Michael Brosnan Feels Like One of the Lucky Ones: Poets in Conversation

by Lennie DeCerce

poet Michael BrosnanMichael Brosnan is a writer, educator, and editor. He is the author of Against the Current, a book on inner-city education for kids at risk of dropping out and most recently, The Sovereignty of the Accidental, his debut collection of poetry.

Brosnan’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including: ConfrontationNew LettersBarrow StreetPrairie SchoonerThe Moth, and Rattle.

His work has won awards from the University of New Hampshire, C.W. Post College, The Live Poets Society of Maine, New LettersWest Winds Review, and the PEN Syndicated Writing Project.

As an adjunct, Brosnan taught writing at Queens College, C.W. Post College, and the University of New Hampshire.

He was the longtime editor of Independent School, an award-winning quarterly magazine on precollegiate education and is currently the senior editor for Teaching While White (www.teachingwhile.com), a website dedicated to assisting white educators develop the cultural competencies to teach all students well across the racial spectrum.

Michael Brosnan expresses the awe and wonder he brings to the literary art in his writer’s statement. “I feel like one of the lucky ones,” he writes. “Years ago, I was walking home from a day of picking apples for meager wages. Passing by the English department at the local university, I got the notion to walk inside, find a writing professor, and ask him what I need to do to be a writer. To my amazement, he opened the door for a dirty, hungry kid in need of a shower and a mentor. I’m still writing in gratitude. I’m still amazed.”

Lennie DeCerce: Your poem, “Cocktail Hour,” was published in Rattle, 2016. I was struck by your writer’s statement – there’s so much love in it. I see the petals of a flower opening. A boy beginning to breathe holy air. How has that experience influenced/informed you as poet, practitioner, and literary citizen living and working in the world?

Michael Brosnan: I suppose it’s good that Rattle asked for a nontraditional bio. For most author bios, I usually just note some of my publications and small details of my work and life. But Rattle forced me to think about why I write — and to be concise about it. The generosity that one professional writer showed me — it was Theodore Weesner, author of The Car Thief, by the way — was one of those life lessons I’ve tried to hold on to. And, yes, it was a pivotal moment in my life, because I wanted to learn to write well and here was a successful writer inviting me into the community. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I did in graduate school, mostly to prove that I belonged.

It’s obvious to say: Humanity is a jumble of things — from selfish and indifferent to generous and giving. I think all of us bounce around this emotional spectrum, maybe even daily. But I try to remember in my writing and my life that the point is to make our limited time on this planet as fulfilling as possible — for ourselves and others. Although we know of plenty of artists and writers who have lived less than exemplary lives, I think of art and literature as a collective effort to make life more meaningful. I hope some of my poems help.

LD: The question of the semester for us at VCFA has been why do you write? I like to think the response is relatively the same for all writers – because we can’t not – but I wonder, what brings us to the page? What brought you?

MB: I wasn’t a great student in school. I didn’t read a ton as a child. My family had books around. But I didn’t know any writers and my parents didn’t encourage or discourage me from writing. I spent most of my childhood either outdoors or wanting to be outdoors. I was more athlete than writer. But I think some of us are just inclined toward art and literature — and maybe there’s a way to trace the cultural influences, and maybe not.

Oddly enough, my writing path was formed in part by the fact that I didn’t like much of what I read in school. By my mid-teens, however, I was starting to read works that completely took me by surprise and engaged my mind the way no earlier literature had. One summer evening in high school, for instance, my brother handed me a copy of Rolling Stone with an installment of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I read it straight through — almost stunned that someone did any of these things or that a publication would ever publish it. I think the thought bubble over my head read: “If he can do this, I can write about anything!” Years later, I reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and didn’t care for it. But at the time it opened up the possibility of writing for me.

My path as a writer has been a serpentine, intuitive journey. I suppose I’m still writing because I’ve enjoyed the journey, because I have found the art of poetry so compelling and both personally and culturally valuable.

LD: A major force that drives me is obsession. My pupils narrow and I am ill-content until I exhaust a focal point or am distracted by another. What force drives you? What are your obsessions?

