By Kirk Alvaro Lua
Kirk Alvaro Lua: In your bio, it says you and your husband live and write in a glass cabin that you both have been building together by hand. Is it finished? Can you tell me a little about it work-wise and maybe how it can relate to writing or poetry?
Tina Mozelle Braziel: It isn’t finished, and this is the first time I’ve ever owned a house. I’d guess what most homeowners will say that home projects are never done. I think that might be especially the case for homes that you’re building yourself. When we first moved in, we didn’t have walls, so we slept in a tent to keep the rain off of us and the mosquitoes off of us. We had to build walls really quickly before it got cold. So, we are kind of used to roughing it a bit. We call it luxury camping because we have a refrigerator, electricity, and the usual amenities, but the one thing that we don’t have, which people find most interesting, is we don’t have running water yet. So, we use a composting toilet. We use tiny house hacks, like having a water canister that we use to wash our hands. We have an outdoor shower which is actually wonderful except when it’s cold. We have a gym membership that helps out when there are particularly cold days when you don’t want to shower outside.
We still have a lot to do. Our next projects that we are looking at are putting down the flooring. We are on a sub-floor right now. We have these really beautiful tongue and groove boards that were taken out of the ceiling of an old farmhouse and it’s hard pine. It’s an old farm house near where my husband’s father lives. It was a family relative that had this house. So, we want to put that down. We are going to build a bathroom. It will have water eventually once we setup a cistern system for it.
The house relates to writing in so many ways for me. A project like this, you can’t think through what it’s going to be like and all the different questions that you’re going to have or all the problems and things that you’re going to have to do. You just have to jump into it, begin working on it, and be willing to improvise and figure things out, learn from people as you go along. That’s been really instructive for me as a writer. Sometimes you begin a project and you have this sense that you should know the answer, but in poetry and prose, if you discover things along the way, that really helps with the type of discovery that the reader will feel as they read your work. It’s given me more confidence in my writing to go for it even though I may be unsure of where it’s going to end up because I love my house. It’s beautiful even in its unfinished state. It’s made a life that’s a lot more rewarding and interesting for me. I feel that can transpose to the writing as well.
KAL: You direct the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I understand there is a connection between Ada Long and Philip Levine. Can you tell me a little about that connection?
TMB: Yes, they translated a book together and had been close friends for many years, and Ada and I are close friends. I spend time with her each year at her lovely house on St. George Island, Florida. She has always told me stories about how wonderful Phil and Franny are. She’s told me that Franny is the best cook ever. So, that to me is really interesting. She had Phil come to UAB, I believe in the early ’90s, and he was a writer in residence at UAB. So, I’ve run into different people periodically here who’ve said, Oh yeah, I’ve taken classes from Philip Levine when he was here. That’s been a really nice connection as well.
KAL: I was given a copy of your book Known by Salt and it came out beautifully. The photo that wraps around the front and the back cover really caught my eye and interest. Is this a personal photo of yours or one the publisher suggested and you both agreed upon?
TMB: The photographer’s name is Richard Bickel and he lives in Apalachicola, Florida. I first encountered his work the first time I went to visit Ada on St. George Island. Apalachicola is a nearby town. I was just always taken with his work. This was one of my favorites of his photographs. I love the look of the girl’s face, how she is in this precarious position but she’s so trusting of the water, of where she is. So, when Anhinga asked me what I wanted for my cover, if there was something in particular I was looking at, I asked them if we could approach Richard Bickel for this photograph and he graciously agreed. He takes photographs all over the country. I think he has done stuff with National Geographic and other magazines. I believe he came to Apalachicola on assignment and fell in love with the place, particularly the people there. It portrays their dignity. It is something I’m trying to do with my own work. I felt like it was a good connection to have, his work on my piece. It’s a big honor for me to have this photograph.
KAL: By the looks of your website and the radio and TV you’ve done so far to promote your book, it seems there is a great creative writing community surrounding you. How important is that community to you?
TMB: Oh, it’s so important. It’s really wonderful to see things in Birmingham develop the way they are. The city is in a bit of a renovation right now, things are growing and changing very rapidly, but with the arts community also happening, to see everyone be so supportive of one another is really great. My friend Ashley Jones who I’m doing a book tour with is definitely one of the movers and shakers of that arts renaissance in Birmingham. She’s the co-founder of the Magic City Poetry Festival. This will be its second year. She’s a close friend of mine, so it’s really wonderful to support what she’s doing and for her to also support me and other artists. It’s really great.
