In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Brian Teare discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for June, Brian Teare. Brian is the author of Doomstead Days and Poem Bitten by a Man. Brian, welcome. Thank you so much for joining me.
Brian Teare: Thank you for having me.
Poets.org: All right, let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for the month of June?
Teare: My approach is really based in the fact that I believe in “poetries,” plural, more than I believe in the poem as any one static or idealized object. I really believe in pluralities, proliferations, possibilities, for the art that I hadn’t imagined. I really wanted to feature poets whose work has changed or expanded my own sense of the practice or challenged it in some way.
And I also really wanted to amplify work that might be overlooked because it doesn’t behave like poetry should, or because the maker sits outside whatever usual institutions might want to claim or commodify it. I also really wanted to focus...bring in some elder poets that were really important to me, that I feel like might be overlooked or whose presence has been important previously but a little overshadowed. And I also wanted to feature the work of poets who organize or theorize, edit books or print books, trail-guide garden, or make plays or music or visual art. Poets who actively think about and collaborate with others to imagine, and especially to make by hand a culture worth living in.
Poets.org: Now, if you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Teare: I love that question and there are so many poems that I wanted to highlight. But the one that really I feel evangelical about is by the Harlem Renaissance-era, Virginia poet, Anne Spencer. I’m really always telling or teaching people about her poem “White Things,” which I just still, after a million reads and a million classes teaching this poem, just, its power never diminishes. It’s a poem from like a hundred years ago that describes in really prescient terms, the short and long term effects of colonialism, the plantation economy, and Jim Crow, on both human and more than human beings.
It begins with this kind of, almost nineteenth-century gentle generality: “Most things are colorful things—the sky, earth, and sea.” And then it ends with a really specific brutality, a really shocking closing stanza. And in these two really short stanzas, it packs like an entire book or seminar around environmental racism. It has some really surreal and really shocking images that offer a landscape drained of both color and justice by anti-Black violence. And it’s got this really kind of… For such a short poem, it’s got a really dramatic range of tone, from the sorrowful to the sardonic and angry notes of protest. It’s a really powerful poem, and it connects environmental and racial justice in important ways. It’s a poem I really wish more people would read and teach and offer in solidarity. It does kinds of both imaginative and political work in such a short space, in such a persuasive way. It’s really a powerful text.
Poets.org: For the edification of our readers, “White Things” was featured in Poem-a-Day as one of our public domain weekend poems. It was featured on September 29, 2019. And Brian, I’m so glad you brought up that poem, that is perhaps my favorite of Anne Spencer’s poems and one of my favorite Harlem Renaissance poems. So to hear you talk about it excites me, especially because, you know, you make a connection to ecopoetics and ecocriticism within that poem, but I have never made it, and I’ve read that poem a myriad of times. [laughs] So I’m so pleased that you made that connection both for me and for our readers, and I wish, you know, I feel like I should have made that connection because Spencer was such an avid gardener, literally and figuratively. She was an amateur botanist like Emily Dickinson, and she was also a salon host, like her fellow Harlem Renaissance-era poet, Georgia Douglas Johnson. They both nurtured various luminaries from that era and hosted them in their homes, including Langston Hughes.
Are there any contemporary poets whom you think offer similarly powerful work on the subjects of environmental and racial justice, or poets whom you think engage as astutely as Spencer did on the subject of ecopoetics?
Teare: Yeah, that’s a fabulous question. It’s a fabulous question. The first person who comes to mind, both because she’s a gardener and because her work is extraordinary, is Camille Dungy. I think she’s an amazing poet and thinker and advocate for this kind of work, specifically. She has a new book coming out, imminently called Soil, which I believe is about gardening and racial justice as well. So, you know, she seems like the obvious person, also because of the groundbreaking anthology Black Nature that she edited, which is, again, I think a really crucial intervention into the history of environmental writing writ large and also eco-poetics specifically. This is something I teach a lot. I teach an ecofeminist poetics seminar quite often. So, you know, I mean there’s writers from all over the nation, the continent, that I would name. Joan Naviyuk Kane, who’s Alaska Native, is a beautiful writer. dg [nanouk] okpik, another Alaska Native, beautiful writer.
