J’Lyn Chapman with Brenda Coultas on The Conversant!


In April, Jack Kerouac School MFA students in my “Documentary Poetry” course read Brenda Coultas’ A Handmade Museum. At this point in the semester, students were completing their own documentary poetry projects, so one will notice that the questions relate to craft as well as to the role of the poet as documentarian or archivist.

Interview with Jaclyn Hawkins, Janelle Fine, Shitu Rajbhandari, JH Phrydas, Angelica Maria Barraza, Caitlan Mitchell, Ashley Margaret and Katharine Kaufman.

The Class: In “The Bowery Project,” how did you make decisions about structure and organization? For instance, the dates reveal it was not a method of linearity but perhaps one of item associations or the opposite, a panoramic diorama.

Brenda Coultas: As the project developed and became clearer, I began to add the dates and to take a weekly roll of photos. Once I had enough data, I began to shape it, but I didn’t want to be wedded to a timeline, so the narrative is based on balance, of creating a portrait, and of beauty.

TC: In “The Bowery Project,” you don’t reference your gender. How do you think that plays into your investigations and your experiences?

BC: I mention a husband, and this is before same-sex marriage became a norm. Good question, because the speaker or actor in a poem is not necessarily the poet; she/he may be a persona. Gender was extremely important in my first book Early Films, in which I play slight of hand with sexual identity.

TC: Similarly, throughout the book, you refer to yourself, and the poems are obviously very personal, but the speaker remains at a distance, at least at an emotional distance. How do you feel you situate yourself within this text?

BC: I try to stay out of the way, to keep the focus on what the narrator sees.

TC: How do you think of the book, in general, as a curated space? By that we mean, what is your methodology when it comes to revision? To sequence?

BC: Yes, it is curated to a degree, for the sake of beauty and music, then truth. “Sense,” as John Yau says, “is overrated.” You only need one entry about shit or puke to paint the picture. Allen Ginsberg said, “Notice what’s vivid. What’s vivid is self-selecting.” I follow that dictum in all of my writing.

Read the full interview here!