Behind the Words: Kevin Brown

Posted by on Oct 5, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

kb4_rszKevin Brown is a Professor of English at Lee University. He has published two full-length collections of poems, A Lexicon of Lost Words, (2013; Winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry) and Exit Lines (2009); two chapbooks: Abecedarium (2011) and Holy Days: Poems (winner of the 2011 Split Oak Press Chapbook Contest); and a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again (2012).

He has also published a scholarly work They Love to Tell the Story: Five Contemporary Authors Take on the Gospels (2012) with Kennesaw State University Press, in addition to critical articles on Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, John Barth, and Tony Earley. He received a Ph.D in English from the University of Mississippi with a dissertation that dealt with Mark Twain’s influence on Kurt Vonnegut. He also has a Master’s in English from East Tennessee State University, a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Alabama, and a Bachelor’s Degree from Milligan College. He has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Poetry from Murray State University.

I sat down with him to ask him a few questions about his work, and about the poem he published in Spry, which can be found here.

Faith Padgett: You are a very well published writer teaching at Lee University. Can you tell us a little bit about the subject matter you’ve taken interest in, either recently or in the past? I notice Kurt Vonnegut’s name is frequently tied to yours.

Kevin Brown: As far as being a literature professor goes (which is the primary way I define myself), I’m interested in contemporary fiction, especially the novel. Vonnegut was the subject of my dissertation (an examination of how Mark Twain’s later work influenced Vonnegut’s early work). In the past couple of years, I’ve also published articles on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Doris Lessing’s To Room Nineteen. I’m currently working on a second article on Cloud Atlas, and I have another Vonnegut article in mind right now that I hope leads somewhere. Contemporary Literature is a class I teach every fall, and it’s my favorite class by far. I’m also teaching a Creative Nonfiction class this fall for the first time, so I’m curious to see how that goes.

Faith Padgett: So, favorite Vonnegut book? Can you pick just one, and why?

Kevin Brown: There’s no question on this one: Slaughterhouse-Five. I recently re-read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and I liked it better than I remembered doing so before. I tried to teach Cat’s Cradle almost a decade ago now, but it just didn’t go as well as I would have hoped. I’m teaching Slaughterhouse again this week, and I’m looking forward to doing so. As to why, I think it’s his best developed novel. He never really creates compelling characters, but I feel more for Billy than I do any of the others. He also has more layers in this novel than he does in the others. It’s richer and rewards re-reading in a way most of his other works don’t.

Quick side story about Vonnegut: I changed my major to English the summer before my junior year. It had been my worst subject, and I was ill-prepared to make that move (why I did is a longer story involving an inspirational professor), so I decided to read through an anthology of short stories to learn about a wider range of writers. It was in alphabetical order, so I went through the As and was into the Bs when I hit a long story that didn’t look interesting. I decided to read in reverse alphabetical order at that point, and I quickly found Vonnegut’s story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect.” It was the first story he published and the first story I read by him. It was also the first time I ever read a story and felt like someone was stating something I believed, as well, something I didn’t hear other people talk about. It was a great moment.

Faith Padgett: What single word (or phrase) would you say characterizes your writing right now? How about five or ten years ago? What’s changed?

Kevin Brown: Learning. I’ve been trying to write more nonfiction and fiction over the past couple of years, and I feel like I’m starting all over again. After more than a decade of writing poetry, I had gotten comfortable enough with it to feel like I knew something about it. I don’t feel that way about prose. I also tried a new approach to writing poems with my last batch, and I’m not very happy with how they turned out.

Faith Padgett: I see that you have a particular skill for importing names into the fabric of your verse. How do you feel names, like Jack and Lisa, for example, fit into your process? Can you describe the moment these names infiltrate the draft, and how that feels for you?

Kevin Brown: The Jack poems were my first real, sustained approach at writing persona poems. I wanted to do something different than I had done before, as most of my poems were first person, and I wanted the freedom to get outside of myself. Even though some material in those poems came from my life, getting away from the I helped me re-imagine the scenes I did use from my life. The rest of the names came simply because they were needed. At one point in the series, Jack attends a funeral. I hadn’t planned for him to do so, but it came; thus, I needed someone to have died. That became Bill, and Wendy was his wife. In “Jack Imagines a Different Map,” Lisa came from a former co-worker I had, and I have no idea where the kids’ names came from. Ryan is from a real friend I had who did, in fact, die of cancer before he turned thirty. He’s one of the few real people I use in this set of poems.

Faith Padgett: To delve specifically into the poem Spry published, “Jack Imagines a Different Map,”— how do you feel about it, having some distance from it and its date of publication? Further, I notice the way it shifts from stanza to stanza creates slightly irregular stanza lengths, which is different from many of your other, more regulated work. How do you feel the stanza, and the line, are working for you (or against you) here?

