Interview with Brenda Yates

Brenda Yates grew up on military bases. After Tennessee, Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, Japan and Hawaii, she settled first in Boston, then Los Angeles. Her poems appear in numerous journals and anthologies including Mississippi Review, City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (University of Iowa Press) and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee (Texas Review Press). She is a Pushcart nominee and recipient of the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center Poetry Prize, a Patricia Bibby Prize and honorable mention in the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Poetry Contest. Tebot Bach published her first collection, Bodily Knowledge, in 2015. Kim Young corresponded with Brenda Yates over email to discuss the poems in Brenda’s lush and searching new collection.
KY: Bodily Knowledge, as the title suggests, seems very much interested in how the divine functions in the worldly, in matter and phenomenon, and on the corporeal plane. I’m no expert, but the poems call to mind certain non-dualistic concepts of Eastern philosophy and religion, where there’s no spirit beyond earthly matter. Can you talk a little about the ways the poems work to celebrate the earthly as divine, or as you write in the book’s final poem, “Science,” “the elemental whys of incandescence…”?

BY: That’s a brilliant and difficult question. To answer, I should probably excuse myself for a long and intensive study of non-dualistic philosophy. That said, I am delighted and relieved you find these concepts called to mind. While I always hope that my poems create ripple effects of thought and emotion, I am never sure whether or not I’m deluding myself.

My response probably needs some background. Because I grew up in a military family, I was never in one place very long and that makes for a strange experience of the world. For instance: religion. Protestant Church on base was generic enough that a Methodist or Lutheran or whatever could be comfortable attending. But off base I was also exposed to fundamental, born-again and Pentecostal beliefs. And what a shock it was to find that Jewish friends did not believe Jesus Christ was their savior. I also attended Catholic services with friends, and in Japan, discovered a bit about Buddhism and Shintoism, and later new age religions. In each case, I found they were belief systems truly held and pretty insistent upon being the one true path. So I had a lot of questions about reality. There’s also the fact that I was raised in a military society when many friends were sent to Vietnam. I loved them but hated the war and participated in anti-war activities while sending care packages to my friends fighting overseas. I also saw that culture could be relative; its concerns are in many ways shaped by landscape and environment . I suppose this is a very long way around to talk about celebrating the earthly as divine. It’s never seemed to me that science and belief can be an either/or proposition. And yours is a very sophisticated question that exposes my greatest fear in writing. Nature, art, ecstasy, history, doubt, despair, death, etc. are eternal subjects but is it possible to make my questions or explorations or poems not sophomoric?

KY: Travel and place also seem central to what’s at stake in Bodily Knowledge. The poems convey these spaces through a scientific apparatus, often attending to nature or a cataloguing of names and history. How do you see travel, place, and space functioning in your work?

BY: Again, because we moved around so much, I think place and space function as something solid among all the variables as well as ways of establishing truth or authenticity or even the authority to “witness”(in the myriad senses of that word). It’s been said that travelers see everything and understand nothing. So cataloguing becomes a way to build a foundation among the uncertainties. It still amazes me to no end that people can see exactly the same thing in utterly different ways. Unfortunately, that often also engenders the hate, fear, contempt for others that arises again and again in politics. Sometimes reading current events or history makes me physically ill.

KY: I’m also very interested in your use of narrative. Many of the poems rely on a taut and vivid narrative mode and some of the pieces are even titled mini-essays. What role does narrative play in your work?

BY: Narrative plays a huge role in my work but I consider myself a somewhat unreliable narrator. Aside from the fact that as I said above, no two people see the same thing in the same way, “unfolding” a place or idea or person or question is one of my true pleasures. And I love experimenting–attempting to bring, say, a lyric intensity to memoir or review or travelogue, hoping to make it neither this nor that. My so-called essays, for instance, have been dubbed “rhapsodics” or ecstatic prose or scientific lyricism or lyric science by editors I respect. I consider that success.

KY: Let’s talk a little about the genesis of the book. When did you begin to see the poems working together as a whole? Did you have any guiding thematic or aesthetic principles? Did you run into any challenges in the process of putting together this manuscript?

BY: Genesis is an interesting word. Over the decade before ‘Bodily Knowledge’ there were probably three or four manuscripts that I put together and then hastily scrapped. Shortly after I wrote what is now the last poem in the book, I tried again. For the first time I felt comfortable with the way poems fit together and established a sort of natural movement. There were a few order tweaks afterwards on the ever-so-good advice of fabulous mentors. The biggest challenge then was two years of intensive editing. I wanted each poem to carry its own weight. Fortunately the editor I chose (the extraordinary Dorothy Barresi) was fierce and insightful–to my surprise even with poems that had been published or (gasp) won prizes. Then, during two-plus years of submissions, editors kept me going. There were just enough encouraging comments and near misses that I didn’t give up.

KY: What are some of your influences—literary and non-literary?

BY: That’s a list that could go on forever. Aside from all the poets I love, I’ve met amazing people and lived in amazing places. I’ve been an avid reader since I could read: short stories (oh, I love short stories), pretty much any novel (including westerns, science fiction, thrillers, police procedurals, detective stories, mysteries, adventure), and non-fiction (biography, history, science) and almost any magazine I find lying around. Then of course, there’s music, especially rock ‘n’ roll, and museums of all sorts. That sounds silly until I tell you, I have written poems in some way related to each of those genres: many, many, terrible poems that no one will ever see thank God!

KY: Do you have any advice for other writers who are in the process of composing a manuscript?

BY: I guess that old saw: fail more, fail better. What you’re working on now may not become anything but it may lead you to something that does. I’m the worst person to ask because I still don’t know what I’m doing