An Interview with Brad Buchanan
by Amy Anderson
Brad Buchanan is an English professor, a poet, and the father of three-year-old Nora, whom you may remember from her mother's writing in her column, The New Girl. Brad recently published a book of poetry about his own experiences as a parent. I read Swimming the Mirror straight through and then passed it on to my brother, the father of a one-year-old. I suspect it'll get passed to his friends who are fathers next. Besides being a wonderful read, it's in the perfect form for parents of young children; poems can be read quickly, in those five-minute spans babies and toddlers give us to ourselves.
mamazine: In Swimming the Mirror, you write about both the large and small moments of parenting, such as the first ultrasound, birth, a toddler stumbling and falling, a day of coloring only with the orange crayon. I found myself stopping as I read to wonder: how do you balance observing, analyzing, and then crafting poems about your daughter with the living of those same moments with her as father and daughter?
Brad Buchanan: That was certainly a bit of a juggling act, not least on the logistical level. I've always been in the habit of writing poems rapidly and on the spur of the moment, and that approach (a kind of sprinter's mentality) probably helped me get some of the writing done before the ideas went sour. I did sometimes have to interrupt a fun activity or two in order to write a poem, but I was fortunate in that my daughter Nora has always been good at playing independently while her parents work in the same room. There were times, though, when I had to scribble a phrase or two down and save the composition of a full poem for later on when Nora was asleep or in someone else's care. "Her Walks" was just such a poem: it began on a walk with her, but had to be finished later. I even bought a voice recorder to use on outings, but I'm not sure any of those play-by-play poems made it into the final book. Of course, my wife did more than her share of childcare too, so I did have plenty of time to myself in which I could write, if I chose to do that instead of catching up on my sleep.
Having said that, a few of these poems were written while Nora was still in utero, and I was completely free to let my imagination run wild. The effect of having an ultrasound is that you have an aesthetic experience of your own child before you really have a responsibility-based bond (at least this was true for me, as a father). This means that the paranoid, helpless fears can start early, but so can the process of carefree self-transformation, which happens a bit in "The Milk Man." I suppose it's odd for a man to think about having to breastfeed his child, but for me the question is more: what are we as men doing with our nipples, anyway?
Your question does bring up a more abstract potential conflict, however, and I suppose that was its larger point: is there a tension between simply living in the moment with a child and sitting back to analyze and/or aestheticize those moments? I suppose that in theory there could be a gap between doing and thinking, or between participating and observing, but the only thing I can say about that is that for me it didn't present itself as such. Some of the poems address this issue ("Her Outlook," for instance) but I felt that one of the biggest things I learned from my daughter is that sometimes you can think and do at the same time. In fact, I suspect that's what learning is, for children: they do something for the first time and retain a vivid mental image of that action. We tend to call this "playing" but I like the idea that it's an important form of "work" and I think that at its best, poetry becomes a similarly integrated activity, where to think a word and to feel it or experience it are the same thing.
The real conflict that I have experienced as a writer and parent comes on the emotional level, and happens only when I'm not actively caring care of my daughter. When one is engaged in the often tedious or trivial acts of parenting, or when one is in front of the child, one doesn't allow oneself to get overly emotional about all the hopes and fears every remotely responsible parent has, at least on a subliminal level. (You'll note how objective that sentence sounds.) Yet when I step back and into the solitary space of poetry, I tend to think about all the awful things that might happen to any child. It's especially rough when I re-read a poem that I've written in this vein, because I get exceedingly emotional. It's sometimes so bad that I can't read a certain poem aloud at public readings, which is both embarrassing and inconvenient. It's as if the warm-hearted parent in me is being tormented by the hard-headed writer; this really has nothing to do with the child's actual life. As parents we tend to want to deny and guard against all the unpleasant realities of life (and death) even while, as writers, we know that these realities will inevitably pierce our defenses eventually. I remember a story of a friend who talked about how she felt when she ventured outside for the first time after giving birth to her son: she was terrified of every passing car, and burst into tears when she saw an extremely old man hobbling along (he was a walking reminder of death). She got over it, of course, but it seems to be in my copy of The Writer's Book of Unofficial Duties to conjure up those reminders even at the best of times. Besides, there are always real-life close shaves to bring the ghosts back–that's what "The Runaway" is about.
mamazine: Parents who write about their children sometimes face criticism for doing just that. What response might you have for such a critic?
