The Flapper Press Poetry Café Talks with Multi-Talented Artist Angela Carole Brown
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets and writers from around the world. This week, we feature the work of multi-talented artist Angela Carole Brown.
Recipient of the 2018 North Street Book Prize in Literary Fiction for her novel Trading Fours and of the SoulWord Magazine Poetry Prize for her single poem “Cotton Candy,” writer/vocalist/artist Angela Carole Brown has published seven books in the genres of fiction, poetry, and memoir and has produced eight music recordings in the genres of jazz and folk. Shorter works and poems have appeared in MacQueen’s Quinterly, Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz and Literature, Echoes Media, National Kidney Foundation, and SoulWord Magazine. In 2021, Angela was honored with an entire concert by the Los Angeles-based 60-voiced Metropolitan Master Chorale entitled "Short Stories," created around several of her 100-word stories from her collection Aleatory on the Radio. At the end of 2020, Angela produced a videobook from her children’s story The Richest Girl in the World, which she also illustrated and narrated, and which is now the recipient of several film festival awards in multimedia. She is also featured in the documentary film The Goddess Project.
You can read more about her here on her website: www.angelacarolebrown.com
I reached out to Angela to talk about her work, inspirations, and many talents.
Meet Angela Carole Brown!
AN: Angela, welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café. We just met three weeks ago after I heard you read in Kansas City at the Writers Place. I was blown away and scooted right up to you during the break to ask if you would allow me to interview you. Your stage presence and, of course, your poetry impressed me greatly. Do you get nervous before you give readings? How do you prepare, and how do you select your poems for public readings?
ACB: It was so lovely to meet you that night as well! And thank you for such generosity of kindness. In full disclosure, while I’ve written fiction for as long as I can remember, the poetic form only really began for me a few years ago—2017 to be exact—when a great deal of upheaval was happening both nationally and personally, and the odd juxtaposition of those two forces in my life insisted on being mined, and there seemed no greater immediacy than poetry. Of course I flailed and failed a lot, from being a novice but also because I was writing while inside those troubling times. Hard to have perspective. I was, however, incredibly grateful that this form tapped me on the shoulder, because it has rewarded me so much since.
I think because I’ve been a vocalist for nearly 40 years (which means that a stage, a microphone, and an audience are familiar places for me), I don’t really get nervous reading. Which doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes feel the weight of who’s in the room, and I'm human, so naturally I want to please. And because of that, I’ll always pick the pieces I simply feel are my strongest. I try to prepare for a reading the same way I prepare for a music performance, and it’s a little ritual I developed from this wonderful thing Russell Brand, the comedian and writer, wrote in his book Revolution, and it really changed how I approach any kind of performance. He talked about going onstage as sacred and pointed out that the origins of theatre are in religion and shamanism. He talked about the opportunity to call upon information from other realms and, by doing so, inducing a collective state between performer and audience. Wow! And that, of course, requires getting out of one’s self and out of one’s way. So, that’s the kind of consciousness attunement, in moments of stillness, that I try to give myself before a reading.
AN: You moved to Kansas City right at the beginning of the pandemic as everything closed down. What areas of Kansas City are you exploring and enjoying now that we are opening back up? How does location inspire poetry in you?
ACB: Kansas City has inspired me in endless, amazing ways. For one, I’ve probably been more exposed to and involved in the various arts here than I ever was in L.A. And not because L.A. is artless—it certainly isn’t—but because it’s such a vast place that it’s hard to get really intimate with it as a town. I was never a part of any poetry community in L.A. I’ve seen far more live theatre here than I ever saw there. I’m presently participating in my very first-ever art exhibit. Things feel possible here in a way that often felt elusive in L.A. And that has to have shaped my writing. Of course, as I’ve said, I made my living as a musician in L.A., so the music scene was very alive for me. And here, by comparison, I actually gig very little, by design, because I simply want something different here, something more inward-turning. And I think that resonates perfectly with poetry.
AN: Something about how your poem "Flowers for Cousin Jimi" is technically constructed caused me to think of the great American poet James Tate. With some poems he was able to use line fragments and a type of random storytelling to create amazing avenues of unique thought. So I am curious, do you see your work in tandem with any particular poet, and/or has anyone ever commented to you that they have? I hesitate to ask this type of question and still I am giving in to temptation because of my curious nature. And of course, I need to also ask, do you see a "Tate Connection" with your work?
ACB: Oh, I’m tickled that the Jimi poem made you think of James Tate. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of him in relation to how I write. And, by the way, you are officially the first person to ever tell me that I remind you of another poet. The comment I do seem to get regularly, though, is that my pieces read theatrically. And that comment hasn’t really surprised me, as I am inherently a performer. And also, because I’m a musician, I always read the poems I’m writing out loud so that I can hear the musicality and get the sense of prosody in them.
Which actually brings up a fascinating dilemma I’ve recently had with a poem. I wrote a piece last year, a very sparse poem called “Withheld,” and within it certain words have all the consonants removed, or all the vowels removed, yet the eye can still tell what the words are. And that device was for the purpose of illustrating a point about elusiveness and impossibility. But I can’t read the words out loud that are missing letters, as that’s the whole point. And I really love the piece, but once written I realized how I’d essentially cut off opportunity, in that I can’t ever include it at a reading; it’s meant to be a purely visual experience.
