Clifford Brooks

portrait Clifford Brooks

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 192 ~ May, 2013

Charles Clifford Brooks III, a true poet from the Georgia landscape, has been published in The Dead Mule, Eclectica, Gloom Cupboard, Red Fez, Zygote in My Coffee, and The Cartier Street Review, just to name some.

His recent poetry collection, The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics, published by John Gosslee Books, was greeted with great critical acclaim.

Clifford Brooks

Clifford Brooks

Brooks lives in Athens, Georgia, and has been featured on the Joe Milford Poetry Show and vox poetica’s 15 Minutes of Poetry. He is currently on the road, seeing what he can and doing what he can, and of course, continuing to write emotionally moving poetry.

Derek Alger: With the publication of your first poetry collection, The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics, it looks like you’re getting some well deserved recognition.

Clifford Brooks: Being nominated for the Pulitzer and Georgia Author of the Year has already exceeded my expectations concerning creative writing in poetry.  It’s still surreal for me to think about.  I have been writing since the fifth grade, but until my early 30’s that writing concentrated on prose.  I won contests with fiction and non-fiction while writing poetry when necessary to woo a young lady.  I am grateful to John Gosslee Books for seeing the promise in my verse, and getting behind my double-volume collection.  It’s always been my highest hope to grow into an established poet/writer.

DA: How did publication come about?

CB: In 2003 a literary agent in New York accepted me as a client.  He decided I should pursue publication as a poet.  Working with the agent, Whirling Metaphysics was edited from a wad of memories into a focused account of a man trying to interpret the world.  In 2004-2005 a small publisher showed interest in gaining rights to the work, but as the current economic recession crippled America’s spending habits, both the agent and small press went under.

Losing this initial launching point didn’t destroy me.  I realized that this setback was due to the stock market, not my lack of talent as a poet.  Besides that, more pressing matters were on my mind like a divorce, moving back to Athens, Georgia, morphing of Bipolar Disorder symptoms, new chemical dependency issues, leaving a career with social services to write full time – then, of course, the love story with a gorgeously dark heart behind the birth of The Draw of Broken Eyes.

DA: Sounds like you definitely had persistence, despite the obstacles.

CB: In January 2010 I was unexpectedly trapped by an ice storm in my father’s home built in Watkinsville, Georgia.  I decided in that isolation that a young lady, the first/only to slow all the internal chaos, needed a love letter to know I would wait.  That letter is the central thread of The Draw of Broken Eyes.  Annmarie Lockhart announced the completion of Broken Eyes on her radio show vox poetica’s 15 Minutes of Poetry.  After that program Annmarie introduced me to John Gosslee, the obvious namesake of his press.

In May 2011, John Gosslee Books signed a contract with me for both collections to be published under one cover.  After agreeing on the terms of publication, every page was furiously edited and re-edited.  By publication date the book had become my sole obsession. The release date of the collection was April 2012.

DA: You’ve described your childhood as “idyllic”.

CB: I grew up in Crawford, Georgia.  Both of my parents were college educated, hard workers, and afforded their two sons a safe, nurturing, and spiritually sound upbringing.  I was never told to go outside and play.  I was always outside.  Nature features prominently in both books because it’s always helped me maintain an overall sense of calm.  Growing up in the South has its benefits and unique attributes, as does anyone’s hometown.

During the day while both parents worked, my little brother and I were watched by a wonderful black woman named Virginia Smith.  Her influence on me runs deep.  I went to church with her.  I often played with Virginia’s children, and they taught me to dance.  My father loves Motown and I grew up hearing it, learning from all sides a spiritual connection to music.

Behind my house were a lake, gulley, a slow stream, and trees that seemed to hug my childhood’s playground.  I never took a shine to school.  I was expected to make good grades, and I did pretty well with that.  I was undoubtedly more Huck Finn than Tom Sawyer.  I got into my share of “mischief”, but a healthy respect of my mom and dad kept it in check.

DA: You have close family ties and roots to Georgia?

CB: Georgia is where you find all my family ties.  I love to travel, I feel in my bones an extended visit to Europe, or somewhere with a little sunnier in the winter months, but Georgia will always be “home”.  You love or you hate the South.  I cherish this land, but understand why others don’t – I simply don’t agree with them.  The mountains, coastline, and humid spaces in-between are in my bones and blood.  I am named after my grandfather and father: Charles Clifford Brooks III.

Since moving back to Athens. my father and I spend every Sunday maintaining the family plantation house in Lexington, Georgia.  It’s all about bloodlines and appreciation of one’s history.  When it rains on Sunday, dad and I go inside and work on preserving newspaper articles from decades past about our ancestors.  Reading the meticulously-kept documentation concerning our family tree back hundreds of years to France, forward to American politicians, businessmen, artists, and scoundrels, it helps me understand —  me.

