Listening for the Noise: An Interview with Andrea Brady

by    /  June 13, 2019  / Comments Off on Listening for the Noise: An Interview with Andrea Brady

Andrea Brady sat down with Sampsonia Way to discuss drones, fighting the system, and what it means to be an experimental poet. In February, Brady visited City of Asylum to read her from her newest suite of poems, The Blue Split Compartmentswhich draws from a series of archival material and explores themes of voyeurism and violence through drone operations under the Trump and Obama Administrations.

Brady is an American poet and a co-editor at Barque Press in London. She is a professor at Queen Mary University and runs the university’s Centre for Poetry. Her poetry works include The Strong Room (2016), Dompteuse (2014), Cut from the Rushes (2013), Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (2012),  Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (2010), and The Blue Split Compartments.

Your writing in The Blue Split Compartments is very compelling. Could you tell us a little about your motivation for this project?

My work has always been politicized. In recent years, I have been trying to use the long form of the poem to explore certain political issues in greater depth. A few years ago, I wrote a book called Wildfire, which is a history of Greek fire, the discovery of phosphorus, and its use of ammunition as white phosphorus. The book also explores the history of incendiary weapons and the attempts to control them through international law, and the way that imagery of a fire creeps into philosophical discourse and our language of love. That project took me then to thinking about the factories in the East End of London where matches used to be made with phosphorus. I thought about the strikes by the matchgirls against these industrial conditions and the terrible illnesses that came from working with phosphorus.

That project was trying to bring together a wide range of historical materials that might seem unrelated, and to plot some of their connections to make them vital again, to make them accessible. The book includes links to lots of historical archival resources I used because I didn’t want people to have to replicate my work in the archives in order to understand the poem. I think in some ways The Blue Split Compartments is quite similar to Wildfire in that it’s drawing on a lot of documentary and archival materials — on history, on found texts from drone operators’ chat rooms, military reports, speeches — and the hope is that when people read something in the context of a poem, it might feel that it has been alienated from its original context. It might feel kind of unsettling. You might go and look for what the original source was, and this would then help to engage the reader in their own process of poesis as kind of a creative reading that might branch out.

I do write a lot of other kinds of poems. I write short, lyric, occasional poems too. But I’m really interested in this form of the longer sequence and approaching it as a research project rather than something that depends on a feeling of spontaneous inspiration. When I originally started writing poetry, I’d have to get in the poetry mood. I’d go out for a walk, grabbing bits of language from the ether. Poetry was very much expressive of a kind of instantaneous set of perceptions or ideas. Now, in part because I have three small kids, it’s difficult to remain susceptible to that kind of inspiration because you’re probably in the middle of cooking dinner or getting somebody dressed or whatever. So, trying to work in a longer form, approaching it like a research project, was also a way around that kind of domestic impasse that arises from reproductive labor.

During your reading, you mentioned the experiences of individuals who live in countries where the military uses drones for surveillance and they feel like they’re constantly being watched. Do you see invasion of privacy as one of the more sinister kinds of violence that can be inflicted upon a person?

That’s an interesting question. It’s hard to establish a hierarchy of violence. The thing about drones is that around the world they are the most conspicuous symbol of U.S. aggression. They are the sign of the penetration of many countries by the United States military. In this country drones are rarely talked about except in the context of hobby drones, or “Somebody flew their drone over my backyard fence and was looking in my window,” or someone flew drones near an airport and they shut everything down for a few hours.

In the case of how they operate in military uses, I think privacy is obviously a big part of that, because people are being constantly watched. From the testimony I’ve read, the strongest emotional effect people have is one of fear and uncertainty because you just never know whether the thing is hovering over you. You can hear it, but you don’t know exactly where it is, and you don’t know if this is going to be the day when a strike happens. It really affects community because people don’t want to leave their houses. They don’t want to congregate, they don’t want to go to the market, they don’t want to drive down the road — all these places where they might accidentally be targeted as part of an operation against someone else, or simply by virtue of the fact that people gathering together looks like a threatening event to some of the pilots. Surveillance that leads to the destruction of communities is a terrible thing. I think about it in relation to the work I’m doing on prisons. Similarly, the structure of the prison, particularly the contemporary control unit, is intended to make community impossible and entirely isolate people. People who live in places where drones operate also describe how they feel like the whole country has become an open-air prison.

In The Blue Split Compartments, you included two lines from Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” Can you explain how you chose to add those to your poem?