Anyway, I do have my favorite poets that I’ve loved for years, like Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Rimbaud, Alice Walker, but the poets I think I’m more directly influenced by are the ones I’m discovering right now: poets like Micah Ruelle, John Murrillo, Skye Jackson, who have blown me away for bringing poetry to a place of both timelessness and timeliness. They’re talking about our world in real time and getting into the nitty-gritty of life, not waxing politely. And, see, that comment right there is totally left over from early prejudices about poetry, because the truth is Emily Dickinson is a badass, and Yeats is a badass, and Shakespeare’s sonnets absolutely slay me. So, you know, I’m just still in diapers.
AN: Sometimes I feel that an audience might think that a poet mostly "feels" strongly on a topic, and based on those "feelings," the poet picks up a pen and out comes a poem. But generally there is a lot of planning, research, and creative thought, so basically a lot of work, that goes into writing. How do you see the process of writing poetry for yourself and might you explain your process?
ACB: A couple of years ago, I took a Master Class with Billy Collins, whose poem “Consolation” is possibly the most buoyant thing I’ve ever read. And I’ve been lately “going to school” with the books on poetry by Kim Addonizio, who also rocks my world. I think what I’ve taken away most profoundly from all the great poets is that rather than trying to be understood, a poet should write to understand. And that right away brings up the line in the Prayer of St. Francis, which is absolutely dear to my heart. So, that particular lesson really perks me up, because it cultivates humility.
I also try to write what’s in front of me. There is no thing out there so mundane it can’t offer gems. And I think Mary Oliver’s poems are the quintessential demonstration of that. So, from that point of entry, often what can sprout are the layers beneath that have something deeper to reveal. It’s not conscious. Not, “I want to write about this deep thing.” I have certainly suffered from that as a writer, a lot! So, these days I’m just trying to strip away, strip away, strip away to some very basic observations about the world around me and see what blooms.
AN: Angela, you are a multi-talented artist. How do you distribute your time among all these various disciplines so that you feel you do each justice?
ACB: Aye, there’s the rub. I am constantly reminded of the old adage: “man of many, master of none,” and I wonder if I had only pursued one discipline, might I have been formidable? So, I’ve just had to make peace with what is, because I have no interest in giving anything up. Sometimes I just have to stop and breathe, or even completely shut down for a spell, so that I can rejuvenate. And then, I just keep doing. Whatever emerges, emerges. There comes a point where non-attachment, a very Buddhist precept I try hard to embrace, becomes important.
AN: It is time to ask you to select some of your poems and include their backstories to share with our readers. Angela, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by our Poetry Café, and we wish you great success in all your literary and musical endeavors.
ACB: Thank you so much, Annie. I’ve had fun!
I needed to write about this unusual practice that apparently the Neptune Society offers to families and offered to us upon my father’s death. It was weird to us, but we were all so raw with emotion we found ourselves absolutely willing for just about any rabbit hole. It ended up being a profound moment, one that kept us all silent and contemplative for most of the rest of the day afterwards. In writing about this, I felt I was called to speak leanly, with few adornments, as the experience recalled to me the austerity of ritual. So, I chose little to no punctuation. And I used the device of the forward slash as a kind of doorway into the next progression of the litany. There felt a starkness that seemed fitting to a moment none of us understood. Until we understood.
the figures in black
instruct / each of us
takes a handle
of the nylon sack / oblong
like a canoe / his
closing heraldry /
a belt loop for each
pair of hands / nearly cutting
souls bleed / instead of flesh
sons daughters wives
we march the lion out / heavy in death
as do troops their leader
from the battlefield
his battlefield his bedroom
no one speaks
no one looks
no one breathes
he is the folding of the flag
he is the bugle sounding taps
the nylon canoe sails away with our lion inside
he is / the forever that we need
(originally published in Angela’s poetry collection BONES from Haiku House)
I’ve written about my mother a lot; in fact, more than any other person in my life. It was already so before she died 20 years ago but moved into hyper-drive upon her passing. Mainly, I think I’ve been working out the demons of our relationship, which was wonderful and terrible in equal measure. And this poem, my newest about her, is no different. One more in a long line of exorcisms. Not of her, but of pain, which still mimics hers.
You Look Just Like Your Mother
All the church ladies have said this for years
You look just like your mother
There’s an uh huh and a head shake and a Praise Jesus
because they miss her
gone too young
and my sole haunting
I shake off the dread I feel that I look like her
Not because my mother wasn’t beautiful
Not because I didn’t love her
She wore the shroud of not enough
of self-absorption of addiction
And I dread these very shrouds that
want to smother and prickle me
like static cling
like the firecracker that was my mother
in all the ways good and bad
And when she was good she was very very good and when she was bad…
I stop myself passing mirrors
with the stunning revelation of
I pray to embrace it
to welcome the compliment
when all I want to do is block it
A weapon hurled my way
And even with that especially sweet smell
of soaked charred ash
vacuum-sealing every lung of me
my mother never fails to wink and shimmy and
whisper tickles in my ear because
it’s how she casts her spells
And whether I want her or not
she is refracted off me
Flashes of light bouncing
on the ceiling and wall
a mirror ball
She lived awkward radiant messy
A force on my planet that dented mountains
and cracked the stubborn earth
This is an ekphrastic poem. My father was an artist and had made painting his life. My favorite of his is a warm, moody abstract called Female Nude from the Rear View. He himself had never titled it, so one day a long time ago I told him what I thought the title should be, because it’s what I saw in the painting. He liked it; except that the title wasn’t just an interpretation, as there’s clearly the image, though cubistic and sort of Bauhaus-like, of a woman. The curious thing is that not everyone can see her. So, for years, I loved dragging anyone I could over to the painting and asking if they could see the woman. Many said yes. Many, no. And suddenly she had this mystique about her, which always makes me grin, and which this poem takes a stab at uncovering.