The Poet's Story: Interview with Ann Bracken
Ann Bracken is a Poet who courageously tackles important personal themes, illuminating them with beautiful imagery and compassion, through which we see reflections of ourselves and our own loved ones. I first heard Ann read from her collection The Altar of Innocence at the Joaquin Miller Poetry Series in Rock Creek Park in 2015. She presented powerful poems beautifully. I brought the book home and was glad to find that her poems stood up just as well on the page. But it is more than great poetry that I think of when I think of Ann.
After devoting myself to work and parenting for over a decade, I had just started finding space and time to create for myself when I attended this reading. After the reading I had the opportunity to speak with Ann. I shared a little of my story and she shared a little about her artistic journey and she encouraged me to keep writing and follow my dreams. That may not read as profound, but her sincerity and kindness were. I thought back to that moment periodically over the next few years. Sometimes it helped provide that little bit of a push to help me keep working when on another level I wondered why.
I was thankful for the opportunity to hear Ann read again at the DiVerse Gaithersburg Poetry Reading in January 2020. I enjoyed hearing about her experiences with her work in prisons and look forward to the release of her collection around that. Ann has also authored No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, another poetry collection that came out in 2017.
I was grateful when Ann agreed to do this interview, certain I would learn things from her responses and I certainly have. I hope you enjoy.
When did you start writing poetry and why? Describe Ann Bracken the early years.
The first poem I ever wrote was based on the song “The Green Berets,” about the bravery of the special forces men fighting in Vietnam. My school sponsored a pen-pal program with soldiers and I was paired with a Green Beret. I still have a copy of the poem. Many years later, when I experienced a very severe, long-lasting depression, I wrote poetry as a way to concretize my experiences. Some of the poems are so raw and sad that I almost don’t recognize the person I was at the time.
Who are some of your poetry influences? Were there particular people, friends or mentors, who inspired you?
My paternal grandfather wrote a poem for me when I was born, and my mother had it framed and displayed in my bedroom. She helped me to memorize it, and to this day, sad to say, it’s the only poem I can recite without prompting. Because my dad was so obviously proud of his father’s work, I had an early exposure to and appreciation for poetry. Additionally, my elementary school teachers required us to memorize and recite poems in our English classes.
My adult influences are some of the usual suspects—Mary Oliver, Dereck Walcott, Marie Howe, Philip Levine, and Grace Cavalieri, to name a few. All of them provide energy for my work, and I find myself returning to their poems when I need inspiration—either for life or for writing.
If you were to give a few words of advice to a poet starting out, what would those be?
Oh, so many things! Read poetry regularly, would be my first talking point. Read to discover work that resonates with you. And lately, I’ve been listening to Padraig O’Touma’s podcast “Poetry Unbound” where he recites a poem—in his mellifluous Irish accent—and then explicates it line by line. I learn so much by listening to his podcasts and have discovered some wonderful poets—Dilruba Ahmed, Chris Abani, and Molly McCully Brown, for starters. The music in those poems stays with me all day.
What poetry projects are you currently working on? How has the pandemic influenced your writing in way of schedule, production, and themes?
I’ve finished my collection of poems about my volunteer work in a few Maryland prisons, and the book will be published later this spring or early summer. I’m also looking for a publisher for my memoir dealing with depression, over-medication, and recovery. I’ve used this pandemic time to take a lot of online writing classes—both flash fiction and poetry. Next up—flash memoir and nonfiction writing. I’m enjoying the classes a lot and am finding that the structure gives me the push I need to try new forms and take risks with unfamiliar genres. I am also collecting new “tools” for revising work in my files.
How do you balance your writing life and the rest of it all? Tell us about your process.
I’m retired, so my schedule is mine to construct. I use the mornings for exercise, mediation, and tying up loose ends. In the past year, I’ve been writing more in the afternoon and evening. But I wrote my first two poetry books when I was teaching full-time, so I used to write for fifteen minutes every morning before I went to work, in addition to writing during the summer.
My process is eclectic—sometimes, I choose ten words and write a poem, sometimes a particular event inspires a poem, sometimes I respond to a prompt. I love using Taylor Mali’s “Metaphor Dice” as a way to bring some freshness to my images. My books of poetry all revolve around themes—depression, addiction, and recovery; issues in public education; and the need for prison reform—so I’d say I respond to what’s important for me to speak about.
Do you have a favorite publication or literary journal that you’ve been in or aspire to be in?
Oh, there are too many journals to name. The first journal to ever publish my work with Little Patuxent Review, so that will always be a favorite. I’ve also had work in Gargoyle and Fledgling Rag—two wonderful publications. I’ve submitted a couple of poems to a new publication named Bracken, but they haven’t taken my work—yet!
Describe any other pursuits that fill your creative life, such as music or painting, and how those interact with your poetry.
Well, I’ve reignited my love for bread baking during the pandemic and discovered a great recipe for no-knead whole wheat bread. It has a chewy crust and makes great toast. I’ve also done a lot of sewing this past year and have enrolled in a few online classes. I’ve made some cozy knit tops for winter and a number of needle books for friends. I’m cross-stitching for the first time in about 30 years and plan to make a crazy quilt wall-hanging with many of the lovely scraps in my stash.
Sewing and writing have a lot in common—not everything you sew turns out well enough that you want to wear it, and sometimes you just need to start over and put it in the donate bin. All of the ripping out I’ve done in sewing has prepared me for the patience to rewrite and refine my writing until I’m truly happy with it. I also find that I’m drawn to color and texture in fibers, just like I’m drawn to beautiful arrangements of words. When my creativity in writing is on the wane, working in another medium provides fuel to move forward again.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Thanks so much for the interview, Kristin. I’m really looking forward to your new book!