Brandon Rushton on Dissecting the American Landscape and Environmental Distress through Poetry [INTERVIEW]

Brandon Rushton is the author of The Air in the Air Behind It (Tupelo Press, 2022), selected by Bin Ramke for the Berkshire Prize. Born and raised in Michigan, his individual poems have received awards from Gulf Coast and Ninth Letter and appear widely in publications like The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, Pleiades, Bennington Review, and Passages North. His essays appear in Alaska Quarterly Review,, the critical anthology, A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke, and have been listed as notable by Best American Essays. After earning his MFA from the University of South Carolina, he joined the writing faculty at the College of Charleston. Since the fall of 2020, he’s served as a visiting professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: “The Air in the Air Behind It” opens with a long prose poem, “Milankovitch Cycles”, that reminds me of William Burroughs’ cut up method, a series of interconnected statements that read like found poetry. In the poem you wrote:

"A  lone mammal dips its nose in the river. Leave it to something celestial to abbreviate nomadic momentum. A meteor cuts through the low cloud-cover and all the stampeding herds abruptly stop and stand bewildered."

What was your approach to constructing this poem, and what was your decision process to open the book with this poem?

Brandon Rushton: “When I was working on this poem, I was deeply engrossed in Richard Manning’s book ‘Grassland.’ It was after I completed my Master of Fine Arts in 2015. At that time, I felt I was writing a very particular type of poem. This led me to a decision point where I thought I either continue writing these types of poems for the rest of my life or I switch something up.

“Manning’s book, a deep dive into geological history, felt collage-like in the way it covered so much history. This perspective unlocked something for me and my own poetics. It moved me away from thinking about single page poems that could be included in a literary journal, to start thinking across multiple pages, in a prose or collage-like fashion.

“For about two or three months, I collected statements and images. I was terrified to write the poem. I wasn’t brave enough to sit down and piece it all together. However, when I finally felt ready, I saw connections between the images and the lines I’d been collecting. It felt like I had been given permission by what I saw happening in this book that had nothing to do with poetry. It really opened up a lot of opportunities for me.

When I began putting the book together, it made sense for this to be the first poem. It was a poem of permission. It felt right to open a book with a statement that maybe the book is going to go in a lot of different directions. And that needed to be established up front.”

James: “No Known Natural Predators” is representative of your distinct style, the stringing together of phrases and lines that are so deliciously unusual. A couple of examples from this poem:

"Who can blame the way—in its quiet elongation—time pauses just a little bit so the people driving by can form a picture in their minds—of a car exploding, on the side of the expressway, in the rain."


"For example, the blindfold on the mannequin the paparazzi use for target practice."

How did you develop this style of poetry? What attracts you to these unusual lines?

Brandon:  “I’ve always been attracted to the weirdness that poems can offer. When I first started writing poems, I wanted my lines to be strange, stand out, and be provocative in some way. I didn’t want to waste a line. That’s why my poems might feel so associative or quickly shift between subjects and images. I don’t want to spend time filling the gaps between the lines. I prefer the lines to follow each other directly.

“It’s interesting that you mention ‘Milankovitch Cycles’ and ‘No Known Natural Predators’. I wrote these poems back-to-back and they opened up the doors into this book for me. They made me reconsider my approach to poetry and how expansiveness and endurance in the way we write could offer up a lot of different opportunities.”

James: You’ve organized this collection into unnamed sections of varying lengths, separated only by pages holding a thin line. In making this choice you’ve created a puzzle, a mystery for the reader to interpret the breaks. How did you think about the organizing and separating of poems in this collection? 

Brandon: “Working with so many long-form poems, I was really concerned about overwhelming the reader. A few of the different versions of the book felt overwhelming to me when I read back through them. I knew I had to provide some space, some breathing room. Many of these long poems, particularly the staggered tercet poems I worked with, come pretty quickly on the heels of each other. So, I knew I needed to provide some relief to the reader.

“When I sat down to put this book together, I was thinking a lot about symmetry and balance and how to achieve that in a poetry collection. My approach was to bookend the collection with a long prose poem at the beginning, a jagged poem at the end, and then break it up with shorter poems like ‘Ladder List’ and ‘Puddle Jumper.’ I interspersed sections with a variety of different forms. I wanted to give breathing room, sometimes overwhelming the reader with lines and images, and at other times providing page-turners that move quickly. That’s why I liked working with ‘Puddle Jumper’ and ‘Ladder List’ pieces; they don’t ask the reader to linger too long.”

