The Carellin Brooks Interview

Carellin Brooks is the author of One Hundred Days of Rain, which won the 2016 ReLit Award for Fiction and the 2016 Edmund White Award for Debut LGBT+ Fiction, and was published in French by Les Allusifs. She is also the author of Fresh HellEvery Inch a Woman, and Wreck Beach. Learned is her first poetry collection. Brooks lives in Vancouver and is a lecturer at the University of British Columbia.

Sharon Berg:  Carellin, thanks, so much, for paring time away from your various pursuits to do this interview with me. For the time being, I am focused on your book, Learned. Please describe the central idea that links all of the poems in the book and tell readers why this idea continues to need addressing in contemporary times.

Carellin Brooks: The book is about the value of female sexual experience as a form of learning. The idea continues to be important because we still live in misogynistic cultures. Women’s experience is ignored, denigrated or dismissed: in any case, less important than men’s. This is the broth we float in, so we barely notice this ongoing devaluing of female experience, especially female sexual experience.

SB:    Can you offer an idea of the literary surrounds for this book? As in, what books were written in this vein before it? Did you read any books that impressed you strongly and influenced you while you worked on it? Or were there, perhaps, live performances you attended that you feel influenced the book you produced?

CB:    I attended a lot of live shows in London, when I lived in England, where various sadomasochistic practices were demonstrated. I was surprised, being new to the public world of perversity, by the ritualistic and quasi-monastic air participants imposed on themselves. Almost like they were performing some sort of religious ritual or rite. I wasn’t religious myself at the time, but it was hard not to notice. And the contrast with the audience, normally a bunch of semi-drunken dykes at a pub, or a strange conglomeration of miscellaneous fetishists, was also really striking. A number of poems in the book, like “On Offer,” “Bloody,” and “Show,” reference these kinds of situations.

SB:    Is Learned a book that you feel lay itself out on the page quickly, almost as if it were being channeled, or did you put a lot of effort into deciding on its structure or working through the developmental process for it? Please elaborate.

CB:    Learned was actually my third try at grappling with this material. I wanted to write about being at Oxford, I knew that, and about the strange contrast between a daytime life as a scholar and a nighttime one in London attending sex shows and trying out all kinds of acts. I tried to write it as a memoir first, then as a novel. Neither worked. The poetry pared back the story to its bones, and I laid on a heavy structural overlay of left side/right side. The left-hand poems would tell the scholarly story, and the right-side poems would tell the same story again, this time from the perspective of the body. 

SB:    Books are often turned into television shows, movies, or radio scripts. They are also frequently translated into other languages. What would you say is the key point about Learned that should not be lost if it was converted to another art form or another language?

CB:    Of course one wouldn’t want to lose the lesbian specificity. There are lots of fun locales – I see this as a really big-budget, A-list Hollywood film – like a London graveyard with dissolving angels weeping over the shocking acts taking place under them, second-floor and basement darkrooms of gay leather pubs, and merrie olde Oxford with its dreaming spires, gargoyles pulling grotesque faces, punts on the Cherwell, and so forth. So it would be important to keep the visual lushness too. Kind of Brideshead Revisited meets Interview with the Vampire. Minus the vampires.

SB:    Something that often interests readers is knowing how much of a particular work is invented and how much of it is autobiographical. Would you care to share your approach to the writing of Learned, or offer your thoughts on this aspect of your readers’ curiousity?

CB:    This one bears a lot of similarities to my own experience – most of the things I write about happened to me, like meeting Bill Clinton, the American President at the time, wearing a “Hothead Paisan – Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist” T-shirt. I did ask him to reconsider his stance on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which as far as I know, had exactly zero impact.

SB:    In terms of your own development as a literary artist, what do you hope that Learned will achieve for you? Ignoring any book reviews that have been written so far, do you think it achieves that?

CB:    Like every writer, I’d like to sell scads, heaps, even gobs of my book. Maybe I didn’t quite think it through when I decided to write poetry, and Canadian poetry at that? Besides the ability to support myself through my writing, I’d love these particular concerns to be ones everyone’s talking and thinking about, because I think they’re important.

SB:    How do you think Learned should be assessed for its value? Does it suggest practical points for further exploration? Does it describe an important cultural concern? Does it offer a compelling message about a social shift? Or does it describe your personal aesthetic?

CB:    I think the book’s literary value is in its expression of mind/body duality and cohesion; its political value, I hope, in how women took back public space through sexual practice. Certainly our gay male brethren do this kind of thing endlessly and aren’t invulnerable either, but we have unique concerns and fears in the public sphere, and it was more important to us to express ourselves sexually than to give in to those fears. That’s a kind of bravery that hasn’t been much noticed or celebrated.

SB:    How did you describe Learned in a book proposal to a potential publisher before you began to work on it? Or did you complete the entire book before you began approaching publishers?

CB:    I said it had a similar structure to a 1980s TV movie, Angel: Honours student by day, Hollywood hooker by night. And I did complete the entire manuscript before approaching my publishers.

SB:    If you haven’t already described it, what social context or cultural movement was the inspiration for you to create a work such as Learned?

CB:    The Lesbian Avengers, started by the writer Sarah Schulman and others in New York, had a direct-action protest mandate inspired by our brother organization, ACT-UP. In London, lesbianism was suddenly stylish, so you’d  have glossy advertisements of intertwined models with us, very much not models, screaming in the foreground.

SB:    How does this book fit it the stream of all of your literary works? Is there some fundamental difference between Learned and your prior work? Or do you see a progression from your earlier work in this book?

CB: I’ve written in a bunch of different genres: an academic monograph, non-fiction, fiction, and now poetry. The thruline is that the work all addresses my experiences in a way I haven’t previously seen expressed.

SB:    Once again, thanks so much, Carellin, for taking the time to share your insights and experience in the writing of Learned.

Canadian author Sharon Berg works in multiple genres. Her work has appeared across Canada, in the USA, Mexico, the U.K., the Netherlands, India, Singapore, and Australia. She's conducted Poetry Interviews Editor for Artisanal Writer, /tEmz/ Review, The Miramichi Reader, Event and Freefall magazines and wrote articles and book reviews for a variety of periodicals. Sharon's third poetry book, 'Stars in the Junkyard' (Cyberwit, 2020), was a finalist in the 2022 International Book Awards and she placed 2nd in the 2016 GritLit Poetry Contest. Her cross genre history, 'The Name Unspoken: Wandering Spirit Survival School' (Big Pond Rumour Press, 2019), won a 2020 IPPY Award for Regional Nonfiction. Her debut collection of short fiction, 'Naming the Shadows' (Porcupine's Quill, 2019) is being followed by a 2nd collection, a novel, and a 4th book of poetry. She lives in the hamlet of Charlottetown, Newfoundland, Canada, in Terra Nova National Park, where she runs Oceanview Writers Retreat since 2022.