Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #15 by Stephen McClurg
Tina Mozelle Braziel is an Alabama-based poet whose first book, Known by Salt, won the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. The book captures specific elements of growing up poor in the South and how one navigates life by constructing a self, a family, or a home. I talked to her about these ideas, the threads of images throughout the book, and her writing process.
Stephen McClurg (SM): One of the elements of the book I enjoyed was its use and variety of settings: trailer porches, small office rooms, the cabin you’re building one piece at a time, the river’s edge, and even whole ecosystems.
Is this sense of place something indivisible from your thinking and process or did it happen by chasing ideas? What are your thoughts about place in poetry–in how you feel it works in your poems or in others that you like? Did you have models for these approaches?
Tina Mozelle Braziel (TMB): Recently many people on social media were discussing internal monologue or the lack of it. They seemed particularly concerned if someone didn’t have a voice in their head or running conversation made of words. Or at least that was the opinion I saw.
While I have an internal monologue, I also have this internal movie screen that plays back places I’ve been before. Often it is the landscape of a commute down county roads. Sometimes it is an interior room like the lobby of the school I attended as an exchange student in Germany or my grandmother’s kitchen. At any moment I can be in two places at once, washing dishes and driving Highway 25 between Pell City and Montevallo, for example. Place is intrinsic to my imagination and interior world.
But this isn’t just me. It seems like place is integral to poetry. Place is the essential feature for many of our poetic genres such as bucolics, greater romantic lyrics, and itineraries. Place also plays an important role in other poetic genres like georgics and ballads. No doubt this is because where we are from, where we are, and where we hope to go says so much about the individual human experience.
As for models, encountering Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s work has particularly inspired me. I became absolutely wild about “All Animals Were Once Called Dear” when I read her description of a bank housed in a trailer and of the pickup gunning its engine. Those images struck me as validation of my impulse to write the rural landscape as I knew it. I saw how the pastoral could include more than farmland, but also the rural life that I experienced: trailer parks and dammed rivers and wooded ridges.
As I wrote poems about building our house, I looked to Seamus Heaney’s work, especially “Glanmore Sonnets” and “Glanmore Revisited” as models. In fact, while I was writing those poems I did not leave home for an overnight trip without packing a Heaney collection. I was also influenced by how Claudia Emerson used images of homes and their environs to highlight personal relationships in Late Wife.
SM: You mention Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets.” Many of the poems felt like they may have begun as sonnets, but I may be mistaken. Several, especially towards the beginning of the book, have around fourteen lines, but don’t necessarily carry other features of the sonnet. Other than that, I mostly noticed couplets and tercets and not a lot of traditional forms, but also not anything in a free Whitmanian line. How do you approach form in your poetry?
TMB: As for form, I’m very focused on the line. I adore line breaks especially those that offer an additional meaning to the sentence. But I’ve learned that breaking every line in such a way can conceal meaning, so I try to rein myself in.
I wasn’t consciously aiming for sonnets, but I did notice early on that poems of that length are better received. Perhaps we have a sonnet-sized appetite. So that may have subconsciously influenced the length of the poems.
SM: In “Homemaking Along Lay Lake,” you write: “Made under that throng of willow flies, / made where piers hammer us to this drift of blossoms.”
The ending here captures the gruffness, maybe strength, and the difficulty of trailer park living. Words like throng, piers, and hammer provide that image. But the poem also captures a kind of tenderness and fragility of the kid playing with paper boats, albeit dipped in motor oil. This is echoed, too, in the words like willow, blossom, and later even doublewide. That last one, for all its connotations, actually sounds pleasant–I hadn’t noticed that before–maybe it’s the contrast to singlewide?
Then the pressure cooker is mentioned–well, living poor can be a pressure cooker, but also this may be the whistle for dinner, something good–home. I think “sunburnt kid” captures that dichotomy as well. The finding of home even in difficult places. Does any of that ring true to you? Could you speak about the poem and its images?
