I'm going to keep this introduction short and sweet because I am so excited for you all to check out this interview with Brandon Jordan Brown, a poet whose craft is outshined only by his generosity – and maybe his cute kitties. Friends, I even stole the title for this interview from a line of one of his poems because I love it too much. I had the singular honor of chatting with Brandon for a few hours about everything – growing up in the South, how animals help define a place in his poems, religion, schools of poetic thought, and some advice any writer would be wise to remember.
DID I MENTION HE HAS A KITTEN RIGHT NOW? Let's do this.
Some background: Brandon was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in the South. He is a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, winner of the 2016 Orison Anthology Poetry Prize, a scholarship recipient from The Sun, and a former PEN in the Community poetry instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grist; Scalawag; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review; Forklift, Ohio; Day One; Winter Tangerine Review and elsewhere. He currently lives in Los Angeles and you can follow his work here.
Note: The following interview has been edited for both length and clarity. Enjoy!
I guess this is a good time to ask about your cats. So tell me everything – how your cats came into your life, how they changed things for you – everything.
We have two cats. The older brother, his name is Wyatt. He's a tuxedo cat, and we adopted him from a shelter out here a little over a year ago when he was a few months old, and he is such a unique cat. He is a very needy cat. He is very high maintenance, but he's such a sweetheart. He wants engagement and play, but that can be tricky when you're not always able to offer it because you have to go to dinner after work or you make plans to go on a date or go hang out with friends.
And we made the decision to adopt another cat so he can have a friend. So we were at the vet getting Wyatt a checkup because of his behavioral issues and told the doctor we thought about getting another cat. And they said, “We have some kittens in the back that you should come check out.” And that's where we found Little Bear. She’s brand new to our family. We've had her for a little under a month now and she's tiny, tiny, tiny, a little tortoise-shell cat. And she's been so good for Wyatt. Wyatt has a friend, we have more love in the house. Last night, I was sitting in a chair in my living room with her asleep on my lap and him asleep on my chest. And I had achieved a rare moment of joy. Like I was I was fully in a moment.
And we only have plans to get more animals. We would really love at least one dog. Having a goat would be rad. I have big dreams. Give me a cow. Give me everything. I want it all.
My favorite piece of cow trivia is they have best friends.
That's amazing. And I think, too, the idea of having animals is almost synonymous with a certain pace of life. Like having pets and being able to tend to your pets is a sign that you have enough space in your life to care for something and to develop a relationship with something. I think that is one of the most powerful things about what it means to have animals – this ability to take time to be slow. Especially living in the city, that can be very hard. And coming from where I grew up [in Alabama and Tennessee], it's almost like it has a heavy symbolic weight, that idea.
"I think that is one of the most powerful things about what it means to have animals – this ability to take time to be slow."
That falls in line with something that I always tell people about what changed in me when I got animals, and it's that caring for animals takes you out of yourself, you know? It gets you off your bullshit.
There's something unique about that: pulling you out of yourself to care for something. I mean I even see it in [my] relationship [with my wife]. It's like only one of us bottoms out at a time because as soon as one of us does, the other person snaps to attention to care for that person. I think we do the same thing with pets, too.
Pets are magic. So let me ask you: have your pets ever influenced or inspired your poetry? Specifically, I want to ask you about your cats inspiring some of the lines in your poem "Satan," which is amazing:
The sun has a particular way of cutting
through the blinds and lighting up
the cat’s spine. That sunlight is all Satan.
And so I must make peace with two hells cooking me
at once: the hell below me and the one above
this ball of light and its army of swirling moons. Now I hate birds.
And this wonderful line: “Satan must love animals, too.”
For some reason, it's kind of rare that I write about things that are happening in the present for me. I almost have this feeling the things that need to be in my poems need to have some sort of sticking power so that I'll be proud of them sticking around later, I guess.
But animals from my childhood make an appearance in my poetry. I have poems with my Papaw's goats or the cow in the backyard that he got angry at and he punched. And because a cow is much stronger than my Papaw, it broke his hand. Just standing there, being a cow… So I have animals that pop in and out of my work all the time. But I'm in a season of writing right now where I'm focused a lot on recalling memories from the past and sorting through all that. So maybe I'll have some really good poems about Wyatt and Little Bear in like 2020, 2022. Look for them; they're coming.
You know, some people sit down and write every single day. Maybe that lends itself more to poems born of the present. I write whenever I feel like it, and I usually reach far back into my most painful past.
So are we in the glutton for punishment school? When people talk about literary movements, is that where our names are going to pop up?