My mother’s people are in the Rome, Georgia area where I graduated from Shorter College.  I spent my senior year living with my Granny (my mother’s mother).  To this day she is my favorite roommate — ever.  My mother’s family is also hardworking, brilliant, and are eccentric characters.  I am a storyteller ahead of all else.  I get that talent and passion from both sides of my family, with both sides adding to the yarns I spin in ink.

DA: Sounds like your parents instilled you with the right values.

CB: What both of my parents fostered in me was an open mind and social tolerance.  Color lines blurred for me from birth.  That’s never changed.  I do not state that to announce a moral superiority on my part.  I feel I confine that rare experience from childhood when I say, from Virginia, I still find personal strength from gospel music, love God for all His love and not fear of His wrath.  Actually, that feeling about God marries in with my parents, too.  My entire young life I never had to be convinced of God’s existence.  I felt it on an atomic level.  I didn’t really dig Sunday School because it was too damned early, but the concept of God I never remember being “taught”.  It made sense.  It still does.

Two ministers are also partly responsible for this ease of belief.  Reverend George Hall and Charles Walker were both Biblical scholars who beamed with compassion, always emphasizing God’s infinite love.  I never experienced “hellfire and brimstone” preaching.  I would rather have my hand slammed in a car door than sit through a sermon of fear.

DA: If I ever want a tour of Georgia I’ll know where to go.

CB: In North Georgia there are rolling mountains that seep into the Appalachians.  Middle Georgia levels out into a delicate, straight line that meets Florida where swampland is introduced.  Driving all over the state as a college student solidified these regions in my writing life.  On my travels I took note of the elderly couple dining in a roadside diner, a woman sitting alone in a truck outside a hardware store, and conversations between friends at a gas station.  The cliché, “Write what you know” is the first rule of any creative writing.  I never “tried” to be a Southern poet.  Being Southern is all I know.  I don’t write poetry to sway people’s racial tolerance, religious views, or whom they vote for in the next election.  I write what I see every day, how that makes me feel, and the way it influences where I put my faith.

In my extensive walk across these Southern states I’ve discovered that New Orleans, Louisiana, Savannah, Georgia, Athens, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina all share the same wind, identical Old South voo-doo/devotion to Sunday, and a palpable devotion to music –- real music.  In these cities there is easy traffic, blues tunes, electric jazz, and a flavor of rock-and-roll that still defines America.  We have Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker, Thelonious Monk, Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, The Allman Brothers, Pat Conroy and Rick Bragg.

We have no reason to apologize to anyone.  Many white Southerners, white men especially, have been yoked with “White Guilt” where the racism chronicled in our history isn’t the norm of us all.  I have never had slaves.  I have never controlled anyone.  I can barely take care of myself, failed at caring for a wife — I do not have the wherewithal to have sway over anyone else’s life.  Southern tradition does not mean “ignorance”, or “hate-monger” or “Ku Klux Klan”.  The tragedy is that generations of Southern Americans have grown to be ashamed of themselves and buy into the propaganda accepted in even mainstream standup comedy.  I find it disgusting.  I find it false.  I find it — a tragedy.

I do not glorify Southern tradition.  I do not build a case in defense of it.  I don’t have to.

DA: Your poetry speaks to universal experience and emotion.

CB: Phrases and memories rush into me from everyday, mundane events.  Though they all happen in my area of the country, they are also applicable to anyone who’s caught “people watching”.  I constantly scribble in Moleskines notebooks, jotting things down, breaking conversations with friends to record some line I’m afraid I’ll forget if not put on paper immediately.  My friends are very tolerant cats and kittens.  They are the only ones to see the true effects of my Bipolar Disorder, the insomnia, paranoia, addictions to skirt the inferno of the manic highs and their antithesis, the Nothing.  There is a mystery to poetry I hope to never understand where, out of the ephemera, poetry often finds me.  I can’t explain or pinpoint it.  My friends know that about me and thus give me the grace to be a scribbler-of-thought.

During the spring and summer, imagery flows through me in Technicolor.  I want to make dark subjects pretty through deceptive rhyme, not to be glib, but to show awful things happen from what seems divine at the start.  They are hard lessons learned.  I don’t preach.  I abhor a soapbox.  These are poems I picked up from raves in Atlanta, dirt roads that brought me back to Athens, and on a train when I took the eight hour trek to North Carolina where my first girlfriend lived.

DA: Your poem “A Plantation Myth: Vengeance” is compelling, and evocative in the simplicity of its power, and a great empathy and understanding of others.