James: Speaking of “Puddle Jumper,” in this poem, you don’t use punctuation. The lines are placed in unusual locations, spread across multiple pages in small blocks of text. You could have chosen to punctuate this poem into a prose poem. I’ve always had a penchant for writing without punctuation and in all lowercase, almost to the point of fanaticism. So, I find your choice intriguing. Could you share your thought process in crafting the form of this poem and maybe discuss what iterations it went through?

Brandon: “Those poems came out almost as is, which was a rare experience for me. I didn’t want to edit them too much. I wanted to deviate from using punctuation because it felt like the longer poems have pauses; you’re really paying attention to the breathing and the pace of those poems. With ‘Puddle Jumper,’ I wanted the floor to continually fall out as you read. It feels like you’re cascading from image to line, and it’s not quite clear which word goes with which line.

“For me, these poems, while very fluid, also created a type of turbulence I wanted in the book, a kind of disruption in coherence. Whether it’s weather-related turbulence, climate-related turbulence, or social-related turbulence, these poems offer a disruption to the way we might normally think about language or imagery.”

James: “The Dark Horse Accompanies a Friend Away from Pentecost Camp” and “In the Later Scenes the Setting is Still a Fraud” are two examples of terrific poem titles. What is your approach to authoring or finding the title of a poem? How do you workshop poem titles?

Brandon: “For me, creating titles is much like the content of my poems – I’m constantly collecting and waiting. Often, lines that I originally intend to use in the body of the poem actually end up being the titles. ‘The Dark Horse’ poem, in particular, originated from a scrapped idea for a manuscript featuring a recurring character called ‘The Dark Horse’. Initially, I planned for this character to be a regular feature throughout the collection, but I later decided that just a couple of these poems would suffice. The elusive nature of the character adds a touch of mystery, catching the reader’s attention.

“Generally, I can’t begin a poem without a title. I’ve heard some of my favorite poets talk about how they write their poems first, then revisit the content, revise, and finally title the poem. Personally, this approach makes me anxious because I worry that the title will be underwhelming if I come up with it after writing the entire poem. I prefer to start with a title that carries some form of energy or motion. For instance, ‘The Dark Horse Accompanies a Friend Away from Pentecost Camp’ already suggests movement. I pondered whether, without punctuation, the poem could feel fluid, as if it’s on the move, so that the form matches the content. I sat on that title for a while, as I usually do, and when the content finally arrived, it felt pretty natural.”

James: “Public Works” is one of my favorite poems in this collection, reminiscent of Philip Levine’s poem “On My Own”. You begin:

"Dismissed from some other duty
the drawbridge attendant questions
the stability of days. As in: how long
until what we've been holding on to
finally gives way. A paycheck comes
and the only thing we find puzzling
is its amount."

How do you approach incorporating personal experience into your poetry, and what role does personal experience play, given the at times surreal and found poetry style of poems in this collection?

Brandon: “This is something I’ve been wrestling with. I often question what the first person means for me, and how I engage with the poems myself. I’m interested in keeping the personal aspect somewhat at bay, seeing myself more as a character observing things and then taking those observations to remix them into the poem.

“Take ‘Public Works’ for instance. I was inspired by my trips to Flint, Michigan, where my dad worked at GM truck and bus. I’d meet him for lunch at the Coney Island’s for hot dogs and, while I was always excited to see him, I also felt a certain melancholy. There’s something about Michigan winters, the weariness of the workers in the shop… I wanted to capture that dichotomy, the push and pull, the accordion effect of that moment.

“So, my approach is to capture a feeling or an image, something that I’ve observed in the past, and try to repurpose it into something that may not have been my initial experience. It’s almost like remixing it into something new. I’m skeptical of myself as a speaker, and I want the ‘I’ in my poems to sometimes represent versions of myself that either haven’t yet existed or have only existed in my mind.”

James: “The Waylayer” stands out in form: short, simple lines, and straightforward storytelling. Your approach amplifies the power of the subject matter. Share how this poem evolved during the editing and revision process. 

