Interview with Brian Tierney

Brian Tierney, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Brian Tierney

Brian Tierney

Tell us a little about yourself.

I come from rather unlikely origins; my father was a priest in the early to mid-'70s (before leaving, as many young men had at that time, with a distaste for the growing conservative tilt of the Catholic church) and my mother had started on the path toward being a Carmelite nun in central Pennsylvania, but left before taking vows. They met, had my brother, and then me. 

Part of my interest in mortality and the nature of loss, which seems always slightly out of religion's reach, derives from two parents who remained faithful to Christianity throughout their lives: my father, until his death in 2007, and my mother in the wake of that death and the grief that still lingers. As a non-believer, or at the very least, an agnostic, for me poetry has been a way of searching without having to have faith or confidence in a higher power, without a need for answers, without certainty beyond aesthetic consciousness that orders my impressions of and perspective on the world: perhaps in line with Keats's negative capability. Proof that faith is not inherited, despite religion's long-standing efforts.   

How did you begin writing poetry?

Like many of my peers, I'm sure, my interest in poetry began with song lyrics, and the writing of songs which I began sometime around 15 years old. I was particularly taken with writers like Neil Young ("After the Gold Rush") and John Lennon ("Julia"), who seemed aware of the potential of words beyond entertainment: of words and language as giving voice to the inexpressible facets of our existence. 

Some years later, as an undergraduate and graduate student in English, I found kindred spirits in James Wright, W.S. Merwin, Plath and, more contemporaneously, Terrance Hayes and others. At a certain point, poetry became the most natural way of exercising my humanity. 

Tell us about “Jawbone,” the poem that was selected for Best New Poets 2013.

BNP Tierney.jpg

"Jawbone" started as a much smaller, less imaginative, less surreal verse-dream called "Another Dream of Patricide," which also took as its subject the idea of reburying my father, over and over, in a sort of reiterated encounter with grief and the trauma of watching someone die. 

In a workshop at Bennington College, Tracy K. Smith and Major Jackson suggested I embrace syntax and compound thoughts, as well as some larger corollary, in order to ground the poem in ritual and myth. At the time, a close friend was living in New Orleans, and my thoughts gravitated toward voodoo culture and its interest in reanimation, charms, and the power of magic to exceed the boundaries of humanity. Turning also to the biblical Samson story (he slayed an army with the jawbone of an ass), and to family history, I embraced the duality of "jawbone" (also, in a verb-sense, meaning to persuade by authority) as the basis for a poem attempting to usurp grief.

Read "Jawbone" and 49 other poems selected by Brenda Shaughnessy by ordering Best New Poets 2013, available now.