There’s a lot of the detritus of contemporary culture in the poem. Those lines are in a section of the poem where I’m thinking about the gender politics of drone operations. I refer also to the myth of the Ring of Gyges in relation to watching, visibility and invisibility, and voyeurism. Drone operators often describe themselves as “peeping toms” looking through the curtain or the keyhole.  Surveillance acquires this libidinal charge. This part of the poem refers to how Donald Trump puts Melania and the other women in his life on display. The Louboutin red-bottom shoes in this context started to feel more sinister — as if they had been stepping in blood. At the same time, I wanted to hear a very strong female voice as we watch this scene of disgusting male sexual predation and violence. 

That may be a good example of the process of composition and the way it draws on the powers of association. When you’re writing poems, you’re like a magnet walking around, gathering up the iron filings of different kinds of language and throwing them together to see what shapes you can make. It’s not necessarily explicable in totally rational terms, i.e.,  “I used that image specifically for this reason.” It’s part of the messy heterogeneity of the poem that takes you in lots of directions. That seems like a more accurate reflection of our actual lives than a clear tidy thesis or a perfectly contained text.

When you are in the process of creating something, do you show your work to anyone before you finish it? Or do you like to keep your work to yourself until you feel like it’s ready?

I share work with certain friends, and work might get published in little magazines during the process of its composition. Many of my shorter poems are written as gifts, so they’re for particular people on particular occasions. Also, the process of performing poems feels like sharing — just trying to be aware of the audience. When I’m reading, I think, “Do people seem engaged? Is there a sort of slackening of the tension? Do I need to tighten this up a bit?” So, yeah, there’s a long process that goes on before the work is published. There is a poet named M. NourbeSe Philip who wrote a book called Zong. It seems to me that even after the book was published, it was continuing to be written through its performance; she’s been performing the book for ten years. Those performances are part of the process of composition. Sometimes, composition doesn’t end once the book is published.

In the summer of 2018, you wrote a criticism about the university system. You used the term “anxiety machine” and described how professors invest so much time and emotional energy into their classwork that they don’t have much residual room to be creative. How do you create that time for poetry?

That piece was really a kind of cri de coeur at the end of a terrible year for me. I was essentially psychically injured by my workload, which produced this intense period of anxiety. Anxiety feels like overflowing boundaries. It’s a feeling of intense fear or worry that the anxiety might overflow the containment of my body and everyone would be able to see it — at least that’s how I experienced it. The gap between what you’re feeling internally and how you’re supposed to be performing as a professional academic creates this enormous tension. It drains so much energy.

I thought about the relationship between anxiety as a condition, the working conditions that I’ve found myself in for the past 18 years, and the way that the work completely overflows all boundaries. In many ways, that’s just the modern way that people work under late capitalism. You do work on your phone or on the bus on the way home or at home in the evening. Work never ends. The lack of boundaries makes it feel completely impossible to carve out those spaces for self-creation, whatever they may be, whether it’s writing poetry, getting exercise, spending time with friends and family, or just being properly relaxed. It feels like a dangerous set of conditions, so I was trying to think about how to re-establish boundaries around work.

The ironic thing is, it’s almost like I must incorporate poetry back into my job. If poetry is the thing that I do outside of work, but there is no “outside of work,” then I don’t do poetry. I never taught creative writing. I teach criticism. I didn’t want my poetry to be instrumentalized the way that research outputs are in the modern university. I didn’t want to have to think about my poems being assessed or strategically placed in order to meet my management-set goals. I’ve always had more of a punk aesthetic about my work. I just give work to whoever asks without worrying too much about how established the journal might be.

Now, I increasingly feel like the only way to make poetry happen in my life is by finding space for it within my working life. I’m on leave this year, but when I go back, I have a plan to put a sign above my computer saying, “You took this job so you’d have a regular income while you wrote poems.” It’s easy to lose your way as you get older, to be drawn into a kind of managerialism and forget why you’re doing all this in the first place. That was a big part of the anxiety in the first place — the feeling of being pulled further and further away from the shore of my work.

You choose topics that are not common in poetry, and you assess them very directly. Have you ever received any kind of backlash or negative feedback for the work you’re doing?

Well, not really. I don’t think that is because everyone’s so impressed with my work, but because poetry has such limited circulation. Even the most well-known poets are only selling books in the hundreds or thousands, not the ten-thousands, and certainly not the millions. There is poetry out there that does shift a lot of units but is entirely vacuous— I’m thinking of Rupi Kaur, of course. On the other hand, there is a lot of work that is traded within smaller networks of people who are deeply invested in poetry. People make fun of it, saying it’s only for academics or poets writing for other poets. But the idea that it’s just poets writing for poets is actually pretty provocative. What it means is that when people start getting into this work, when they go to events, listen to performances, start reading poetry, often they themselves become poets. I think that’s something to be praised if the work inspires the people consuming it to try it themselves.

