"It's What Makes Us Human:" Poet Antoinette Brim

There is music in each line of Antoinette Brim’s poetry. In one piece, she writes of walking out into a garden and you can almost see her there, among the grasses, taking a deep breath in. In another, she is mourning Black bodies and you weep with her, so moved by the words. In another yet, Lilith speaks, and you drop everything to listen. 

A Cave Canem Foundation fellow, winner of the Walker Foundation Scholarship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Pushcart Prize nominee, Brim is the author of These Women You Gave Me, Icarus in Love and Psalm of the Sunflower. Each takes on a new theme—divorce and self-discovery, the nature of love itself, and the Biblical women who talked back—with immense grace and nuance, lines stopping the reader in their tracks. 

When she is not writing, she is still making art—both as a professor at Capital Community College in Hartford and as a printmaker and collage artist in the state and at Creative Arts Workshop, where she also serves as president of the board. Recently, The Arts Paper sat down with her at Creative Arts Workshop to talk poetry, creation, and how, if you are lucky enough, one art form can inform another.

So you’ve been involved with a lot different things artistically. Can you walk me through what you’ve been involved with recently?

That’s hilarious, because I think if I tried to enumerate everything that I was involved with, I would make myself tired. I do a lot of things, but I find that they inform each other. So, in my professional life, I’m an English professor specializing in African-American lit and creative writing. In my other life, I’m a working poet, and also a printmaker and collage artist, which informs my writing, which informs my teaching. 

Another hat I wear is President of the Board of Directors of the Creative Arts Workshop, which … challenges me in a sense that it’s the other side of the arts, the funding, the nuts and bolts, the realities, the harsh realities of being a working artist and trying to maintain a workspace environment. 

And then there’s just the personal me, who is a granddaughter, who has just moved her 92-year-old grandmother in with her, and a mother of three adult children, and a grandmother to a 15-month-old. I’m sure I must have missed something along the way. I also serve as a board member for Indolent Arts in New York City. So, yeah, it’s a lot but it makes sense because it all overlaps in the sense that everything informs each other, and it makes for a really rich life. 

So can you talk a little about how specifically all of the different things you do inform each other?

I would say my first language is poetry. However, some of the things I might want to express might do better in a visual forum. So I might take that idea that I can’t distill into language, and explore it from a visual lens. And then, too, I do a lot of writing from visual cues. Things that I see. Other people’s artwork can speak to me and ask me what they’re there for, or [ask me] “do you see this?” I start to write from that. 

So, I guess it’s using lighter senses, being multilingual, and expressive. So one thing informs the other. And sometimes you need a break. When you’re writing, writing, writing, and then it’s like a breath of fresh air to kind of recover. Yeah, and I think too that my visual art is not so much a part of my professional life as much as writing is. It’s a way to play, too, where perhaps the stakes aren’t as high, and I can have happy accidents and allow myself to just totally be free with it. 

I always feel that it’s kind of sad that when we start out, in kindergarten, everybody gets to finger paint, everybody gets to do what they want to do. And everybody’s an artist, and everybody sings, and everybody is jumping around and doing all of those things. And then as time goes on, there are “the artists” and “the jocks” and the this and the that, and I think we kind of lose that part of ourselves.

I think we’re all artists in some way. We all need to express ourselves, even if that’s not our occupation. I heard a friend say, “Oh, I like to sing but I don’t sing, because I don’t sing well.” And I thought to myself, that’s no reason not to sing. You should be singing every opportunity you get, in the car, in the shower, or whenever, because if it’s something that you like, then intrinsically you’re meant to express yourself that way. I sing all through my house, I dance up in my house. I don’t share it so much, but I do share my poetry and my art. 

And what do you feel you can express through art that you can’t necessarily express in your everyday life?

I think the beauty of art is that it’s a moment frozen in time. So you have the luxury of staying in a moment, of being stuck in that moment; of lingering. If you were to tell me a story, and I was hung up on this one turn of phrase, I can’t stay there, I have to keep up and listen to the rest of the story so as not to be lost. But, a great poem, I can stop in the middle of a great poem and be able to breathe it in, and think about it, and think “dang I wish I had written that,” then read it again, you know?