MB: I experience that ill-content, too. I recently published a poem titled “Good Morning, Get Up” in the blog of young online literary journal. The editors asked if I’d be willing to be interviewed about the poem — about what I see going on in the poem. We haven’t actually had that conversation, but I reread “Good Morning, Get Up” a number of times trying to think about that conversation, what I’d say. I’m much happier not talking about what my poems mean and what impulses led to their creation — probably because so much of the process is felt. But looking at the poem again, I could see it is partly about that inner drive in all of us. We wake up and we’re not content — at least most days — to just sit there and do nothing. We seem to be genetically inclined to engage with the world in novel ways. “Good Morning, Get Up” is a short poem about our nature — about nature’s nature — to create.

What compels me is the same force that compels musicians to get better at their instruments or athletes to get better at their game. I want to see where writing can take me. I want to do it well. I want readers to feel drawn in by my poetry. I want them to find something there. So I wake up and work. To tell the truth, much of my time is spent doing other writing and editing — to earn a living. But I make sure I fit in poetry. I’m kind of a miserable person when I don’t.

LD: I find a certain Philip Levine quality to your work – such fluid narrative! Is he an influence of yours? Who are your writers?

MB: I’m so glad you mention Philip Levine. Many writers have influenced me in direct and indirect ways. But Levine would be on my short list of most influential poets. I love his work — especially about “work.” I was recently doing a reading with another poet, John Paul O’Connor, who also mentioned Philip Levine as a major influence. Maybe Levine is a mentor for many white male writers of a certain age. I don’t know. I just know I read his work and both love it and get supremely jealous (which is one way I know I’d admire another writer). I love the way he finds so much poetry in the slog of daily living.

As you know, I just published The Sovereignty of the Accidental with Harbor Mountain Press. What you don’t know is that I had sent out an earlier version of this book to a few contests without any luck. But in one of those contests, the final judging poet chose my manuscript as an honorable mention — in a contest that didn’t have an honorable mention category. The poet: Philip Levine.

“My writers,” as you put it, change with time, which I think of as a good thing. It means, I hope, that my writing evolves. But here’s a short list of the poets who are up there on my stage with Philip Levine this year: Eamon Grennan, Anne Carson, Charles Simic, Wislawa Szymborska, Li-Young Lee, Linda Pastan, Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Seamus Heaney. I don’t like the idea of having a list like this, of course. There are so many amazing poets out there currently writing stunningly moving and engaging poems. What I love most is the idea of swimming in this beautiful stream with all of them, learning something from every poem I read.

LD: You worked as editor at Independent School magazine for 20 years, taught high school, college, led writing workshops for educators – how have you found time to write? Have you developed tricks along the way? Do you have a writing schedule?

MB: Most of the busy-ness has been out of necessity — the need to make a living. But I’ve also enjoyed most of the non-poetic work I’ve done. Editing Independent School for 20 years is probably the most surprising thing. I didn’t expect to stay so long, but it turns out that the field of education is one of our major cultural battlefields and the past twenty years have been interesting and challenging times. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to help shape the conversation on what matters in education — and I’ve loved connecting with so many amazing, committed educators over the years. Educators deserve more love and support from us than they get. I’m still engaged in writing and editing pieces on education because I believe the future of the planet depends in part on the quality of our schools.

But, yes, it can be hard to find time for poetry. I think what has helped me stay focused is that I’ve made sure I continue to read poetry so that I’m constantly thinking about poetry, even when not actively writing. I make sure I give some quality time to it weekly. Some weeks that means every day. Some weeks that means longer hours on the weekend. Now, I mostly try to dedicate my first few hours of the day to poetry. If I have time in my work schedule, I’ll pull up some poems that are still in draft form and hammer away at them for a while — see if I can move them to a better place. What matters is that I keep things moving forward. Be patient, but committed. In truth, I often wish I had had more time for poetry.

LD: In addition to finding or making time to write, do you have a particular place you like to write? An office? Coffee shop? Do you need silence or prefer the noise of the world?

MB: I have no special place. I write at home or in coffee shops or in libraries. I’ll write on trains and planes and in the car parked by the beach with the dog looking impatiently out the window. Most of my writing is at home — usually at the kitchen counter. But I find staying at home, writing alone, can make me feel disconnected. So I often head out to local coffee shops to write. If I’m interrupted by a friend or neighbor, that’s fine. It’s important to feel like part of a larger community, right?