Kevin Brown: I’ve struggled with the Jack poems, as I’ve had success placing them in journals (like Spry), but the collection has never quite landed. It’s come close, but never got all the way there. I’ve thought about shifting away from Jack altogether and making them more personal, less persona poems. But I like Jack, and I like the collection, so I’ve left him there. In some ways, these poems were more honest than what I had written before. My earlier poems were all about relationships ending, and this set of poems is the first where I take on my growing sense of my mortality. As far as craft goes, I tend to like uneven stanzas and line length; I have to force myself to use more consistent form. In this poem, especially, I wanted to end the early stanzas with enjambed lines, as I wanted to push the reader along; then, before the final stanza, I give the reader a pause before hitting the ending hard.

Faith Padgett: You write fiction, poetry, essays, memoir— why do you think you are a multi-genre writer? Do you have a favorite (and is that a taboo question, like asking for a favorite child)?

Kevin Brown: I’ve been trying to figure out why I write in a variety of genres. Part of that is simply how I started writing. Given that I became an English major late (and ill prepared), I started writing poetry simply because I thought I was supposed to do so as an English major (this was in the days before creative writing classes were standard at any institution). I kept doing so because I had more success doing that and, honestly, because they were shorter (so I thought they were easier). I also thought I couldn’t write fiction because I couldn’t create characters or sustain a narrative arc (two rather important parts of most fiction). I came to the memoir because I wanted to tell part of my story, and it was the best way to do so. I started writing more essays after that, as well as fiction, because I thought the memoir had taught me how to write prose, even fiction, better. Also, my poetry has become more and more narrative over the years, so it seems like I’m trying to write fiction even when I’m writing poetry. As for a favorite, I really like writing prose more than poetry and nonfiction over fiction. I can’t really separate essays (creative nonfiction, anyway) from memoir in the way I approach them, but I think I enjoy them the best, at least right now.

Faith Padgett: You hold many master’s degrees (three, if I counted right), and you are very active in the current discourse about education, as well as being a teacher yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about how you feel education and poetics are related? Do you feel your education shifting/transforming/altering your work?

Kevin Brown: My combination of education and poetics is strange, as I didn’t go get my MFA until I had been writing poetry for at least a decade. I also teach many more literature courses than I do creative writing ones (usually only one every other year or so). The main way they do overlap, though, is that the literature I teach certainly impacts my own writing. Teaching a poet like Rilke every semester, as I did for more than a decade, certainly influenced my poetry.

The same thing happens in reverse, I hope. When I teach a literature course, I talk about what I think the author was trying to do in a work because I’ve thought through similar problems in my writing. It always annoys me when critics talk about how writers think when it’s clear they’ve never tried to write a novel or poem. I tell my students that they should take classes in whatever area of English they’re not focusing, as it will help them tremendously.

Faith Padgett: On that educational theme—what about didactic tone? I notice your poems, by and large, take up a quietly everyday diction, which, in turn, often lends them a semi-casual softly revelatory tone. Do you think poetry should serve to teach us something, or is its purpose entirely divorced from the notions of didactics?

Kevin Brown: And here’s one of the main problems with my writing. I have a real tendency to try to teach people something through whatever I write; perhaps that’s why I like nonfiction better than anything else. That’s partly because most of my early writing was analytical in nature, but it’s also because, more than anything else, I’m a teacher. Parker Palmer has a quote in his book Let Your Life Speak that sums up how I view myself: “In fact, I could have done no other: teaching, I was coming to understand, is my native way of being in the world. Make me a cleric or a CEO, a poet or a politico, and teaching is what I will do. Teaching is at the heart of my vocation and will manifest itself in any role I play.”

I’ve had to force myself to cut down that approach, but it keeps coming through. It’s one of the main areas I have to work on in revision, and I clearly still struggle with it. I suppose I always will. Thankfully, I do consider teaching my vocation; writing is simply one of the main ways I process the world. If I never publish another word, but continue teaching, I’ll be happy; if the reverse were true, I can’t imagine being satisfied with my life at all.

Faith Padgett was born and raised in the suburbs of Texas and is currently a Creative Writing/Spanish double major at Oberlin College in northern Ohio. Her poems have appeared in Hanging Loose and several anthologies including the Poetry Society of Texas’ student anthologies and the YoungArts anthology for 2014. She has won several Scholastic regional silver and gold keys, and was a semi-finalist in the Presidential Scholars program in 2014. When not working for Spry or writing, Faith can be found sipping tea with a book of poetry or walking through the prairie with one of her four adopted mutts. Check out her website here.

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