I was lucky enough to be able to do several interviews with Fayetteville poet Brenda Moossy over the years – one for television, and two for print (one for the Ozark Gazette, and a longer, unpublished one, written just before her death, which will go into my next book). This is a Q&A interview I did with her for the OG in 1996.
Brenda Moossy: Poetry of the Heart
Laughter comes easily to Brenda Moossy, a home health nurse who also enjoys a reputation as a popular local poet. Proud of her Lebanese/Texan ancestry, she says her heritage has a deep influence on her poetry. Brenda can often be seen performing with the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective in Fayetteville.
Ozark Gazette: In addition to writing poetry, you are also involved in what some would call “performance art,” through your public readings with the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective. Once you began public readings, did you find that your writing style changed?
Brenda Moossy: My writing style changed, but I don’t think it’s necessarily because of the public readings. It changed as I started changing, as I started getting more comfortable with letting myself play with the stuff.
OG: So it has been evolving over the years?
Moossy: Yes, basically. Performance art does require something different in the sense that it is a performance. It is more expressive and emotive. Some stuff works well that is more subtle. Generally you have stuff that works on the page and other stuff that works in performance. If you’re real lucky the two meld, but not always.
OG: Would you say there are common themes in your writing?
Moossy: In some, death seems to occupy a fairly large area, which is kind of trite. Part of the reason for that is what I do for a living. I’m a nurse, and so I’m around pathology all the time. When you work with people who are ill or who have chronic illness, or terminal illness, you have to deal with those issues not only for them, but for yourself as well.
I like magic a lot, or magical realism. I like the whole notion that you have conjurers who live out in the woods, old witch women. I like that kind of stuff, so it creeps up in my work.
OG: Of course, in addition to poetry, you once wrote a novel at a very young age. I suppose then that you have been writing poetry for quite a while.
Moossy: I’ve been writing probably since pre-adolescence. 1 can remember as a child having fantasies about being a writer, and I would write these stories that were abysmal. They were horrible.
OG: Do any still exist?
Moossy: No, I don’t think so. I wish that they did, though, because I think that they would be fun to read. As for the novel, I was real entranced when West Side Story came out, and so I was real entranced by gangs. I’ve always been a sucker for bad boys, that was always a “bad” in my choices anyway. I was writing about these folks, and this was a time when I didn’t curse. I was a little Catholic kid in east Texas, and so I had all these gang members saying things that were like “creamy” and stuff that was pretty awful. (laughs)
I had a book of poetry that I took to Lebanon when I was 18. We stopped in New York City and I went to one of the publishing houses and handed them this manuscript of poetry thinking that I was going to be published right away. My ego was just unbelievable. I still have that, and I keep it to keep me humble. There is some stuff that isn’t half bad, but it’s real “18 year old” stuff.
OG: Have you ever rewritten any of it?
Moossy: No, because it is mostly that 16-to-18 year-old angst. It’s like being a hippie, and the first time that you ever get high, and you think that somehow you’ve got a lock on the world. At 18 you think you’ve invented everything, sex, politics, philosophy. You think you’re unique.
OG: You’ve been talking about common themes in your writing. Would you describe your writing as “primal” or “earthy?”
Moossy: That’s true. Because I like to curse! I think cursing is fun, although I’m finding that the more I write, the less that I have a need to do so. But sometimes, a well-placed fuck, cock, shit, damn, piss or whatever, that’s the word you gotta use. That is the word that needs to go there. But I don’t think my stuff is necessarily randy.
OG: Maybe to use that awfully trite phrase – “slice of life.”
Moossy: Maybe. I’m not sure if my stuff is primal or not. Maybe on some levels.
OG: Speaking of enjoying cursing . . .
Moossy: (laughs uproariously)
OG: In the South, women writers are sometimes viewed as eccentric. Is there any truth to this? Certainly, in some places, creativity in women has been viewed as suspect.
Moossy: I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for myself.
OG: Do you think that you are considered eccentric by some people, due to your writing, or your love of cursing?
Moossy: Yes, by some folks. That’s what is funny. It depends on the circle you happen to be in. In some circles folks may see me as kind of edge-like. Among my friends I’m considered kind of more middle-of-the-road conservative. That’s kind of an interesting perspective.
OG: Of course, you are also a home health nurse, specializing in patients who are HIV positive. What have you learned as a person as a result of your work with people who are dying?
Moossy: It is truly a simple twist of fate, that it is a crap shoot. That I’m here, and you are there is just the luck of the draw. If AIDS had come along fifteen years earlier, I could be infected, you see. Because I was a wild child in the 60s and the 70s. For me on some levels the work that I do, aside from the fact that the disease is fascinating to me, on some levels it seems like a calling, and on some levels it seems to be what I’m supposed to be doing.
