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Exploding Heads! Exploding Hearts!

Gregory Lawless interviews Brad Liening:

Brad Liening is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poetry has appeared in over a dozen online and print journals, including H_NGM_N, Swink, Forklift, and Fou. He’s a poetry editor at InDigest Magazine and he helps run Hell Yes, a DIY press that publishes poetry chapbooks and zines. He lives in Minneapolis.



Exploding Heads! Exploding Hearts!: An Interview with ‘scary man’ Brad Liening


Exploding heads!

Exploding hearts!

Dust: familiar signifier

of our collective futures.

Still, the nudity was nice,

that scene in which the man’s

face changes hideously

into a scary man’s face

and who then brings home

a really creepy poodle

for his daughter, played

by you, the only one who

suspects something is wrong. (“Poem”)



GL: Your poems frequently incorporate political and social themes into brash, surreal meditations on heartbreak and loss.  It seems like your poems often try to sort out the difference between public and private sources of aggravation, anxiety and sadness—though such investigations always lead to new conundrums rather than solutions to these predicaments.  For example, a poem titled “Wolf Blitzer” (link here) describes the cryptic and corrupt practices of our political leadership—as the though the speaker, Wolf Blitzer himself? is simply reporting what he sees on cable news or reports the news as he sees it—before submitting a more general and emotionally fraught query to both himself and his readers: “Who’s running / this asylum, anyhow?”  Is this question about America, I wonder, or the creative process itself?  Anyhow, I think this question illustrates a typical junction in your work, whereby you probe the relationship between personal and political discontent.  Could you tell me how and why you so often choose to explore the intersection between politics, society, and the suffering self?


I suppose the easy and most honest answer is because these are the things that interest me as a person and a writer of poetry. I follow politics as much as I can; sometimes I need to give myself a break because I so often find it to be a shrill, self-serving volley between two parties who are more interested in self-preservation than public good, who are more interested in volume than reason. I wish this weren’t the case, of course, but it seems like it’s so often about myopic thinking and policy-making. And since I devote some of my little free time and brainpower to witnessing and learning about such an infuriatingly futile enterprise, I can’t help but address it in poems, I think.


And because national and international politics are so far out of my own puny sphere of influence, writing about it is just the one way I can address the thing and so in some small way ameliorate my anxiety and aggravation. Besides, I can’t not pay attention to politics and current events; I feel that being informed is part of being a good citizen, even if I can’t really actively do anything with the information except write poems. So, in a weird and kind of wearingly familiar way, being informed makes the self suffer, kind of like the poor protagonist of Don DeLillo’s White Noise.


More generally, I also think that good poetry, vital poetry address the world in which it actually exists, its own time and place. I like poems about fields and mountains and making fires at dawn, but I don’t really do any of that stuff outside of camping once in a while. Everything goes through the blender of the imagination, of course, and I invent and confabulate and contort, but I’m not going to write about things that I don’t really do or feel strongly about. I’m not going to put primrose in any of my poems any time soon, you know? How can you not write about the stuff that’s right in front of you, stuff that you love, stuff that’s driving you bonkers?


GL: You are the keeper of a blog: Brad Liening’s Daily Poem Factory-Machine (link here), which, in addition to posting personal and artistic ephemera, serves up a heap of terrific poems in relatively short intervals—sometimes you’ll post as many as four poems in a week!  Writing in this format aligns you with other iconic daily-poem projects: W.C. Williams’ Kora in Hell, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Robert Bly’s Morning Poems, and David Lehman’s The Daily Mirror.  Although these writers produce radically different work in their respective daily books, they seem to have one thing in common: their daily poems frequently incorporate disparate, spontaneous, and even ad hoc material, while exploring the mechanics of poetic inspiration.  So, how has this daily project affected your take on the creative process?  Have you become a more spontaneous Brad Liening, or a faster more sophisticated version of your old self?  Have you changed your take on poem making (that is, the not-so-daily poems) in the wake of this project?


Oh, man! When I first started the blog, the idea was that I was going to write one poem every single day, no matter what, spending typically no more than fifteen minutes on any given poem. And for better or for worse, I’d post whatever I wrote. And that’s what I did for more than a year.


