Andrea Carter Brown is a renowned poet whose book titled September 12 contains her collection of award-winning poems about 9/11 and its aftermath. She was living a single block away from the World Trade Center on 9/11; her eyewitness account of the attack and its aftermath is described in her impressive, award-winning book that contains masterly poems filled with astonishing beauty and wisdom. September 12, which has won many prestigious literary awards, was published in September 2021 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and it serves as a haunting memorial to 9/11.
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Andrea Carter Brown: A Traumatic Event Like 9/11 Changes You, But With Acceptance, Living Thoughtfully, And Being Honest With What You Are Feeling, Comes Healing
I hope this finds each of you so very well. I’m speaking to you from my studio in West Orange, New Jersey. I’m delighted to welcome poet, Andrea Carter Brown, whose book titled September 12 contains her collection of award-winning poems about 9/11 and its aftermath. Andrea will be speaking to us from Los Angeles, California, where she lives with her husband Thomas Drescher. Andrea is a former resident of downtown Manhattan, who was living a single block away from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Her eyewitness account of the attack and its aftermath is described in her impressive award-winning book that contains masterly poems filled with astonishing beauty and wisdom.
September 12, which has won many prestigious literary awards, was published in September 2021 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and it serves as a haunting memorial to 9/11. I’m looking forward to talking with Andrea about what inspired her to become a poet, her experiences the morning of 9/11, and how the intense trauma she endured eventually led Andrea to acceptance, healing, and more for what will surely be a stirring and unforgettable interview. Andrea, a warm heartfelt welcome to the show.
I’m so happy to be with you. I just need to say something quickly. The minute I heard your voice and I heard New Jersey, I felt right at home.
I’m so happy to do that for you. Thank you. Honestly, there are so many references. You’ve talked about Glen Rock? I’ve been to Glen Rock. You’re talking to me about all the references to this part of the country. It’s comforting for this Jersey girl to be talking to you with your reference points of New York and New Jersey, even though we’ve lost you to LA.
I will always be a Jersey girl. Where you’re living is noted on the map, which appears at the front of my book. I’ll mention why it’s there. It’s nice to talk with someone who knows Glen Rock because the poems about Glen Rock, where I was born and grew up, are at the heart of the book for me. It’s a small place. Part of the reason the poems about the eleven victims from Glen Rock are the heart of the book is because, in that small commuter community, everyone would’ve known everyone else.
It’s heartbreaking. Before I ask you my first question, I want to tell you this. I live across from The Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange, New Jersey, where people were able to see the World Trade Center that day. There was a memorial right across the street from me. I can’t even know the number of people who came to that site from all over Jersey and put pictures of loved ones and what was going on. They came to that site to see what had happened. Now, it’s a regular memorial where people come quite often to see the view of the New York skyline, and where the towers were. They have information about it and all of that. We both are very deeply associated with it.
First of all, my niece took me to that memorial. I’ve stood there and I’ve seen the skyline. The first time I stood there and saw the skyline, there was nothing to replace The Twin Towers. Now, there’s a lot. The whole skyline has changed in some ways, even Midtown. A lot of New Jersey communities suffered terribly.
It’s because so many people work in the city from New Jersey.
I’ve explained to many people where the commuter lines go affects who works in parts of New York. When I worked near Grand Central, most of the people I worked with came from Westchester. When I worked on the West Side, most of the people came from Long Island. When I lived downtown and I worked downtown also for a while, it could have been the parents of my childhood friends because those Jersey train lines went to Hoboken. Back then, there was a ferry. For a long time, there was no ferry. Now, there are ferries again, and there are the tubes, which did not exist when I was a child. There’s a very close connection between New Jersey and Lower Manhattan.
Let me ask you your first question. We know you’re a wonderful poet, but would you like to give us an overview of your life before you became a poet so we can know Andrea?
I’ll do the best I can. I came to poetry late. I always loved it. It was a love that my mother nurtured by giving me and reading poetry to me as a child. I’m going to be a little more explicit. I was born in Patterson, New Jersey.
By the way, I lived in Wayne. We’re neighbors.