Oh, gosh! My mind almost goes blank thinking of how many writers there are. Brenda Hillman, obviously, activist and a West Coast resident, Bay Area resident. There’s wonderful Rita Wong from B.C. [British Columbia], who’s doing amazing environmental justice work and collaborations with Indigenous nations to protest pipelines, emphasize water justice. There’s a wonderful writer from Montreal, Chantal Neveu, who has a wonderful book called This Radiant Life, that is just almost like a micro-level ecopoetics, thinking about the relationship, both between justice and human bodies, but also, you know, the sort of radiant particles that connect all of us. I could go on, there’s so many. Margaret Noodin, amazing Anishinaabe writer. There’s just… I could go on. But yeah, there’s an amazing amount of writers. Craig Santos Perez, to step out of the ecofeminist lens. There’s just… I think it’s an amazing time. Ross Gay… Amazing time for writers thinking about the connections between racial justice, environmental justice, and maintaining life for everyone on this planet.
Poets.org: Absolutely. Ecocriticism is a relatively recent field of study, but it does, as you note, go into many different directions—ecofeminism, of course, material ecocriticism, which you’ve just touched on. So it’s a very, very interesting and rich field, especially for those interested in poetry. Whose work are you reading right now? It seems like you’re reading a lot of people.
Teare: Yeah, I am a deeply chronic bibliophile, as my house will attest to. And I’m always reading, and I’m always reading a bunch of different books at once, because Poem Bitten by a Man, which will be out in the fall, is an ekphrastic book, kind of a meditation on chronic illness, and what folks are thinking about, queer abstraction and also, kind of, queer art history. I’ve been focused on writing by and about visual artists, as well as on ekphrastic projects in both poetry and prose. So I was really... Because I’m still somewhat new to Virginia, that I knew Anne Spencer before coming here, and then was really excited to be here near her home, which her granddaughter still runs as a house museum. It’s an amazing space and the garden is still a space that people can visit. So props to Shaun Spencer-Hester for keeping her grandmother’s spirit alive and that space accessible to people, but also Cy Twombly is from not far from here.
So I read recently Joshua Rivkin’s biography, Chalk, which was really extraordinary, and then I read Fred Moten’s newest poems, perennial fashion presence falling, which I just thought was... Yeah, I was wowed by it, is one way to say it. And then there’s a kind of… Ekphrasis actually seems to be in the air at the moment. I don’t know how or why, but Ama Codjoe’s beautiful first collection, Bluest Nude is out. Danielle Dutton, editor of Dorothy, a publishing project, she has an amazing chapbook-linked essay called A Picture Held Us Captive.
And then there’s a bunch of other things: On Whiteness, which was curated by The Racial Imaginary Institute; and Image Text Music by the wonderful essayist, Catherine Taylor; and then Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes. I thought it’s, so far, I’m only halfway through, but it’s profound, a profound text. All of those things I’ve just been, I feel like stewing in, for the past couple of maybe two or three weeks and just really getting a lot from.
Poets.org: So an excerpt, our members would be interested in knowing, that an excerpt from Fred Moten’s perennial fashion presence falling, was published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of American Poets.
Teare: Oh, right. That great “knotting” poem. Yeah.
Poets.org: Yes. Yes, I’m glad you remember. Ama Codjoe has been featured in Poem-a-Day three times, in 2018, 2019, and 2021, during months curated respectively by Chancellor Tracy K. Smith and by Safiya Sinclair.
Brian, what are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Teare: I feel very busy, but I’m currently… I just turned in the proof of the first pass of my forthcoming book, Poem Bitten by a Man, last night at 9:38 PM. I’m also working on organizing a reading tour for it in the fall. I’m just finished with classes at UVA [University of Virginia] and I was teaching a really exciting grad seminar—not because I’m so great, but because my students are so great—called “Cutting Up Collage and Revolutionary Poetics.” And it ended with three weeks of student led discussions of the amazing Bay Area feminist writer, Kathleen Frazier, the incomparable Douglas Kearney, and the irreplaceable CAConrad. All really powerful revolutionary figures. And I continue to bind and ship copies of the last two Albion Books, chapbooks by Miranda Marrell, sorry, Miranda Mellis, The Revolutionary, and Carolina Ebeid. Her chapbook is Dauerwunder, a brief record of facts. So all of that is going on. It feels really busy.
