One of the most difficult interviews I've ever written. I wanted do do this right for Brenda.
“God, it was great. “ - Brenda Moossy: The Last Conversation
Fayetteville Poet’s Final Interview
Written by Richard S. Drake
In late 2008 I sat down with my friend Brenda Moossy for what we both knew was to be our last interview together. In her own words, she wasn’t “feeling too good” that day, so I resolved to keep our conversation brief.
Even close to death, Brenda was generous with her time and her thoughts.
One of the founding members of the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective in the early 1990s, Brenda was an inspiration to many of her fellow artists over the years. As San Francisco native (and former OPWC member) Lisa Martinovic recalls:
“I came to the Ozarks with cultural prejudices typical of someone who had never lived anywhere but cosmopolitan cities certain of their superiority. Expecting a population of inarticulate Jed and Granny Clampetts, I was instead awestruck to find poets the caliber of Deborah Robinson, Lisa Bostic, and the woman who was to become my dearest friend, Brenda Moossy. It was 1993, the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective was just starting to make its voice heard in Fayetteville, and their readings at the D-Lux on Dickson Street were thrilling: I had found my tribe.”
And what a tribe it turned out to be, turning out scores of talented poets out over the years, many of whom turned out to pay tribute to Brenda in early 2009, at a special memorial held at Fayetteville’s Town Center.
By her own reckoning, Brenda figured that she had lived in Fayetteville on-and-off since 1972, moving up from Austin, Texas. “There have been times when I have gone back to Texas, because, you, know, you can’t take Texas completely out of somebody. But I still keep coming back here.”
Like many others, she found that she could never really get away from Fayetteville. “It’s one of the things that I really love,” she said softly. “I was at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, and god, it made me so proud to be from Fayetteville! Dan and Deborah [Coody] were there, there was a magician, and a guy playing old folk music right at the door going to the Old Post Office. There was another guy with a piece of tile or something, on the sidewalk, and he was tap dancing.
“It was just amazing. It the kind of dancing that you would see like in O Brother, Where art Thou? God, it was great. And all the colors and all stuff.
“Jesus, I’m one lucky woman to be living in this town.”
But not everyone sees that Fayetteville, or refuses to even see it the way that so many others do, claiming that Fayetteville is “just another city.” Warming to the theme, Brenda said,” It could be that what I know as Fayetteville, and what you know as Fayetteville, involves the community, and the community of people that came here in the 70s. All us old hippies.
“But I think that there are people that don’t see that as Fayetteville. When they walk down Dickson Street, they don’t still see the ghost of the cowboy at the Swingin’ Door, or the No Nukes.
“What they see is real estate. Basically when we see Fayetteville we see what we left behind, as part of our youth. I mean, I can remember walking down Dickson Street in the snow, and going to Restaurant on the Corner, for hot tea or hot coffee. It was a gorgeous night and the snow was falling, and there were no cars going.”
For just a moment, both of us were transported to the past, enjoying a memory of Dickson that is not only unforgettable, but almost impossible to adequately describe to newcomers.
We spoke of Free Camman, one of her neighbors on the street, who played her violin for the flowers on the Fayetteville Square at night in the 1980s. Free lived in a house with no running water or electricity.
“She had gone off the grid,” Brenda agreed. “I remember walking up and down the street, and seeing her house. It was austere, but it was very nice.”
Thinking of Free’s passing, she said, “I’ve seen a lot of deaths here.”
Her passion for Fayetteville was hardly unrequited love, to put it mildly. After Brenda died earlier this year, a celebration of her life was held at Fayetteville’s Town Center, where people shared stories, read poems both by and about her. But even more than that, Fayetteville loved Brenda while she lived.
Lisa Martinovic recalls, “She and I were very different characters. We did not bond immediately. But Brenda has always been the kind of person you just want to hang out with”
A trait to Brenda both as a person and a poet - that appealed to many was her honesty in facing life. As Martinovic remembers, “Brenda embodies a rare combination of compassion, deep intelligence and a willingness to call fancified bullshit by its true name.”
Reminiscing about the early days of the OPWC, Brenda Moossy said, “Those were great days, really and truly. They were exciting.” She spoke about the early days of trying to find different venues, and later finding a home at Gaylord’s Restaurant.
She said that performance poetry was akin to acting. “I never was an actor, but I guess it’s sort of the same. For me, what I try to do is get into the frame of mind of who I imagine the speaker is, and just tell it like I’d be telling it to you.”
As Lisa Martinovic recalls, “Slam was new to the world and even newer to the Ozarks. In our writers groups we supported each other emotionally, as friends, and creatively, as fellow artists. Then we’d head to Uncle Gaylord’s or the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse for the next slam and hit the stage as fierce competitors It wasn’t long before Brenda’s brilliant writing was matched by her power as a performer.”
