- What inspired you to begin writing?
Frankly, I don’t remember not writing… I used to “write” complicated, surreal stories with stick figures and bizarre drawings before I could actually write – but they were “books” for me, which I remember keeping like treasures. Sometimes I would re-read my “books,” and add characters or plots, and “make-believe” words. I remember this vividly. As soon as I was taught how to write I knew I would write books some day.
- Did you have a favorite writer when you were younger? Who was it? Why?
I grew up in Belgium, so I learned to read and write in French and Flemish. I had one very favorite writer as soon as I could read fluently (I must have been six or seven): Antoine de St Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. I think I read that book about 70 times! I felt I could completely relate, not only to the little prince, but also to the rose, the fox, the snake, the railway switchman, etc. I also remember loving a poem about a water-strider written by Guido Gezelle (a Flemish poet and a Roman Catholic priest from Bruges), which made me discover rhyme – and made me fall in love with poetry. Then, later, I discovered Balzac, Gide, Camus, Sartre, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire, and Louis Aragon, and became an insatiable reader—particularly of banned books—because in the late fifties and early sixties in Belgium many, many books were banned from libraries and bookstores by the Catholic Church and Belgian monarchy.
- Visiting and living in different places provides exposure to many different cultures and ethnicities. Has having lived both in Belgium and the United States changed your cultural perspective at all?
Living in a small country like Belgium (about the size of Maryland) has many advantages. One of them is that you hear different languages spoken around you all the time, and must, at least, speak two languages (French and Flemish) to get around. Also, Brussels became the United Nations capital for Europe when I was in my late teens—and thus brought (and attracted) a huge, diverse, fascinating, and enriching new population of residents and immigrants who worked for or served these United Nations organizations. All the European countries, as well as The United States, Africa, Asia, South America, India, etc., were represented and had offices, chambers of commerce, consulates and/or embassies in Brussels, and this brought an incredible richness of ethnicities, foods, and culture to the town. In the sixties and beginning of the seventies, Brussels felt like the capital of the world…
- Although each of your poems has its own structure, it is clear that each stanza and line break is carefully chosen in order to isolate or emphasize each powerful image or idea. How do you decide where to break your lines? How does the form you choose relate to how you want the poem to look on the page?
I’m so happy you asked that question: form and line breaks are a very important aspect of craft for me. I would need to write a 30 page essay to tell you why—but I’ll attempt to explain briefly. In free verse, the line as a unit seems to have lost its importance for many writers. It hasn’t for me. I feel we can actually tell the reader how to read our poems by our choice of form and the tension we put in the lines; and we do this by choosing exactly where to break or enjamb them. Look at C.K Williams’ lines compared to Lucille Clifton’s: we cannot read their poems the same way — or at least we shouldn’t. I love it when poets impose a rhythm, a cadence in their lines solely by the small silence of an enjambment. If a line breaks in a place where there is no punctuation, my eye will go to the following line much faster than if a line is broken at a comma, dash, or period. Tone can also greatly influence the length of a line. Subject matter sometimes makes me choose couplets versus one-column poems. We have these wonderful tools of form and line breaks to give our work a certain texture, a quality of voice: why not use them?
- How do you decide, when writing a poem, whether it should follow a conventional poetry form or exist in free verse?
Another good question. I never choose a form before my third or fourth drafts. I usually write my first drafts in one long column, with very sloppy line breaks. Then as I revise and tighten, I sometimes try to fit it in a specific/traditional form. Or a strict stanzaic form. Or I try re-writing the poem in decasyllabic lines. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t. But the time spent at doing this helps to tighten the poem. So no time is really “lost” there…I have a particular attachment to repetition, alliteration, and assonance—so I let music and sound influence the form—preferring to hide rhymes or off-rhymes inside my lines.
- Your second book of poetry written in English is called Small Gods of Grief, a title which, according to poet William Matthews, suggests an “interest in the gray area between appearance and reality.” The book was almost titled “Filthy Savior” after a poem that describes an unlikely savior—a gull that saves the speaker from suicidal thoughts while she rescues it from a plastic net. What is the relationship between this title, “Filthy Savior,” and the poems in the book? Why did you ultimately title the book what you did?
Well…I listened to my editor, and Kurt (my husband), and a friend or two who all told me that “Filthy Savior” was a good title for a poem and a bad title for a book. That it could potentially offend some people, etc. etc. That “people wouldn’t be attracted” by that title. So I stopped resisting. But, twixt you and me—I still think it was a damn good title!
- Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn says of your most recent book, A New Hunger, “the voice of one's second self fully emerges, distilling and orchestrating the poet's concerns, while simultaneously infusing them with an inner melody—a music that reaches and satisfies both ear and mind.” Are your poems intentionally autobiographical in nature or is your speaker more of a “second self,” having her own experiences while sharing your thoughts and concerns?
The speaker in my poems is 80% intentionally autobiographical, just because I’m quite uncomfortable assuming a “second self” as you so well put it. But then there is that 20% of the time where an image, an event, or something I read have such an impact on me that I need an “entrance” to the poem and take some liberties with the “purely autobiographical” experience. This is also where I’ll sometimes choose an omniscient narrator’s voice.
- Your fluency in four languages allows you to communicate with a broader audience than most poets, and you have worked to translate a number of poetic texts. Do you feel obligated to bridge the gap between poets who write and speak in different languages?
Yes. I do. There are some poems in French or Flemish that I love so much that I want (and need!) to translate them to offer them to a larger readership. I can’t tell you how immensely grateful I am to the translators of Thomas Tranströmer, or Neruda, or Zsymborska, or Adelia Prado, to name a few. So I hope to do my part in bringing more voices to the international poetry chorus!