LD: Your book, Against the Current: How One School Struggled and Succeeded with At-Risk Teens, was the basis for the 2009 documentary Accelerating America. The documentary won the Special Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival and the Best Documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. Would you care to talk about how that happened?

MB: First, I encourage everyone to see the film. It’s an inspiring story. I wrote the book in the mid-1990s — mostly as a way to help this one school and its amazing principal get the attention they deserve. Writing the book was a big risk for me. I didn’t have a publisher when I started, but I decided to quit my job at the time to dedicate myself full-time to visiting the school, interviewing folks, reading up on education, writing the book, and searching for a publisher. Of course, I ended up broke and needing to borrow money just to eat. And I needed to find a job quickly after writing it. But I’m glad I took the risk.

The school in question, the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program, is in Providence, RI. The filmmaker, Tim Hotchner, was a student at Brown University who volunteered at the school for one semester. If I have the story right, after he graduated from Brown, he went off to study filmmaking. When my book came out, he read it and returned to the school to say he wanted to make a documentary film on the place. I’m not sure how influential the book was in the process, but I like to think it help Tim Hotchner get clarity about the value and importance of this particular story.

Of course, I encourage folks to read the book, too. It’s out of print, but easy to find online.

LD: As both educator and writer, do you have any advice for writing students? A personal philosophy that keeps you grounded? Pearls of wisdom you’ve gained through the years?

MB: If you want to be a writer, trust that instinct, read and write steadily, find a community of writers to connect with, do whatever kind of work you need to do to stay fed. There are no guarantees, but most everyone I know who has wanted to be a writer is now a writer in some capacity.

Most of us are full of doubts — especially as young writers. Some days, I still tell myself that I’m not smart enough or good enough to be a “real” writer — but now I’m experienced enough to tell myself to shut up and write. The joy is in the daily creative engagement. Don’t overlook that while worrying about how things will turn out ten years down the road.

LD: If you could attend a weekend writer’s retreat surrounded only by colleagues and practitioners, alive or dead, who would you choose?

MB: I suppose I’d enjoy a weekend with the poets I noted earlier. But I’d also be fine to be surprised. If you want to pick the group — any group of dedicated writers — I’m sure we’ll have a great weekend. If they can cook and play musical instruments, even better.

Alternatively, I might pick the talented poets who live in Exeter, NH, where I currently live. The group would include Maggie Dietz, Todd Hearon, Ralph Sneeden, Matt Miller, Kevin King, Sarah Anderson, Kelly Flynn, and Willie Perdomo. I’m probably missing a number of people, for which I apologize. From a literary perspective, this is a very interesting town. And because I’m stupidly shy sometimes, it would be nice to be with people I already know and admire. If possible, could we spend the weekend at the Fogo Island Arts Residency in Newfoundland, Canada, around mid-July? Can you arrange that, and cover our transportation costs?

LD: Your debut book of poetry, The Sovereignty of the Accidental, was published December 31, 2017. While you already had books and individual poems published, did the publication of this collection feel different? Are you even more amazed?

MB: I’m not amazed. I feel as if I should have had a book out much earlier in my life. But I’m thrilled that the book is out. And I’m grateful to Peter Money at Harbor Mountain Press for finding me. I’m also grateful to my daughter, Molly Brosnan, for producing such engaging, beautiful cover art. Publishing the book has been a wonderful experience mostly because it has connected me with people in new ways. Lots of people have known I write poetry, but few of them read any of my work in journals. The book has started new and deeply engaging conversations. Because of my earlier book and other writing on education, I’ve had interesting, important, thoughtful, deeply enjoyable conversations on education. It’s so wonderful now to be having similar conversations on poetry, too.

Peter Money, Editor of Harbor Mountain Press, tells us this:

“I was riding in a plane from Dublin when I read Michael Brosnan’s poem in The Moth. You know when you feel you’ve found a poet for keeps? At that moment I wondered if he had many books. Turns out, Brosnan had no poetry book. Now he does.”

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