Derrick C. Brown’s road to poetry wasn’t a very typical one. In the early ‘90s, the California native found himself in a foxhole as part of the 82nd Airborne, an infantry division of the United States Army that specializes in parachute assault operations into denied areas. To keep boredom at bay, he read his military-supplied bible and rewrote psalms in relatable language.
Shortly after, out of the Army and into community college, a friend invited him to check out a poetry show happening at a local coffee shop and read something. “I read the things I scribbled in the bible,” Brown says, sitting in the Rival Sons tour bus on their Toronto stop. “And it was really bad, and they were really accepting. And that’s what kicked it along.”
Since then, Brown has written numerous books and toured the world performing his poetry, often opening for bands like the Cold War Kids or comedians like Eugene Mirman and David Cross. He collaborated with Scottish post-rockers Mogwai on a video for his poem, “A Finger, Two Dots, Then Me.” He won the 2013 Texas Book of the Year award for his collection Strange Light, and recently released a weighty anthology Uh-Oh, which included a new collection named “All Energies of Death.” In March, he released a collection of love poems named How the Body Works the Dark, which melds endearing wit, clever sass, and heart-swelling emotion. It’s a combination that Brown has honed since those early coffee shop days.
Here in Toronto, though, allergies and air travel are messing with his head. “Only one of my ears is working because of my sinuses,” he says. Regardless of what seems like a pretty debilitating attack brought on from whatever was in the Nashville air, Brown is warm and pleasant, and happy to talk. This is the only Canadian date on the tour, and shortly after midnight, once the gear is torn down, hands shaken, and books stowed away in the trailer, the whole show will hit the road for Detroit.
Brown says so far, this has been one of the best tours of his life. The U.S. dates have been incredibly responsive. But Europe was a bit of a different story.
“It was just hard,” Brown says. “Trying to get people from northern France into English poetry, and to understand the humour and the power and the similes can be war, especially if they want to learn English. And I don’t know French. I thought Poland would be rough and it was great. I thought I thought Italy would be tough but it was so good, and they sang along. Certain cities like Frankfurt, they threw shit at me, like pint cups. And in Copenhagen they tried to whistle me off stage. There was a lot of heckling in Munich. Certain cities that I’ve had good luck with poetry in the past were just tough, because it was a rock ‘n’ roll motivated crowd.”
But touring is a major part of what makes it possible to make a living as a poet in 2017. And even then, it’s not going to be easy, of course. “You either have to teach at a university, or work for a non-profit and get paid through them, like Get Lit or Louder Than a Bomb, these youth poetry things,” Brown says. “Or you have to tour. Or somehow be famous in some other thing, like an actor or musician or athlete, and then put out a book. Then you can make a living. But you’re already making a living the other way.”
And touring is certainly no walk in the park. Stephen Latty’s documentary You Belong Everywhere followed Brown and Cold War Kids on a late-’00s European tour, chronicling a lot of Derrick’s performances, as well as some of the highs, lows and in-between of the trip. But Brown says the doc could’ve probably shed a little more light on the latter, and wishes it had spent some more time on, “the strangeness between shows, the loneliness after shows, the boringness of sitting on a bus for eight hours.”
“It kinda showed a lot of poems, when what’s interesting to me is the heckling, the yelling, the talking with fans the hugging, people showing intimate stories, It showed a little bit of that. I wasn’t so interested in the full-length poems. I wish it was documented as, ‘Here’s an artist that’s trying something he doesn’t know anyone has ever done before.’”
At the end of the documentary, there’s a post-tour interview which reveals that Brown has his own press, Write Bloody Publishing, a venture that “started with a lie.” He needed books for his first ever German tour, but none of the presses they’d been published on could supply him with any at the time, so he decided to see if he could print them himself. The prices he was getting quoted, though, put a quick end to that thought. Finally, one press in Ohio asked if he was a publisher, as they give discounted rates to publishers. So he said he’d call them back, and asked his friend to quickly put together a website for Write Bloody—a tour t-shirt slogan he’d used—with some fake book covers on it.
“And it worked,” Brown says. “Then when I was travelling, I met other poets like Buddy Wakefield who had kinda ugly lookin’ books. I said, ‘Man if you get an ISBN and a nice looking book cover, people will pay $15 for your book, and instead of making $3 per book sold, you can make $9 and you can live off touring a lot easier.’
“The only way I know how to sell books is touring. So if an author can speak well and not make you feel awkward when they’re on stage—no sing-songy voice, but they’re actually connecting with the audience, and then they can write well on the page, let’s give ’em a beautiful book. And then they can make a better living on the road.”
Books by Write Bloody poets Caitlin Scarano and Tara Hardy.
