Russell Brakefield explores music, myth, and Michigan in poems


Russell Brakefield

Photo by Jon Rosenberger.

Music and myth. Michigan and memory. These subjects course through Russell Brakefield’s first collection of poetry, Field Recordings, which was published this spring by Wayne State University Press. As a Michigan native, when I read his poems I feel the desperation of winter, the joy of berry picking in the summer, and the layers of time. These place-based, lyrical poems highlight the discordant notes of relationships, plans, hopes, and sleep. 

Brakefield grew up in West Michigan, studied at Central Michigan University, and earned his M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Michigan in 2011. He taught at the University of Michigan following his M.F.A. and then also worked at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor starting in 2013. In 2017, he moved to Colorado and now teaches at the University of Denver, where he says he is learning a different landscape in the West. 

Here, Brakefield shares his experiences in a bookstore and with reading and writing poetry, as well as what’s inspiring him and what’s next.

Q: It must have been a little surreal to do a reading of Field Recordings at Literati in early April 2018 since you had previously worked there. How did working in a bookstore shape your writing and relationship to books?
A: I started working at Literati before the store was even open, which I think would have been March of 2013. I worked there for three years, and it was an amazing experience. I was reading so much in those three years and talking about books and writing constantly with customers and coworkers, anyone who would listen. 

It has been so incredible to watch Literati grow and to see such a beautiful community form around the store. Owners Mike and Hilary are incredibly supportive of their employees and of literature and reading in general. They are dedicated to creating space for literature, art, and community. There are so many talented people that have come through the store. I feel like all of my coworkers were brilliant in one way or another. I was very grateful to be welcomed back to do a reading there in April in part because so many friends, former students, and colleagues showed up to support me, but also Literati represents the best parts of the literary community, a space where people can come together and celebrate writing and creative work. To be the writer being celebrated in that space was a bit overwhelming if I’m being honest. It was undoubtedly the most gratifying moment that I have experienced with the book so far.

Q: You did readings at Third Man Records in Detroit in April 2018 and also at Third Man Record’s Nashville location in June 2018. How does reading at a music venue differ from a literary venue?
A: I’m responding to these interview questions from the Nashville airport right now, after a reading at Third Man Records. At its core, Field Recordings is infatuated with American bluegrass and folk music. So to be able to read at Third Man Records, especially here in Nashville, sort of made sense to me in terms of what the book is doing. Third Man is another great supporter of innovative and exciting art, and their publishing wing, Third Man Books, has been very supportive of my work. 

Reading in a music venue is exciting in that it shakes up the poetry reading format a bit and invites different types of audiences and performances, which I think is important for poetry right now. The space is so unique and exciting, and Third Man’s dedication to aesthetics makes people really receptive to having an experience with the arts. Third Man also brings in a bigger and more diverse audience for poetry, which is really exciting. I was able to meet readers from all over the country and was able to read with some fantastic Nashville poets. The green rooms at Third Man are pretty epic, too. Poets don’t usually get green rooms.

Q: So your reading in a music venue is fitting for the themes in Field Recordings. You weave music, songs, and instruments into your poems. You also find inspiration in ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who gathered recordings in Michigan in 1938. What draws you to music?
A: I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life. My parents are great music lovers, and music was always playing in my house growing up. In college, I played in a band called winter/sessions, which is still famous/infamous in some circles. As for poetry, the interaction between music and language has always been really important to me. I tend to hear the rhythms of a poem before the themes or ideas become clear to me. 

In terms of American folk music, which I use as a sort of lens to deal with other issues in the book, I have long been fascinated with the ways folk songs entered the collective consciousness. Many of the songs we know come from these oral traditions and have been passed down, translated, changed, stolen, updated, recorded, revised, celebrated, etc. It is not unlike poetry -- the way I came to a version of Federico Lorca through Robert Bly, for instance, or the way certain parts of Robert Bly’s work came to me only because of Lorca’s influence. I was also just fascinated with the image of Alan Lomax driving around Michigan in his Plymouth taking songs and stories, making waves that would alter and influence American music, recording a certain kind of history.

Q: Relatedly, poems in Field Recordings reach backward and also forward between points in time. They speak to how the past and one’s origins inform and influence the present. Given this concentration on history and folklore, how do time and history inform your writing?
A: For this book, I was interested in the ways folk songs and folklore get changed and warped with time, how they reach back through time in interesting ways, and also how they take on meaning in whatever way we need. It is a common theme of poetry to try to reframe experience and to try to make sense of the passing of time. Myth and song do this, too. The way a song you listened to in the summer when you were 19 pushes you straight back to that space or makes you see it new from a greater distance. I remember reading somewhere that the music of language is consistent across languages, that parents use the same pitch to console a child across cultures, for example. Some of the poems in the book try to capture and celebrate these elements of myth and music.

