Brad Buchanan

Brad Buchanan is Associate Professor of English at California State University, Sacramento, where he teaches Creative Writing and Modern British Literature. He grew up in Ottawa, and attended McGill University and the University of Toronto before moving to the US to attend graduate school at Stanford University. His poetry has appeared in more than 140 journals worldwide, including The Antigonish Review, Canadian Literature, Descant, Event, The Fiddlehead, Grain, and The Windsor Review. He has published two books of poetry, The Miracle Shirker (2005) and Swimming the Mirror: Poems for My Daughter (2008), and is co-founder of Roan Press, a small publishing operation. His scholarly writings have appeared in numerous journals, among them The Journal of Modern Literature and Twentieth Century Literature. His book on the fiction of Hanif Kureishi appeared in 2007 from Palgrave Macmillan Press, and his book manuscript, “Oedipus Against Freud: Myth and the End(s) of the Human in Twentieth Century British Literature” is forthcoming from a major university press.

Questions & Answers

Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?

I remember listening to a lot of pop music in the 1980s as a teenager and admiring the lyrics of songs like The Police’s “Every Little Things She Does is Magic” or U2’s “New Year’s Day.” I couldn’t sing to save my life, but I tried to capture some of the rhythmic feeling of those songs by writing poems. Probably as a consequence of that early devotion to pop songs, I can’t seem do do without some recurrent sound patterns (like rhyme, or a certain anapestic bounce) in my work. In my mind, if a poem doesn’t have a rhythmic engine driving it, it’s probably better to write an essay instead. For me, poetry is about the sound of words as much as it is about their meaning.

How/where do you find inspiration today?

For years, I’ve read a lot of other poets to try and find new ideas or new ways of seeing the world (my favorites include Franz Wright, Margaret Atwood, Geoffrey Hill, and Peter Porter). When I haven’t written a poem in a while, I get the juices flowing again by noting how other poets approach certain big, obvious topics (death, sex etc.) and that usually motivates me to find my own way back into those issues. Lately, I also find inspiration in observing my 3 year-old daughter’s use language. Young children are naturally poetic, in my opinion, because they don’t yet realize that they’re supposed to speak in clichés. She’s come up with some amazing lines of poetry out of nowhere, for instance, “The sun is breathing and I can’t know why.” It’s hard to beat that for sheer poetic inspiration.

What is your writing process?

My writing process is generally very swift and ruthless: I usually write a poem in under 30 minutes, unless there’s something very unusual going on that needs a longer period of observation. I tend to believe Keats’s dictum that if poetry doesn’t come naturally it had best not come at all, so if a poem is taking a long time to write, I generally put it aside for a while. No doubt as a symptom of my spontaneity fetish, I write on whatever scraps of paper happen to be handy, and frequently deface my own books with scribblings.

What is your revision/editing process?

My revision process occurs primarily when I type a poem into my computer and I see how it looks on the page. Although I’m obsessed with how a poem sounds, I also want to be sure it looks reasonably good on the page (i.e. if the lines are pleasingly similar in length without being identical). I’ll shuffle lines, chop them up into halves, or do whatever needs doing to make the poem fill out the page in a way I enjoy. Some poems are so bad that I can’t even stand to type them in, so this is also is a good way of making a preliminary editorial decision. If a poem isn’t working, I usually put it away and don’t bother trying to rescue it from mediocrity. If a poem is working, however, I don’t tamper with it until I show it to someone else. If I’m sure it’s strong, I send it out for publication; if I’m less sure, I’ll show it to the poetry workshop group to which I belong. I usually ask them to pick out the weaker lines or stanzas, which I then usually excise. I often find myself chopping off the last few lines of a borderline poem, since I have a bad habit of closing my poems with little lyrical summaries, flat explanations or pat paradoxes.

Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?

I started to write poetry in high school, as a matter of fact, as a result of an assignment. I had to write two poems for English class, and I sweated over those things for hours. It was fun, though; I remember pacing in my bedroom as I tried to find the right words to express my ideas clearly. It was the most intense mental effort I’d ever made, and it seemed to pay off. I had always been the class clown, and I think my teachers gained a new respect for me after I’d succeeded in composing a decent Shakespearean sonnet. I think I also impressed one particular girl I was hoping to date, though the relationship never made it out of the classroom.

Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?

I use Stephen Adams’s book “Poetic Designs” to teach my own students about poetic forms. I also like Mary Oliver’s “Rules for the Dance,” and I recommend Randall Jarrell’s essays and reviews to anyone who loves words. Having said that, the best training for young poets is to read poetry from many different periods and countries to find out where their real passion lies.

When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?

As a high school poet, it would have been nice just to hear what real, live poets are thinking when they write and revise. I had to settle for interviews in “Rolling Stone” magazine, where meter and rhyme weren’t much in evidence. (I was also led to expect groupies, which haven’t materialized.) So the questions you’re asking are right on the money, in my view.

Works by Brad Buchanan