Brennan DeFrisco Explores the Spectrum of Love in “Honeysuckle & Nightshade” [INTERVIEW]

Brennan DeFrisco is a poet, teaching artist, editor, voice actor, & ekphrastic artist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s been a National Poetry Slam finalist, a Pushcart Prize nominee, Grand Slam Champion of the Oakland Poetry Slam, & regional coordinator for California Poets in the Schools, Poetry Out Loud, & the San Francisco Arts Commission. He’s the author of A Heart With No Scars, published by Nomadic Press, & has served as poetry editor on the mastheads of Lunch Ticket, Caesura & Meow Meow Pow Pow. His work has been published in Red Wheelbarrow, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, JMWW Journal, Words Dance, & elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Antioch University Los Angeles. Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James: I was first introduced to your poetry through performance – you are a wonderful performance poet, with an understated delivery that amplifies the humor woven into your poems. How do you approach preparing a poem to be performed?

Brennan: “Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you to say, and the feeling is mutual. I was grateful to share the space with your work as well. Preparing a poem for performance involves considering how words transform from the page to being delivered. A significant portion of communication is nonverbal, about 92%. When embodying a poem, we have many choices in terms of space, volume, tone, pace, and emotional emphasis. It’s important to consider these elements one at a time, honing your craft for the poem to exist not just as a written piece, but as a spoken piece as well.”

James: I think that’s an insightful breakdown of performing poetry. When writing, one thinks of these details, but not every poet performing their work considers this level of detail. I’m still learning this craft, and your explanation was a great articulation of how to approach poetry performance.

Brennan: “Poems indeed live two separate lives: written and heard. The brain interprets written and spoken words differently. A listener cannot hear a poem as quickly as they can read it. Many elements on the page, like structure and syntax, don’t appear in performance. Questions of volume and emotional input are different when written. It’s like the poem has a second life, and the experience is uniquely different. It’s fascinating to hear them spoken by the author.”

James: Now that I’ve seen your poems on the page, after hearing them performed, I’m struck by your use of white space, how effectively you pace the poems with visual gaps. The poem ‘Amazing’ is a particularly effective example with two pages of the poem simply saying ’empty’ and ‘space’. What is your approach to employing white space as a poetic device?

Brennan: “There’s certainly something to be said about how the typography of a poem affects the reading experience. Short, vertically stacked lines slow down the reader, prompting more detailed consideration. In contrast, prose poems with long paragraphs create a faster pace and momentum. The decision of how to use space involves the relationship with the reader, especially for points in the work that relate to the concept of space—whether it’s occupied, taken away, or what’s left. This consideration overlaps with social justice issues and how individuals occupy space in the world. There are various ways this can be translated onto the page. Many accomplished literary architects have arranged their poems in such a way that the use of space is integral, compelling the reader to engage with the poem in a specific manner.”

James: Yeah, I think that poetry is so multi-dimensional, and we talked about those dimensions. There’s the written poem, the poem as you hear it recited, and the use of space is another dimension to play with. That’s what makes poetry such a fascinating art form. One of the many things I love about poetry is the ability to elevate and enrich simple starting points. In ‘How to Salt’, you begin with:

pinch / sprinkle / dash / season / flavor / trust shakers at your own risk /

Gradually, you build from the simple and benign to praising goddesses for fertility and adding ashes before burial. Can you talk about how you approach building a poem from a simple starting point?

Brennan: “This particular poem began with gratitude to Arisa White for being present at their workshop where this prompt was given. The writing prompt I received was ‘Where is the salt?’, a simple yet profound prompt that sparks deep consideration. Simple starting points can become significant through the artist’s lens. For example, Sam Sax’s new collection, which I recommend, gives significance to pigs. As for the salt poem, it began with common verbs associated with salt usage, language commonly found in recipes. Further research into salt’s myriad applications—many not included in the poem—was astonishing. The poem became a playground to explore how the different aspects of salt could sonically play with each other on the page.”

James: You’ve touched on the role of research. In multiple interviews, I’ve mentioned that poets often go on research treasure hunts for poetic phrases and extensions of an idea. Poetry involves a lot of research, which isn’t always apparent to readers.

Brennan: “When you’re fascinated by something, like fireflies, you might write about it spontaneously at first. But eventually, you may wish to delve deeper. Artists often hone their focus into a collection, with many more pieces left on the cutting room floor. The published work is the essence of what’s been researched, considered, and chosen to be in conversation with.”

James: It’s like my folder of poems that have started but not hooked me enough to finish. Yet, it’s a treasure trove of future poems that may or may not be written.

Brennan: “Absolutely. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

James: Orchestra Maris incorporates wonderfully poetic words – hydraulophones, sonorous, susurration. Talk about how you approach finding the right word, and at the same time avoiding poetic clichés.

