Stephanie Brown is the author of two collections of poetry, Domestic Interior (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) and Allegory of the Supermarket (University of Georgia Press, 1999). She was awarded an NEA Fellowship in Poetry in 2001 and the Margaret Bridgman Fellowship in Poetry at the Breadloaf Writers' Conference in 2009. She has taught creative writing at University of California, Irvine and at the University of Redlands but has primarily made her living as a librarian and library manager. Her poems have been selected for four editions of the annual anthology, The Best American Poetry (Scribner's) and her poetry and essays have been anthologized in American Poetry: The Next Generation (Carnegie Mellon, 2000), Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner's, 2003), The Grand Permission: New Writing about Motherhood and Poetics (Wesleyan University Press, 2003) and others. Her work has also been published in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Slope, Pool, ZYZZYVA, LIT, and others. She was a curator for the Casa Romantica Reading Series for poets and fiction writers in San Clemente, California from 2004-2010 and is currently the book review editor for the electronic journal, Connotation Press and poetry editor for the website Zócalo Public Square.
THE SATANIST NEXT DOOR
What is that? Is that a kid? Is that Tom?
No, it’s her.
Eew, I think that’s a whip.
No, it’s a hand coming down hard.
No, listen, there’s like a wind-sound to it.
I need to go to the bathroom.
That one was fake.
Are you still awake?
She probably has to do that to get him to finish.
Listen: he sounds like an angel.
No one has ten orgasms in twenty minutes.
I can’t tell.
Oh yeah, a lot of those were fake.
They’re up all night doing meth and they have to have sex all the time.
Should we do it now?
Did that make you horny?
No, but we are awake. In fact, it’s creepy to hear people.
She’s a moaner.
It’s getting light out.
Close the windows.
The seals are barking. I like that sound.
Can you hear the parrots?
They live across the street in the canyon.
I think I smell that chemical smell.
Close the windows.
Do you think they ever put spells on us?
Whatever you think is happening, it’s not happening.
It’s all a lie.
It sort of scares me.
Freedom of religion.
Yeah, you’re right.
And we have the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the other side. It balances things.
I’m going to put a holy card of St. Michael on the fence between us.
God will protect us.
Turn on your side.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem started as the title. I liked it and I carried it around with me for months before I ever got the poem, which I received one morning, writing down a conversation. It started with the first line as it reads now. I have found that there are two ways that I write poems: about one percent of the time I have a title and the poem comes later, unbidden and mostly finished. The second, 99-percent-of-the-time type grows out of lines and is completed with much revision. This poem is one of the one-percenters.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Aside from some tinkering, the first draft was the final draft. I think title-driven poems gestate differently—arriving whole and feeling received, ready to go. I usually revise extensively, sometimes for years—at least, this is the way I think that I write most poems, though when I went back recently and looked at longhand drafts in a notebook, I was surprised at how close to the finished product many of them were.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration. I think it comes to me all the time, sometimes in cycles—a lot for a while, not a lot for a while. I think you have to listen for it. Most completed poems are built from sweat and tears, though. This is a received poem. One is not a better way of writing than the other, but for me the received type is rare. Maybe rereading is a kind of revision: I reread a poem many times and may or may not change little things. I always play around with line lengths, look for stronger words, and play with punctuation. Sometimes I read and do nothing to it. Sometimes I keep only one line of a poem and rebuild from there. I get rid of everything that is problematic, makes me feel frustrated, or leads me to a dead end. Sometimes I think that you can go in the wrong direction from where an inspired, unbidden line meant you to go. If I reread and feel that way, I get rid of that stuff and let the line take me someplace else.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Since it began as dialogue, I wanted to make sure that the poem was written completely in dialogue. For instance, I note time passing by having the speakers note that it’s getting light out rather than having that described. I could have stepped out of the dialogue at that point but decided not to. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem that’s completely in dialogue before this one, but it felt right to leave it that way.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I think it was pretty soon. I thought it was pretty good, and sent it out in a group to APR soon after writing it. It was published in APR in 2005.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
This varies by poem. Sometimes I can feel that something is ready right away. In general they sit for a long time. I enjoy the tinkering process quite a bit; revision is a joy to me. The first draft is the hard part—to stop and listen to a line and take the time to write it down. First drafts often come at inconvenient times. I often don’t want to write them, don’t write them, forget them, and that’s a disappointment for me. Very consistently I’ve found that what I think is good or bad while writing a first draft is neither. A few years ago I found a folder of poems that I had written in my 20’s. I found a few that I thought were very good. I should have revised these but I had not. Instead I pursued the wrong poems, ones that I had loved in the first drafts, and I rewrote and rewrote but always reached dead ends. The good ones were written in a voice that’s not mine anymore, so it is too late to use them now. That experience led me to sit with first drafts for a long time before revising—but not too long. If I have an emotional reaction to something that I’ve written, if I cry and feel purged, I almost always find that this is not a good poem. Ones that I dismiss often turn out to be the poem to pursue. I think it’s good to really examine what you have written before you bother revising it. Some of it is just bad, and that’s fine. It’s private. Poems to be published have to have a public persona: technical savvy and avoidance of bathos. Even things that I have published that are very confessional, they are still nothing that I am embarrassed about. I am embarrassed by some things I’ve written in journals. They are not meant for the world.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem was inspired by true events. Like most of my poems, the negotiation was found in revision. Once I know what a poem is “about,” I rewrite to heighten that. For instance, you really can hear the sounds of wild parrots and seals from my bedroom. It is near a canyon. I would have taken out those details if they served no purpose to the narrative. In this poem, they were counterpoint sounds to the sounds of the couple next door. The poem asks: why is one a better sound than the other? Are all of them part of a sexual, sensual world?
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, I think it is driven by the narrative.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I know that when I wrote this I was re-visiting William Carlos Williams, and I see an indirect influence. He sometimes uses dialogue and conversation in his poems, and he often writes in a minimalist style about daily life, though they were never just about daily life. I really admire his work, and how sly it is—the settings and places seem mundane, even banal, yet they are masterful takes on the human condition. Williams is wise.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My ideal reader has a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd, engages his or her full emotions in life, and has read widely and well. This person has been symbolized by different real people throughout my writing life, and I often will write for a specific person.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I keep all drafts to myself. I let my husband read some of my finished poems. One time he told me that something made him think of Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein—and it was not intentional. Woops! I show them to him before I send to editors, to see if there are any gaffes like that, and to see if it affects him as a reader. I don’t exchange poems with friends, though I did for a while after graduate school. I don’t have a writers’ group. I was talking to a friend recently about that, and he was surprised that I didn’t show my manuscripts to friends, and I was surprised that he did. I always long to hang out and talk to poets about writing and life and books and ideas—this inspires me to write, and feels great.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t usually write in dialogue. Soon after, I wrote another that was mostly dialogue, called “You Ger Comfortable and Relax.” It was more clearly influenced by Williams.
What is American about this poem?
I love this question! The characters live in a house set between households of Satanists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. That setting is very American! America is eclectic, even wacky-weird, and I think this poem embraces that. The people in the poem resolve their unease by reminding themselves that in the US we have freedom of religion. We are not a theocracy. If the speakers had lived in the American colonies and been so inclined to, they could have had their neighbors arrested for witchcraft. Moreover, there are theocracies on the planet today. It is American to resist living in one.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It was finished. I almost never feel that they are abandoned, though sometimes that’s the appropriate way to finish—stop trying, like the poem for what it is, and let it go.