You know, I hope that my name pops up under that school because I would be very proud.
Because our last names are close, we may be near each other in the list. We may be just a few commas away.
That would be a really great anthology. So hold on that idea and then take my work.
It's really just you and me dialoguing back and forth about being super sad.
Being sad and loving animals.
That's it. A great working title.
My follow-up question: I was reading every poem of yours I can find online. And in your poems "Boyhood" and "Biology," I notice that you use animals to help tell a story about a place's values and also about masculinity and its expectations. For example, in the poem "Boyhood," you write:
This is how things are to be done. How a man is to be made: by pushing
logs that fall from the backs of trucks into the ditch across the road and
whipping the mutt that follows you to the mailbox each day
until it feels thankful and a little scared to even be alive.
So I was hoping you would talk about the relationship between animals and place – how you use animals in poems to help shape a place and its mood and its values.
Animals, they're so intimately connected to a place. How they share space with you. I grew up with animals everywhere. Like lightning bugs – those don't exist in other parts of the country, but I know what they are. And I remember having memories directly connected to an animal that doesn't exist other places. And my home in Tennessee – we always had dogs and right beside us was a field full of cows. And then you'd go visit your grandparents and there are more animals down there, animals to be afraid of and animals to get excited to see. For the sake of writing, they almost can become a literary device in a way to pull out the feeling.
I think there is something about our relationships to animals that closely mirrors our relationships to each other. So a defenseless, even confused or clueless dog getting beat – that's only a small subset of things that we do to each other. And that's both in the tenderness that we show and in the violence that we commit against each other. You look through history, and one way that we oppress whole groups of people is to liken them to creatures that are not human. On the other hand, we call people we love pet names, right?
"You look through history, and one way that we oppress whole groups of people is to liken them to creatures that are not human. On the other hand, we call people we love pet names."
Exactly! So I read that you are working on your first book of poetry. Do you want to talk a little bit about that project, the scope?
I have a chapbook manuscript that is done – several of the poems that you've mentioned are in there. And the big thrust of it is really some of the themes that you nailed down just by reading a couple of pieces that you found online. It deals a lot with growing up in the South. That is my whole lineage, I guess, that's the place that shaped me in a lot of ways. Maybe even in the most unconscious of ways, the most subtle and unexamined of ways.
And I didn't even realize until I was ordering the manuscript how big the theme of manhood or masculinity was until I started looking at it as a whole, cohesive unit and having other people give me feedback on it. I had this idea that it was about faith, a lot about the landscape, a lot about family, relationships.
One of the themes is based off of Saint Augustine's understanding of sin, this idea that your love is out of order, the things that you are pouring your love into are disordered. And so you need to reorder them to flourish or live the best life. You have to pour your love into the right places. So the book is a wrestling with what it means to love someone or something. How do I do that, and in what order? That's how we end up spending our life, I think – trying to figure out how to do that.
I never thought about that before and I really like that concept. I kind of hate to think about how much of my time and effort I pour into like my job, my work. So in your own life, where do you think you're placing your love and do where you want to place it?
Oh my gosh. That question is terrifying. I guess one of the questions that I have a lot is: how much love do I place on myself? Because that can be a very tricky question to answer. And I think maybe there's a thing in me, there's an impulse in me, that says leaning too far in either direction is wrong. Like overly loving yourself at other people's expense or self indulgence or super ego-driven narcissism – I never want to lean in that direction, but I also want to be kind to myself. I had a mentor one time tell me that I needed to talk to my own heart like I would a friend because we can be so hard on ourselves. And I want to be able to do that.
That is such a difficult balance to strike. Can I ask a prying question? Do you consider yourself a religious person?
I do. So I got into religious studies, thinking that I would maybe take a more traditional, vocationally religious life trajectory. And as I moved further and further in that direction, it started to feel less like a full expression of who I am. That is a part of me. And even if that's the central part of me where everything else flows from, in many scenarios, there's only one way that you can show that side of yourself. And I feel like through the arts, I'm able to do it as a much fuller expression of who I am.
Are there special considerations you make when writing about your faith? I'm angling at how you approach writing and engaging with your spirituality on the page.
I mean, to put it bluntly, all I think about is God. That's I think a really succinct statement that requires a ton of unpacking. That's my chief source of questions. If you're taking faith seriously, it necessitates so many questions – like how could we imagine that we can easily encapsulate the infinite?
"Poetry is a long game... I don't have to say it all at once."