I’ll give myself away obliquely by saying that I was born the same year that William Carlos Williams, the famous American poet, published his collection of poems about being a doctor in Patterson. I grew up my entire childhood very close by in Glen Rock, Ridgewood, and Wortendyke. I don’t even know if Wortendyke exists anymore. My father was a junior high school teacher and guidance counselor. My mother worked in the town library. Unlike the fathers mostly of all of my friends, they did not commute to Manhattan. We were a local family. My father got a job in Glen Rock after returning from World War II. My parents lived there until they retired and moved to Cape Cod.
I studied French in college. I love French literature. I love pretty much everything about the French, except that they’re crabby and are trending to the right politically. I did an ABD in French and woke up one morning. I would call this the first epiphany I had in my life. I had prepared myself to become a teacher and I never wanted to become a teacher. As the child of a teacher, I saw inside out what education was like. More power to the great teachers out there, even the okay teachers out there, but that was not where I saw myself. I always had a facility with numbers. I had been putting myself through college and graduate school working as a file clerk and a bookkeeper for law firms.
Where did you go to college?
I went to three different colleges. I started at Harper College, which is SUNY Binghamton. I went to Drew University. I finished up at NYU. I did my master’s degree in Paris at the University of Paris, which was also a life-changing experience.
I bet it was. That’s another interview.
I could talk about that until everybody falls asleep. I slid into doing accounting for small businesses. It was easy and finite. I’m going to digress a little bit. The life of a writer doesn’t have any definite finishing points. You write a poem, you finish it or you think it’s finished, you’re lucky if it gets published in a magazine. It might get picked up and published in an anthology, but you might revise it. It then goes into a collection, and you might revise it again. You then might have collected poems, and you might revise them again. It’s a constant process of evolution and becoming. In accounting, there is the month-end, quarter-end, and year-end. You close the books, you put them aside, and then you start all over again. That appealed to me. I did that for it 8 or 9 years, and then I had my other epiphany.
I woke up one morning and I was working very hard. I had a good job. My dad was very proud. I made more money in the beginning in the business than he was making as he was getting ready to retire. I looked at my life and I’m losing connection to everything about me, which I used to value because I was working long hours. I had no time for myself. I had no time for friends. I used to love to cook. I do love to cook, but I started burning things that I used to be able to make with my eyes closed.
I know this sounds crazy and I thought, “Is this what I want to be doing with my life?” I was considering getting an MBA at that point because I was far enough along that I needed a graduate degree to go further. I walked away from it. One week, I gave notice. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. We were living pretty close to the bone then. I wasn’t married yet but my now husband was getting started in his career and he supported me. Even though I had been the breadwinner, he had told me a long time before, “You should be a writer.”
He saw who you were.
I didn’t realize it. I started doing research for a book about a biography. Talk about taking on something completely out of your skillset. From not having written anything at all, not even a poem, I decided to write a biography of Clara Schumann. She’s a 19th-century piano-virtuoso, wife of Robert Schumann, and close confidant of Johannes Brahms. I love that music. My husband plays it at home all the time. I feel very lucky. I had to learn German. I had to learn about music. I went to East Germany, which is where the archives are. I came home and started writing it. I had a major publisher, which was very interesting, and I hit writer’s block.
You were supposed to be a poet. You were not supposed to write a book.
I like to think that’s the case. That’s how it worked out, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Was this in the 1980s?
Yes, this was in the 1980s.
Something happened in the ’80s that inspired you.
I’ll tell you what that was. I’m there at the NYU library with my note cards and my reference books writing a paragraph and crossing out a paragraph for months on end. I could not write the chapter about Clara’s conflict between her performance career and being a mother. She had seven children. This friend was going to this very famous series of literary readings at the 92nd Street Y.
It’s a famous place, for those of you who are not from New York City.
If you’re anywhere near New York City, it’s not to be missed. She said, “Why don’t you come with me for a break?” She didn’t even know who was reading. I met her up there. They turned down the lights. A young poet called Mary Jo Salter was reading from her award-winning collection, Henry Purcell in Japan. No sooner had she started reading, the floodgates opened up inside of me. I dug around in my bag for a scrap of paper and a pen. In the dark, I started scribbling. The poems that I wrote then were poems about going to East Germany and meeting people who told me not to stay in touch with them because they might lose their jobs if any male came from the West.
