Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Brittney Scott

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

A.M. Brant is one of my favorite emerging female working-class writers. She teaches women’s studies and girl cultures, writes about online dating, cooking vegan popovers, and trying not to lose limbs at the window factory where she worked for several years before getting her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. I also recently found spoken-word poet and Emcee G Yamazawa because of a video he created in response to Rich Chigga, another rap artist. So far, I’m in love with everything he does.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I have two contradictory experiences with this and both are true. On bad days I worry I’m incessantly breaking open old wounds and gnawing at them so they never heal, but for the most part, for me, the act of writing is the self-care. A lot of my work revolves around abuse, poverty, suicide, and violence. In particular, my poetic life culminates around my brother’s sudden and violent death, the “dark star moment” I always return to, as Leslie Ullman calls it in her iconic essay, “A Dark Star Passes Through It.” Some days my life feels impossible to deal with. When I was fifteen I watched my brother die. My father died exactly three months later from a rare form of spinal meningitis, his liver shutting down after years of alcohol abuse. My mother tried to kill herself over and over in the subsequent years while I attempted to drag myself to high school. How does anyone deal with their lives? The self-care was in deciding to witness, because I had no other power. But even as a say that, I see now the power of witnessing. 


Sometime after my brother died I discovered Li-Young Lee’s poems for the first time. I remember reading his book, Rose, in a dimly-lit aisle of a bookstore and openly weeping. His poems were a miracle in my life. His narratives about his family, his father and brother, whom he calls his “black petal,” was my voice. He restored me in a way that nothing else could. I realized that the work of self-care could go both ways. If his willingness to bare himself emotionally for other people healed me, then maybe I could someday do that for someone else.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

My writing is usually assumed to be autobiographical and the reader wouldn’t be wrong in that presumption. I am (cringe) a contemporary confessional poet. This was never intentional; it just was. A beautiful thing about poetry is its versatility; you can come to it, as reader or writer, for any reason. Although I admire and love cerebral poets, poets who celebrate meter or witty phrasing, I am not one of them. I am a careful writer. I pay close attention to sound and line, but at the end of the day I just tell stories about my life. All of these stories are true, and I need the reader to know that. Sometimes I wish I could do something more, something “bigger” or less narcissistic, but I can’t force myself to write what I’m not compelled to write. This also comes back to the power of witnessing, especially if that witnessing comes from marginalized voices.

I have a poem about growing up in my old neighborhood in Southern Indiana. We lived across the street from a waste-treatment plant. As you can guess, it was a neighborhood where most residents’ total income placed them below the poverty line. My dad worked construction, my friend’s parents worked in factories. When it rained too much, the plant backed up and flooded our street with sewage. Real legitimate sewage full of shit, used condoms and tampons. We could not leave the house unless we waded through it. My mother tried calling the city, but no one came. This happened over and over. No one cared. Finally my mother wrote the local paper. The local paper published the article and the city finally came and spread lime all over everything. Lime, which, when combined with water, becomes a terrible irritant to skin and can be damaging if inhaled. Everything turned chalky white and died.  

Maybe I have inflated ideas about the power of poetry and literature, but visibility is a crucial component of activism. Along those same lines, this is also why it’s so important to read other writers who witness. It’s not my place to write on issues that I don’t own, but it’s my duty as a responsible literary citizen to read them.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

That’s a complicated question and I’m sure it’s different for everyone. I have mixed feelings about identity groupings.

I’m a queer writer, but what makes me a queer writer? Is it that I’m queer and writing words on a page? Or am I a queer writer because I address those issues in my work? Am I less of a queer writer because I don’t address those issues? Do I want to always be thought of as that? I write more about class than I do about queerness, so does that mean one identity is always in the forefront?

I identified as a lesbian for all of my adolescent life and well into adulthood. I remember coming out as bisexual (a pejorative word I hate because I personally find it limiting) and the gay community shunned me. This was my community. The community where I used to feel safe and accepted. Albeit, this was nearly ten years ago in Southern Indiana and you were either gay or you weren’t. I was already seriously writing by then, often writing about being with women, specifically about my partner of four years who lived with me all through high school. I can’t tell you how many of my friends quoted those diminishing lines from Chasing Amy: “Another one bites the dust,” or whatever it was. That experience left me with a fear of labels.

But overall I’m thrilled VIDA has expanded their count to include these other important identities. It draws attention to horrifying gaps in the publishing scene and assists readers, like myself, in finding these voices and reading them. And although I don’t self-identify as queer in my bio, I’m really glad other people do. Visibility and positive representation are a powerful thing.


brittney-scottBRITTNEY SCOTT‘s first poetry collection, The Derelict Daughter, won the 2015 New American Press Poetry Prize. She is also a recipient of the Joy Harjo Prize for Poetry, as well as the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2014, Prairie Schooner, The New Republic, Narrative Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Linebreak, Indiana Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She homesteads on seven acres in rural Virginia.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.