CB: That poem is an invented Old South parable.  I grew up hearing nearly-forgotten Old South, Uncle Remus-esque moral tales.  With “A Plantation Myth” I wanted to keep that vein of storytelling alive.  Song of the South, a Disney movie built from Uncle Remus, was banned not that long ago.  I saw it in the movie theater as a child.  The past, its nuances, that kind of metaphysical storytelling is unavoidable in my creation of written word.  I talk about Uncle Remus in my poem “Six Chapters of Swerve”.

The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics

The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics

DA: You took a circuitous route with different geographical stops before graduating from college.

CB: I started college at Campbell University in North Carolina as a Religion major.  From there I moved to Shorter College to pursue a Degree in Education.  After there I took classes at a few other schools during the summer, and then took a year off after adopting alcoholism, going back to Shorter to end with a History/Political Science degree.  This degree gave me a taste of everything at a school like Shorter.  From Prometheus passing on fire to the advent of our computer, I got to learn about it all.

DA: I suspect many would be surprised what your first career job was.

CB: Right out of college I worked for Barnes & Noble in Athens, Georgia.  A friend of mine called me two years later about being a juvenile probation officer.  He was big in the police, knew that I was good with kids, and knew I would put their welfare ahead of accepted policy.  After six years as a probation officer I moved to the Department of Family and Children’s Services.  Four years after taking on that gig I realized too much of my soul was being left at the office when I went home to escape.  In this job the epic poem at the end of Whirling Metaphysics called “The Gateman’s Hymn of Ignoracium” found its source.  So many came through court that were incapable of loving their own kids, those who used God or money to manipulate the legal system, and I thought one day as I sat as an observer, “Hell is too good for some people”.  In that epiphany I brought my love of Dante into my daily writing life.  “The Gateman’s Hymn of Ignoracium” was a way to cope with what policy wouldn’t practically allow.

DA: You’re also known for your perfectionism when it comes to editing.

CB: The hardest part of the publication process, for me, was editing.  It made me go line-by-line through every page to make sure my first book, the mother of two books, spoke the exact language I use every day, that it was me without melodrama, and that it was honest to anyone who invested in the book’s reading.  There are many love poems, but as much as they speak to the Only Her, something always feels off.  She isn’t here.  At any rate, I still find peace with an impossible affection.

John Gosslee wouldn’t let me half-ass any of my poems.  He challenged me.  I finally divorced myself from the poetry.  By the end, I was able to walk away from the pain.  In that hollow space left by catharsis I still have a hard time making deep, emotional connections with other people.  Creating my book took a bit of me I’ve yet to replace.

DA: I see you derive inspiration from Beethoven.

CB: I have three heroes:  Dante, Beethoven, and Doc Holliday.  All three have their place in my heart.  Beethoven, however, is my Father of Music.  I found his sound when I was in the eighth grade.  It is the most influential music for me to this day.

 

Poetry from the New Book “Athena Departs”:

 

The Self

Peer into the mirror

without fear,

and I’ll show you a fool.

 

Beneath acne scars, make-up,

and shaving cuts

there are the bones of discarded lovers.

 

 

Bad Poems

Bad poems are unlucky pennies.

 

To sell this poem

is like trading dead puppies

for an abortion.

It gets by.

It’s the result of bitching

to a grocery bag.

 

 

In the Beginning

there were two callused hearts.

 

Early dawn brought distraction, labor,

a lack of luster

pharmaceutical companies adore.

Last night saw black dogs,

heard the gasps of a panicked child,

struck dumb the boisterous voice.

 

At noon you said:

Get over here and drive me!

 

I spent hours with you

lost, boozy, knowing you were thinking

of someone else.

We sped in a thoroughbred

until tears were chased behind

the moon.

 

Gordon, calmest of man’s best friends,

took us to the river

by way of a path with wildflowers,

hidden behind a low stone wall.

We sat near a spot turtles stop to sun.

Do you need your little notebook?

[No.  No I don’t.]

 

The supper we shared

was served by a Lebanese man

sporting bad teeth and good Mexican food.

Our new evening got topped off

with tequila and kisses.

 

You said:

I like you too much.  I don’t need to feel

this affectionate blood.

Remember that there are others.

 

That’s fine, dark-haired frightened one.

My days are a malady

where I am thrown asunder in time.

I do not know the day.

I am not aware of tomorrow’s appointments.

 

In the face of all evenings kin to our memory,

I am cognizant of only this encounter,

this college football game,

the breath before I leave.

 

Remember how I said before,

as I do now:

I’ve grown beyond wanting anything

from you.