In truth, it was a way to get myself out of a real rut. At the time I started it, I was laboring really intensively over poems, which was totally taking all the fun and joy of discovery out of writing. The kicker, of course, was that it was not necessarily making the poems any better, either. I was like, why am I even doing this anymore? Why write at all? It really sucked. So the blog was me trying to get the stick out of my ass and have fun again. And it worked. It really did. I wrote some pretty good poems and I wrote way, way more mediocre ones, and certainly some pretty bad ones. But by making it a part of my daily life I was able to loosen up and just move poetry closer to the center of my life without it being a big deal. I write tons of awful poems. Who cares? I’ll try again tomorrow! Eventually I ran out of the steam required for everyday posting; it’s not something I was interested in doing forever.


So, to answer the question more directly, I think that it forced me to become more resourceful with regards to subject matter. I became more inclusive – disparate, spontaneous, and ad hoc material is absolutely spot-on right, which turned out to be a huge blessing. I couldn’t write the same old poems about the same old things anymore using the same old images. And of course some days you’re just not feeling it, and then what do you do? You still have to write a poem. So you write a poem about cheese and bananas. Done. It also forced me to be more varied and inventive formally, to think about the different ways I could use language, tone, syntax, lineation, all that stuff. And yeah, it has made me a faster (and hopefully a better and more sophisticated) writer. In addition, I rarely go back and revise poems until there’s nothing left but dust, so that’s a plus. I think that probably means I trust myself more now. I’m more willing to make a fool out of myself. These are the lasting effects, for which I’m very grateful.



GL:  I recently had the opportunity to read your wonderfully hypnotic and absurdist chapbook titled Are You There God? It’s Me, Whitney Houston, and I’ll never think about  either you or Whitney Houston the same way.  In this CB WH is the dreamy interlocutor/stalker of “Brad,” who first encounters his disturbing but seductive muse during a unannounced phone call while he’s enjoying a glass of iced tea.  After some eerie salutations, Whitney continues to call and frequently asks Brad to contemplate things like the generative properties of death and silence.  In addition to her philosophical musings, she also wonders about her own beguiling and God-like abilities to influence her listeners.  Clearly Whitney Houston must have been an attractive figure for this kind of project because she doesn’t seem to belong in poetry, although her lyrics, persona and personal setbacks make her, in effect, an ideal candidate for exploring the very biggest themes in art and writing: obsession, love, tragedy, loneliness, being misunderstood, “want[ing] to dance with somebody,” etc.  Could you tell me about how and why WH seemed like a good idea as the subject of a chapbook?  I’m personally guessing that she came to you in a dream.  Why was it important that you choose a celebrity as your creepy muse?  And what was it like to work with monodramatical elements, whereby aspects of “your” mind are made manifest in the figure of Whitney Houston?


I think you answered that question yourself! I enjoyed writing about her precisely for the reasons that you articulate so well above. While she might initially be a surprising subject, she’s really perfectly enables us to think about these great themes. Even her very name is perfect; it’s so quintessentially American. All we have to do is think a little harder and longer about her. She’s most definitely a real artist; she’s a flat-out amazing singer. How many people in the world can do what she does? But she’s also accrued the level of fame and stardom that can be so toxic to artistry, that makes it hard to recognize her talent, much less see her as a real person. Which she is, of course, and as such is deserving of dignity and a certain amount of respect, even if she seems to have forfeited some of those things herself through some very bad choices (cf., reality TV, disastrous public appearances, and the like).


This relates to your first question, too. A lot of the poems I’ve been writing (like “Wolf Blitzer” and the Whitney Houston chapbook) deal with fame and celebrity in some way. Stardom has grown into an industry in and of itself, which certainly can’t be good for a whole passel of reasons. For one, as stated above, it devalues real artistry and ability. It also pushes some loathsome people into the public eye. More importantly, there’s this idea my fiancée told me about, relative poverty. It essentially posits that when excess and opulence is shoved in your face all of the time, it makes us discontent and unhappy with what we have, and makes us feel that we need and deserve things that we truly don’t. It also has the unfortunate side effect of us feeling like what we do have isn’t of value. My Toyota isn’t good enough because my neighbor got a Lexus (the she probably can’t afford anyway), and I totally forget about all those people that don’t even have cars. Or food. Or a safe place to sleep at night. And with celebrities so often in the news, in our consciousness, what happens? Do we subconsciously gauge our own wealth (in all the various meanings of that word) against what we see and read and hear about? Are we no longer just keeping up with the Joneses but now also the wealthy and/or famous people on reality TV and magazines that are at every single gas station counter and grocery store checkout lane and airport kiosk? I don’t really know. In the end, though, it’s also just a subject I’m interested in. I truly enjoyed learning about Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown.


