Brittany Billmeyer-Finn is a queer poet and playwright living in Northampton, MA where she is an aspiring social worker in the Smith College MSW program. Her full length book, the meshes, written through the filmography of Maya Deren is out from Black Radish Books. In 2015 she directed her first play, the meshes: an interaction in 2 acts at SAFEhouse Arts in SF. Her collection Slabs is available from Oakland based small press Timeless Infinite Light. Slabs is a collection of poetry dealing in and out of the body through various sites; home, memory, books and ritual. She continues to investigate a queer poetics and the influences of magic on various blogs.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, the meshes came out with Black Radish Books in 2015. It was a project I stayed with for about 4 years. I was very dedicated to this project. It made me uncomfortable in some ways. It intrigued me. I was motivated to investigate Maya Deren’s work and her autobiography which became a practice of looking inward. I was moved by her filmography and I appreciated the poetics of her short films, the bodies relationship to time and location, the way she never seemed to complete a project everything always unfinished and always with a lingering possibility …this unfinishedness spoke to something about my own developing poetics. I was also critical of Deren’s work. When writing through and about her documentary film, The Divine Horsemen the Living Gods of Haiti shot from 1947-1954, the unfinished film focused on Haitian Voudon ritual particularly dance and possession, I questioned Deren’s motivation and my own to see this project through and wondered about her inability to complete it and if she had this question too? There was a lot of projection happening. Anyway, this is to question and consider the dangers and stakes of alliance and intention, the colonial gaze and ways in which to push up against the passivity of spectatorship. This work required as all work should, a constant intention of looking inward and examining my own positionality as an artist- this work of constant self-reflection also extends beyond the text and into my relationships, politics and alliances.
The book became then about iteration and transformation. That each section of the book informed the next and transformed itself as it moved into new contexts, became embodied and performable. This is true of the organization of the text, which is written in four parts moving from poetry, to essay, to a play to a sort of polyvocal score named the “annotated bibliography.”
Significantly, I think it was only possible for this text to evolve the way it did because of the amount of time and the various life contexts I was in and out of while I was writing it. I wrote it while living in Oakland, while in grad school, while having a queer awakening, meeting my dearest friends, my most inspiring collaborators, while falling in love, after grad school, while working as a shopgirl, moving into a new apartment, teaching creative writing to high schoolers, co-creating an interdisciplinary pedagogy for a queer camp for young folks and throughout various life things, mundane day to day things and the trajectory of the book changed as my life did as I became more open, more at home.
I guess to actually answer your question, “How did your first book change your life?” I might say that it didn’t change my life all by itself but it was connected to the present moment. It is an object I was able to bring to life, literally in directing an adaptation of the play section of the book, the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts, but also I wasn’t writing this book in a vacuum. It was so influenced by my friends and collaborators who embodied the text on stage and on the page, who populated my life and influenced my artistic practice as well as my state of being.
While I wrote the meshes I also wrote another manuscript, Slabs.
Slabs was published in December 2016 by small press Timeless Infinite Light as a part of its Tracts series. This book is very different from the meshes. I wrote it while traveling to Northampton, MA a few years ago (little did I know just a few years later I would live there and be going to school for social work) to visit a dear friend and poet, Rebecca Maillet. I was taking a break from the meshes, which is a much more project based and conceptually minded piece.
In Slabs, I just wrote about myself in relation to my surroundings, my relationships, I wrote about my queerness, about my mother and best friends from MI, I wrote about being in love, about accountability, I wrote about magic and ritual about feeling awkward. It is like I peeled myself out of the meshes and looked all around me and felt my body. So in some way it is connected to the process of writing the meshes, it is what the meshes is not, the subject is me and it is grounded in my own language and experience. It is just the thing it is, which is sort of plain, sincere, tender, nostalgic, located in significant sites of my life, among significant people and with a bit of magic.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’m not sure I did come to poetry first but it is the thing that stuck. I started writing as an awkward preteen. I wrote a series of short stories about a group of teens experimenting with sex, drugs and opinions in an abandoned tree house. It was so cliché but so much a part of understanding what writing can do for the developing self. I came to poetry in high school and took every class with Chris Tysh at Wayne State University in undergrad. It was in her classes that I was offered the many possibilities of poetry, the interdisciplinary possibilities, the performativity of it, the practice and the process of it, the intuitive, improvisational, the ways in which poetry is simultaneous in its nothingness and somethingness.
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?
My process is pretty inconsistent depending on what is going on in my life. With the meshes I spent periods of time fixating and obsessing and creating new forms and experimenting with the text, oscillating between writing myself into the work and keeping myself out of it.
Slabs wasn’t as rigorous, I sort of needed it, a sort of grounding touchstone. I wrote it in a week’s time. Tinkering with it here and there until it found a home with Timeless Infinite Light.