So in a way, it’s like listening to your favorite song over and over again. Same thing with a piece of art. I could stop and stare at the right or left corner forever, trying to figure out what it’s supposed to mean to the rest of the world and how it makes me feel at that particular moment in time. 

It’s one of the great things about art … art informs the record. You can know things, but we don’t really know them in our bodies the way we get to know them through art. We can know a story, but then if we see it enacted on a stage, and other people are just singing it from a place that’s somewhere deep in their gut. 

I saw Kinky Boots on Broadway, and there was this amazing moment where one of the leads is singing to his father. It’s for a show, but he’s really singing to his father about the strain in their relationship, and the pain it caused. And it’s something theoretically in my head that I know, this character has been at odds with his dad because his dad doesn’t understand him because of his sexual orientation. Like I got that. But I was watching him on the stage, and the lights were on him, and the sweat was pouring off of his face, and he was singing with such intensity that you could see the spit fly out of his mouth. It went all over me, with chills and pain, and my eyes welled up, and I got it. I knew it before, but then I got it. 

Art can do that to anybody. Even with history, you can know this happened or that happened, but then when you read the poetry that’s generated from all that pain; when you see the artwork from the time period…. you really begin to know because you feel it viscerally on the inside of you. And I think that’s probably what has to happen before change comes. And we have to do that. We have to take what we know intellectually and feel it in our bodies. And then, we can be moved to really respond effectively. I’m a big proponent of the arts. I’m a big proponent for the arts. It’s what makes us human. 

You talk about the arts as kind of a way to create change. How do you want people to respond when they take in your artwork?

It’s really funny that you asked that. Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I have to grab something. It’s like this thing that happens to me. And I found this old, old book on literary criticism in poetry. And it begins asking this question that you’ve really asked: how can you adequately criticize art when we don’t know exactly what we want it to do, and so then the author starts to discuss this litany of things that art, and specifically poetry, can do. And I got four pages in, and I had to stop and ask myself, “okay, what do I really want my poetry to do?” Because I would always let my poetry kind of be what comes to me. 

And so coming around the other side and saying, when someone comes to the page, what would I want it to do, is a new way of looking at things, which is exciting. It’s important to mix it up a little—you know, if you write in the morning, write in the evening. If you write with coffee, don’t write with coffee and see what comes out. You know, that type of thing, just to shake it up. But I think what I want my art to do is something that I’m still working on. I began asking my poetry to help me figure things out. I’ve often said I don’t know what I believe until I work it out on the page. So if I’m unsure about something, then I want to research it, flip it around, write about it, and turn it back around, and then I think I have a better understanding of what it is. 

My second book (Icarus in Love) is an exploration of love, because someone dared me to do it, literally. I was having a conversation with primarily a bunch of historians about what love is. And of course, we tend to see things through very different lens. And I’m a poet, so of course, I’ve got my perspective. There was a philosopher at the table, and there was a musician at the table, and a whole bunch of historians. And they were talking about more concrete things such as marriages and mergers and land, and all of that kind of stuff. And the philosopher was going: “well what kind of love are you talking about? Eros? Or Philia?” 

The musician was talking about the greatest love songs, and we’re all over the place because we’re each seeing it through our own lens. And then, when they left, one of the historians said to me, “well, you’re the poet. You figure it out.” And the next day at 5 p.m.,  I was writing the first pages to the book. And so I wrote the book on the topic of love, and at the end, I thought I had a better understanding of what love was, but I think that the biggest thing that I learned is that I don’t know what it is, really. 

And that, it will make you, it will break you, but you’re better for having been broken, really. That’s what it does to you. And of course that’s grossly understated, because the book is much more complex than that, but I just try to figure out things. My third book [These Women You Gave Me] that just came out is looking at Lilith and Eve and telling the story from their perspective. Well, Lilith pretty much has gotten erased. She’s Adam’s first wife. They get in a big fight, she flies away, and then God creates Eve for Adam. And, there’s really only one mention of her in the Christian bible, and she mostly lives in Jewish tradition. So I just said, you know, I wonder what they would say. 

