volatile sources of life: an interview with brooke ellsworth
Matthew: Good to speak with you again, Brooke! So what are you reading these days? What sort of ideas, books, poems are you obsessing over lately?
Brooke: I’ve been fixated on this Hélène Cixous essay about Nancy Spero called “Spero’s Dissidences.” It’s about Spero’s panels on war, torture, and cruelty. Cixous does a lot of deep-dives into the belly of the painter to talk about psychic labor behind Spero’s work and our work as the viewer, which I think is not because of the violence Spero depicts, but in spite of it. At one point in Cixous’s essay-revelry, she takes a breath: “And now she, Spero, raises her head of hope, her minute human grasshopper’s head, and she observes the morals of the Vile Solar Cockroach without blinking.” Reading and re-reading this passage, these days I’m excited to take her bugs literally, and consider how that might impact her discussion on the military superpower phallus that Spero depicts in her triptychs. Almost a hyper-realism of her own downfall. Privileged communities, confronted with a destitution we force the rest of people into. I just moved into a house for the first time, and when I went into the backyard, I found these pink Legos flattened into the mud. The cockroach is vile, but it’s in the place of a sustainable energy source. There is strength in advocating for our abuser’s overthrow by pointing at bugs in the dirt. Have you read Hiromi Itō’s Wild Grass on the Riverbank? There’s a lot of volatile (not dead, not alive) sources of life there, too. I’m thinking about the mother.
Matthew: Wow. Unfortunately, I don’t know the Itō book. Is that what got you started thinking about these “volatile sources of life” and motherhood?
Brooke: I was first introduced to Itō when Action Books published Killing Kanako: Selected Poems. This was long before I become a mother myself. I guess it’s worth mentioning, my collection, Serenade, was written long before I became a mother also. Itō became a matriarchal figure in my poetry-consciousness, and I think Serenade definitely carries that torch. The poems that came out of that time period I came to think of as these weird, bitter babies (“I didn’t ask to be born!” etc.). I think the work in Serenade can sometimes reflect a second, external adolescence. I always thought I’m really good at embarrassing myself. That’s proving to be true even in my writing. Mortified is a show I’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix.
Matthew: (laughs) Well, that makes sense! Earlier, you talked about Cixous’s essay on the visual artist Spero. Can you tell me more about your relationship to painting and the visual arts in general? And have you always been interested in art criticism? How do you think these disciplines have impacted your poetry?
Brooke: When you read John Ashbery’s art criticism, I think you gain a clearer insight into Ashbery’s own poetics. I also think Ashbery himself liked to play the possum and point that out himself from time to time in interviews—that he had a more direct sense of his own work through his writing on the work of Alex Katz. It’s also possible I’m saying that because I’m an opportunist. I wrote about Meleko Mokgosi for Entropy Magazine, and I can testify to that experience. I was doing a lot of thinking about the social commentary, not in his paintings, but in how he uses Western iconography, the visual language of the oppressor, as a painter from Botswana, in a way that negates its power. That feels like generosity, on his part. I began to understand the role I played as a Western white viewer of his work. We all have daddies we have to exorcise, on some level. And we all play the daddy. There are days when I look at Balthus’s The Golden Years and can see how the threads connect to myself, to this post-election country, to the shit on my shoe. On a more technical level, I enter a lot of poem sequences ekphrastically. I took that Balthus title for a poem in Serenade, and that was a watershed poem for me and for the book as a whole. That poem ends with “Hey family debt family sleeping at night / I wanna be the dinner.”
Matthew: The poems in Serenade often exhibit striking and original forms, playing with typographical formatting, punctuation, and line/stanza length. How did you arrive at the form of poems like “Deathdream” and “Flaca,” for example, which begin with a few lines of “prose” and then turn to very short lines? How about the prose blocks of poems like “The Sky’s Dark Blue Charity” in the third section?
Brooke: I consider myself more a failed essayist than I do a poet. With that in mind, I suppose I’m soft for the more prosimetric. I was reading John Ashbery’s A Wave, where he has a sequence of haibun. Super simply, haibun combines prose and haiku. The prose conventionally functions as a sort of narrative splay, more autobiographical, more retrospection. A friend called the sequence of poems you’re talking about “the icicle poems.” I thought of them more as emaciated haibun for a while. I recognize that prose and poetry are usually pitted against each other, maybe as contradictory impulses. I’m not sure I see it that way. I discovered Rosmarie Waldrop when I was a working on my MFA at The New School. Her prose poetry, how concise but contorted, is that same kind of fucked up nest that’s both an engineering masterpiece of epistemology and also the most embarrassing naked crotch.
Matthew: Icicle poems! I love that. Would you elaborate a bit more on that last bit—“both an engineering masterpiece of epistemology and also the most embarrassing naked crotch”? Does this bring us back to the cockroach?
Brooke: We always come back to the cockroach! Also, maybe very specifically with Clarice Lispector’s cockroach. When the protagonist in The Passion According to G.H. crushes the cockroach, that triggers the crisis for her, right? The room vibrates with the crisis, her crisis of self. There’s something that’s supposed to repel us with the image and the reality, but it’s what most fully draws us in. More privately, there’s something that we’re supposed to access at the highest point of crisis, right? But conventionally, that’s thought of as a purity, or a purifying process. Thinking like this is because we can’t imagine art outside of the mechanics of power and capital. I need to get something in return for my trauma. But we all know that’s just not always the case. I believe in the transcendence of rot. When I explore self-destruction and environmental destruction, I sometimes wonder where I want the nudity of these facts to lead. Art history and Western philosophy wants us to vacate the earthly in preference for the more intellectual, heavenly realm. But we all know that’s just another big horrible gender-reveal party for people with money.
Matthew: I had the privilege of hearing you read your work once. I think that experience helped me to understand the pace of your poems—they move quickly, almost bustle on the page like a pedestrian on a big city sidewalk. The abrupt turns in your poems’ forms seem city-like to me as well. You lived in New York for a while. What effect do you think your time there has had on your poetry?
Brooke: Actually, I’m in and out of the city still. I spend a lot of time on trains, like everyone else. Taking the train has had a greater impact on my writing. I do a lot of primary writing on my phone. The city for me these days are the outskirts of the city. I live where the nuclear power plant that feeds the city is.
Matthew: So what’s next for you?
Brooke: I’m working on a project with a working title of Disturbances. This is based on the field studies by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. She’s a scientific illustrator known for her work with morphologically disturbed insects found in fallout areas. It’s about bugs and depression.
Brooke Ellsworth's first full-length book of poetry is Serenade (Octopus Books, 2017). She lives and writes in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Matthew Porto holds an MFA in poetry from Boston University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poet Lore, Salamander, storySouth, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Texas Tech University.