Interview with Poetry Contest Winner Brianna Low
Sarah Marcus: Rachel Eliza Griffiths describes your beautiful new chapbook, Drift, as "a lucid and searing exploration of the female body, pinned against the feral blood of language and myth." Can you talk a bit more about the role of the female body in this work. Did you intentionally set out to examine this theme or did it emerge organically?
Brianna Low: These poems were written while I was living in southern Indiana and trying to complete the final year of my MFA. Graduate school wasn’t really easy for me, mostly because I was ill for most of it. The summer before my final year of grad school I underwent surgery. While I was recuperating I spent a lot of time in bed reading the biographies of famous women: artists, queens, saints. I picked up a book about the life of Joan of Arc. At the time I was surprised at how much of that biography focused on Joan of Arc’s menstruation, or, more specifically, her lack of it. How her amenorrhea was latched onto by her contemporaries as a sign of God’s favor, of her holiness. Here I was reading this book and I had just been cut open and stitched back together, I was in a lot of pain, and one of the side-effects of the surgery caused me to bleed constantly for weeks. I had never felt farther from any type of grace. I think that context is important when discussing these poems because this chapbook is not really a celebration of the female body, it’s more about the sick body, the (female) body in crisis. I understand that many women find liberation and empowerment in the celebration of their bodies, mostly because they are so often degraded, maimed, killed. We injure ourselves trying to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty. As young girls so much of our lives revolve around secrecy, we are taught to hide the actual functioning of our bodies so as not to disgust those around us. I understand the need to celebrate our bodies in the face of this, to change the conversation. But I come at this from a slightly different perspective and it is something I struggle with. If our relationships to our bodies are troubled and painful how do we discuss that without inadvertently reifying misogynistic talking points, or being accused of doing so? I do believe in that maxim that the personal is political, but if our personal experiences don’t fit neatly into accepted political/feminist frameworks (i.e. I should celebrate my body) where do we go from there? How do we discuss it? My own reality is one in which my body is not a source of liberation or really much pleasure, but a source of so much pain and instability, at least in the past few years, and the poems in the chapbook that explicitly address the body are about just that. This is such a complicated issue for me and one that has preoccupied my mind so much that I think it was inevitable that it leaked out into my poems.
SM: I found the reoccurring imagery surrounding death and hunting to somehow reunite us with animals despite its violence. It almost felt tender (not just in a wounded sense) to picture a dead animal carried like a bride by a hunter. Can you talk a bit about those moments. Do you intend for them to connect directly to the other moments of blindness or darkness?
BL: This is great question. I do think violence is an undercurrent that runs throughout many of these poems and it’s especially present in the poems populated by animals. I think in the universe of these poems there aren’t necessarily clear delineations between violence and tenderness, slaughter and salvation, at least in regards to animals. The poem “Communion,” which is a poem about my grandfather, opens with him drowning a sack of kittens, but mostly concerns the (true) story my mother used to tell me about how their priest used to hand out unsanctified communion wafers to farmers on Christmas so they could feed them to their animals. These two things exist side by side (in real life and in these poems) and I am very interested in exploring that tension. I also feel--and this is in a lot of ways unintentional--that the poems most heavily populated with animals are the poems most concerned with God. This might sound silly, but I do think “desire for God/faith” is another thing I grapple with, in real life and in my poems. I’m not a very good confessional poet, and I think that’s why I rely on intermediaries to try to tell some truth about myself-why the poems about illness are poems about Mary Ingalls, Joan of Arc, a wounded deer. When it comes to crises of faith I suppose I could argue that those questions posed in this chapbook around animals: Does heaven exist for animals? Are they capable of grace? What does the death or pain of an animal mean if there is no such thing as salvation? Could really be questions I have about myself.
While I was writing these poems I often returned to St. Francis of Assisi’s Sermon to the Birds, which begins “My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God,” I am so moved and confused by that sermon, by what it means. I wish I could lay out more lucidly the connections between all these seemingly disparate concepts: violence, tenderness, crises of faith, humanity, animals, but they are so tangled up for me that I would need much more self-reflection and many more pages to try to figure them out! Finally I will say that I didn’t necessarily set out to make direct connections between these moments of violence/tenderness to other moments of blindness or darkness, those moments are about literal/physical blindness, not a spiritual blindness or a moral blindness. I don’t mind if people make those connections for themselves, but I would argue that darkness (as a symbol or theme or motif) in these poems is not bad, evil, or malicious. If anything I think it’s the light in these poems that is often damaging, painful, violent. I was not setting out to invert the association that light = good, darkness = bad, I think that arose from my own experiences with vision trouble and how I physically experience light. It circles back to that first question about the body.
SM: What messages or feelings do you want your reader to take away from this text?
BL: I was very grateful for and flattered by Rachel Eliza Griffiths kind words about the chapbook. I think her comment about these poems treading a “difficult, unsettled map” got at the heart of what work these poems are doing for me, which is: to try to search for answers to questions that really have no solutions. I think that’s why it is hard for me to settle on a specific message for readers. I think in these poems I was trying to answer something that I knew I would never really be able to answer. I do think there is value in even futile searches though, and I suppose that is the sentiment I would want a reader to take away from this text.
SM: What does inclusive feminism mean to you? What does it look like in your everyday life and in your writing?
BL: I think it’s important to remember that not everyone’s experience is the same. “Woman” is not a monolithic identity category. I think this is why discussions of intersectionality are important, the acknowledgment that race, class, sexual identity, etc. affect our experiences as women (and men). This is especially important for those of us in positions of relative privilege. To listen to and not speak over others is important. To acknowledge the validity of the experiences that are not our own. It is easy for white women for example to dismiss racism or turn a blind eye to it (both within feminist movements and outside of them) when we have never experienced racism and never will. I do think in many ways the idea of just shutting up, ceding the floor, and listening to others when they are speaking about their own experiences is important. To be self-reflective about the prejudice, the real limits of empathy that exist in our culture, in ourselves, and how, when those limits of empathy are institutionalized, or go unexamined, they become a type of erasure, of violence. This is what inclusive feminism looks like in my non-writing life, but in terms of my writing, empathy is something I’m very concerned with as well.
You can meet Brianna Low and GGP Poetry contest runner-up Kelly Lorraine Andrews at Fall for the Book Literary Festival at George Mason University on September 25, 2016 @ 3:00 pm – 4:15 pm
Bio: Brianna Low was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She received her MFA from Indiana University. More of her writing can be found at briannalow.com.