Douglas Brown: The Bridge between the Avant-Garde and Formalism

by Mike Sonksen


unspecified-620x933Douglas Brown is a poet at the intersection of the avant-garde and tradition. Mixing experimental work with formalism, his work tackles three generations of his family history from his mother and father, his own rite of passage, and episodes with his son and daughter.

His award-winning book, Zero to Three is a tome of 32 poems about fatherhood, love, loss, American pop culture and the roller coaster range of emotions that are all a part of what it means to exist in the 21st Century. Published by the University of Georgia Press, this volume was the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2013. The poems utilize formal structures like ghazals, sonnets, catalogues and segmented cantos with more experimental styles like stream of consciousness and prose poems.

Brown has taught high school for over 20 years and first caught the poetry bug in high school in the late 1980s after reading Quincy Troupe’s “Magic Johnson,” poem. “That poem showed me you could write a poem about something you loved and could do it with style,” he remembers. Following high school, he began writing poetry in earnest as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in the early 1990s.

After attending graduate school at San Francisco State and working in the Bay Area as a teacher for a number of years, Brown lived in Phoenix, Arizona for a few seasons before moving to Southern California. For the last 8 years, he has taught English at Loyola High School. More recently, he also attended graduate school at Antioch University, where he worked closely with the poet and professor Jenny Factor. The poems in Zero to Three, were pieces that he crafted in workshops at Cave Canem and at Antioch.

Cave Canem, for those that do not know, is a writing workshop that was founded in 1996. Founded by Toi Derricot and Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem focuses on African-American poets and writers. The annual weeklong workshop is held at the University of Pittsburgh. The rigor and structure of Cave Canem has been a major influence on Brown’s form and poetic technique. Brown attended in 2008, 2010 and 2012. He enthusiastically recalled to me how he flourished in the focused setting, often writing multiple poems a day. Brown has also created strong friendships with fellow Cave Canem poets like Terrance Hayes, Douglas Kearney, Ashaki Jackson, Kima Jones and Dexter Booth. The Cave Canem poet and Pulitzer Prize Winner Tracy K. Smith selected Brown’s book as the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2013.

Poems like “These Dead Days,” reveal the immense size of Brown’s heart. A tribute to his late father who passed in 2009, Brown ruminates on “His Southern manners/Singing no nonsense/His Folgers, his Palmolive.” Several other poems center on his father like, “Memento for a Mississippian.” The cycle of poems on his father capture both their similarities and differences. After reading with Brown several times in the last few years and having numerous lengthy conversations, I can personally attest to Brown sharing his father’s empathy and deep laughter.

In the poem, “My Daughter Speaks of Bitter,” Brown is responding to Langston Hughes’s poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem combines thoughts from his daughter blending with his own reflections as her father. “I’ve known little girl anger, seen it crisp into an acrid ripple/flush in the middle—spit in my fist,” Brown confesses. One of the most distinguishing features of Brown’s poetics is the weaving of multiple voices with his own internal dialogue. The portraits he offers of his father, mother, daughter and son are peppered with their words and his own compassionate voice guiding the poetic narrative. His work also peels away the layers behind what is masculine and what is feminine to get directly at what it means to be human. Read Rest of Article Here


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