Feeling very giddylittlegirl-ish as I introduce today’s very special guest: Mr. Robert Lee Brewer. If you are a poet (dabbler, aspiring, or renowned), it’s a pretty safe bet that you know the name. Walt and I recognize and appreciate that Robert has been a dominant and effective force in our poetic endeavors, and that his influence extends literally around the globe.
Robert, I’m star-struck. Welcome!
ROBERT: Thank you so much for this opportunity, Marie. You, Walt – the whole Poetic Asides community – you all mean a great deal to me.
MARIE ELENA: Let’s start with your position: Senior Content Editor for Writer’s Digest Writing Community. Will you please give us an idea of what that entails, and how you secured the position?
ROBERT: I started at F+W Media, when it was still called F&W Publishing, as an unpaid intern through Erin McGraw, my professor at the time. I came in and worked my butt off, asking for new projects and suggesting new ideas. Basically, I made it hard for them to let me go when it came time for my internship to end. For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to improve off that—so that’s how I secured the position.
As to the position itself, it’s sort of a custom-made position that allows me to edit a few Market Books (Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market, and the debut edition of Guide to Indie Publishing), blog at Poetic Asides, write a column for Writer’s Digest magazine, speak at writing conferences, create online education products, manage the WritersMarket.com website, edit a weekly e-newsletter, and other fun stuff. It keeps me busy.
MARIE ELENA: How and when did your interest begin to focus on poetry?
ROBERT: I started writing poetry with a purpose in high school to impress a girl. It impressed her, so I started writing more and more. As a junior in high school, I published a little fanzine called Faulty Mindbomb — even pawning my bass guitar and amp to get out an extra issue. So even my interest in publishing can be traced back to that time.
MARIE ELENA: Taking up poetry to impress a girl is just too cute! Apparently you knew what you were doing even back then, since you managed to impress the target of your heart. If your poems to her were anywhere near as sweetly romantic as “I Never Hear the Alarm,” I can see why she was impressed. This one makes me swoon.
I Never Hear the Alarm by Robert Lee Brewer
Always a hand on my shoulder
and a whisper, my dreams dissolve
as I search for the voice calling
me into the world, a voice
softer than feathers moved by breath
released from a sleeping baby,
so I might find it on her lips
and bury it with my kisses
Moving on. Robert, how would you describe your personal poetic voice, and how did you develop it?
ROBERT: I always find the answer to this question hard to describe, because I think every poem has different needs. One thing I try to do with my poetry is to make it fun and interesting for me. Often, I try to let my mind wander and get as carried away as possible. I’ve written several thousand poems that’ll never see the light of day. That’s not an exaggeration either. But over time, I’ve found that the poems I try to get published should do one of two things (and hopefully both): entertain and/or have a purpose that hopefully touches someone beyond myself.
MARIE ELENA: Trying to make your poem interesting to you seems like a no-brainer, yet I never thought about it in quite that light. And I have to tell you, the fact that you have written so much poetry that will “never see the light of day” is an encouragement to me.
I often ask those I interview if they consider themselves to be a “poet.” Let me ask you this – do you consider yourself a well-published poet?
ROBERT: I’ve been putting together a full-length collection this month, and I’ve come to realize that I am very well published. It’s a bit of a surprise, because I often feel like I’m not submitting enough work. But I guess it adds up over time.
MARIE ELENA: Robert, if you meander through our interviews, you’ll see your name in nearly every one. Your presence in the online poetic community is astounding. Are you aware of your influence in this regard? Do you know (can you explain) how you got here?
ROBERT: I’ve become aware over time that my influence is out there in the poetry community—from the regulars on the Poetic Asides blog to school teachers who send me poetry chapbooks created by their students. It’s really incredible to me, and I constantly have to pinch myself.
As for the why, it’s hard for me to put a finger on that. Maybe it’s because I don’t try to act cooler than I am. That is, I just try to be myself. Maybe it’s because I’m working through my line breaks the same as everyone else. Maybe it’s because I try to connect poets to other poets and encourage cooperation.
Whatever it is, I try not to dwell on it too much and just keep moving forward and feel grateful for the community that helps keep me afloat.
MARIE ELENA: Teachers send you poetry chapbooks created by their students? That is utterly awesome! Actually, it is surprising to me that children are being taught how to create poetry chapbooks in school. That in itself is awesome!
“2010 POET LAUREATE OF THE BLOGOSPHERE.” Wow! How did THAT feel?
ROBERT: It felt great to have so many people pull for me. The great thing about that honor is that it was a result of people voting. The bad thing about it—the thing that still bugs me about that process—is that so many people used it as an excuse to get nasty.
