Award-winning poet speaks of inspiration from SIU, Carbondale, and more(SIU alum Mark Jay Brewin Jr. was recently awarded the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. Brewin’s collection will be published by the University of Utah Press this spring under the title Scrap Iron. Read Mark's alumnus profile here.)
- Among other things, you write of salvaging scrap metal, smacking your great-grandfather's catheter bag as a boy, and peeling sunburnt skin off your father's back. And you find poetry in these things. In your narrative poems, you often give primacy to experience, memory. Does their beauty come from craft or careful observation? Or is that very unpostmodern of me to even inquire after beauty?
I couldn’t begin to know what question is or isn’t unpostmodern. . . As far as an answer goes, I should mention that my first book manuscript has an epigraph from Anselm Kiefer, where he says, “But I believe above all that I wanted to build the palace of my memory, because my memory is my only homeland.” Nice, isn’t it? I think it gets at the heart of what you are asking. For me, careful observation—experience, memory—is everything. Untouchable. Not pure or perfect, but foundation. This beauty you speak of—and I agree it is beauty, though a very specific and, at times, odd incarnation of it—is the product of young, inexperienced, blue-collar parents raising children they weren’t ready for. My father, besides his forty-hour weeks at the plant, would take me scrounging for scrap metal or to his odd jobs installing alarm systems at family friends’ houses because that was all I was allowed of him at that time. His shift work traversed parts of the day I never knew existed. My mother gave her youth away entertaining and caring for my siblings and me. These poems, this book [Scrap Iron], is the product of watching my parents’ love and trust in their family, love and struggle to know their children despite obligations and limitations. If you keep a watchful eye on the moment, on the happenings, the music and craft isn’t far to follow. If any of us can break down our histories and observations into poetry, just imagine the sounds and work we would employ to build those walls, the details to build the palaces of our beginnings.
- Your poems convey a strong sense of place. Can you talk a little bit about Carbondale, and your time at SIU?
Yes, being grounded—living and existing and functioning in the right setting—is key for me to work. Carbondale was the perfect place for that. I grew up in a farming community in South Jersey, not too far from the Pine Barrens, and the landscape of Southern Illinois had some of those same qualities which really allowed me to tap into the childhood memories, lore, and familial tensions that are central to my book. Besides the course load and teaching schedule, a majority of my time was spent exploring the area with my peers or meeting up with them outside the classroom to go over new work. Thai Taste and thesis manuscripts. Longbranch Coffeehouse and a half dozen poetry books. It was great. Carbondale was a place full of dedicated mentors and fellow writers who were extremely enthusiastic, not just about their own work but also the betterment of the craft. That environment was brilliant. It brings out the best in you.
- Who are some of your favorite poets, influences?
I could name dozens of book and poets that have affected me, really shook me at my core, but there are a select few that I am constantly going back to. Philip Levine is always timely and poignant and real. What I strive to accomplish on the page—I love his blue collar exploration, the calluses and rust of the men and women he pens into history—is, I hope, akin to what he so eloquently and brutally captures in every piece. I must also mention my utter love of Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson—I can’t mention one without the other. Both are writing from opposite sides of the spectrum on the same home, begging the question: must one leave where they are from to get the fullest understanding of it, or should he hunker down and wallow in it? I am completely clueless as to the answer— I doubt there is one—but I am constantly asking it. Lastly, and I am amazed to say that I have worked with both of these brilliant writers, but Judy Jordan and Rodney Jones were inspirations long before I attended SIUC. They are children of farmers and workers (just as I am), and damn do they know how to find the music in labor, find the heart of the poem in the everyday, in the heartbroken song.
- What else are you doing, presently?
At the moment, I am an adjunct English faculty member at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, which has been quite an experience. The teaching foundation that SIUC provided has given me an incredible advantage in the classroom. Besides this, though, I have been trying to press ahead with new work, looking to uncover the heart of my next poetry collection. In my final semester at SIUC, I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant from Irish Studies which allowed me to live in Galway, Ireland, as well as afforded me funds and time to walk the Camino de Santiago—a pilgrimage trail that traverses the northern part of Spain—and both of these experiences have been inspiring me greatly these days.
- Any advice to give to young poets?
Rodney Jones gave me a bit of advice he received from an old football coach. Apparently, the coach said to him, “Run wild. If you know where you’re going, they will too.” I always liked that. The most organic, gripping, driven poems are always a bit wild. Besides that, always find the music and trust in it. It’s simple.
Interview, Mark Jay Brewin, Jr. and CoLA's Leslie A. Brown. October 2012. College of Liberal Arts, SIU Carbondale.