Color / Story: An interview with Brandi Herrera
[July 2020, by Alexzandria Compton] In the fashion of a fine painter, Brandi’s personal practice combines her passion for visual art and the written word into something that is both intellectually and synesthetically pleasing. With a body of work as multidimensional as the subjects she writes about, we are honored to present to you the first in our interview series, the introspection of a poet, and the writer in her own words: Brandi K. Herrera.
What are your personal and artistic practices, and how did you fall in love with these things?
As a poet, I’m interested in how a piece may be experienced through a variety of senses, rather than simply being read on the page. So the poems I make may turn into sound works in order to amplify their sonic qualities, or visual (with still or moving images) as well as textual, or some combination of all three. As a nonfiction writer, my work tends to be lyric, and a bit fragmented. My undergraduate studies were in journalism, and I’m also a bit of a history and science geek, so all of that informs my writing to some degree, too. Still, the idea of creating a particular mood, experience, or sense of place is a lot more exciting to me than writing to convey information alone.
I’m not really sure how I fell in love with any of it. I’ve been making poems, and writing in general, for as long as I can remember. I guess I just never stopped. More than anything, I suppose writing is my way of parsing out this bizarre life we’re all living, and my place in it. It’s about asking questions I don’t have answers to, and then finding my way to some kind of revelation in the process. There’s no reason to do any of it if you think you already know where you want to end up.
"...hands can tell you what kind of life
someone has lived before they’ve uttered
a single word."
Do you remember the first poem you wrote that you felt proud of?
The first poem I felt truly proud of was something I wrote during my final year of graduate school. I had gone back to school in my 30s to study poetry more intensively, and to earn an MFA. The program ended up being a lot more traditional than I had hoped, which just meant that many of the professors in the poetics dept. were pretty straightforward, narrative poets. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but more often than not, they encouraged their students to be the same. I had professors who would line edit my poems, crossing out stanzas or particular words, saying things like, “This is what I would do if the poem were mine.” And I always thought, “Well, the poem isn’t yours ...”
Most of them also really wanted me to write about race and identity. I sometimes felt like writing about that, but it wasn’t necessarily how I wanted to be defined as an artist. I had so many other things to say, but I was too afraid to challenge anyone of authority. Something changed, though, in the second year of my program. I guess I just got tired of the same things being said over and over in workshop; graduate writing programs can be real echo chambers! Once I realized I could listen to people’s advice, but then completely ignore it, I wrote this really long, very abstract four-part poem called “The Seasons,” in response to a work by Jasper Johns. It was really strange, and didn’t have a typical narrative arc, and the syntax was all messed up. I was nervous to show it to everyone else in workshop, but did anyway. Interestingly, the two professors I had that time around loved it. I think they were like, “Oh shit, she has a voice!” It was a bit of a never-turn-back kind of moment for me as an artist.
Do you feel it’s been a challenge to stay in alignment with your values when combining your creativity with commerce?
It used to be harder to separate my creative practice from my paid work, especially when I first started out. I used to write mostly long-form narrative features, book reviews, and conduct interviews with artists, writers, makers, and independent businesses for weekly papers and monthly publications, which is pretty distinct from poetics. But the lines were a lot more blurred when it came to creative nonfiction. Sadly, all the viable newspaper and magazine work dried up, so I started writing copy, which, weirdly, demands a lot of the same muscles as writing poetry. With these highly visual digital spaces we now spend so much of our days immersed in, the intersection between art and storytelling for a commercial context feels more pronounced than it ever has.
Even though the intended outcomes couldn’t be more disparate, I find myself applying a similar level of critical inquiry and sense of discovery to brand projects as I would for an art work. If I’m being totally honest, I think it helps me feel more invested. If I can’t find a way to make it meaningful to my brain and my heart, it’s a lot harder to get up in the morning and convince myself that it matters. I’ve been doing this for a long time, though, so it’s also become a lot easier for me to say “no” to projects I don’t want to take on, or that conflict with my values. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, I said “yes” to everything. I had to. Now I get to be a lot more selective.
Tell us about @theposeistheperson, do you have a significant thoughtfulness towards gesture and hands that go beyond the usual passiveness at their mechanical daily usage?
I’ve been collecting gestures for a while. Whenever I visit a museum or gallery, I take photographs of various parts of bodies in paintings, and then I crop the images in order to abstract them. Sounds so weird, I know. But I love honing in on those tiny compositions within the greater composition, because they reveal things you might never have noticed if you didn’t bother to zoom in on that one small part of the whole. I didn’t think I was particularly interested in hands, until I noticed so many of the images I’d been collecting featured them. Maybe it’s because they’re so expressive. There’s that old saying, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” but hands can tell you what kind of life someone has lived before they’ve uttered a single word.
I’m also intrigued by this idea of inherited body language. Our gestures, on the surface, seem as if they’re unique to each of us. But they’re not; that would be impossible. “Many people, few gestures.” Kundera said that in a book I love, and recently returned to. I ended up writing an essay about it, because it was really bugging me, and I couldn’t sleep until I worked it out a little bit more.
Favorite textures associated with sensorial memories?
