Conversation about art with John Brantingham -- author, poet, educator, and writer in residence at east of LA

"The arts, all of them, are a collective conversation about the human experience, and they are a conversation we are having together."

John Brantingham:

The Truth of Hope, The Hope of Truth

John Brantingham’s work has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s daily show Writer’s Almanac, and he has had more than 100 poems and stories published in the United States and England in magazines such as The Journal, Confrontation, Mobius, and Tears in the Fence. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a poem in his chapbook Putting in a Window, which was published by Finishing Line Press, and his second chapbook, Heroes for Today, was published by Pudding House Press.

John Brantingham is the author of six other books such as Dual Impressions: Poetic Conversations about Art, a discussion he has about art works with his student, and The Green of Sunset. He teaches writing at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and he is the Writer-in-Residence at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona, California. His blog Thirty Days Until Done give a prompt a day in a unified theme for every. He’s one of two fiction editors of The Chiron Review, a nationally distributed literary magazine, and he lives happily east of Los Angeles with his wife Annie and their canine companion, Archie.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe and what characterizes John Brantingham’s poetry and philosophy?

The most powerful truth in this world is hope, and when we lose a sense hope we lose our sense of self. It is so easy for people to convince themselves that they are less than they are. There’s something so human about seeing only what we are not rather than the beauty of what we are, and more than anything, my poetry is written against that feeling. Of course, that specific message isn’t in every single poem, but that is the theme that runs through it all because more and more, that’s the way I want to approach the world.

That was the direct message of my second collection of poetry, The Green of Sunset. The idea behind that collection is that our focus on small things is what matters in making it day by day. If the only way you find happiness is through large accomplishments, then most of the time life isn’t going to seem fulfilling. However, if you can find joy in those things that seem small, then every day will seem purposeful.

The new collection, Dual Impressions: Poetic Conversations about Art, embodies that idea. Although my co-writer and I were going through particularly difficult moments in our lives, we found hope and really a reason to be by going to local museums and losing ourselves in the larger world of art.

What were the reasons that you started the cultural experiments? What experiences have triggered your ideas?

I started writing when I was young because I had bouts of deafness, and also my brother was a great writer, and I saw that he was really gaining something from the work. I started reading more than anything else, but I am a social person by nature and no one was really talking to me, and I wanted to communicate, so I started to write too.

I have been writing poems about art for a lot of years. I started writing poetry the way I think most people start. I’d write confessional poetry about my day to day life, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I still write that kind of work. However, after a while, I wanted a way to expand beyond that and to see the world in different ways. Ekphrasis (poetry about art) gives me a new way to enter and explore the world.

"I miss not being connected at every moment. I’m a natural worrier, so I stay online almost all of the time thinking that I can fix everything and knowing I can’t. Mostly however, I am glad we’re moving forward. I see the person I was and the world I inhabited as very flawed."

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

I have had a strange relationship with music my entire life because of my hearing problems. When I was a child, I would not hear anything for months at a time. When that happened I would kind of enter my own world divorced from the realities of everything around me. People would be carrying on their lives in front of me, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. It was like I was the only person on Earth and everything around me was a vaguely interesting movie that I couldn’t really follow.

Regaining my hearing would be both joyful and frustrating. I loved hearing, of course, but I also didn’t know how to prioritize multiple sounds. Often, I’d have to block out extraneous sounds, and that meant music. I’d listen to it and have a moment when I could reenter my intellectual life. That’s the only way I could return to writing.

I still do that. Most of the time, I write with music playing, either jazz or classical, but without lyrics because I listen closely to the words. I like a complicated musician. John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie are my favorites, and I think it’s because they engage my mind so thoroughly. I’ve had A Love Supreme playing over and over in my head for about six months now on and off, and I love it. I’ll come home to listen to it just to make sure I have a certain part of it right.

I don’t know if I can write without music. Most people don’t need it, but it’s a key part of my process.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I don’t know what my life’s going to be like when I eventually go deaf, which I almost certainly will. Music is so much of who I am. I spend so much of my time listening to music while doing other things. Mostly, I can’t listen to popular music because it’s frustratingly regular and repetitive, but occasionally, I’ll come across someone like the Magnetic Fields, Jackson Brown, Madeline Peyroux, or Public Enemy that engages me. But I can put on music and listen for a few minutes and that song is with me the rest of the day merging with and overlapping other songs. I’ll often choose a piece when I know that I want to write a certain kind of poem or collection and return to it every day to bring me back into the correct emotional headspace.