Learning about Whitney and Bobby (and also Martin Esslin, the scholar and academic who coined the term “theater of the absurd” and wrote extensively about that subject with regard to Beckett, Genet, Sartre, et. al, who makes an appearance in Whitney Houston) also helped me write those monodramatical elements. It gave me things to think about and things to write; sometimes it even introduced the topic of conversation within the poems. Ventriloquism, I guess? Ultimately, it was a mixture of attempting to address real artistic concerns and inquiries with information I culled from books and Wikipedia with my own attempts to have some good, non-mean spirited fun.


GL:  Brad Liening keeps busy.  He teaches, runs a small DIY press called Hell, Yes Press, runs, as mentioned above, a blog, and is also an editor for InDigest magazine, which seems to put out a new issue every time I reboot my computer.  How have these other poetic projects, many of them involving interwebs technology, affected your take on contemporary poetics and your own poetry as well?


These interwebs have been absolutely great for poetry! It’s allowed for so many poets to join the conversation; I’ve discovered a lot of people whose writing I really, really enjoy through online journals and publications.


I know some people disagree with me, people who seem to think the online democratization of poetry has done more damage than good, but, jeez, if all I knew about contemporary poetry were what some of the old, stalwart, highbrow print journals published? I’d give up; I’d think that contemporary poetry was moribund. A lot of what these heralded journals print just bores me to tears. It’s so fusty and dull. And the journals themselves are expensive. And poets are often broke. Poetry that’s online addresses all of these issues. It’s occasionally made it more difficult to sift through the work that doesn’t speak to you, or is also fusty and dull, or just plain mediocre, of course, but that’s a pretty small inconvenience when compared to all the great work that’s finding its way out into the world.


In terms of how it’s affected my own efforts, I’m not really sure. It’s an interesting question. Probably someone who’s not me could answer that question better. But I would guess that it’s allowed me to feel better and more confident about writing about those things that really interest me. I don’t have to rely on some boring-ass journal I secretly hate to validate whatever it is I’m doing. I can seek community elsewhere.


GL: Let’s talk influences.  Who are the poets who helped produce the Brad-Liening poem machine of today?  How have those influences changed or evolved since we met in grad school five years ago?


You know, I’m always a little surprised by the writers people see in the poems I write. They’re there, I’m sure, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where and in what capacity when it’s your own work. In graduate school, the writers who held a lot of sway for me: Russell Edson, Henri Michaux, James Tate, Charles Simic, Andre Breton, and James Wright. Dean Young, both then and now. I’d imagine that these people are all still there in my poems, if only in ghosts of temperament or sensibility. Since then, the list has just gotten longer and more inclusive with regards to aesthetics and schools as I continue to learn and get smarter about poetry.


Teaching literature means I develop a new appreciation every semester for Dickinson, Keats, Shakespeare, Yeats, Bishop, Coleridge, etc. They get better, more nuanced, deeper every time you sit down with them! Otherwise, books by Matthea Harvey, Cole Swensen, Kenneth Koch, Mary Ruefle, Dobby Gibson, Matt Hart, Nate Pritts, you, Greg, Troy Jollimore, Zachary Schomburg, John Berryman, Aase Berg, and Jennifer L. Knox. Some of these people I’m even lucky enough to call friends. I also read a lot of prose and watch a lot of movies, which I think is just as important to me. David Foster Wallace is one of the all-time greats, Jonathan Lethem, and books that straddle genres really interest me. So do David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, and Nicolas Cage. I think they all work their way in there somehow.


GL:  So what’s new for Brad Liening these days?  Is there a manuscript in the works?  Are you writing the follow up to your chapbook on Whitney Houston from the POV of Bobby Brown?  What’s the scoop?


Ghosts and Doppelgangers, the full-length manuscript I refer to above that explores fame and celebrity and whatnot (an EP of which is here in this issue), is trying to find a good home right now. That’s exciting and nerve-wracking. There’s also a chapbook coming out sometime this year called We Are Doomed: Dispatches from the City of the Future, as well as another chapbook called Oblivion, More, which will be a .pdf chap here on the M_N. I’m really, incredibly excited about these books and projects. For better or for worse, though, none of them have anything to do with Whitney Houston or Bobby Brown.

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