Poets.org: Carolina Ebeid has also appeared in Poem-a-Day, most recently in October 2022, during Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s guest editorship. So you mentioned the last two chapbooks published by your press. Does this mean that you’re closing down?
Teare: No, no. It just means these are… That’s a great question. It did sound like that.
Poets.org: It did. [laughs]
Teare: No. Yeah, it just means I do them in series, so a series of four. So these are the last two in Series Eight. So there will be a Series Nine, hopefully starting with a chapbook by fahima ife, and who knows what will be next? I’m in conversation with some people, so hopefully that will start up again in the fall. But yeah, I’m finishing up the Series Eight, not finishing up the press entirely.
Poets.org: That’s good to hear. Now, you started this press in the summer of 2018, is that right?
Teare: No. It’s actually… I started this press in 2008.
Poets.org: Oh, wow.
Teare: Yeah, so it’s been around for quite a long time.
Poets.org: Okay. I’m thinking about an interview that you did with the Poetry Society of America some time ago, in which you discuss your philosophy behind publishing chapbooks, and that philosophy seems to mirror your interest in ecosystems, both environmental and the figurative ecosystem of the publishing world. You’ve remarked on the adaptability of the chapbook market and how it can flourish during periods of scarcity, particularly the unprecedented period of scarcity that we’ve just come out of; in addition to the ease with which chapbooks can be traded through both conventional and unconventional channels. What advice would you give to those who are contemplating starting their own chapbook presses?
Teare: Oh, that’s a lovely question. You know, the advantage of a micropress, which I would define, because it’s one of those things that’s not super well-defined, but I basically define that as a press that can be run by one person, that the apparatus is not so cumbersome, and the distribution of labor... Well, basically it can be divided amongst a single human, but that means that, like, pre-production, production, distribution, all of the sort of steps of the publication process, that one person sort of has to possess all those skills.
Sometimes couples do it together, which I think is great, or like a small band of people, which is how I was introduced to chapbook publishing, was through a collective. But my advice is to sort of, you know…assess what your values are, like you can do a super DIY chapbook publication where you... I don’t know if Kinko’s exists anymore, but back in the day, you know, you could just go to Kinko’s and use cheap copy paper and just run off a bunch of copies, or the way people used to do it, is steal the labor from their shitty corporate job and just use the copy machine in the back of the office or whatever.
So, I feel like, you know, assessing what kind of chapbook you want to make, what the actual aesthetic is, what your actual budgets are, what the realistic sense of how much time, energy, money you have to put into it, because a publishing project is a little bit like a fire: the more you put into it, the more it will consume, and the more it will sort of eat of your life. And so one of the things that I think is great, for instance, about Albion, is I have set all of these limits of, like, there are only four chapbooks. I generally take two years to do them; I have a really specific budget; I know precisely how much, you know, basically each one will cost.
And I think setting all of that up so that you have a lot of room to move and adapt and innovate within your own kind of set of constraints and your own ambitions, I think is really wonderful. But I think, you know, just getting a clear sense of what you’re getting into is great. I did not have that. Like, I just kind of improvised my way into lasting for, you know, quite some years now. But I think that’s just because I love the actual act of making chapbooks so much, and I also love the service component of being able to support other writers. But yeah, I would just say go both [sic], do some math, figure out exactly what you’re getting into as best you can, though you won’t be able to know everything, and then just go for it. Like, you know, let your enthusiasms lead the way. That’s what I would say.
Poets.org: I think that’s wonderful advice in any situation: just go for it.
Teare: Yeah, it can get you into trouble too, but, you know, I think chapbook publishing, it’s not like, “Oops, I bought a house.” It’s really, “I made a smaller commitment” that, again, is really flexible.
Poets.org: It’s the good kind of trouble. Yeah.
Poets.org: Thank you so much, Brian, for this lovely discussion.
Teare: Oh, thank you so much. These are great questions.