The last couple years, I find myself sitting in bed (bed is where I do most of my writing) surrounded by a pile of books of different subjects and a deck of tarot. I read and interpret tarot cards. I’ve been really fixated on this little book of saints lately…and I write my interpretation and encounter with these various texts until I have enough gobbily gook on the page to investigate what is there.
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?
Like I said, gobbily gook.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Iteration is a significant part of my poetics that came out of the meshes project. I am excited to see how many different things I can make with the same material. With the meshes after writing the first 2 sections, “the poems” and “the essay,” I started adding voices to my readings, giving out parts to my friends to add layers to the text, to embody it somehow, this evolution is what inspired writing “the play.” the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts may not have happened without the opportunity to share the work at various readings, in new spaces.
I recently had my book release for Slabs in New York City and I realized as I stood up in front of the room that I was rusty, my voice shaky, I lost my breath a couple of times but Slabs is a tender text and so my vulnerability then was also true to the work and that felt ok. The response of my body as I stood in front of the room, allowing myself to be present in that then was soothing in a way.
I consider readings to be an opportunity to present the text in a new way, to utilize the space, to consider the site as part of the text itself, to embody it is significant to my practice.
I feel like my feelings of readings can be summed up from a page in “part one” of Slabs: to be invited into these rooms/to turn my back to these rooms/wanting to run out of theses rooms/to charm these rooms/to empathize with these rooms/to dig a hole for these rooms (18).
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?
What can poetry do?
What is lost in poetry?
What are my alliances?
What is my socio cultural position and how does it influence my view, how does this influence my artistic practice and manifestation?
What are the political and personal stakes?
Is authenticity a social construct?
Who is erased? What is being left out?
What is a queer poetics?
What are the ethics of this?
What is the role of community, how is it connective, how does it fail?
What are the value systems present, what do they push up against? Are they complicit?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he, they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
To me this is a question about the relationship between the personal and the political, which I think are inextricable, the same way I believe poetry can never be apolitical. There is also something about community here, an archive, a context, a moment in time. I’ve already expressed the significance of collaboration in my writing process. I guess writers have an opportunity to create a story, writer’s voices in relationship that offers various significant realities and interpretations of their life and time. It’s not to say that writers are sacred. I think I said something about poetry being simultaneously something and nothing. I think a writer’s role is also definable by their intersectional experience, this map of oppressions and privileges that speaks to the individual experience and historical implications of the contemporary moment. This intersectional view then becomes a poignant location, I mean context yes, and self-awareness, which is a significant role for myself, and accountability, opening oneself to critique, to response and not closing the door to the labor of calling out/in. I think if the writer is doing political work, then it cannot stop at the page. I also think the role of the writer varies depending on the privilege of the person writing. I read a post on Facebook by a writer that said, as a white person it is not my job to write about racism but white supremacy.
As an aspiring social worker who is currently interning in the field, I also find writing to play a therapeutic role with clients, being heard, telling a story that is one’s own and the possibility for agency and validation in that moment can be powerful. So a writer’s role then is not homogenous, it varies, it is the intersection between the personal and the political and it cannot stand alone on the page though the act of visioning and imagining a different political and social configuration is part of the work.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
“Working with” is essential, I suppose differentiating collaborators and editors is something symbolic of the relationship of institutions and community this sort of both/and moment. I really appreciate the experiences and supports of the small presses I’ve worked with, this way of needing each other and supporting each other as part of the work.
After graduating from Mills College MFA program in 2012, some friends and I began our own little workshop where we shared, interpreted and offered feedback to one another. We wanted a non-institutional space in which to engage with one another’s work.
In the final stages of the meshes, my friend and poet, Cosmo Spinosa offered his editing skills and we would meet at Mills College and sit on the lawn and read the meshes out loud and make edits as we went through while eating grilled cheese and smoking cigarettes.
My dear friend, writer, book and performance artist Kate Robinson has been in process of interpreting the meshes into an artist book series, another iteration of the text. She also designed the cover of the meshes and so every time I look at it I think of her.
Working with Black Radish Books to edit the incredibly dense text of the meshes felt supportive and exciting as the book was becoming an object.
So many times I felt lost in the process and so many times I had collaborators and editors to be an anchor.
In directing the play, meshes: an iteration in 2 acts, Portland based artist and musician Stella Peach created a score, interpreting the text into music, what an amazing moment to hear the translation of the work into sound.
Timeless Infinite Light, who makes beautiful books, turned Slabs into this magical object. It’s like a little spell, a talisman and I get to share the pages with Phyllis Ma an amazing visual artist and I get to be a part of the Timeless archive which brings new and exciting meaning to this little collection of work that feels so bound up inside my body. It is healing to have it become something by the hands of talented people who have vision and intention. It offers so much more to the experience of making something. I guess my preferred mode of writing is both the solitariness of it and then the ways in which it transforms by the hands of others.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In the early iterations of the meshes, in a grad school workshop my instructor asked, “What are your alliances?” This is a question I ask as I write, always.
