Behind the Words: Conor Bracken

Posted by on Feb 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Conor BrackenBesides the inaugural issue of Spry, Conor Bracken’s work can be found in Bodega, The Oklahoma Review, Foothill, The Magic Lantern Review, and Lungfull. He received a BA from Virginia Tech, was raised in New England as well as overseas, and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Houston. Conor’s poems are ethereal, yet relentless in their intensity. Recently we were lucky to spend some time talking with him about his process.

 

Leigh Anne: Let’s start with the most basic (and therefore maybe most difficult) question: Who are you? Or, what would you like readers to know about you?

Conor: Let’s see – I’m a twenty-something living in Texas, but originally from Virginia, getting my MFA and teaching freshman comp. I grew up bouncing around a lot; my dad joined the Foreign Service when I was a kid and we’d move often; about once every two years. It was strange, growing up like that – there was no real physical locus that we could call home. Summers we’d spend at cousins’ houses and school years either overseas or in Virginia. Friends came and went and so did I. Every two years it was a new group of people, and the whole peripatetic, consistent-deracination, thing has had a pretty deep effect upon me, as a person and as a poet. I’m still trying to figure it out. As of now, it manifests mostly as a fascination with the symbolism and liminality of airports, airplanes and suitcases. And coming to grips with the fact that I’m actually pretty bad at traveling. Just this winter, going home for break, I insisted I be dropped off early, just in case, which was good, because I stood in a long line for the wrong airline!

After college I lived overseas alone some, teaching English in the south of France and then testing software in Buenos Aires with friends from college. Those were really formative years for me, and when I developed some of my most enduring love for the English language. Learning and butchering French and Spanish opened up the immense bureau of native syntax, grammar, idiom, and diction, and I’m still rooting around inside its drawers. Auden said something like “give me a person who loves language and one who has ideas; the former will be better for poetry” and I’d like to think I’m one of the former, because I sure don’t have that many ideas!

What else. I like skiing. Trees and mountains. Reading Bolano and Zapruder. Puns. Adventurous gastronomy. Looking at the stars. Riding my bike. Birds LLC and Ghostly International. Stuff like that.

 

 

Tell us how you became interested in poetry and what is was like to write your first poem.

I first remember poetry from high school, senior year. Near the middle of the year, my teacher had had us read Cat’s Cradle which really blew on the low embers of my consciousness, and opened me to experiencing more and more literature. Sure, it’s cliché, but Vonnegut primed me to enjoy the written word like no one else. Later on we had to read poems aloud to the class; this was my first time, and I’d been assigned Countee Cullen’s “Incident,” which, if you remember, is a pretty powerful piece. I was really uncomfortable in reading aloud – partly because I’d never read a poem out loud, but more because part of the crux of “Incident” is a racial slur. I didn’t navigate that shoal very well. As a kid, growing up with a serious medley of ethnicities and experiences, the idea of discrimination and racial opposition was less than anathema; it was nonexistent. So that was hard. And enlightening. I remember being really aware of how this piece had affected me. It had made me wade into cultural waters I’d never really seen, but the unity of text-on-page and text-out-loud had an evocative, incantatory quality I’d never felt come out of me. I was shaken. Had I only had to read it in my head to myself I wouldn’t have been. Same goes for everyone else in class. But when the poem was a bodied thing – coming from my body – and its music and rhythms were in everyone’s face, we were experiencing the same thing.  

Sometime after that I wrote my first poem (which was unsurprisingly, pretty maudlin). It didn’t deal at all with the same thematic elements of “Incident,” seeing as I’m half-Lebanese but phenotypically Irish, but it did have that same hope of including a group into the rhythms and music of my thoughts.  I think the poem was in quatrains, rhyming ABAB, about a beautiful woman hooking men on drugs and love then dumping them. I guess was lonely, having recently transferred schools and having the distinct sense of being socially adrift. But cajoling this vague melancholy into a kind of tonal and textual texture was really cathartic. For a moment, it relieved me of this melancholy. And I had something to show for it! Thus begun my extended courtship with poetry. I don’t write in rhyme anymore, nor so diaristically or lugubriously, but that first flash of relief coupled with accomplishment is what I seek when I write.

 

 

What influences your writing? Do you find that you are easily inspired or do you work to find your own inspiration for a poem?

