profile: Derrick Brown
Derrick Brown stands on the edge of the stage, handcuffed to a briefcase. In his flannel shirt and fitted black pants, he looks like a misplaced lumberjack. With his free hand, he unlocks the handcuffs from his wrist and takes some papers out of the briefcase. Illuminated under the jaundiced lighting, he begins to read. Some members of the audience are still finding their seats, shuffling closer to the performance space with plastic cups filled with beer. Brown’s calm, commanding tone steadily draws them in.
Brown frequently performs poetry readings in unconventional venues around the country. He does not often handcuff himself to inanimate objects while reciting poetry, but “expect the unexpected” has come to be a standard guide to his performances. Brown opened up for the Cold War Kids on a tour, filling a slot that would typically be filled by a musical act; he’s also opened for the comedian David Cross. He has done readings with musicians improvising parts behind his words, and he once curated a Double Decker Poetry Bus Party in his hometown of Long Beach, California. Participants listened to Brown and others read poetry at chosen stops, to a backdrop of boozed moonlight on the water. He created the Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour, mixing news, literature, and music, and he was commissioned in 2011 to write a long poem for the Noord Nederlandse Dans collective, which was performed with fourteen dancers and an orchestra. Strange Light, Brown’s latest collection, which includes the commissioned piece, won the Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Book of the Year for poetry.
As the founder and self-proclaimed “Captain” of Write Bloody Publishing, Brown turns to such devices and unconventional performances as part of his personal mission: to make poetry exciting and accessible to all, even—or perhaps especially—to those who would not typically find interest in the art of verse.
Growing up, Brown was this type of individual. He lived in Garden Grove, a suburb of Long Beach, California, with his parents and a sister three years his senior. The family attended church regularly, and the children were prohibited from watching television or listening to popular music. Still, Brown showed an interest in the creative arts. He wanted to be a magician and incorporate Bible verses into a magic show. When his parents divorced, the strict rules that guided their household relaxed, and Brown slowly began to explore the worlds of music and art that had previously been closed off to him.
Upon graduating high school, however, Brown made the first of many unconventional decisions: He chose to join the army. His father and grandfather were both veterans, and he had a patriotic impulse that was appropriate to his upbringing. He decided to be a paratrooper and was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina for two years. The Gulf War ended before he was shipped out for combat, but his time at the base left life-changing imprints.
As with many young men before him, military service inspired Brown to ask questions about his surroundings. One experience in particular served as a catalyst for his growing awareness. He was sitting in a foxhole reading the Bible when a group of deer appeared before him.
“Getting to watch them I think made me realize that there was a lot of mystery and beauty out there if I could get outside my bubble and witness it,” he explains in a slow, thoughtful pace. “Partly, it was the spark that made me want to be an observer in this life, and when you’re an observer you start to have more questions, and that changed everything. I really enjoyed observing and wondering at that moment, and I’d never felt that way before.”
He began keeping a journal, recording curt thoughts and observations—nothing he would have thought to describe as poetry at the time. He heard about a poetry open mic night at a coffee shop at the local mall and decided to go and read some of his journal passages. Brown found the idea of publicly sharing his writing terrifying, and to be something unexpected of a paratrooper. Still, he was intrigued by the idea. That night, he staged his first public reading.
It was not until watching the poet Jeffrey McDaniel perform, however, that Brown felt he could and needed to become a better writer. McDaniel was heavily involved in slam poetry at the time, and he would meld poetry reading with theatrical performance. In the mid-nineties, Brown moved to Los Angeles, where he benefited from McDaniel’s guidance and friendship. A few years later, the two worked together to take a small group of high school students to the Brave New Voices National Teen Poetry Slam competition.
Brown was finding his footing in the literary scene. As his involvement increased, so did a desire to be published. He had friends self-publishing zines, but nothing more. No books. As the decade came to a close, he compiled his best poems into a collection. A small press named Mood Organ agreed to publish it, but it closed down first. Brown pushed forward, booking his first European tour. He coined a tour slogan, inspired by a lyric from Canadian rocker Bryan Adams’s song “Summer of ‘69.” Played it til my fingers bled: this birthed the phrase “Write Bloody.” A few years later, it would become the stake for his publishing career.
It is an oppressively hot summer afternoon, with degrees creeping up into the 100s. A few familiar friends chatter by the entrance of Write Bloody, the storefront located on Cesar Chavez, just east of downtown Austin. Patrons cautiously walk through the front door and maneuver past each other in the store’s small open space, sliding around shelves lined with the latest Write Bloody books. It does not take long to reach the back of the tiny shop. Once there, an intern reaches behind the desk and pulls a cold Lone Star out of a minifridge to hand out. On the desk sits an e-mail list and a poetry “menu.”
