Who are you as a poet? What do you represent?
BB: I hope I never have an answer for this. I can tell you what other people would say about my voice. There are patterns, images that come again and again—flying, disappearing, dancing, jumping. Peacocks and racoons and fire escapes. Stellar nurseries. Blankets and threads. Wildness, mostly, strangeness, dream-like stuff—the mirror you find in the woods. The black widow you find crying on the windowsill. Buddhas and shadow goddesses. But I also have poems about discrimination and politics and Taco Bell. I don’t want a fixed idea of who I am as a poet or any other way, because once you have that idea you start living or writing within those boundaries, and one of my favorite things about writing is how my own poems surprise me and take me to new places.
My best work is about moments when we become more than we are. There is a place for poetry on every topic and emotion, but my favorites are triumphant, a reminder to myself that I can fly, I will fly regardless of my wounds or fears or mistakes or other obstacles. That we are vastness, that separation is an illusion. That the destiny of consciousness is enlightenment. And when I feel the truth of it in my gut, that means it’s true for everyone, and I think everyone needs to be reminded sometimes that they are perfect, they are beauty, they are power and courage and they can fly too, because it’s easy to forget that in this world.
What is your proudest poetic accomplishment?
BB: My first published poetry collection, Only Flying, came out in November. In one sense, it’s something I’d been trying to do for two years, revising it and sending it out again and again to small presses. Unsolicited Press was the fifteenth place I had sent it, and I didn’t have much hope for publishing it anymore—I just kept doing it anyway.
But in another sense, it’s something I had been trying to do for forty years, since I wrote my first poetry collection in first grade.
My daughter was five months old when I signed the book contract, and I was teaching almost full time at PPCC. So for the entire process of editing, cover design, marketing, and all the other stuff that goes into making a book, I was working from a corner of the bedroom from 2-5 in the morning. My office is a divider in the room with a lamp with a blue light bulb in it, and I had to be careful not to type too loud. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my husband and the rest of my family. I still don’t know how I did it, really, but that’s what my life was like when it happened. It had been my dream since I was a little girl, so not doing it just wasn’t an option.
Talk to us about your process writing and, if applicable, performing.
BB: There are two ways for me, the mystical way and the conscious way. Just before the pandemic, I had my students compare the Nobel Prize for Literature speeches of Toni Morrison and Bob Dylan. Toni Morrison is incredibly conscious—she knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. And next to her, Bob Dylan looks like an idiot—when you think of good stuff, you put it in a song, he says, because it looks good. Water flowing down a ladder—it looks good. You don’t know why, you just write it down. He’s not really an idiot, though. His process is just different—mystical.
Some poems are gifts. Words and images just come sometimes, come through you, and then your job is to get out of the way so they can be born the way they want to. This is the poem that comes at three in the morning, half dream and half vision, words or just an image, water flowing down a ladder. Even if I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean, I scribble it on a sticky note because it’s my job to write it down. These are some of the most surreal pieces, the most mystical. Poetry is the furthest words can bend. Poetry uses words to go beyond words. That’s the magic of it—poetry hotwires the brain, bypassing the logic circuits and electrifying the heart directly. One misunderstanding about poetry is that it has to be understood with the head. You can feel it, experience it without that. Sometimes the head is the problem. You don’t have to know what it means; it’s moving through you into the world.
I work both ways: other times ideas come from the mind or imagination or the news. On a conscious level, poetry is an attempt to communicate feeling, insight, vision. My most conscious poetry is an attempt to recreate a flash of insight—a moment of vastness, or beauty, courage, rebellion, love, gratitude. Truth. Oneness between people or with the world or with the self. The trick is to make it a journey for the reader’s own imagination, so they have their own flash.
Before performing my work, I practice at home. I print it out in a big font and number the pages and highlight every other line. And if I get nervous, I picture somebody like Sarah Silverman making fun of me, like, “Oh, poor widdle baby! Are you scared to wead at the open mic? What do you think this is, The Tonight Show? Just do it, dummy.”
How would you describe the poetry community in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Region?