"The most powerful truth in this world is hope, and when we lose a sense hope we lose our sense of self. It is so easy for people to convince themselves that they are less than they are."

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss not being connected at every moment. I’m a natural worrier, so I stay online almost all of the time thinking that I can fix everything and knowing I can’t. Mostly however, I am glad we’re moving forward. I see the person I was and the world I inhabited as very flawed. I think we’re both growing and I wonder what I’m missing now. What I worry about in the future is environmental destruction. This is something that we can change. I worry about wars fought in my name funded by my taxes. I worry about intolerance and hatred. All of those worries are alleviated every year, however, by my students. I teach at a community college outside of Los Angeles, and the young people I work with are incredible and so dedicated to good and hope. I think we’re leaving the world in good hands.

If you could change one thing in the world/people and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Tens of thousands of people die of starvation each day from preventable causes. I’d like to see my nation stop focusing on everything else it is doing and start focusing on that. Hunger is a weapon of war instigated by people in power. Ending it and spreading hope to all people would increase even the richest person’s quality of life. I know that sounds kind of like a beauty contestant’s answer, but all other issues seem to me less important.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

It’s the same advice, and it’s not complicated. Being a writer and a poet is a profession, and it needs to be treated as one. Construction workers, police officers, teachers, and engineers work a forty hour week and writers need to do so as well. If you want to be a writer, you need to work on craft and read constantly. You also need to promote your work. If you do not promote, then by definition you are an amateur. A professional is someone who does something for a living after all. That’s not the primary reason to do art, but it is what makes someone a professional. I think it’s important to view it as a profession too because if you do not, then it is easy to prioritize everything before it, and soon that thing you love the most becomes a hobby that you seldom return to.

"However, I am firmly convinced that we are living in the world’s golden age right now. If we look around, there is beauty and joy and anything anyone might ever want all around us."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What touched (emotionally) you?

On a personal level, the most important experience was going on a study abroad program to London when I was twenty years old. It was my first experience completely away from my family and friends, and I wandered the city and made new friends. I was completely awake to my surroundings and I spent as much time as I could, doing as many different things as I could. I tried out as much of life as there was, and it was amazing. I met the woman who became my wife, and I realized that I really was a poet, not just someone who sometimes wrote a poem.

One of the most amazing experiences was a moment when I was alone in a room of the British Museum. It was a Tuesday morning in February, and I had the place to myself. They had a display of different famous works through history from John Lennon to Basho to William Blake. I spent an hour or so looking at them and gaining the realization that I was aware of every single one of them.

I realized at that moment that I was not who I had thought I was. My perception of myself had been that I was ignorant and kind of a lost cause. I still knew that I didn’t know much, but I owned a kind of cultural literacy and that with work, I could achieve something with my life. That was far from the perception than I had previously.

What is the impact of music on the literary tradition, and the literature to socio-cultural implications?

The arts, all of them, are a collective conversation about the human experience, and they are a conversation we are having together. They cannot be separated because they are all a part of the same continuum. The impact of music is, therefore, complete. There is no way to divorce the two traditions because they are the same tradition.

I think a lot of the way people express themselves has to do with what they have access to at an early age. I will always be a music lover and never a musician and that’s all right, but that music born out of traditions of poverty always has something interesting to say about poverty. Paintings about poverty take the same conversation and approach it from a different direction. To me, street art is the most exciting kind of art today. These artists are really speaking to the human condition from the point of view of a group of people who are willing to put themselves at risk in order to say something that means something to them. I’m really offended only when I’m offended by that message.

Where would you really wanna go with a time machine and what memorabilia (books/records) would you put in?

I’m someone who loves history, so I have a kind of mixed way of thinking about this. Although I know that I’m romanticizing periods of time, and they are filled with their own horrors, I think about Paris in the 1920s and London in 1960s. I want to see the formation of Los Angeles, which is fascinating in its corruption. I’d love to be in New York in the 1950s, and I would bring a notebook and a good pen to all of these places. However, I am firmly convinced that we are living in the world’s golden age right now. If we look around, there is beauty and joy and anything anyone might ever want all around us.

John Brantingham - Thirty Days Until Done

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