Interview With Professor Lee Ann Brown

This coming Tuesday the Intro to the Profession class will have a visitor, Professor Lee Ann Brown. Due to a few difficulties with setting up an interview I settled for a phone call with Professor Brown. I was nervous, knowing I am awkward and uncomfortable with phones but glad to chat with Professor Brown again, whom I had met in April when visiting St. John’s for the first time. Tomorrow (Sunday), Professor Brown will send me some links to some readings she feels might be interesting for the class, but for now, I wanted to put this post out in the world before the words faded from my mind and I could no longer read my notes.

We started off chatting about her poetry, the main focus of our discussion. I found online some of her more recent poetry published by Salt Publishing ( ). One of the poems, “Having a Margarita By Myself So Far and Preparing to Read Victor Hernandez Cruz again in a Fruitful Way” was inspired by the poem by Frank O’hara “Having a Coke With You.” I was very much impressed by the amount of observation required for the poem. However, when asked if this observational style was the way she would categorize her work, Professor Brown intimated that she tries to write in as many styles as possible. Her first book of poems was written in polyverse, and was aptly titled after its style: Polyverse (Sun&Moon, 1999). In another style, she is currently working on a project of North Carolina poems, inspired by her home state. These poems take in inspiration from anthropology, history, local histories and more.

Professor Brown seems to embody a flexible style, both in her writing and life. During her chat with me, she was accompanying her daughter on a shopping trip for material to make a Halloween costume. She spoke of a book by Paul Hoover, “Sonnet 56” in which Hoover took Shakespeare’s sonnet and rewrote it in 56 different styles. Professor Brown, when asked about her work style, said that she is always looking for a way to use ideas or styles that she finds in her readings. She always carries a notebook with her so that she can write down what she hears and sees. She is always “collaging things,” and writing “notes, notes, notes.” She said, and I paraphrase, “For example, I’m in midtown now, and I and sure I will hear something. I just keep my ears open.” In her teaching she is encouraging her students to find a way to write incrementally. To write more than just one poem for a class but a whole series of poems. She takes inspiration from Frank O’hara’s “Lunch Poems,” and encourages her students to find a repeating time to do their writing. Personally, I feel this can be applied for our own writing as grad students, be it creative writing or academic writing. Perhaps we are not all Semenzas who can sit down at our desk at 7am and work until 7 pm, but we can find a set, repeating, time in which to put pen to paper.

When you look at Professor Brown’s page on the St John’s faculty page, you will see that she has been quite prolific and not afraid to get herself published. ( I asked her about how she has gotten so much published. According to Professor Brown it has been a slow process, starting with individual poems in college then increasing to series of poems and eventually into books. Some poems written in high school were not even published until her 30s. A lesson to us all to keep trying and to start small and work our way up. Writing and publishing take both time and patience.

As the interview started to wind down we touched on a few more items that peaked my interest, and which might need to be elaborated in class if they catch anyone else’s eye. She has done a lot of work with film as well as poetry. In addition, Professor Brown really emphasized the “primacy of the oral performance of poetry.” She finds oral performance of poetry to be pivotal in her own work, and thus really believes in the importance of close listening and or poetry readings.

So, at this point one might ask why we are having a poet visit this class. This is because there has been a shift in recent years that has loosened the boundaries between poetic structures and academia. They are blurring into one another and can no longer be categorized solely in their individual boxes. It will be a pleasure to hear Professor Brown discuss this further in the class on Tuesday.

About Steve Mentz 711 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and the blue humanities at St. John's in New York City.


  1. Torrie, What an interesting post: there seems to be so many different facets of Professor Brown and I am really looking forward to her presentation on Tuesday. I read through her poems (from the link you provided)and I have to say I was quite intrigued by the various formats; not being an expert in poetry it was hard for me to identify any particular style so I look forward to her addressing this on Tuesday. Personally I believe that the poems that were included in the link would come alive so much more if they were spoken rather than read. In that sense I hope that Professor Brown shares her works with us verbally so we can truly appreciate the cadence and emotions that fuel her writings.

  2. I also had the honor of listening to Professor Brown’s presentation “Post Traumatic Poetry: Poetry in Response to 9/11” at the SJU 9/11 Conference on Saturday, September 17th. It was also filled with emotion and was extremely well presented.

  3. It’s interesting that the two professors who are speaking to our class are both interested in very different aspects of performative literature. As technologies continue to impact our lives as academics, I’m wondering what does a poet look like in 2011? How different is his/her discipline from Frank O’Hara? Additionally, how is the discipline of poetry different than a hip-hop artist? (That was partly a question I had for Dr. Ganter, but was too afraid to ask – how does hip-hop studies fall under the realm of performative literature). It’s interesting the way that english departments specifically delineate disciplines, but I think there’s a lot of overlap…any thoughts?