What would Lilith say to defend herself? And Eve takes a lot, people blame everything on Eve. Eve tasted the fruit, blah, blah, blah. And so I thought, what would she say for herself? And then I felt like I needed some balance in there, so I added in the garden of Eden, who is another female voice, and is kind of the voice of reason. You know, they always say there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. So, she kind of looks at everything, and she’s kind of the group chorus in the book. And, only women speak except Adam, when he says, which I took from the Bible, “this woman you gave me” and blames Eve in the garden, and when Lilith flies away. It’s “this woman you gave me, she ran away.”

He’s always blaming womenfolk. And I just wondered what they would say in their defense?

And that actually was going to bring me to my next question, because I just read These Women You Gave Me, and really loved it. What was it that drew you to exploring these Biblical themes in your book?

You know, I was scared to do it, because, it’s Christian, and you don’t take anything or add text. So it’s a little scary, to say I want to think about these things. I think that it actually began with Lilith, because she’s an interesting character. I had to do a lot of research to find out who she was. There wasn’t a lot on her, so I had to go back to the actually Hebrew texts to find out what I could find out about her. And then I started writing from her perspective, and she scared me because a lot of people call her the first feminist, and this, that, and the other thing. But she’s so strong, and so angry, but then there are things about her that make perfectly good sense. 

She just wanted things to be fair. And in standing up for herself, I think a lot people would say, “Well she didn’t submit to Adam and that’s where she failed,” but no, that’s not where she failed. She was right to stand up to Adam. She was right to put him in his place. She failed when she sinned against God, which was when she swore against God, pronouncing his name in vain, and she wasn’t supposed to do that. What she should have done with a cool head is said, “hey, talk to him. There’s something wrong with him.” 

So, if you think about that, and then you think about Eve, and everyone says, “Oh, she ate the fruit, and she knew better.” But then, if you start to think about it—talking about pure innocence, and as the garden says, how can you even know what evil is when everything around you is good? If you’ve never been lied to before, how could you even conceive of what a lie could be? To know that something is beautiful like Satan, who at the time was still encrusted in jewels and standing on two feet, and is beautiful… how could he be evil? How could you even know? 

And if these two women really are at fault, then what does that say about us? We women seem to carry so much of the burden of these perceived wrongdoings of these women that lived so frickin' long ago, we don’t even know when. And if that’s the case, why are we carrying this burden? Why are we still shamed by “the curse of childbirth” and what does that mean about us and our own sovereignty? 

And I just don’t think it’s fair for other people to tell stories that are not their own, which sounds crazy because I just wrote a whole bunch of persona poems. But it means to have the patriarchy talk about women. If we want to have this conversation, there need to be some female voice. So, I tiptoed in at first, and then jumped in head long. I said, no, I want to add a fully female voice to the conversation, and maybe challenge some of the stories at times, and talk about what women are, and who women are, and what women should be. There’s always a conversation about the “should be.” 

We saw a conversation not too long ago, with 17 men discussing women’s reproductive rights in the law. I was like: “Not one of you has a dog in this fight, not really.” I was like—really? Not one woman in the room? Not one? It doesn’t make sense that they would have left us out of it. If I were in a room of all women discussing the fate of men, I would have to excuse myself, because even I would know that’s wrong. I wouldn’t even be a part of it. Why did they not look at each other and say “this is ridiculous?” I’m guessing that’s part of what the book is. Like come on folks, let’s have a real conversation. Because if you don’t have different perspectives and ideas, and people at the table, then it’s not a dialogue. 

The diversity is what brings the fullness to the conversation. I’m humbly submitting my female voice to the conversation. And I think that’s one of the great things, too, about art. Everybody gets a chance to participate. You don’t have to be a theorist, or a critic, or someone with 99 letters behind their name. Paint a picture, write a poem, make a movie. 

And when you talk about accessibility, that was something I was thinking a lot about when I was researching you, because pretty much everything you do has a base in the community. Can you speak to why you feel making art something that is accessible for the community is so important?

