Kristin Brace’s poems are inspired by anything — headaches, personal grief, even nude paintings pilfered from a library book.
A local poet, Brace is the author of two chapbooks (Fence, Patio, Blessed Virgin and Each Darkness Inside). Her latest book, the full-length collection Toward the Wild Abundance, was released in July by the Michigan State University Press imprint Wheelbarrow Books.
Her book launch is on Thursday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at LowellArts. You can find more information at kristinbrace.com.
Meanwhile, we talked with Brace about where her inspiration comes from and how her words find their way onto the page.
When did you begin writing poetry?
I began writing poems and stories when I was quite young, not long after I learned to write. Early on, I sensed the magic of language, how it’s a tool for discovery and also an invitation to play. I remember curling up with a notebook in an old rose-patterned chair, scribbling at top speed as the world faded away. What a gift to have been surrounded by paper, pencils and books.
Previously, you served as executive director of Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center, cultivating kids’ writing. What effect did this have on your work?
It drove home the point that all humans are creative beings — whether or not we know or acknowledge it — and that we each are agents of our own voices and stories, whether or not we are invited by our communities to express ourselves. So I was reminded on a regular basis of the power of writing in shaping both individuals and how we connect with one another. Writing creates and articulates realities. Writing matters.
On another level, I’m reminded of kids’ very low tolerance for B.S. — whatever they write is True, with a capital T, even if it’s a made-up story. So looking at my own work through that lens helps me keep it real.
How do you know when an idea deserves a poem?
I think it comes down to listening, to paying attention, and then giving the spark some space and time, letting images and lines surface and lead the way. Sometimes subjects become an obsession, something that must be written through, explored from every angle, even purged. It’s a thought or image that won’t go away until words have shaped it and reshaped it. Memory is like this, and day to day life. … The poet William Stafford said that poetry is ‘a reckless encounter with whatever comes along,’ and I think there is truth in that, the idea of facing whatever comes head on, pen in hand. If you don’t put that ‘whatever’ on the page to begin with, it can never find its way into being a poem.
To what degree do you see poetry as self-expression, and to what degree craftsmanship?
I wonder if self-expression and craftsmanship are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps pure self-expression runs the risk of devolving into navel gazing, or of being sloppy or out of touch. Craftsmanship without self-expression, though, is an exercise in poetic prowess: the bones without a heart, a scaffold without a home. Then, too, the interplay between these elements depends on the purpose of the writing. Is the poem just for me, because I need to write it? Or do I plan to send it out into the world to be received by others?
What poets serve as your model?
How about I share instead some poets with whom I feel most at home, or whose work has recently moved me, in no particular order: Joy Harjo, Laura Kasischke, Marie Howe, Mary Szybist, Marianne Boruch, Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver, Anna Kamieńska, Mark Doty, Joy Gaines-Friedler, Laura Donnelly, Jack Ridl, Natalie Diaz, Yosef Komunyakaa, Ada Limón, Tarfia Faizullah, Jane Kenyon, Jane Hirshfield, Robert Hass, Carolyn Forché, Anna Akhmatova, Stanley Kunitz, Mary Ruefle, Denise Levertov, W. S. Merwin, Dorianne Laux, Jenny Xie, Anne Carson, Jean Valentine, Kathleen Driskell, Sylvia Plath, William Stafford, Robert Bly, Louise Glück, Emily Dickinson, Tess Gallaghe
Also, I receive the Poem-a-Day email from the Academy of American Poets. This daily dose of varied and often unfamiliar poetry invigorates my own writing and way of seeing the world.
Poetry is sometimes seen as anachronistic, like gravestone rubbing or accordion playing. What value does it add today?
That makes me laugh, because once upon a time I actually did gravestone rubbings, and I picked up accordion playing a few years ago. Maybe I was born in the wrong century?
Seriously, though, I think that view of poetry is borne out of several contexts. For example, how we are taught poetry often colors our experience of it throughout life. If it’s presented solely as a historical thing to be ‘figured out,’ it’s bound to seem dry and disconnected from life today. Also, we live in an entertainment culture pervaded by the misconception that only the perceived experts should engage in a particular art form. So there’s an element of fear in even approaching poetry, as a reader or potential writer. Lastly, poetry asks something of us. It requires us to slow down, to breathe more slowly, and to be fully present.
What do you get out of that process?
The rewards of that are myriad. Poetry allows us to connect with ourselves, with the world, and with voices and ideas past and present. It offers a glimpse into other perspectives, giving us the opportunity to grow in awareness and empathy. It’s an invitation to enter more deeply into the present moment and to move into the next moment more thoughtfully, more awake than we were before.
What should a reader expect of Toward the Wild Abundance?
First, a gorgeous cover, thanks to the piece New Day by artist Jill Worm. Then, inside, poems that I hope will invite the reader to roam, wonder, be.
What advice would you give someone interested in starting to write poetry?
Read, read, read, widely and deeply. Write regularly. Be specific. Let yourself be surprised. Find a supportive online or in-person community where you can share and receive feedback. Don’t write to impress, but rather as if no one but you will ever read what you wrote. Write because you have to, because there’s something inside you that must find its own life on the page.