The Ecological Part of Gender: An Interview with Brian Teare – Michigan Quarterly Review

The Ecological Part of Gender: An Interview with Brian Teare

Brian Teare writes from the intersection of environmental thought, queer experience, and disability. His most recent book, Doomstead Days, offers a series of walking meditations on our complicity with the climate crisis, poems that document the interdependence of human and environmental health by using fieldwork and archival research to situate embodiment and chronic illness within bioregional and industrial histories. Doomstead Days won the 2020 Four Quartets Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle, Kingsley Tufts, and Lambda Literary Awards.

A 2020 Guggenheim fellow, Teare is the author of five previous books, including Companion Grasses and The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. His honors include the Brittingham Prize and Lambda Literary and Publishing Triangle Awards, as well as fellowships from the NEA, the Pew Foundation, the American Antiquarian Society, and the MacDowell Colony. Teare has a BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, an MFA from Indiana University, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He taught creative writing in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a decade before moving to Philadelphia, where he taught at Temple University. Now an Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Virginia, he lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.

Brian Gyamfi (BG): The first question I wanted to ask you, which I believe you get a lot, is how did you get started as a poet, as a writer? 

Brian Teare (BT): I began my life in classical music, so I was really committed to that and studied as a teenager throughout college. But I was also dealing with a lot of trauma and family strife and being queer in the South, so I was a pretty disorganized person, disorganized by trauma. So I wouldn’t say I was very successful in my studies in music, not so much as a performer. But in music theory classes and the other aspects of music I was committed. I studied music straight for like three years. I didn’t take classes outside of the music department and then I realized, oh, I have to graduate, so I have to take classes. I have to take a humanities class. 

I decided to do the thing that lazy, disinterested students do, which is I would take this class during the summer. And so I signed up and I –also, what lazy, disinterested students do—I thought creative writing would be easy. I signed up for a summer class. It would be short. I wouldn’t have to “work hard”. Which of course is all a lie. I thought it would be easy and of course it wasn’t. I took that class and it changed my life and sort of moved me into language, out of music. Obviously, music is a language, but it doesn’t use words. That was a great advantage for someone who was language traumatized and for whom to enter into language would mean to actually reckon with all the violence inherent in language. 

When I started to move into writing, it was both a great relief to finally come into words and to have an interiority in language. But it also meant that all of this stuff came rushing out of me and into language, which took me quite a while to kind of figure out how to write about. Which is mostly what I did in graduate school. So that really is honestly how I began as a writer. I already knew that I was committed in some way, whether by temperament or lack of gifts in other realms, to the life of the artist and to art-making as a kind of life path and vocation. I really spent a year trying to weigh which direction I would go in and then I went and I did one, final summer at a music festival. I knew that that was the summer when I was deciding which direction I would take, and I chose language. 

Foolishly, I think in some ways that only a young person, who has no clue what it means, really, to commit to the life of an artist and all such as the site of making would do it. But I did, I really took that seriously and really shifted. Every choice I’ve made since then has been about how do I remain committed to this practice? 

BGDo you find writing Doomstead Days to be kind of a spiritual ritual or like an exercise of the mind? 

BT: That’s a good question. It’s a complicated question. I think that has changed over my 25 years of writing. For Doomstead Days, to be specific, that’s a book that I didn’t sit down to write it. I walked writing and drafting a lot of it, so that practice was definitely, I would say, a contemplative practice in terms of paying attention. I’m paying attention to the language that arose from being in a specific place and moving through a particular site and encountering specific species, some specific aspects of a watershed region, or a specific kind of Eastern forest ecosystem. And I do think of that as having a spiritual side to it, but I also think of it as aesthetic and ethical. I can’t ever pull those aspects of art-making apart, the aesthetic, the ethical, the spiritual, the political. Not that all four of those things are always present at all at the same time, I would say that the artists I connect with the most have all of that going on in some way, in their practice. 

I also would say that poetry is not just about feelings, though it does, you know, obviously contain feeling and emotion and arise from both unconscious life and conscious like emotions. But it is also an intellectual endeavor engaged with ideas and the ideas that shape our emotions and a lot of our responses to  the social and political conditions. Those are created by ideas and those ideas, structure, politics—structure like policy and law— many of which produce quite violent conditions for us as citizens and can create robust emotional responses in us. 

So I think it’s essential for me to never work only in a medium or a way of working in a language that only privileges emotion or only privileges ideas. I’m constantly trying to weave a sort of soundscape in which the intellectual and the emotional are in constant conversation with each other if that makes sense. I don’t know. I would also say this is true for doing Doomstead Days.

