How did you get started writing poetry? Was it reading poetry or a specific experience?
I honestly don’t remember when I wrote my first poem. My family was always reading to me, and not always things for children, either. My dad had a fondness for Tennyson, Byron, and Robert Burns especially for some reason, and my grandmother recited folk ballads to me that she’d learned growing up. So with all that going on, the idea of making things with language seemed like a natural thing to do. Then I took some really wonderful poetry courses in college, and they just solidified the feelings I already had. I was hooked.
Can you explain what inspired you to write the poem “Flat Hills”? How did you develop this narrative voice? Is it a voice you use often in your work?
This is one of the few poems I have that actually has a very specific origin story. I was reading the New York Times one day, and there was an obituary for the photographer Joe Deal. (Here’s a link if you’re interested: https://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/06/23/obituaries/20100623-DEAL-5.html). There was a black and white photograph with it called “Flat Hills,” and it showed these flattened mounds with odd stones on them. Then I thought, “gee, they look more like jawbones than stones.” And then I wrote the poem.
I think I have this thread in a lot of the poems I’ve written in the past year—they’re lyrics, but many of them have these odd little narratives inside of them. I get the sense of a particular speaker existing in a world that’s not friendly, and trying to talk to herself as a kind of way out of it. Obviously, that doesn’t work out so well for this particular speaker.
What poets have had a major influence on your style? Who are you reading now?
I was exposed to Berryman, along with Theodore Roethke, James Wright, Sylvia Plath, Charles Simic, and a score of other poets early on in college, and I think that first potent cocktail has been with me ever since. But Berryman especially is close to me. Berryman throws you up in the air, associationally, tonally, musically—but then he catches you with these moments of deep pathos. I love poets who take poems out to the edge of sense and control—to where, in the words of Stevens, they resist our intelligence almost successfully. I think a lot of Dickinson’s poems work that way, too. If I think of any poet as my patron saint, it’s her. The more I read her poems, the more I feel they’re in my blood. It doesn’t really get better than Dickinson for me.
As far as more contemporary poets go, I have to say something about Laura Jensen, particularly her book Memory. She’s more on the quiet side of insanity, but there’s something delightfully slant about her as well. They’re so fierce and fiercely odd. There’s a way in which the restlessness of the speaker’s interior life throws itself out into the world, and I just can’t get enough of that. Of books written more recently, Sandy Florian’s Tree of No and Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies have both been useful to me. The strange worlds that they both create are really fantastic. I value that kind of writing— if I have to take a side, I’m always on the side of mystery. I’m a postulate of the uncanny.
What is your motive as a poet? (For instance, do you set out to make your own discoveries as you write, or to inspire the reader? What do you view the poet’s role as?)
I’m all about the adventure, really. I don’t like poems that sit on things. I crave movement and risk. Discovery is a nice word for it. I think of a poem as a discharge of energy, from me to you.
What projects are you currently working on?
Lately I’ve been working on sorting poems into stacks. But in more seriousness, I have a group of poems I just started writing that are radically different in form than what I’ve been writing the last few years. They’re more expansive, slippery, and maybe a little funnier too. We’ll see where they go.
Annah Browning's poem "Flat hills" appears in issue 11.1. She grew up in the foothills of South Carolina. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, DIAGRAM, Southeast Review, and Word for/Word.