TMB: Yes! Absolutely! I’m thrilled that all of the above came through to you! The trailer park where I grew up was a magical and, to use your word, gruff place. I wanted to reveal it as having the fraught comforts of any other home.
The pressure cooker was particularly significant as an object that preserves the bounty of a particular place and time for the future. Yet, at least for me and maybe other children of the ’70s and ’80s, it is also a threatening object because they were reported to explode. When my grandmothers canned, my mother forced me to play outside so I would be out of reach of a blast of scalding water and shattered glass.
The practice of digging and spreading bulbs signified to me how even in nature some roots / homes are moved. I wanted to begin there to suggest the traditional idea of home as being stationary or a trailer being mobile may be too narrow or limiting.
The phrase “going to the house” was the impetus of the poem. Growing up I often heard many family members and neighbors who lived in trailers say it. It had struck me as odd because I was in a stage where I took everything very literally. Now I have developed an appreciation for using “the house” as a synonym for home, a word that someone could use for apartment or loft or trailer.
SM: “Known by Salt” captures peculiarities that connect us to family. My grandfather, a sometimes mechanic, full-time custodian, salted his food like you mention in your poem. I particularly remember him pulling tomatoes from his garden, sprinkling salt on them, and eating them as he inspected the plants.
I’m not sure if I have a question there. I guess I was taken with the image–of an action–and how it ties into the natural metaphors of place relating to home and family bloodlines and maybe rivers as bloodlines in the land. Does that make sense? I feel like it’s connected to some of the other images and themes in the book.
TMB: Oh, I love the idea and image of “rivers as bloodlines.” Mozelle adopted my mother, so I’m forever looking for ways that I’m connected to her. Many of those connections are actions: building houses, wearing silk, knitting, etc. My family often says, “We didn’t name you Mozelle for nothing” for doing these things. As a poet, I like to think that in my family, names run thick as blood. But actions, particularly work, binds people to one another as well. Love for and life within a landscape does that as well. I’ve witnessed that a lot lately from members of Friends of the Locust Fork. They talk about how the river connects them to others who have different belief systems or political leanings.
SM: “Trespassing” seems to me to be about options or the lack of them, or being able to recognize opportunity when it presents itself. For one, we have to be in a place lucky enough to have options, furthermore, we have to be in a condition well enough to even know we can ask the question. Taking the book as a poetic sequence, “Trespassing” foreshadows the later poems about building the cabin. The longing for a home.
This made me think of the difficulties of being poor, and particularly being poor in America, where it’s often suggested that it’s not systemic, that somehow it’s tied to morality or ethics (later poems like “Trash” speak of this as well). One of the ways the poem spoke to me was that idea of not knowing what the options are. What possibilities do I have? Saying to children “they can be whatever they want to be”–is that helpful? So then the “Trespassing” (also the section title) could refer to that idea of growing up poor and feeling like one is trespassing, not worthy, or doesn’t belong. Do you think the poem does that kind of work?
TMB: Yes. I hope it does. I was also thinking about this in “Interview, 1966” when Mozelle looks down at her houndstooth suit and notices how one square steps into another, wondering how or if she will do that. “Trespassing” also examines how we find ways to make the world ours, to feel that we do belong, despite feeling as if we don’t.
I’m not sure if it is helpful to tell children they can be whatever they want. My ex-boyfriend complained it misguided him to drop out of high school. He felt later he had been duped when he confronted his lack of options after that decision. My parents, on the other hand, told me if I followed all the rules and did everything right, I might have a slight chance at a job or scholarship or any other opportunity.
In “Trespassing” I wanted to explore a moment when transgressing rules was allowed. Even so, it is a justified risk for Mozelle because she felt no one would accuse women and children of anything criminal. She trespasses in order to feed her sense of possibility and to prompt that sense in the speaker. I wanted to highlight the value of the imagination here, how it deeds us for a moment ownership and dignity or control. When we say to ourselves, “If it were mine, I’d make it this way,” we own our aesthetic. In the poem, the speaker doesn’t learn this while they are trespassing. She, like so many of us, is too focused on what we enumerate, money or zipcodes. Yet she gets it later. I wanted that from this poem, too. That we have multiple chances to find possibilities.
