Recently, members of BL&D had a chance to sit down with Brett Maddux, the man behind the Diners of Connecticut instagram. Things got interesting relatively quickly. Take a look at our engaging and candid conversation below.
By: ONYEKA OBIOCHA, JOSHUA JENKINS & NAMULEN BAYARSIAHAN
Editing by: QUENTON NARCISSE
Photography by: JOSHUA JENKINS
Namulen: How many diners have you been to so far?
Brett: I’ve been to like one hundred and fifty. I’ve been to more than I’ve used so far. I’ll start a new one at any place that I go to, but I’ll be working on like 6 other things. I bring the same notebook everywhere I go and then just add to a bunch of different thoughts or go back and edit something. So some of them I’ve been to but haven’t completed my writing there.
Ony: Are you going to go back there to complete that specific poem? Or are you going to finish it somewhere else?
Brett: I mean-- I am only as talented as, you know, like, meager talent. So, what I do, if I have nothing [is] I’ll just sit there and read for while and then sketch in my mind and sort of on my page what the diner looks like. So less of the idea of what I’m trying to get across and more of just what it looks like there.
Brett: And then, I will go back and sort of use that. The poems aren’t specifically about the diner so it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m at that spot when I finish it, but it’s more like what idea was sort of thought about there. Some of them, there’s a few in Naugatuck, where [the poem] has nothing to do with the places I was. it was just a day where I was particularly inspired. So I went to a bunch of different spots but I ended up writing like 10 poems there. I do my best. If the fire is burning, let’s just fucking go and just deal with it later. And if I have nothing, it’s okay to have nothing. Sometimes you don’t have anything.
Namulen: What inspires you about diners? Is it the Americana vibe? Is it the people?
Brett: I just want snacks, I guess. [laughs]. And it’s interesting because usually when you come to a spot like this, or even just now before you guys got here: there were these two women sitting right here and they were having a conversation about this other woman that they spend time with, who they hate. Typically when you come here, it’s almost always old people. It’s just like a lot of old people. This is the spot that they come to.
Josh: This is the spot that my grandfather used to bring me to as a kid all of the time.
Brett: Yeah. And they come here with their other old friends and so you get to overhear conversations. In my free time, I don’t spend a lot of time with hyper, elderly people. And so, it’s a nice chance to hear that.
Usually when I come, I’m always by myself. So you talk to the waitress about her life or about how long she’s been at that diner and sometimes it’s like 30 years. And it’s interesting to learn about what they’ve been up to. I remember on Mother’s Day: I went to this place in New Britain called Ms. Washington Diner and the two waitresses were a mother and a daughter and I was like, “Oh, y’all get to be here together on Mother’s Day” and they were like, “Yeah, we get to be with each other every day – this doesn’t really feel that good.” [laughs].
And they were like, “Where’s your mother?” and my mother’s dead, so I was like, “Oh. You know… she’s not around.” But it was an interesting thing to happen. And then I talked to this woman in this diner in Plainville that’s actually the most beautiful diner I’ve been to. It’s called Main Street diner and it’s just this beautiful, old diner. But that woman, she and I were talking about Florida, which is like a shit-hole. It sucks. And she was like, “I lived there for a year because my father was sick.” And I was like, “Well… that still sucks that you lived in Florida.” But then she started telling me this whole back-story of her life and [how] her son died in this motorcycle accident. It’s just interesting to learn about people’s lives like that.
Ony: It’s funny because I’ve read both of the poems you’ve written at those places and it’s funny hearing the backstory because those poems really focused on - the Florida one especially, although it’s lined with humor - it kind of shows Florida as a “bad place” as seen through someone else’s lens. And then the other one at Ms. Washington Diner, in terms of like the mother-daughter comparison, waking up in the morning and seeing her all day, and having to share that life, those are like specific examples you’ve took from the waitresses and turned that into poetry.
Brett: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I always think about that and I talk to them about it when I’m doing it because I don’t want to feel like this 'lecture-ist' person, stealing things from them. I’m coming here to write. that’s what I’m here for. So it’s interesting. I always tell them, “I would have never written these things if it was not for you all.” I would’ve still written today but it wouldn’t have been this and I wouldn’t have known these things. So it’s like the more I do it, the more I learn the value. Otherwise, what I would do is sit on the stoop in front of my house and write, which is fine. It brings about other interesting things and I still do that.
But it’s fun to get out and just be in an environment you’ve never been in before and see what that inspires in you. It can be as random as like - I was in this diner and I was sitting at the bar, and then down from the bar you could see this box of sugars that they had to give people for their coffee. And on the box is just says, “Use me last”. And I was like, “Oh. Shit.” So I just wrote that down and wrote this poem. I find that often when I’m writing these, they become much more fictional than what I write otherwise. Usually, I just write about my ex-girlfriend, or like my mom, or like whatever-the-fuck.
Namulen: I got that from your diner poems when I was reading them. It came from like a place that didn’t seem like you but like a character.
Brett: Yeah, it’s much more like that. There was one that I wrote: I was driving to this diner in Watertown. Watertown? It was called Dottie’s.
Josh: Oh, I remember Dottie’s.