If there was any voice that she especially enjoyed slipping into, it was the sort of country woman that one recognized from so many of her poems, a primal, earthy tone that came through with startling clarity.
Though not attending many poetry slams since her diagnosis, she is still very supportive of the OPWC.
“I’m very weepy today,”she explained at one point during the interview. “Don’t think anything of it. I just have days like this.”
And then we began to speak of her illness.
“When It first got this, they were just giving me a couple of months, but I thought, I’m gonna a beat this, I’ve got to beat this.
“Nobody beats life.”
The last time Brenda Moossy and I had sat down for an interview, she had told me that “Life is just a crap-shoot.” She agreed with that assessment now.
“Although I gotta tell you, maybe it’s because there are no atheists in fox-holes, right, there is that thing of becoming more fatalistic from the standpoint of standing over razor blades and still coming out smelling like a rose. There is a comfort in that to me and the comfort is that you don’t go before your time.
“I think I’ve always been afraid of missing shit. When I was a kid I didn’t want to go to sleep, not because I was afraid of sleep, I didn’t want to miss anything. I think there may be a little of that going on with this.”
“If I though about it, I wouldn’t want to live so long that I would survive the passing of my friends, or survive my - “ Brenda lost composure for a moment here.
“I couldn’t bear it,” she said softly when she could speak again.
It was one of life’s cruel ironies that Brenda was diagnosed with lung cancer just days after she had quit smoking. Initially the feeling was that the cancer was operable, but such was not to be.
“I’ve battled depression most of my adult life. I used to say, ‘I wish I was dead.’ I’ll tell you what will cure that. A terminal diagnosis, because all of a sudden you go, ‘Oops! I don’t mean it!’” She laughed. “And that’s sort of what happened. It was sort of like, fuck me, I didn’t mean this.”
She had nothing but praise for the medical professionals that she had been dealing with over the past several years.
Looking on Brenda’s bookshelves, one could see Shakespeare, accompanied by One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Out of Africa, alongside works by Dylan Thomas, Ellen Gilchrist, James Lee Burke and Ray Bradbury, among others.
We spoke of writers that she particularly enjoyed, and new ones that she recommended to others. One thing that she was interested in doing before she passed was sitting in front of a camera and doing a series of Sittie (Arabic for grandmother) chronicles for her family.
“Initially I was thinking, I have two grandchildren, and the oldest has just turned four, and he might remember me. Maybe, vaguely. But the baby, Eli, who I think looks like me, he won’t remember me at all.
“I recognize that I’m whacked, and eccentric, and all of that kind of stuff, and I think it’s unfortunate because I think I would be a great Sittie to them.” She says that their parents, though marrying young, are atypical in that they are still very much in love.
“I think their folks are tremendous, but I also think it would have been neat for them to have access to the eccentric and the artistic. Who knows how they will turn out? They may have a little Moossy in the bunch.”
As she spoke of her love for family, she began to cry. I began to apologize, and she told me not to. After a few moments she began again. “Anyway, I want to do the Sittie stories so I can have a way of telling family stories.” She spoke of her Lebanese grandmother who - at age 12 - was married off to a man almost 20 years her senior.
Our interview was interrupted by someone bringing her lunch. Brenda explained that, due to chemo, she was often more thirsty than hungry, but she appreciated someone bringing her something.
“I have a terrific support system. I am fortunate in that I have made a of friends in this life.”
Life is a mystery, she mused, and you don’t get it till you’re near death.
“I hope if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I hope we run into the same people in different ways. How cool is that? You’ll see your wife, I’ll see my son, my parents, maybe in different ways?” She quoted a friend’s father, who was fond of saying that this life was school, all about learning.
“It’s kind of neat to think about post-graduate stuff,” she smiled.
Brenda Moossy died in January, 2009.
At the celebration of her life held in Fayetteville’s Town Center, those in the packed room shared stories of her life. Poems were read about Brenda, and some of her best-known poems were read aloud by her fellow members of the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective, some of whom traveled some distance in order to be at the Town Center that night.
As one of her fellow poets remarked about her that night, “She was proof to me that there was intelligent life in the Ozarks.”
If anyone actually needed evidence that Brenda Moossy was a transformational force in people’s lives, maybe it was provided by the man who claimed that one her poems had actually saved his life.
Brenda Moossy loved life, her dogs, her art, and her fellow travelers on this planet. That that love was more than returned was more than obvious that night.
I saw Brenda one last time after our interview, on the Fayetteville Square, near the end of Farmer’s Market season. Though obviously frail, she was in good spirits.
It just seems like a perfect memory - Brenda Moossy on the Fayetteville Square, laughing.