Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Interview: Poet Michael H. Brownstein

Interview: Poet Michael H. Brownstein

Who are you & what do you think you’re doing?

Interviewed by Moristotle

Poet Michael H. Brownstein came to my attention by way of an email a little over three months ago: “Bob Boldt told me about your site…How can I submit poetry?” I told him, he submitted, I invited him to join the staff, he accepted, and less than two weeks later his first submission appeared here, in his column, “All Over the Place,” followed by another poem every Sunday since.

    And less than three weeks ago, in reading his book  A Slipknot into Somewhere Else, I discovered that his work has appeared in over 50 poetry journals. I don’t think I even knew there were that many poetry journals. I’ve only begun to visit their websites to learn a little about them.
    While we can learn a good deal about this poet by reading his weekly submissions, much of what we learn is only suggested, hinted at, alluded to by his poetry, which is more elliptical and “evocative” (as his fellow columnist Roger Owens says) than literal and declarative.
    In the hope of learning something literal and declarative about Michael H. Brownstein, I invited him to be interviewed. He accepted, and here we are. My questions are in italics.

Michael, the high number of poetry journals and forums your poems have appeared in leads one to expect you might be written up in Wikipedia, but when I googled on “michael h brownstein wikipedia,” I found no entry. If there were an entry, what essentials might we expect to be included in its opening paragraph?
    Probably what everyone has – birth dates, family info, parents, city and state, and then a sentence or two on why this person is in Wikipedia.

What essentials in the “Childhood” section?
    Born in Chicago, moved to Skokie – a hop and a skip from Chicago – when I was four, went to the Evanston School District, did some volunteer work with Hull House, started writing, sent stuff off – and nothing was accepted.

The “Education” section?
    Graduated from Evanston High School, went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb (I thought then – and still do – that it was my best fit – they had a teaching program where you student-taught in the second semester of your freshmen year), earned a Masters in Curriculum and Development from National Louis University – that’s that.

“Early Adulthood”?
    Started teaching in Chicago’s inner city in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods when I was nineteen, transferred a year later to the housing projects on the far Southside, taught GED a few miles away, and mathematics for Kennedy King College in the project buildings nearer to downtown. Because Chicago had an annual strike just about every year, when I began teaching at Farren next to the Robert Taylor Public Housing Projects (at the time, the largest public housing in the world), I established a not-for-profit, The RAMP (Reading and Math Program), so my students would not miss any school. After the strike ended, I decided to keep the program going as an academic after-school program, started writing grants, hired some local teenagers to help out, and discovered I had an aptitude for grant writing.
    Here’s an excerpt from a published essay from my Teacher Book:
One time I entered my class to discover a classroom of weapons. Almost every child had something on their desk – a thick stick, a piece of metal, rocks, one kitchen knife. “What’s going on?” I asked and they reminded me today was the day a student was transferring into our room from another class, his ten-day suspension over. My class was scared. They knew his reputation. He was dangerous; he hurt people. They reminded me how two weeks earlier he had grabbed some boys and held them hostage in the bathroom. This was before zero tolerance, before every school spent money on security, a time when a touch on a child’s shoulder meant good work and it was okay to hug. Somehow I was the teacher who managed to reach out to the suspended student, calm his hostages, calm him, and settle the matter with no one getting hurt. After a few weeks, I knew he really wasn’t a bully. He was just a victim in need of nurturing. When we in the school changed the way we dealt with him, he began the slow process of healing. At school’s end, he made a few good friends.
    There were others like him. Too many to count. There was the girl who was raped by an uncle and withdrew so far into herself, she still has not fully healed. There was the boy who couldn’t stand his mother getting beaten all of the time and took his anger out on the younger students. There was the teenager who got a summer job so he could go to college only to have his stepfather steal his earnings to buy whisky. I became a part of these children. I made sure the girl was safe. It took newspaper articles and police, but it was done. I made sure the boy’s mother was no longer beaten. I went to his home after school one Thursday and she answered the door with a bleeding lip, a skewed nose, one eye swollen shut. I had come to ask for assistance with her son, but that matter fell to the wayside. “How do you pick a man?” she asked. How did I know the answer? But I knew where she could get help. I knew where she could get counseling. I knew where she could learn how to rebuild her family and her own self-esteem. I was able to offer her that, and I did. By the end of the year, he no longer bullied little children. He became a classroom superstar. And I went into the housing project and into the apartment of the stepfather who had stolen the money for liquor. I asked everyone to leave the room so he and I could talk privately. What was I thinking? He was bigger and he was stronger, but I was right. I told him we would solve the problem now – however he wanted. It did not make a difference to me. He gave the money back and I kept it for the remainder of the summer for safekeeping.
When it comes to the “Work” section of this fantasy Wikipedia entry for Michael H. Brownstein, I’d like to get specific. Let’s start with this. In what year was your first poem published?
    I wrote from when I was in junior high, but nothing really jelled. When I turned thirty-five, so many years ago, I fractured my hip playing ice hockey and could not work for a few weeks. It gets really boring laying around. I sent a few opinion pieces off to the Chicago Sun-Times and they not only took them, they sent me a nice check. Then I began submitting work to the Chicago Reader. They paid the rent. What the hell, I thought, let’s send out some poetry, maybe some fiction, a piece of creative nonfiction. To my amazement – and I’m still amazed when my work is accepted and published – everything I sent out found a home. Back then there was this real nice magazine called FactSheet Five. It reviewed hundreds of small press journals. No one knew what the Internet was back then. I made sure I had a current copy at all times and I kept sending work out and getting good news, or bad news, or news to revise. I wish there was a FactSheet Five today. The closest I can find is the links on Poetry Super Highway.
    I didn’t answer your question yet, did I? My first poem was published in 1985. Can’t remember who or where, but that’s the date. First chapbook came out a year or two later – The Shooting Gallery from Samisdat Press. I entered my first poetry contest a year or two later with Ommation Press and won with a chapbook entitled Poems from the Body Bag. After that I became passionate about writing. Since that time I have over a thousand publications in a few hundred – or more – journals online and in print.