Occasionally I will write poems when a patient dies, but I really don’t do it that often. I don’t generally write about nursing. What I find happens, though, it does color how I see things. The fact that somebody gets a terminal diagnosis, all it means is that they don’t have the gift of illusion which is what I carry around. I carry this gift of illusion that I don’t have to think about my own mortality, when in fact a lot of my clients might go much later than I do.
There was a thing that happened a few years ago about some guy who was driving his car along a country road, a dry road. It hadn’t rained for a while before. He wasn’t speeding, just driving his pickup. He turns a corner and a large oak that’s sitting in a field by the fence decides that day to uproot and it falls over and smashes his pickup, and it kills him. So it kind of makes you appreciate more, and you don’t take as much stuff for granted.
AIDS is a viral illness. It is no different than if you get Hepatitis B or if you get Ebola, in the sense that it is a virus that you catch. But it got politicized, for one thing, because when it first showed up it was in the homosexual population, and I think there was a smattering of people on the East Coast who were IV drug users. But that is how it showed up in this country and got noticed.
It is also spread sexually, and this country is so weird around sex of any flavor. So if you catch something possibly sexually then it gets charged. And it got so charged because it was in the homosexual community.
OG: So it is like a double whammy?
Moossy: Oh, it’s a real double whammy. Then it becomes associated with it, when in fact it is just a disease that is spread by body fluids. Nobody really thinks of Hepatitis B as a sexual disease, and you get it in the same way. And so you got all this other shit that happened when it got so politicized, when it first came out. I mean, they were calling it gay cancer when it first came out. You had people who were losing apartments, and houses, and jobs and insurance, and that is I think where you get the heroism that shows up. At that point people were facing unbelievable odds.
I can remember when I first decided to do this, there were nurses that didn’t want to deal with HIV. I mean, they just didn’t want to do it, and weren’t gonna do it. And so you have to make some kind of a choice, because at that time it was real scary, they really weren’t sure. I mean, how safe do you have to be?
It just got so politicized when it shouldn’t have been. And this government just didn’t respond for years, when it could have. The blood banks didn’t respond for years when they could have.
OG: Getting back to poetry for just a bit. You have had several chap books published. Just what is a chap book? It brings to mind a paperback book stuck in a cowhand’s back pocket.
Moossy: For the intents and purposes of what we are talking about, chap books are small volumes of poetry. They aren’t full-sized volumes, but small volumes. They are either done by small presses, or they are self-published. Most of mine were self-published with the exception of one that Patsy Watkins did for me, with Piccadilly Press.
OG: She is with the U of A Journalism department, isn’t she?
Moossy: Chair of the department, yes, She also does a small press, and her books are exquisite. They are just lovely. I’ve also done my own, because I’ve figured out I like to play on the computer. The first one I did, the first time that I ever took myself halfway seriously, I did a book in conjunction with Julie Krohn and Julie Jeannene and it was a book of erotic poetry and art that was featured at the Erotic Art Show at Whimsicals several years back.
OG: I think we have a really good culminating question, and it might be good to explore it a bit. Let’s assume that you are taking the proverbial three hour sailing tour – (Moossy laughs) – and find yourself trapped on a desert island without the likes of Gilligan. What works would you like to take with you?
Moossy: Oh, God. I would like to have a solar powered computer so that I could play on the computer, and so I could write. I’d like to have all the books that I haven’t read that are on my bookshelf that I buy and say that one of these days I’m going to read. Like James Joyce and Finnegan’s Wake, I’d like to take poetry by lots of different folks, like Mary Oliver. I like Frank Stanford. I’d like to take the Battlefield poem with me so that I really sit down and read it.
I’d like to take a lot of fiction with me. I would take John Irving, and Alice Hoffman, and lots of folks. There is so much that I like to read, fiction, nonfiction, poetry.
OG: I guess no one can read all the good poetry in the world.
Moossy: God, there is lots from other cultures. I had a friend turn me on to a book of Arabic poetry. I loved it. It was lots of fun. I’m listening to Naomi Shihab-Nye and reading a woman by the name of Diana Abujabar, who is a Palestinian writer living in this country. I’m finding that there are similarities, which is interesting to me because even though 1 grew up here, and consider myself an American, I still have a lot of fairly strong Middle Eastern stuff. I wonder if it isn’t just genetic, because I’m finding that some of the same metaphoric images are there, and maybe it is from all those generations of speaking Arabic.
OG: Or maybe what they used to call race memory.
Moossy: Maybe. It’s kind of fun to think about.
OG: It sounds like a shipwreck you might be looking forward to.
Moossy: Actually, I’d kind of like it. I could look for shells, and I like to fish.
OG: Like a beachcomber.
Moossy: Yeah, I’d like that. I really would, I think.
Ozark Gazette – January 8, 1996