Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dorian Brooks: A poet who ponders what is behind "The Wren's Cry"

(Poet and political activist Dorian Brooks)

Dorian Brooks: A poet who ponders what is behind "The Wren's Cry"

Interview with Doug Holder

Dorian Brooks is not a self-promoter, but if one was to read her poetry he or she would surely be hooked. Reviewer Barbara Bialick wrote of her latest collection from the Ibbetson Street Press "The Wren's Cry,"

"She both enriches and breaks our hearts with well-edited, polished lyrics carved out of love, nature and memory. But don’t stop till you read the last poems, which will almost kill you with their powerful anti-war messages, one after another, landing as a dead monarch butterfly on Sitting Bull’s hat…"

Brooks is a widely published poet, an editor for the Ibbetson Street Press, an independent scholar of women's history, a politcial activist, a graduate of Harvard, to name a few accomplishments. I interviewed Brooks about her writing life and her new collection.

Doug Holder: Why did it take to your 30's for you to take your writing of poetry seriously?

Dorian Brooks: I was always writing, but as a child of Sputnik I felt torn between poetry and science, studying science and the history of science in college and grad school. When I was about 30, living in Connecticut, I took a poetry workshop, and I remember the woman who ran it saying she liked my work but found it distant, academic, and at one point said to me, “Dorian, when are you going to get in touch with your gut?” A few years later we moved to Minnesota, where poetry was big—in the schools, in the streets—as I imagine it’s been in Russia. I took several workshops there that encouraged me to write more about what I felt strongly about, which at that time tended to be personal relationships, family.

DH: You were a technical writer in the corporate world. Many poets I interviewed have been journalists and they found it a good training ground for being a writer—how about technical writing?

DB: I suppose that in forcing you to write clearly and economically it’s a bit like poetry. But there wasn’t much emotion involved (unless you count my increasing dislike of corporate America!) The principal of the high school I went to said that a poem has to begin with an emotion, and he was right.

DH: You first thought you had to write poems that were difficult to understand. Later you changed your tune. Why?

DB: I gradually realized there was no point in being obscure; it was a kind of affectation. I used to haunt the poetry sections of libraries, taking out books of contemporary poetry I liked, and they were usually by poets whose work spoke simply and directly in ways I could understand, like Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Louise Bogan, James Wright, John Haines. When I lived in Minneapolis in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, I had a wonderful teacher, Jim White. I remember him saying of his own work, “I went from opaque to translucent to transparent.” I think that was true of mine as well.

DH: How does your concern for the environment, and for women's history, play out in your new poetry collection The Wren's Cry?

DB: Several poems come out of a concern for the environment, mostly in the section “The Earth I Travel On”—such as “Back Road,” “At Martha’s Point,” and “Ground Zero,” in which I touch on our disengagement, our split from the natural world. In “Green Man” I suggest a little more directly that our dominant religious traditions have been part of that split.

As for women’s history—in poems scattered throughout the collection, but especially in the section “Who She Was,” I draw on the theme of silenced women’s voices, as in “Historical Marker (also an anti-war poem),” “In Memoriam,” and “Who She Was.” “To Brigit” and “Sea Child” express my strong interest in female spiritual figures and women’s voices in folklore.

DH: You say poetry for you is a way to come to terms with things. You say your new collection concerns the great themes of love and death. Have you come to terms with the fact that we die...even love dies...?

DB: Well, some of the poems are on those themes. Poetry is a way to connect with, to clarify, to express one’s deep feelings and thoughts, whether about love or death or whatever—hopefully in ways others can relate to. Maybe writing itself comes out of an awareness of the transitory nature of all things, ourselves included. I guess many of the poems in The Wren’s Cry are more or less elegies—for loss of the earth as we have known it; loss of those whom I, or we, hold dear.

DH: You have a great affinity for Native American cultures. Do you find a certain purity in native cultures ... or is it wrong to characterize them as such?

DB: It’s not that I have such an affinity for Native American cultures, though I’ve tried to learn what I can about them, or some of them. It’s more that I’ve come to realize how much of those cultures we (Euro-Americans) have destroyed over the past several hundred years. As a country, we’ve never really acknowledged that part of our history, and I think that until we do, it’s just lying there like a wound festering beneath the surface of things. Indians were mainly to be got out of the way—by assimilation, removal, or outright genocide—so we could take their lands and resources; and this taking is still going on, most recently in the appropriation of their spiritual traditions. I know “it wasn’t me” personally that did it, but it was my culture, whose hallmarks of dominance and greed are with us still and I believe directing much of what our country is doing vis a vis the rest of the world today.

As for Native cultures being “pure,” I wouldn’t put it that way, but I do think they often reflect important values that we in the dominant culture have lost sight of, such as a closeness to and spiritual affinity with nature, and a sense of community, of interrelatedness with others. I think that some older, pre-Christian, pre-industrial European cultures have held similar values, but they were mostly lost, and we’d do well to revisit them now.

DH: How does editing the magazine "Ibbetson Street" help or hinder your work as a poet?

DB: It doesn’t hinder my work. To some extent I think it helps it in the sense that it makes me aware of how many good poets are out there these days, writing on all manner of subjects, and that’s a source of inspiration.


By late summer, the maples

have gathered so much darkness

among their boughs,

we finally concede

our own maturing.

We hear crickets and mourn

an earlier music,

the days grown shorter now,

even our few words

a measure of acquiescence.

And in time,

longing itself dwindles

to a single leaf—

fine-veined and lucent,

yet trifling.

Day closes

and we are one

with the vesper sparrow,

at home with solitude

and night descending.

* From The Wren's Cry." ( Ibbetson 2009)

To order "The Wren's Cry" contact Or send $17 check or money order to: Ibbetson Street Press 25 School St. Somerville, Mass. 02143

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