SM: There’s a reference in “Trailer Fish” to the Elizabeth Bishop poem “The Fish.” I thought it was a fantastic reimagining of the image, but one that still registers the hard beauty of experience from the referenced poem. I loved the description of the trailer that builds on that idea, that the trailer is “cold-blooded” and the “windows open like gills.” I assume Bishop has been an influence. If so, what have you liked about her poems? Also, who are other poets that have influenced you and whose work are you currently enjoying?
TMB: Oh yes, Bishop influences me quite a bit. I particularly love Bishop’s use of perspective and the intimacy I find within it. Reading Bishop, I feel as if I stepped inside the mind that looks close then closer. She generously re/creates a moment, extending an invitation to take a journey. Like in “The Moose,” we get a bird’s eye view of a bus traveling across the landscape, then we move inside the bus and overhear the passengers’ conversations, and then the journey dissipates in the scent of the moose and gasoline. She carries us on that journey without ever losing us. Bishop challenges me to not only look closely, but also to write as if I “looked and looked (my) infant sight away.”
As I mentioned earlier, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Seamus Heaney have influenced me a great deal. I look to Philip Levine and Larry Levis often. Right now, I’m totally ga-ga about Alice Oswald and Camille Dungy. Oswald’s Falling Away is amazing. I love her poem about flies and how she gives us a sense of what it must be like to be that fly buzzing its way into oblivion. I’m in awe of Dungy’s skill in Smith Blue in drawing us into intimate moments and making huge events like climate change feel very personal.
SM: “Pins” contains another matrix of images and meanings. The pins, shrapnel, nails, etc. in the poem operate both as pieces of metal that invade and scar the body, but they also become stories that connect or hold together experience like rebar in concrete, but they also become trophies or heirlooms–and maybe something like the old lures dangling from Bishop’s fish that she calls “medals.”
Just as scars can be inner or outer, the poem suggests something similar about the stories we tell others or ourselves about scars or trauma. The poem is much earlier in the book, but rereading it, I also connected it to the gathering of a life and the gathering of material for the cabin. I can imagine that this poem began with one of those small pieces of metal and built up from there. What was the process like? Did it originally have those connections because those ideas were on your mind or did they come about through the arrangement of the book?
TMB: It began with the dress pin. Late in Mozelle’s life, she said she wished she had the pin that killed her mother. This reminded me of how my Dad sometimes wished he had the rung that broke and caused him to fall fifty feet. I wanted to connect those two stories, but I could not figure out how to do it. I wondered for too long what doctors do with such things. I even imagined that there could be a depository for the objects that maim or kill our loved ones—a jail for the things that assault us.
I wasn’t conscious of how this poem would connect to gathering materials to build the cabin. I like that you saw that link. Instead, I was focused on making a stronger connection between Mozelle and Dad. Their similar desire to take hold of the objects that had done harm felt like one way. I also wanted to show that they both overcame physical hardship: Dad’s fall in this poem and Mozelle’s recovery from a detached retina and deafness from scarlet fever in “Mozelle’s Shoes.” Those stories loomed large in my imagination growing up.
The image of the soapstone was a gift from my brother that connected the two stories. When I was visiting him, he showed me some soapstone he had found and asked, “Who does this remind you of?” That gave me the object that showed Dad’s recovery and his dedication to construction work. The soapstone was a way to suggest that work mends us.
SM: The “Allure” section begins with a George Eliot quote: “For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” Do you understand this to mean that the interior is controlled by the environment or our own physical exteriors or both? I was interested if how this feeds back into the poems about poverty, about love, about living in the world as a woman, and the cabin, but I wasn’t sure if I was just getting carried away. Again, this inside/outside here forms a web or matrix of images, rather than a linear form of arrangement.
