B R A N D I K A T H E R I N E
H E R R E R A
COMP: Congratulations on the publication of MOTHER IS A BODY (Fonograf Editions, 2021)! It’s such an inventive, mysteriously poignant book. Can you tell our readers, broadly, what the book’s about and how you came to write it?
Brandi Katherine Herrera: I began writing this book when my partner and I were trying to conceive, and I was struggling with the range of emotions that infertility produces, as well as my own complicated relationship to the idea of becoming a mother.
So, through this book—which I see as a work of sonic and typographic experimentation—I wanted to work out what it means to be a mom, and what it means to be mothered, and why being a mom or being mothered is so much more complicated than what our culture tells us about those things. I wanted to try to illustrate the notion of “mother” in her many actualities. Like this whole idea of the mother as sacred, or as an archetype of the divine. I mean, of course, mothers are amazing! Just like all human beings have the capacity to be amazing. But they’re also complicated. They can be ugly and terrible like all of us are, at times.
Because this book also deals with loss, and the grief experience, the poetics is very much centered on this cyclical process of imagining, conceiving, and emptying. And all of this makes up a sort of layered inscription to the idea of motherhood, and the children I never had.
COMP: In many ways, MOTHER IS A BODY is a product of gathering (descriptions of found images, repeated phrases) and erasing (image-boxes without images, literal erasures). How did you decide what to gather and what to erase?
Brandi Katherine Herrera: You’ve picked up on an aspect of my own process, and articulated it better than I ever could have myself—so insightful! Gathering and erasing are both central to this book, and I’m realizing now that they are to a lot of the work I create. Though that’s about as formal as the process gets, I think.
When I set out to make something, I never arrive at it knowing exactly what I want to make, or where I’ll start. It’s very much an intuitive, sensing-feeling process. I like to go down rabbit holes, poking around books and websites and images and films, absorbing a lot of information and taking a lot of notes, until I’ve made a huge mess of language and ideas that I can start teasing meaning out of, and begin to make new poem-things with.
There’s a line from a Zen koan that feels really important to all of this, and to how I make work: “Not knowing is most intimate.” It’s about the concept of “beginner’s mind,” and why it’s so critical to be a novice, to be curious. Becoming intimate with this idea of not knowing is not only radically honest, it’s what brings us closer to ourselves, to others, and ultimately to whatever it is we’re making. So, with MOTHER, and with all of the work I make, I get really excited about what happens when I think less, not more. Learning along with the poems, as I’m gathering what will ultimately become them, or erasing the poems until they feel like they’re what and where they need to be.
COMP: The book is gorgeous. There are so many innovative forms and unusual layouts—from large type to overlapped text to center-aligned prose poems. How did MOTHER IS A BODY look in manuscript form? What concessions or discoveries were made during the typesetting of the book?
Brandi Katherine Herrera: Thank you so much! I’m really happy with how it turned out—Fonograf makes such beautiful book-objects. Though I’m not a designer, the visual aspects of my work have always been very important to me, and this book was no exception. From the typeface it’s set in, to the color of the cover, and the (sometimes) grossly oversized text, I made most of the visual choices represented in the final book.
The various forms/formats the work takes is all part of the vision I had for the book before it ever went into layout, which Andrea did an amazing job of translating into a very different size and shape. She’s a brilliant designer (who also created the cover art, which I love so much), and there was a lot of back and forth in order to get things just right. I’m endlessly grateful for her patience, especially in laying out the overlapping text in “A BODY IS A TERRIBLE MOTHER”. We probably made the most concessions with that section, because the reduction of size into a new format meant it didn’t quite lay out in the same ways it did in the manuscript. But as a result, it ended up looking and feeling as if it should have always been that way.
COMP: We absolutely love the sound performance that accompanies the book’s opening poem, “she said / she said”—a live version of which you read for us at Piedmont University in February 2022. How did this sound-text come to be? And why did you choose to include it as a URL in the book itself?
Brandi Katherine Herrera: It’s kind of a funny story, actually. That piece started with a conversation I had with a friend who showed me the “shusher” they used in her baby’s room to help her sleep. It’s this weird little machine that pumps out white noise that sounds like someone shushing you over and over again. I guess it mimics the sounds a baby hears in the womb, which is really soothing, so it helps calm them so they can sleep.
I was fascinated by that, though, because the shushing sound felt really anxiety producing to me—just the opposite of what it was intended to do. So, I downloaded the Baby Shusher app, and just started playing around with the sound it produces: “shhhhh … shhhhh”. I listened to it for a while, until it felt like I was in some sort of distressing trance, and then just started writing into that sound. So, “shhhhh” became “she,” and then “she” became “she said,” until it just sort of naturally evolved into a conversation between two women about being a mother, and about what the fictional ‘baby’ of the piece needed from them at all times.
Because it was the first piece I wrote that would later end up informing MOTHER (I originally wrote it for a performance in 2016), it felt important that I open the book with a URL to the actual audio—setting the tone and the expectation that this wasn’t a typical book of ‘poems,’ but more of a hybrid work of text, sound, and visual forms.
COMP: For us, MOTHER IS A BODY antagonizes the monetization and performance of motherhood. The book is an uncanny space overfilled with present-absences or absent-presences. We ache for what is there and what is not there, both. How did the emotional tenor of the book evolve?
Brandi Katherine Herrera: “Present-absences” / “absent-presences” is such a beautiful way to describe what it is that I felt while creating this work. And indeed, they do ache. I think that’s so true of the process of loss and grief, which itself was so integral to the making of this book.
MOTHER, like almost all of my work, is (in part) about myself and my own experiences as a person in the world. That said, I’m not interested in making art that’s a straight narrative, or purely autobiographical. So, I often do whatever I can to abstract the self, in order to remove myself from it, if that makes sense. I’m more interested in removing “me” from the story, to see what the story might actually reveal that I may not have expected.
And yet, I think there’s a real vulnerability that has to make itself present in order to even approach a subject matter like this, let alone create work from it that might potentially be shared with other people. In the end, I did it not just because I had to, for myself. But for the many women who may have also felt isolated or alone with their grief over not being able to conceive and bear children, or with the difficult relationships they’ve faced with their mothers, grandmothers, or mother figures. It’s something that’s so rarely talked about or honored in our culture, and it seemed important to at least try to break that silence in some small way.
Brandi Katherine Herrera is an artist whose work in text, image, and sound explores the poetics of color, and space. She is the author of MOTHER IS A BODY (Fonograf Editions, 2021) as well as Mutterfarbe and Natürlicher (Broken Cloud Press, 2016); a co-author of MAR (Lute & Cleat, 2018); and co-editor of The Lake Rises (Stockport Flats, 2013). Her work is held in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum, Yale University, UCLA, University at Buffalo, and Reed College, and has been featured by the Seattle Art Museum, Cube Gallery, 23 Sandy Gallery, Poetry Press Week, The Volta, Octopus Magazine, The Common, Poor Claudia, and Word/For Word, among others.