JV Brummels’ fifth full-length collection, City at War, was published by The Backwaters Press in late 2009. His work has been recognized with a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Elkhorn Prize and the Mildred Bennett Award for contributions to the state’s literature from the Nebraska Center for the Book. His Book of Grass was awarded the 2008 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry.
Raised first on a farm and later on a ranch, he was educated at the University of Nebraska and later Syracuse University. In 1984 he and his family began a horseback cattle outfit to raise natural, grass-fed beef, which they continue to operate as Lightning Creek Cattle Company.
A longtime professor at Wayne State College, home of the longest running poetry slam west of Chicago, he’s also written and published short fiction and a novel. For the last 20 years he’s served as publisher of Logan House, co-founded with Jim Reese, which specializes in contemporary American poetry. In 2006 he was named co-director of the newly created WSC Press.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born near Winside and grew up on farms and ranches in northern Nebraska. What are some of your earliest memories growing up as a child?
JV Brummels: Well, first and probably unimportantly, the notion that I grew up around Winside stems from a mistaken bio note out there someplace. I did live outside of Winside for decades, and, as it turned out (I wasn’t aware of it at the time), my great grandfather and great grandmother had lived and were buried near there. I still encounter occasionally a distant cousin here. I suppose my earliest memories were of chores — milk cows, a cream separator, bucket calves, setting hens and hogs. It was in many ways a wonderful, outdoor life — lots of weather, good and bad, and snug houses and barns with much animal warmth.
Geosi Gyasi: In western Wayne County, Nebraska, you live with your family, horses and cattle. Do you raise cattle and horses commercially?
JV Brummels: Yep, we raise cattle commercially, though our beef — grass-finished and hormone-free — is for a relatively specialized set of customers. Most of our beef is sold in eighths and quarters to, mostly, young mothers concerned about their children’s diets. It’s been encouraging to watch that market grow substantially over the last few years.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us anything we ought to know about horses and cattle?
JV Brummels: The front end of a horse can bite you and the rear end can kick you. How’s that? I’m not sure there’s anything others ought to know about horses that their interests won’t quickly lead them to. We like horses because they are quiet and capable around cattle. Over the centuries vaqueros developed all sorts of techniques for handling cattle horseback, and we use those tried and true methods. We try to limit our use of fossil fuels, and horses help with that. We raise natural beef, and a bunch of roaring internal combustion engines are far from natural. Our cattle have been crossbred to give us the critter that works for us in a natural environment. Right now our cattle herd is more or less evenly split among longhorn, Hereford and Angus, three of the four foundation breeds of the American cattle industry. They receive very little supplemental feed, so they have to be able to prosper on their own. Beyond that, cattle are the walking, breathing exemplar of “pastoral.” I find being around them is good for my spirit.
Geosi Gyasi: At what point in your life did you start writing?
JV Brummels: Even as a little kid, I wrote — stories, comedy pieces, whatever– but I became serious about it in college. After graduation I immediately began a graduate program in creative writing at Syracuse University. I’ve been at it ever since.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any special purpose for why you write?
JV Brummels: I write because I need to write. I don’t know if it’s genetic or just long practice, but I know that my life feels out of balance when I’m not writing.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a poet, novelist, short story writer, teacher and rancher. How do you manage to do all these works?
JV Brummels: Poorly, I suppose. I often feel that I’m robbing time from one pursuit to address another. It makes for a full life, but it can be, and often is, frustrating. On the other hand, a full life makes me, I believe, a better teacher and poet, and I don’t want to live a life without horses and cattle.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you see writing as a real job that pays the bills?
JV Brummels: Only once in my career, when I published a novel through Bantam Books, did it seem to me possible to make a living from writing. That turned out to be a short-lived delusion, though I’m not unhappy about that. I do love much that teaching is, and I would be sorry not to have had a long career in the classroom.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us the inspiration behind your books, “614 Pearl” and “Sunday’s Child”?
