The Healing Nature of Truth: An Interview with Brionne Janae

MICHAEL MERCURIO interviews BRIONNE JANAE

Brionne Janae headshot
In conversation, they go by Breezy. When Michael Mercurio and Brionne Janae spoke via Zoom, Breezy was at home in Brooklyn, and Michael was in Northampton, Massachusetts. Though Michael had known Breezy’s work for several years through their publications in Ploughshares, Waxwing, Frontier Poetry Review, The Sun, The Rumpus, and The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, they hadn’t met until they worked together on a program for the Tell It Slant Poetry Festival, cohosted by the Faraday Publishing Company and Black Writers Read. Here, they talk about musicality, authenticity, and the importance of bringing voice to what might be left unsaid. (Please note this interview discusses childhood sexual abuse and trauma.)

Michael Mercurio: Your forthcoming book is titled Blessed are the Peacemakers, which is drawn from the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, and is also the title of a complex poem dealing with intergenerational trauma, shame, and heartache. How did you decide to use this for the title of the collection, and what sort of framing do you want it to offer to readers? 

Brionne Janae: The title came from a conversation I had with a family member about a pastor who had been accused of sexually assaulting men and boys in his church. This person said, at some point during the conversation, that “not everything needs to be said.” I recognized this as being rooted in their own trauma and the harm they had experienced, and I thought of how their father used to pray by saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers. Father, teach me to bridle my tongue.” It struck me how much was left unsaid, and how much we all want to keep things unsaid because the reality is often too hard for us to deal with. So I want the title to ask what it means to be a peacemaker—is there a way to be a peacemaker that isn’t just appeasing people, but takes a more active peacemaking role? The truth can be brutal but encountering it may be necessary to bring forth real healing. 

Mercurio: I can’t help but think of how many of the people who’ve been “peacemakers” throughout history have been women trying to hold families together, and who’ve felt like they haven’t had any choice but to make it work somehow, even as someone else in the family might be visiting harm upon themselves and others. This is an incredibly powerful way to address that, and it’s a gorgeous, harrowing complex poem. It first appeared in…oh, I should’ve taken better notes…

Breezy: In Paperbag.

Mercurio: Right, Paperbag. Is the version that appears in the book the same as that version, or was it edited at all while the book was coming together?

Breezy: No, it appears more or less the same in the book. 

Mercurio: Shifting focus slightly, you’ve now put together two collections of poems. I’d love to hear a bit about how the experience went for each of them—were there lessons from the first that helped shape the second, or was it an entirely different experience both times?

Breezy: Putting them together was different each time. The first book, After Jubilee, was my MFA thesis, so I put it together with the guidance and input of my mentor, Gail Mazur. The second book was really my first solo endeavor, though I sent it to friends and asked for their advice throughout the process. I started it almost as soon as I finished the first one, because I wanted to look at my family and write about where and how I grew up. I was thinking about what it means to be Black, living with depression and experiencing all of the hate the world has for people like me, and all the violence against people who look like me. I didn’t want to have that be the only story, though; I wanted it to arc towards joy and love. I worked on it at Hedgebrook and Vermont Studio Center. At Hedgebrook we had open studios, and I had organized my book on the studio wall—one poem per page all taped up on the wall—and people would come look at the way it was laid out. It wasn’t a situation where anyone could linger and read the whole manuscript, but visitors would tell me how struck they were by what was on the wall.

Mercurio: So is there a moment when you know what you’re writing has become a book? And if so, what does that look like?

Breezy: I can tell when I’ve hit a point where I’ve learned the lesson that the book was meant to teach me, or when I feel myself moving on to something else. 

Mercurio: Your poems are intensely and densely musical, and it’s a pleasure to hear you read them aloud—I’m thinking, for example, of “Capitalism,” which originally appeared in The Rumpus. It has a cascade of consonance mapped to a relentless rhythm that echoes the unending hunger implicit in the title. Do you typically begin poems in sound and then construct meaning from there, or do you begin with an idea and then shape and revise until the sonic aspects are what you need them to be?

Breezy: When I first started writing poetry as an undergrad, I would hear a poem before I knew what the content was. Now I mostly start with a note in my phone—sometimes I start musically, like one summer when I was sitting on the beach and watching a buoy bobbing in the water I started thinking about the line “Buoys bobbing in the harbor,” which went into my phone until I figured out what to do with it. I always read each poem aloud as I’m writing them; I go back to the top and re-read and let myself hear them and then make edits based on what I’m hearing. There are poems I remember just because of their sound—like the poem by Natasha Trethewey that starts “I think by now the river must be thick/with salmon,” those iambs are lovely. I love poems driven by sound.

Mercurio: Well, your sonic imagination and poetic insights are on full display on your website, where you’ve shared “the poems that keep [you]” —an incredibly rich and generous gift where you turn your attention to poems by other poets like Nicole Sealey and Camille Rankine, and offer close readings of their work. Do you have any plans for a collection of critical essays, perhaps, on poetics? 

Breezy: Ohhhh. [Laughs] There was a moment during the pandemic where I was doing the thing—writing poems, writing essays—but I’ve slowed down somewhat. I’m not a big fan of the craft essay, and I really avoided reading them as much as possible during grad school (though I read some)—it seemed like the ones that were assigned were just never about the poems that I cared about. It was usually just white men writing about their own friends.

