Alexis : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
Q: Do you have a really good recipe for pozole?
A: Yes, I do.
Alexis : How did you get into spoken word? Do you favor written or spoken word over the other?
Brenna : In 2010, I had just moved to this weird apartment complex in Austria with a bunch of other people who I was pretty sure hated me. There were a lot of “bonding exercises” going on, and I felt trapped and overwhelmed and like I had made a Very Big Mistake. I cried a lot that first month, and when I was tired of crying inside, I would pace around the city and cry outside instead, because Salzburg is lovely even when you’re miserable. The second week, I came across a video of Andrea Gibson performing Photograph– and the tuning fork in my belly started humming. My YouTube history from that year is probably just every poem Andrea Gibson ever recorded 300 times over, and a couple plays of All-Star by Smash Mouth. It was never a thought of, “Oh, I could do this! I should write!” That part of it came a lot later. It was just the strongest wave of relief — “I am not alone. Someone else understands the way that I feel.”
Alexis : You made your copies of Sometimes I Still Daydream About Jonathan Taylor Thomas (and other things i’ll regret saying later), and as I’ve said before, they read like letters that got mixed up at the post office: secret, loving, and a bit fearless. What made you decide to create these more intimate books instead of going a more traditional route?
Brenna : I think everyone has a different purpose when they put out a book– mine was to, hopefully, find a couple of people and be able to whisper in their ear, “It’s okay to hurt, and you don’t have to apologize for it, and whenever/if-ever you’re ready to talk about it, there are people who are listening.” The other title that I was working with was “I’M NOT SORRY: A Love Letter to Bravery.” I spent a ridiculous amount of time making each book (and shouting at my paper cutter!) because I think that it reflects my message– here’s something that I put my hands and my heart into, and it’s just for you.
Alexis : What does your process look like? Can you write a poem in one sitting or does it take a bit more time than that?
Brenna : My process varies from poem to poem, and day to day. “Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them” took me something like four months to write. (And by the time I was finished, I was SO sick of that poem I cannot even tell you. I was pacing around practices for National Poetry Slam yelling “Is this Harry Potter sex joke funny??? What about this one??”) On the flipside, “Another Rape Poem” was written in about fifteen minutes.
I don’t usually write the bulk of my poems in a notebook/on the computer. Once the poems are pretty much done, I’ll write them down. But the actual process of building lines/ideas either comes from-
1.) Shouting poems at my bedroom ceiling; or
2.) Stomping around North Portland when I have something taking up a lot of space in my brain and I’m trying to figure out how to get it out of my body.
I’ve probably lost a lot of poems from not writing them down soon enough, but I’ve also explored a lot of Portland by angry-poem-walking, so I think it’s a fair trade-off.
Alexis : Since one of things you do is terrible magic tricks, I’m guessing you are made of at least 67% magic. Is this true and if so, how do you translate something so abstract into your writing?
Brenna : Oh my word. You do not want to get me started on magic. I am that horrible person who will meet you and be like “HI MY NAME IS BRENNA WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE A MAGIC TRICK?”
I have a lot of feelings about magic, and I wrote an essay recently that talks about a lot of those feelings, but it mostly comes down to this–
There is joy in being surprised. Magic lets you be wrong– and when you are, it’s not a failure. It’s kind of a miracle.
Alexis : You mix humor and heavier things like, absence, grief, and trauma, so smoothly that it makes a lot of your poems easier to swallow but still leave a pit of tough necessary at the bottom of your stomach. How are you able to find such a great balance in your writing? Do you ever struggle with it?
Brenna : I think a lot of this is just a reflection on how I am built. My family is very funny, and we deal with grief in part by making each other laugh. It’s easier for me to write about trauma this way, blended with humor, because I think it’s more true to life– grief doesn’t come packaged up nicely and allow you to deal with it in one sitting. There are all kinds of things coming at you at once– and hopefully, at least a few of them can make you laugh.
Alexis : I recently read that Emma Sulkowicz, the woman behind Matress Performance (Carry the Weight), believes “making yourself vulnerable is what it takes to change the world.” You’re very open not just in your writing but in your online presence (answering questions on Tumblr, being reachable via Facebook, etc.) Do you believe that vulnerability makes for a necessary part of your writing, a crucial part in connecting with an audience or alternatively, in creating community? Do you believe that being vulnerable could change the world, if not at least one person’s world?
Brenna : Yes. Absolutely yes. I think there is an enormous amount of strength in being vulnerable, and I think art is one of the few areas in life where you are rewarded for that vulnerability. I think writing something raw and honest is sort of like reaching a hand out across a room, and saying, “You’re not walking through this alone.” In that way, not only do I think it can change other people, I think it can change you– because now you’re not alone either.
Alexis : Following that accessible line of thinking, a lot of your writing features pop culture (superheroes, Harvey Dent, Law and Order: SVU, Harry Potter, etc.), something a lot of people can relate to before they even finish your poems. Does most of your inspiration lie in this category? Could you name a few of your inspirations?
Brenna : I’m just kind of a Harry Potter dork. As far as inspiration goes, I am inspired by people doing what they love– whether that’s Teller making a ball move across a stage or my mom making the best black bean soup on the planet– I enjoy watching people in their element.
Alexis : I just watched an episode of Orphan Black (where one of the main themes is autonomy in opposition to uniformity) so this question is really neon signing in my mind: Your writing has a very sure sense of self, a knowledge of where it stands and where it wants to go (even when it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s very sure in the unknowing). Did it take a while for you to get to a place like that, or were you kind of always sure of your writing/yourself (not so much that you knew everything all the time, but that you were very sure that you are your own person, you have your own beliefs/ideas/soul and that is something that cannot be taken away from you)?
Brenna : This is a really tricky question–
I have severe anxiety and very rarely have confidence that ANYTHING I’m saying makes sense to anyone else. But when I’m writing, it’s because there’s something in my head that needs to come out. I’ve learned to trust that process, and trust that the things that are heavy in my body are things that other people are carrying, too.
Alexis : What do you hope at least one person who reads or hears your work walks away with?
Your experiences belong to you. Your voice is important.
Don’t tell whale jokes on first dates.
Most things heal.
It’s okay if not everything does.
Bravery looks like all kinds of things.
Known for her poem, “Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them”, Brenna Twohy is an electric and astonishing spoken word poet based in Portland. Her book, Sometimes I Still Daydream about Jonathan Taylor Thomas (and other things I’ll regret saying later) is a collection of some of her most famous poems including, Another Rape Poem and In Which I Do Not Fear Harvey Dent. Brenna Twohy can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.