Brenna Womer is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University where she teaches composition and literature and serves as an associate editor of Passages North. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, The Pinch, Booth, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance is forthcoming on C&R Press and will debut at AWP 2018 in Tampa. For more of her writing, visit www.brennawomer.com.
Her poem "All-Containered" will appear in the Winter 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 14, for special savings and discounts.
In “All-Containered,” the narrator asks the reader to own up to the state of things in this world where “there is / no in-between…” In one interpretation perhaps the reader is called to action, to lead an authentic life. Could you tell us a bit about your inspiration for this poem? In what ways were you spurring your own self to take some action or to resist pulls of inaction?
I wrote this poem right after a devastating apartment fire, in which my sweet pit bull, Basil, ended up miraculously closed off in the bathroom—the only room that wasn’t completely overtaken by soot and melt by the time the firefighters got there. Once I was able to go in and collect a few salvageable necessities, I looked into that still-white bathroom from the blacked-out hallway, saw where the soot had started to push its way under the door and onto the tile floor, and I imagined Basil scared and confused and alone.
It was the first time I understood the magnitude of being responsible for another life. I wasn’t raised in a household where we placed much emphasis on material possessions, so (books excepted) I really could’ve walked away from the wreckage of the apartment, built my material life back up from scratch, and emerged relatively unscathed. But, about seven months prior to the fire, I’d decided to share my life with another being, and, in that moment staring into the bathroom, there was no running away from the fear, guilt, love, vulnerability, or gratitude. I just had to own up to everything I was feeling—all of the what-ifs and the almosts.
You touch on this in your next question, with regards to growing up in a military family, but I think I’ve spent a lot of my life working to avoid the kind of love and commitment that can lead to such helplessness, vulnerability, and unchecked fear. Perhaps the call to action, as you say, to myself and readers of the poem, is to risk having connections, investments, and loves big enough to wreck you. And I also suggest that the only way to be seen, to exist or matter to the Universe (expressed as a kind of Higher Power, I suppose), for better or worse, is to risk, to be wrecked, and to win big.
On your blog you state, “I was raised a military kid and perfected the art of detachment at a young age…” How has this upbringing helped you forge your poetic voice? Have some geographic places been more powerful in spurring inspiration?
Being raised in the military, I got to see more of the world than I think many people do before the age of 16. My dad is from the UK, as am I by birth, and most of his family still lives in Cambridge. And my mom’s side lived in San Diego when I was a kid. I didn’t really form strong bonds with any of my extended family members, and my dad was also deployed quite a lot while I was growing up, so something prevalent in my writing is the exploration of less traditional familial relationships. I like to examine the implications of being “blood,” and the obligations—to love, to respect, to endure—that seem to, across cultures, be assumed between family members, even when they don’t necessarily know or like each other as people.
In regards to inspirational geography, my family was stationed in central Alaska during my first two years of high school, and I felt so at home in that climate and atmosphere. After finishing my MA in English at Missouri State, I started applying for MFA programs all across the North. I ended up at a program in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and I’m endlessly inspired by the cold and snow. It has a way of acting like a pause button, makes me feel calm and clear-headed.
What poets are you reading now? What subject matter and techniques particularly intrigue you?
I’m reading two collections currently: Morgan Parker’s There Are Things More Beautiful Than Beyoncé and Richard Siken’s Crush. And, of course, I’m in awe of each. Siken makes me feel every word; it’s like I can only access the meaning of his work by activating a deeper, truer part of myself. From “Scheherazade,” the first poem in the collection—“and the days / were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple / to slice into pieces. / Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means / we’re inconsolable.”
Morgan Parker’s work is revolutionary, is glorious. Her poem “Afro” is one of my favorites, and it addresses white society’s fear, insecurity, jealousy, resentment, stereotyping, condescension, hatred, and confusion toward the black community. But she does it with an aching, beautiful, vulnerable kind of humor and elegance. I’m such an admirer of hers.
You have had such an amazing array of literary accomplishments in the past few years. Which publication or accomplishment makes you the most proud? Why?
First off, thank you! I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to work with such generous and patient editors, professors, and fellow writers over the past few years. This question is so difficult because I’m endlessly honored and humbled by the opportunities afforded me by the writing community—seeing an essay in one of my favorite magazines, The Normal School, just a month or two ago; having a piece that poured from my heart in one night chosen as a Notable of the year by Best American Essays 2017. I think, “How could you not choose one of those?!”
But I don’t think a moment could rival hearing that C&R Press had accepted my first chapbook, a collection of essays and poetry, for publication. It’s called Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance, and it’ll debut at AWP 2018 in Tampa. (“All-Containered” is part of the collection, with credit given to the exceptional Carve, of course!) I just received the interior proofs and, at some point in January, will see what their designer came up with for the cover. I get choked up talking about this because, as a writer (as a creative, really), successes are hard-won and cushioned generously on either side by copious rejections. I’m proud, yes, and so grateful.