Interview with Carly Brown: "I Write Things!"

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Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is a writer, spoken word poet, and PhD student based in Scotland. She’s the author of a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry chapbook, Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone.

In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris, France. She has been a featured poet at locations around the US and Europe including Glastonbury Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe and StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival.

Carly graduated from the University of St Andrews with a first-class undergraduate degree in English Literature and from the University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing MLitt with Distinction. She’s currently a doctoral student in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and working on her first novel. She teaches creative writing to undergraduates at University of Strathclyde and works as the Research Assistant for the Creative Writing Interventions for Young People in Recovery from Mental Illness project.

- from Carly Brown's website


HJ: For readers you may not be familiar with it, what is performance poetry and what is it about that form that attracts you? What do you love about it?

CB: It’s a tricky question. I think for myself, I write poetry that I just want people to read on the page and then I write poems that I primarily like to perform. And with those poems that I like to perform, I try to incorporate elements like pacing and maybe some character voices, I just think about performance a lot as I’m writing them. While some of my performance poetry that is in the book that you read [Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone], and I am so proud of that book, I did not write them originally with the idea of them being written down. I wrote them with the idea that I was going to perform them live, so for me it is really about: where do I think that poem is going to end up? Am I going to perform it live or am I going to have people read it? And obviously sometimes I read aloud the poems I’ve written for the page and sometimes people read the poems I’ve written for the stage, so there is always a crossover. So for myself as an artist, I write from those different two kinds of bases I guess. For me its writing poems WITH performance in mind or an element of the performance in mind as part of the writing process.

HJ: That's a very good answer! That brings me to a question I was going to ask later, but it ties in better now. One of the things I loved about Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone, other than the cultural references and the brilliant title - I often feel that 'grown up' poetry needs to leave us alone as when you are younger I feel we are pushed too much to what "good" poetry is, like for me I was pushed towards Shakespeare and Tennyson...which was all the really good poetry but you had the feeling that you couldn't deviate from it. It wasn't until my second year at The University of Roehampton, when we did a module called 'Poetry & Innovative Form', which was basically all the poetry that 'broke' the rules, and I loved it. That is when I fell in love with poetry, because I thought if poetry could do this wonderful mix of things - concrete, performance, visual, found poetry - that is was just such an incredible medium to use. Anyway, I am on a tangent. I really loved the typesetting and design of Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone, and how it just jumps out of the page and I was just curious what the thinking process was behind that, how you got involved with Lydia Cruz and just how that whole process came to be.

CB: So Lydia was a junior year abroad student. She's American and I'm American originally, she came to study at St. Andrews where I was and we became friends. She saw that I kept going to these performances and she became interested in how you would represent a performance poem on the page. So the book actually started as her thesis for her senior year. When she went back to Sarah Lawrence, which was her University in the US, she was thinking a lot about how we represent performance poetry in text and so she basically listened to my Soundcloud recordings and did the typeset, then wrote about it in this theoretical paper that was really interesting, she wrote about the process and she's a writer as well. After she had done that, she was like "well you have all these amazing representations of the poems now, maybe we should do a book together?" and it became a collaborative process where she sent me the poems. It was incredible when I first read them - because the typography is almost entirely all her design - and when I read the poems I was like "it is like my poems have come to life". There was something really vibrant and innovative, I cried when I first read them because I could hear my voice in the text and it was incredible.

HJ: It is very "alive", if that is the right word to use, it does jump off the page, the energy comes through, it is very much like a living thing. That is what I really loved about it as well.

CB: Thank you. I think much of that comes down to Lydia's work and just her listening to astutely and acutely to the pacing and the rhythm, to everything like that and creating really what is now its own thing, its own art form, its her and me and us collaborating together and I think that is super cool. It was really the way I wanted these poems to live on the page, so I was really happy with the result.

HJ: So you should be, its absolutely lovely! I was thinking about this the other day: it must have been quite a difficult thing for Lydia to do because if you do the typeset in the wrong way, then it will just look like a cluster and it won't express the poem, it will just made the reader frustrated and go "what is this?!" It is an art form, because the amount of effort that must have gone into the placement of these words is quite breathtaking.

CB: Yeah, you really have to balance it so its not too busy and that it is enhancing the words as well as creating its own thing as well. So obviously I think its a beautiful result and its great that you can listen to the Soundcloud recordings as well, so you can see how the rhythm and everything is represented in the text in this physical way.

