In the Spotlight
Faculty Member, Rainier Writing Workshop; Professor Emerita, University of Delaware
Traverse City, MI Member Since: 1987
About: Fleda Brown’s tenth collection, The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, was released by the University of Nebraska Press in March. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, has twice been a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and has won the Pushcart Prize, the Felix Pollak Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, and the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer’s Award. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she directed the Poets in the Schools program and was poet laureate of Delaware from 2001–07.
Photo Credit: David Poinsett
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
Maybe the best advice is simply myself and others like me, meaning that when they hear us talk about, or watch us in the process of, struggling with our own work and listen to the way we help talk them through their own work, they learn what it is to have a life as a writer. Of course, there's what every teacher says: “read, read, read.” But beyond that is the fire in the teacher. The dedication. It's changed me, to see that in certain writers.
What is the best career advice that you dispense to your students?
Don Hall said to me, after I wrote him in jubilation that my first book had been accepted, "That's great, but remember that the important thing is the poem, is the work itself. If you get caught up in awards and prizes, you will always want more. You'll sell your soul."
Can writing be taught?
Maybe our detrimental habits can be untaught. I have only had one creative writing class in my life. I think what happens in an MFA program like the one I teach in is that the learning process can be sped up. The work can get better faster. That's the way it looks to me.
What are you reading right now?
Just finished Laura Kasischke's The Raising. Poets often make good novelists. Also, I have been reading Jamaal May's Hum. It helps my work to read poets unlike me.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them?
I write all over poetry books and nonfiction books. I bend pages. I abuse them. My husband, who's an 18th-century literature scholar, is horrified. I don't do that to novels because I'm just reading, lickety-split.
When do you find time to write?
I am blessedly "retired," whatever that means. But I've always had time. I have been most fortunate. I taught for most of my career at a research university that gave me time to write (required publication, of course). Now I write a poetry column for the local newspaper and write a poetry commentary for public radio. And I teach in a low-residency MFA program, the Rainier Writing Workshop. And I have 10 grandchildren, a 99-year old father to care for, and a husband with multiple physical issues. So as always, I have to insist to myself that I take writing time. Which I do, of course, because if I don't, I start feeling irritated and depressed.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
Interesting question. I’ve had a lot of encouragement for my personal essays. More people like to read prose (as we all know), so I feel a bit of pressure to write more essays. Still, poetry is what excites me the most.
Describe your writing process.
I write most days. Some days not much. I write maybe 2–3 hours, but that's probably an optimistic estimate a lot of the time. I do not listen to anything. That would drive me crazy. I have come to a point that I move to the computer much more quickly than I used to. I do a bit of longhand work first, then actually begin the composing of a poem on the computer.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
That it's intense, rich, honest, and skillful. That it has some magic in it.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I've been writing these little blocks of prose-poem commenting to various painters on their famous paintings. I haven't published any of them yet. I don't know why I found this form, but it's what happened.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I was much younger, having no connections with the writing world. I had a PhD but knew no one from MFA programs personally. I was terrified of AWP. I imagined sitting in a corner abjectly alone while people partied all around me. The first one I went to was in Pittsburg. My husband pushed me into going. I think my second book had come out. Not sure. I did know maybe three or four people. But it was a miracle! Judith Kitchen, bless her dear departed soul, introduced me all around. I came home exuberant.
How has AWP helped you in your career and/or creative endeavors?
It has been an inspiration to get to know many writers at AWP. I look forward to seeing them every year. I've benefitted from the papers I've written for panels. I've learned from other panelists. I've been invited to give readings by AWP friends. Actually, my whole life in the public realm probably began at AWP.
What would be your advice to new AWP members, on how to make the most of their membership?
Go to stuff. Don't hang around in the lounge all the time saying, over drinks, how foolish this conference thing is, how it's just a bunch of people trying to make points with the big guys. Learn stuff. Stay receptive to whatever and whomever comes along.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
At dinner with Judith Kitchen and Stan Rubin and maybe six others. I started telling a story about accidentally running over a duck and killing it. No, not accidentally. I actually thought I could drive over it and not hurt it. I didn't have room to swerve. "What, you didn't tell her to duck?" says Stan. And what was I eating? Duck. This story has a hundred more avenues, so you can't get the fullness of its absurdity. The gist is that dinners at conferences have been some of the highlights of my life.