Solving the World’s Questions (or At Least a Few): An Interview with Robert Lee Brewer

Q: Robert, I saw an online interview where you indicated you stated to write poetry in high school. When did you start submitting your work for publication?

A: I had no idea where or how to publish poetry when I first started writing it; I just started writing. At some point, still in high school, a relative (probably my mom or grandmother) found an ad for a free poetry contest to enter. Of course, I entered it and, of course, I was an honorable mention, and, of course, I could buy the anthology and other cool items (like a coffee cup that “I am a famous poet”) for a certain price, which I foolishly did. Then, I received a notice about another free contest, and I entered a poem I thought was crap, and, of course, it was an honorable mention too. I did not buy another anthology–or enter another contest. In fact, I took a break from submitting at all.

But while still in high school, I did start self-publishing a fanzine called Faulty Mindbomb that had local music reviews (both recorded and live music), art, and poetry. I published my own poems, but I also solicited (and received) work from others. It was my first taste of publishing, and it was pretty awesome. When the movie Almost Famous came out, I was like, “Hey, that was me in high school.”

Q: How many of us (as poets) have those cringe worthy stories of the contests we “won” or were honorable mentions for? I’m just thankful I didn’t have the cash to buy the anthology! I love how you mention making fanzines. My siblings and I used to make a newspaper of like fairy tale news and such (not much going on where we lived!). I see that from a lot of writers first experiencing their words on paper via what some could call self-publishing. You decided to self-publish your first two chapbooks. As someone who has also worked in the publishing industry why did you decide to go that route?

A: There were a few reasons I self-published the first collection, ENTER. First, people were asking for a collection on my blog. Second, I was curious if it would sell. Third, I had enough published poems that I felt I could confidently put together a vetted manuscript on my own. So I rolled up my sleeves and jumped in, and it felt a lot like self-publishing that fanzine in high school. I made it a limited edition to increase demand and the urgency of my call to action. Since I knew people were requesting a collection, I decided to not wait around traditional publishing to accept the manuscript, edit the manuscript, design the manuscript, promote and print the manuscript, and so on. I guess I just knew it would take forever going the traditional route.

After ENTER was received so well, I started working on series of poems that all shared a loose form that I invented, and I felt the poems worked together well. Quite a few of them were getting published in publications, so I decided to release a second chapbook titled ESCAPE. Again, it was a limited edition.

I found the process fun and wouldn’t rule out self-publishing again in the future.

Solving_the_Worlds_Problems_cover Q: I really love the reasons you used for self-publishing your first two chapbooks. I think having a specific audience in mind and pursuing publication for individual poems before putting together a collection are really important.  I could ask you more about going with a small press traditional publisher for your first full length collection, but I think other interviews have already covered this topic well. (See Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog and Barbara Ehrentreu’s. I’ve also interviewed Robert’s editor, Tom Lombardo  in the past). Instead I’d like to ask you about the poem I marked as my favorite from Solving the World’s Problems: “from one place to the next”

first there’s a girl who visits this playground
on rainy days today she finds a dead
blue jay and buries it beneath woodchips

several men wearing fluorescent vests
gather around the flatbed of a truck
none of them notice me when i depart

the girl finds a blue feather to insert
into the fresh grave she bends down and calls
me over she asks me to say something

i want to say something important more
than i’ve ever wanted anything but
i can’t find the words stunned i find my car

leaves flutter from the roof as i drive home
only yesterday they fell from their trees
spiraling to the earth like accidents

I love the harsh beauty of this poem, and I feel the speaker is trying to find his voice. There are quite a few poems in this collection that I think of as ars poetica (poetry about poetry) in some way. Do you agree?

A: Well, I’m not a fan of explaining what I’m trying to do in my poems, because I feel like all literature–all art, for that matter–is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. If I put my intent on a poem, it could ruin it for others and their interpretations. I mean, look at the stir caused by casual remarks J.K. Rowling made in an interview about whether Hermione should’ve ended up with Ron or Harry. I feel strongly that once the work is out there, the words are no longer under my control.

All that said, I love writing that opens itself up to multiple levels of meaning. As such, I try to write in a way that a poem can have multiple meanings. In this specific poem, the narrator runs into a problem on one level that all people encounter often–knowing what and how to say the right thing, whether to add comfort or to capture the essence of a moment. On another level, this is a problem that writers constantly face–taking a big, complex idea and breaking it down into something that can be understood and felt. And, for me at least, there’s even more happening in the poem.

Q: I totally understand this. I’m never sure how much to “explain” about a poem vs just letting it ride. I think your idea of art as a collaboration between the artist and the viewer/reader really ties in well with your Remixing the World’s Problems challenge. I’d love to hear how you came up with that idea and how that is going so far?

A. The idea for the Remixing the World’s Problems challenge came to me as I was doing one of my long monthly drives up to Ohio. It’s me and my music in my car while I drive, and it was while listening to Britney Spears that the whole remix idea started to form. Solving the World’s Problems is a collection of lyric poetry, so it made some sense to ask folks to remix my poems–as music artists re-mix the music of other musicians. In fact, I often spend time brainstorming ways to try and get poets to engage with each other.

I’ve received quite a few entries already for the remix challenge, and they’re better than I dreamed. There are many great entries already, but some of the ways people remixed the poems are interesting. One person, for instance, created a poem using the final word from each poem in the collection. Another poet wrote a sequence of 60–that’s right, 60!–tankas by going through the entire collection. Those are a couple examples. There have also been mash-ups, response poems, and other fun ideas.

Q: Final question: I’ve always had kind of a lull right after a collection of poetry comes out. What are you working on now?

A: I was so energized by the revision process of putting the manuscript together that it actually kind of catapulted me into some new work. Plus, I participate in the poem-a-day challenges I host over at Poetic Asides. So that kind of forces me to keep working through the natural lulls. Over the past few months, I’ve been submitting poems to publications and receiving pretty good feedback, which gets me even more excited about what I’m writing.

I’ve started assembling poems into a collection, but that process is still kind of mysterious to me. It could come together by the end of summer or take several years. All I can do is to keep writing until that stuff works itself out.

Thanks for chatting with us. If you have any comments or questions please add them below. Check out Robert’s book and visit him online.

robert_lee_brewer_1Robert Lee Brewer is an editor with the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). A former Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, he runs poem-a-day challenges on his Poetic Asides blog (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides) during the months of April and November. He lives in Duluth, Georgia, with his awesome wife Tammy, who is the Poet Laureate of the Brewer Household. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer (http://twitter.com/robertleebrewer).