“Journeying back through memory was a way of getting rid of the chaff, finding the pure grain at the core.”
Winnower (Wipf & Stock, 2013)
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I started to see connections between a lot of poems I was writing at the time—poems about memory, about growing up in Chad and the connections I still felt with the places of my past. It was an obsession like you call it, an obsession with memory, that wasn’t letting me go, wouldn’t let me go until I brought all these poems into a book. I realized that I had a responsibility to speak to what I had seen—I still do—and I was haunted by this line that appears in the poem “Invocation” which opens the collection: “I must wander this road through a land / not fully mine but more of me than anywhere else.” Some days, I’m scared that I wrote that, as if fate were writing itself. I don’t know what to do with a line like that. Writing this chapbook was a bit like wandering around but wandering through uncharted territory where the stakes are raised.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I knew as I started to shape the collection that the poems would be divided into two parts. The first section would deal with direct experiences, not just poems as remembered things but poems as acts of remembering. These poems were a kind of retelling of experiences I had seen firsthand or had experienced through the eyes of close friends—the morning I woke up in a nomad encampment that I was visiting for a wedding, or the more serious instances when war struck close to heart: when neighborhood streets were demolished by tanks, friends interrogated, when people I had met disappeared and were rumored to have joined the rebels on the eastern front.
The second section of poems is a journey away from home, an effort to find a new home in the wake of war, navigating distance yet finding resonance everywhere: in the bustling streets of Chicago, the quiet churches of Paris, and a dream-like experience I had in suburban Maryland. These poems were writing Chad in them too—even though I wasn’t realizing it and even though the connections might be harder to find. They’re there though.
Regarding the title, I knew this collection would be a kind of winnowing, an ancient image I’ve found so generative, so as soon as I landed on Winnower, the title stuck. Journeying back through memory was a way of getting rid of the chaff, finding the pure grain at the core.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
Because the chapbook is so consolidated, because the narrative arc is so much more condensed, I realized that poems would have to get as close as they could to the actual experiences they were telling. I realized that these would be poems of immediacy with just the beginnings of the disorientation I have felt for a long time and from which I write.
What are you working on now?
I have a full-length collection, Acacia Road, that I’ve been working on for some time and have started to send out. There’s a lot more distance in this collection than there was in Winnower, and I’ve been challenged as much as I’ve enjoyed writing these newer poems.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
My first encounter with the chapbook form was with Jamaal May’s two chapbooks, The God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth (Organic Weapon Arts). This was right when May’s career was launching off, and I realized the possibilities of the chapbook form. It was like these two little books were a hot iron that relentlessly pressed against my skin for twenty, thirty pages—such was their rawness and power.
I also see as another huge influence my late mentor and professor, Brett Foster, and his chapbook Fall Run Road, which won Finishing Line Press’s Open Chapbook Competition. There are poems of real elegance in here, married with his trademark insatiable curiosity and wit. I was an undergrad at the time he was publishing it, and he let me “proof” it—though what kind of help I could provide to his great work at the time was next to nothing. I felt as if I was handling something sacred. It’s a wonderful collection.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
I think more than anything, I’ve learned to let go—to realize that not every poem is going to be a great poem. I had a professor once who said that some days you’ll write decent poems on Wednesdays, on Saturdays, but there will always be poems you write on Mondays. That is completely true. So with that in mind, I think I’ve been learning the power of consistency and momentum in the writing life. Get the wheels turning and keep them turning. There’s always something to do—whether that’s to write or revise or brainstorm.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Don’t stop reading, and make sure to be a part of a healthy writing community (which may mean that you need to start one). Read as many literary journals and new poetry collections as you can find. Go to conferences. Attend readings. And don’t be afraid to start sending things out (but don’t get consumed by it). Get a job to afford all of this.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish I had been told to take things steadily: one poem at a time, a publication here and there, and not to feel the weight of wanting to be great, whatever that means. If you rush the writing of poetry, or any writing for that matter, when your head is full of a lot of high-minded nonsense, you’ll wind up with just plain bad poetry. I’ve been realizing slowly how sacred our art is, how so often the poet stands in the way of the poem, and how some sort of self-effacement needs to occur to let the real poem emerge.
Aaron Brown’s prose and poetry have been published in World Literature Today, Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, Portland Review, Ruminate, and Cimarron Review, among others. He is the author of Winnower (Wipf & Stock, 2013) and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron grew up in Chad and now lives with his wife Melinda in Sterling, Kansas, where he is an assistant professor of writing at Sterling College.