In Conversation With
Clifford Brooks was born in Athens, Georgia. His first poetry collection, The Draw of Broken Eyes & Whirling Metaphysic, was re-issued by Kudzu Leaf Press in August 2018. His second full-length poetry volume, Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart, as well as a limited-edition poetry chapbook, Exiles of Eden, were published by Kudzu Leaf Press in 2017. Clifford is the founder of The Southern Collective Experience, a cooperative of writers, musicians and visual artists, which publishes the journal of culture The Blue Mountain Review and hosts the NPR show Dante’s Old South. He is on the faculty of The Company of Writers and provides tutorials on poetry through the Noetic teaching application. Below, he talks about the importance of accessibility in poetry, how editing can be painful, the part music plays in his verse, how autism impacts its construction, and a bit about the Southern Collective Experience.
Terence Hawkins: You said last year in Deep South Magazine that writers should focus on writing and not getting published. You said that if the work radiates, and the poet is patient, a publisher will pick them up. What aspects should poets keep in mind while focusing on their craft to appeal to publishers?
Clifford Brooks: Accessibility is the benchmark of poetry that not only sells, but lasts. I don’t understand the point of cryptic, vague, or so hopelessly personal poetry that anyone outside the poet can’t find a crack to wriggle through. Of course you want the reader to work a little bit, but understanding poetry shouldn’t be like banging your head against a wall. Also, the correct use of grammar helps those who think they aren’t poetry people feel more at ease giving the lyrical sister of prose a fair shake. If a poet uses grammar the same way that prose writers do, readers see a familiar landscape with markers like breadcrumbs to pick up along the way.
TH: You told Writer’s Digest that what surprised you most about the writing process was the emotional toll of editing. Is the process of editing your work still hard on your nerves, and if so, why?
CB: The tumultuous nature of editing oozes from my need to call up ghosts, pick at scars, and face off with people, places, and misdeeds the poems reference or explain. It was brutal in my first book because I was surprised by the heartache I hadn’t buried as deep as I thought, the sores that still seeped, and sins not as far behind me as I’d like. It’s humbling and frightening to stand naked in front of strangers who can buy a book with all your secrets for a fair price. The article in Writer’s Digest you’re referencing is called “Say It or Don’t Say It.” Get right with yourself and face the jury. There’s no room in poetry for lying. Honesty is the point of writing poetry, and editing holds your feet to the fire.
TH: You rarely speak about your work, poetry of others, or poetic theory without talk of how poetics and music composition are “closer than blood relatives.” What does that mean, and how does music play into your creative process?
CB: Music is the reason I became a poet. I couldn’t play an instrument with enough talent to move people, but I do have some skill with words. I use inner rhyme within the lines of my poetry to put a soundtrack between syllables. As a high-functioning autistic, I am hyperaware of melody. Harsh tones are a nightmare. The lack of harmony is like chewing rocks. With a deft turn of phrase, songwriting can be incorporated into poetry, and a symphony composed with silence.
TH: You've talked freely with me about autism. How would you say it affects your own process, both in laying down the new work and editing after? And what part does it play in your reading of other poets' work?
CB: Autism is the impetus behind my passion for writing poetry, and directly responsible for the poets I passionately enjoy—or intensely dislike. In the first draft, I free my mind tightened by the stress of trying to adjust to a world in which I feel off-kilter. I want my work to read calm even though it’s carved from an obsessive-compulsive fervor to never see anything overwrought, clunky, or far from center. Autism is the baritone in my poetic voice. It can be maddening, but the harmony I have at the end makes up for what I find in few other places—peace. When I read something similar in other poets, it’s like finding lost family. In Frank Stanford’s “I’d Been Walking for Ever So Long,” Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is Not All,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes,” or Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” I am able to see, taste, feel, smell, and ultimately live what they are living.
If the poet relies on vulgarity, “shock jock” imagery, or imbalanced design for no apparent reason, I disconnect immediately.
TH: You founded the Southern Collective Experience ten years ago. It has an eclectic lineup of members and a broad range of affiliates. It has a journal of culture, and an NPR show. What was the spark that began this wildfire of creativity?
CB: The spark sprung from the realization that art is not a small pond with too many big fish. Art is an ocean with millions of small fish that don’t want to share. The crux of the company’s existence is that artists can play well together, and when they do the right thing with the right people for the right reasons, miracles will happen. The members of the SCE are my family. The affiliates are our extended relatives we support, and who support us. Our organization has expanded to include a journal of culture, The Blue Mountain Review, and our NPR show, Dante’s Old South. You can find out more at www.southerncollectiveexperience.com.