TMB: For Eliot, “what lies outside” is society, the force it exerts on how we interact with one another and how we see each other and ourselves. I wanted to allude to that and an awareness of this force by the speaker when it comes to issues of class and the role of women, particularly as an introduction to “Allure.”
In addition to that though, I feel that the natural world provides an escape or an alternative from the force of society. In woods or even in a trailer park, the light filtering through the pine needles or the pattern of shadow on the river offers transcendence and beauty no matter who you are or how much money you have. It is a bounty open to all, at least somewhat. That richness is what I want to determine my inward being.
SM: The poem “Allure” is one of my favorites, not only for the interesting mix of allusions, from Looney Tunes to the Hebrew Bible, but also the range of emotions and experience it manages to cover in a relatively small amount of space.
The image of how the young stripper steps into the thong “the way she’d cross a low wall” struck me. It’s very precise, but it also reminded me of the “good fences make good neighbors” line from Frost. If she is stepping over a low wall, what kind of neighbors are these? The poem gives us a few answers and they mostly aren’t positive: the Fudd character, who is turned on, but ashamed, the decapitations of the Salome section, the husband’s rude friend.
TMB: I hadn’t consciously meant to allude to “Mending Wall” though it was a poem that I had been studying at the time.
SM: The poem also suggests an empowerment for the dancer, who becomes more confident as the poem shifts from a third person to a first person perspective–more embodied, but somehow disembodied from the experience? The aforementioned decapitations are several: the money that stacks up, the turning off of thought and emotions, the silhouettes and shadows of paper dolls watching, themselves seemingly not empowered or being rational in any way.
TMB: Thanks for noticing that. I find that to be a central irony of stripping. The dancer is elevated. She is on stage. She is given money. Yet she is denigrated and looked down upon. I wanted to give her the agency and power that isn’t granted by social norms.
SM: The “Formica” section leads toward this turning off of emotions. The Fudd character, previously the blushing hunter, becomes the husband and then the sculptor of the Galatea metaphor. At first, I felt there was an interesting tension in that Bugs has more agency in the low art version rather than in the high art version. The dancer, Bugs, who’s always in control, becomes the statue–though that seems still like prey, but not active. And even though one is high art and one is low–the lower one maintains an action even if they are acting, whereas the high art version does not get agency. The dancer regains control in the last section. The poem captures both the potential empowerment, and the joy of it, and the shame and how people still look down upon it.
TMB: Wow, I hadn’t thought too much about the difference in agency between the high and low art versions. While Bugs has more agency, he need only to remove his “femininity” in order to change the power dynamics. He’ll be hunted but in a different way. In every cartoon, he gives up on the guise of femininity to “save” him because it won’t. For the speaker in the third section, she doesn’t want to be shaped by the male gaze. Like Bugs in the cartoons, she rather give up femininity and return to what she was before, to a more natural state of stone.
SM: A previous poem, echoed with “Allure” to me. “Interview, 1966” felt like it could be a Coen Brothers scene, but I was surprised about how many elements these two poems shared.
TMB: Coen Brothers!?! That’s a huge compliment. Thank you.
SM: “Claims” has a rusted sign decayed into reading “NO SING.” I took this as a commentary on the man’s hubris of claims or simply something like the littering shown in the poem, but also how those claims can’t be permanent. I also found that the claim was made on a rusted sign that was falling back into the earth, but also made in language that itself was about having no song. The true poem, or maybe nature’s answer is a song in the form of the fawn found in the moment. The poem moves like the frequent nature walks mentioned in these poems, which I also connect to the web or matrix of images that the book develops. Does any of that register with your experience of writing the poems?
TMB: Absolutely. After listening to this and some of the house building poems, a neighbor told me that I wrote in a way that made the cabin seem temporary, as if we and it were just visiting the land where it sits. Perhaps that is the trailer park kid in me holding on to the sense that home is a bulb to be dug up and spread. I’m suspect of human claims. The surveyor’s claim to the lines he sited feel stronger to me because of the work he put in. I understand the claim made by the campfire ring of a trespasser. When nothing is yours, it all is. Or as Larry Levis says, “Anything is enough if you know how poor you are.” All of this is to say I wanted to explore how transitory or even ridiculous our claims are on land. How much can we really claim other than the footprint beneath or feet or where we lie down?
