Author of two poetry collections, Little Grey Bird (2016) and When Grey Turns Blue (2019), Caroline Brae is also a yoga instructor, musician, and a former high-school teacher carrying twenty-five years of experience.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Picture Courtesy: Caroline Brae
How long have you been doing poetry, Caroline? And how has it changed you as a person?
I first started writing poetry in my early teens but stopped abruptly. My 9th grade English teacher published a poem of mine (I was 14 years old) that was part of a required class project. I had reviewed Emily Dickinson's poetry and had included a very personal piece about a fellow who liked me, and I was too shy to acknowledge I felt the same. My poem appeared without my knowledge or permission in the school newspaper, and friends literally encircled/pushed me up against the wall wanting to know who he was - I refused to say.
I stopped writing/sharing my poetry that day and didn't start writing again until about 6 years ago (40 yrs later) after my dad died rather suddenly from cancer. Poetry allowed me to express the indescribable grief of losing my father and finding my voice again.
The jacket copy of your poetry collection, Little Grey Bird (2016), says, "Caroline's down to earth style focuses on individual and societal issues with contemplations encompassing relationships to belonging and prejudice to loss." What would you mean by that?
I think in part, I was starting to see how I had let others' views of me - their prejudices and unkind words - keep me in a box of sorts. Writing Little Grey Bird, I think, helped prepare me for the social violence and hatred that followed shortly after that in Charlottesville and for which I had to speak out against through my poem "Heather Love" (When Grey Turns Blue).
I printed the poem on a postcard and gave away thousands - leaving them at the memorial where Heather Heyer was killed, where scores of people were horribly injured/changed for life. I also shared the poem at several community events and open mics, passing out the postcards. It became a calling for me and several others to stand up against prejudice and social injustice in a rather passionate, but peaceful way.
I have suffered losses that were not openly shared until I wrote the poem "I Am the Other'' about not having or adopting a child. Noted in my verse "Passing By" as well with the lines "Wondering why I did not end up/ With a sippy cup in my hand."
Additionally, the poem "Of Another Time and Place," is about a double-edged sword. Fighting like crazy to obtain a college education, then being tormented for my "country (mountain) accent " to the point I made it disappear, which ultimately made me regret it - all due to others' unkind words. Then, I returned to the place where my mom was born, only to be told, "You don't belong here," because my family left the deep mountains during the Great Depression. In doing so, they found a better life - although still extremely hard - which ultimately allowed me (and my brother) to graduate from university.
What themes would you say are most prevalent in your poems?
I'd say life, love, heartache, prejudice, loss, hope, finding light in darkness.
You dance. You sing. You play the piano. How does one form of art influence the other? Is there a link?
At first, I didn't think there was a link but then realized the piano was my first form of expression. It came to me when I was only seven. I started writing songs in my teenage years - then intermittently until I quit my teaching career and returned to college, ending up with a second Master's in Liberal Arts.
I had started writing music and attending songwriting workshops before I started studying music, dance, and liberal arts - after that, I returned to writing poetry. This combination allowed me to create a one-woman performance with my poetry, music, and movement. All of which focused on my grief of losing my dad and the violence in Charlottesville noted.
It all does tie together for me.
In your poems Passing By, Corner Spot, and Of Another Time and Place, space plays either an introductory or a central role. You pepper words and phrases like "tighten up," "outward," "inside," "lanes." What is this special relationship between your poems and your mental/physical geography?
Your questions are making me remember and reflect rather deeply about my words.
Physical space is tied directly to my mental space, as I have lived in the mountains (I had a long view of them within a valley) all my life until recently. I feel deeply tied to those terrains. I'd say I was an environmentalist since age ten, way before it became cool!
Ironically enough, I seem to need "wide open spaces" to refuel. Or a cosy, quiet corner that feels snug and protected. Yes, reasons for all - but I think enough said.
The last book you enjoyed reading?
I am sad to say since the onset of covid, I have not been able to focus well enough to immerse myself in regular reading, except for reading weekly chapters of The Artist's Way for daily journaling/reflection. Somehow I did manage to thoroughly re-read Health, Healing, And Beyond: Yoga and the Living Tradition of Krishnamacharya by T.K.V. Desikachar - one of many books I read when I studied/became a yoga teacher.
Directly prior to covid onset, I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
What have been your biggest life lessons?
The mistake of marching to the beat of another's drum. When I stepped away from my professional career as a high school teacher, I sold my house, moved into a three-room apartment, and started anew. I went back to college, started formally studying piano and voice, playing djembe, dancing, choreographing, arranging live music for my dances, and ultimately researching the life of Edith Wharton.
I had never read or really heard of her until my MLA studies, but then I had the good fortune to do research in her library at the home she designed - The Mount in Berkshires, Massachusetts.
She defied all the social norms and expectations of a woman 100 years ago. I think it was a pivotal point for me, as, after that, I returned to writing my poetry. Of course, that all happened while losing my dad.
What would you say brings you joy apart form your creative pursuits?
Being outside walking, hiking, cycling or gazing at a mountain or water. Live performances in music, dance, and theatre. Traveling, meeting new people and visiting with friends old and new.