Brandon: “Well, I view poems in this collection as having relationships, like siblings or friends. ‘The Waylayer’ and ‘Story They Told You They’d Tell You in Time’, for example, felt like they were sibling poems, born out of the same narrative-driven, surreal detective-like inspiration. ‘The Waylayer’ specifically was conceived as a continuation of the world presented in ‘Public Works’.

“In this world, I aim to maintain a certain distance from personal elements, allowing the poem to unfold like a short, enigmatic episode of television. So in the collection, amidst sprawling, observational poems, I wanted a few that felt like standalone episodes, referencing certain characters. Not just extras, but main characters that felt like they were introducing others around the protagonist. These ‘others’ shift the focus off the speaker, providing some breathing room.”

James: You mention breathing room a lot. This concept is crucial in creating a collection. Like my recent book, “The Plague Doctor”, with its darker moments, there needs to be a change in pace or mood to let readers breathe, even laugh a bit. Also, in your book, which has longer poems than most collections, I found the section breaks – simple and visually spacious – to be a clever tool for offering readers a little breath. It’s like a pause between serves in a tennis match. So, moving onto another poem, how did you approach editing and revising “Story They Told You They’d Tell You in Time”, a poem that reads as though it should be recited in one long continuous stream without taking a breath?

Brandon: “I believe sound is essential in creating a coherent emotion. A poem’s success, at least according to my approach, depends on how its sound resonates. So during revision, I read my work out loud, away from the computer. That’s how I spot the weak spots. For instance, ‘Story They Told You They’d Tell You in Time’ was challenging to read aloud because it seems like one long breath. Each time I read it, I find a different place to pause for breath. So yes, the idea of breath in sound, becomes a driving factor in a poem’s success.”

James: Absolutely, reading aloud is important. It makes you aware of your breathing pattern which can inform your poetry. My experience playing the oboe taught me the significance of breath timing in music. There’s a technique, circular breathing, where you inhale while blowing out, allowing the player to never stop. Though I couldn’t do it, it’s fascinating. Such techniques make you more aware of your physical limitations, which can influence your writing.

Brandon: “Did being the son of two musicians heavily influence your poetry?”

James: Definitely. Poetry has an inherent musicality and rhythm. I recall lying under my father’s piano listening to my mom and dad practice, and spending hours in darkened theaters during rehearsals. These experiences made me more observant and sensitive to the musicality that the world offers. My parents, who are both retired now, played a significant role in shaping my poetry.

Many, but not all, of the poems in this collection are devoid of punctuation. What is it about a poem that calls out for this form? Or, in the case of “In the Upside-Down of Un-Furious People”, which while similar in phrasing to your unpunctuated poems, has punctuation; How do you view punctuation as a poetic device?

Brandon: “Honestly, my approach to punctuation can sometimes stem from boredom. At times, I might feel the urge to write a poem without any punctuation, or alternatively, one that uses punctuation heavily. For me, it’s about experimenting with form to see what new opportunities it presents. You’ve pointed out that my poems, whether punctuated or not, have a similar vibe, and I find that quite satisfying. We can manipulate language in different ways to achieve similar effects. 

“In some cases, the absence of punctuation can create a sense of speed, whereas using punctuation might serve to slow things down a bit. I keep circling back to the concept of ‘breathing room’, as I feel it’s a crucial element in this collection. The book, in many ways, mirrors the rhythm of breathing – speeding up, slowing down, inhaling, exhaling – creating a sort of ‘accordion effect’ throughout. This dynamic is intended to reflect the turbulence I wanted to explore, both in terms of content and form.”

James: That’s beautifully put. I can relate to the “boredom” reasoning, as I’ve had similar experiences. I’ve switched things up out of fatigue from repetition, and when revisiting those decisions later, they’ve become more deliberate. For instance, in most recent book, I decided to break it into three acts, switching from punctuated, sentence-case poems to all lowercase, and then back to punctuated sentence-case. It’s a subtle change, and I’m not sure how many readers will notice.

Brandon: “That’s interesting. Do you usually use sections when arranging your manuscripts?”

James: I used sections in my first and third books. My second book didn’t seem to require it. For the third book, I struggled with the order for a while, and the nature of the book finally demanded a three-part structure. The book has several Shakespearean references, so dividing it into acts seemed fitting. I find that constructing a book is akin to writing a poem in itself.