From Dean Spade’s Normal Life, “engaging in constant reflection and self-evaluation. And it is about practice and process rather than a point of arrival, resisting hierarchies of truth and reality and instead naming and refusing state violence.”
And this from a conversation with the brilliant Tessa Micaela, “Because being silent is a privileged position, one of the ways privilege shows up is the ability to be silent without repercussion. Being silent means that we remove ourselves from the process of working through the ways in which we unconsciously exercise our privilege every day.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think I have sort of named this idea of iteration as part of my poetics. With the meshes it was a process of allowing myself to show up in the text. But I didn’t want to be there alone. It was also an opportunity to create a sort of ritual out of the process of writing the poems and essay. This ritualizing then became the place where the questions could show up and reveal themselves.
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?
Right now I am writing so much. It is not always this way. I just moved across the country with my partner and dog, I started a new master’s program and am doing new work. I am a beginner again. It has been a difficult process and because of the complexity of all the moving parts and figuring out how to be a person, poet, social worker, partner, friend and activist in a new setting, under a new regime, writing has been one way to allow the feelings to arise, to allow myself to feel the thing rising in my throat. My instinct is to push it down into my gut, but that’s not working anymore in any area of my life and so I write it, which is only one step in a much larger process of relationship building, showing up and being present.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Usually my tarot deck
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
It sort of depends on which home? One of my best friends since high school, (from MI, where I grew up), you know cosmic soul friends (a phrase I have stolen from another dear friend) has always had a particular smell and so every time I smell some combination of lilacs and patchouli I think of her, which is the same as thinking of home.
The smell of the top of my dog, Patsy’s head reminds me of the little apartment my partner and I shared in Oakland. It was this weird carpeted octagonal apartment and it was our first place together and I miss it all the time.
This particular musty smell of old books reminds me of the apartment I shared with Kate Robinson and Cheena Marie Lo in Oakland that we named the Tender Oracle. The front steps had this particular smell, so while walking up the stairs of the tender (for short), I would be transported to a used bookstore in Detroit that I used to frequent creating a thread between Detroit and Oakland. Now, that particular mustiness transports me from Northampton to Oakland, walking up those front steps of that little home we made together where we hosted a reading series, Manifest for three years. I’m so grateful for this time and the intentionality of the space we created together.
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?
Any kind of encounter whether it be with an object, a person, a piece of art or music, bearing witness to something, eaves dropping on a conversation, old trauma playing out in the present moment all has the possibility of becoming poetry.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have been doing an interview series for Drunken Boat called “Blessed Be” where I interview predominately queer writers, makers, performers about their work, their perception of a queer poetics and their relationship to magic. Having the opportunity to talk to and learn from writers like Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela, Zoe Tuck, Mai Doan, Coda Wei, Arisa White, Fisayo Adeyeye, Moss Angel Witchmonstr, Stella Peach, Marcus Lund, Zach Ozma and Mariama Lockington has been an incredible experience and I’m excited to continue with this project.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Thinking in terms of iterations of work, I would love to create an installation inspired by Slabs. What is a Slab? What is its visual configuration of tenderness, sincerity, memory, queerness? For some reason I picture a lot of sequins and yarn.
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 am not just a writer. I have been a shopgirl for a long time and now I am working on my Masters of Social Work at Smith College. So I guess I envision myself as a therapist, as someone working in human services.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not sure, it was just always the thing, way back I was collaborating with my friends in grade school. We were making books out of construction paper. A childhood friend I have known since like age 8, makes fun of me because I was so bossy about it (I’m an only child) I would insist that she draw the pictures and I write the story. I have since become a better collaborator and that is in fact my favorite way to generate work and foundational to my practice.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished reading Krupskaya’s latest releases, The Braid by Lauren Levin and Snail Poems by Eric Sneathen, these two people and books are so moving and books I will return to time and time again. I am also very much anticipating MG Roberts new book, Anemal, Uter Meck coming out from Black Radish Books and Mariama Lockington’s chapbook, The Lucky Daughter from Damaged Goods Press.
I have been sick recently with the flu, so I have been in bed cuddling my chihuahua, drinking tea and watching The Book of Conrad, The Punk Singer and Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I just finished a manuscript about myth, work, friendship and Oakland. Now am working on a collection, currently titled, “Sessions” that is very wrapped up in my present self and circumstances of change and transition, a bit from this work that kind of sums up the present moment from which I write is this: this feeling of ok, I can do this/ the place where I am most injured/so capable of traumatizing each other/what’s yours & what’s mine?/should you be able to heal me?/I’m all confused/I sort of believe in everything/I mean to say my co-dependence, I mean to say simultaneity & loss/the places where it becomes about control/this is how the energy works/I don’t even get it/what the fuck is taking care?/this pulse in there/that resonates with me/if only I could feel it in my body /when did I unlearn this? /I can feel the pulse of that/to get in deeply/that frozen need