Brittany Cagle is the winner of the 2014 Pangaea Prize. She works as a visiting instructor and writing consultant at the University of South Florida. Her poetry and prose has most recently appeared in Spry Literary Journal Issues 2 and 4, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Poet’s Billow, Welter, Mad Swirl, The Stray Branch and Broad! Magazine. Her poetry was nominated for the 2014 and 2015 AWP Intro Journals Award. She has worked as the nonfiction and art editor for Saw Palm: florida literature and art.
Robert Evory: What was it like to sit down with the goal of writing a series of poems on one specific topic? I have heard of other poets doing this as well, writing an entire book in a month at a residency, do you take this approach often? Are you usually confident in a poem’s strength shortly after it has been written or is that something that takes time?
Brittany Cagle: It was an incredible opportunity to write a series of poems on The Station fire. By creating this chapbook, I could experiment with varied forms and snapshots. I wanted to push my typical writing boundaries, especially when writing on my father.
I’ve been trying to capture the fire for around six years. I know my father and I will never be able to sit down and discuss the images he witnessed on scene. This is why I try to place myself at the fire site in my writing.
I first wrote on The Station as nonfiction, then flash, and started pulling different perspectives into poetry. I was taking a poetry workshop at University of South Florida, when I began writing the series, and Heather Sellers pushed me to my core every week. I was not confident, feared how my father would react to this topic, and Heather’s office sessions/the classroom workshops helped me get out of my own head. I didn’t want to hurt my father or diminish him on the page, so it was so helpful to receive feedback and varied interpretations.
Writing is something that takes time for me— I still catch myself wanting to edit a line-break or word. I’ve never felt a poem, or any piece of writing, was fully finished. I often meditate on writing, especially on tragic events, because it is crucial that I try and get it right for the victims and families involved.
RE: Your series of poems goes through multiple viewpoints – the speaker, mother, father, those who died, and those who lost loved ones in the fire. Chilling is the account of Nicholas and what he may have seen in his last moments. Also, the displaced perspective of the father in “Mom saw him” when what should be sky is a red fog of rooftops burning. How did you approach these different points of view? How many came from real people and how many are your own? What do you think is the role of poetic license in approaching poems like these?
BC: I think what matters is knowing your character well enough and revealing them fairly to your readers. The reader must not doubt the veracity of the writing.
In writing on the fire, I wanted to speculate on what the victims or family were thinking, or what their actions might have been in a particular situation. This was often difficult—especially when asked how could I really know what a person was thinking at the time of tragedy. Taking that feedback into consideration, I would sit down with my parents. I would ask sometimes difficult and uncomfortable questions, then research.
I also think when writing about someone, you have to take yourself out of a character assessment and view him or her neutrally. Or close to neutrally as possible—because let’s face it, our views aren’t going to totally be universal. Our views will still be coming from the eye— our eye.
As writers, we must consider that our perspectives may very well be tainted and that we have to own up to that. Truth needs to consider all factors and consume an entire being for everything they’re worth. We can’t omit the good or the bad or the very, very ugly. Capital T Truth must make everything illuminated and right. Without word manipulation or battery, we can look at a person’s life honestly and try to present them fairly on the page. We must be generous with information and also realize that truth might not always come easily. Perhaps we cannot trust our first instincts, so we must then keep digging (and digging some more). I think if we write about the people in our lives publicly, we deserve to write about them honestly.
In the case of tragedy, we completely expose the people we know and often have to negotiate between our desire to be truthful and our fears of exploiting someone. We have the ability—even more so as writers—to hurt each other in perseverant and permanent ways, especially once our words are printed and public. I think my biggest realization is that we cannot pretend the pains caused to us and our own experiences aren’t real, especially in fear of causing pain to people who inflicted that pain onto us. That becomes self-deception. We begin lying to ourselves and to our readers. To say that my father doesn’t have post-traumatic-stress-disorder from the images he witnessed on scene would be denying what happened at The Station fire site. That isn’t to say I should go out and bash my father with my words. But often I think— don’t I somewhat own the things that happened to me in my own life? Aren’t these, too, stories for me to tell? This is where lines can become blurred and downright confusing. This became a source of personal frustration—how I could approach writing on others.
I wanted to take the time and render these characters accurately—to feel some form of connection to that person. If I had questions on a character that I could not answer, I tried to think back on significant conversations and things he or she did that surprised me. I asked my mother when writing “Mom saw him…”— How was it seeing dad have a PTSD episode in the backyard that day? Can you tell me where he was standing? Did you disrupt him? Did you watch him from the window?”
If many of my questions remain unanswered, such as I couldn’t remember the last time a character acted in some way, then this, too, revealed much about that person’s nature. Once I’ve given characters a lot of thought, I can begin revealing them in my poems and take outside feedback into consideration.
RE: I am blown away by the power of your poem “Remote” – the multiple meanings of the word “remote” and how it is used to help comprehend seeing one’s father on television picking through the debris and the dead; the cumulative effect of multiple fire hazards in one building and their tragic consequence; and also the emotional complexity felt by the speaker as she struggles in understanding the likelihood of death and the hidden emotional grief of individuals. Where did the inspiration come from to frame this poem as a dictionary definition?
