June 10, 2016 by T. Gregory Argall
I’m a regular contributor to a magazine published by my friend Deirdre Mallehe. The magazine is a companion piece to go with her television show, “Musically Yours, Deirdre Mallehe” and is also linked to a quarterly open mic night that she hosts, La Musique Circle. Last year I had the privilege to interview an amazing poet named Brandon Pitts for the magazine.
Here’s what we talked about…
Brandon Pitts & The Poet’s Journey
In an interview with T. Gregory Argall, poet Brandon Pitts talks about his new poetry collection “Tender in the Age of Fury,” finding your own voice, and a rose bush in Utah.
T. Gregory Argall: You’ve got two poetry collections published. Do you set out to write a collection of poems, or do you just write the poems as they come, and then eventually you realize you have enough for a book? What’s the process?
Brandon Pitts: It was different for each book. In the beginning, I didn’t even consider myself a poet. I had a passion for writing poetry, but I didn’t feel I was any good at it. I would go out to remote poetry readings where my friends wouldn’t see me. I had been getting published for fiction and after years of struggle I started to gain a solid reputation with that medium. Finally I was persuaded by others to submit to a poetry magazine. It was like getting shot out of a cannon. Everything I submitted got accepted and I was offered a deal for a collection of poems. I didn’t know what to do. I was lost. I never thought I’d ever have a collection of poetry. How does one assemble a collection? The editor for my first book, Norman Cristofoli, really taught me a lot and helped it come together as a collection out of what I’d been working on over the years.
For the second collection, I went at it knowing the outcome would be a book. I put a lot of pressure on myself, feeling like after the success of the first book it would have to live up to unrealistic expectations. It would have to flow and be a unique voice. I gave it to my new publisher who sat on it for a couple of years and I started a third collection in a completely different direction. Just before they decided to get going with the second collection the editor who took my work to Mosaic said, “I love this third collection that you’ve been working on. Can you combine the two and take out the weaker poems?” I reluctantly tried it and loved the outcome. Long story short – as long as it flows, has something to say, and is unique in its approach, it will be a collection that will do well.
TGA: “Tender in the Age of Fury.” Where did the title come from?
Brandon: In between writing “Pressure to Sing” (the first collection) and “Tender in the Age of Fury” I had written a 120 page poem called, “The Artless Child” that remains unpublished. (I will probably come up with a better title for the poem before it sees the light of day.) I have only ever done two public readings from it. The first was at the Mississauga Public Library. In it is a stanza that I read to the audience:
David was a musician
in the time of the song,
Jesus, a healer
during the emergence of medicine
and Mohammad, a poet
in the era of spoken word
What, are you, my young man?
I am tender
in the age of fury!
Everyone started to applaud and climb the wall, coming up to me, saying, “Wow, ‘Tender in the Age of Fury,’ where’d you come up with that?” I knew then I had to use it for the title of my next collection.
TGA: When writing do you focus more on the concept or the interplay of words? Which matters more to you, the idea or the expression of the idea?
Brandon: I worked for so many years on developing my own voice. When I was growing up, the music and literature I admired had its own style. If a new Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones song came on the radio, you could tell instantly who it was, even if the song started with only drums. Nowadays they will workshop you until you read like everyone else. Sort of like a literature version of Canadian Idol. When I started sharing my work publicly, people would say, “Wow, you write just like John Steinbeck.” I immediately trashed everything I had written and went about reinventing myself. It set me back years but paid off in the end. Once I got to the point where my voice was my own and second nature, I was able to focus on what I wanted to say and how to best execute it. That’s when things really started to cook. My process: Contemplate on what I want to say until I’m dreaming about it, then write until I’m in a trance and have no idea what I’m writing. I do this at least three times over the course of many days. Then I go back in a lucid state and edit together the best pieces. Takes me a long time to finish a poem.
TGA: You’ve been touring, doing readings from the collection. Obviously, you can’t read the whole book to the audience but you want to share enough to get them interested in your work. How do you decide what and how much to read?
Brandon: Reading my work in front of an audience at open mics has evolved into an important part of my editing process. I memorise quite a bit of what I write. A poem will start to change for the better over the course of memorising it and reading it at an open mic. Audience reaction is the best feedback. Those pieces jump out at you during this process. The collection I’m working on now, “In the Company of Crows,” I am committed to having the entire book memorised and open mic tested. It’s the only way I’ll be able to top “Tender in the Age of Fury.”
I came across this process early on. I was opening up for Nik Beat in the early days at one of these rowdy 2 am sort of poetry parties and people were heckling me and talking loudly. I read my poem “Lot” and achieved silence. I was like, “Okay, you know what you have to do. There’s your bar. Now go and write on that level.”
TGA: Give us a rock star story, tell us about something that happened somewhere on the book tour.
Brandon: This tour isn’t near as interesting as it was promoting “Pressure to Sing.” I’m in a happy, loving, and committed relationship now. Back in 2012, it was different, like a whirlwind. I’d sometimes do three gigs in a twenty-four hour period with no sleep, and party the whole time. I’d be signing a book and I’d get a whisper in my ear, “Who are you leaving with?” It was like being in a band. Nik Beat, Stedmond Pardy, we would go full tilt back in those days.
One time I was in Salt Lake City, on my way back to Toronto from my first time reading in the US and this girl pulled me into the rose bushes on the Mormon Temple campus, wanting a “private poetry reading.” Afterwards she got into the fountain, pulling up her dress, revealing a little too much. Everyone was freaking out. “Get her out of the fountain! Brigham Young prayed in this very spot!” I just stood on the dry cement watching it all go down.
TGA: The cover of the new book is a painting by Jennifer Hosein. Was it commissioned for the book or did the publisher just choose the image from a list of possibilities?
Brandon: I have been a fan of Jennifer’s for many years. We are extremely close friends. As I was writing Tender I knew she was the one to do the cover. We went to a Marc Chagall exhibit at the AGO and saw his painting “The Poet.” Jennifer wanted to do something similar. Feedback from the powers that be felt that even an expressionist portrait of the author on the cover would be pretentious. My girlfriend suggested we go with the current painting. Jennifer felt better about it. Then there was a bit of controversy about the painting at Mosaic. They did a bit of back and forth between themselves for about a month or two. Then I got an email, “What do you think of this?” It was the cover. Jennifer was like, “What does this mean?” I didn’t know. I Googled the book title a week later and the image was all over the internet. I guess we got the cover! I am lucky. Most authors have no say over this sort of thing. I certainly didn’t on my first publishing deal.
Signed copies of “Tender in the Age of Fury” can be ordered online at www.brandonpitts.com.
Try to be nice to each other.