SM: Maybe I’m being too precious, but the building of the cabin and the writing of a poem seem linked in that both are a means of constructing a way in the world. Building a poem a line or word at a time is echoed in the cabin poems. Like birds building a nest–itself a theme in the book–finding oneself (or selves–there are the multiple identities and names that the persona takes on) and finding someone else, finding love, and building a place to be in the world. Building a poem and then a book of poems strikes me as a potentially similar project.
TMB: I definitely feel that building a home and building a poem echo one another. I grew up hearing my grandmother claim that my father and his father and brothers (all of them were bridge builders) were filling her narrow living room with bridges whenever they talked shop. So I’ve been imagining words building things all my life. I wanted Known by Salt to address how home is made, emotionally as well as physically.
Building the house itself taught me so much about the creative process. Building the house and putting a collection of poems together are enormous projects that felt overwhelming to me. I couldn’t grasp the full scope of what I would need to do to finish them. Since we moved in before we had our walls up and needed to dry the house in quickly before winter, I didn’t have the luxury of overthinking or procrastinating about building. That gave me practice in moving forward into uncertainty when it came to writing.
I had no idea what book I was writing when I wrote most of the poems in Known by Salt. I had written a series of poems about Mozelle, others about growing up in the trailer park, “Allure,” and I kept writing poems about building the house. I worried that I had the “seed” poems for three or four different collections. At some point I realized I needed to write poems that filled in between those themes, much like I needed to frame windows between studs to create walls. “Trash,” “A Clear View,” “Rivering,” and “Looking Glass” are some of the poems that filled that need.
Much like how my husband and I moved the bed and scaffolding around as we lived in the house as we built it, I shifted poems around trying to figure out where they’d best fit with one another. I reread collections I admired, paying attention to how they were structured. After looking closely at Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work, I decided a mostly chronological order peppered with a few flashbacks to Mozelle’s life worked best.
SM: I enjoy the kind of crossover you do with love and ecopoetry. Like I mentioned earlier, they’re really bound with other topics throughout the book. “All Our Things Are Resurrections” represents even in the title–that love is an act of resurrection, that care is also about resurrecting others. “Simple Machine” does this beautifully–making a life together as a simple machine–or something built out of simple machines–hammers and hearts beat together throughout many of these last poems. I could carry that into natural cycles or the rhythms of the poetic line. The ecopoetic qualities aren’t directly about nature besides the one line that mentions saplings, mostly it is about recovery and repurposing. The idea of simple machines reminded me of Williams and his notion of “no ideas but in things.”
In a way, maybe I’m asking about the connection of writing to living in the world, to finding love, making and sharing spaces, that writing poetry itself is a simple machine–or can be–a simple machine of love and resurrection?
TMB: Your question is worded so beautifully, I feel like the best way to answer it is to simply say yes.
It also reminds of a prompt that Geri Doran, my thesis director at the University of Oregon, gave my poetry workshop. She asked us to take a day without the distractions of social media or email or TV or even the radio. Instead, we were to pay close attention to what bubbles up and shape that into a poem. That encouragement to see how living in the world gives rise to poetry is something I’ve tried to keep my sights on ever since.
At first, building our glass cabin was a means to a writing life. The best way we knew to afford time to write was to rid ourselves of a rent or mortgage payment. That sense quickly shifted as we became invested in the creativity in building our home and life. We then realized that what we were doing had evolved into a creative life. In other words, all of our labors became meaningful, if not art. Now living in and building our glass cabin, writing, and loving each other has become the ecosystem we inhabit. All of it is intertwined and interdependent. We don’t see divisions between them. And what is ecosystem other than continual resurrections?
You can find out more about Tina Mozelle Braziel’s work at her website and you can follow her on Twitter.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.