I had this incredibly intensive immersion, not only in the material of Clara Schumann. They let me handle all this original material, which I felt her presence. At night, I would spend time with the East Germans who were in the hotel where I was staying. We drank a fair amount of schnapps, but it was very friendly. We felt like we were friends, but it had to stop, so I couldn’t write about them. Not only could I not write to them, but I couldn’t write about them. It was those poems that spilled out of me as a result of Mary Jo Salter. I’ve had a chance to tell her that, which I’m glad. It wasn’t long before I found my bliss. This is what I wanted to do.
You’re now writing poetry and you’re doing your thing. Years later, you have this horrific experience on 9/11. I know from reading about you that it culminated from your husband thinking you had died, which is leading to this amazing book that you wrote. Would you tell us what you’d like to tell us about 9/11 and what you went through that day? You lived a block away from 9/11.
I lived a block as the crow flies. I was in the apartment that morning getting ready to go about my life. I was sitting, having a cup of coffee, and finishing the paper. It was about 9:00, the phone rang, and it was my sister who lives in North Carolina saying, “Are you okay?” Out of the blue blurting, “Are you okay?” I thought this is crazy. I said, “Sure. Why?” She said, “I just saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center.” I basically dropped the phone, ran to the other end of the same room which was the living room, looked out the living room window, and saw the fires way up.
I had to see everything. I had to open the window and stick my head out because I didn’t live on a high floor. I saw the North Tower and the ring of stories where flames were coming out of the windows that had broken, where black smoke was being lifted up almost like a curtain to the top of the building. There was like a black tornado rising above the building. You couldn’t see the top of it.
Did you see people jumping out of it?
I did. I saw people falling. More poignantly for me, I saw people inside floors trying to escape. When you’re in a traumatic situation, some of your senses shut down and other senses become more acute. My hearing was like I was deaf. I didn’t hear any ambulances. I hardly heard anything, not for a while. How could I see in such detail people on the 70th floor, but I did.
One of the things that I saw was a guy behind one of those narrow windows, taking a heavy office armchair, picking it up, and hurling it at the glass to break it. The glass was tempered every which way so that it wouldn’t break under the high winds that moved the buildings. On the same floor a little further away, the windows had burst out, so there were openings. I saw two young women crawl up onto the sill and put their feet dangling out over the outside of the building. Those openings were narrow, so they were shoulder-to-shoulder. I saw them look at each other, hold hands, and I saw them jump.
A lot of people died instantaneously or close to instantaneously. Other people died under circumstances over which they had absolutely no control. Other people had the experience of fleeing under such horrible conditions that it’s hard to imagine. To see people decide that they would rather jump to certain death than try to get out some other way, or hide, or any other futile thing that you could do has stayed with me.
You started running yourself, didn’t you? You saw that and you grabbed something, and then you started running. Your adventure is quite amazing and what you write about in your poetry. What was that about?
I knew right away that those towers were going to come down. A lot of people hung around. I didn’t change my clothes. I was wearing dirty clothes. I didn’t have a bra on. I didn’t have a belt on. My cell phone was almost dead. I grabbed a baseball hat because it was very sunny, my glasses, and my bag. I don’t know if I had any money in it, whatsoever.
You’re shocked and you’re scared. You had to get out of there.
I left within 2 or 3 minutes. I didn’t use the bathroom. Whatever I had on, I left with.
Did you start running?
I exited the building and I could see there were masses of people fairly nearby waiting to decide what to do. I couldn’t get away from there fast enough, so I headed south away from those people and away from the buildings. I ended up at the very bottom of Manhattan where the Staten Island Ferry docks. I was thinking that I was going to keep continuing up around the edge of Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge or something like that. Anywhere further would’ve taken me back close to the buildings again. There was a ferry. They said there was going to be a ferry. There were other people there, but they were all people who lived on Staten Island going home because buildings around the area had evacuated. We got on the ferry eventually, and then the ferry was engulfed in smoke.
You have to remember that I didn’t know what had happened. It could have been an even less localized disaster. I’m sitting on this ferry and we’re all wearing life vests, even though the windows wouldn’t open far enough for you to get out of the ferry with a life vest on. It was ridiculous. Nonetheless, we put the life vests on. Cell phones hadn’t been working.