I’m more drawn to color than texture, I think. A lot of my work deals with the emotional qualities of color, probably because I seem to store and process memories that way. I’ve been working on a memoir called “Some Life” that’s told through the lens of color, and these small, spare poems that give the color a bit of context. Some of the memories are just little moments, others are life-changing events. Racism at the Wedding, Mother in the Hospital, Tea at the Fertility Clinic, Cat in the Fruit Basket, Dinner by Myself at Chinatown Express — those are just a few. Each memory is defined by a five-color palette, and it’s been interesting to see what colors overlap certain memories, and which ones are totally individual.
If you could summarize your life over the last 6 months into a symbolic collection of colors and tactile objects that represent you, what would they be?
I love this question! The colors and objects that have come to make up my daily existence over the past six months have definitely been shaped by a couple of things: our new home, and the pandemic. My partner and I bought our first house together (the first home I’ve ever owned) in December, but didn’t move in until late January / early February. Just as we were starting to get unpacked and settled in, the coronavirus outbreak hit the US. I already work from home, and am definitely a homebody, but the pandemic has made my connection with this house only that much more intimate.
As far as color, I would say Mexican Pink and Ochre Yellow, which are two prominent colors in the main living space of our house. But also, Seafoam Green and Tangerine Orange, which show up here and there in little vibrant pops. As far as objects, the things that I’ve found myself gravitating toward over the past six months more than ever are the radio in our kitchen, clocks, calendars, windows, books, the bathtub, and my bed.
Quarantine has been a shadow time for many of us, but it also seems to have been an opportunity for deeper inner connectedness, metamorphosis, and creativity too. On that note, do you feel there are things you positively grew closer to during this time? New skills you’ve learned? Projects you started? Or “Dust” you brushed away?
I’m extremely fortunate to have paid work right now. So many people have not been as lucky, and I’m really grateful I can still pay my bills. Having work is a privilege that’s afforded me the ability to help support my community during these challenging times, and also the freedom to carve out space for the types of things I want to explore that have nothing at all to do with my day job. So in the evenings, and on weekends, I write and make art. I’m working on a nonfiction book. I’m working on that color-palette memoir. I got back on a bike for the first time in over four years, and my partner and I have been going on long rides. And like everyone, I also cook. A lot. I bought a new cookbook in April (haven’t done that in decades), and I’ve been really into trying out new recipes I find online. But honestly, sometimes all I want is a big, cheesy pepperoni pizza. There are so many amazing independently owned restaurants in Portland, and they all need our help right now in weathering this crisis. So we order takeout a couple of nights a week, too.
What is inspiring to you right now in both your personal and artistic practice?
The world, always. We’re in the midst of a real sea change, and bearing witness to its unfolding has occupied most of my time and creative energy. I also got sick with COVID-19 back in April, and that had a profound impact on me, and is still impacting my overall health. These are monumentally important shifts we’re living through, but I remind myself often that humans have been through all of this before in one way or another. Depending on the context, that can be rage inducing, or comforting. Either way, now isn’t the time to shy away from what’s difficult to confront or accept. It’s a time to stay active, informed, and to raise your voice in support of the movements seeking to change our world for the better.
"A lot of my work deals with the emotional qualities
of color, probably because I seem to store
and process memories that way."
What rituals keep you most grounded and your mind in flow?
Daily baths. Daily walks. Sitting near a window without any digital devices. Not feeling guilty for allowing myself to feel “bored”. Remember those hot summer days when you were a kid, and you could just lie on a couch for hours, staring out into the middle distance? I hate it when people tell their children, “Only boring people get bored.” Bored isn’t bad; it’s a radical state of mind, and a creative act. Our culture is way too productivity obsessed. We need more of that beautiful kind of boredom as adults.
Do you have any advice on magic little exercises to keep the hand in motion when hitting a creative block?
Lately, I’ve been using whatever’s around the kitchen to challenge myself to move in new ways. I’m not even sure why I started doing it! But it feels good to hold a clementine, and let its weight guide your fingers, palm, wrist, forearm in directions they might not lean into otherwise. Forget that old image of someone pinned to their desk, so dedicated to their work they forget to eat or sleep or move. That’s not how insight is produced, or how creativity flows, or innovation happens. Body movement helps me think more imaginatively, so when I’m feeling stuck I usually go on a walk, or do some stretching in another room, or pick up a piece of fruit and allow my hands/arms to do whatever they want with it.
While wrapping up this interview and reflecting on the thoughtful essay she had written: "On Gesture.” I could imagine a younger Brandi standing adjacent to her mother, eyeing her fingers as they strummed away to the hum of an electric typewriter, its mechanical body worthy of a form, function, and color only the ’80s could have produced; And like a key to her psyche, I wondered if this episodic witnessing of movement and intention had also triggered her adoption of it. A gesture mimicked in ode of her mother's quiet love for writing, something she would eventually manifest into action as her life's focus.
Do you have a practice or gesture passed down to you through lineage, adopted by conscious intrigue, or passive observation? If you read Brandi’s essay on gesture, are familiar with Kunderas “Immortality,” and think you have a story to tell, please get in touch!