HJ: The one thing that made me really glad I listened to the sound recordings when I was reading these poems was the fact we that we read at our own speed. Whereas in the Soundcloud recordings there are areas where you speak really really fast, which was super impressive and that was practically the only thing that I felt hadn't been translated from the performance to the page, because of course I'm reading it at my own pace. So in that way these different forms really compliment each other. My edition didn't have it, but I've seen you can buy Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone with a CD of the poems, which I think is awesome.

CB: I think that is such a good point, because if you are reading a poem on your own, you can always go back, you can read a line from the poem that you might have missed or didn't get the first time, you can go back and do it all at your own speed. Whereas if I am writing a poem that I am solely going to deliver live, I have to be conscious that people aren't going to listen to it that second time. They can't go back. So I really try to give them something in that first go and I think "maybe they will never hear it again, maybe they will never see it written down". So I try to give them something they can take away with them in one reading, so I need to be controlling that pace to some degree. You have many more degrees of interpretation, you can choose what words to emphasize, you can choose where to slow down, where to pause and these types of things, so its kind of a big responsibility because you are giving an interpretation of the text with your performance, which is cool, but also you are really guiding the readers/listeners own interpretations.

HJ: So were you always comfortable performing your poetry in front of others? That's one of the things I am terrified of, which I know is weird because poetry is traditionally an oral form, but the idea of getting up on stage just reduces me to panic attacks! I'm slowly trying to make my way with that, so I was wondering what you first felt like when you were doing it, how its changed, whether its different when you are with a group like Loud Poets or when you are on your own.

CB: So I kind of came at this from a theatre background, I've been in plays since I was about ten years old, usually multiple plays a year. So by the time I started writing poetry to perform, which was probably at University, I had already done so much performance on stage. It wasn't my own work that I was performing typically, I mean I wrote a short play in high school, sort of a one-woman show but it was 10-15 minutes long. I was really used to performing other people's work. And so I had a lot of comfort on stage, which I developed over ten years, so it was funny when I started performance poetry I was like "oh! I'm just naturally really comfortable on stage!" then "no you're not, I've been practicing for ten years!" of going on stage, learning how to project and learning how to read an audience's reactions. All these types of things that just came with time. I teach a creative writing class and usually my advice to students, who have quite understandable nerves performing, is just to try. Try to get a sense of it, because I think - like with everything - you'll get more comfortable with it the more you do it. You do a couple of Open Mics and you get like "Okay, that went okay. I'm still alive". It can be really scary and I do get nervous, even now after I'm been performing poetry out loud for at least six years and some of them have been at very big venues, at competitions and such, but I still get nervous because its normal. You are presenting something that is so personal to you to an audience and I think at any stage that is quite nerve-wracking. But I do think practice helps and also being comfortable with the material. Practice for friends first, or practicing to your partner, to anybody else is helpful before performing to a group of strangers.

Scottish National Slam Championships - Carly Brown (Final & Winning Poem)

HJ: I think for me it is that time when I have got off the stage and I beat myself over my own head, with "THAT WAS HORRIBLE, I WILL NEVER DO THAT AGAIN" even when it went fine. Its that judgement that happens afterwards and about learning to cut that out.

CB: Oh man yeah, I feel that every artist can relate to that. I feel that way all the time about things I've written or performances I've done, that it didn't go the way I wanted, but I think part of the creative process is just telling those voices just to quiet down and being like "Sssh! It was good, I'm going to do it again even if it wasn't perfect because what is?".

HJ: And because you had that practice and experience, the likelihood of moving towards your idea of perfect will increase and might happen the next time.

CB: Definitely! I think also a useful skill is knowing that sometimes it does go poorly and sometimes you will forget lines, which I have done before in really embarrassing ways. I memorize all my poems and I've just forgotten.

HJ: That is really impressive!

CB: Thank you! I think it comes from the theatre background too, as just being able to memorize lines. I did a lot of Shakespearean acting, so I had to memorize a lot of long monologues and things like that. So I was like "okay if I can memorize that long monologue in Elizabethan English, then I can memorize this two minute thing that I wrote in Modern English", but I do sometimes forget. There are two times I am thinking of in particular and you know, I'm fine. Like I forgot, it was embarrassing, but I moved on and it was fine. And I can keep doing it and know sometimes I will mess up, and that is also fine.

HJ: Its about learning its okay to make mistakes. I also see you write fiction, creative non-fiction and journalism, how do you know which medium will fit the idea you have? How do you know what the idea will be? I also see you do blog and interviews - you do a lot!

