Frances McCue Guest Poet Post: An Interview with Esteemed Critic Dean Brown

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Frances McCue, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy her post!

Guest Blog by Frances McCue: An Interview with Dean Brown

Today, I’d like to present an excerpt from an interview with the esteemed critic Dean Brown. As most of you know already, Dean Brown has been writing about poetry for almost twelve years and his work has appeared in many on line and print publications throughout the world. Many are touting him as the Harold Bloom of the new generation of critics.
FM: No one knows if you are actually a man or a woman. Care to tell us?
DB: Well, I don’t want to hide behind gender, but I do think that the mannish vibe of poetry in the Northwestern states has been something to undermine. If I’m a man, that feels sort of—well—more ironic for me to point that out. If I’m a woman, it’s a total power play. Since I hover between loving power and loving irony, I’d rather not say. I mean, who really cares?

Searching for Dean Brown

Searching for Dean Brown


FM: Few critics have written so much about the trends within American verse. Could you tell us about what trends you’ve seen here in the Northwest?
DB: Since my spiritual mother may be a big critic at Harvard, a poetry maven, I’ve learned to follow her lead. I isolate a few poets, look closely at their line breaks and the biographical material and then—voila!—I have a thesis. Here’s an example: David Wagoner. For years he wrote all of these “I’m lost in the woods,” poems and the line breaks would enhance the surprises. Like, you’re going to stumble around a log and be face to face with a bear. Okay, clearly, Wagoner is trying, over and over, to get out of the grim factory landscape of his boyhood. He’s substituting the forest as a kind of new romantic theater to explore, one where the dangers are, well, more organic.
FM: And who else, here in the Northwest do you look at?
DB: Of course, Hugo was said to be a creator of “instant Wordsworth,” and I know who said that but I’d rather not say. And I’d look at Heather McHugh, which I have extensively, even though she doesn’t really live in the Northwest much—she’s on the road a lot I think, and I look at—well, I guess they are all imports really. Except for Sherman Alexie. Ray Carver. You know.
FM: How has Northwest poetry moved beyond the Northwest School that was known in the 1950s, 60s and even the 70s?
DB: Like most poetry “schools,” it was started by the painters. The critics follow the painters and then they make some assumptions and then the poets jump up and down, shouting, “We’re here too! Look at us!”
FM: So the Northwest School—
DB: It was Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan with others elbowing in—William Cumming, Richard Gilkey… Those are the painters and they are sometimes called Northwest Mystics. Actually, as Tom Robbins has pointed out, they were a bunch of guys living mostly in the Skagit Valley and painting. Some of them liked Asian stuff, so Life Magazine called them Mystics. What a bunch of bullshit. So the poets—Theodore Roethke, who came here in 1947 or so, he arrived as a fully formed poet with poems about his father’s greenhouse and all that—he mostly ran around with rich people and not other poets—then there was David Wagoner, his student, who came in 1957 I think, and he started to write about this region—the trees, and green and mountains—and he taught students to appreciate that. Of course, you’d include Carolyn Kizer in that whole scene. Great poet who came from Spokane and married into an old logging aristocracy and Nelson Bentley and Ken Hanson whom no one ever talks about anymore, and maybe dip into Oregon and include William Stafford. They no more wrote only about landscape than the painters were painting mystical stuff. It was a glimpse of that and then the critics snapped it into a box and claimed a movement.
FM: What about now? How do you see American verse in the NW now?
DB: I’ve written extensively about his. You could look up my latest book: Northwest Poetry: What’s Going On? The premise is that no one knows what the hell is going on. I’m having trouble keeping track of all of this poetry coming out. You have slams, and those aren’t new anymore. I mean those are an institution, and then you have all these publishers—Wave, Copper Canyon, Poetry Northwest—and others like Tin House, Autumn House, Lost Horse—well I could go on and on. The center, you see, isn’t holding and all the nature poetry and the lost man in the big woods stuff is fading out. Things are more urban, more junked together sometimes, and there’s an incredible amount of verse constantly coming at you.
You turn, and there’s a broadside. You turn again and there’s a book, beautifully produced, and you think, “Who is this kid?” No longer the home of earnest sad sacks like Richard Hugo, the Northwest is kicking out poetry like some kind of mining shafts with conveyor belts. And some of it is earnest and sentimental and some of it is all edges and abstractions. {Sigh.}
FM: Anything else you can tell us about yourself? You’ve remained a mystery for so long.
 DB: More than anything, I’d like to ride a horse across the country. Some guy did that. I’d like to keep moving, without relying on the tedium of being in a place. I hate places. I just want to pass through them. I want to pass through them the way I pass through poems.


Frances McCue is a poet, essayist, reviewer and arts instigator. From 1996–2006, she was the founding director of Richard Hugo House in Seattle. In 2011, McCue became the first writer to win the Washington State Book Award for Poetry (The Bled) and place as a finalist for a second book (The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs) during the same year. The Bled also won the Grub Street National Book Prize. Her first poetry collection, The Stenographer’s Breakfast, won the Barnard New Women’s Poetry Prize.
Frances’s poem, “Kinship,” is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Vancouver edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.