I mentioned Bob Boldt in the introduction. Like you, he lives in Jefferson City, Missouri. How did you meet Bob? Was it he who suggested you might find dozens of small journals in which to publish your poems?
    When I retired from teaching and grant writing, my family moved to Jefferson City, Missouri. We had an old home there and we decided to move into it. When I discovered the library had a writing workshop that met monthly, I found out Bob was the contact person. Went to a meeting, met Bob – another Chicagoan – and discovered one of the librarians at that library actually had placed a few of my chapbooks in the library stacks. Bob and I discovered them together. We’ve been friends ever since.

The subtitle of your “Slipknot” collection labels it a “journey to the borderlands of dementia.” Have you, yourself and personally, ventured into dementia? How far?
    Strangely enough, I never met or encountered anyone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. I’m getting older. Sometimes a word stretches away from my tongue and I can’t get ahold of it until minutes, hours, sometimes day or even months (like the word “advocate” in my book). Sometimes people speak about senior moments or a sudden pause into daydream land. I think I sometimes have these moments, but I have learned that if I have a problem or a concern, if I write about it – make a poem about it – oftentimes the negative issues go away. After putting my book together, I actually had less lapses in memory and I began to feel stronger. Now I’m writing grants again, tutoring students of all ages, learning new skills (website development is one example, tuck pointing another) and I’m writing up a storm. I’m even weightlifting now and I can walk a mile in about twelve minutes. I’m not sure I answered the question, but I will tell you this: when I wrote the book, I tried to imagine what it must be like to be slipping into Alzheimer or dementia. I’m not a fan of Ronald Reagan, but I do admire his spirit when he found himself moving rapidly in that direction. He said something like this: Don’t worry about me. I’m just entering another realm in my life, another adventure.

