Tina Mozelle Braziel won the 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for her book Known by Salt (Anhinga Press). She is the author of Rooted by Thirst (Porkbelly Press). Her work also appears in The Cincinnati Review, Southern Humanities Review, Tampa Review, and other journals. She has been awarded a fellowship for the Alabama State Council for the Arts and she served as an artist-in-residence at Hot Springs National Park. She directs the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and she and her husband, novelist James Braziel, live and write in a glass cabin that they are building by hand. She is on Twitter: @tinamozelle.
Here, our poetry editor, Alina Stefanescu, chats with Tina about influences, lizards, and busted biscuits.
STEFANESCU: At Pidgeonholes, we like to publish writing that goes against the grain. Can you share a few poems or prose pieces that inspire you by going against the grain in a way that isn’t popular in the present literary world?
MOZELLE BRAZIEL: I don’t trust myself to know what is popular and /or literary. Let me explain. The first day of my popular 19th century American Literature class, the professor asked us to reveal our guilty reading pleasure. Others said romance or detective novels. I said anything by Tom Robbins because I felt guilty buying expensive hardbacks of his work as soon as they came out, because his work was like nothing I had ever read before (he made a can of beans a main character) and because my other favorite, Louise Erdrich, appeared in literature anthologies. After class, my professor asked if I really thought Tom Robbins wasn’t literary. I realized that I missed her point or I didn’t have a clear gage of what is considered literary vs. popular.
I cultivated a taste for literature from a young age because of my mother. She raised me as a Seventh-day Adventist as well as an avid library patron. She wanted me to read, but she didn’t want me to read fiction because fiction meant it wasn’t true. To her that didn’t follow the biblical advice of “whatsoever is true…think on these things.” Luckily, I discovered a literature loophole, meaning my mother objected to me checking out a book labeled fiction but she was fine with one labeled literature.
Those experiences have made me question labels. While I’m aware of writing trends, I’m not inspired to keep up with them or to write towards them (I write too slowly to participate well). One thing that continually inspires me is reading women. As the VIDA Count attests, there is a shocking lack of parity in how many women are published, reviewed, and awarded. Reading women is a small way of rectifying that. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever read men, but I actively seek out women writers, buy their books, and recommend them to other readers.
Here are a couple of quotes from women writers that I’ve found particularly inspiring:
From Terry Tempest Williams’s essay about Big Bend National Park in her book The Hour of the Land:
DAY THREE—GREEN NOTEBOOK:
Green is not to be trusted. It is the color of water hoarded in plants. It is selfish, not kind or generous. Pinyon green is flamboyant. Juniper green is insecure. Pine green is pompous. The sharp green of yucca will slice an eye without blinking. Ocotilla is a green withheld in winter. Grass green is green glass broken waiting for bare feet. Repeat again as the river repeats, the Rio Grande is the green of opuntia, a gentler name for prickly pear, but just as disturbing. Green is the javelina’s tongue after eating envy.
Jane Hirschfield’ “As a Hammer Speaks to a Nail” from The Beauty suggests that “When all all else fails, / fail boldly, / fail with conviction” and ends with this stunning couplet:
as nail speaks to a picture,
as a hammer left on in daylight.
STEFANESCU: In the poem “I’ve Learned,” you stun the reader with this incredible simile: “Wear a dress so tight I look/ like a can of busted biscuits?” It still bounces around in my head.
MOZELLE BRAZIEL: I can’t take credit for that simile though I wish I could. For a few years, I took a yoga class in rural Alabama. Another woman in the class happened to mutter that yoga pants made her look like a can of busted biscuits. I was thrilled by the image and knew that I wanted to use it somewhere somehow because it was so vivid, so perfectly visceral.
STEFANESCU: How did “I’ve Learned” start for you?
MOZELLE BRAZIEL: “I’ve Learned” was sparked by my great admiration of the many lizards that live around my house and yard. I’m fascinated with their bodies and how they hold themselves with such ease, it doesn’t seem like holding at all. That and I’m flattered by how they look me in the eye, cock their tiny heads, and flare their throats (a courting gesture) as if I’m one hot lizard lady. I liked thinking about them and writing about them, so I had some lines about lizards in my notebooks already. Overhearing the busted biscuits quote helped bring it all together.
STEFANESCU: Do poems generally begin with an image or a feeling you want to imagine? If you had to analogize the development of a poem, what process does writing a poem most resemble?
MOZELLE BRAZIEL: Often writing poems feels like collage making to me. I write in multiple notebooks, so when I’m pulling together the images and language for a poem, I’ll have three or four open on my desk so I can draw an image from one notebook, a phrase from another, an ending from still another, until something like a whole poem comes together. Another, more southern, way of imagining my process is it is as if I’m “fixing my plate” from a random collection of dishes I prepared and plattered earlier.
But to answer your question more specifically, poems typically begin with images for me. I agree with Mark Doty in “Souls on Ice,” “Our metaphors go on ahead of us. They know before we do.” Like Doty, I see my role as a poet is to attend to the world, its images, and then unfold the meaning found in them. It may be more honest to say that Doty gives me permission or encouragement to try that and to believe that “metaphor [is] the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.” To me, that is the pleasure: discovering that bit of myself that reaches to lizards and busted biscuits to be made known.
STEFANESCU: As winner of the 2018 Phillip Levine Prize, give us ten concrete words to describe the prize-winning collection, Known By Salt.
MOZELLE BRAZIEL: I love this challenge so much that I immediately sat down to write a list of some of my favorite words I used in the book. But my list became too long quickly, and I couldn’t cull out words like chirring, eddying, okra, and burrow. Instead, I’ll give you two quotes (for a total of eleven words) from Known by Salt that give sense of what it is about: “that dirt-sex scent of tomatoes” and “how all the driven nails resound.”
Link to pre-order Known by Salt:
Link to Rooted by Thirst:
Link to press release for the 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry:
Link to video:
Logo by: Robert James Russell