Clifford Brooks has always struck me as the untamable sort, a well-intentioned and sometimes bombastic southern soul who writes, teaches, connects, impacts, and inspires through his work and endless supply of creative energy. He’s an intriguing character and I wanted to tug on his sleeve about a few poetic issues, so here you are. Check out his bio below to find out more about his books and The Southern Collective Experience. - James Duncan
All over social media I see you posting quotes from your own work and from others and sometimes they’re funny and sometimes inspirational, intending to give people a kick in the ass to get writing, and it makes me wonder, what gets your ass in the writer’s chair? What’s the drive behind your work?
I get in the writer’s chair because it’s the only seat in the house where I feel in control. William Faulkner said there are two kinds of writers, “Those that write, and then those that talk about it.” I don’t have all the answers, but I do own a few. Do the work. Writing is a vocation like all others which require dedication and absolute concentration. However, I do not cleave to the idea you must sit down every day at the same time to create. Sometimes I like to nap. It’s a blessing of the craft that demands it all at the front gates before the Fates allow entry. The quotes are always a shock to me. I talk like a machine gun. There is havoc not too far beneath my flesh. Yet, in that chair, writing, letting the world wail out of me—rested there, I am free. That’s the best reason to sit anywhere, as I see it.
In 2012 your book The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics snagged you nominations for the Pulitzer and Georgia Author of the Year. Now you have a new book coming out. What changed for you creatively since the last book? How is the 2015 version of you different from the 2012 version?
The new book, Athena Departs, picks up where The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics left off. The new material is born from a place far more mature and self-assured that the frightened child introduced several years ago. The grace of writing books over 200 pages is that you have plenty of time to create the new installment.
Athena Departs deals with some issues and family members that I wasn’t equipped to put on paper several years ago. In the hard lessons, bad love, and great runs since I began touring, I’ve grown into a man who is able to keep moving forward with the scope of his comfort zone. I aim to continue the trend of writing poetry that’s accessible and not cryptic bullshit. It’s about the story. When you write with complete honesty, folks just assume you’re being metaphorical.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I seem genetically incapable to make relationships work. It’s more of an amusement, that morose statement of fact. And it makes some gorgeous songs. It is always, only, about the music.
My third book is an epic of autobiographical havoc called The Salvation of Cowboy Blue Crawford. It has been the most cathartic and thoroughly fun thing to create since I began in poetry. There is an album being adapted to it and one individual in LA who wants to see the rough draft for possible adaptation into a short film. I couldn’t make this madness up if I tried. A charmed life is not always pleasant, but it’s never boring.
When you say you’re genetically incapable of making relationships work, do you think the art has anything to do with that? By this I mean that I know some comedians who, like writers and poets, reveal a lot of intimate and personal details about their life and relationships in their work, and they’re brutally honest about those things and it can make people uncomfortable, especially those in romantic relationships. Do you ever see the effects of that, or are the subjects in your work somewhat oblivious to their appearance in your poetry?
What I think you’re referring to are performers who give the audience intimate facts about someone they are currently dating, or announce potentially embarrassing details about family, for a cheap laugh. I think it’s a tacky, grossly-disrespectful form of humor. It is equally uncalled for in writing. The person or persons that are being attacked have no way of defending themselves or retaliating. I talk about failed relationships, but I don’t give names or specifics that may shame them. I note the faults on both sides without melodrama. I think that my problem with relationships is just—personal.
What I mean is a general statement concerning my mercurial nature and endless side projects for which I have an undying passion. I am distracted. I am obsessive about the perfect harmony of one syllable singing into the next. Nothing is more important that the piece in front of me. Eating, sleeping, and making small talk all become expendable when I have a deadline to meet. The work is forever. Love is fleeting in the flesh and easily replaced. (At least, that is what I tell myself to make the wound less of an ache.)
Being born in the South, and thus with a unique sense of decency, if a poem is written in the time I’m in love, it’s always endearing, adoring, and never tells too much about how she is the sole star in my heaven. This is to save some intimacy for only us. In the event our affection is dead, I do not attack her because the end has never been a one-way street, and again, she isn’t allowed her say in the matter. Writing poetry isn’t about regressing to rumors spread in fourth grade. (Plus, if the woman is an attorney, there is a good chance you’ll get sued!)
Staying on the topic of rubbing people the wrong way, one of my favorite quotes from you is “I never aim for anybody, but I won’t swerve to avoid hitting them, either.” I liked it so much I posted that to Hobo Camp’s Facebook page because I saw it as a statement of being true to yourself and your work, but I was surprised by how many people projected that as a violent worldview (something I disagree with). What I’m wondering is, how does a poet keep his or her edge without hurting someone? (Something I find important as an artist.)
The motto is made from wisdom I learned from great men I still consider immortal. My philosophy may sound cruel, but I’m not going to swerve in order to miss a dog, and possibly killing me or others. Likewise, I am not going to cheat anyone, but I won’t hesitate to have a come-to-Jesus-meeting with someone who cheats me. I don’t aim to irritate anyone, but it’s bound to happen. I don’t use vulgarity for shock value, or tackle sensitive topics with a sledgehammer to create a gross sense of shock. I believe that a poet keeps his or her edge by being exactly who they are all the time. The edge is natural. There is a honing to the use of that edge, which includes how to use tact. There are many ways to say what you need to say without embarrassing yourself or someone else. If an artist simply wants to lash out, it’s going to come across that way and only show the shallow heart and childish nature of the one penning the words. It is a case-by-case basis, but I’ve never found a case that can’t be edgy while retaining enough couth to count for great literature—not hate mail.