- Imagery plays an important role in your poetry; however, when translated, descriptive words lose or are changed in meaning. How do you deal with this when translating both the poems of other poets and your own?
You know, I don’t translate my own poems, and never will. I have written a very large numbers of poems in French, and also some in Flemish, but I don’t want (or need!) to translate them. And as for the challenge in translating some images, words, expressions that in the process lose or are changed in meaning—that’s the frustrating, incredibly exhausting, and challenging work of the translator. How to remain true to the text—yet chose and/or know how to not literally translate the poem: it ain’t easy! Thankfully I translate and co-write the translations with Kurt Brown (my husband)—so we both try to find the best, closest translation possible – yet still try to create poems that are fluid and “sound” American—and don’t feel “stifled in translation.”
- In Belgium, you worked originally as a talk show hostess and gained experience in both radio and television. What inspired you then to begin teaching?
Frankly? Because my other jobs didn’t make me happy, had nothing to do with what I loved, and certainly didn’t give me the impression I was doing something meaningful. Those jobs did pay rent, did make me meet one or two very interesting people, but that’s about it. I was a single mother of three, so I was grateful to have such a good job. But what I dreamt of doing is what I do now, which I started working toward when my children went to college. I have always wanted to be a poetry teacher – so now I’m one happy Belgian!
- Is there a special reason you agreed to teach at the Solstice MFA Program here at PMC?
Yes – Meg Kearney! Her energy, ambition for the program, amazing work to create a program where diversity rules, her unflinching commitment to make the Solstice MFA Program one of the best in the country – how can you resist such an offer from her?!
- You have an impressive record of involvement with writing programs, including but not limited to the Aspen Writer’s Conference, the Sarah Lawrence Seminar for Writers, and the Frost Place Poetry Festival. What inspiration do you receive from aspiring writers? How important is it that aspiring writers meet and read each other’s work?
The interesting situation in my case is that I was one of those “aspiring writers” not long ago – only 14 years ago. Because, at age 48, I decided to learn to write poems in English, I went to many writers’ conferences and workshops—then did my MFA study at the low-residency program at Warren Wilson College. My first book came out three years after I graduated. So I distinctly (and sometimes nostalgically) remember the days when I was the one to get a packet ready in time, when it was I spending hours and hours on annotations, revisions, and new poems. Those were such happy (albeit exhausting!) years for me. Now, I have the privilege of teaching at such a program—and I’m inspired by the commitment, love and ambition my students have for their studies. I also truly know what they’re going through… so that when a packet reaches me, I treat it with the attention and dedication my favorite mentors gave to me. And to answer your second question: it is essential, essential that students meet, “stick together,” and organize readings and workshop-groups in their home towns—or create online workshops if they are geographically separated—for they are, after all, the next generation who will be published (whatever their age!), and no one will promote and encourage those students more than their peers, the people they shared workshops or classes with. It’s a wonderful solidarity and feeling of “belonging”—so I hope the first graduating class at our Solstice MFA Program will initiate this feeling of being part of a wonderful program – and promote not only their own work, but the work of other students AND the program too!
- Your husband, Kurt Brown, is also an accomplished writer. What are the benefits of being married to someone with similar goals? What are the challenges?
Kurt was the one who supported and encouraged me during those four or five years when I studied writing. Before I studied at Warren Wilson, he gave me many “craft lectures” in the kitchen or at the dinner table. He also told me who to read, what to study. He was—and still is—my first reader, and still the one I go to when I’m stuck, or don’t understand something. I have also become his first reader and we often laugh at how we secretly dislike and very much disagree at first with the other’s comments. Then, after we have gone back to our room, sulked a little, revised, we’re forced to admit that the other one was right! But there is no competition at all between us—as we write very different kind of poems, and also share a love for poetry that is greater, I think, than our egos.
- What is your definition of a perfect professor? How closely do you mirror that image?
I don’t think there is a definition of a perfect professor, but I do know that the professors I’m most grateful to are the ones who encouraged or invited me to take risks, to push my work further—but in a positive, motivating way. I really believe that the best way to teach a student is to teach them to….teach themselves. And in creative writing this means to convince students that it’s as important to read as it is to write—if not more important. The more one reads, the better one writes—and ours is an art of constant conversations with other poets (dead or alive). We’re all echoing chambers of one another. I also think it’s essential for a professor to teach students how to learn from writers that they will choose as “mentors” once they are no longer in school. It took me two or three years to discover that the author who could teach me the most was Larry Levis. I have been reading his work, studying his poems in depth, reading his essays and memoir over and over and over again, and am still learning from him – and this after five years. Some day, perhaps, it will be someone else – but not yet. When I was writing my third book, his Selected Poems and Elegy were always (without exception) next to my computer so that I could grab them at any moment.
- What expectations do you have of your students?
To read, write, and work with the same respect, attention, and ambition for themselves as I have for them!
- Is there anything about you that you think people should know that couldn’t be found in a biography?
I think that what can’t be found in a biography about me can probably be found in my poems. Okay, it’s true that I don’t write poems about how delicious my Flemish Beef Stew is (the final touch to the sauce is made with beer, coarse brown bread smeared with mustard and topped with chocolate!), or about the fact that I always whisper “Thank You” to my dishwasher and washer-dryer when they’re done doing what I hate doing. But I hope that what is important to me, what my deep concerns (or neuroses) are, can be found in, and in between, the lines of my poems.