It’s amazing to me that you even processed that with what you were going through.
All of your thoughts are focused on the people you love and survival. At least that’s what it was for me. There were other people I saw hanging around wanting to take pictures, trying to talk to people, write texts, and whatever as though it was their job to do that. My job was to stay alive.
You go to Staten Island. Now what?
That was when I fell apart. Up until that point, I was very focused. When I ended up on Staten Island, I didn’t know anybody there. I still hadn’t been able to reach Tom, even though with the last bars on my cell phone, I kept trying. There’s a park overlooking the harbor near the ferry terminal, and I collapsed on a bench there. There were some kids nearby watching. What you could see in the distance at that point was an enormous black cloud squatted on the horizon, higher than any skyscrapers, as wide as from New Jersey to Brooklyn. In fact, on the ferry coming across, we didn’t emerge from that cloud until we were beyond the Statue of Liberty.
The ferry started to move even though it was engulfed in smoke.
Yes, it did, and then it stopped again. It sat there for fifteen minutes dead on the water just floating in this black cloud, but it started up again. I hope those people have told their stories because I would like to hear them and read them. They found the route and they made it to Staten Island. We all looked back and saw things come out of the cloud. I mentioned in the book that at some point, we were in an area where the cloud was dissipating. I looked out of the window and I saw some people treading water in that very choppy bay trying to be rescued.
There was no way they could be rescued from a ferry. They were 20 feet away maybe. I was on the bottom birth, and that ferry was hauling then. I hope that some of the many boats which went out to help people found them and that they were able to keep their heads above water long enough.
Now, you’re in Staten Island. You eventually found your way to your husband, right?
Your husband thought you were gone.
My husband had not heard from me. He was where he was. They were watching TV. He was coincidentally at a business meeting in Westchester. If it hadn’t been on that day, he would’ve been going through the concourse to get the subway as the towers were hit. He was in a car so they didn’t know what was happening. He got to where the meeting was. It was almost 10:00. As he walked into the room, the first tower came down, which was the South Tower. He looked at his boss and said, “My wife is dead.” It was three more hours before I was able to reach him. During that time, he was convinced I was gone. If he had been there and I had been away and knew how close he was to what was going on, I would’ve thought he was dead myself.
What prompted you to write this book, September 12? How was that process healing for you when you were writing it?
Early on, I thought that my experience was not reflected by what people were seeing and hearing. Until I was on Staten Island, I never saw the iconic TV shots of the plane going into the North Tower or the South Tower. I believe in telling stories. I believe that the more particular the stories are, the more people can connect to them. I still believe that this book adds to the historical record. I have taken absolutely no factual liberties with the material. Even in the description, which is maybe heresy for a poet to say since we’re supposed to be poetic and a poem is the life of the imagination. I believe that poems can tell stories.
They certainly do.
While I was writing it for the first 3 or 4 years, it was extremely difficult every time to write vividly about the experience. I had to go there again. Every time I went there again, I felt the same things, including the physical symptoms of what I now have from exposure to the dust. I had rashes on my skin. I have asthma. I had high blood pressure. I would work on it for a while, and then when the symptoms got too bad, I would stop. The next week, I would go back to it.
You didn’t have those symptoms before.
Since we’re talking about it and it wasn’t quite healing for you yet because you were getting triggered as you were writing it. Let’s talk about your exquisite poem titled Learning To Write since we’re talking about your writing it because it touches on the theme of rebirth. I think everyone in our audience will appreciate hearing you read this incredible poem. It is such an example of your book filled with incredible poetry. Please read.
Thank you, Irene.
You’re right that this poem is emblematic of the process of healing and the actual healing experience while not being about it explicitly at all. The title is Learning to Write, and it was prompted by an experience I had at Higbee Beach, which is in Cape May in May of 2014, so that’s thirteen years later.
