Interviewed by Chad Christensen – April 2019

How did your book [email protected] come about?

I’d had [email protected] in mind for the title early on and couldn’t shake it. It went through a dozen permutations while I wrote and collected the poems but ended up back where it started. I liked the idea that it could serve as an address for me, like if you want to get in touch that’s where I’ll be hanging. Pretty soon I was intrigued by that space between heaven and the front pew. I mean, paradise is great to see up close and all, but just sitting there watching may be a little on the passive side. Maybe being consigned to merely witness is a kind of damnation. The title gave me a lot of play. A lot of kinds of poems could fit in that frame.

The voice for a lot of the poems in frontpew came from “City at Raw,” which I wrote soon after City at War was published. Someone at a party had insisted, several times, that obviously I should have written a poem with that title. I think in part to get her voice out of my head I gave it a whirl. I’m not sure, though, that instead of silencing the party-goer I adapted her voice for the speaker of “City at Raw.” “City at Raw” stated a situation, too, that led to the blues poems and the noir coloration of the collection

And “Vagabondage,” another poem I did early on in the process, set the notions of isolation and motion in my head, both of which felt new to me and I thought worthy of exploration. Motion led to travel and trains – which I’m a particular fan of – and to something like rootlessness.

If you had to pin something down, what do you hope readers get from reading your books (particularly [email protected])?

I want readers of [email protected] to get exactly three giggles, one laugh, a good, sobbing cry, two yawns and a thorough head-scratching.

Really, I’ve never had an answer, or a good one, for your question.

I don’t think poetry promises anything, though it can contain that which is spiritually instructive, if for no other reason that we recognize that others have stood where we’ve stood. Maybe paradoxically a poem ought to surprise a reader, not so much in where it ends up as how it gets there. Language – and the attitudes and habits it represents – can become rutted, and I want to use it in original ways. If I can breathe life into language, maybe it’ll return the favor.

What does writing poetry mean to you?

Tough question, though easier than the previous one. I mean, writing’s what I do and who I am. Decades ago I tried to give it up. I had come to believe not that poetry was pointless but that there was no point in me writing poems. That retirement lasted a few months, as I remember, until one evening without really recognizing what I was doing, I sat down and began to write. I did the same the night after, and the night after that, until I had a longish poem. I didn’t submit that poem, if I recall correctly, to journals, nor did I ever read it after I completed it. The poem didn’t matter, but the act of creating it broke a rationalist logjam in my head.

Writing a poem, when it works well, teaches me who I am. I often begin with what I know, some experience of the day, either mundane or extraordinary, and try to look deeply into or around it. The process of completing a poem is a necessarily delicate dance that doesn’t force the poem in some predetermined direction or to some expected conclusion. In short, if I can let language lead in the dance, the poem stands a good chance of taking me someplace unexpected and new.

How has owning a cattle ranch tied into your writing?

Ranching has given me subjects, for one thing. Think of any number of paintings titled “Still Life” – you know, a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. My “still lifes” run to grass, windmills, horses and even occasionally cows.

Ranching forced me out of a purely academic life, a life that challenged me immensely, and one I feel great pride in having lived. Still, the purely intellectual and pedagogic life can leave a poet short on the visceral and various.

In addition, this life has allowed me a level of environmental activism I’d have had a hard time finding in any other. I insist on a distinction that’s too often overlooked, that between farming and ranching. Farming, as it’s currently practiced by almost all conventional producers – whether corporations or “family farms” – relies almost entirely on chemically sterilized soil and genetically modified seed. And the health and quality of the food it produces, along with the feedlots and confinement operations that go along with corn and soybean production, have been often and rightly called into question.

Each spring sees a huge construction job as big machinery rumbles over millions of acres, with a great expenditure of fossil fuels. Ranching depends on perennial grasses, and each spring is marked by their return and by animals giving birth to a new generation, a process that requires minimal burning of fuel. Farming is short-term in its goals and practices; ranching is truly sustainable. And ranching echoes, roughly at least, the practices of those nomadic peoples who followed the herds before the first steel plowshare cut the prairie. I live with and for that connection.

Beyond that, ranching is a way of keeping me in daily contact with natural ecologies and the vagaries of weather. Because I’m “responsible,” for lack of a better word, I live among animals in summer heat and blizzards and everything in between.

Having taught creative writing for so many years, what are your thoughts on it? Did it help your own writing?