MARIE ELENA. How disappointing folks can be sometimes during an election of any type, eh? As excited as I was for you, your discomfort in the throes of the event was palpable. Those throwing the stones must surely have been blind to what you freely give to the online writing community, such as the vast array of writing/publishing advice on your “My Name is Not Bob” site. In fact, you share so much information that it can be hard to know where to begin. Perhaps you could give us a tip on how to best navigate your site.
ROBERT: I’d suggest browsing the Links and Labels at the bottom of each post—as I try to group topics as well as possible there. Eventually, I need to put together a website using WordPress that will enable readers to navigate more efficiently.
MARIE ELENA: That sounds like a great idea – but a lot of time to add to your already-demanding workload. Your dedication to helping fledgling writers moves me.
Along those lines, will you please take a moment to share your best piece of advice for those of us trying to become “well published?”
ROBERT: For any writer trying to build a career out of writing, I think the most important thing to work on—besides the writing, which always comes first—is creating a platform. This includes defining who you are as a writer, having a hub online (whether a website or blog), using social media, and more. It’s dizzying if you try to do everything at once, which is why I always advise starting small and building over time. Here’s a link to my 30-day writer platform challenge, which writers can do whenever they have time to attack it: http://robertleebrewer.blogspot.com/2012/05/how-to-build-or-improve-your-writer.html.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you for the handy link, and the reminder. This is something I need to buckle down and do.
Robert, in this hand, I hold your quote: “… poetry is almost never about the money, but more about the love of writing and sharing words and worldviews.” In this hand, I hold your 2013 Writer’s Market. Please expound — tell me how these two equations add up.
ROBERT: Poetry is a very tough sell. In fact, that’s why I continually tell our marketing and advertising departments to promise helping poets “get published” on Poet’s Market. That’s not to say there aren’t examples of poets making money poeming. It can and does happen, but it’s not nearly as easy as making a living writing nonfiction and fiction (not that those genres are a cake walk either).
While Writer’s Market includes listings for poetry markets, I think the target audience for that book is all writers. Poet’s Market is the guide I suggest for poets who primarily write poetry, because it focuses on the goals of crafting better poems, building an audience for poetry, and getting those poems published.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you Robert. And I must add, I wonder how long it will take for Merriam-Webster to recognize the verb “poeming,” and the noun “bloomings.” 😉
Let’s turn the focus from the profession to the man, as much of our purpose in these interviews is to get to know the poet behind the poetry. You claim to be “blessed with a lot of friends, and an optimistic world view.” That in itself says a great deal about you, especially in light of not always having a fun, worry-free life. “My life, my perspective on life is a good one, but it hinges on a set of dark events in a relationship that I’d never wish on another person.” Robert, please elaborate as much as you are comfortable.
ROBERT: For that second quote, it relates to being sexually abused as a child in early elementary school over a prolonged period of time by my father. It was something I kept a secret from everyone (even my own mother) until after I started writing poetry actually. For many people, this type of traumatic experience with a family member can crush them, but I was blessed with friends and an optimism that expressed itself even as a small child when I would run up to complete strangers in public and give them hugs.
Everyone has horrible misfortunes, and I know it’s easy to let those demons drag you down. I also know it’s possible to work your way out. So I try to be as open as I can about my own problems — not to show that I’m stronger or better, but to show that life can go on afterward. Bad events don’t have to equate to a bad life.
MARIE ELENA: Having been blessed with a father so far removed from that makes it terribly difficult for me to imagine what you went through, and the memories you deal with to this day. My heart breaks for you and others in this position, and I’m thankful you have worked through it so beautifully.
I had asked you to share a favorite poem (one of your own), and explain why you chose it. This is a good time to pull that out.
Solving the world’s problems by Robert Lee Brewer
I began as eyelashes blocking the sun,
and my father was a digital clock.
In a dark cave, my father counted
out the minutes as I kept myself
from myself. In this way, I learned to kiss.
Years later, when I became a horse,
I ran the hot blood out of my body.
Father turned into a dream filled
with fire and a horrible laugh. I
burned into a cloud of smoke.
Father became a phone call and then
silence. I worried what I might
transform into next. I worried
what I might already be. Then,
I forgave father.
(Originally published in OCHO.)