Since then, Write Bloody’s guiding philosophy has been, “Let the poets and authors who tour be the marketing; let this publishing house be the source for a movement.” Brown is adamant that the most important consideration is the written page, but the poets who are best able to perform and connect to their audience in a real way are the ones who sell the most books.
Their process for deciding who those poets may be is pretty in-depth. During their annual submission period in July, writers submit five poems. If those five poems are well-received, they’re asked for another 20. And if they make it to the final round, they’re asked to send a video of them reading. If they read well—without goofy, put-on airs or melodramatic affectations—then they submit 40-50 poems and set a release date for the next year. Then they tighten up the work with editors from there.
Brown’s roots in independent music run deep, and Write Bloody provides the authors with what they call a “monster pack,” where they teach them how to put on a fun book release party (same as a record release party) and make a press kit. It sounds like a family affair: those who were chosen from 2016’s round of submissions got a special announcement video featuring dancing to Drake with the message, “Welcome home.”
There’s a lot of similar warmth in Brown’s own poetry—an often gut-punching combo of electric language and passion that runs from immature hilarity to cosmic profundity, usually in the same piece. He uses musical accompaniment when reading, usually tunes from friends or from bands he’s asked (including Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene). But it took a time—and some guidance—to get from those early re-written psalms to the voice he has now.
“Back then, I thought if it was weird or bizarre, it was poetry, it was art,” Brown says. “And I was super esoteric and just beyond surreal, with no grounding or gravity in the poem, nothing to link it to. I thought wildness was the game, and I wasn’t into editing, I wasn’t into workshopping, I wasn’t into typing it. And I kinda forsook my audience and readers. I never imagined anyone buying a chapbook or a book. I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just go up there, and this is me being creative!’ I thought that was all I needed. But actually a thing I longed for was connection, and only through editing and typing these poems were the connections strongest.”
He also credits poet Jeffrey McDaniel as being a major early inspiration and encouraging force in his development as a poet, someone who was able to help him learn the usefulness and power of poetry. But his time in the 82nd Airborne which, “made me feel close to death, and also rid my fear of death,” he says, has been influential in forming his work as well.
“The mingling of all these different people and their ideals, in the military, helped me step out of a lot of religious things that I was locked in, and gave me an insider’s perspective on how the military works, and what is beautiful about the military and what is fucked up. It gave me some balance.”
If this all paints a picture of someone who might not fit the traditional idea of what a poet is—the frilly-shirted romantics of yesteryear or beatnik slackers twiddling thumbs waiting for inspiration to strike—it’s because Derrick Brown really doesn’t fit those stereotypes at all. In fact, most poets don’t.
“We’ve got this uphill battle to try to shake off the clothes of poetry as being known as this masturbatory art form that is for literati and academics only and not for the working class to enjoy,” Brown says. “That doesn’t mean it’s dumb, it just means it’s harder to find a poet you like than it is to find a band that you like. So I’m on a mission to say, ‘They’re out there, and let me share some with you through my press, through travelling.’
“I know that when I tour with a comedian, the comedian comes out and says, ‘Okay, next up we have a poet,’ and everyone laughs. And then they say, ‘No no, he’s not coming out in a beret. No stripes, no turtleneck. He’s an actual poet, and I usually hate poetry. I think you’re gonna like him.’ That is the best endorsement, when someone comes up after and says, ‘I hate poetry, but I loved tonight.’ You thought you hated poetry, but you just hadn’t read anyone you’d connected with. But it’s out there. And there’s more good shit out there than there ever has been.”
When Brown takes the stage a few hours later, the crowd is rowdy, half in-the-bag, and not particularly interested in seeing poetry. There’s one particular heckler, a greasy long-haired kid who looks like he’s in town just tonight on loan from the suburbs, who refuses to shut his mouth. It’s a tough gig, but Brown is softly relentless—his capacity for hope and optimism seems mostly bottomless—and soldiers on. For his last poem, he reads “Chrome Hotel” which tells of a lonesome man waiting to see if the woman he met earlier will come up to his room. It starts gently and, well… without giving too much away, crescendos over its last few minutes into an explosive, lascivious, breathless finale. It feels like a triumph for poetry at the rock ‘n’ roll show.
In the bar after the show, surrounded by a few friends and fans, Brown sits in a booth visibly exhausted by the allergies that have been plaguing him and the fight he had to put up with a crowd that came out for riffs and got a reading instead. But more than once, he looks around at everyone and says, “This is my favourite part of the night.”
The bar might’ve been set kinda low, but his genuine appreciation for the connections that come along with what he does—spilling his guts out in public—is clear. Near the end of the night, before he gets on the bus to Motor City, everyone closes their eyes, holds their drink in the air, and he recites the end of his poem, “Church of the Broken Axe Handle.” The power of poetry rings clear in its final lines, “You can not be abandoned—you can only be released.”