Taylor Brorby is the newest addition to the Assay staff, as a contributing editor to our blog. By happy coincidence, he visited Concordia this week, where our editorial assistant Nick Nelson sat down with him.
Nick Nelson: You described earlier that there will always be an importance of writing to an individual. What makes writing important to you?
Taylor Brorby: I think for me, writing is important because it allows me to see outside myself. When I’m reading, and in particularly reading as a writer, I’m thinking of how is this person is telling their story. What sort of ways are they structuring it? What might be new? What might be exciting, and highlighted to me as a reader? But for me, it’s also recognizing that in the importance of writing there’s also the importance of language and how words not only sound, but what they do on the page. That’s where humor comes in, when you look up the roots of the words to find where they come from, it allows you to do a great pun if you wanted. But I think it’s important because it allows me to see another story that is outside myself, but usually when you’re reading you find that story that seems so far away from you actually is holding a mirror up to you and then you see maybe your own biases, maybe your own desires, maybe your own hopes. So that is why I think writing for me is really important, especially encountering just other writers whose experience is far different from mine.
When did you realize that you wanted to pursue being an essayist? Was there a moment when you knew you didn’t want to be just a “writer”, but rather writing essays?
Yeah, not like June 12 of 2009, but it happened when I was in graduate school at Hamline. I had to take a class called “The Essay” and I thought that I’ve grown up writing essays and they’re kind of dry and boring and ‘this is what an essay is’ not knowing I was just talking about an academic sort of explicative essay. So this course introduced me to people like Montaigne or Samuel Johnson or Virginia Woolf or James Baldwin and I think part of my realization of why I like the form of the essay is because it comes the French word that means an attempt. And there’s this great liberty that if I fail at writing an essay, I could say, “At best it’s an attempt at something.”
To me, the great thing about an essay is that it normally means you’re reaching for something because it’s a form where I think you just want to have an interesting thinking on the page. And where we’re at is really murky territory because we’re talking about how is an essay different from a memoir and how it’s different from the umbrella term of creative nonfiction. But an essay can really be a place where we practice techniques that are present in poetry or present in fiction. What I really think as you’re watching an interesting writer think on the page and if they’re really skilled, they can begin their essay like Montaigne of smells and talk about not only flowers, but maybe baking, but maybe when you smell perfume on someone it’s sort of taking these digressions and I love seeing where those digressions lead in essays so I think when I first encountered that, I thought more about the essay. I thought I really want to do that because it’s a demanding form in a way that I find is really fun.
You’re currently working on Vespers 2014: A Vespers for Climate Change and a book of poetry. Could you describe each of these in a little bit of detail?
So the Vespers for Climate Change come out of a good Lutheran upbringing. I lived at Holden Village which has a service known as Holden Evening Prayer, which people in the Lutheran community probably would know, but I’m interested in climate change just to sort of see how do people sing about this? How do people pray about this? Are there ways of getting at people through writing but also through singing and through setting something in a sacred space that would allow us to maybe lament things? I think so much of our worry about climate change is really deeper down. It’s a lamentation of losing things and how do you create a space where people can feel that, but also maybe find hope in certain ways too. I haven’t really encountered a worship service like that yet. it’s not like there’s a hymn to the polar bear or anything, but of talking about it, I think my interest in that comes out of largely the Old Testament; if anything it’s a farming book. It’s a great agrarian book, so I think of how can people be singing about this? How can they be praying about this? That’s where the interest there.
The poems came out from this past summer living in western North Dakota, but I don’t think of myself as a poet. I think of myself as a creative nonfiction writer, as an essayist. I haven’t really heard of this from poet friends, but I literally wrote a collection of poems, sixty poems in this past summer. They came out of this desire to find a tight and compact way to express emotions I was feeling about the Bakken Oil Boom. All these poems centered around the Bakken Oil Boom because I think I got worried that maybe my essays weren’t enough. They weren’t dense enough. Essays usually convey an idea. Poems usually convey emotion. They’re not telling you what to think, but they’re telling you to feel something. I think good essays are skilled at putting their argument in there and trying to persuade you gently and then you go “Oh, well of course. Things are this way” or “Maybe I need to do that” but the poems just sort of came as these types of visions that I think as my own sort of anger, sort of fermented, I want to practice a form for this summer of just trying to condense and whittle away language to see what that would do for a reader.
You’ve also been working with an anthology on fracking. How did you get started with this opportunity and what sort of work is involved?
The publisher is this press called Ice Cube Press, which is based out of Iowa, and they have just recently released an anthology called Prairie Gold, an anthology of the American Heartland. It’s all about the Midwest and they had a release party in Ames, where I currently live, and I’m stubborn enough to think “This might be a good opportunity to ask about a book project” and I knew it was a smaller press and I would be working with and getting to know the publisher. So I would simply be talking to him about my time in western North Dakota and we were talking for about twenty minutes and found our connection over a mutual love for [the late Minnesotan essayist] Paul Gruchow, but he had published an anthology of writing about Paul Gruchow.
