William Brewer is the author of I Know Your Kind (2017), a winner of the National Poetry Series, and Oxyana. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The Nation, New England Review, The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Sewanee Review, and other journals. Formerly a Stegner Fellow, he is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.
It was only after waking for the first time in years
beside a stranger, in that gray valley
where morning hasn’t yet taken responsibility,
that I thought I understood at last
why the man from the bar who never spoke
but drank quietly every day at the same seat
for the same hours, and whom I was once
paid to follow home, would sit in his small
living room and call the pound on speakerphone
and ask about a dog that didn’t exist
so that when the receptionist
went walking through the kennels
holding the cordless receiver
looking for the dog-that-wasn’t
you could hear all hell rattling in the cages,
thrashing the chains, could almost sense,
even from where I was standing
outside his window looking through a break
in the curtains, the drool shining on the teeth
bared in the black, dank holes, how
enough abandoned things screaming
could make a sound large enough to find
a rhythm in it, which is to say, something dependable—
I woke next to no one and when she woke
I was no one for a minute, too.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
It was composed sometime in February of 2017. I was due to visit a mentor’s house and bring some poems, which I did every week. I had nothing new to show her and had spent the previous day toiling over some terrifically bad thing that I knew I couldn’t bring. Then, that morning, in what was maybe a flash of panic about showing up empty handed, I wrote this poem over maybe an hour and a half? But in truth, I think it had been brewing in my head for maybe a year, and I had to slog through the mud of that bad poem to finally break through into the more interesting thing. My imagination is sometimes very earnest and tries to gives pieces a chance that don’t really deserve one.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
After I showed it to my mentor, she had me bring it into workshop, and after that I tinkered a bit more, so maybe four drafts total? This is very rare. But again, I think this was a poem that incubated in the brain and was born almost fully formed.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I of course believe in inspiration, though I think that the more interesting occurrences of inspiration are often engendered through a lot of sweat and tears. The hardest work is getting your imagination to completely overpower your humdrum mind and make something you had no idea was buzzing around inside your skull. This poem happened in a flash that, in truth, came only after I banged my forehead into an oak desktop for twenty four hours.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I’d like to think that at this point I’ve internalized technique so that when it’s being deployed, it’s happening through instinct, which of course just means that I hope my instincts have become more elegant expressions because of my study of technique.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
It doesn’t usually happen that quickly.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
About sixteen months.
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?
No rules about this. I send poems once I think they’re done.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I think the question of fact and fiction in poetry is tremendously boring and is a symptom of our current age, when the people that run our world operate through a system of blatant, unending lies. I believe that we, as a literary culture, have allowed our desperate—though completely understandable—desire for facts to infect how we engage with literature, especially poetry. We’re asking for the facts from an art form that is in service to truths. Facts aren’t poetry’s job. This poem is 100% true and 100% false.
Is this a narrative poem?
The more I hear this phrase, the less I’m sure what it means. There’s a narrative in the sense that something happens, but I’m inclined to describe this as essentially lyrical. Or maybe it’s an act of cinema. Yeah, that’s what it is—I think.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I can’t remember who I was reading at the time but there’s a pretty strong chance that a book by one or more of the following writers was present on my desk: W.G. Sebald, Carl Phillips, Solmaz Sharif, Margaret Ross, Virginia Woolf, Don DeLillo.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My wife, my mentors, my friends—I try not to look like an idiot in front of them, though I often do, and that’s okay.
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?
Wife, mentors, friends, and this one was also seen by my Stegner Workshop, which was really generous and great.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s part of what will be my second book, which is different than my first book in a million different ways, though if I think about what those differences are I’ll lose a sense of creative freedom and naivety, so I can’t say.
What is American about this poem?
I wrote it.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It abandoned me.