Michelle Chan Brown, poetry editor of Drunken Boat and author of Double Agent (Kore Press, 2012) shares her thoughts about craft and theme with Kore Press on the publication of her award-winning poetry collection.
Lisa Levine: Double Agent is composed of poems that read like tiny buildings – no formal rhyme or rhythm, yet ordered, almost structural, on the page. In poems such as "Russian Baths" and "If Veronika Wins the Prison Pageant," the speaker observes another woman – one who seems bolder than others, more visible. Did you structure the poems differently because the two women, the "...second most beautiful girl..." and Veronika, were so different? Or did structure stem from the speaker's perception of each?
Michelle Chan Brown: I have to say that, when I'm in the composition phase, my lineation is intuitive. I break where, asthey say, it "feels right," where the line seems to beg to be clipped. Looking at these two poems, however, I'm aware thatthe choices in shape have more to do with the settings – both psychological and physical. "Veronika" leaps from RedSquare to prison, and there's rapidity in those shifts (and in the speaker's consideration of Veronika) that I wanted to capture. Also a sense of menace. As for "Russian Baths," the longer lines suggested languor, which calls to mind pools and bathing, but also the slower and subtler cruelty that the women in the poem engage in.
LL: Do you think your poems have a storyline? How are family and femininity related for you in poetics? I'm thinking oflines such as "Nymphet, my mother called you, and my father hung around too long when you came over..." from "Space Still Available for the Memory Impaired" or ..."my father can't stop scribbling on napkins, that crucial last chapter..." from "Blind Date with My Father, 1976."
MCB: The first version of this manuscript, composed many moons ago when I was a graduate student at University of Michigan, was quite narrative: poems that used vignettes as part of the larger story of Americans-in-the-Eastern-Bloc. I had only read fiction seriously up until that point, and I wasn't certain yet what you could do in poems; in particular, what you could (and should) leave out. Very few of those early poems remain, but that narrative thread is still there, I think, but in conversation with the poems about marriage and coming of age – and the stranger poems that hint at story but then explode it. I am trying to revisit the same themes in different ways, which speaks to your third question. Yes, family and femininity are subjects here – but I also take issue with using these terms as subjects, given that they're so difficult to define. My hope is that the poems take up that difficulty.
LL: On my first read of Double Agent, I was immediately drawn to the "sugar, sugar, sugar" refrain in COMPOUND. The poem seemed so intimate, almost dream-like, yet it was filled with place and time markers. Was it a poem about memory?
MCB: Compound is about four places, two real and two imagined. The American compounds where foreign service officers lived, the boarding school campus where I taught, the emergency compound we might be confined to after a natural disaster, and, yes, the "compound" of the brain. I think the poem is more about nostalgia than memory; how we choose specific sensory moments to latch on to as part of the storage process, and then we tell ourselves that it is complete and accurate. How the isolation process (ignoring the outside world) is necessary for nostalgia.
Michelle Chan Brown was born in London and grew up all over Eastern Europe. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness, Sycamore Review, The Missouri Review, Tampa Review, Gertrude, The Concher, textsound, and others.
Lisa Levine, Editorial intern, just received her MFA from the University of Arizona, where she read and wrote forSonora Review. Her poetry, book and music reviews have appeared in Zocalo, the Downtown Tucsonan, and others, and her storytelling has been featured at Fray Day 8 and the Odyssey Series.