I’ll answer the second question first with a definitive yes. One of the requirements I placed on workshop students was they comment on the poems and stories of others because when we articulate our responses – not an easy skill to learn, one that must be honed – we learn something that applies to our own work. I spent decades learning in that way, critiquing thousands of poems. As importantly, I heard the suggestions of some very gifted critics, students in the workshops. I can point to language in my own poems that came directly from students’ suggestions.

To backtrack to the first question: I love workshops. When I quit teaching, I knew they would be what I missed. I like to think I got good at conducting them, though it’s just as possible that I was blessed with gifted students. Workshops can, and do, go wrong, but when they are truly communal they are brilliant exercises in creation. At their best, they’re competitive without devolving into mere competition. At their best good poems inspire others to write well. Where else is a poet going to get a critical audience for her work? A variety of individual responses from people who’ve actually read the piece? Suggestions about word choice, images, stanza order, voice . . . all the choices poets make? Even someone’s misreading of a poem tells the poet something she needs to know.

I believe very strongly in workshops. There were a few semesters when I had a light schedule. I had time to meet the requirement I set for the students – a poem a week to be workshopped. I loved it. I’ve also been part of an informal workshop for years. I’d be really scared to publish something that that crew hadn’t seen. Even if I, ultimately, disagree with a criticism, it’s important to hear readers’ reactions.

What are you cooking up for your next book?

Thanks for asking. I hope to be done with a manuscript of poems soon. It’s less unified than the last couple of collections, for sure, which is to say the three sections stand independently. So far I’ve got “Dinah, Won’t You Blow Your Horn,” “Jump” and, the one I’m working on now, “Cowboysome” which may turn out to be just one long poem. If any one overriding concern ties the three sections together it’s this living in a place that’s depopulating. A few years ago my son Zeke pointed out that the plains were settled in a couple decades, and people have been leaving ever since. Most Nebraska counties reached their peak population in 1920, some in 1890. Now, from a glass-half-full perspective, I can imagine a re-emergence of a frontier going on. That, at least, suggests endless possibilities.

I also working on some short stories I’ve written over the years, some from maybe thirty years ago. After a brief flurry of activity back in the day, I pretty much let them go. I was nervous even to look at them again, but they’re much less embarrassing than I feared. I may recast a few of them from this perspective – an old man looking back at events in his imagined past. One thing I like about the stories is they represent different times, different eras almost. I think there might be something entertaining in that. At least I hope so.

In a vast world of social media, where do you see the role of poetry?

Maybe I should start each of these responses with a “damned if I know,” this one in particular. My reflex is to flip the question – what’s the role of social media in a vast world of poetry?

Clearly, poetry takes advantage of social media, uses it as publication. I find a poem or two each time I light up my desktop.

I know folks who see any change as a threat. I know poets who don’t believe an on-line poem is a “publication.” They’re the same folks who originally refused to use e-mail and Facebook, and now fill my inbox and spam my feed. And it’s not just technological change. There are poets who are dismissive of slams.

All my adult life I’ve heard that, along with cowboys and the West, poetry was dying, but I’ve never known poetry to be stronger, more pervasive or accessible than it is now. I don’t know, though, if embracing social media has any real effect on the qualities of the poems we read. If suddenly we’re all writing 280-character poems, then I’ll worry.

I’ll end this one where I started: Damned if I know.

What advice would you give young writers?

Read and write, write and read. Reading’s essential. Reading the work of others helps us build a repertoire of technique we can use to move our own work towards the aims we have for it. The poems of beginning poets often show the obvious influences of whomever they’re reading. As they keep reading, though, and their influences multiply, the telltale marks of individual influences disappear, and the unique voice of the poet emerges.

Show your work to others. A critical audience is essential, folks who’ll give you a response. Those responses’ll tell you whether the poem is doing what you’d hoped it would. Working in a vacuum’s just silly and pointless, unless, I guess, you’re Emily Dickinson. You can find workshops at almost any college. Find one that works for you.

Recognize early that you’ll write some not-great poems. That’s true of any poet. It’s OK, just move on. The next poem’s the important one, not the latest.

Risk something. Playing it safe might result in a competent poem, but there are plenty of those around. Know what your rules for a poem are, whatever your standards are, but don’t be afraid to break a rule now and then.


JV Brummels‘ collections include Cheyenne Line and Other Poems, Book of Grass, City at War and most recently [email protected]. (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2017). A former professor at Wayne State College, home of the longest running poetry slam west of Chicago, he’s also written and published short fiction and a novel. Raised first on a farm and later on a ranch, he was educated at the University of Nebraska and Syracuse University. In 1984 he and his family began a horseback cattle outfit to raise natural, grass-fed beef, which they continue to operate as Lightning Creek Cattle Company.