The book’s “about the author” page says that you are the head administrator of Project Agent Orange, whose website indicates that you are the primary contact for a grant to support the project. When did the project start? Were you its founder, or one of its founders?
    In 2012, my son earned a scholarship to the Ha Noi University of Agriculture – the first American, we were told, to ever be admitted. All of the women in my life – my daughter, my wife, even my mother – told me I had to go with him. You can’t win that argument so we went off to Vietnam together. They could not find him a place to stay for a month. We stayed in a guest house on campus waiting, he going to a botany lab every day and me – well, they asked if I would teach English. Best job I ever had. Needless to say, we ate lunch with his lab mates and a week into the program, one of them asked me why we had the American War. American War? Why was she interested in learning about the Revolutionary War? No, she corrected me, the war that brought you to my country. In Vietnam, it’s not the Vietnam War, it’s the American War. One thing led to another and Agent Orange came up. Strange as it may seem, I really thought our country had cleaned that mess up. No, I came to find out up close and personal, that we did not, that its harm was still there and still expanding. You can link to the websites here: Project Agent Orange and First Poems from Vietnam.
    When they finally found a dormitory room for my son, I flew back home, began Project Agent Orange, wrote a grant to the Ted Oppenheimer Foundation and received a substantial check to fund the project in Vietnam. The next thing you know the Ha Noi University of Agriculture is assigning coursework on what needs to be done. One of our greatest accomplishments was our discovery that even small amounts of arsenic in the drinking supply worsened the symptoms of Agent Orange. We were able to fund a number of clean water purification projects still in use today. Another accomplishment was the funding of sustainable farms for Agent Orange families – we funded a rabbit farm, a ranch for oxen and other large mammals, and a fruit tree farm, among others. We still take donations, but since there is no one on the ground there any longer to assist, most of the donations now help our veterans and their families who continue to suffer from Agent Orange.

What was your stance on that war at the time, when it was going on?
    I’m a student from the sixties. I was one of the protesters – very active and very loud. Even today when I leave the country or want to get back in, I’m totally searched, my bags ransacked and many times I find myself in a small room waiting for the interrogation to be over. Once when my family was visiting the third world part of the Caribbean Islands, they would not let me on the plane with my family. Fortunately, someone told them it would be okay – let the Americans take care of the American. That’s how I made the flight thirty seconds before the door was closed. I do want to say though, that I never spat on a veteran or cursed one and I don’t know anyone who did. With my project up and running, I now have several friends from that war – and they know I was one of the protesters. The war came to an end after my second or third year of college.

For me, the most gut-wrenching poem in the “Slipknot” collection is probably “44 Bullets,” which you wrote “For Victor Jara, a Chilean folk singer…[who was] shot 44 times ‘to make sure he could not inspire…from the grave’.” How did you learn of Víctor Jara? Have you visited Chile? Were you involved in protests against American intervention in Chile, where the forces who overthrew Allende in 1973 murdered Víctor Jara?
    I was a staff writer for an alternative and very vocal anti-Chicago Teacher’s Union and Chicago Public School policy for the newspaper Substance. Back then it was print only. I was also the union rep for my school. Anyway, one of the other staff writers wrote about Víctor, I read her piece, was shocked and angered, and “44 Bullets” came to be. I have to say that though I was never in Chile, by the time this happened I was active in protesting against how our country dealt with governments from other countries our government did not agree with. I guess I still do that today. An example, if you want to know more, is my online e-book, Firestorm: A Rendering of Torah, published by the Camel Saloon Press at Firestorm. It’s my take on what is going on, had been going on, in Israel/Palestine.

When I googled on the common noun “slipknot,” I discovered the heavy metal band that goes by that name, founded in 1995 in Des Moines, Iowa. Have you been to a Slipknot Band concert?
    Never heard of them, but I will You Tube them. I selected the word “slipknot” because that’s a knot that unties easily. I hope people who read my book will be able to untie their mental states and grow stronger.

I have encountered several unfamiliar words in reading your poems, thankfully not long, abstract, Latinate words, but words for concrete, everyday objects, like “leks” and “bowerbird”...How did these words find their way into your lexicon, into your work? Do you consult dictionaries a lot? Are the sources just things you happen to read? (These words were introduced to me by your work.)
    The Wall Street Journal has an excellent supplement every weekend – I think it’s called the Weekend Review. It’s not a financial review, but a collage, if I may, of interesting essays, opinion pieces, and a lot of books reviews. Not simple book reviews but deep and complex. I learn too much. I have a backlog of three issues presently. I find I can never read the entire section in a day or two. Sometimes it takes me a week or more to finish.

