As a therapist, I am used to connecting with the experience of the other through words. Listening, empathizing, exploring, connecting. It is a humbling and honoring experience to be let into the psyche of another through their story. The beauty of words is that they do not have to be spoken to land with another person. Brandon Jordan Brown utilizes the artistic expression of words to not only connect with the other but to help them connect to themselves. Here he reminds us of the beauty of poetry and how it can be used to draw us closer to the human experience. -Janie McGlasson, MFT Intern
JM: Why is art/creativity important?
BJB: There is something about when you interact with it...it forces you to slow down….It pulls you in inward and it pulls you outward...And I think that if you are open to it- and you have to be really open to it- it forces you to confront things that you don't want to or to celebrate things that we forget are worth celebrating. That’s the weird thing about it. Every element or every response that art evokes almost has an equal and opposite response. It is capable of either/or, both/and, almost simultaneously…I can tell you as someone who practices it, it is terrifying. It makes you feel very vulnerable and brings up all your fears. But I’m sure we will get into that more with upcoming questions.
JM: You’re right, we definitely will. Let’s get vulnerable.
JM: Why did you choose poetry as your art form?
BJB: ...What is so compelling about poetry that I am learning...that it is almost like experiential theology or human-centered in a way that religion can be afraid to be….I think that poetry is a way for me to really wrestle and grapple with my experience and to feel validated as a human being.
JM: We have been talking a lot about vulnerability at MHT...the impact that it has on our relationships, work, day to day life, etc. Do you see vulnerability playing a part in your poetry?
BJB: 100%. In a scary way. Almost to where I have written poems and sent them out and had...doesn’t Brene Brown call them vulnerability hangovers?... I haven’t figured out how to balance that. Poetry is a craft. It is different than a diary in that it takes revision and editing to create this piece of art. So when it does connect it has the biggest chance for success.
JM: When it does connect with you?
BJB: When it connects with other people. You want to figure out a way to break open language and find a fresh way to describe something so that a person will feel like they are seeing or feeling it in a new way. And so, it is hard to figure out the balance of being raw and vulnerable in making art and still to be healthy. I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
There will be things I write and think “Oh that is too honest”...a moment of pure openness. And I think there are moments when I feel really ready for that. Brave and able and courageous. Confident enough in myself that even if someone says “Wow, that is really intense” I could reply with just “Yeah, life is intense man. Deal with it.” And in other times I think that if someone were to say that to me I would crawl behind the couch and not be able to write for a while...Maybe the biggest fear is showing people your wounds. That is really when it opens something up is when you say “this is where it hurts.”
JM: You know, that’s actually something that came up in the last interview. Debbie Edgar talked about this level where you have to find safe people to open up with. Sometimes we choose poorly where a person shows you that “oh, okay I should not have shared so much.” But this is a different form of that because it is not so simple as you just having a raw conversation with a person that you have deemed safe-you are opening yourself up to a lot of people, not knowing who will be a safe recipient and who will not.
BJB: Yeah exactly. And not that you have to be published or be out there to be serious- but, for me, that is a goal that I have- to put my work into the world…The whole goal is for it to be ingested by others and for them to interact with it. So when I am feeling healthy, I feel like I am in the role of challenging people to think things through and wrestle with them. To shake and wake them up and open up the space for those kinds of conversations. But when I am not feeling safe, for whatever reason, I can feel that moment that Debbie was talking about of that “oh no.”
JM: How do you find that poetry connects you to yourself?
BJB: What I have found in being from the South- growing up where and how I did- there is a strong literary tradition that has a certain flavor to it...that I resonate with.
... It is almost like that person is leading you to a doorway and opening it up and maybe even standing there with you. Helping to open up a space inside of yourself. I think that we all have blindspots. That is one of the things about writing poetry- you sit down and you write to figure out what you actually think. You don’t necessarily sit down with an idea and a plan of “here is point A and here is point B and this is how I am going to write it.” But it could be a story or a phrase or a character or a scene and you just sit down and as you start writing it feels mysterious how you even get to the end. It is like walking down a trail and just figuring out where it leads. You may have a scrap of paper or a fragment of a map but you just kind of guess and go somewhere. It brings about a lot of trust in yourself.
JM: How do you find that it connects you to others?
BJB: Writing and being an artist can be really lonely...It is not like I am in a band and can show up to practice and just be one part, it is all on me. So for it to be put out into the world and published it gives you faith that it matters.
The trick is that people have to be willing to slow down. It is almost as if you have to develop a discipline to sit with things. You have to make yourself slow down to be able to appreciate beautiful things....It’s must easier to watch 6 episodes of a show on Netflix than it is to sit with a book and slowly savor a poem and engage your mind and imagination. It is like prayer or meditation that you have to practice. Both of those things I am also not good at. I really admire people who aren’t even artist but have that “thing” in them to be able to quickly go there because they so easily remember that art is so life-giving and can be what they need. Whatever you’re feeling there is a poem for that or a song for that. It connects us back with our experience and with the experience of the person who made it.
JM: What ways, if any, does psychology or therapy play a part in your poetry?
BJB: I am actively engaged in therapy. My poetry comes up a lot even in talking in therapy. Art comes from our lived experience. So just like therapy helps us process our unique lived experience, art does the same thing. It is a way to explore how we make meaning of what is happening all around us- inside of us, outside of us...To sum it up, I think that they both teach us how to be human. And that maybe that's not a bad place to start….Us as real people with bodies that fail us. I’m interested in art that approaches our shortcomings and in therapy we have to do the same. You have to walk towards failure and learn how to smile at it. I think you could write a whole book on that subject. You should write that.
JM: You’re the writer, man.
BJB: Okay, we should write it then.
JM: Alright deal. Let’s do it. Okay, who are some of your favorites and why?
BJB: Easy. The best living poet is a guy named Maurice Manning...He writes a lot about his rural upbringing, his childhood. For me, I have such a love and fondness for where I came from but also have to look back at how it made me and kind of sort through it. It’s like sorting through an entire world- and he does a good job at that. At holding up his memories and the pieces of his life in this fantastic Kentucky place and having such compassion for it.
Another guy is Phillip Levine who just recently died last year. He was a US Poet Laureate and was from Detroit. He is from working class, hard living, blue collar Detroit. And again, he had a love for a place and a people and was able to reckon with hardships and face pain head on.
JM: Do you have a mantra to get you into your creative space or to move you out of a block?
BJB: I just put a note on my computer that just says “Be Brave.”...I think when you take the risk and you are in a good state of mind it feels worth it. When you have that person that memorizes a poem of yours or a piece of yours lands with someone and you think, “oh man i'm glad i said it because it helped someone.”
JM: What is your favorite word?
BJB: “Maybe.” I think as a writer and as an artist it opens up a lot of space.
Brandon Jordan Brown is a former PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow in poetry, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his work has been published or is forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio; Day One; decomP; Rufous City Review; Cultural Weekly and more. Brandon reviews poetry for Invisible City and lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on his first book. You can find him at www.brandonjordanbrown.com
Janie McGlasson, MFT Intern, has worked in both a community mental health setting as well as private practice and specializes in the areas of attachment, grief and loss, and trauma.