We were talking and I just sort of dropped a little seed and said, “you know, someone should really do an anthology of creative writing on fracking. That doesn’t exist yet,” and he was like, “hmmm,” and then we parted ways. We had talked a little bit about “yeah, that would be interesting” and I thought “alright, I will get a proposal ready and send that to you.” It is the most selfish thing I have ever done, to propose a book project about fracking, because largely it’s that I want to see what other people are thinking about it or see what poets can do with it or what can fiction writers. By default it will be a lot of essays and that’s not a bad thing, I just want to see where are other people thinking on this issue. Since it seems to be the topic of my real obsession right now, but I wonder if mainly sometimes writers write the books they themselves need. So this is different, I am of course, editing this anthology, but I think it’s stemming out of a place of me sort of going, “oh, I want to know I’m not alone about this.”
You’ve been involved with environmental issues, specifically with North Dakota’s Bakken region, fracking. What brought this to your attention first and what made you play and active part?
The Bakken Oil Boom started when I was away at college down in Northfield, Minnesota. It really ramped up while I was away and I was growing up in Bismarck which is not technically in the boom and the boom didn’t really hit full board until 2009/2010 when we were really starting to see massive expansion. I would follow it a little bit in grad school. It’s not that I wasn’t concerned, but it just wasn’t on my radar, like it is now.
What had happened was The North Dakota Humanities Council had asked Debra Marquart and myself to be a part of a grant to go through the Bakken Oil Boom and teach creative writing in thirteen communities. I can still remember our first night pulling into Dickinson, and George, our concierge, who was at the hotel from Russia and trying to earn money to pay for dental school. He already had a medical degree because apparently they pay for your medical degree, but not for you to get a dental degree, I guess. When we were asking him, how he came to be here or what he thought about Western North Dakota, his first words were, “There are no good people here,” which Deb and I both were “wow this is an interesting observation” because a decade ago, this would be the part of the world where some stranger would help you out. They would take you into their home if your car broke down overnight.
That represented a marked shift in my mind that this area that I knew growing up and it expanded more when we went west of Minot, North Dakota, the upper northern region of the state because at night because the flaring of natural gas it looks like, I hate this book of the Bible, but the book of Revelation. There’s the lake of fire and that’s about the best image I can use to describe it, to look out at this ocean of flames flickering on the horizon. I think that was the real shifting moment because I thought we’re wasting a great natural resource and we’re also having people live surrounded by fire, which doesn’t shoot out of the ground, in this way. There’s volcanoes and forest fires happen, but these pipes are just torches everywhere. That was where I felt this is now in my backyard.
There was this sort of moment of going I will speak out on this through writing and I think that was when I really, as a writer, felt I found my topic. For a long time I had wondered, well maybe I’ll just try writing beautiful essays about x, y, and z and that great tradition wrestling with complex ideas and I think at that moment, I almost decidedly shifted to say I will identify as an environmental essayist and this will be my topic. This is the area I come from, this is the area I know the best. Western North Dakota doesn’t have many writers, but it was that trip, it was a grant that sent me. It really sent me back home and that was my first time seeing it in a whole new way.
What’s your next step in writing after all these new publications are finished and done?
So right now, there are quite a few projects. When you were naming them, I was thinking, “Okay I need to get working on them,” but I think that what I’m really hoping to be doing is my first solo book of nonfiction and that I would like to write to be a collection of essays actually particularly in western North Dakota. There are these areas known as the extraordinary places. Some of them are geological features like certain buttes or The Little Missouri River and some are man made like Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch or Lake Sakakawea, but these are all things that I know quite well and I’m doing more reading and geology and environmental studies and some biology. That’s such a great thing about being a writer, you get to read everything, wherever your interest is.
The hope is to write essays about all 18 or at least a few and get it in 150 pages or so, if it’s a smaller number. If it’s 18, it could be a 250 page book, but to really describe each one of these places and hopefully give voice to that part of the world. That’s sort of the long term project and thats the nice thing with individual essays. You can say, “Ok, there’s one. Now let’s try publishing that. Okay, there’s two,” and then eventually come back and collect them. I don’t think I have yet the writing muscle for anything like a memoir, nor do I really, at 27, have this great insight of “let me write about my life.” So maybe at 47 or 67, but for right now, it’s more of those longer visions to think about a collection of essays that would have a similar theme going through.
Nick Nelson is Assay’s editorial assistant.
Taylor Brorby is Assay’s new contributing editor.