An Interview with Sass Brown

Sass BrownSass Brown is a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship in Poetry, a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, among other honors. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Her poetry has been published in many literary journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, and Gulf Coast. Brown’s website is www.sassbrown.com. USA-1000 is her first book.

SIU Press intern and SIU MFA-in-poetry candidate Kirk Schlueter interviewed Brown about her work and her new book.

Getting this book published has been an odyssey for you: seventeen years of submissions to contests. I think that speaks to a wonderful tenacity on your part, but how in the world did you keep going? I think a lot of poets would have given up after year eleven at least.

There were many times along the way that I took a short break (several months) from submissions, but by and large, I sent out to every contest I could find every single year. I slowly became more discriminating as I learned the unique character of each press. I will say that there were certain presses with whom I was the most tenacious, Southern Illinois University Press especially, because I felt that we were a great aesthetic match.

What kept me going were the kind, encouraging notes on my manuscript and the fact that I was a finalist, at one point or another, for almost every contest I entered. About twenty-five different presses named USA-1000 as a finalist, many more than once. I also had two book contracts fall through. Those were the most discouraging times for me; I stopped writing and sending out for a while. I am humbled and thrilled to finally have placed the manuscript with a press that I love. The upside to such a long wait is more gratitude.

 

At times consumerism seems to have an adverse impact in USA-1000, such as “Like Love,” where the speaker wastes a day eating cereal and watching TV. Yet in “Layaway Heart,” for instance, the products in the mall seem to offer the speaker a measure of salvation and a distraction from an unfulfilled life. What role do you see consumerism and “thing-ness” playing in your poems?

I think my own ambivalence about consumerism is pretty evident in the book, although I must say that in “Like Love,” I see food and television as nurturing—small comforts in a lonely world. As a child, I was a collector—of bottle caps, metal pins, chips of china I found along the Potomac River, stickers, and natural objects. During the early 2000s, I started a business and made jewelry mainly from recycled game pieces and other found objects, including phrases from the rejection letters I received. Many of these things I have kept over the years, and I still love the tactile experience of holding them in my hands.

In USA-1000, I wanted to examine our complex and intimate relationship with all of this stuff we intentionally collect and inadvertently accumulate. In “Simmer,” objects are clues for the speaker to get to know her elusive lover. When you are struggling to connect with other people, especially in romantic relationships, your bond with things becomes primary: the closeness of fabric against the body; the furniture that holds your form; the corded, landline phone with its promise of connection.

The book takes place on the brink of social media, just before widespread use of the Internet and the cell phone, and I don’t find myself having that same intimate connection with these technological objects that require maintenance and need to be replaced every few years. USA-1000 anticipates and explores the conflicts that these new technologies have created: more constant, and yet less meaningful, connections with others; our obsession with acquiring and replacing things; the omnipresence of advertising in every aspect of our lives; and the struggle to determine what is real and what is artificial, and whether that distinction even matters.

 

Humor fills these poems. I have to give a shout-out to “Letting Him In,” where the speaker asks, “What if I pinned his hand to my breast? // Would it change the fact that he’s here / for a toilet plunger?” At other times the humor is mixed with pathos, such as in “The Death of the Oscar Mayer Wiener Girl” and “Bridge of Flowers: Shelburne Falls, MA,” both of which start in humerous places but end on notes that, although being funny, are a bit more somber. As someone incapable of being funny in poems, I ask quite jealously: How do you do that? What role does humor play for you in your poems?

My favorite poems are the ones with a sense of dark humor. I love a poem that treads the line between being funny and unbearable. That’s the ultimate challenge to me: to make someone laugh one moment and break their heart the next. I know that my tone is often complex in these poems, and that’s intentional.

As it is for many people, humor is a coping mechanism for me during moments of tragedy or stress. I’ve always viewed the world with a combination of wonder and disgust. For instance, recently my husband and I visited Berlin just two days after the 2015 Union of European Football Associations Championship. We were only there for six hours, and I was determined to get a great picture of every major monument and building in the city, an impossible and impossibly silly task. Right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, blocking most of its view head-on, was a gigantic merchandise tent for FIFA, the international soccer association.

This intrusion was annoying from a picture-taking standpoint, but I kind of loved the juxtaposition of ancient beauty and crass commercialism. To me, that’s more revealing than any flawless, pretty picture you could find in a guidebook. Many of my poems try to tackle this notion of what’s beautiful: Can artifice and consumerism be beautiful? Can relics and nature be ugly? What’s 100 percent authentic in this world anymore anyway?

 

There’s a focus here on the experience of being a girl, and then a woman, in a society that’s constantly telling girls and women what they must do, even if some of the things contradict each other. What do you hope to illustrate in the poems that focus on the female experience?

I think Paisley Rekdal got it right when she wrote in her endorsement that I’m describing an America that “simultaneously exploits, celebrates, and dismisses young women.” I see that idea explored in “A Response to the Critique of Subjectivity,” where a young woman, perhaps broken by a relationship, can’t stop playing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” This ordinary woman, striving for the perfect love her celebrity idol described, both comforts and tortures herself by listening to the song. Similarly, the imagined Oscar Mayer Wiener Girl, who once was a small-town beauty, ends up entombed by symbols of her past glory.

I also wrestle with these themes in “Peep Show,” asking what constitutes female debasement and empowerment, and is there any middle ground between the two? Or in “Stealing Casino” and “If My Name Were Michael,” the underlying question is, For a woman, when does strength become a liability?

Ultimately, I see my poems as explorations of the female experience, fraught with contradictions. What we have been taught to want (primarily love, but also physical perfection) is not necessarily achievable or even desirable, and definitely not how it is depicted in movies and advertising. In a real sense, women are set up for failure. The result of this conflict is examined primarily in Sections 3 and 4, where many of the female speakers are depressed (“Fortunate” and “Like Love”), detached (“Insulation” and “Layaway Heart”), or desperate (“Letter to the Better Business Bureau”).

