Bradford Tice was in town earlier this month for New River Press’s 45th Birthday Bash and Book Launch back on November 7, where he read from his first book of poetry, Rare Earth.
His work has previously appeared in periodicals such as Crab Orchard Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Mississippi Review. He is also the winner of Prairie Schooner’s 2009 Edward Stanley Award for Poetry and New Rivers Press’s Many Voices Project.
Rare Earth is memorable, multifaceted, and ambitious in scope, ranging in topics from religious faith and mythology to divorce, adolescence, and human sexuality. In this interview, Tice reveals the stories behind these pieces and the personal experiences he channeled into his work.
When did you first start writing poetry?
I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in college. I had been a voracious reader for years, and I was just coming out of the period in my life when I thought I would end up being a geneticist. So I was exploring things in my coursework, not really sure what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up taking a creative writing course on a whim and loved it. Plus, I got some really great encouragement from two of my early professors: Deborah Scaperoth and Marilyn Kallet. They were the ones who convinced me that writing was something I could make a life out of.
What inspired this book of poetry?
I’m one of those writers who often finds it difficult to sit down and write, so over the years I’ve developed strategies to “trick” myself into writing. One of those strategies is that I love to give myself challenges. This collection began with the idea that I was going to write a poem series wherein each poem would take as its title an element from the periodic table of elements.
I didn’t want the poems to use science as an element of content per se, but the content of each poem would be loosely connected through association with an element. I think this was a way of using some of the materials I’d picked up in my science classes, and also marrying my initial love of the natural world with my love of language. So I started writing, and some of the earliest poems to emerge were the titles Iron, Nickel, and Arsenic. However, there were a lot of elements in the periodic table—bismuth, magnesium, xenon—that touched nothing in my life, sparked no association or memory. So eventually, I stumbled upon the idea of alchemy, an earlier form of pseudoscience, as a unifying thread throughout the collection.
How much autobiographical content is there to your work?
A lot, to be honest. There are a number of poems wherein I take liberties with the facts, but overall, the pieces come from my own experiences growing up as a gay man in the South. One of my former poetry professors, Arthur Smith, once said to me that the facts of a poem are always negotiable, as long as the emotional truth of the experience remains intact.
Why did you call it Rare Earth?
Literally, the title comes from the designation of rare earth elements, a set of seventeen chemical elements of the periodic table. However, on another level the title is a metaphor for the space the poetic speaker in these poems is speaking from. Rare Earth was actually a late title. The manuscript went through many incarnations of titles before it settled on one, but I’m happy with it. In a larger sense, Rare Earth encapsulates the collections intent of having a queer speaker (rare) address the reader from a contested space, be that the American South or the site of the family home (earth).
Do you have some favorite poems in this collection?
I dislike picking favorites among my poems. Like a parent, there’s usually this knee-jerk reaction to say, “No, I love all my babies equally.” But in truth, yes, I have my favorites. I think the Devil poems in the collection take up a space somewhere within the left ventricle of my heart, simply because they were so much fun to write.
There are three parts to this book. They’re entitled Homunculus, Panacea, and Transmutation. Could you explain these titles?
The pseudoscience of alchemy is an important motif throughout this collection, and there were a number of defining goals many alchemists aspired to achieve. The terms homunculus, panacea, and transmutation refer to three alchemical objectives. Homunculus in Latin means “little man.” It was the name given to a miniaturized human being that alchemists believed could be crafted and then imbibed with the spark of life. Panacea refers to the alchemist’s goal to create a universal heal-all that would remedy anything that ailed the individual. Finally, transmutation refers to the alchemist’s belief that it was possible to take baser metals such as iron or lead and transform those elements into precious metals such as silver or gold.
I used these terms as section headers as a way of representing what I saw happening in the poems in those respective sections. In the Homunculus section, the poetic speaker is trying to craft an identity within a culture that wishes to silence that identity. The Panacea section acts as a transition that seeks to heal and address some of the pain that came out of that creation of an identity. The final section seeks grace and/or redemption. It seeks to take those baser materials (i.e. growing up in a space wherein the individual is devalued for being gay or Other) and transmuting it into something precious (i.e. the speaker coming to terms with his sexuality and place in the world).
There’s a John Milton quote at the beginning of the book. How did that inspire you?
I came across that quote by Milton after the collection had already been written. I was reading Paradise Lost for a class I was teaching, and I stumbled upon it and thought that it really spoke to many of the themes in the collection. Obviously, the quote references the book’s alchemical thread, but in addition, I’ve always loved Milton’s deeply arrogant, charismatic, and yet sympathetic rendering of Lucifer in that text. That idea of Lucifer as a flawed-yet-tragic character is certainly negotiated in the Devils series.
You write a series of poems from the perspective of devils, such as Beelzebub, Lucifer and Lilith. What inspired those poems?
After the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Jerry Falwell made a now infamous statement regarding who was to blame for these attacks. Falwell was quoted as saying: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle…all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” After Falwell made those statements, I started to notice the frequency with which gays and lesbians were vilified and trotted out as scapegoats for any number of national and natural disasters—Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake that hit the East Coast a few years ago, and the deaths of any number of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the comments from people like Falwell had me thinking a lot about what it meant to be demonized.
So I started doing research into the history of the Devil and the iconography surrounding him, and I found that as the early Christian church spread through the world it would often demonize pagan gods it encountered in an effort to advance Christianity. So I started writing these poems with the idea of giving the scapegoat—the perpetually cast-out ones—a platform from which they might respond to those who have wronged them.
What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten for this book?
The fact that people have actually read it is the best feedback I could ever receive. Getting a book published was an incredibly humbling experience for me. The fact that anyone would read these poems and respond to them in some way is frankly an honor. My only hope is that I can continue to do that in some small way. Isn’t that every poet’s aim?
What projects are you currently working on?
I teach a number of Gender Studies courses at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where I’ve worked for about five years now. Recently, I’ve begun exploring the notion of masculinity in my poetry. Specifically, I’ve started writing poems about James Bond. I’ve always been fascinated by the Bond franchise and I grew up watch them with my family. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that when it comes to representations of masculinity, James Bond is one of the models men in the Western world judge themselves against. My new poems have started to explore that fascination.
Why did you choose to publish with New Rivers Press?
My collection was the 2011 winner of the Many Voices Project, which is a contest established by New Rivers Press. The fact that New Rivers Press and the contest judge, Jay Parini, were willing to take a chance on the collection is something I’ll always be grateful for.
What has your experience been with New Rivers Press?
I’ve been very impressed by New Rivers. They put out a number of fantastic titles every year, and I’m honored to now be one of the writers they’ve championed. Also, the fact that New Rivers Press is a teaching press where students are given the chance to participate in the publication process is to be commended. The world certainly isn’t hurt by the fostering of students willing and excited to take a chance on poetry and literary fiction.
What advice would you offer poets wanting to get published?
I think poets interested in publishing need to cultivate two qualities: patience and tenacity. Poets need to give their poetry room to develop and to grow, but also, you have to keep at it. If you’re not writing then you’re not a writer, and if you’re not sending out your poems for publication then you’re never going to be a published writer. I tend to think of publishing as the gauntlet the poet sends his/her work through in order to toughen it up—to make it lean, tested, and scrappy. So I would advise aspiring poets to be fearless, and to never stay down once the publishing world knocks you off your feet. It will knock you off your feet at times, but other times you’ll make it through, and that’s worth the trial.