An Interview with Poet Brian Griffin

Single Lens Reflex by Brian Girffin
Single Lens Reflex by Brian Griffin

I first encountered Brian Griffin sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. I belonged to a Southern Literature Book Group led by Flossie McNabb at Davis Kidd Bookstore in west Knoxville where we read Brian’s recent book of short stories, Sparkman in the Sky and Other Stories. An instructor at UT at the time, he spoke to our group about the work. I enjoyed our time with him and I loved the book, but we wouldn’t reconnect for years as each of our lives took the circuitous route that lives take.

Shortly before I moved downtown in 2009, Brian’s name came up once more, but with a tragic connection. On July 27, 2008, a man with a sawed-off shotgun concealed inside a guitar case opened fire inside the Tennessee Valley Universalist Church during a children’s production of Annie, Jr, later saying he was motivated by his hatred of “liberals, Democrats, African Americans, and homosexuals.”

He killed one person on the scene (another died later) before being subdued by church members. Brian Griffin, the staff member in charge, shuttled children to safety, assured their parents who became separated from them in the confusion, and immersed himself in the trauma of the event. The person who died on site was his best friend.

Words disrobe in gun smoke,

Strip flesh from faith

to bloody bone.

— From Fourth Shot by Brian Griffin

It has taken Brian years of work to process the shooting and its aftermath, years of fighting with the demons set loose that day in a place of sanctuary. To speak of that day and all it entailed has been a journey filled with PTSD and struggle. All these years later, he has processed the shooting through a series of poems. Single Lens Reflex, his new book of poetry, divides into three categories poems that attempt to describe or encapsulate the immediate horror of that day (Lens), reflections on the event and an attempt to find meaning (Mirror), and finally to “ideas of healing and renewal” (Image).

I met with Brian to talk about his life as a writer (he holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Virginia), his experience that day and its impact, and to talk about the new work and how he has processed it all. We began with the contrast in his often-humorous writing before the tragic event and the much heavier tone of the current book. He said he recently, “found a whole sheaf of poems that I’d totally forgotten about, that I wrote before the shooting, and it is so different. It’s silly and fun.”

Growing up in a southeastern Tennessee family steeped in Southern Baptist theology, Brian eventually planned to attend seminary.

I kind of stepped out of the literary world into another whole world. My grandfather was a preacher. He lived to be 99 and preached until the end. He spent his younger years founding churches during the great depression. I found, tucked in the back of his Bible a news clipping where he was getting an award from the Internal Revenue Service for shutting down moonshine stills.

Author Brian Griffin, Self Portrait from the Early 80s

Along the way he married and adopted a son. Interested in offering his stepson a different version of spirituality than that he got from Brian’s side of the family, he gravitated to the Unitarian Church.

In the aftermath of the shooting he lived downtown, keeping an apartment on the 400 block of Gay Street from about 2011 – 2020. “I was in those years recovering or learning how to deal with PTSD. I had agoraphobia. That apartment was a third-floor walkup . . . it was a womb . . . It was a strange lifestyle.

pick a murderous scene

any scene, anywhere

& what you’ll find is the same:

everyone spiked numb to the heart

everyone a blood drenched child

— From Talking About My Generation by Brian Griffin

The first poem in the book, “What a Hate Crime Sounds Like, “is one that I wrote right after the shooting and read at a fundraiser. One night in different places around town there were three different fund-raisers for the families. It’s amazing how the city came together around us. People from all faiths. The lead singer of the band Alabama came to town and did a fundraiser. I didn’t write another word for two years.”

Of the day of the shooting, he has spotty memories. “I had just stepped out of the sanctuary to check on the nursery and kindergarten kids . . . I was in the nursery when I heard the shots. I ran toward the sanctuary . . . and running toward me was a little girl covered in blood. In my memory there was no one else but me and her. I saw her as a Vietnamese girl, and she was not. It was the image from Time Magazine. I saw that.” He later was told there were many children running in that hallway and that he had found clothes for her. He has no memory of that.

Our minister was on Sabbatical, but he managed to make it to the church that day. We ended up being inside the building most of the day. They interviewed people and then let them go home. There was a cordon around the building . . . because of that people who witnessed the shooting came to me (after the shooting). They would line up outside my door . . . We created a list of local therapists who donated their services for free to anyone who wanted to talk about their experiences. I handed it out to everybody. Hooked them up. And I never did it myself. That was a big mistake.

In the aftermath, church membership surged overwhelming the staff, including Brian who sometimes slept in his office. “After about two years I kind of melted down. It destroyed my marriage from overwork.” It reached the point that he could not face the workday and he began leaving for stretches of time and driving around the region without telling anyone his location, all because of his PTSD.

Eventually, his marriage ended, and he left his job. “I got in the car and drove all over the southeast aimlessly . . . It was a very dark time, and I came very close to ending my life.” There is a poem included in the new book that references Charleston where the story nearly ended. “I walked across the huge bridge that goes over to Mount Pleasant, thinking about jumping. While I was up there my phone rang and my phone had been ringing constantly and I didn’t answer it.” This time, he took the call from a friend who told him to drive to Knoxville and arranged for them to meet at a Waffle House on Kingston Pike. He did. “That saved my life. I did exactly what they said. The next day they got my list of therapists and went with me to get an appointment.”

Be patient.

The shore is littered

with sand.

Just be patient.

— From Another Anniversary by Brian Griffin

Much of the work included in the new book was written at the Downtown Grill and Brewery. Brian described living across the street and finding that early poem and getting a vision of how the new work would be framed. He’d walk to the bar in the early afternoon, order a beer, and write poems with his pencil and a notebook at hand. “I was re-living the trauma, but I had a routine and a therapist within walking distance.”

Of his writing, Brian says he feels his fundamentalist upbringing in some respects helped produce his attraction to words. He spoke of his love of the King James English as he read the Bible through. Ultimately, as he questioned his faith and searched for direction in his own life, it was words which drew him. “Looking at the contradictions caused me to go inward and look at words. I think writing was an act of rebelling. I was rebelling against those theological maxims that we were told to accept in an unquestioning way.”

Author Brian Griffin

He said now that the current book is completed, he feels he can move forward in a healthy way. The shooting will always be with him, but he feels it no longer controls him and he’s excited to return to more of the kinds of work he explored before. He feels ready.

For readers, we can never imagine the trauma involved in the situation that led to the writing of these poems. But we have a window into the very painful abyss into which everyone present found themselves thrown. The poems, powerful in each case, taken together, present a wrenching journey for anyone willing to take it and to explore the pain and follow the move toward containment and growing understanding of the pain, the emptiness and then, some measure of acceptance and healing. I highly recommend you pick up a copy at Union Avenue Books and take that journey.

Brian has a series of readings scheduled throughout the southeast, including the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Locally you can find him at Union Avenue Books, May 5 at 3:00 pm.