I think other books, I have sat down to write them or I’ve laid down. I wrote The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heavenwhen I was seriously chronically ill or acutely ill with a chronic illness. So that book I wrote essentially lying down in bed, and so that book is a different book than something like Doomstead Days, which is outside and ambulatory. And so, every book has also been slightly different and written with other actual, literal physical relationships to the writing space, which affects how the poem shows up on the page. It’s like where my body is while I’m writing. Am I outdoors? Am I at the desk? Am I in bed lying down? I think each book has been slightly different and particularly since I’ve begun writing on foot, I think you can tell which poems are sitting meditations, which poems are walking meditations, where my body was, or how it was oriented toward the page or toward the keyboard. 

BG: You kind of answered my next question. In some of the poems in the book, you talk about hearing the colors, and it was an incredible image. I wanted to ask how you feel physically present in the atmosphere and the environment compared to maybe not being physically there? 

BT: No, that’s a beautiful question. Maybe I could characterize it this way, the way I wrote Doomstead Days is the transcription. I am in the field transcribing an encounter or experience. It’s not a description, right; it’s not from a distance. Language is always a removal from experience. I’m not saying that I can get to unmediated experience. You can’t switch. Languages are always there. But transcription, for me, tries to get at the feel of being in the field and being an encounter and being enmeshed and porous and vulnerable to the environment that I am walking through. Like the poem I read last night records a fall, it records, you know, being vulnerable outdoors. I don’t think I would capture any of that immediacy through memory. With an entirely written poem about memory and remembering a walk, the poem would just, I don’t know. I don’t even know how I would do it. Actually, I feel like it would have such a different ethical relationship to the natural world and to what I’m trying to write about, like installing like a more profound remove from it and it being a sort of, you know, exercise in memory as opposed to an exercise in being present. Does that make sense? 

Not that we shouldn’t pay attention to being present with memory, but I think there was no other way to draft the poem for what I’m trying to accomplish in Doomstead Days. So, I will also admit to the fact that I don’t write poems entirely. I transcribe as fully as I can this kind of map of the walk; either in a notebook or sometimes, depending, I will use an iPhone, the notes app, and then take pictures so I can also mark where on the walk I am at particular points. Then when I go back or transcribe that somatic map into a Word document, there is an element of transcribing the map and then adding to it where I think there’s a little bit more of that remove of description. But I am trying to be faithful to the walk itself and to the encounters I have on the walkitself, the original. For me, the original and traces of being there, I try not to violate that too much. I try not to add things that didn’t arise during the walk itself. So I try to stay close rather than go into some reverie that doesn’t belong to the actual walk.  

 BG: It makes a lot of sense, and one thing I found myself enjoying about reading your work was it felt accessible. One thing I noticed was the weather and gender and how—I wrote it right here—What  about the weather and gender made you want to write poems that incorporated both to make them dependent on one another.

BT: That’s a great question. And for me, Doomstead Days is where the question of gender, I think, is foregrounded. At first, I was interested in the word gender itself, and it has this kind of history. It’s about procreation, it means to fuck. It’s about fertility. It’s about ongoingness, and you and I can see it is like the word engender, right. So first, I should say that poem came out of that line “today’s gender is rain” like that just came to me the way sometimes lines come to you. And I loved that line so much, and I was like, oh my God, that’s such a great phrase. And then I was like, what does that mean? Like, what is that even saying? Like what would it mean for the rain to be a gender? 

And so for me, the challenge of that poem was to be like, yeah, what do they have to do with one another? And that line was so convincing to me. And when it came to me that, I was like, yes, that is true. It’s true. I mean, so I wrote that poem as a way to try to think through and explain and investigate, like what is water and gender, rain and the weather? How are these connected, and by the end of the poem, I say that. You know? 

I had been thinking through this question and teaching and doing a lot of research about the question of the Anthropocene, which is still controversial in some ways. The idea among scientists of how we entered a new geological epoch, right? Like, where in the records? The stratigraphic records across the globe. Traces of human activity. You know, radiation, plastics, any number of things, changes in the air have been laid down globally. So wherever you sample the record, these changes will be there, and they will be a dominant part of the chemical traces within the record. 

