fully attained Recognition, to use Aristotle's term, of his design's flaw, of course---thus never moving him from ignorance to understanding of his doom.)  With all of his often frenetic stylization, caricaturesque profiles and situations, and fixation on miscegenation, how do you rate Faulkner's contribution to literature?


In your summation of Absalom! Absalom!, you left out one character, who gives the book a genuine pathos, in my judgment: Wash Jones. All the other characters are over-inflated, with over-inflated rhetoric, which has always made that book, despite its lyrical beauty, a bit too shrill for my sensibility. For me, Faulkner is at his best when he's being sardonic as hell, grotesque, mordantly humorous, and, above all, when he's depicting salt-of-the-earth Nancy Mannigoes, Wash Joneses, and Benjy Compsons.

Considering that I began reading and collecting Faulkner seriously when I was at Yale, from 1959 to 1963, I suppose I have to confess that I am more than a little biased. As a teller of tales tall and deep, Faulkner probably has no twentieth-century-America rival. Hemingway and Fitzgerald run a close, yet distant, second and third. Who the new Faulkner will be hardly seems worth asking. It may take America another century or so to present the world with the likes of him.



D: William Faulkner said that "no writing will be too successful without some conception of God. Sartre has denied God. I think Camus will get better, but I think that Sartre will never be better."  What is your hunch or belief in this regard?

Faulkner's statement sounds like his usual bullshit when he was backed into a question-and-answer corner, which wasn't too often, except for 1957 and '58, when he was "on the English faculty" at the University of Virginia. In truth, Faulkner never trusted his oral statements, not even as a young man. (Read Addie Bundren's sections in As I Lay Dying for proof positive of his mistrust of words.) And though he ransacked the Bible for so much of his wondrous material, I'm not too sure he had much room for God, neither the Judeo-Christian version nor the secular-poetical version. Faulkner obviously had a conception of God, though he was more an agnostic than true believer. Curiously, this does not seem to have hindered his literary success.



D:  I'm quite fixated on mortality and how the human foreknowledge of its fact plays with our worldviews, art, and mental health.  What are your thoughts on mortality? 


I believe there's a good chance that mortality will win out in the end. In fact, I'm not even hedging my bet.   For me, the idea of death has been the stimulus for my writing. Over forty years, I have penned 7500 poems approximately a poem every other day. My poems record my passage, chronicle my existence, lend an illusion of order to my circuitous, chaotic journey. I need them to stabilize me, protect my sanity. I cherish life. The poems will allow my life to continue when my physical being lies down and dies. My poems are a way of saying no to death.



D:   I notice two of your poetry collections, Falling From Heaven (with William Heyen) and Gestapo Crows, consist of "holocaust poems."  Care to share any words on these works?


Gestapo Crows and Falling from Heaven are brothers and sisters to The Eleventh Lost Tribe, The Thorough Earth, Rabbi Auschwitz, and The Swastika Clock. (The last two are completed but not yet published.) The Holocaust has haunted me since long before I began to write, though I didn't know it. In high school, I was not taught about the Nazi scourge, not even in college. The fifties and sixties were still too close to the thirties and forties for the Holocaust to be analyzed or even talked about. The world was still too covered with wounds.


Though I was born too late to have experienced the depredations of the Nazi regime and despite the fact that my family suffered no personal losses, I began, sometime in the sixties, to confront the events of that period. In 1967, I wrote my first poem about the Holocaust, "Valediction Forbidding Despair." I still have no idea from what wellspring that poem erupted. But it did, and I liked the sense of power over my developing rage against the atrocities of mankind that it gave me. No more poems in that vein followed for a number of years. In the mid-seventies, I read a serialized version, in Look magazine, of Treblinka, by Jean-Francois Steiner. It blew my head off. Night, Schindler's List, and Maus I and II did the same to me in the eighties and nineties. Now, I've written over 250 Holocaust poems.


Why? Because I can't shut them off when they scream inside me the poems, the victims, the perpetrators. I always hope that the last one I've written will be the last one I write. It appears now, however, that the last one will have to be when I cease breathing.



D: To flirt with triteness, I ask you: Are you fulfilling your dreams?


There are dreams and there are dreams. Some are salutary, others nightmarish. They serve their purposes, both in terms of mental health and as artistic stimuli. Then there's another kind of dream, which isn't so much a dream as a goal, a life goal, an overriding purpose that one can give to one's existence, a purpose that makes life bearable, rewarding.


I am a purpose-driven person. Without the gift I've been given writing poems I would have no adequate reason for continuing. I have known this since the beginning, in 1963. I am extremely fortunate to still feel, after forty years, a massive burn in the core of my being, one which fires my passion. I am indeed fulfilling my ambition to create.



D: Are you working on anything at present?


I am presently doing precisely the same thing I've been doing methodically at least since 1987, when I quit working at the factory, to begin my full-time career as a poet: I am making books a poem at a time. I work seven days a week ten to twelve hours on weekdays, five hours or so on Saturdays and Sundays. This is how art gets made. It's more a labor than a labor of love, though it is never laborious. I thrive on work and bring considerable discipline to my job. Art really is a job, not a whim to give flight to whenever it "inspires."


I am currently bringing to closure five books, all of which will be published in 2003 and 2004, including an eight-hundred-pager, The Complete Poems of Louis Daniel Brodsky: Volume Three, 1976-1980.


On my drawing board are fourteen manuscripts I've assembled from work ranging over a thirty-year period, books that will eventually enter my "books by" list. Their existence, albeit inchoate, reminds me how much still shadows me. They need me for their survival, and I need them, and all the ones to come, to keep my imagination alive.



D:  Mr. Brodsky, I'm impressed with your poetry style and substance.  I recently received one of your books about Faulkner and will dive into it soon.  Afterwards, I plan on exploring more of your extensive work.  It's an honor to have interviewed you.  Thank you for enduring my goofy questions.


      Of course, I wish you blessings on your path.  Any last words for the readers/fans?


I believe I have never composed a poem for myself. From the outset, though I have always written from the center of what I know best -- myself -- my intentions have been to write for others. I hope those who read this interview will be compelled to seek out my work. It is to them that I have dedicated my life.



Read his poetry.












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