BC: In my poetry workshop with Heather Sellers, we were asked to read M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by A. Van Jordan. This writing, especially the definition forms, blew me away. Here was an author attempting to write history—someone capturing the story of MacNolia Cox, who at the age of 13 became the first African American to reach the final round of the national competition, the Akron District Spelling Bee. He was an inspiration because he wrote poems using a variety of forms and voices to portray Cox’s life. This is exactly what I hoped to do for my father and The Station.
I later assigned the definition form to my students because I loved it so much. “Remote” allowed me to look at the fire through multiple lenses/perspectives. It especially helped to separate myself from the tragic event through a general and abstract definition. The word’s classification/categorization allowed me to write on the most uncomfortable subjects. The definition also forced me to write in the reverse—I attempted to apply a word to the events that unfolded.
The definition form forces writers to seek a new voice, or view an event from a different lens. It’s a great form for getting over roadblocks/when you feel the forms are becoming too consistent.
RE: If it is not too personal a question, there is a father figure that appears in a many of the poems. He struggles with the images and memories from the horrific scenes during and after the fire at the nightclub. I am wondering if this is a representation of your father, or someone close to you, and what that was like to write about. It seems like some people might want to keep issues of mental struggles private, was there any concern about making it public?
BC: Yes, these poems are centered on my father’s posttraumatic stress disorder from the images he witnessed on scene. I know it was extremely difficult to put these struggles into writing initially, for both of us, but overtime we realized the significance of retelling this history. We wanted others to note the significance the event had/has on many lives.
If The Station fire hadn’t taken place, my whole life would have been completely different. I wouldn’t have been forced to move from my old life to start another. And I don’t mean this negatively—I don’t ever blame my father for wanting to begin again. It is through my writing that I am finding this understanding and an ability to accept what really happened on February 20, 2003. I know my father and I will never sit down and discuss all of the events that unfolded, so I try to visualize a moment of his tragedy in order to bring myself closer to him. I understand he struggles to read my writing because it forces him to relive his torment. But when he tells me it is good writing, I know it’s his way of nodding to the depiction of the fire site. And that’s what’s most crucial to me—getting the words down for the victims and families involved. This writing allows an outside audience to know that yes, this really happened in our small hometown and yes, our lives were drastically changed. If we didn’t know one of the 100 people killed in the fire, we knew someone close to them. I feel it is my obligation to tell the story my father can’t.
I never for one moment blamed my father for his post-trauma. My writing was accepting tragedy and telling others that my family, too, will never forget the fire in Rhode Island. That this fire is, and will continue to be, the single most pivotal moment of my life and it has changed the way I see the world. In the end, my father knew what I was trying to do on the page and he accepted it.
RE: If I remember correctly you are a drummer, as am I. Do you still play? Do you see any similarities between being a musician and writing? Also, you have a beautiful flicker page, do you see any connections with writing and the visual arts? How do you balance your creative endeavors with your social and professional ones?
BC: Thank you for your kind comments on the Flickr page—and I love drums! It’s so neat you play too. I just moved to a new place and I’m saving for an electronic kit, so the neighbors don’t hate me. My father still plays too—he’s in a cover band in southwest Florida called “Unoriginal.”
I see a connection between all of the arts—and as cliché and cheesy as it may sound, I feel they are my whole identity. If I’m not writing, drawing, photographing, painting, or doing some form of art, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. Lately, I’ve loved exploring St. Pete/Tampa because of their growing/rising art murals around the city.
I’m really thankful that I can be creative in teaching and tutoring. I’ve also found myself drawing a lot more after lesson planning/grading. It’s also wedding season for photography, so that’s pretty awesome too! I’m thankful to be surrounded by friends/family who perform and appreciate the arts. I’m inspired by so many others each day.
RE: What writers, musicians, photographers inspire you?
BC: I’ve been infatuated by Tampa Bay’s local artists lately. There’s been a movement in Tampa Bay, and so many have been taking over the city’s murals—especially in St. Petersburg. There was also a recent graffiti takeover event at a warehouse in Ybor, Tampa. It’s so inspiring to see these artists lose time and place with a spray can. Then, buildings aren’t so ordinary—they’re portals into absurd worlds. I want to make things strange in that way.
A book I can’t stop thinking about: Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir. This work made me realize how much graphic narrative can accomplish—how readers can visually recognize how Forney envisions herself during her depression and manic states. Her drawing styles changed immensely with each episode. I still can’t get over how much the mind can control our perception of ourselves—how are thoughts really do shape our every day.
A poem that’s both beautiful and haunting: https://dangeroussweetness.wordpress.com/meg-day/
A favorite book I can’t get out of my head: Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. This book helped me start overcoming anxiety—it taught me how the mind can go off on a tangent and that doesn’t necessarily mean all thoughts are reality. About how you are a listener and can control the way you react to the mind. How you can learn to stay open and avoid becoming consumed by the experiences you are witnessing.
RE: What is the largest motivating force in your life right now, are there any projects, writing or otherwise, we should keep an eye out for?
BC: Wow—what a question—teaching has been such a motivating force this fall semester. I’ve never been in charge of 88 students before—yikes! But they all bring something new to the classroom dynamic, and I want to learn who each person is. I want them to realize each voice matters. I’m also teaching new subjects—professional and technical writing—so I’m learning something each day. The experience is intimidating, refreshing, and rewarding.
For new projects, I’ve been drawing like crazy! I recently finished my first horror mashup, conference poster, and Dota videogame sketch. I am always open to drawing suggestions/horror film recommendations!