You could write about that for a lifetime and never be done. Ok, here’s a hard one: make a statement about poetry you think you could stand by for the next five years.
What a rad question. I think for the next five years, you could confidently walk up to me at any moment and I would always say, I should be writing more. That is definitely a statement I will probably be able to say in the next 50 years.
You could put that on any poet’s gravestone.
"Should've wrote more. Could have been a contender." I guess some advice I give myself all the time – and this is maybe less about the effect of poetry and more about the practice of writing poetry – is that you don't have to say it all at once. That poetry is a long game. And I think that makes me feel better when I start getting anxious about my output or my momentum or my personal satisfaction with how often I'm writing or investing in the community. I think that's advice that is always good for me remember: I don't have to say it all at once. When you're a poet, you don't retire from being a poet. And that gives me a lot of comfort.
Is there any particular subject that you absolute won't write about? Do absolutes even exist for you in poetry?
I don't want to co-op someone's story or use someone else's pain for some strange artistic benefit because we see that a lot in the history of writing. We still see it happen today, and there are a lot of really good conversations happening around that idea. And I don't want to be a person who does that. When that happens, something about the work has gotten off track, whether the writer realizes it or not. I don't want to make that mistake, so I think about it a lot. Like, I've started this project where I'm working on a series of persona poems, so I've been asking myself, why do I want to do this project?
I feel like poetry and memoir have always kind of dovetailed, but maybe even more so these days, you see a lot of memoir's influence in poetry. And I know for memoir, that's a huge question: what stories do I have a right to tell, what stories are mine?
I feel like throughout our whole conversation, everything feels like to me it's this question of interrelatedness and neighborliness. A lot of our conversation today has been defining our relationships to things or other people that orbit in our sphere. I guess to bring it full circle, in the New Testament, there's this question that gets posed: "Who is your neighbor?" It's kind of a rhetorical question. The whole point of the story is to basically point to the fact that everyone is your neighbor. And we're supposed to treat our neighbors with dignity and love and respect, and I feel like that's kind of one of the central themes that keeps popping into my mind in this conversation – this question of like neighborliness to animals or people. And it's really interesting.
You tend to look outward with your answers, which is really refreshing. I really appreciate when people have that worldview of looking beyond themselves consistently.
I hope so. Long may it continue! Thank you. I guess I should just say thanks.
"Everyone is your neighbor. And we're supposed to treat our neighbors with dignity and love and respect."
So I watched the videos for a couple of your poems on your website. I was wondering if you had a background in visual art? And what’s the process for pairing poetry with visual imagery?
So before I found my way into writing, I was a musician in high school, in college. I started learning the bass guitar in eighth grade, and in high school, I joined my first hardcore band and I was the screamer in this hardcore band. When you’re in a band, it matters that you have T-shirts. It matters that you put on a good performance as opposed to just writing good music. And I think because I have that background, I'm just very interested in how things look. And so I think a video can be a really cool way to bring some of those elements in and to connect with people who are maybe even too intimidated to read the poem on the page because they don't know how to approach it. And so video could be a really cool way to kind of bridge that gap and jump over that threshold.
The guy who I shot those videos with is a buddy of mine, Dru Korab – he's an amazing filmmaker – and we have plans to make more because if it's really about making an impact, getting your work into the world, and making some sort of contribution, then I think collaborating with other artists who have that same impulse in a different medium can be a really cool way to do that.
I’m going to talk about Beyoncé for a second. My favorite parts of Lemonade are when she reads Warsan Shire's poetry. The images paired with the spoken word is some of the most striking stuff I've seen in a long time. I really love how visual imagery can elevate the imagery in the words of the poem.
Yeah, totally. Maybe some people are nervous because they're afraid that it will supersede the poem. But that is the artistic process of figuring out how to say it best. We cut and add new words and phrases all the time to our poems. I think if you're even approaching the visual component like that, it can be similar. It doesn't have to overcome the poem. It can be a nice complement.
It also makes poetry accessible for people who depend on listening to experience poetry, too.
That's a super great point for sure.
Are you ready for your final question?
Let's do it.
I need a metaphor or a simile for Wyatt and Little Bear.
I'm going to say that Wyatt by himself is a single tooth in a mouth because I think all of the proper elements are there. But our experience with him is he cannot do his best alone, he cannot be his best alone. So he needs another tooth. You're not chewing any food with one tooth.
Little Bear feels like a bubble that won’t burst. Where the whimsy and the exploration and magic is there, but I also don't have to fear that it will burst suddenly.
It's just so, so cheesy, right?