To answer your question about whether I’ve ever had negative feedback, there was one time I was working on a project to highlight anti-feminism in British poetry. I took a line of poems from the books of my male contemporaries in which any unidentified “she” or “her” was mentioned. I then compiled them in a single document, randomized the order of it, and read it out loud with three other women on a couple of occasions. The idea was just to intensify the experience of encountering this figure again and again in the work of my fellow poets. I wanted to figure out what is “she” and what is she doing in these poems, and when I put all those lines together, I learned that “she” is often a kind of a figure for the rapacity of late capitalism. She is being strangled, she is stupid, she is silenced, she is being murdered, she is being dismembered, and so on. These extremely misogynistic tropes were being applied to this kind of sacrificial female figure in these poems. That was the impression I had while reading the work, but it was very powerful to see it confirmed in that way.

The poets from whose work I took obviously didn’t appreciate this. For them, I was spoiling the immanence of the poem as a complete object, ripping things out of context. Some of them said they were specifically trying to critique the kind of misogynist violence that is seen in the surrounding culture by employing this figure in their poetry. I lost some friendships over that, but it felt like an important thing to do as an intervention and an act of research.

Your press group in London, Barque Press, works with predominately experimental poetry. What does it mean to you to be an experimental poet?

It’s one of those categories for which it seems like there really is no good name. “Avant-garde” is problematic because it’s so virile and associated with military language. Plus, there are many arguments about whether the Avant-garde is dead. “Innovative” sounds like a business-speak. We hear it in academia all the time, the need to “innovate” or “be innovative.” “Experimental” gives the feeling that the work is provisional. You’re testing things out, trying to prove or disprove some kind of thesis. Someone I know suggested the phrase “non-conformist poetry” as another way of thinking about it. It’s hard to think of a word to describe this kind of writing. It’s easier to characterize it as writing that values formal experimentation over direct and immediate forms of communication.

When you go to a poetry reading by an experimental poet, you’re not going to understand everything that is being said. To be frank, the poet doesn’t understand everything that is being said either. What you will hopefully get is a sense of excitement or curiosity about the work. You’ll be able to string together certain preoccupations, returning vocabulary, sets of images, or even a kind of mood that leads you back to the poem, and encourages you to spend time with it. I think that’s another key feature of experimental poetry — it’s not something that unlocks itself on a first reading. It’s unlike something like Instagram poetry, in which there’s no need to spend more than a few seconds before you’ve absolutely evacuated the poem of meaning because there was so little there to begin with. The poem stays alive for you no matter how often you read it, unearthing new meanings and potentials each time. Experimental poetry is trying to keep that sense of openness or lack of closure, providing an infinity of meanings in a poem. That’s the thing that really drives me in my practice because that’s the thing that excites me the most to read.

In modern curriculum, students are trained to write pieces that make an explicit point, pulling one, definite meaning out of any given text. So, being raised in a culture that almost discourages open-ended academic thinking, how would you advise someone who wants to try experimental poetry where any given text can have multiple interpretations?

The idea that texts are always supposed to have meanings, and it’s the students’ job as literary critics to figure them out, can produce a lot of anxiety. I always say to my students, especially when we are working on difficult experimental poetry, “Don’t assume that the poem is like a box of treasure, and that if you find the right key, it’s just going to pop open and you can help yourself to what’s inside. Don’t assume that the whole thing is just a complex allegorical structure and if you work out ‘A = B’ then the whole rest of the poem will cascade out of that equation.” When they’re writing, I don’t think that poets necessarily have a clear intention of where they want to get to. That’s how language works — it has its own kind of propulsive force that leads us in directions that we can’t always account for. It makes no sense then to read a text looking for authors’ intentions or to try treating them as if they’re very clear statements of something that was preplanned in the author’s mind.

I also talk about the signal-to-noise ratio in texts. I think experimental texts have a lot of noise in them. They prioritize noise. Noise can be more important than the signal, really.  But often we just read for the signal. What is this poem about? How do I read it into its context? Is it about power? Or race? Or sexuality? This form of reading implies that a poem is like a message in a bottle. I think poems tend to be much fuzzier, and it’s the noise that really interests me.

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