Brad Buchanan: I can understand such concerns, and to some extent I've always shared them. The fact is that in this case I had very little choice. Writing poetry is a necessary outlet for me; if I stop the words from forming in my brain, or don't pursue a certain rhythm in speech that strikes me as compelling, I simply shut down altogether and get very cranky. Plus I found it very hard to write about anything other than Nora for a very long time. The experience of planning for, having, and raising a child was so daunting and new that it sent these tidal waves of anxiety and wonder through my brain. Nora was my muse for more than 3 years, basically, and if you don't serve your muse, you wither as a writer. She has also shown a genuine love for words and songs from a very early age, and lately she has even memorized some significant chunks of her favorite poems from the book ("The Bubblegum Baby" is her favorite). I feel that having poems written about her has enhanced her interest in language, which is a clear benefit of all this in my view. She now demands two poems before bedtime, and I think that's a habit few parents would want to break or suppress. Having said all that, I've essentially stopped writing about Nora these days, partly because she's becoming so adept with words herself that I don't feel compelled to supplement what she says with my own commentaries. She can speak for herself now, quite eloquently and at some length; for instance, she's pretty good at correcting me when I say the wrong thing, as a matter of fact (though now I know what the difference is between pigtails and ponytails, I think.) Plus I felt that we were reaching the point where she old enough that it might seem a tad creepy or inappropriate. The other factor in all this is that much of Swimming the Mirror is primarily about me: for instance, its title refers to the parental illusion that one's child is an extension or reflection of oneself. So for much of the book I was really just writing about my own psychological state. Still, once that illusion that one's child is a mirror of the parent is completely gone (i.e., once the child is old enough to have a clear personality and sense of selfhood), it seems wrong to pretend that it's still there. So it felt right to write these poems, but now it feels right to stop.
mamazine: What are you reading and/or being inspired by these days?
Brad Buchanan: I'm trying to write some fiction right now, so I'm depending a bit less on the seemingly random bouts of inspiration that produce poetry for me. However, I have been dipping into the work of Geoffrey Hill, a British poet I've admired for a long time for his ability to knit personal and political or public history together into memorable, tough and intense diction. I was hoping to write Hill's biography, actually (he's still alive), but apparently there's an official biographer working already. I have somewhat shameful love for muckraking literary biographies, and so I've been savoring a very sad but oddly inspiring book about the novelist Jean Stafford, Robert Lowell's first wife. She was a very elegant stylist (her work is almost like Edith Wharton's) but she was also a raging alcoholic with a self-destructive streak. Her life is a tragic story, but in a way it's encouraging to see that a talent had emerge even from such a disturbed person. In a lighter vein, I've been reading Vladimir Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory (which is so amazingly detailed and insightful that it seems almost self-indulgent to read it, let along write it). I've also been inspired by Zoe Keithley's storytelling workshops, which are run out of Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento. She follows the Story Workshop method pioneered by John S*** in the 1970s, and I have found that her techniques and supportive attitude make the transition from poetry to fiction much easier.
mamazine: What are you working on now?
Brad Buchanan: I'm glad you asked! I'm very excited right now by a new project that I'm undertaking with my wife, Kate Washington. We're starting up a small literary publisher called Roan Press. We're going to publish poetry, fiction, books of essays, memoirs and other genres by writers from the Sacramento region and beyond. We aim to publish 1-2 books a year, depending on the nature of the projects we have in mind. For instance, I am currently soliciting and reviewing writings and art dealing with (or inspired by) the Nevada City harpist and composer/songwriter Joanna Newsom. Our website (www.roanpress.com) will soon be up and running, and we're ready to start reading manuscripts right now (people interested in submitting manuscripts or ordering books can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org). I am also involved with the Sacramento Poetry Center, and we're going to be starting a poetry-oriented book press next year, as well as holding an annual nationwide poetry book contest (people can visit www.sacramentopoetrycenter.org for more information). It's been a busy summer, what with all of these large projects in the works, but I'm very happy that they're under way.
To read selected poems from Swimming the Mirror, click here.
yellow lamp on blue book
beach blanket mamas