One of the other most important things for me as an artist and a human, and something I think we’re losing as a society, is the ability to listen, especially to critiques about our work. I sometimes see poets online react with some stunning force and violence when someone finds their work not up to par or even hurtful (intended or otherwise), and I’m always surprised by knee-jerk aggressive reactions to this. How do you handle critical reviews of your own work, especially if you don’t agree with the critique?
You just hit the nail on the head. I see all critiques of my work as useful, although I’ve never had anyone attack my work, and I’ve never had cause to do that to anyone else. I think that being earnest and honest breeds mutual respect faster than anything else. I practice this in art, and in life as much as humanly possible. And if everyone is telling you that you’re brilliant and all your words are flawless—someone is lying.
Artists and literary journals have contacted me after I mentioned online the design of the open mic nights for The Southern Collective Experience, which we plan to launch this year. They will be called The Collective Sessions, and the point is to have the public feel safe to showcase their work and then witness how adults critique that work without malice. A vast majority of open mic nights I’ve seen do not have the critique element, and thus (I believe) a fantastic chance to get better is lost.
If an artist cannot take a constructive nudge one way or the other, they will not make it far on the main stage. If the public do not want to participate in the critique portion of The Collective Sessions, they don’t have to. Yet, they can watch, see that it isn’t about making others feel small, and then participate in the next go-around.
I sometimes feel poetry is a cannibalistic or incestuous art, in that poets seem to be reading and seeking out poetry, but I don’t always see many non-poets doing so. Am I wrong? I’m totally willing to be wrong here. I guess the better question is, what’s the real-world impact of poetry on our society today?
I think there are more “closet poets/poetry-readers” out there than we see. This isn’t me being hopeful, it is a pleasant surprise I’ve come into over the past few years. I believe the reason for this is that poetry has been shelved as too cryptic, haughty, and\or pompous to pull out in full view. Some folks I’ve talked to fear that they’ll be assumed to possess these negative qualities if seen reading it in public. This is something that I understand, and never get bent about. But we need to break the clichés and be good citizens as well as healthy, business-minded men and women. The American dream is just as valid with us as it is with any other vocation. Work hard, sacrifice, chew through the hard times, and the Universe will meet you half way with blessings and breaks to sleep.
The impact of poetry on society today is immense. Songs are poetry, and music is the voice of God. These are facts. When enough poets take verse back, and far away from the Eliot/Pound “Look What Arcane Shit I Know-Languages I Speak that You Don’t” vault, you’ll see an increased amount of interest from the public. People want a story that leaves enough room for them to dance, but a story that doesn’t leave them alienated on the floor all alone. Poetry is about an emotional marriage with the public, not a confusing divorce. Poets need to be the chasers of butterflies and the victors in every bar fight.
The goal is to create a family that isn’t about back-stabbing, pointless competition, or selfish want. We’ve done just that. The roster is full, and the first issue of our magazine, The Copperhead Arts & Literary Review just hit the internet. A radio show started last year, and Dante’s Old South will begin taping with
’s NPR station. There are a total of
three magazines in all associated with us, and all members can be found on our
website, with a few more being added over the next month. Our crew
includes poets, prose-writers, musicians, and all flavors of visual artists. Chattanooga,
Yet, the soul here is family. It’s a labor of love and laughter that’s serious when it’s essential, and a party when it needs to be. Our contribution to poetry, and art in general, is to show that instead of becoming a movement of causalities, success (paying bills) is achieved by doing the damn thing and that this isn’t selling out. All of us took time to study the “movements” of the past to see what worked and what didn’t. From there we planted a flag in the United States of Artists Not in Favor of Suicide. It’s been pretty kosher thus far.
Who are you reading nowadays? Who really has you excited to see what they create next?
Who are you reading nowadays? Who really has you excited to see what they create next?
I love the work of Dan Veach, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Sandburg, Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Obviously, some of these fine people cannot write anymore due to death (though that would be cool with Halloween around the corner) but those still with us keep me hopeful, happy, and out of harm’s way. Many of my other literary heroes who draw breath on this planet are eager and open to share their ideals and fears with me after it’s proven that I am not a hanger-on, sycophant, or stooge. To get ahead in this business, you must be very careful who you associate with and the groups you cleave to as your own. These men and women I’ve come into contact with have only made my life richer (emotionally, in-craft, and academically) for it.
Bio: Clifford Brooks is a poet, teacher, and rebel working out his dreams in
North Georgia. He and Joe
Milford sat ten years ago mulling over how to pull a family, and business, out
of art. Over that decade Clifford’s book, The Draw of Broken
Eyes& Whirling Metaphysics, earned a Pulitzer and Georgia Author of the
Year nomination. Yet, more importantly, his passion born sitting beside his
best friend has come to fruition – The Southern Collective Experience is on the
map. This collection of artists of all genres is still in its infancy, but can
be found by the same name on Facebook and at www.southerncollectiveexperience.com.
He is nearing the completion of Athena Departs, a collection of verse that
continues where his last book left off; and The Salvation of Cowboy Blue
Crawford, an epic with autobiographical intent.