As this year’s Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence, acclaimed novelist and memoirist Brando Skyhorse has generously opened the Lenthall House, the campus home of our writers-in-residence, to the Open Space reading series, welcoming student writers from GW and the Corcoran to share his work. Although he writes fiction and non-fiction and has been an admired teacher of both, he also loves to read poems. ENGL 2470 students Cailley Para, Clara Mora, and Charlie Franz recently asked Professor Skyhorse to share one of his favorites and, with his usual brio, kindly agreed.
What drew you to Gerald Stern’s “When I’ve Reached the Point of Suffocation”?
I first came across this poem I would say maybe fifteen, twenty years ago. And the person I was dating at the time was working in publishing and she got invited to the National Book Awards Dinners and I didn’t. So I got to imagine like, “oh, they’re having this big fancy dinner,” which they were, it was big tuxedos, the whole thing. And so they have books that are giveaways. Basically all the books that are nominated for awards they have as giveaways as the centerpiece, you could take whatever you want. And she grabbed me a copy of it, and I didn’t read a lot of poetry so I snagged the book when she got home and started looking through it. And this was one of the first poems listed. And I believe it was in chronological order, so I’m guessing this is one of the poems written early on in his career. I don’t want to misspeak about this. And there was something about the idea of looking at the destruction of beautiful things and making your own regeneration out of nothing—that specific concept, those lines, that really spoke to me. And, you know, I think that had something to do with the fact that I was having a sort of challenging relationship with my family; I’d had five stepfathers growing up, my mother was abusive, my grandmother was abusive, and so I’d often turn to books as an escape but I had never found something that had so succinctly summarized my own specific experience. Until this poem, which I know sounds really weird but the idea of growing up in this impoverished area which, the neighborhood I grew up in, Echo Park, was… it wasn’t the worst part of Los Angeles but it was pretty rough… so to have sort of all these experiences summarized in such a succinct and specific way, you know, the idea that a poem could be speaking to the whole world and to one person that’s pretty much what drew me in.
Do you draw inspiration from any poetry?
I read poetry because I want to see my better half: I mean poets are the best type of writers anywhere. And the thing that’s difficult about poetry, and why it’s good that there is National Poetry Month, is because there’s not really a national dialogue about poetry, which is weird because if you think of all the big moments in our lives that we experience on an annual basis, you know weddings or funerals or commencements, there’s always poetry there. It’s always the backbone of these specific events. Yet we never really have the connection with poetry outside of these really big important events. I’m fortunate enough that my partner is a poet, and I have friends with poets on Facebook, which is a really good way to find out about poetry, and so they keep me appraised of what’s out there and what I should be reading. And, you know, some of it’s old school, some of it’s writers that I should have already read. I think that it’s important that every writer makes a space for poetry, whether it’s a large space or small space, because the idea of what a poet does–it’s compressing these really complicated thoughts and expressing them in a very unique and specific way. And doing it because you really love writing! I think that’s really the key thing that I love about poets more than anything else. If you’re a novelist or a screenwriter or a memoirist, there’s always the expectation of “Oh, my book could be an Oprah pick” or “I could be a millionaire,” or somehow I could sell a ton of my books or sell the rights to the movies or something. Poets never have that. They are doing it simply because they love the written word. They love the art form. So that’s kind of why poetry is important to me.
Is there poetry that you gravitate towards?
I am a big fan of narrative poetry and I think that’s because my partner’s a narrative poet. But it’s also because there’s a story component as well and I know that narrative poetry, it goes in and out of favor. I don’t know who makes these decisions, if poets get together and decide “Oh, more narrative poetry this year!” or something, but I’m drawn to anything with a good story. And the idea that you can get a compelling narrative about love or life or death or whatever in a way that is more compressed than a short story or flash fiction. I think that flash fiction is an attempt to do what really good narrative poetry actually does. So those types of poems where I feel like there’s architecture attempting to tell a really compelling story, a complicated compelling story in as fewest words possible, that’s really exciting to me. I think as a writer, a prose writer, it’s always more. It’s always more details, more put on the page. So the idea that you can get a similar effect with fewer words, that’s really exciting. And the amount of precision that goes into a really strong poem- and the poem I just read, I feel like every word on this page is doing the work of three or four things. Where as like, you know, in a memoir or a work of fiction, if a sentence is doing the work of one thing or two things, you’re lucky. So again, it’s that precision and that conciseness, that focus of energy and passion and all those other emotions, that’s really exciting.
… writes Chloe Rome, a recent GW English major who’s now working at CNN in Atlanta. “Most people are surprised when I say I was an English major. But my English degree gave me the shape and structure I needed to succeed in journalism. I learned how to read something and think critically about it,…
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