Why this poem? For me, this poem embodies everything I try to do with poetry. The first line was originally in a sestina that wasn’t working, but it was still fun to write. Then, I realized that line deserved its own poem. Beyond the craft, this poem really sums up my life from my first memory to when I really freed myself to start living as a teenager—not only that courageous moment of finally sharing the secret but then, years later, finding the ability to forgive the person who gave me this dark secret to carry with me. It’s the type of poem I hope entertains even as it enlightens, and starts conversations on a topic that’s not always easy to discuss.
MARIE ELENA: Your attitude, expressed so creatively and eloquently in your poetry and commentary, impresses me to no end. Bless your heart.
And then there’s this: “Eventually my breathing stopped altogether and–right before [Tammy’s] eyes–my skin was turning crayon blue.” Walt and I and a number of others here remember this 2009 horrific event. Please tell us what happened, and how/if it has changed who you are now.
ROBERT: I was in Ohio to attend my son’s birthday party and had just driven up the night before with Tammy and Will. My mom called, and I jumped up to answer the phone. We said a few things, and then I just felt myself blacking out. That’s all I remember until I started to hear Tammy’s voice again and then see her face—worried more than I’d ever seen from anyone.
From Tammy’s perspective, I stood up to talk, sat down on a couch, and then reclined back on my back—as if I were going to take a nap. It took her a moment to realize I was snoring and that the phone was on the ground.
Apparently, I quit breathing altogether, though my eyes were still open, and then, started turning crayon-color blue. Tammy started blowing in my mouth and doing what she could to revive me (before I started changing colors). Meanwhile, my sister-in-law called 911, who showed up briefly after I regained consciousness.
After that, I spent three days in the hospital as they tried to diagnose what happened and failed to do so. When I returned to Georgia, I spent more than a month running through several more tests. In the end, the cardiologists thought it had something to do with my head and the neurologists thought it had something to do with my heart.
If nothing else, the event has helped me learn to pull back every so often—when I’ve always been the type of person to push through any obstacle. It’s also one more reason to feel blessed that I’m still on the planet and able to do good things.
MARIE ELENA: Wow. It leaves me dumbfounded that they were never able to give you a proper diagnosis. Thank God you were not alone when this happened.
Now, tell us more about this amazing woman that saved your life. And then go ahead and brag about your kids. I know you want to, and we’d love it if you did.
ROBERT: Tammy is the sweetest human being I’ve ever known, and that’s from someone who had an amazing mother, who raised three boys single-handedly while working in an Ohio car factory. We started communicating strictly about poetry on MySpace and eventually started talking about parenting, running, and well, eventually we started talking about other stuff.
On top of being sweet, she’s incredibly brave. She flew herself out to Ohio from Georgia to meet a guy (me) who she only knew as an online avatar and a voice on the phone. I know I was nervous, but that really takes guts to travel to another state to meet someone who might be nothing like you’ve pictured them.
I’ll tell you this, I can’t imagine accomplishing half of what I’ve done over the past 4-5 years without her encouragement. On top of that, she really is the better poet in our house, and I’ve learned so much about revision and perfecting a poem from her. She’ll try to deny it, but her work is really exceptional.
As far as my kids, they are incredible, and each one offers something unique that I love. Ben is often looking out for all his younger siblings. Jonah is a deep thinker with an incredible wit. Reese has a photographic memory and an artistic vision of the world. Will is that super happy child who gives hugs, always smiles, and sings made up songs to himself. Hannah is my clever little princess, who’s already figuring out how to get out of her car seat.
MARIE ELENA: Your family is adorable, Robert. You are very blessed – as are they.
I know you are a man of faith. What role does that play in your coping with life’s sometimes horrid events, and what effect (if any) does it have on your writing?
ROBERT: My faith gives me an extra level of confidence, because I know my time on this planet may be limited, but the journey continues after my body passes. It also provides me with a roadmap for living my life in a way that helps others. In particular, I realize that finding faith is a personal journey. It’s not something I can make another person feel. As with my bad experiences, all I can do is to let people know that I’ve found something good in my life, because I left myself open—even after years of claiming God doesn’t exist. I don’t know if I can explain it better than to say at some point it became obvious to me that I’m not alone.
MARIE ELENA: I end every interview with the same question: If there was only one thing we could know about you, what would you tell us?
ROBERT: I feel very lucky, and I wish everyone could find the same happiness I’ve found.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you again for generously spending this time with us. In case we haven’t made it perfectly clear, we recognize that you have given us more than we can ever repay.
Now — Go Buckeyes!
And tell that brother of yours to be safe out there. 😉 (http://www.weather.com/tv/tvshows/storm-riders/article/simon-brewer-and-juston-drake_2011-07-29)
WHERE TO FIND ROBERT: