INTERVIEW // by Olivia Braley & William Bortz
Ending in Laughter: On Grief & Trauma
Olivia Braley is a mostly-poet and author of the chapbook SOFTENING. She is a co-founder and Editor in Chief of Stone of Madness Press and is pursuing her Master’s of Arts in Liberal Arts at St. John’s College. She currently writes in the D.C. metropolitan area, where she lives with her partner and three cats. Keep up with her work on Twitter @OliviaBraley or at her website oliviabraleywrites.com.
William Bortz is the author of the books Shards (2018) and The Grief We’re Given (2021). His work can be found online and in print in journals such as Empty Mirror, Okay Donkey, Parentheses Journal, and others. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and two cats. William enjoys cycling, basketball, Lo-fi, and cooking. You can find him on Twitter @william_bortz.
William Bortz: I’m curious if you could expand on the relationship between nostalgia and trauma. That seemed like a pretty hefty theme that you touched on in SOFTENING.
Olivia Braley: Yeah. It’s a big theme and, while it’s not an autobiographical book, I guess I can confess that the line “nostalgia is undoing of trauma” was really said to me once. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and I still don’t, but it got me thinking about the past and memory, which is considered in SOFTENING. You can’t get away from those feelings of nostalgia and trauma, because in a sense memory and our past is all we have. So there’s an effort to try and make amends or come to terms with both nostalgia and trauma, if only because they compose our lives and memories. I’m also interested in rethinking the past, which comes through in SOFTENING. There are moments that maybe at the time don’t register as trauma and those effects are only realized later, or vice versa, moments that you felt were really traumatic or pivotal and you later come to terms with and see in a different light. So, nostalgia and trauma are two sides of a perhaps complicated coin in SOFTENING.
WB: I thought a lot about what it must have been like to write that book and revisit all of those things. But then also you have these really tender moments that you kind of wrapped around that softness as well. And you mentioned realizing things that might have been trauma, but you didn’t know it when they happened—did you experience that at all when you were putting the book together?
OB: I think so. Even in writing early drafts, I surprised myself by some of the memories that came up that didn’t consciously occur to me as important enough to include, but became some of the most pivotal moments in the book. So yes, through the process of writing this I found a lot of connections between seemingly disparate memories. The vignettes in the book are very separate temporally, but there are threads that run through them. That was something that didn’t begin as intentionally as it ended up being. I noticed I already had these cycles and recurring themes and I was like, I guess this is what I’m trying to make sense of here.
WB: Totally. The poems and prose were stunning. I was floored by the execution of the way in which you put the book together. I mean, all those themes like “look” and “Darjeeling” and “razor blades” and all that were placed so perfectly. I just felt guided throughout the whole thing through these multiple different experiences. Did you spend a lot of time outlining the book and how it would be ordered?
OB: Over time this manuscript has been in a lot of different forms, so, yes. But it really became a balancing act of looking at each element individually and paying attention to what themes and images are in each—which ones are more nostalgic memories and which are more trauma-leaning—and placing them in a way that feels like you’re going back and forth, but also forward. So, it’s good to hear that that seems to have worked! With the form of a chapbook, it’s such a lean piece of writing, which was really present to me as I was composing it. It couldn’t go both deep and wide—it needed to go deep but stay pointed.
WB: That was excellent. I’ve never written a chapbook or tried to put together something of that size. It’s easy to write a ton and hope that it clings together, but to write such a small amount, and be that cohesive—that’s impressive.
OB: Yeah, I think I kind of lucked out in a sense, because I wrote this, or at least the bones of it, and it was not enough for a collection but maybe too big to put into one coherent piece and I didn’t really know what to do with it. So when it clicked that this can be a chapbook and stand alone, that was really exciting. I think it gave me that direction, like I was saying, for how I approached the composition.
Similarly, though, I’ve never approached a full length collection so reading THE GRIEF WE’RE GIVEN and seeing how your themes run through it was impressive to me. There are themes that are considered and reconsidered but it’s not at all one-note—there’s a lot of variation within the collection but it still coheres beautifully. I guess I’m wondering what that process was like of both sticking to and reinventing themes like grief throughout the poems.
WB: It was definitely kind of existing in the same space for just a long time, which I’m sure you did the same—having to sit in that. It was grief for me, and just sitting there and recognizing things and appreciating things. I think so much of it, for me, was thinking about appreciation. And I know writers like Hanif Abdurraqib and Kaveh Akbar talk about that so much, that it’s a different language, recognizing these small mundane things that exist within trauma or grief. And then just sitting there and seeing what’s around you. So yeah, it was basically that I would sit and think about those specific things like those themes and moments or memories that we’re surrounded in grief and then notice what was in the peripherals. It was fun and not fun. It is, as you were saying, super cool once you get to a point and kind of recognize that you’re in it and you see the same thing, but from a different perspective, like oh, there’s something else here, too, that you can pull out.
OB: Yeah, in your collection you have a lot of variation in form, but you have a couple forms that you seem to return to. You have these prosaic blocks with forward slashes as line breaks, and you have some little poems that I feel have thematic titles, like intimacy and grief, and then you have some that look like more standard verse on the page. So in thinking about putting together a collection that has a theme or a few themes going on, what do these different forms give you in your exploration of a theme? How do you see the forms playing together or doing different things?
WB: Going back to the small thematic ones with one-word titles and just like a sentence or more, those came about because when I was thinking about these overarching themes like grief and intimacy. I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to write a massive thing about intimacy or about grief, and so I thought it would be fun to think about what that specific word means to me and explore those things with abstract definitions since everyone’s grief and everyone’s intimacy looks really different. That specific form frames those themes that pop up in the book into how I was writing about them specifically—into something that exists more in a box, instead of this kind of large, ethereal word. Some of the other forms, and you’ve probably experienced this as well, came about through going over and reading the poems and noticing for what the poem is and what it’s trying to say it should be this way. The prose blocks are just super fun to write. I am comfortable writing in that style.
I didn’t realize how many different forms were in the book until it was done, and I hoped it wouldn’t be the most confusing thing of all time. I didn’t set them next to each other until the very end. For me, it was framing everything specifically to how I experienced it. I didn’t want to write about grief as it exists for every single person. But I wanted to explore grief and how we’re all connected in that, and it looks different for each person. It’s a kind of exploration of the themes, and form was to identify what it looks like to me and hoping it would translate in that way.
OB: Yeah, there are different forms of grief and different poetic forms in your collection. So, thinking about the prosaic form you use but also, bringing in a real tangent . . . I love Marty Robbins. And I was so excited to see Marty Robbins in your collection. And there’s a lot of Marty Robbins— there are four poems, one being the erasure of an earlier poem, “Tonight Nothing’s Worse Than The Pain In My Heart.” I don’t know if there’s a question here . . . maybe it’s: Why Marty Robbins? Is there any reason other than the obvious: he’s the best?
WB: I’m happy. You don’t meet a lot of people who love Marty Robbins. I first found Marty Robbins through Breaking Bad because he has a song in there. And I just love that song and how it was framed within the show. And then I saw the record and like a good millennial I had to get the vinyl because it’s this great color of pink, and so I went on this journey of trying to find it. In my head, I was like ‘it’s an old country album, every single thrift store around the world will have this. But none did, and over six months I started looking more seriously and that continued on for about a year and a half. I was in Kansas City and went to a record store and asked if they had it, and they didn’t. And then, a few minutes later, three of the employees cornered me and said, “We know where you can find this vinyl.” So, they told me there is a guy who has it. He has a booth at like a swap meet or something, and they told me he has hundreds of copies of this record on vinyl, and he is there for one hour a week and if I hurried I could catch him. How bizarre! So I go to this place and it’s this big shed, and it’s dark in there, but in the far back corner, I just see this wall of pink. And this dude just has hundreds of copies of this one album. No other albums, just this one. We talked for a while and I got one, and as we were driving back home I was thinking about Marty in Tonight There’s Nothing Worse than this Pain in my Heart and about this severe want; about willing to die for love that you don’t even know is real, like “Oh, I saw this woman from afar and I love her, and I killed a man for her, and then I got killed.” And I became obsessed with that idea. It is not a good idea, but it was just this idea of being willing to give up your life for what you believe is the most precious thing in this world. That recklessness.
OB: That’s awesome. I was reading your collection and I said to my boyfriend, “You can tell a lot about someone by their favorite Marty Robbins song,” and he was like, “Most people probably don’t have a favorite Marty Robbins song.” But I think there is a connection to grief and your collection, which is why I asked. I mean, in part selfishly because I just wanted to bring up Marty Robbins, but also because he is a real character in your collection that keeps coming up.
WB: It’s just this dude and the idea of having this precious thing that he would die to protect. I just love it. Now I’m curious about where your love of Marty Robbins began.
OB: I don’t know where it began, but I think what reinvigorated it more recently was when I drove to California and back. We were driving for hours every day, like 8 to 12 hours a day, and there’s just something once you get west of Tennessee or so, where you start to hit cowboy country, and nothing else seems to fit the mood of that environment. So I was just listening to almost exclusively Marty Robbins and in this environment that is totally unfamiliar to me, being from the East Coast, and it felt very immersive. I think there is something nostalgic, or as you were saying, romantic in a sense, that I find fascinating. It feels like a bygone era to me, all of that old Country & Western music feels like it’s from another time or another world.
WB: Yeah totally. I’m going to use this as a segway into my next question for you, which is in his songs he always tragically dies in the end. But when I was reading SOFTENING and I didn’t know what I was heading toward and then I finished the last poem about the milk bubble, and the ending being “you laugh” and I audibly gasped. I just wanted to know what was the importance or significance to you of ending the book in that way? Going back and forth with what felt like the softening of a violence or trauma, and thinking of yourself as too soft to fight; then thinking of these really tender memories that felt really soft—was it sort of defining what the softening was to you, and ending in that way on a kind of a higher note?
OB: Yes, I think so. I don’t think that SOFTENING resolves all the questions that it brings up about trauma, and nostalgia, and memory, but I think that there is a feeling of progression from where we started. SOFTENING unravels memories, and you get these tender and really little moments that don’t seem very pivotal when you think about more typical big life moments. But they’re given importance and an equal weight to the larger and traumatic moments of the chapbook. And at the end, there’s no answer, but ending in laughter and nostalgia leaves room for hope. I wanted to say that it’s possible that some peace can be made with our past.
That’s a great question, by the way, and I have basically the same question for you. Both of our books end in laughter. Neither of our books are very funny. So I was wondering something similar— what was the importance of ending in laughter for you, and maybe more generally, what is the role that laughter serves in grief and the themes that you explore?
WB: Yeah, I thought about that too. Thinking of how fun it would be to chat about this. Similarly, I thought about what our responsibility is with our own grief, and again I think each person to kind of define that differently, and for me, we have our grief and my personal responsibility is to turn it into something to appreciate. In a book that talks about trauma and grief. I thought it was important to end on a high note. We think of grief as though it’s unending or just this thing that we drown in. But even in the midst of that is a light and a hope and a direction to continue forward. I’m writing this book about grief and I really don’t want it to come out as a sad book, but a book that will show that there is a way, I suppose you could say or a different perspective to potentially look at grief.
OB: That’s really great. It was funny when I got to the end of your collection realizing that we both ended in that way.
WB: Yeah I like that! Okay, you might have touched on this a little already, but what was your experience like writing about your trauma? Did it feel like you had to revisit that or did it feel like it was still fairly close or was it a difficult process?
OB: Well, the interesting thing about writing is that SOFTENING is definitely largely inspired by my life and my experiences, but it’s also not completely autobiographical—it’s not strictly memoir. This was an interesting tension to deal with as I was writing because it’s hard to work closely to real life and grapple with fact and fiction. I found myself asking what will serve the narrative best, especially with something that is as lean as a chapbook. There’s a tailoring of certain details and moments to fit together in a way that you can’t do if you’re working just in fact. Later on, it was also difficult not knowing how people were going to read it. I think with poetry people don’t always separate the speaker from the writer as well as in other forms like in fiction, where there are distinct characters. So especially because SOFTENING deals with these really difficult themes, I felt vulnerable to what people would read into the book, like I would no longer be in control of my narrative.