Brandon: “That’s so true. I often find that the manuscripts themselves seem to dictate their order. I haven’t worked on a project yet where I didn’t feel the need to use sections – I’m quite fond of them. It’s intriguing how you can spread the poems out, arrange them in different ways, and then immediately sense whether or not the order works. It’s a bit like using a giant Ouija board – you’re not moving it around, but rather, it moves you. There’s definitely a poem in there, I think.”

James: “Ergonomics of the Later Land” is a wonderful series of phrases that could work individually as micro-poems. You wrote:

"It is always a mistake to assume
              the machinery has no mind
of its own. We should have known
              a population on a planet
known for wobbling will wobble

What was the inspiration behind this poem and how did you approach assembling the stream of ideas you crafted for this poem?

Brandon: “Indeed, your interpretation got me thinking about a new approach – shifting from poems centered on endurance to those focusing more on restraint. It’s an interesting concept I might explore in the future. However, I agree that the poem you mentioned indeed functions as a blend of micro-poems.

“My inspiration was drawn from a phase in my life when I was living in Charleston, South Carolina from 2016 to 2020. That’s when I wrote the book and re-engaged with running. As I ran, I’d absorb these tiny images and thoughts and then challenge myself to remember them until I reached the car to jot them down. This dual exercise of physical running and stretching my linguistic capabilities intrigued me. As I was doing distance running, I found myself writing ‘distance poems’ or poems centered around endurance.

“To a reader, this might not be apparent, but for me, when I read these poems, it feels like I’m running on a trail, past various scenes: glimpses into people’s backyards, observing how they’ve hung lights, or witnessing a car narrowly miss a pedestrian. The challenge was to blend these images without disrupting the overall flow of the poem.

“Going back to your previous question about revision, I found that the key to merging these micro-poems was sound. If you’re writing a six-page poem made up of one-liners, it needs something to hold it together, and for me, that was sound. It filled the spaces, creating a cohesive effect. It could be a mysterious sound, or one that’s directly or indirectly related to the content.

“This approach also made me feel as though I was out on a run, hearing sounds from the trees or snippets of conversations as I passed by. It was like absorbing ambient noise while running alongside a road.”

James: I’ve asked about the first poems in a collection with several guests. I’d like to talk about the last poem, “The Isthmus,” which includes:

               "So then lastly the land allows us this: the children
who insist on sprinting through whatever light
               is left. All of the parents making their way
out of the water, afraid of what they'll miss."

The structure of this poem, the observations of our natural world and our place in it, the sense of conclusion without giving explicit answers, make it a natural poem to close the collection. What was your decision process when selecting this poem as the last poem? 

Brandon: “I’ll start with the last question first. Upon writing ‘The Isthmus,’ I immediately knew it was the end of the book. This realization occurred quite early in the process – I wrote this book from 2016 to 2020, and the poem was penned toward the end of 2017.

“The inspiration came from my time in Charleston. When I first moved there, I found it easy to navigate the city. However, after it was voted the number one city to live in by Travel and Leisure numerous times, a surge of tourists and rampant development made it harder to get out and about. A short distance from my apartment, there was this little isthmus where I would often find myself, observing fishermen and watching the water.

“I was intrigued by the concept of an isthmus as a landform and its structural connotations related to Milankovitch cycles in geology or geography. With this in mind, I worked obsessively on ‘The Isthmus’ for about ten days.

“Like you mentioned, a book dealing with environmental or climatic concerns, as mine does, needs to take breaks from the darkness or sadness. I didn’t want the book to culminate in despair but to acknowledge that our lives will likely be reshaped or face turbulence due to the era we live in.

“‘The Isthmus’ is an acknowledgment of this reality but not a surrender to despair. It hints at the continuation of life, the passing of the baton to future generations. It felt like the natural conclusion I wanted for the book.

“Interestingly, the poem came quickly and required little revision. It pretty much appeared in the form you see in the book. I felt it was one of those rare pieces that almost feels like a gift. I liked it, decided not to tamper with it much, and concluded that it was the perfect ending to the collection.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Brandon recite selections from The Air in the Air Behind It.

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