Allison Kat wrote in a review of the “Slipknot” collection on Amazon that you told her you “just want to get your message out there.” What message is that? Is there some underlying message of all of your work, or were you referring to particular messages of particular poems?
    Both. You caught onto the angst in “44 Bullets.” Did you feel the downward pull when you read the introduction of the book? The poem is written and divided in this way to assist you as you enter the borderlands of dementia. My editor worked that one out and I agreed with his formatting. I think Rich Soos is brilliant. That’s why the into and conclusion are the way they are.
    I want readers to not fall past the border. Stay strong. Read and react.
    In Allison’s case, I wanted to do more than be a book on her bookstore’s shelf. I wanted to explain in a reading at her store why I wrote the book and how writing, journaling, creativity keeps us sharp and mentally alive. I’ve done a few of these presentations here and there.

Your biography page on Amazon concludes with the paragraph, “You go camping, and a rattlesnake crawls into your sleeping bag. Prayer and poetry – they really do go together.” What is prayer, for you?
    I feel I am a spiritual person, God surrounds me, and I enter into her/his home with prayer. Really, though, my best prayers are my writings, be they poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction.

Do you think of yourself as having a method of working? How close to “finished” is a typical first draft? (Is there such a thing as “a typical first draft”?)
    I’m never done after a first draft. My first draft contains lines that I feel flow together, and then I reread them, and often they don’t. I keep lines, stanzas, images and words I like in my journals. A poem is ready to send out after I have done many revisions – and then I see something else that needs to be changed. “44 Bullets,” for example, was revised over a dozen times. I guess I’m saying nothing I write is ever really completed. Sometimes I have to move on.

Have you worked and worked and worked on any poems and ultimately given up on them, thrown them away?
    I don’t know that I throw them away. I think something in everything I write may find its heart, if you will, and then I will use a line or a phrase. Some of my poems are plain awful. I keep them someplace safe anyway.

Do lines (or whole poems) just “come to you”? Another Moristotle & Co. author (of thriller novels, Ed Rogers) says he dreams his stories. Do you ever dream a poem?
    Do you know how an idea comes to you out of nowhere and you cannot let it go? I write the poem down and then I’m able to leave it be. Dream poems are that way too. Very few dream poems, for me anyway, ever really produce anything useful, but I keep them safe anyways.

Eric Meub, a demonstrated master of traditional poetic verse (metrical, rhymed stanzas) commented on your poem “Long Hair / Strong Hair”: “This is absolutely brilliant. The tangles of images and sounds and voices talking past each other is so good I’m speechless.” Would you talk about that poem, please, with reference to Eric’s observations.
    This is an example of a poem derived from a number of poems I did not like in their entirety but did line for line. The conversation at the video store was a reenactment of what seemed to me two unrelated people having a conversation with each other but were really talking to them self. When I connected the lines together to finish this poem, I found a framework of imagery and I liked the way it flowed and the way it presented itself. I like to use ears for seeing, noses for hearing, mouths for sight, hair for echoing, hands to take a piece of beauty and make it whole. This poem took me to a lot of places – maybe even all over the place – and I was happy.
    My hair is quite long now; it was long when I was younger (but now it’s ponytail long) – and my beard is stretching downwards; much longer than at any other time in my life. The woman in the poem – actually she’s my wife – will not let me cut my hair.

Michael, you spend a lot of time writing. What else are you doing these days?
    I’m rehabbing a few old houses, tutoring college students and other youth in need, and co-running a not-for-profit called the Ash Street Block Club Association – a program that is all over the place. For example, we helped during the tornado and recent floods, and we are now working to help prevent suicides, assist young adult authors, and help reintroduce newly released inmates back into the community.
    In the past five years, I worked as the English Specialist for Lincoln University and did logistic work to bring a Southeastern Asian corporation to the States (still working on that one). And I have been collaboratively developing NatureClaim, a researched-based portal into medicinal plants, herbs, spices, and other health-related items.

You keep busy doing good. 
    Thanks for the great questions. Tell you what: if your readers have more questions and/or comments, please ask them to post them in the comment section and I’ll answer them as soon as I can.

Michael, I thought I was just being playful and clever leading off with those fantasy Wikipedia questions, but it’s clear that there ought to be a Wikipedia entry for you! But whoever takes the assignment already has a lot of information for it right here. There are quite a few more journals to consult (and cite), though, than the over-50 I was already aware of. And a long list to compile for your bibliography. Volunteers may contact me.

Copyright © 2019 by Michael H. Brownstein & Moristotle

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1 comment:

  1. Awesome read from a great poet and teacher


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