Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Michael H. Brownstein

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Michael H. Brownstein

has had his work appear in The Café Review, American Letters and Commentary, Skidrow Penthouse, Xavier Review, Hotel Amerika, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, The Pacific Review, Poetrysuperhighway.com and others. In addition, he has nine poetry chapbooks including A Period of Trees (Snark Press, 2004), Firestorm: A Rendering of Torah (Camel Saloon Press, 2012), The Possibility of Sky and Hell: From My Suicide Book (White Knuckle Press, 2013) and The Katy Trail, Mid-Missouri, 100 Degrees Outside and Other Poems (Kind of Hurricane Press, 2013). He is the editor of First Poems from Viet Nam (2011). His book, A Slipknot Into Somewhere Else: A Poet’s Journey To The Borderlands Of Dementia, is published by Cholla Needles Press (2018). He presently resides in Jefferson City, Missouri where he lives with enough animals to open a shelter.

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

In elementary school, I began writing silly rhymes for no reason at all—mostly around the holidays, but in high school a Ms. Perkins—my history teacher—encouraged me to write because she liked the way I experimented with the essay form. At one point every sentence in any essay I handed in could not be more than five words. She thought it would be interesting to see if I could write poetry. I did, thought my stuff was OK—it really wasn’t—but I found I actually liked writing—so I kept on and on and now it’s many years later and I’m still writing.

  1. Who introduced you to poetry?

I don’t remember, but I do remember Ms. Perkins and Archie Lieberman who thought I was creative enough with my short stories—in retrospect were not very creative or very good—to write poetry—and he liked my work enough to take them around with him when he was doing high profile photojournalism stories for magazines such as Look, Life, and Playboy. Of course, those editors knew my work was not that good, but I kept on writing mostly for myself until I fell playing hockey in my thirties, found myself in traction and then in bed rest bored out of my mind. That’s when I became serious, started writing better and began sending stuff out. FactSheet 5, (a magazine that listed hundreds and hundreds of zines, journals, and books with simple one to two paragraph reviews) was around back then and I used it as my go to reference to submit work.

  1. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I always liked Mary Oliver. Read everything she wrote. Rita Dove is another poet I admire very much. Carolyn Forche because, well, because she’s Carolyn Forche. I always admired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Louis Stevenson.

  1. What is your daily writing routine?

I write every day for about an hour, usually in the morning, and then come back to poems I wrote earlier in the day, months, even years, and make revisions in the evening.

  1. What motivates you to write?

I feel I have something to offer. Sometimes I write just to write, other times I have a particular audience in mind, other times I feel I have something important to say and so I say it with poetry. I have a series coming out, for example, on the blog of Moristotle (https://moristotle.blogspot.com/), for example on reparations. I wrote it for African-American history month. Here’s a sample stanza:

If we go another thirty miles over, we arrive in Columbia,
a lynching–there were more in Missouri, many more–
and this one was no different–James Scott was lynched
as more than a thousand white bystanders looked on–
and he was innocent–the real rapist discovered after the fact–
too late again–and no whites paid for the crime–
Do we not owe Scott’s family reparations? A sincere apology?

  1. What is your work ethic?

I submit to a publication every other day throughout the year. I never miss a day. I go to two poetry programs to workshop my poetry—and I am the co-host of the local library’s poetry program.

I spend every day with some writing exercise. No exceptions. I also carry around a notebook if an image hits my fancy.

Here’s an image that came to me when I saw the sunlight come out behind gray clouds and light up a field along the highway:
We knew each other by the spotlight on wild flowers,

the bath of prairie sage and the colors blue and green,

Later, I turned it into a longer poem utilizing the first line at the beginning of each stanza.

  1. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I don’t rhyme too often, but when I do I look back to the work of Longfellow. He is still stuck in my mind. I even have one of his volumes in one of my boxes in the attic to this day—along with more than a hundred other poets—but he’s the one I remember.

  1. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Safia Elhillo. She writes with a power that is incredible. Her poem “Girls That Never Die” is so brilliant, when I reread it—and I do reread it—I have to take deep breaths because this poem, for example, is that deep.

Martin Espada is another contemporary poet. When he wrote about the hurricane that took out Puerto Rico, you were there. You felt the pain of the people. You became one of them. He has a way with line and image that is just magnificent.

Then there’s June Jordan whose political poetry is made of magic.

Then there’s Carolyn Forche who’s book, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, inspired me to write an e-book, Firestorm: A Rendering of Torah (http://booksonblog35.blogspot.com/).

And, of course, Mary Oliver who recently passed away and Rita Dove.

  1. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I write because it makes me happy; it’s the most satisfying thing I do now. I used to teach in the inner city of Chicago. That was the most satisfying thing I did. I’m retired now. Writing has taken its place as most satisfying.

  1. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Write. Write what you know. Write what you want to know. Just write.

Put it in a drawer. Take it out days, weeks, even months later and read it again.

Revise. Revise. Revise.

I tell individuals who want to become writers to worry about audience and publication after you have what you feel is a completed work. Even then I invite them to workshop it with one of the groups I am in.

I also tell them it doesn’t hurt to read a lot of poetry.

  1. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’m working on a book of prose poems and poems, The Tattoo Garden of Capella. So far I’ve revised it twenty times or more, but I keep coming back to it. It’s about a place that is magical and safe, a place full of color and love. At one point, dangerous people enter the garden only to have poetry destroy their weapons.

I’m also hard at work on a prose poem that’s rather long. In it, a poet with writer’s block gets help from a very eccentric man who sounds more like as tuba than a human being:

The odd looking man looked at him as if he had never seen him before—and perhaps he had not—and answered with soft moans, climatic yelps, silence, the sound of a tuba, and then an oomph. Ahh, he said, and then ohh. He paused. The rent is paid up, you know, but a long time ago I lost my way in…

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