An interview with Clifford Brooks, poet, artist and founder of Southern Collective Experience.
Founded in 2010 by Athens, Georgia, native Clifford Brooks, Southern Collective Experience (SCE) is an organization that promotes and provides personal support for artists. Brooks began to write during his early years as an escape and took up poetry as his sole muse in 2003. He is now a teacher and published author, with his second book of poetry releasing at the end of April.
We talked to Brooks during National Poetry Month about why it’s so important for artists to have a support network, the collective’s literary magazine and NPR radio show, and what he sees for the South’s future poetic landscape. He also shares upcoming work from his new book Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart at the end.
EZB: Your organization Southern Collective Experience was founded with the idea of a “tight-knit feel of a family within, and around, those who shared a similar vision.” What is your vision, and why did you see a need for that family feel?
CB: My vision, until recently, has been deemed insane: To build a company of professional artists that transcends clichés, reclaim a classical understanding of creativity and put an end to the fallacy that art doesn’t have rules. Many call these lofty hopes from antiquated dreams. However, I refused to believe, and still passionately refute, that this company could not only bear fruit, but also act as an extended family in a vocation rife with jealousy, snobbery and self-imposed exile … The Southern Collective Experience saved me from choosing the abyss. We work to make the scene a fascinating symphony with equal parts whimsy and integrity.
As far as the need for a family, it’s because I’ve never had one with consistent support. I do not bemoan this as it hardened my resolve to build the SCE. We support one another and delight in each other’s success. A family is loyalty. Blood kin is random happenstance. I have no wife or children. The SCE is my legacy.
EZB: Tell us more about the different arms of SCE: Blue Mountain Review, Dante’s Old South, etc? Any big plans for 2017?
CB: Our magazine, The Blue Mountain Review, comes out four times a year. We accept all art forms. We interview quiet geniuses as well as more boisterous legends of art from all over the country—and the world, really. The SCE isn’t just about the American South, because we’re all south of somewhere. The Blue Mountain Review is strictly online as of now, but we plan to have one print issue every summer beginning in 2017. We also have a magazine called W.I.S.H. and a journal exclusively for the Reinhardt University MFA program. The SCE plucks the best and supports it through the years.
Dante’s Old South is our NPR show taped in Chattanooga, Tennessee, through WUTC. The station manager heard me read and asked me if I’d like my own show. I have a middle Georgia accent, and my poetry is accessible, honest and read in a way my grandmother used to tell me stories. I brought on members of the SCE and turned it into a variety show with commentary and brilliant folks. There is music, poetry, philosophy, social commentary and stories from all over the South. My hope is that it’s picked up by more affiliate stations so more people who think art isn’t financially viable see that poetry can pay the bills.
The big plans for 2017 include The Collective Sessions. These are festivals of music, storytelling, poetry reading and seminars that will leave the audience speechless.
EZB: You describe yourself as a “Huck Finn” in your early years. How did growing up in Georgia shape your writing and what led you to poetry?
CB: The American South is the only portion of this nation with a sense of identity and clearly defined culture. I grew up in a home that valued knowledge and self-reliance. Georgia is my home forever. I have traveled all over, but the South has a melody, a lush green backdrop, jubilation and blues songs that no one else can imitate. I do not romanticize this area, but I refuse to apologize for the stereotypes perpetuated by the uncool—most of whom have never been here.
My childhood was spent in, and around, a plantation house. I am Old South. I was classically educated in college, but bored to tears in grade school. I never put on airs, and along the way I learned manners, tact, grace, respect and complete understanding of my people. I learned how to treat a lady and the meaning of honor. Discipline kept, and keeps, me out of prison.
After high school, it was off to Campbell University in North Carolina and then Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. I wasn’t a big fan of MFA programs until recently with Reinhardt University. I applied and hope to continue my education this year with that uplifting bunch. I didn’t always love the demands of class, even in college. Yet, I knew if I wanted to make it as a writer, I required the support and challenge of a superior school. You have to love writing a poem or story or novel for the thrill of the exercise itself. If you don’t have that, you are no writer.
EZB: What can you tell us about your first book and the new one coming out?