In a store filled with many new and unknown titles, customers can initially feel lost in where to begin. The menu guides customers through exploring texts throughout the store. Appetizers are first: short, light in mood, and easy to read. The menu progresses to the main courses, which are longer and with heavier content. It ends with dessert poems—something a little sweeter to wrap it all up. Between instructing customers on their system, Brown and the interns are often discussing creative strategies to help people to discover new poems. One strategy is the menu; another is the container attached to the front door. It reads “FREE POETRY,” and if patrons reach inside they can find a stack of papers with poems, free for the taking. They are available at all times, whether the store is open or not.
“When someone comes into our shop, I usually say, ‘Is there anything I can help you with? Can I show you one of my favorite poems?’ And they’ll either laugh or they’ll go ‘whoa,’ and they will buy the poem,” he says. ”It’s not because I have good taste or anything. It’s because we have found a bunch of authors that are existing out there that finally have a little bit of range, and they’re changing people’s minds about how accessible poetry can be.”
Write Bloody Publishing has existed, officially, since January 2004. However, it existed as a fake press before it existed as a real one. Sitting behind his desk, Lone Star in hand, Brown recalls how he moved past the collapse of his deal with Mood Organ and began exploring the possibility of self-publishing.
“Are you a publishing house?” one printer asked when discussing costs.
Neither affirming nor denying, Brown asked why.
“Well, if you’re a publishing house, then we can give a discount because usually you’re going to do more copies... But if it’s like a one-off we don’t give any discounts.” “Let me call you back,” Brown replied. He quickly put together a website and called it Write Bloody. A friend designed new book covers that didn’t exist. “I tricked them and lied,” Brown explains matter-of-factly. When writer friends inquired as to how he had put out a professional-looking book, he explained that he’d found a way to cut down on costs. They were excited about the possibility of getting their own work out this way, so he started having their work printed, too.
“I finally said I should just try this for real,” he says, thinking back. 2004 was a big year for Write Bloody, with the official launch of the press and the release of Born in the Year of the Butterfly Knife, a collection of the past ten years of his work. The book went on to become a national bestseller.
The company has since released 90 titles, and Brown currently works with 50 different authors, releasing between four and twelve books per year. Recent titles include The Incredible Sestina Anthology, the first published anthology to focus on this specific poetic structure; Jade Sylvan’s Kissing Oscar Wilde, which poetically chronicles the story of an American woman’s erotic adventures in Paris; Gregory Sherl’s The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail, a collection of poems about a family traveling west that faces tribulations based on the classic computer game; and The New York Times-bestselling author Ernest Cline’s The Importance of Being Ernest, a collection of personal poems with a proud nerd aesthetic.
For all its success as a publishing company, though, the Write Bloody store is a different beast altogether. It opened last year as an experiment. Interns were working out of Brown’s house at the time, and he began looking for an office space to use. A realtor suggested that a storefront would not cost much more, and so he gave it a try. In some ways it was successful, and in some ways it was not.
This winter, the first year of the Write Bloody store will come to a close, and its doors will close for the final time. Brown opened the store with minimal expectations, knowing full well that poetry is not traditionally much of a moneymaker. Although it has helped bring participants of the literary community together and increased Write Bloody’s local presence, Brown ultimately decided that the cons outweighed the pros. The physical limits of the small space make it difficult to execute poetry readings and parties, and with the poet participating more and more often in readings and festivals across the country, the store came to feel like something of a burden.
The shop will close on December 22nd, but with a New Orleans funeral-style party in the works, it should be no quiet exit. It may seem odd to celebrate such an occasion, but Brown is eager to move forward, implementing structural business changes and exploring new possibilities. Recently, the way to get published with Write Bloody has been to enter a submission contest, but, starting in 2014, it will switch to a word-of- mouth method in which authors report back about poets that particularly impressed them while on the road. Brown requires the writers he publishes to perform and tour around their book releases, like a record label might require of bands. By having his authors act as recruiting agents, he can reach out and connect more directly with other writers and poets, rather than waiting for them to come to him. He is constantly brainstorming new ways to make poetry more available and accessible, in hopes of reaching an ever- growing audience.
“The thing that keeps you going is... I love when people get pumped,” Brown says, leaning forward in his chair, elbows resting on the surface of his desk. “Like ‘Man I love this book so much’. That keeps me going. I’ll read a new book from a new author and be like ‘Oh man. There’s still great shit waiting out there.’”
Profile by Jennifer Monsees.
Photography by AJ Henderson.