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April 20, 2006

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Garrett J. Brown, pursuing his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, relaxed last month during a weekend visit home. photo by Roland Dorsey

Local landscape was inspiration for earlier work

by Michelle Ruddle

Finding a temporary respite from the blazing sun, poet Garrett J. Brown looked mellow and cool as he relaxed in the gazebo in the back yard of his parents' Margo Road home.

Brown handled a sweating glass of iced tea as he discussed his work, including a recent poetry award and his days as a budding writer in the shadow of Baltimore's imposing industrial landscape.

Brown's first forays into poetry began with an attempt to process the environment around him, he said.

"I started with place poems and tried to make a connection with the landscape," especially places like Sparrows Point, he said. "I would try to get a feel for what the land looks like and the setting blended with ideas about religion and bigger questions."

They're topics that still weave their way through Brown's work periodically, though he has taken to exploring the inner depths of the mind in his recent poetry.

"I've been focusing on brain science, the way memories are formed and how we create memories," he said. "I see poetry and science doing the same thing for us as far as observing the world."

Though it's a notion that "goes against the common perception," it's served Brown exceptionally well.

Just two months ago, Brown won first place in the 11th annual Juried Reading Contest held by the Poetry Center of Chicago. The competition was open to poets in Illinois - where Brown now resides while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago - and seven surrounding states.

In awarding Brown highest honors in the competition, the final judge, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jurie Graham, said of his entry, Opposition, "The images are appropriate and beautiful, the use of metaphor appropriate. ... Brown exhibits, in addition to a command of form, intelligence, deep heartfullness and no fear of learnedness."

Other recent accomplishments for the Our Lady of Hope School alumnus, who went on to attend Archbishop Curley High School, St. Mary's College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, include publishing a chapbook, Panning the Sky, in 2003 and receiving runner-up honors in the 2003 Maryland Emerging Voices competition for Manna Sifting, a book-length manuscript.

Another recent success was securing a job as an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While first-year composition courses and coursework for his doctorate keep him busy, Brown said he doesn't mind too much.

"I had fallen in love with Chicago," Brown said, and the deadlines give him an extra push to work on a full-length work.

Next semester, Brown will teach a section of Creative Writing, an endeavor that he's looking forward to as a way to advance the increasing popularity of creative writing as an academic science.

One of the lessons Brown will stress to his students, he said, is the importance of experimenting with poetic form.

"I made myself learn how to write with different forms," he said. "I think it's important to know the basics of it."

Learning those basics allowed Brown to move from more formal types of poetry - and a play written entirely in iambic pentameter - to the vignettes and smaller stanzas that mark his work now.

It also allows him to be more open-minded and aware of which direction the poem needs to take to be successful.

"I let the language and content of the poem determine what form it will be," Brown said.

Another thing Brown will stress to his students is the importance of getting out into the world. Before settling into his teaching position, Brown worked as a reporter, a temp and a port employee.

"It helped me get a good grasp of the different stuff that's out there in the world."

Childhood memories and experiences have been a constant source of inspiration for him, Brown said, though how his work approaches them has changed over time. Brown makes a point to stop into town a few times a year, and the landscape of his childhood home makes its way into his work often.

"One of the things I'm working on involves North Point Road," he said. "Things pop up here and there. It's unpredictable what's going to emerge in a poem."


Two o'clock outside the plate mill,

men trickle out in worn jeans,

remove hard hats and light

cigarettes. Their eyes are pig iron,

their skin cooled slag; they lean

and smoke against a concrete wall.

My grandfather laid brick, raised

these city walls with his hands

(cement under his nails, fingerprints

on each block) and a few tools

that now sit in their red dust, silent

in my grandmother's garage.

The steelworker feels this landscape

in his body - ore bridge ribs,

arms skip-hoist thin and a belly

bloated with coke and limestone,

a smoldering oven banked inside.

For thirty years my father survived

layoffs, union disputes, soot

on the cars and soot in his lungs.

He worked as his father worked, shipping,

forging steel, the steel that forged

this town. Driving the beltway

in a car of foreign alloys and plastic,

I watch Sparrows Point surrender

its last gray breaths to the air

and approach the Key Bridge,

a steel arch that spans the distance

we must cross to forge a metal

less defined.

From Panning the Sky, a chapbook published by Pudding House Publications.

Copyright 2006 Dundalk Eagle