Brennan: “Well, for this poem in particular, I embarked on research I’d never done before. I was intrigued by the question of how one makes music with water, which I found fascinating after hearing about a Scandinavian band that records exclusively underwater; they play strings, drums, and even their lyricist sings with an oxygen mask. The sound they achieve is remarkably different underwater. It reminded me of Dethklok from Metalocalypse, appealing to Adult Swim fans. So, it sparked my interest in the relationship between water and music, considering the multitude of natural aquatic sounds. It led me to explore devices like hydraulophones, which are akin to water flutes or water ocarinas. Imagining the music that water could produce became a captivating concept for the poem.”

James: Poem titles can be mini-poems in themselves, a terrific example is your poem: ‘To My Superheroine Girlfriend, From the Warehouse On the Docks’. How do you approach titling your poems?

Brennan: “I’ve been inspired by other writers and poets where extremely long titles have been a source of amusement. I’ve seen titles longer than the poems themselves, and although I haven’t written a short poem like that yet, I enjoy playful titles. The title should be an entry point, not just a name, like that of a song. It’s an opportunity to orient the reader and set the context, which in the case of ‘To My Superheroine Girlfriend, From the Warehouse On the Docks’, provides the right amount of information for where the scene starts.”

James: Poet Morgan Liphart discussed how a good title can increase the chance of being noticed during the submission process. Titles are important because, whether online, in an index, or flipping through a magazine, they catch the reader’s attention much like a news article’s headline, which is often crafted by editors separate from the journalist.

Brennan: “I have this fun title game that I’ve been playing with. I finished a poem recently titled ‘A Bad Poem’, and I am amused by the idea of submitting it. Regardless of acceptance or rejection, I’m eager to receive an email saying ‘Thank you for sending us a bad poem’. It’s a wonderful expectation. Another writing prompt I suggest is to actually write a ‘bad poem’. It seems simple but is an intriguing challenge to tackle—what does a bad poem look like?”

James: Your collection includes several poems that are about poets and poems, essentially breaking the fourth wall of poetry, led by ‘New Poem’. Were these written as a series or did they emerge as a thematic thread for the collection?

Brennan: “Honestly, they didn’t start as a series; they weren’t intentionally written to all have ‘poem’ or ‘poet’ in the title. It happened naturally. Much of the collection is centered around joy and exploring the spectrum of love—not just romantic love, but various small and sometimes darker forms of deep affection. The poems that named themselves seemed like an acknowledgment of self and the literary community. Throughout the collection, poems, poets, and the broader literary community—both present and ancestral—bring me joy. I’m grateful for moments like this one, where we can discuss words with each other.”

James: “Poem That Casts a Shadow” is, of all the poems in the collection, most dependent on the visualization on the page. The poem is, in effect, an image and the reflection of that image slightly distorted, represented on the page using inverted colors for the reflected text. How do you approach performing a poem that is so dependent on the visualization of the poem?

Brennan: “Yeah, that poem’s life on the page is very different. The transition from what you see in the book to a live reading isn’t straightforward. I haven’t read that poem often during my book tour, but in a few more intimate venues, where I felt comfortable with the audience, I introduced the poem by describing its form and showing the page to the audience. I wanted them to see the poem’s shadow, which is also a part of the poem. In those readings, I took the time to set it up, letting folks know that if they get the book, they’ll see what I was up to. During a performance, the words are most important, and the crafts you use on the page might not translate as well as tone and pace, which don’t always come through on the page with the same nuance as the voice. This poem, in particular, shines brighter on the page, but with the proper setup, the audience seemed to enjoy the concept, especially when they knew what to expect when the shadow part starts.”

James: What advice do you have for MFA students, to help them get the most out of an MFA program?

Brennan: “An MFA program provides exposure, community, and reading opportunities—all the good stuff. However, remember to trust your instincts as an artist. No matter who edits your poem, or who workshops it, it’s crucial to remember your voice and intention. Don’t let feedback intimidate the reason you started writing. The MFA program will show you how much excellent writing is out there, which can be overwhelming. You might aspire to reach those levels, but understand you are on the same path as those you admire. One piece of advice that stuck with me came from Kaveh Akbar during a workshop. They said being a famous poet is like being a famous mushroom in a field of mushrooms—we’re all contributing to the field. You’ll never reach perfection, which is impossible. The best we can do is strive to be our best selves. For MFA students, continue writing what matters to you and use the program as a lens to view additional information and experiences.”

James: I would think achieving perfection would be such a drag as a poet because that means you’re done, and it’s all downhill from there. It’s no fun. I want to feel like there’s always something better and more challenging around the corner.

Brennan: “There’s something to be said for letting go of a piece after it’s been edited enough. It needs to be ‘done’ rather than ‘perfect’, which is an important distinction. The MFA might make you think that your work is not ‘good enough’, but ‘good enough’ is a dangerous and subjective concept. It’s not always what it seems, so keep that in mind.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Brennan recite selections of his poetry.

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