I think that accessibility across the board is important. People need to know that everything out there is for them and belongs to them. Some people walk by museums, and think, “Oh it’s for a certain type of people, but it’s not for me.” No, it’s for you too. So, yeah, I love the community college, because you have a mix of people. You have students coming straight from high school, who are young and fresh. And then you have them sitting next to a 60 year old person who is trying to finish their degree, and they’re sitting next to a 30 year old, who’s trying to make a better life. And, in our college, where we have a large number of immigrants, you might have four or five different countries represented in one room. You break them down into groups for group work … they bring so many different ideas and perspectives. 

It’s the power of diversity, because I see things one way because of the way I was raised. If you have a homogenous group, you’re going to see everything the same way, but when it’s all mixed up like that.. The young people bring fresh new perspectives, and they help the older people with technology and all of that. The older people bring perspectives of what they’ve lived through. And everybody brings something to the table and everybody grows from it. 

I’ve learned so many things from my students, it’s just absolutely amazing. It’s rich and every day is different; every semester is different. And the beautiful thing is, all of these people go back to their lives; they go back to their communities, and they take what they’ve learned. Young people realize that older people are not crazy and old fashioned and stupid. And all the older people realize that the young people are not all just plugged into video games. People from different cultures realize that they can work together and that they have things in common. 

And eventually, they’re going to go become teachers, they’re going to become social workers, they’re going to become all of those things, and they’re going to take those good experiences into the workforce with them. And they’re going to be less likely to discriminate, they’re going to be less likely to label people. They’re going to be much more accepting and expressive to people who are not like them. This stuff is powerful. And we need to bring that into everything. 

Art brings all kinds of people together. There’s young people going to the movies to see this Black Panther movie, there’s older people going. There are people all in the middle. My son, and a bunch of people from his college went, and then they’re taking little tiny people there. They’re all mixed in, enjoying something. And that gives them something in common. It gives them something to talk about. If you get people together and get them talking about something that they have in common ... God, then they’ll find other things in common, and they’ll be more comfortable with each other. And the more comfortable they are with each other, the better able they’ll be to live and work together. And that’s going to help with a whole bunch of problems that we have.

I think people underestimate art. And they underestimate the importance of building community. And they underestimate diversity, and the power of having different types of people together. And they underestimate the importance of having people who are connectors, institutions that are connectors, like community colleges and community art organizations and all kinds of non-profits. And if there is going to be some type of salvation, that’s what it’s going to be. People who connect people, and show people that they have common interests.

We have this notion that if someone gets a piece of the pie, than that’s one less piece of the pie for you. But what I have come to realize, and it’s a crazy thing, but the more you share the pie, the more the pie seems to multiply. We make more opportunities for each other, and then subsequently there’s more to go around. There’s already enough to go around, we’re just not good enough at sharing. There’s really no reason for anyone to go without, because some of us have so much. 

I’m not talking about the Bill Gates people of the world. I’m talking about just you and me. How many times have you thrown something away? How many times have I thrown something away? And we just don’t know how to share. But we can get better at it. Some people might say this is an oversimplification, but I have a lot of faith.

So before we wrap up, is there anything you want to add? Anything you think people should know about?

I think people should know about and investigate the Creative Arts Workshop in downtown New Haven in the arts district. Because it’s a wonderful place for artists to go and build community and to make things, and for people who don’t think they’re artists to go and make things, because, I think everyone needs a space where they can try, fail, succeed, laugh, giggle, make friends, make new relationships, and all of those types of things. I’ve often referred to it as my happy place, my home away from home. 

I think people need to have those types of places. And I think that people should support their local artists as much as they can. See what people are doing, go to poetry readings, you know? Share books. I think people should talk to people that they don’t know. Just be nice and talk. I think we all have this great expectation that some leader is going to come and lead us out of whatever situation we’re in. And I don’t think that’s how big things get done. I think that sometimes big people inspire us, but it’s the individual person on the ground… that lives that philosophy and that dream. Everybody thinks about the “I Have a Dream” speech, but they don’t think about the life stories of each and every one of those people that was on the mall that day. 

That’s what made the day, is the individuals who brought their hopes and dreams and their contributions. So I think that we can’t underestimate the individual contribution, and if we don’t underestimate the individual contribution, then we realize that we too have something to give. And if enough people realize that they can make a difference in their sphere of influence, then I think that we will create much better communities in society. I think we need to start small, and then it grows. I guess that’s all the mother weight I have for the day.