Interview with Brandon Courtney

Brandon Courtney was born and raised in Iowa. He is a veteran of the United States Navy, and a graduate of the MFA program at Hollins University. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets, The Boston Review, American Literary Review, The Progressive, and Verse Daily. His first book, The Grief Muscles (2014), was published by Sheep Meadow Press. His second collection, Rooms for Rent in the Burning City (2015), was published by Spark Wheel Press. YesYes Books will publish a chapbook of poems, as well as his third full-length collection in 2016-17, respectively.

Brandon Courtney picture


When did you first discover you liked writing?

I first discovered that I enjoyed writing fairly late in my life. I entertained a number of potential career paths, including fire science, interior design, architecture, and medicine, before devoting my time and efforts to writing. I grew up in a small, rural town in Iowa, so the idea of writing—especially as a career, or as anything other than a hobby—was completely foreign. I was encouraged to learn a trade skill, and before entering college, I planned on apprenticing as an HVAC technician. After the Navy, I worked at SimplexGrinnell as a fire suppression technician, installing and inspecting kitchen hood systems. Even now, the idea of calling myself a writer seems strange. As an undergraduate, I took my first Creative Writing class; I thought, wrongly, that the class would be an easy “A,” and that I could pad my GPA. I can’t remember now what I received in the class, but it was not an “A.” After that course, I began writing obsessively. I began as a dramatist, actually, and I took several playwriting classes before my first poetry class.

Is your writing a hobby, a part-time job, or do you focus solely on writing and getting published? If it’s not a full-time ordeal, what else do you do?

Right now, I consider writing to be a full-time job, although I work two jobs, as well. Currently, I am a Developmental English Tutor at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey. Also, I teach a poetry workshop for Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop Online. Lately, I’m devoting my time to completing two manuscripts, which will be published by YesYes Books in 2016 and 2017, respectively. When I’m not working, or editing the two forthcoming poetry manuscripts, I’m devoted to writing a memoir. After some excellent encouragement and advice from a faculty member at Sewanee, I decided to seriously pursue memoir. In fact, I’m applying to Creative Non-Fiction programs in New York City this fall, and I hope to join a cohort of students and faculty who can assist me in shaping the memoir.

When and where did you first get published?

Strangely, my first publication was in Best New Poets ’09. I was encouraged to submit to the open competition by Jennifer Perrine, a poet who teaches at Drake University, and Kim Addonizio, the guest editor, selected my poem, “Memorandum for the Record.”

How long before then had you tried to get published?

The poem published in Best New Poets was in the first batch of poems I submitted, three in total. I was more concerned with trying to understand the craft. Poetry was completely foreign to me; besides a week in high school, where we probably read Poe and Shakespeare, I had never been exposed to poetry. It wasn’t something that was on my radar. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I was probably 26 or 27 that I understood that people were still writing poetry. As an undergraduate, I was more concerned with comprehending what a poem was, and less concerned about submitting. Once I felt more comfortable, I started submitting frequently.

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

My suggestion for anyone attempting to publish his or her work is to read the journal in its entirety. When I submit work, I focus on two things: what is the overarching aesthetic, and what are they not publishing? The first one is relatively self-explanatory. The second, I’ve found, is something many writers neglect. I think, for most writers, the instinct is to send poems that mirror a journal’s aesthetic, but I’ve always tried to send the opposite. Ask yourself, what is this journal not publishing?

Do you have any favorite poets/authors? Why do you like them? What elements of their style make you enjoy their writing?

My all-time favorite writer is Samuel Beckett, who takes minimalism and erasure to the next level. As far as poets, there’s not enough space here, but I’ll list a few poets who I believe are writing some of the most important work right now. Malachi Black, whose collection, Storm Towards Morning, is a masterpiece, both formally and emotionally. I believe Solmaz Sharif is writing poetry that all poets should not only read, but study; the same should be said about Eduardo Corral, Roger Reeves, Phillip B. Williams, Ocean Vuong, and Joshua Robbins. Also, both of TJ Jarrett’s collections are untouchable.

When you are writing, do you have any special rituals or processes?

I have some very strange rituals. Unlike most poets I’ve encountered, who need silence when they write, I have to listen to loud music. Mostly, I listen to Black Metal or Shoegaze. I’ve been collecting records for some time now, and I like having to leave the page to flip a record; it allows me time, I think, to step away from the writing and really think about what it is I want to say, if only briefly. I write a lot about drowning and, in a way, I think listening to aggressively loud music is a kind of drowning. I’m interested in how a particular record’s atmosphere can change the tenor of a poem.

I noticed the recurring image of bottled bourbon in a few of your poems. Is there any special significance to this image, or is it simply a drink you enjoy?

I’ve been sober since December 26th 2007, after struggling with alcohol both in the Navy and after. For a long time, alcohol played a major factor in my life. I also have an extensive family history of alcoholism, so it’s something that continues to appear in my writing. Bourbon was always my drink of choice, as well as my father and grandfathers. There were other drinks, too, but some of my worst, and best, nights were fueled by bourbon.

About the author of this post: Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.