In terms of influences, place. Not too shockingly, rootless as I am, I’m more and more obsessed with the idea of place, community, of the relationship of the one to the many, a tiny biological system to an ecology. Of the weather. Where the moon moves. I remember being fascinated by the seasonal difference in the moon’s location that I could perceive from a fixed point. I was living in Nice, in a yellow bedroom with a huge window overlooking a church. I’d taped an xray of my lungs to my window and spent a lot of time smoking on that sill, staring out towards the sea and looking at the stars, and every month, I could discern the different spot of the moon. This was the first time I’d really been watching the sky and coordinating my relation to it and its stony, shiny bodies. I loved it. I had a sense of where I was, which felt like the first predicate in an argument on who I may have been. I haven’t written about that though, which I guess is strange. One of those moments that needs lots of digestion before it can be papered into a nest for thoughts.

A lot of my poems begin as snapshots, odd details, snippets of found speech, and over time they expand to include more stuff. Most often that stuff is some kind of dynamic meditation on a static point in my current universe.  

But finding inspiration is normally kind of a slog. It normally takes four drafts before I know what I’m even dealing with. So there’s a lot of free-writing, darling-killing, reordering, head-scratching, and stuffing-drafts-into-drawers before I start to see where I was going, and how to really start moving out towards it.

 

 

Your poems have a stratospheric quality: encompassing yet heightened (from your poem “pre-existing” condition in Bodega: ‘…this, I think / is what a confused accountant meant when // he talked about the “tension of improvised / reality” while watching unshowered people // try to scour their country of corruption / at a park in New York…). Can you tell us how you navigate your way through writing? Describe your process.

Like I said, a poem normally starts small. From a snippet of language (‘bear tracks’ for instance, in the poem you mentioned, was something a friend once said in jest about a medical condition), or a new way to talk about the breeze. And then I agonize my way out of that, testing out different kinds of turns. “I’ve always wanted this… But while the sink fills with coffee mugs and grasshoppers, how can we…” stuff like that. To move into different realms. A lot of the realms are pretty uninteresting.

For the past five years, I wrote at least once a day, a diaristic, obsessive quality I’ve been trying to rid myself of. I’ve toned it down mostly because it’s really hard to teach, be a student, work another job, have a social life and a long term relationship and write a fresh, new, interesting piece each day, but also because I’ve realized I need a lot of energy and time to generate something worthy of returning to. So I have scads of material that’s full of sharp turns, flat language, philosophical meh-ness, and I’m just beginning to return to it now. Trying to spruce it up and clear space inside it for meditations on belonging, identity, family relations, home, how to be from somewhere.

 

 

What do you wish for your poems after sending them out into the world?

Robert Hass said that when we write, we create our own perfect audience, so firstly I guess I’d say I’m hoping my poems find that. That perfect audience. I don’t really know what he or she would look like (happy and wild, I suppose).

I wish too that this audience finds something in them. Simple enough, I know, but I’d like them to find some small sense of truth, identification. A “momentary stay against confusion” as Frost said. I believe that poetry needs to work on the assumption that it must give of itself, and give some kind of salve or balm or shock and soothe. I’m not in for the kinds of poems that bristle against any sense of engagement, that actively repel their readers; I want poems in general, and my poems in particular, to say over the shoulder of the reader “you’re not alone” and give that kind of startle a friend gives when they approach you randomly from behind on the street and put their hand on your shoulder. And then I want my poems to say “let’s get a drink, talk about your life, what you saw today.”

 

 

Are you currently working on a manuscript or any other projects? Where can we hope to find your work?

I am working on a manuscript, but mostly in the way you could say lumberjacks are working on their beards – unawares.

I’ve got some poems floating around the internet – in Bodega, the Oklahoma Review, Foothill, the Magic Lantern Review – and then some in print – Lungfull (Spring ’13), Mudfish (forthcoming this summer) – but most of them are in my C: drive, hoping to be tinkered with soon and extensively.

 

 

Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, a Kentucky native, is the author of East Main Aviary (Flutter Press, 2012) & The Intimacy Archive (ELJ Publications, 2013) and the editor at Two of Cups Press. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, as well as the recipient of a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. In 2013 her poem “Laika” placed 2nd in the Argos Prize competition (Dorianne Laux, judge) and in 2012 she received the Kudzu Prize in Poetry. Her work has appeared in journals such as Spry, Lunch Ticket, Foundling Review, and The Journal of Kentucky Studies.

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