Sommer Browning is the author of EitherWay I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), a collection of poetry and comics, and three chapbooks, most recently THE BOWLING (Greying Ghost, 2010) with Brandon Shimoda. Her work will soon appear in EOAGH, The Denver Quarterly, and EVENT. In 2008, she founded the hand-bound chapbook publisher, Flying Guillotine Press, with Tony Mancus. She lives in Denver where she and Julia Cohen curate The BadShadow Affair, a reading series.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The old three questions in one trick! My first book has afforded me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have been offered otherwise. I was asked to read and be on a panel at the Juniper Festival, I’ve skyped in with classes that are reading my book, I can answer the question, “How did your first book change your life?” without lying. Having a book has made me more confident in my work, but I’ve allowed it to place a different sort of pressure on me. I want the first book to propel me into something new, something better. That’s the pressure. I’ve always wanted the next poem to be better, but now I take that notion into my new work with a seriousness it didn’t have before. There’s something about codifying your work into a book that creates some very physical, real, monumental baseline. Now I have a place and with that a direction from or toward, before I was everywhere. The array versus the trajectory.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry somewhere in the middle. Fiction first, plays, then maybe poetry. It was a series of quotidian life changing events. A fellow I admired gave me some Rilke, I took a workshop with Jean Valentine and she told me I should keep writing poems, these little details that I could have easily ignored, shaped me profoundly.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
For the most part first drafts appear looking close to their final shape. I tend to think about projects for some time before embarking on them. Single poems, though, come out of nowhere, and quickly. But my writing schedule is erratic. I work on routine constantly, and am never successful.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I suppose my goal is to have a book, eventually, but in the short term, I just try to write what is on my mind, what is interesting me, without thinking of length or cohesion or presentation. But that’s not true, too. Because sometimes I just sit down and write a book of president jokes.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I get worked up at every public performance I’ve ever given and I will continue to do so. I have a performing phobia. Most of it occurs internally, rapid heartbeat, brain sweats, spontaneous astral projection; many people don’t believe I’m actually in complete agony up there. But somehow I like it. I even write pieces in order to perform them. Humans are weird.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I like this question. I can’t say what the current questions are, I can barely say what mine are. But one of my concerns centers around truthfulness, or maybe earnestness is a better word. I hope my poems align themselves with the way I want to live in the world. I want to maintain an irreverent reverence at all times, whether that is toward love, beauty, sex or Being. For me, this is the most honest way I can live, with an askance look toward everything, but with arms ready to embrace it all; so one of my theoretical concerns about all art is that of authenticity, expressive rather than nominal. I’m borrowing Sartre’s term to talk about a literary genre he didn’t like—irreverent reverence! Now, I’m suddenly thinking of the Church of Jesus Christ without Jesus Christ from Wiseblood. And now I want donuts.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
There are a couple of roles all writers share that are important to me. 1. For me, writers keep the boundaries of possible experience as wide as they can be. I think about empathy a lot, and how if the human race loses it, the loss compounds, becomes an avalanche of loss: friendship succumbs, then love, then beauty. Other than real life experience, I feel that writing is one of the few places in which we can experience empathy. I am talking of writing in the largest sense, from poetry to screenplays to jokes. 2. I think it is important also, to play with, engage, stretch & destroy language. It is an intellectual endeavor that challenges the heart and mind, and so inspires growth and growth inspires creativity and creativity inspires peace.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I worked very closely with the editors at Birds, LLC, but most especially with the poet Chris Tonelli on my first (only!) book. It was essential. It was difficult only until my ego was tamed, which luckily didn’t take too long.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I hate advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to comics)? What do you see as the appeal?
The appeal of moving between genres? I don’t know that I do see an appeal. I just like poems and I like drawing weird things. Each occupies a slightly different portion of my brain. The comics seem more personal in a way; if I had a soul it would be one of my comics, maybe Li’l Dil, the smallest dildo inthe world.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
After wiping the tears from my eyes, I put on a pot of tea, talk myself out of a shower, check my email, Twitter, Facebook, secret email, then Facebook again and rush out of the house late for work. By the time I get home, the tea kettle is burned to a crisp. Somehow there are poems on my computer.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. Even reading for ten minutes out of a random book generates ideas and motivation. Ideas are infinite, luckily.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Honestly, I would say all of those things because my biggest influence is just living. So stand-up comedy, watching a squirrel squirrel around, listening to Fela Kuti, joking with my husband, deciphering my mother’s text messages, flipping through my Caspar David Friedrich book, everything has the potential to influence me, and so also my work. Saying all that, music is crucial to my life/work. And so is film. And so is YouTube.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Again, not sure I can make the distinction between good for me and good for my work. A lot of fiction is important to me. Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner’s short story “Spotted Horses,” Beckett’s novels. Intellectually, countless poems; I feel like a traitor saying that fiction has always been more important to me emotionally.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go everywhere. Eat brains. Have a baby. Live in a motel. Save someone’s life.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would love to be a doctor. If I didn’t write poems, I would play more guitar.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I would answer this the same way as I did question 2.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I can’t answer that, but over the past year, I really loved Shesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Patti Smith’s Just Kids & Robert Fernandez’s We Are Pharoah. And films? So many. This year I rewatched Haneke’s The White Ribbon and was again astounded, I saw and loved Refn’s Valhalla Rising, and I attended an evening of Dani Leventhal’s films and they were great great great great great.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a collection of poems about my friendship with my best friend Sam, editing Serena Chopra’s chapbook Penumbra that’s coming out on the press I run with Tony Mancus called Flying Guillotine, and illustrating Noah Eli Gordon’s upcoming book, 62 Problems (or whatever it ends up being called!) And a dozen other things. Thanks for asking!