If this is true, if we’ve entered this time of the Anthropocene, as a queer person, my experience of sexuality and these more historical events in queer identity is an Anthropocenic expression of gender. Because we invented it in the Anthropocene. Condoms are packaged in plastics, which are also an invention of the Anthropocene. And then that agency, the political agency, the control over one’s reproductivity that’s also an oddly an Anthropocenic mode of controlling one’s fertility. We had a board of facts, and like natural abortifacients, you know, we used folk medicine for centuries. We had women doing that kind of work forever, so though that was a particular expression of that time, those ecosystems were not manufactured, shared by global companies. I was interested in the fact that as a queer person of my generation, like my sexuality in many ways, some of my friends’ lives were also dependent on protease inhibitors in HIV medications. 

I am grateful that these things are around to keep my friends alive, to keep people from contracting HIV. I am grateful that birth control is around for my friends to control and choose when to get pregnant and regulate hormone cycles. All of that stuff. It’s awesome, but they are also pollutants. Like they go into our bodies, leave our bodies, go under the water systems like they’re fucking with the endocrine systems of marine species like hormones. And then all of the plastics that we manufacture to contain these and trap and transport these drugs also go into the waste stream and become microplastics eventually, and sort of filter out into the environment. 

So I was struck by the fact that the liberation discourses I was raised with had almost no environmental consciousness. I just had that moment. I was like, oh shit, even like these things that I really thought were independent individual choices are underwritten by this larger structure of global capital and industrial development, which might be obvious to some people. I’m sure it is obvious to some people, but I think, on the one hand, I have the memory of coming of age before protease inhibitors were available and when contracting HIV was likely a death sentence, and I know in some places on the globe that’s still true. 

I think it took me a long time to process that this change is underwritten by these incredibly wealthy companies, who are also making a ton of money off of these drugs. And so yeah, I just had question of self-determination around gender identity, which has been central to queer feminist and queer politics for so long. When you began to look at it ecologically, I was like, oh right, none of these choices are individual. I mean, they are. You make them yourself, but you make them within this larger system both of ecosystems, the biosphere, and within these larger systems of medicine and global capital. When I choose to go on Prep, I’m also saying yes to Gilead, who has this kind of global reach and makes this amount of money and has polluted in these particular ways. And that this medicine when I piss will also go into the local watershed system and actually won’t be filtered out by treatment. And so it will continue cycling through whatever local watershed I have, and I’m just one person. Other people like antidepressants and hormone replacement treatments, and chemotherapy. Like all of that, will also be pissed out into these systems and all of our survival and ways of choosing to survive and choosing to be in the world and all of those modes that are dependent on medication or in medicalization will also have this kind of environmental interface or impact that also, I think was invisible to me, and invisible, I think in our discourses of survival and self-determination.

So that that poem, in particular, “Doomstead Days”, was really trying to come to place the watersheds around Philadelphia in relationship to these questions of gender and to this question of individual and personal choice that is also dependent in part on multiple systems, some of which are, you know, natural and some of which are man-made and are always interfaced and interdependent and porous with each other. And it was useful for me to push myself to answer that question of how could today’s gender be rain? 

And it did ultimately lead into this sort of thicket of ideas that I just put forward, but which is a good way of also saying gender is a feeling. It’s a set of ideas and a great nonbinary site. You can’t feel gender without thinking it and vice versa. You can’t hold the two apart: how you think about it, how you feel about it. Because also all the policies and laws that regulate and determine what rights you have based on how you navigate and express gender, as you know, it’s just impossible not to have to engage with that on all the levels. The environment or the ecological part of gender was really liberating as another way to place gender and in this continuum of generativity and ongoingness. Because it’s been a site for me of struggle, as it has been for so many people, and also a site of self-determination and pleasure. So to make it even more expansive, to place it in this even more broad context, it was wonderful. Hopefully, that answered your question.

BG: That answered my question; not only that, but it is also making me look at some of the forms very more differently, especially the ones where you talked about sex and love and how it’s connected to the ecosystem. I notice in Doomstead Days there’s no shying away from lovemaking and sex. What was the process for writing in a way that brought out so much vulnerability from you? 