CB: That's a good question! It's funny, because typically when I get an idea for something, I typically almost immediately know whether its an idea for a poem or for a short story, but what I find is that sometimes themes kind of overlap, stuff I'm interested in manifests itself in different forms. Like I'm currently working on a performance poem that is trying to incorporate Scottish folklore. A lot of my fictional works have a kind of magical element in them, so I'm seeing that creep into the performance poetry a little bit. Also I guess my sense of humor is present in both and I think that is the biggest part of my voice, but in terms of ideas...I don't know, it seems that the form generally comes from the idea, although I've heard a lot of writers talk about how they will start writing something and it will start as a poem, but then turn into a short story or visa versa. That hasn't happened with me yet, but maybe it will in the future! I'm open, as long as I write something. I consider myself a writer rather than a writer of a particular form or style. So right now I'm writing poetry, I write fiction, I write journalism...I write things!

HJ: Which is cool because then your voice becomes adaptable to so many different forms. It's good advice not to limit yourself. And you've also written a children's book called I Love St. Andrews?

CB: That was amazing, it was a love letter or a tribute to where I did my undergrad degree in a town I really loved. It went fantastically and I worked with this amazing illustrator called Gillian Gamble (Twitter - Etsy), whose idea it was to do the project and she was actually friends with Lydia!

HJ: How would you pitch the book to people? Because Christmas is coming up, they might want some kids books, so would you like to pitch it now and hopefully readers will buy it?

CB: Its basically a whimsical, fun illustrated picture book, that is best-selling actually! It's for grown-ups and children alike, its about the town of St. Andrew, its history and the things that make the town unique and quirky. I think its also a really good gift for people who are visiting Scotland in general to take back with them as a souvenir. It's for all ages and it celebrates St. Andrews. A lot of people visit it for the University and a lot of graduates buy the book for something to take away as something really special to them.

HJ: They have a little piece of it to take home.

CB: Exactly, they have a piece to take home. I get emails from graduates saying how much they loved the book. I don't live in St. Andrews anymore either, so it was nice for me to have that to hold on to.

HJ: You mentioned how you always put humor in your books, and I really noticed that in Grown Up. One of the poems I really loved was 'To Ruin Christmas', I really liked that one because there was this voice and feelings of this child, feelings we all experience, but there was also this lovely astute grown-up voice asking questions and accusing people. I really loved that combination and the humor was a nice way of balancing it, because it was actually quite a sad poem as well, but then you have that nice mix of humor. So I was going to ask, though you've sort of already answered the question, do you always put a flare of humor into your poetry? Or is it just part of the process? Or do you ever do sad morose kind of poems?

CB: You know it was one of those things where I didn't really realize that the humor was something I was doing, until other people started pointing it out to me in my work. That poem in particular there is quite an tragic element to it and this sense of disillusionment. All of it is true too about asking my Mom and finding out the truth.

HJ: That was going to be my follow up question, how autobiographical was it? How true to life?

CB: Oh I can definitely tell you about that! But the humor it was like part of me, I think that is just how I tend to be and humor is very important to me. I think it is very powerful tool for talking about some really serious things, like 'Texas I Can't Bring You To Parties Anymore' in the book. It covers some pretty serious issues but I deal with it with humor, and I think that just comes from my personality, because I like to make people laugh and I like to laugh. But it wasn't something I was doing with a particular consciousness. In fact I wrote this creative non-fiction short story that I was thinking in my mind was quite serious and I ended up reading it out to a group of people and they were cracking up! I was like "this is my heart and soul" but I guess my heart and soul is like a stand-up comic! I intended it to be lightly funny, like an inward chuckle to yourself and everyone was howling with laughter! So sometimes it is not always so intentional, I guess its just my voice and my personality coming through my writing. Sometimes I do intentionally try to add a humorous moment. So it is partially intentional, partially just me.

In terms of autobiographical element, most of the poems are based on personal experiences. My performance poems tend to be, certainly in the first draft, 'me' and 'I' and personal experiences.

50 Shades by Carly Brown

HJ: So do you have any particular processes or routines to get the words on the page or do you find its quite free flowing? Like for me I have to have a cup of tea, usually some music going - preferably stuff without words - and solitude usually, save for the cat! Do you have anything you have to have around?