BB: Most of my involvement in the local poetry community has been through Pikes Peak Community College, where I teach poetry and creative writing. When I finished my MFA, I immediately missed the deadlines, audience, and feedback on my work. Someone gave me the idea of starting a faculty writers’ group, and I did that—it’s called the Nearby Universe. But I made it for all employees, not just faculty, and I’m so glad I did. We have members from the testing center, admins, financial aid office, all over. Math and psychology teachers. It’s been all the things a community is—friendship, motivation, inspiration. A place to get honest feedback on our work. For almost five years now, we’ve been meeting once a month, taking turns workshopping and talking shop about publication, agents, imagery, style—really all things writing. Every winter, we have a write-in, too. We get together and just write next to each other for four hours, like parallel play for grownups. We used to do it downtown at a coffee shop, but the last few years we’ve been doing it on Zoom.
Every class I teach is a poetry community, too. My students are amazing—they get me excited about writing again and again, challenge my ideas, and provide me with excellent reading. My students have written the best creative nonfiction braids I’ve ever read.
How has poetry been a vehicle for activism, change, or advocacy in your life and community?
BB: I have a few explicitly anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic poems, and a lot of poems and stories about daring to be yourself and love yourself no matter what. So I hope their publication in literary magazines and in my collection has been a drop in the bucket somewhere.
Within academia, change has been slow. Nationwide, college curriculums are starting to be more diverse, but the canon’s walls are thick. It has to start sooner than that. By the time they get to college, half my writers already think poetry’s not for them, not about them. Every semester I ask my students what poetry means, who they think of, and nobody says Lauren Hill or Kendrick Lamar. The answers are always the same: Sonnets. Rules. Shakespeare and Robert Frost and Edgar Allen Poe. What do they all have in common? They’re all dead, they say. All men. And all white.
I use my classroom as a vehicle for change. In my poetry class, we study rap specifically, and 75% of the authors we read are people of color in all my classes. And when anybody questions that, I tell them I’m making up for lost time.
What’s missing in our poetry community?
BB: More emphasis on the arts and the imagination in education. More events and poetry play for kids and teenagers. I have 18-year-olds telling me they’re just not creative people—where did they learn that? The ideas that poetry is for everybody and that poetry is a way to freedom, a way to be yourself, not a dusty room full of rules, has to come sooner.
What advances in poetry have you witnessed during your time in the poetry community?
BB: The first poetry community I was a part of was my own group of friends in high school and college. Art was part of our connection—we would sing together. We would draw and paint and make sculptures and show each other. We wrote poetry—sometimes about each other—and we read our work to each other. We gave each other feedback, but mostly we uplifted each other and encouraged each other to keep writing and creating. So, in that sense, I’ve been in one poetry community or another for about 30 years.
In that time, the biggest advance in the form itself has been the rise of prose poetry into the mainstream, the breaking of the only thing that was really holding poetry together, the only rule left: the line. This contributed to a psychological shift, I think, making poetry a little less pretentious and intimidating, and opening it up to new angles and voices.
Now, boundaries between forms and genres are the thinnest they’ve ever been—there are graphic novels of poetry and computer games that should be called novels. There are novels written in hypertext, novels made of bites of prose poetry, and a thousand other hybrids and experiments happening. It’s an incredible time to be reading and writing poetry.
What would you say to folks interested or just starting to engage with our poetry scene?
BB: If you love it, do it. And don’t count yourself out until you’ve put your ten thousand hours into it. I get students who tell me they like poetry, they’re just not good at writing it, and when I ask how many poems they’ve written, the answer is five or ten or twenty or one. It takes time and effort. Take a class, and read it, and listen to it, and talk to other people who want to write it. Join a writers’ group, online or in person.
How do you find and access our poetry community? Who are the players and places of connection?
BB: My first poet friend was my grandmother, from as long as I can remember. Now I have a few close writer friends, people I can send drafts and fragments to and talk about ideas with, and I do the same for them. There’s also my writers’ group at PPCC, the Nearby Universe. There are literary magazines I follow and submit to regularly, like A Story in 100 Words and Loud Coffee Press.
There’s a lot of community out there that I would love to explore if I had time, like The Pikes Peak Writers Association and Ashley’s group, Poetry 719. I want to go to AWP. But I’m a mom and my babies come first. I have two kids and I have a trampoline. So my plate is very full right now, but it’s delicious. I wouldn’t change a thing.
You can support Brook Bhagat by ordering a copy of her book ONLY FLYING.
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