Q: The state of Michigan figures strongly into these poems. As a Michigander, too, I recognize places, myths, and characteristics in them, such as in the lines, “Scratch the great lakes onto the insides of your arms. / Know a new idea of home / Know youth as finite. / The coastline eats time / like a tired / child.” And Dog-Man makes an appearance! This theme makes me curious about your connection to Michigan. Did you set out to write place-based poems? How has Michigan played a role in your life?
A: I don’t usually set out to write place-based poems, but it always seems to seep in. When putting this book together I realized that my memory and the way I process experience is tied intrinsically to place. This is, in part, because Michigan is such a dynamic and compelling place. It is hard to live in that state and not feel a direct connection to the land, not feel like your life is dictated in some ways by the seasons, the weather, the landscape. We are all shaped by our surroundings, some more than others, and by the stories rooted in those places. 

I learned about the Dog-Man from Luther when I was young. I like reading this poem for audiences now because every place I read it has a different version of the same story. There are Dog-Men from Chicago, from Escanaba, from Duluth. Again, I think myth, like poetry, can often serve the purpose that a reader needs it to serve, can open up whatever history you bring to it.

Q: You were an artist-in-residence on Isle Royale through the U.S. National Parks Service. What was it like?
A: Incredible. Much at odds with the drive-through culture that seems to dominate parks in the west these days, Isle Royale is hard to get to and has very little in the way of amenities. You have to take a six-hour boat ride just to get to the island. And then, solitude in a way that is almost impossible anywhere else. No cell service and no one around for days, save the moose and eagles and silly otters. I got some good writing done there, but maybe, more importantly, the trip reaffirmed some truths for me about the connection between creative work and practices of contemplation and introspection that only real wilderness can afford.

Q: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Ruby Creek Road.” The lines, “… There is a good chance I have / done many things wrong in my life, to have landed here only just now,” examine how actions and choices lead us to happy or unhappy places and situations. Other poems in your collection allude to this dynamic. How did these lines come about?
A: I look at this poem now and see that it is just a rewriting of many poets before me. James Wright’s “I have wasted my life” comes to mind. But yes, I do think this is a theme that comes up in my work often. There is a romantic version of poetry that asks what agency we actually have in our lives, in this world dictated by the chaos of the cosmos. I don’t think we can afford that type of attitude much anymore; at this juncture, I’m much more interested in interrogating my place and efforts in changing the world we live in now. More than anything though, this poem is about perspective and about being open to a revision of your understanding of the world and your understanding of your life.

Q: Field Recordings has three sections. How would you describe the book’s organization and progression?
A: I always knew that the book would be anchored by the middle section, a long poem in the voice of Alan Lomax. The first section deals more with my own origins and influences, the way certain aspects of my life shaped me and the way I look back on those things and make my own myths or stories or songs. The last section of the book deals more generally with myth and storytelling, and the ways we can use myth and music to make sense of our lives and forge a path forward.  

Q: Tell us what has been inspiring you lately.
A: Because, like I said, I draw quite a bit of inspiration from place, my time here in Colorado has been inspiring in that way. I find my poems being occupied by the magpies and marsh marigolds I see when I’m out hiking. 

I’ve been finding Jim Harrison’s later poems, where he moves back and forth from Northern Michigan and the southwest desert, to be both comforting and inspiring. I am currently reading early work by Brenda Hillman and later work by W.S. Merwin. My project for the summer is to better understand Wallace Stevens. I’m constantly inspired by the many, many amazing voices in contemporary poetry right now as well. 

Oh, and on my trip to Nashville, I got to see some of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, which were incredibly inspiring. These will stay with me for a long time. I’m also teaching a class for young people about myths and monsters, which somehow has led me down a path with the Prometheus myth that is exciting/dangerous.

Q: Field Recordings is your first book of poetry. What’s next?
A: It was a great relief for me, with the publication of Field Recordings, to write poems with no book in mind for a while. That said, I am working slowly on a new project. I’m finding that there are many things I am experiencing at this point in my life that are new and wonderful and complicated, that might be worth exploring in poems. I am also finding myself writing again about art, landscape, music, nature, the themes that will not leave me. I’m also working very slowly on a chapbook about the National Parks, in part so that I can visit those spaces that I have not already visited while there is still something left to visit.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.