CB: I don't have anything I 'have' to have necessarily, but in life in general I have to have coffee to exist, just to generally function! But in terms of writing, I also prefer solitude, I do write in my room a lot but I also love cafes and I think that is a really fun place to write. You get that busy background noise, which is actually really nice. I find it more difficult to write in a room with only two people rather than in a cafe. I don't like putting too many restrictions on it, sometimes I just write on my phone if I have an idea of a poem and then I'll just transfer that later. I don't tend to write by hand, except sometimes when it is a first draft and I just want to get the ideas down. I tend to write on the computers but the thing I like about my phone is that it feels really casual.

HJ: Yeah you don't feel like 'this has to be good'.

CB: Exactly, it doesn't have to be perfect. Sometimes I feel a Word document can be quite intimidating because its white and blank, so sometimes I tend to switch to my phone so I can keep my poetry casual and get my own voice in there, rather than feel 'oh I have to be poet'. So in terms of rituals or anything like that, I don't have too much. I don't tend to be a morning person, so I tend to write in the mornings because it is the time before my brain has become too awake and critical. If I could pick I would write the first draft in the morning, second draft in the afternoon.

HJ: Do you find yourself doing more than one draft, or do you find you can get it down in one or two?

CB: Yeah I guess its different for everything. Sometimes I get lucky in the sense I get it all down in the first draft and it really was what I wanted to say. I always try to leave space between writing and editing, because I find I can go back with fresher eyes and be more critical of it. Often, especially with performance poetry, as you practice and have to cut out certain things, I find that the opinions of friends or people I trust who like my work become important and I will edit based on what they say. I'm really used to taking on that feedback and I'm used to workshops, so I try to take all that on board. Other times it is just a gut feeling.

HJ: It's also about identifying constructive feedback and what is just people not getting it.

CB: Totally. You need to identify whether the people are 'getting' what you are trying to do, while other people might not and they aren't really sure what you are trying to do. Its about understanding what the writer is trying to do and getting feedback from that. So yes mostly it takes more than one draft, in particularly with my short stories. There will usually be a rough draft, second or third draft, then a fourth to fifth kind of 'finished' draft.

HJ: Part of your performance poetry lifestyle is performing in slam poetry competitions and championships, so I was curious about what it was like to compete in those things?

CB: It really is quite a friendly atmosphere and I'm really glad I started off doing poetry slams, because I think it is a really interactive experience, with the audience especially. I love going to poetry slams because you get to have such a great active role in it, sometimes you'll get to vote for your favourite poet. As a performer, it is a little more stressful at times because you can get 'voted off' in a sense. Usually it is a really warm, welcoming friendly environment where everybody understands poetry and that art is subjective and to give it a quantifiable value is just silly. It's just a whole fun way to experience poetry together and I think that anything that makes people excited to go see poetry or write poetry is awesome. If it has this competition element that's fine, as long as people don't take it too seriously. I mean its great that I have had success with poetry slams. In Scotland, the National Slam was incredible and it was really good for my career too, because I was really young and I didn't even know a National Slam existed. When I won that I got to go to Paris, which is where they have the world series of slam poetry and I didn't know that existed either! I took a group of friends with me and it was genuinely one of the coolest experiences of my life, because I got to meet writers from all over the world and it was just so cool to see poetry from all the different corners of the world. In my experience, it is a really supportive fun experience.

HJ: Do you have any favourite poets and writers?

CB: I'll give a cross section of different genres. So for poetry I really like Emily Dickinson, who I read a lot growing up, and I read a lot of Dr Seuss! Quite a mix! Those are two writers I really loved. In terms of contemporary writers that I really adore, I really love a writer called Karen Russell, she is one of my favourite writers. She is a very lyrical writer but has quite a bit of magical realism in there and she's quite funny. She's my idol and I think she's just incredible. I read loads! Another of my favourite writers Eimear McBride who write 'A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing', which is so good and I've just finished her second book. I read a lot of YA books, I love YA and I have just finished 'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas, which I thought was just incredible. I read across genres. I did my undergrad dissertation on Thomas Hardy, so I do love his work and I have a soft spot for the Victorians.

HJ: Last question now and let me make it a fun one - what would you dream project be if time and money wasn't an issue?

CB: Wow that is a good question. Oh gosh...hmm...Well I've always been interested in witch trials, as I love historical fiction, so maybe one day I could write poems from the perspective of people who have been accused of witchcraft. I could go to different places in the world and bring them to life through performance poems. That sounds fun!

HJ: You could even host slams in the sites, do a witch-poetry-slam-tour around the different locations! You could contact poets in that area to perform alongside you.

CB: Oh that sounds so cool! I should do that! Its a really good idea!