CB: My first book, The Draw of Broken Eyes & Whirling Metaphysics, is two books in one. Tucked at the end is an epic called “The Gateman’s Hymn of Ignoracium.” The two books are the story of a young man struggling to understand the world, his demons, lack of love and a peaceful agreement with his place in a South quickly fading. Ignoracium is an ode to Dante, created while I worked for a decade in social services. None of it is cryptic metaphor. I say exactly what I mean. I write poems like composers place notes on a scale. I am autistic. I don’t understand subtext, so I don’t attempt it in my art. I found out early that if you are brutally honest people assume it’s metaphor. I can purge all my misdeeds and no one realizes it’s not poetic license. The book’s popularity spiked a year ago when fans realized I am not playing a character or hiding behind an alter ego. I am the same man all the time.
My second book, Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart, picks up where the first book stopped. There is no more of the frightened, lonely, self-conscious child my first book helped me leave behind. Athena Departs is a book of hymns to my mother, father, friends and the mythic/biblical influences that help me forget that having a successful romantic life isn’t the tragedy so many swear as gospel.
The third book is my magnum opus: The Salvation of Cowboy Blue Crawford. It is a Western set in current times. It has biblical and mystical underpinnings to real events in my life. Names are changed to protect the not-so-innocent-known-to-suffer-me, but like all my work: it is honest. The Old West, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and movies like “Magnificent Seven” and “The Unforgiven” touch a wellspring of wonder in me. As in all Westerns, there is dark adventure as two sides battle across the American South.
EZB: Do you have any wisdom about publishing to share with aspiring writers?
CB: (Disclaimer: This is only my opinion.) Be patient. Do not self-publish. For better or worse, there is a negative stigma on that route to publication, and it can haunt a writer long after they do it. Do not obsess about getting published. Focus on becoming the best writer you can be. Do it because you love it, because any other life is slavery and because freedom is getting all the noise from between your ears and in peace on the page. If you create literature that radiates, a publisher will pluck up your efforts.
Find a job you love, not just as a “Plan B”—but one that feeds your art. I teach because it connects me with all types of folks and gets me out of my own head. Artists are some of the worst about going down rabbit holes of solitude in order to create. To some degree, that is unavoidable. However, some variety keeps us human, bathed, fed and acceptably eccentric. This is truth.
EZB: Southern Collective is made up of artists of all types. How would you describe the current landscape of Southern art in relation to storytelling through writing, music, visual art, film and TV?
CB: The image of the South is improving. I see an upswing in literature, especially poetry, but film and music are booming south of the Mason-Dixon. Yet, The Black Keys play bad ass blues in Akron, Ohio, and Gary Clark Jr. is making it burn in Texas, and Ben Harper has kept it pure in California for decades. The “Dixie Spirit” of real taste, kindness, and rough edges appeals because it’s a natural state of man. The ladies are also remembered with Alabama Shakes, Rising Appalachia and the untouchable Dolly Parton doing just as much to make a quiet rebel proud.
As far as storytelling, we’re the best at it, period. It’s all about timing and attention to detail. Taking time to soak that up is a skill. We call it “art” in the South.
Upcoming Work from Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart
An Ode to Southern Sons, and Uncivil Rest
To wisdom, beauty, and truth:
We are souls strapped down
by the malicious hands of man.
Do not judge our dreams
for making selfish realities.
We flourish best in unforgiving weather.
This Sisyphus has a story,
sans a stone to roll.
Pull up a stool,
and abandon your albatross.
Buy a beer distilled
in guilt and gritty with ocean silt.
Good? Let’s get it on!
The fact I feel firm to follow is:
Our innermost selves
are smashed every day
against our addiction to suffer.
Hobgoblins hunt us down
and steal our resolve.
All of us are blunted by the hour.
We want, we yearn
for the best yesterday that yawns empty.
We remember and wish wrong:
To have a reason to disregard
our inevitable, unremarkable
retreat into the earth.
we discover our bravest face
out on the ocean.
Pull up anchor and set sail.
Seek out a storm
and see what’s
in your gut.
Making nice with the facts
is always a maelstrom.
Honesty is most like Christ.
As a sacrament, scripture
down my arms,
across my chest,
and Brutus burned into my back.
I am a battlefield.
Clifford Brooks photo by James Polsfuss.