KAL: And how do you feel about being welcomed to the Fresno writing community? Or as U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera says Fresno, the Capital of Poetry in the World?
TMB: I love that. It’s humbling to me because I’m a huge admirer of Philip Levine’s work and a lot of the poets there, Larry Levis, and many others. I’m very happy to be a part of that world. A part of me is like, Am I quite there yet?
KAL: Another Fresno connection was made when you quoted the Levis poem “Sleeping Lioness” at the beginning of the fourth section of your book, titled “Rivering.” What does this line or poem mean to you and how does this line communicate with your work or this section of your book?
TMB: Oh, wow. That line in particular really speaks to something that I’ve always felt. That there’s a way you can be in the world. That it doesn’t have to be about how others perceive you or what your social status is. That you can at any time just step out in the world and feel its beauty. I really wanted to highlight that in my own work with what Levis said in those lines.
KAL: Do you have a favorite poem by Levis? Or was this one of them?
TMB: Oh, I don’t know if I could just pick one. There’s so many that are just absolutely gorgeous.
KAL: The subject of identity in your collection stood out to me the most especially in the poems, “I Took His Name,” “Work Shirt,” “Mozelle’s Shoes,” and the title poem “Known by Salt.” Identity found through work, family, names, and choice. What was your process and personal experience in writing about and through this subject with these ideas embodying identity?
TMB: It’s a little difficult to answer that question because it seems like it’s been an ongoing process for a long time with me. “Mozelle’s Shoes” is probably the oldest poem in the collection. I wrote it when I was a graduate student at UAB. I have found myself very much drawn to poets like Lucille Clifton who write a good bit about identity and where they’re coming from. So, for me, I also kept drawing from my family history as being construction workers like my dad and grandfather and my oldest brothers. That definitely was a part of it. Also, I’ve held various jobs since I was in the fifth grade. Work is just something I’ve always done and been a part of. With the names, my grandmother Mozelle adopted my mother. An interesting thing about my family is something they would say to me when I would do various things like learning to knit or building a house. My grandmother helped my grandfather build a house and they moved into it before it was done. They would say, You weren’t named Mozelle for nothing. Almost like a name is stronger or thicker than blood. So, for me, names have a particular significance. They have a certain power that we often attribute to the physical.
KAL: I was curious if the work shirt from your poem is or was real? And if so, do you still have it?
TMB: Yes. I actually have several. There’s one in particular that I’ve had for a very long time and it has two snaps on the pockets instead of just one. I recently cut off the sleeves from it and sent them to a local artist so that he can use them to make a pen. He takes different things and puts them in resin and then he makes pens and pencils out of them. So, I still have it, but it’s just sleeveless and I have a couple more. My father recently retired so I may not get too many more of them now, unfortunately.
KAL: Are you working on a new collection?
TMB: Yes, but right now my priority writing project is that my husband and I are writing a collaborative memoir about building the house. We are calling it The Glass Cabin Diary. So, he’ll write a chapter and then I’ll write a chapter in diary form about building the house. I’m also working on another collection that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet. I feel like I’ll jinx myself if I talk about it.
KAL: Is there any advice that you would give yourself when you first started writing the poems that would eventually become this collection Known by Salt, then, now, or any self-reflection from then to now?
TMB: I would tell myself to trust myself more and to go for it because, reflecting on my process (I keep lots of notebooks that I write in), there are often ideas or lines that I would write but it would take a long time before they would actually become a poem. I feel I could speed that process along a little bit faster. Or maybe it needs that time to percolate.
Tina Mozelle Braziel won the 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for her book Known by Salt (Anhinga Press 2019). Her chapbook, Rooted by Thirst, came out in 2016 with Porkbelly Press. Her individual poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Southern Humanities Review, Tampa Review, Appalachian Heritage, PMSpoemmemoirstory (where her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and other journals. In 2018, she was awarded a fellowship for the Alabama State Council for the Arts. In 2017, she served as an artist-in-residence at Hot Springs National Park. She was awarded an M.F.A. scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2013. She earned an M.F.A in Poetry from the University of Oregon, an M.A. in Poetry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a B.A. in Intercultural Studies at the University of Montevallo. She directs the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and she and her husband, novelist James Braziel, live and write in a glass cabin that they are building by hand.
Kirk Alvaro Lua is a second-year graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at California State University, Fresno. He studies poetry.