Some Questions for Dan Brady
What happens when a dramatic event upends a young couple’s dreams for their family? Out of that question comes the collection Strange Children, the latest book from Publishing Genius, and the first from Dan Brady. Strange Children is an emotional reckoning of medical trauma, marriage, family, loss, and adoption. In two sections, with direct language, the poems recount the true, harrowing story of a stroke that threatened the life of Dan’s spouse, the revelation of the painful diagnosis that they could no longer bear children, and the family that grew out from that experience.
These are honest, hard, and hopeful poems that explore the “loss of what we never had / but dreamt of—not allowed to dream / of that life any longer.” These are poems you can feel.
How did you decide poetry was the best format to communicate about this experience?
I’m not sure it is! A one-on-one conversation is probably best, but poetry can also be one-on-one. These poems deal with charged material (family, death, parenting, inadequacies) and I wanted to look at those things through many lenses of language. Poetry is the way I know to do that best.
What does your family think about the story and how you tell it in these poems?
Well, my family lived through all this, too. When something traumatic happens, people either never want to talk about it or they can’t stop talking about it. My wife is very comfortable talking about her stroke. I think there’s a feeling of “you have to know about this thing that happened.” I was a bit quieter in how I processed everything, at least verbally, but there I was writing these poems all the time.
We’re also open about being an adoptive family. We’re a conspicuous adoptive family, meaning we don’t all look alike. There’s not much you could ask me that hasn’t already been asked in a grocery store aisle. There are parts of the story that don’t belong to me and I’ve tried to be careful not to speak for anyone but myself. That said, I very happy to talk about my family.
This book is our family’s story. My wife was always my first reader on these poems and even came up with the concept for the cover art. The making of this book has been enriching for all of us and I hope it’s something that will be important to my kids as well. They have their own stories to tell and I can’t wait to hear them.
Given that the book is focused so specifically, what are the main elements at play throughout the poems?
Content-wise, it’s really all about relationships, human to human contact, the want for connection, what we all stand to lose, love, and love’s failures.
How did you choose what to include?
When I looked at all these little fragments together, the narrative of it emerged. The two long poems, “Stroke Diary” and “On Grief and Gratefulness,” acted as anchors to each section and then it was just a matter of building out from there in terms of detail, register, and pace. I wanted the reader to feel the ups and downs of it all.
How is it different from your other writing?
Many of the other poems I’ve published have been more experimental. I’m very interested in structure in poetry. I’m interested in how we can communicate and fail to communicate. There’s some of that at work here, but not as explicitly as my other work. I do think that almost all my poems are concerned with love. The poems in Strange Children are more accessible and direct. My usual excesses have been burned away.
What poetic tradition do you identify with? Why?
This book was inspired by a lot of minimalist writing. I was reading a lot of Williams, Saroyan, Issa—all those short, beautifully compact writers. I love writing that can pull so much into a such a small space. That’s something I was trying to emulate here. I also gravitate towards poets that know how to move a reader with their words. Ada Limon is a touchstone for me there. Parts of “Stroke Diary” were influenced by Michael Kimball’s Us. That book is an amazing display of writerly chops—the way the action slows when at it’s most frantic. It’s amazing to me how ink on a page can create true emotion in a body. That’s 90% of what I’m after.
When you write a poem, do you start with one idea you want to get across?
I usually start with a line or two or just a phrase and go from there. That bit of language will usually have a connection to an idea, but it won’t be clear to me what it is. I might have a note scribbled down that says, “poem like the opening of a video game” and I might be thinking about my son and then
“Where to Begin” comes out.
These poems accumulated in notebooks over many years. They are the personal poems that came pouring out between more focused projects. I never consciously thought about writing a book about my wife’s stroke or the adoption process, but when I looked back at this uncollected material, it all hung together. Writing is my way of working through difficult circumstances. Jack Gilbert said that writing poetry was his way of digesting his own life. This was very much that.
How do you describe the book to strangers?
In a self-deprecating way, I say it’s a collection of sad, searching poems. The book is a story of how we can persist towards happiness despite our greatest vulnerabilities.
Dan Brady is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and the author of two chapbooks, Cabin Fever / Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press). He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two kids. Strange Children is his first full-length poetry collection. Learn more at danbrady.org.