JV Brummels: 614 PEARL has a lot to do with the struggles of a young married couple; SUNDAY’S CHILD was, I suppose, more of a miscellany of poems I’d written without a sense of what the book would be.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it appropriate to tag your novel, “Deus Ex Machina” as a futuristic novel?
JV Brummels: Of course. It’s deliberately set in a not-too-distant dysfunctional future. Of course, too, I subscribe to the notion that science fiction is a way of throwing into high relief aspects of contemporary life by placing them in a future or world different than our own.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that it is difficult to write novels as compared to poetry?
JV Brummels: I’m sure it depends on the writer. I find novel-writing to be exacting in its discipline. I maintained a rigid writing schedule when I worked on fiction. Poetry, for me, is a little more forgiving. If fact, a break from the routine often allows me to get out of whatever rut I’m in, to change perspective, to grow as an artist.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?
JV Brummels: Anytime. I’ve had good luck in the evenings for beginning/drafting poems, and good luck in the mornings for editing and improving on those original drafts.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced as a writer?
JV Brummels: Two challenges: finding the time and keeping the faith while working for long periods in anonymity.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you say something about the Plains Writers Series?
JV Brummels: The Plains Writers Series has been around for forty years (or very nearly). It’s served to put living, breathing writers and poets (and therefore living, breathing literature) before students who had previously encountered it only in textbooks. It’s also been a grand way to create community. The PWS has sponsored readings by scores of writers, most of whom have inspired and befriended me.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Cheyenne Line”?
JV Brummels: Mostly, the story that’s told in the title poem. In addition, I’d been writing increasingly Western poems, and yet I’m not a cowboy poet in that I don’t use the rhythms and rhymes associated with that genre. If anything, I suppose I saw myself as a free-verse cowboy poet, a pretty rare animal.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write “City of War”?
JV Brummels: After a few years of the Iraq war, during which I grieved poets’ inability to stop that madness with a word or a poem, a pen rather than a sword, I decided I’d treat the war as a kind of wallpaper that would serve as a backdrop for my poems. The poems aren’t about war, but the war is always there.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics when you write?
JV Brummels: Critics rarely pay attention to my work. In fact, I don’t know what critics do, or if there are any serious critics at work out there.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you get ideas to write?
JV Brummels: A friend, years ago, said that we poets are always looking at the world through poets’ eyes. When I sharpen that sight, finding something to write about isn’t hard.
Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often write on?
JV Brummels: I worry less about themes and more about rhythm. I like the sound of things first. Themes, if they’re there, emerge, I suppose, out of what I’m thinking about and how I’m feeling at the time.
Geosi Gyasi: What book(s) have most influenced you as a writer?
JV Brummels: There are too many to count, must less list. I’ve been enamored of the work of different poets and writers through my reading life. It’s a long list that’s constantly evolving.
Geosi Gyasi: What advice do you give to your students who want to give up on writing?
JV Brummels: The advice WD Snodgrass gave a graduate workshop I was in years ago was, “If you can do anything else, do that instead.” I never figured out how to quit, and, back in the day, when I tried to quit once or twice it never took. After a while I’d find myself pecking away at a new poem. I suppose my advice to a student who wanted to give up would be to try it. If it takes and they in fact give up writing, then maybe it’s for the best. Mostly, though, it doesn’t come up. People write best when they write to feed their own spirits. If it stops doing that, what’s the point?
Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any current project?
JV Brummels: Right now I’ve got a ms ready to go, or very nearly ready. I’m calling it FRONT PEW @ PARADISE. It rests, most fundamentally, on some blues poems I’ve been writing. For a few years I’d had a difficult time finding music I cared about; the cure, as it turned out, was the old blues singers. I’ve also got some short stories I’d like to get back to, and I’d like to find a publisher for a volume of selected, previously uncollected poems. If time allows I’d like to do a prose book on the American West, a sort of travelogue in which I can address poetry and film within the country I know best and care about most deeply.