Michelle Chan Brown makes poetry fun at Pomfret School

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Tue., May. 10, 2011
Michelle Chan Brown at work in the Vanilla Bean Cafe. Photo by D. Coffey.
Michelle Chan Brown at work in the Vanilla Bean Cafe. Photo by D. Coffey.

Michelle Chan Brown, Pomfret School’s writer in residence, takes her job seriously, but that doesn’t mean she thinks poetry shouldn’t be fun. If she had her way, people would treat poetry like they treat film and music.

“Poetry is more fun and entertaining than people give it credit for,” Brown said. “It is demanding, but it’s not as heavy and ponderous as people think.”

Brown studied at the University of Michigan, where she received an MFA. She won the Michael R. Gutterman prize, has published poetry in several literary magazines, has a chapbook, “The Clever Decoys,” and her first book of poems, “Double Agent,” was the winner of the 2011 Kore First Book Award.

Yet Brown still doesn’t think of herself as a poet. “It’s a calling, not a career,” she said. “I know it’s really glamorous to think of the poet locked away in a cabin waiting for the muse,” she said. “I think it’s really healthy to be in the world with people.”

Right now, Brown’s world is peopled with students from Pomfret School, where she runs the creative writing program and teaches fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and literature classes. Her students are primarily seniors. They’re at an age where they are more open to language and have fewer assumptions about it, she said. Those qualities help them write their own poems.

“They think poetry is all about emotions, being sensitive and expressing themselves,” Brown said. Many students have apprehensions about poetry, but when they actually write their poems, Brown finds their language fresh and engaging.

“I’ve seen conversions happen,” she said.

Brown practices what she preaches. Her position at Pomfret comes with many duties, but she tries to squeeze in an hour a day for her own writing. Ideally it’s the first hour of the day, when she sits down and writes quickly, before the coffee kicks in. That preconscious state gives her a treasure trove of images, ideas and words that she can come back to later and play with.

“I work very fast. I produce a lot, but I throw out a lot, too,” she said. Brown doesn’t show her work to many people, and she doesn’t trust herself to revise a piece of writing until she’s given it time to simmer on the back burners of her brain.

“If I revise too soon, I don’t see it. I’m very stubborn with it, very proud of it. If I put it away and come back to it, I’m not in that space anymore,” she said.

Brown’s childhood was unusual. She’d seen the world before she turned 20. Her father was a Foreign Service officer and she lived in Moscow, Prague, Krakow, London, Belgrade and Kiev. An only child, she admits to being spoiled.

“They brought me everywhere,” Brown said about her parents. They also gave her inspiration to write when they told her they didn’t want her to buy them presents. She started writing poems for them for birthday gifts. The first poem she wrote for her father was about a mall.

“I started writing early,” she said. “I loved to read as a kid. I spent a lot of time alone. I traveled. Books were constant companions for me.”

She followed in the footsteps of her father when she took a job for an NGO in Washington, D.C., after graduating from college. It was only natural that she thought of doing something in international development or foreign service. But she found that the office job was unrewarding.

“I was in my early 20s,” she said. “I was living in D.C. It should have been fun. I loved the city, but I wanted a life, not a lifestyle.”

That was when she went back to school to get her MFA from Michigan. She has been at Pomfret School going on five years, running the same 5-mile route and walking the same 10-minute path to classes regularly. It’s given her different material to write about.

“It’s quite isolated here,” she said. “I can’t really sponge material off my immediate surroundings. It’s much more internal. In a city, you hear fragments of conversations, sounds of traffic, and there are so many different images.”

She has found herself looking back on her life and mining her childhood for material.

“It makes you filter down through your history,” she said. “That can be really rich for poetry.”


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