 

9780809334469Since we’re doing a Q and A, I thought I’d ask about the Q and A in “Peep Show,” which, holy wow, is a great poem. What was behind the choice to have that third section be a long prose Q and A?

It’s funny you ask that, because the third prose section wasn’t in the original draft. I was happy with the other three sections, but they seemed awfully “tidy” to me, considering the subject matter. There was just too much left unexplored. And so I decided that I would interview the speaker of the poem, much like a therapist or priest, to get at the nuances and feelings behind the main scene: a father showing his daughter pornography while her mother watches passively. The prose form allowed for a flurry of words and details in direct contrast with the other more controlled sections.

 

We get peeks, in some of these poems, at the life of the speaker and her family before and after the death of her father, but not too many. I’m curious about how you chose what and how much to reveal about the speaker’s early life and these events.

I didn’t want this to become a Dead Dad Book. The poems that reveal details about the father are interspersed throughout, and I think their grief informs the rest of the poems as well. I see many of the poems as elegies, not just for the father but also for an idealized, 1950s-esque American way of life. Having lost my father suddenly and right in front of me as a young teen—that experience seeped into everything I experienced later on. Future losses are magnified—even small, seemingly insignificant ones—because they trigger subconscious memories of that old wound. I resisted this idea for many years, but it really is true. In my case, I found that mourning my father’s death was blunted by my first romantic love. When that relationship ended cryptically, as most high school relationships do, I was doubly devastated.

 

“There’s nothing in this world / I don’t want,” the final lines of “Wildcat Canyon,” the last poem, conclude, and it’s a fitting ending, because the poems here are absolutely flush with desire, want, and longing. How do you view desire in your writing?  

I have a favorite quote on a necklace my husband gave me. The pendant is a hand, and encircling the wrist on a tiny bracelet is a quote attributed to St. Marie-Francoise-Therese Martin. When she was twelve years old, her older sister offered up a basket of dressmaking materials to her and another sister. Asked to take whatever she wanted, Therese said, “I choose all.”

I think this philosophy permeates all of my writing, whether I intend it to or not. I am simply not capable of doing anything halfway. Desire is a constant, the thing that keeps me going and striving. This “lyric longing” is the basis for some of the best poems of the Romantic era—the conflict between a desire for transcendence and earthly reality.

Certainly, this philosophy has gotten me into a lot of trouble. It’s what drives me to create elaborate but impossible schedules while on vacation, cramming in as much culture, food, and tourist attractions as I possibly can. It’s what keeps my credit card in the red every month. Constant longing can mean constant dissatisfaction, but it also clarifies my obsessions and what really matters to me.

 

What was the organizing principle for the book’s sections and poem order?

Over the course of the past decade or so of revising this book, the arrangement of poems has changed quite a bit. When most people are writing their first book, they tend to think in terms of the poems themselves rather than the work as a whole. The challenge then becomes discovering the book’s themes, weeding out those poems that don’t fit in terms of tone or subject matter, and writing new work to fill in the holes.

Things really started coming together for me when a friend suggested to start the manuscript with “The Death of the Oscar Mayer Wiener Girl” as a sort of epigraph. The poem always seemed like an odd duck to me because it is the only direct parody in the book and because it is so short. Pulling that poem out of the mix solved these problems but also  allowed me to see the direction of the book more clearly. I saw how the poem is emblematic, its tone progressing from humor to elegy. I saw how it underscored the pathos of young, vulnerable women who strive, are exalted for a short while, and then are deposed.

I tried to make a rough arc with the manuscript from interior to exterior space and from searching to discovering. I looked at the last line of each poem and often chose the next poem from echoes in that poem’s first line. The first section lays out the book’s themes in a general way. The second section largely is about family and growing up. The third and fourth are about living alone and longing for intimacy. And the fifth is about the conflict between image and reality, and the resulting dejection.

 

What is the significance of the title?

In the 1970s, USA-1000 was the phone number for a Washington, DC, tae kwon do studio owned by Jhoon Ree. He became famous due to the catchy advertising jingle, written by Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist Nils Lofgren, and Rhee’s own children uttering the catchphrase, “Nobody bothers me.” The song became a cult classic far beyond the local area, spawning covers by bands like OK Go and parodies on YouTube.

Rhee’s legend went a step farther when a rumor claimed that the owner and self-defense master himself was killed in a mugging. I took this urban legend and imagined in the poem “American Grooves” how families in the area would have handled the news of his death.

Originally, the book was called The Missing World. I chose USA-1000, in part, because it captures many of the themes of my book: that all-American fantasy of success versus reality; the power of advertising; the racial and class disparities in the DC metro area; and the mundanity of suburban life. The title also just sounds like our all-encompassing, overwhelming world of commercialism, teeming with objects and people.

 

How did you choose the cover art?

I met the artist Lisa Schumaier when we were both selling our work at art shows many years ago. She has a studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center near my home in Alexandria, Virginia, and over the years I commissioned a sculpture and bought many of her tiny paintings inside recycled bottle caps. I always have felt moved by the sweet sadness and mischievousness of the animals and objects she depicts.

I loved the idea of partnering with a local artist and friend, but more than that, Lisa’s work captures the spirit of my poems. From my perspective, the bottle cap art represents my interest in “thing-ness,” and the rows and repetition of similar images recall Pop Art, another inspiration in my work. When choosing which pieces to include in the cover image, I was amazed by how many of Lisa’s existing paintings depicted images I describe in my book. Plus, we were able to memorialize her dog Fern and my cat Toby on the cover.

 

USA-1000 is now available from SIU Press.