John Brandi - Interview by a University of New Mexico Student

How have you paid for your travels abroad? What kind of jobs have you held before becoming a professional writer? Do you have a day job now?

I've never applied for a grant or fellowship to aid with travel. If I envision a trip abroad I finance it with resources earned through my work as a poet-in-residence for short periods of time in rural or urban areas of the U.S. These residencies are supported by state arts councils' funding. I also lecture, give poetry readings, and sell my paintings, all of which provide a meager but sufficient source of income. I've written about this in detail: pp 166-172, and particularly pp 170-172, in my book Water Shining Beyond the Fields. If you travel on the cheap and go to the right places you'll spend in a month what most travelers, or I should say, vacationers, spend in a few days.

Regarding day job, I'm a full-time poet and painter. When times have been low, I've supported myself by doing everything from fence building, to cannery work, to driving a delivery truck, to rudimentary carpentry. I haven't had to work many of these jobs lately because of lecture opportunities, art commissions, or school residencies. My waking life is my day job; at night I'm busy with dreams doing their job.

What do you believe the most important thing a young writer can do to further their work is?

I think it's good to get beyond the four walls of your school, home, mind, and usual footholds, get out into the world, get down low, see how common people struggle, hear stories firsthand, smash through media headlines, and observe situations en situ. Keep your antenna up, eyes open, ears reporting. Take a job that has nothing to do with writing and write from there. Go as far as you can beyond academics who have learned from other academics who have learned from other academics.

In what ways have your travels made you a better writer, artist, person?

Travel opens the here-now book of poetry-in-motion. It keeps the insight-compassion wheel tuned and turning. One weeps, laughs, sings, or sulks within the greater tribe of underdogs, artists, laborers, tillers of the earth, etc., all of them struggling to keep standing, to voice their quests and needs.

Language, color, image, emotion—all part of the real unraveling scroll of experience— give rhythm to art and poetry. The Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho, wrote a haiku: "the beginning of art / a rice planting song / in the back country."

What suggestions do you have young people wanting to get out into the world? Would you recommend Peace Corps?

A recent buddy, artist, naturalist, wildlife tracker and investigator, rejoined the Peace Corps in his 50s, went to Mongolia, worked in a national park along the Siberian border, had a chance to travel through China, visit panda reserves, sacred mountains, birthplaces of famous poets, etc., and absolutely loved it. There are plenty of opportunities to do social work, human work, relief work in the real world—to travel, engage with others, create dialogue, human exchange—and even bring home a little cash afterwards. Find something small to be part of and sidestep the teeth of the machine poised to devour us. As the military-industrial complex speeds up, and more and more people become numb, frightened, unable to evaluate or investigate. They can't seem to distance themselves from the very technology they believe is serving them. Even when they unplug themselves, they act as if they're still plugged in. They're just not there!

How did you get the residency in Alaska? What did you do while you were there?

I applied to the State Arts Council. I would teach poetry during the day, sweat in the lodge with the men at night, work on my poems, jot haiku, or work with pastels in between things.

How do you differentiate between your writing and your other art, if you can? Is subject matter often the same? Are there certain topics or ideas that serve as a common thread in your work?

What I can't paint, I write. What I can't write, I paint. It's great when the two come together in a huge splash, though. You've got to leave time for it all. Love, loss, longing, pitch points of ecstasy, heavy confrontations with apathy and failure are all arousing and good points from which to begin. They thread their way through life and work and travel. Life is inseparable from art. Even when you are non-doing, you are doing.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Not exactly. I grew up near Hollywood, had an Uncle in the movies, was brought up in the Catholic Church. I always thought acting or becoming some kind of St. Francis would be cool. But I was encouraged toward a different direction very early by two loving parents who were not artists but who took me on camp trips to the California coast, the impressive groves of giant Sequoias, the red rock outcrops of the Mojave Desert. Returning from these trips they asked me to draw something I remembered; to write about something I felt. I was given a small space in which to work, plenty of solitude, a stack of newsprint, a box of pencils. My parents later stapled my writing and art together into "books" and asked me to make covers for them and invent titles. When I was told I'd have to go to school I was furious, disappointed, and hated it—all the way up to college. The university was a different story. There, I was guided by inspired teachers, anarchists, artists, filmmakers, anthropologists, folklorists. I met the poet Jack Hirschman. I met the filmmaker Bo Cannon. I met Pete Seeger, the poet Eric Barker, the painter and graphic artist Harold Schwarm, the jazz musician Fred Katz, the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. And found some cool friends. William Stafford once said that if people around you are in favor, that helps poetry to be, to exist. Under disfavor it disappears.

Do you have favorite authors or artist?

As a teenager I was influenced by the Japanese haiku writers. Then Lorca, the Beats, Kerouac. I met Snyder and Ginsberg and McClure early on, who influenced my work. Also Neruda. I always go back to him. I'm reading Joanne Kyger's poems right now. I have always loved Naomi Shihab Nye's poems. I like the visual work of Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen. I love Van Gogh, Ryder, Dove, Carr. It's a real mix. Ask me the same question next week, I may name a completely different set.

What kind of music do you enjoy? Any favorite bands or composers?

All kinds. Might be a Mozart piano sonata in the morning, jazz in the afternoon, especially the small groups of the 50s. Etta James, Ma Rainey the Stones while making dinner, something from Africa or Bali or Cuba in the evening. And on. I can paint to music, but I don't write to it.

Why did you start doing workshops in prisons and boys homes? Do you still do that? Was it what you expected? Were you well received?

People in those situations always have something to say, and the work is edgy, and the experience keeps you grounded. I still do these residencies when they are offered. It's never what I expect and I love that. I'm well received because I'm an outlaw. It may be a cliché but it's true: you have to live outside the rules to be a poet.