“Six months, I couldn’t write. Words lost their connection to the world. Meaning itself seemed impossible, a futile gesture, but it’s hard to live without faith. Faith that language can bridge our differences. Once I saw three species of warblers share a single oak willow, blackburnian, flame-throated, flitted about the sun-licked top, chestnut-sighted in the shade at the bottom, and the babe rested within the canopy. A tree offering a feast to exhausted migrants. Edward Hicks painted the peaceable kingdom over 60 times as if art could make it so. If lions can lie down with lambs and serpents lead a child to safety, why can’t we live and let live without killing each other? But they don’t. Neither can we.
“In May, I come upon a plump yellow warbler perched at eye level on a nest at the edge of a field, no cup. This nest is more of a stove pit, an upside-down top hat, four times this spring to judge from its height. A brown-headed cowbird laid an egg in the yellow warbler’s nest hoping the smaller bird will raise the gigantic chick as her own. Four times so far, the warbler added a new story on top of the old, abandoning one clutch to lay another. Four times already, she has accepted what she can’t change and moved on.
“Accept what is and move on. Just as birds, the world overdo and have done for millions of years along coasts, across oceans, up and down rivers, the Mississippi, the Delaware, my beloved Hudson, the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates. From one hemisphere to the other and back, birds have found their way. Consider that bird sitting on that skyscraper of a nest. Her yellow breast, bright as sunlight. Her gaze unwavering, unflinching. Imagine everything she has done to get here. Perhaps we too can find our way.”
Thank you, Andrea. What would you like to share with us about how therapy helped you to begin to heal?
It took me a long time to get into therapy afterward. Not that I hadn’t done therapy before and had a good experience, but there was a certain boosterism, which we heard about that we shouldn’t let 9/11 defeat us. We should move back into our poisoned homes. We should try to resume our normal lives as though life was going to be the same. It wasn’t, but we spent a lot of psychic energy pretending that it might be like that.
I moved to California when it became clear that it was too toxic in every way for me to stay in that apartment. Only when we had settled here that I started to feel safe. We’re talking 7 to 8 years later. I had another difficult experience, which brought up all of 9/11. I fell apart more thoroughly than I had fallen apart physically after 9/11. I found I had to do something. I was lucky to find a therapist who was equipped. She had worked with veterans coming back from Iraq, dealing with PTSD. She herself had suffered a great deal. She helped me see the correlation and allowed me to feel grief for the first time. Until I felt that grief, I did not begin to recover.
You had to be so brave through everything, and you probably couldn’t let yourself feel that vulnerable.
It is true. I write about this in the book. In the beginning, my husband took on a lot of things because I couldn’t, Red Cross, FEMA, insurance, and dealing with the apartment which I described what it looked like to go back to. About a year after that, he fell apart. He had a delayed reaction, so I had to sort of re-step to the plate. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we made it through that time. Something kept us moving forward.
I didn’t want to be defined by this moment but this moment changed my life, so I didn’t want to deny it either. To find a balance between those two things. To learn to live with it. To learn to live with recurring and refreshening of the feelings of trauma. I’m probably going to say something that a lot of your audience won’t agree with, but I personally do not like the word closure. The more I hear it, the more upset I get about it.
Why is that?
I think that closure implies putting something behind you, as opposed to accepting something and learning how to live with it, and to move forward from it. I feel like I have a vastly greater appreciation for what life is and can be because of what I carry around in me from this event.
I also want to submit that I think some of what helped you get through was it sounds like you have a wonderful bond with your husband. Even though you both went through a lot, you had therapy and you had a bond with him. That probably carried you through in a lot of ways.
You’re right. For all the ways, I feel lucky that I have a partner who’s been with me all the way. I don’t think he would quarrel with the statement that we had a good marriage before 9/11, but we have a great marriage now. I’m hitting the table because I am a superstitious person.
Because with 9/11 and all, you went to therapy. That probably brought out a lot of issues that gave you the chance to work on them to make them even better. I’m a big believer in that. You also state that you see losses open the chance for something new. Do you want to say anything more about that to our audience?
I’ll say a little something. Just like with letting possessions go, you have to free up your inner self to be open to new experiences. You can’t feel love or joy if you’re living in the past. You could feel love for the past, for people who have been part of your life, and for the passage that brought you, but finding joy, birds helped me with that, to come back to that poem. Without joy, you’re living but you’re not alive.
That’s absolutely true.
