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Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient: John Brehm

We’re excited to be featuring the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog this spring! The applications for 2017 fellowships are due Friday, June 24, 2016 and you can read the guidelines and download an application by clicking here.

2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient

John Brehm




John Brehm is the author of Help Is On the Way and Sea of Faith, and the associate editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, New Ohio Review, The Sun, Gulf Coast, The Writer’s Almanac, The Norton Introduction to Literature, and elsewhere.

Q&A with Literary Arts

1. What are your sources of inspiration?

I get inspired by other poems, by chance observations of human and non-human beauty, by the endless interplay of loss and gain in all life, by ideas encountered in non-poetic sources—quantum physics, Buddhism, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, etc. I also get a lot of mileage out of the ironic discrepancies between my spiritual aspirations and the often very unspiritual realities of my life, between how I like to imagine myself and how I actually am.

2. How would you describe your creative process?

My process is erratic and unpredictable. I may not write anything worthwhile for three or four months, or sometimes, painfully, even longer. Then I may write two or three poems a day for weeks. Other times, it’s a bit steadier and I’ll write a poem every month or so. In any case, I’m not a prolific writer, though I give myself time to write first thing every morning. My poems generally begin with a line which suggests both a rhythm and an idea or experience that wants to be explored. When poems come, they announce themselves with a certain kind of energy which is unmistakable but hard to describe: a sense of excitement and possibility, an urgency, a sense of play, something to work with and on. Sometimes, I’ll say something in conversation, which either I or someone else will point out sounds like one of my poems, and then it’s off to the races when I sit down to write. Usually it’s some aspect of the tragicomic human predicament as it impinges on the particulars of my own life that rouses me to speak.

3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?

The short answer is: the money. For which I am very grateful. But really the feeling I had when I got the news was that a smart, interested stranger experienced a strong connection with my poems, and that’s very satisfying. That’s why I write: to connect with others and with all parts of myself. It’s also very nice to feel a part of, and to be honored by, the Oregon literary community.

4. What are you currently working on?

I’m just putting the finishing touches on a new manuscript of poems, No Day at the Beach, and sending it out to publishers. I’ve also just finished editing an anthology, The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy, which Wisdom Publications will bring out next year. Wisdom publishes His Holiness The Dali Lama, and evidently he’s thrilled to be sharing a publisher with me. The feeling is mutual!

5. What advice do you have for future applicants?

Oh, I don’t know. Gather your best poems and submit them and then don’t worry about it too much. Applying for fellowships, grants, jobs, etc., not to mention entering poetry contests, is a competitive endeavor and therefore contrary to the spirit of making poems, so it’s best not to get too caught up in it. Always keep your focus on the poems themselves and let the chips fall where they may. Good luck!

OLF Judge’s Comments

“Everything was better back then,” begins John Brehm’s poem, “Back Then.” “Even my nostalgia was better, / more piercing, more true.” Such humorous confessions abound in Brehm’s beautiful work, calling the reader to a place of recognition and, ultimately, compassion. The poems here wrestle and reckon with grief and desire—those powerful, age-old muses—but do so in playful, surprising ways: Brehm’s poems feel effortless in their dance and delivery—the mark of an expert poet. Brehm’s power resides in his ability to attune to the world with both levity and tenderness: a poem that begins with “I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems / I have not written would reach / from here to the California coast” ends with the speaker ruminating on “the life I have not lived, the life / I’ve failed even to imagine.” Whether ruminating on dog-hood or exploring the complexities “of love and life insurance” (as one title has it), the speakers in these poems move through daily living to tap a deeper philosophy. As Khalil Gibran once wrote, “your joy is your sorrow unmasked.” Brehm’s work dances on the cusp of joy and sorrow with grace, wit, and a poet’s signature precision.

—Brynn Saito

Samples of current work: 


It’s no day at the
beach being me, I said.
It’s no walk
in the park.
I can see that,
she said.
Trust me, I said.
It’s no picnic.
Clearly, she said.
What’s that
to mean? I said.
I’m just agreeing
with you, she
said. You might
have argued
a bit, I said. Tried
to convince me
Who knows,
maybe it is
a day at the beach
being me. Or
maybe it’s a day
at the beach
being with me.
No, she said. It’s not.

                                    for my father

Early fall, the light thin and brittle, and if
it’s true that deprivation is a gift,
I accept the gift. I walk down
to Wallace Park to watch the swifts
that roost every September
in the Chapman School’s tall
brick chimney. The charming swifts
with their long, forked tails
and swept-back wings,
ten thousand of them swerving
and darting in the evening sky,
a flowing, expandable spiral
of birds, clearing the air of insects
and riveting the wandering
human mind. Tonight there must be
three hundred spectators,
a whole hillside of us, ordinary people
whose wings fell off eons ago,
who traded flight for speech
and have regretted it ever since,
sodden and earth-bound as we are,
except for our lifted eyes, our oohs and ahs
that show we’re still alive when
the peregrine falcon dives in
and knifes one out of the air,
which we boo or cheer,
sometimes simultaneously.
We love this passion play of form
and formlessness,
the birds’ shifting patterns
flung out like a whiplash of water
or school of fish above
the stationary human school,
then drawn tight together,
a miracle they don’t crash into each other,
a miracle of echo-location, until
you see them as they truly are:
a single organism, a body made mostly
of air and quick decisions, jagged
motions that gradually cohere—
a poem, in other words.

It takes the flock a full twenty minutes
to funnel down into the chimney,
and it seems a living smoke
pulled back into a still and sleeping fire,
so beautiful I forget for a moment
my father’s death, or I turn my mind
away from it or, no, I open
my grief to accommodate this wonder
and wonder what he might have thought of it,
were we standing here together,
the kind of thing we never did, and now
will never do, except in my imagination—
that unchanging inner sky where the swifts
take flight whenever I want them to
and my father cannot die.

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