That said, while it was difficult to revisit some of these moments and emotions, in another way I’m relieved to have this narrative finished and packaged in a book. In my current writing drafts, I’m writing about what feel like really fresh and different themes and in new forms. It was nice to be able to put away the push of “this needs to be written,” and move to the feeling that now that it’s written I can step away from this and take my writing in new directions.
WB: Sure, and kind of carry on some of that perspective and knowledge. Yeah, that’s awesome. I was curious because you had mentioned that poem about nostalgia undoing trauma. And, to me, that kind of felt like the centerpiece of the book. I was curious if you had a piece that existed as the centerpiece of SOFTENING?
OB: I don’t know, it’s likely different for everyone, so in some way I don’t want to give a hard answer. But I will say that when things are revisited directly that feels important. So near the beginning, we get “this is how you become soft,” and when that’s revisited closer to the end it’s modified with, “you think soft is what you need to become.” To me, that seems like an important and central change. The same thing happens in bringing back the word darjeeling in the context of this traumatic event. When that clicked, I saw how the pieces were fitting together more closely. That was exciting. And I think similarly when we get that refrain, “nostalgia is the undoing of trauma” again at the end, it has a totally different thrust to it. So I’m not sure if there’s one centerpiece, but I was working with revisiting things differently each time. I think that’s how memory works, it’s different each time we visit it.
WB: I love when you brought that back up again near the end.
OB: Thanks. On this note, I have some questions about your themes. You have several major themes going on aside from the obvious one of grief. One that stood out to me in many of your poems had to do with names and naming. The first line in your first poem is “instead of telling you my name / I will unravel my hands from my pockets and show you what I have lost,” and then we get names in lots of different poems: “October, and Everything is Breathing,” for instance. There’s this idea that saying names has a kind of insufficiency. Like names don’t adequately answer the kinds of concerns that the speakers of your poems have— they’re trying to tackle grief and life and death, and more than that, to find meaning in these things. So I was wondering if you could speak more to this. How intentional was this theme?
WB: I don’t think it was intentional. In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about what it means for someone to say our name, or to give names to things, or to forget the name of things. I did not consider that, but as I started filling out the book I did notice that it showed up quite a bit, and it was a subconscious thing. I had to come back and think about it, like why am I writing about this so much. The significance to me is that in talking about insufficiencies we have this tendency to give a name to things. What that does is it makes us claim things as our own—even thinking about my home. Regarding the opening poem, we can tend to claim who we are and not actually be that person. But I liked it more when considering the things we claim and we give a name to, like our grief and our memory, and what it means to forget that name—whether that’s moving on, or losing something, or that fear of someone not being part of our life anymore and no longer having that vibrant, crisp memory of them. And when it came to talking about my own name, who I am actually as a person, and all the things that make me up and not the things I think make me up, but actually wanting to know who I am. So considering that and the framework of one of the most common things people want: wanting to be known and loved. That same idea, but the want is to know who I truly am.
OB: I think it’s really wonderful seeing these secondary themes come out in writing. I’ve found in my own writing, I think I’m writing about one thing and then one day just realize there’s this whole other thing going on.
WB: Yeah, they just come out.
OB: Yeah, so another image that we get in various forms, maybe you noticed this one, is home. So my question is where, or what, is home to you?
WB: I thought about that a lot. It’s something I’ve written about for a long time. I grew up in foster care and so the idea of home is a very tangible thing. It’s something I’ve thought about, and less as a structure, but more as “what does that look like to be at home”, like what does that mean? And I think that ties back into being known. Less being understood and more so being seen again for who you actually are. Considering home as a place, I don’t know if we ever fully arrive there. And giving it a name changes its shape. I am still kind of exploring that and trying to figure out what home is.
OB: Definitely. I don’t know if we’re ever going to find a simple answer, but… I think poetry provides answers, just maybe not in the way we want them to.
WB: Right yeah. And like you said with SOFTENING, they tend to bring up a lot more questions than answers. You know, potentially, even as the writer of the book you didn’t necessarily go in wanting an answer, but also didn’t really want like 20 more questions to explore and try and find the answer to, but here we are.