Tom was the birder before me. He introduced me to it. He was introduced to it by his grandparents in Central Park when he was a little boy. One of the first things that we did when we bought our first car was we went to a birding refuge out by JFK. He showed me the birds that his grandparents had shown him. What happens when you bird is you go away. You’re trying to be as open as possible to this other world.
The life of a bird is very straightforward. It’s about staying alive, eating, and reproducing. Yet, if you observe birds, they have personalities. The interactions between species are pretty straightforward. If you can lose yourself in contemplating another kind of life, it’s a great relief from the burden of what you’re carrying around yourself. It’s one of the reasons why birding has become more popular.
In a way, your loss was an opening and you found this new passion for birding.
I found another new passion. When we moved to California and finally settled here, we bought a very small house, and the house came with citrus trees. Here I am, a girl who grew up in New Jersey with two orange trees, two lemon trees, a lime tree, and a tangerine tree. We’re going to put in a loquat tree. You live by the seasons of the flowering, the bees come, and the little fruits form. The fruits are green and they get bigger all the time. A year later, you get to eat them. They’re incredible.
They’re yours and you grew them.
You can’t take any credit for them because they do it, no matter what.
For anyone who wants to contact you through your website, I know you must have one to get ahold of you. I’m sure they can get your book in the show notes, September 12. It’s wonderful. Would you like to tell everyone how they can reach out to you?
I’d love to because I’d love to hear from people.
Everyone, read her book and reach out to Andrea. Let her know how her words touched you.
Thank you. They can reach me through my website. My website is www.AndreaCarterBrown.com. There’s a contact button at the top, and those emails will come right to me. I welcome comments or hellos. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, and all the platforms, except LinkedIn. I won’t go the corporate route, but it comes to me and I will respond.
Besides watching birds and growing fruit, do you have another tip for finding joy in life?
You’ve probably heard this from everybody else, but let go of the clutter. Pay attention to what you’re feeling. Don’t pretend it’s something else, but let it sink in and act on it. When I lived in New York City, I lived in a small apartment for about fifteen years. I worked full-time in business and I got feeling very closed in. Every once in a while, I would take what’s called a mental health day. I would get on a train. I didn’t have a car, and I would go to Boston for the day. I would go to Philadelphia, or if I got up early enough, I would go to Washington, DC for the day. It wasn’t to see people. I would walk around. Sometimes I would go to a museum. Sometimes I would treat myself to a nice lunch. From the beginning to the end of that trip, I felt like I was feeding myself.
It was self-love. You were taking care of yourself.
I miss being able to do that out here because it’s not a public transportation life. Although I always carry a notebook with me and something to write with, I never know when I’m going to get an idea. If I only have my cell phone, I have about 200 texts on it with ideas. I don’t feel like I have to do something with them. A lot of people who feel the impulse to write feel like they have to create something. It’s a good thing just to keep a record of things that occur to you, whether they come out of your mind or whether you observe them walking down the street or overhear them in Starbucks or wherever you get your coffee. The sum of those things is an expression of your personality. If you honor that, you will give yourself something to carry around. That’s part of healing.
Andrea, that’s a beautiful way to conclude this interview. I want to tell everyone that September 12 is such an incredibly brave book that documents both great loss and hard one psychic resilience. I congratulate you on that. Yours is such an inspiring story of acceptance, healing, and rebirth. Thank you for gifting us with a reading of your poem, Learning to Write, from your remarkable book. I also thank you from my heart for this truly unforgettable interview.
Here is a loving reminder for everyone. You can see the all Grief and Rebirth episodes on IreneWeinberg.com. Make sure to follow us and like us on social at @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and especially on YouTube. Like, subscribe, and hit notify to make sure you’ll get inspiring new interviews just like this one with Andrea Carter Brown coming your way. Thank you so much. As I like to say, to be continued. Many blessings. Bye for now.
- Andrea Carter Brown’s book: September 12
- Andrea Carter Brown’s Website
- Connect with Andrea Carter Brown on Facebook and Twitter
- Mary Jo Salter’s book: Henry Purcell in Japan
- Irene Weinberg on Instagram
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- Irene Weinberg on Twitter
- Irene Weinberg – Grief, Rebirth + Healing Podcast on YouTube