Brian Spears revisits his own exile in first collection of poems

By Harriet Staff

Knight Arts' Neil de la Flor interviews Brian Spears about his first poetry collection, A Witness in Exile. Spears is the poetry editor of The Rumpus and teaches literature and creative writing at Florida Atlantic University, but he spent the first half of his life as a Jehovah's Witness. In his mid-twenties, he became exiled from his faith and family and rediscovered his talent for poetry with encouragement from friends, but the experience has stayed with him in his writing. Though he didn't set out to make a book about it, there was a point where he seemed to be writing about nothing but being a Witness.

Since he made the final selections for A Witness in Exile, Spears hasn't written again about that chapter in his life; of his next two projects, one is described as more conceptual, and the other about middle age. When he moves to Iowa this summer, Spears will learn to shovel snow at age 43.

ND: I’ve asked you this question before but in what ways did growing up a Jehovah’s Witness influence your writing and in what ways?

BS: I have to give the Witnesses this—they read the Bible a lot, and they’re very attuned to symbolism. It plays a big part in their theology, so when I started reading and writing poems in high school, I instinctively knew that images had power and that you could play with meaning in really intricate ways. What I’ve rebelled against, though, is the notion that there’s only one proper way to interpret a particular set of symbols. I prefer ambiguity, the potential for multiple paths into and out of a text.