Conversations in the Author's Corner: Dan Brady
About the Book: In an innovative form, Dan Brady plays with the methods of erasure poetry to create something entirely new. His new book, Subtexts, is a collection of ten poems (in 88 pages) that uncover the networks of language and meaning through shifting layers of text. The poems concern themselves with some of the greatest threats humans face in 2022—from climate change, to the surveillance state, to America’s mental health crisis—and how our future hinges on our ability or failure to communicate. Experimental while still accessible, Brady’s self-erasures find the freedom to say all that there is to say—and to reveal even that which is left unsaid.
About the Author: Dan Brady is the author of the poetry collections Strange Children (2018), Subtexts (2022), and Songs in E—, winner of the Barclay Prize for Poetry, forthcoming from Trnsfr Books, along with two poetry chapbooks. He is the longtime poetry editor of Barrelhouse, a literary magazine and small press based in DC. Previously, Dan served as the editor of American Poets, the journal of the Academy of American Poets, and worked in the Literature Division at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he received a Distinguished Service Award for his work on the Big Read, the largest community reading initiative in US history. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two kids.
Lena Crown: Let’s start by talking about form. How do you define ‘erasure poem’?
Dan Brady: Usually, you start with an independent, existing source text—this could be a page from a novel, a newspaper, the Declaration of Independence, whatever you choose—and then you erase words and phrases, whittling it down to the new poem out of what remains. In my work in Subtexts, I did it a little bit differently. I started with my own prose text, and then erased it multiple times to create a sequence that would build on or pull out from that original text, which I reveal somewhere in the sequence. Usually, in erasure poems, you don't see the source text in its entirety.
LC: Had you engaged with erasure poetry to this extent before committing to the work in Subtexts?
DB: I had read a lot of erasure; I remember finding Jen Bervin’s Nets in a bookstore, which erases Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I immediately fell in love with it. Wave Poetry also used to have a tool on their website with texts that you could erase yourself, so I had played around with that. But the work in Subtexts was my baptism by fire, learning what the form could do.
LC: Thematically, many of the poems seem to explore the smallness of individual lives within all of history, biology, beauty, government control, and other broad social forces. Did any current events or personal experiences inspire your thinking about these subjects? And why erasure to explore these themes and systems?
DB: One of the early poems in the collection is called “Fossil Record.” I was an English major in college, but I minored in paleontology, and I was always really interested in geology. So that was part of my background—I like thinking about large-scale time. Geology exists as layers of soil that you can trace time backwards through. And I think that big-picture thinking applies to governments, climate change, everything. But those things are so huge that it’s difficult to hold the whole picture in your mind at one time. By taking slices of my own thinking about these issues through erasure, I could mimic that on the page.
LC: How did you approach the process of erasing your own words as opposed to other borrowed source material?
DB: Part of the reason why I took that approach was it gave me more control. I knew that I needed the material to be interesting enough that there were different images I could draw on, but also plain enough that I had the connective language to tie these phrases together. I felt that if I attempted that with someone else’s work, I might not get the result I wanted.
There are also political and ethical questions to erasure, because you’re taking someone else’s work and creating something new from it. There is immediately a commentary on the original work and on your relationship to both the text and its author. Erasing my own work freed me from those considerations. But it also challenged me to explore what lay within my own thoughts. I would usually write the prose block first, then dig into it and ask, What might be hiding here?
LC: Do any moments stand out in your recollection of the writing of these poems, any lightbulb moments where the form revealed something about your own ideas or craft?
DB: There’s a poem called “Cabin Fever” about the snowstorm that hit DC in February of 2010, which shut down the city for a week. My son was a few months old at that point. In some ways, that poem captures this wistful family time. But in the second half of the poem, it becomes this strange, anxious period where we don't know what's going to happen. There’s an emotional undertone beneath what the text is about on its face. When I discovered that, I thought, Okay, this is a form that will reveal something deeper than I intend.
LC: Did you intend for these poems to be read in multiple ways in terms of syntax, too?
DB: Yes, definitely. As I started to erase, I took out all the punctuation so that the reader has to decide where one phrase stops and where the next one begins. And sometimes there's ambiguity, things could be pushed together. Sometimes people will quote a line to me and it’s completely different from how I would have understood it. There are opportunities for new meanings to arise even from one reader to another.
LC: This is a great segue into talking about the painter who inspired at least some of the poems in this collection, Eugene Leroy. You've spoken in previous interviews about your drive to create a “three-dimensional poem” after encountering his work. What drew you to it, and how do you see your work in conversation with his?
DB: Eugene Leroy was a French painter who died in the early 2000s. He would start with a representative figure—a vase of flowers or a woman or someone’s face—and his first version would be fairly realistic and representational. Then he would keep painting over the same image. As he added layer upon layer of paint, that original figure became less clear. If you see his paintings, the paint is quite thick on the canvas—you can almost dip your hand into it. I thought that was immediately interesting.
I think part of what Leroy was trying to do was approach a cubist perspective, showing his subject from multiple angles, layers, lenses. I thought, That's how our minds work and how language works. Even as I'm trying to explain this, I'm talking around this perfect idea in my head, but it's not transmitting directly from my mind to yours. I have to piece this together and apply enough layers that you develop a picture of what I'm trying to communicate. So I thought that his method could apply to language and to poetry in particular.
Many of the poems seem to explore agency and choice, especially the last poem, down to the last line: “Perhaps it is time / to decide again.” What is being decided through this work?
On a very literal level, I was, I was choosing what words to include as I erased others. But on a more personal and social level, I was thinking about the idea of choice and the absence of control. Every time you turn the page in this book, you have a chance to start over and decide what this is about anew. I think life is like that—it’s okay to change your mind about things after seeing a new perspective. You can decide to move in a more generous direction that extends more grace to other people, and you get to make that decision every day.
For our Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Could you talk us through your publication process?
I love small presses. I work at a small press and magazine called Barrelhouse, so I've now been on both the editorial side and the writer side. My first two books came out from Publishing Genius, which is run by Adam Robinson, and it was an amazing experience both times. When you're working with a small press, it's a much more personal, intimate experience. It was a true partnership. And most poetry collections are published by small presses anyway—I think those are the folks that are connected to the readers of poetry and can really help you get your work to the folks who want to engage with it.
Watch the entire interview on YouTube here:
About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.