Mercurio: Yeah, I had to read plenty of those, too, which is why I found those essays on your site so engaging! You really have a way of getting inside the poems and helping the reader understand them on a deeper level.

Breezy: Thank you for saying that…I have a few others I’ve started but I just haven’t polished them yet. So maybe…maybe.

Mercurio: What was your life like as a poet pre-Cave Canem? How did joining that community change your approach to the poetry world?

Breezy: Well, I got into Cave Canem at 21, so there wasn’t much of my writing life before it. I was introduced to Cave Canem by Aya De Leon, who encouraged me to apply as soon as I was eligible. Being part of that community is what made me realize I could actually do this: seeing all these other people who were like me in this space succeeding was a nice counterbalance to the experience of the MFA program. Cave Canem was the first space I was in that was intentional about being loving. Toi Derricotte is just so lovely and supportive and truly excited to see people when they return, and in this environment I was encouraged to be honest, to write the hard poems, and to tell the truth. 

Mercurio: Do you have an audience in your head when you’re writing? We talked about the poem “Blessed are the Peacemakers” earlier, and while I’ve been trained not to read autobiography into poems, I’m wondering if you self-censor at all or worry that family members might read something and assume it’s about them when it isn’t. 

Breezy: I definitely only have myself as an audience in my head. I’m writing what I need to see in the world, but it’s hard. I’m not writing autobiography, but I am writing about my life, and it does worry me what my family will think. I’m hopeful, though, that my family will see that there’s love, and that they’re deeply important. It’s daunting—really, really daunting—but I keep going forward because I know I’ve needed to see certain poems in the world. I was so grateful that Sharon Olds told the truth about her family in Satan Says and spoke truthfully about dysfunction and the ways that home can be the root of a lot of our pain. I know I’m not special. Anything I’m writing about has happened to someone else as well, and that person may need to see it written the way I saw what Sharon Olds had written. 

Mercurio: That makes a complete sense to me. When you do sit down to write, what are the tools you need close at hand for a good writing session?

Breezy: I’m totally random when it comes to my writing. Sometimes I’ll zone out while watching a show and my mind will switch to writing. I take notes on my phone, but also in a journal and in a notebook. Most of my little baby seedling ideas are in the Notes app on my phone, and the collection goes back for years. It’s great, though, because it’s searchable. I also love writing with people, and I was in a writing group for 4 years where we’d write for 40 minutes and then share. I love being invited to things like that.

Mercurio: What’s your submission strategy for sending out new work? How do you know when it’s ready to go, and how do you pick where you send it?

Breezy: I know a poem is ready to go when it stops bugging me. It’s frustrating when poems are not done, and I will often share poems with close friends either via email or phone call to get feedback and see if I can figure out what it needs.

I used to be really diligent about submissions, and every Friday I would send 5 poems to 5 different places. Now I’ve reached a point where I get occasional solicitations for poems, though I am trying to get more diligent about submissions again after the past couple of years.

Mercurio: Are there trends in contemporary poetry that you find off-putting? For example, I read a lot of poems with pop culture references that don’t work for me because they either feel dated or selfishly referential (like they’re trying to find a shortcut to describe a feeling and don’t realize it might not land the way they want.) Or am I just a grumpy old man? 

Breezy: [Laughs] There’s not really anything coming to mind right now, but it could be because I haven’t been reading a lot of poetry. I’ve been reading more nonfiction lately, and trying to get back into fiction. I read All About Love by bell hooks not long ago, and read a little bit of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. Oh, and I also read Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity by Arlene Stein, and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings.

Mercurio: Who are the poets your work is most frequently in conversation with?

Breezy: I write often with Amber Flame; our work is quite literally in conversation with each other, and we write about similar things. I’m often also in conversation with John Allen Taylor’s work, and really my work is most in conversation with my friends, like Rage Hezekiah. I really enjoy seeing how my friends are experimenting with their own work, and it really eggs me on to try things with my own. I do want one day to write work that’s in conversation with Taylor Johnson’s poetry, because I love what they’re doing with the exploration of gender identity. And I’m grateful to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter —I’m grateful to her for telling that truth. The music doesn’t make itself.

*

Brionne Janae is a poet and teaching artist living in Brooklyn. They are the author of Blessed are the Peacemakers (2021) which won the 2020 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize, and After Jubilee (2017) published by Boat Press. Brionne is the recipient of the St. Botoloph Emerging Artist award, a Hedgebrook Alum and proud Cave Canem Fellow. Their poetry has been published in Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, The Sun Magazine, jubilat, and Waxwing among others. Brionne is the co-host of the podcast The Slave is Gone alongside poet Jericho Brown and Rogue Scholar Aífe Murray. Off the page they go by Breezy.

Michael Mercurio lives and writes in Western Massachusetts. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in THRUSH, Palette Poetry, Bear Review, Sugar House Review, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere, and his poetry criticism has been published by the Lily Poetry Review and Coal Hill Review. Michael serves as Director of Community Engagement for the Faraday Publishing Company and is on the steering committee for the Tell It Slant Poetry Festival, held each September at Emily Dickinson’s house. 

The Healing Nature of Truth: An Interview with Brionne Janae

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