  4. I very much believe there is a lot of overlap. The study of English or literature does not have to be thought of as a bunch of boxes that are totally separate. It is more like a watercolor where music (hip hop, rap, rock, jazz etc), film, history, art, poetry, novels, rhetoric and more all bleed together to create an an entire image. I think many would argue that there is a direct link between spoken word poetry and hip-hop and that often times they are the same thing.

  5. I just checked out the poems by Professor Brown on Salt Publishing and was amazing at the versatility, especially in terms of style. My knowledge of poetry is limited and I have always had a distinct image of it in my mind reminiscent of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson where there were generally four line stanzas, with a rhyming word every other line. I have tried to steer clear of this notion but usually come around to the same idea. However, after looking at Professor Brown’s very different poems, I see that there are many different styles of poetry and this is a small sample of them. I’m hoping that the spaces and formats (especially that of ‘Don’t Say No To The Sentences When They Come’ which at first glance did not seem like a poem to me until I read it out loud with the pauses as best as I could…which also goes back to Torrie pointing out Prof. Brown’s emphasis on oral performances) will begin to make more sense to me. Like Nancy, I also hope that we hear something out loud.

  6. I am very interested in hearing Professor Brown tonight as well. I do not read much poetry, as the genre scares me in general. I definitely do not write any, either. I cannot deny, however, that I very much want to try the writing exercises that you linked us to in our last post. Opening up language and writing in such a way and getting the opportunity to really sit and play with words is very exciting.

  7. I have been looking at the Professor Brown’s poetry and get such a honest sense of New York from them. The long sprawling lines, like avenues, subway lines, and/or bodies of water; her more compacted images which flit by in flashing waves of people, places and objects; the weaving of other writers and artists (some of which I know from being student at Naropa University), creates a reality that is both enhanced by the imagination, and at the same time “grounded”. Also, they are pieces that read (aloud and to one’s self) like conversations, which strips the “intimidation” factor from them, so we aren’t reading poems, but being invited to share in the conversation.

  8. I have had the pleasure of taking LeeAnn Brown in a course on poetry last year. I can say that I had learned much and was able to foster my own abilities and passions for writing poetry. You mentioned the importance of the oral performance of poetry. I couldn’t agree more. There is something within the language and emotive qualities of the poet performing these pieces that goes beyond mere reading. I also think that reading out loud, striving for the contextual emotions of a piece can also produce a greater appreciation and a deeper understanding of poetry.
    Thinking back to the “Seafarer” and “The Wanderer”, what effect would an oral performance of these produce? How much more would the audience be moved hearing the context of these pieces rather than reading.

  9. @ Tom, & more generally on orality and poetry: it’s always worth remembering that modern reading — alone, in silent, from a printed page, or more recently a shining screen — is a relatively new development in cultural history. Even in the first few hundred years after Gutenburg, books were mostly too expensive not to be shared, and read aloud. Literary culture has mostly been an oral / public phenomenon, at least until the 19c or thereabouts.

  10. I was extremely happy with tonight’s presentation and thankful that Professor Brown did read some of her poetry, out loud. Agreeing with everyone before me, I definitely believe oral performance is important. I, too, took a Poetry workshop with Professor Brown and attended multiple poetry readings as part of the course (the Cotton Club show, a Poetry Slam, a celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, and a tribute to Elizabeth Bishop). Gingy, I really think hip-hop is a form of poetry; the Cotton Club celebration and Poetry Slam were both evidence of that. Neelam and Tiffany, I had to FORCE myself to stop rhyming my words, when I took the poetry workshop, because I too was familiar with a certain type and structure of poetry. A packet on Poetics that Professor Brown handed out in class certainly helped me free my mind. I played with the Bernadette Mayer list of experiments for my final portfolio and enjoyed doing so!

    The idea of “double translation” mentioned by both Professor Mentz and Brown was really intriguing to me because I used Elizabeth Browning’s poem “How Do I love Thee?” for a similar purpose. It was Part C of the Poetics/Critical Project of my Final Portfolio: “Poetic: Take a classic (or modern classic) source text of poetry and rewrite, translate or otherwise use as a source text to create a series of poems that are in conversation with them. Use the source text as a material. Evolve a form to hold your work steady, to let it expand.”

    My first poem involved implementing “Math Vocabulary” into my rewrite of the aforementioned Browning poem (one of the Mayer experiments was to write poetry based on the vocabulary of various subjects). My second poem was a translation of my new poem, into the Turkish language. In my third poem, I translated from Turkish back into English. This was a really challenging, but fun experiment for me.

    *I also enjoyed the Hoover interview because it reminded me of our class’s experimentation with rewriting Shakespeare. I didn’t write 56 versions of the same sonnet, but I wrote many versions/rewrites for A sonnet that I finally submitted.

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