BT: It is very intimate. I started writing during the year—I  am trying to make sure that this is historically accurate, and it is—I started writing before protease inhibitors. So what I’m saying is I started writing during a time where a lot of what I was aware of as a young, very young queer person who then really would have identified as a gay man, that was the language I would have had available to me. Immediately in the context of the AIDS crisis and people being sick, men and other people being sick and dying. In my experience in Alabama, there was the response of anger, resistance, and a sort of politicized insistence on queer visibility and not being erased. That was in the face of the AIDS crisis and political indifference, particularly where I was in the deep homophobia of the evangelical Christian culture of the Deep South. There was also this kind of radical feeling of emphasis on visibility, on showing up. Compared to Greenwich Village and activism in New York, it was probably very timid, but for where we were… 

And so the flip side of that for me was also a radical insistence on the visibility of queer sex or, at that time, I would have said gay sex. That it was not abnormal and it was not just “deserving of punishment,” which was what a lot of evangelical people said, which was like this is the gay plague come down as judgment upon the perverts. Rhetoric had to be countered in multiple ways, not just by insisting on visibility but also on the legitimacy of queer sex, whether it is within a partnership or just for fun; you should have it. We should all have it. It is a need and a right, and a delay. I think from the very beginning of my writing, it was always pretty frank about sexual experience and unembarrassed about sexuality. It didn’t address shame because I was raised to be ashamed and believed that I deserved eternal punishment in the flames of hell. But the work, I think from the beginning, was aware that I did not believe that, even though I was taught to. 

The one poem I’m thinking of in Doomstead Day is extremely sexual. That one is about failing to be intimate even within sex and sexual intimacy. One can still be hidden from another, hoping and desiring the vulnerability and the openness that can come with sexual intimacy. But that is not guaranteed through sexual intimacy, if that makes sense. When I was young, my sex writing was like fucking is great. Fuck you for not liking fucking. You know, I was militant about having it, and I think I remember my undergraduate advisor was like there are naked men strewn like leaves in your poems. And I just was like, yeah, that’s right, yeah,  they’re always going to be there. 

But now, 25 years later, I’m a much older person and I understand that one reason I’ve continued to write about sex and sexuality is that it is a site that’s not just about liberation and self-determination. It is also a site of active meaning-making, and that meaning is variable and changes and is also not easily fixed. When I was younger, I thought, like many people, that I thought it meant one thing or would mean one thing. And now it’s changed. I don’t see why you wouldn’t write about it. But I’ve noticed, yeah, there’s not a lot of sex writing, or I feel like there’s not a lot. It’s not puritanical because there’s no judgment, but I have noticed that there’s not a lot around, and I’m curious about that. Sometimes Carl Phillips’ poems can be embodied, like veer from the lyrical abstraction into a sudden embodiment that feels very visceral and intense and beautiful. 

I keep thinking about that feminist and queer politics and that legacy of an insistence on sexuality. I’m wondering how it’s changed and how it’s changing and of what use it will be for other generations, so I’m not prescriptive about it. I feel the way I feel. 

 BG: Did you feel humbled or frightened by the exercise of writing Doomstead Days? Or while writing it? 

BT: Probably not while writing the whole thing. I can say that I felt humbled and frightened, starting to write that book. The opening poem, “Clearwater Ranga,” is the poem I started in 2007 when the Costco Busan oil spill happened in the San Francisco Bay. The poem begins with that, the accident, the tanker crashing into the Bay Bridge And it took me so long to write that poem that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened. I believe that was 2010, and I did not finish a workable draft until 2011. 

I see how many drafts that took me, and I remember how many times it failed, utterly failed. I always feel like—did that poem work? Does it still? Like, I know it got published. I know it’s in that book, on some level it works, but I see how many times it failed. Once I figured out how to write that poem, I figured out something by getting to the place with that poem where it felt finished, even if it’s imperfect. I figured out an attitude or way of working that opened up into the rest of the poems of that book. And that was a humbling experience and a challenging experience.

It is a very different book for me in that it’s a more public book, a more outward-facing book. And that was intimidating for me, but part of what I wanted to do. Hearing you say that the poems are accessible, given that they’re not easy and they’re long, I was like, good, that’s amazing. I wanted them to be. I’ve written challenging books that are not reasonably accessible, so given the subject matter, given the time we’re in, it was essential and urgent for me that this book does different work than my previous work. And that was really challenging and very intimidating. And then I think by finishing Clearwater Ranga I was like, I can do this. I didn’t feel as intimidated. I still feel shaky about that poem because it was so hard. I sometimes see all the different poems that it could have been or wanted to be, and didn’t become, whereas the other poems were the only form they could have ever been. It was evident to me. 

I am very aware that poetry has, even the best, the most public of poetry has a limited sort of efficacy. It’s not policy, and it’s not environmental policy. It’s not direct action. But I still take the ethical work of the poem and its responsibilities seriously. To the reader and the context. 

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