Brett: And there was this like semi-truck as I was pulling up the exit. On the back of the semi-truck it said, “Jesus is my savior” or some shit like that. So when I got there, I wrote this whole poem— in like a single stream of thought, which is not typically what I do—about me living in this apartment building where this dude Jesus lives upstairs and like beats the shit out of his girlfriend then like asks me for cigarettes. That’s not ordinarily the way that I write but I don’t know, it inspires something else when you are consciously deciding to do that. And the things that I read when I go to [diners], or this sort of principle of the writers I’m trying to think about while I’m writing them, are much more fictionally-based. Like who I have right here or James Dickey. There’s a few different ones where they’re much more fictional so it’s interesting to read their shit and see what that does to my head.
Ony: From reading your poems, it almost seems like it’s just one character experiencing a bunch of other things, you know? And I feel like it’s such a juxtaposition as people know you, I mean as tall, happy Brett and you’re really pointing out some darker motifs.
Namulen: A really intense reality.
Ony: Yeah. There’s a similar line and a similar writing style that feels like this other person that shit just keeps happening to. In a lot of ways it’s like just reading sometimes a diary, sometimes a personal narrative, of things happening to the same person. How do you draw that out? Where is that coming from?
Brett: I don’t know. I think those are true things about myself. There was one that I wrote, I think it was actually the one I wrote at the Main Street Diner, which was like the shortest thing I’ve ever written. I had just started dating a new person who had read everything that I had written. And typically the things I had written prior to this—I write a poem every day—I don’t really show them to anyone. And so, I’m very honest with myself, usually. So there’s these fucking brutal, evil, terrible things I’ve done to people, or ways I’ve hurt women or terrible things I’ve done. And if people ask to see them, I always show them because why not? So I showed them to the new girl that I was dating and I got there and wrote this 10-line poem that was like, “Between love and writing, I’m running out of places to hide who I am from others..”
Brett: And then it was like, “I gotta take up knitting or something to do with cats. Find some new place to let the evil pulse…” It’s this idea that inside of me there really are all of these terrible things that I’ve done and I know who I really am. But when I write it down and if other people see it then it’s like, “Oh shit. Now they know too.” I gotta do a better job of hiding this shit. [laughs]
Ony: One thing I’ve always liked about writing in general is how vulnerable people allow themselves to be. Me personally, I’ve always felt like I’m inherently an evil person who tries to do good things, you know what I mean? How do you see yourself under that lens, especially for your writing? Is the writing your true self or is this your true self but just a fictional character of other things going on with you?
Brett: I think it’s like both because in my day-to-day life, I’m being who I really am. But I also know all of the things that I’m not saying and all of those sort of, natural impulses I have that I sort of am burying deep inside of me all of the time. I used to be a much more stubborn, terrible person. About halfway through college, I sort of made a decision not to do all of the evil shit I did before. And it’s like a process: you do better or worse on certain days. But I think the writing is a chance to actually say a lot of the stuff I don’t say otherwise. It’s also a way of exposing things that are otherwise true, but I don’t just sit around talking about my sex life or something. I’m not just like, “Wanna hear a story?”
No, I don’t do that. But in the writing, I do. When I submitted to be in the [contest], I intentionally submitted something that I thought would completely disqualify me, which was one that I had written at a diner. That was about this hyper-violent, sexual experience. The poem itself I think is actually quite good but otherwise, people wouldn’t know that shit. I almost submitted it just to be like, “Take a look at that.” It’s something about me very violently choking people and talking about hating family members - just like all of this fucked up shit. Or like selling flowers when you’re a little kid—it’s like all of these aspects of me are true but are easier to write down than they are to say out loud. Sometimes.
"i used to be a much more stubborn, terrible person. about halfway through college, i sort of made a decision not to do all of the evil shit i did before. and it’s like a process: you do better or worse on certain days."
Josh: Leading back to the first diner, at what point did you realize, “Wow. This is an environment that I can use as a source for inspiration”? Or was it like you went to one diner, you went to another diner, and said, “Oh, hey. I can kind of make something out of this?”
Brett: That’s an interesting question. So I had been to a few - huh, when did I decide that I just wanted to keep going? There’s like this obsession in my mind sort of where once I decide something is happening, it’s gonna fucking happen. I mean, I used to take a picture out of the front door of my house every, single day. And the reason I did that was because I decided that I was going to. Just like this obsessive desire. don’t miss a day. every single day, take this picture. When I was done with it, I was very glad I did it. I had an entire year of just like fucking—this house accrued beauty to me based on the fact that I was paying attention to it.
But I had gone to a couple of [diners] and I had been writing at them and I sort of looked at the writing I was doing and I was like, “This is kind of interesting. Maybe I should just keep trying to do this.” I had gone to some back home to do writing and there was this girl that I had dated in college who worked at this diner in Iowa City where I had went to school. I went there and visited her and did a lot of writing. I was like, “Ah. This is like a really good spot. They give you coffee here, you can get food and then you can just sit here and just listen.” If I was at like a coffee shop or something, I’d feel like I would have to move around or get the fuck up but if I’m at an otherwise completely abandoned diner, I don’t really feel the desire to speed myself up. So I can just sit there and be patient and see how the writing comes. So I think it was sort of I had been going to a few in Manchester and towns around that area, I had done a lot of writing at them, then I was like, “Ah, I think I might as well keep doing this.”
The one in Plainville was sort of a turning point; that woman’s story was very inspiring to me. I’ve been to ones prior to that. I used to go to them just to go to a fucking diner. But I always did writing on those days too, and so I knew what days I went there and I could just look at the writing I had done that day and sort of use that too. It was this interesting combination. The benefit of writing every day is if I didn’t know which one it was at, I could just look at what date it was on my phone and then just look at what date it was in my notebook or in my email drafts and just know which ones corresponded to what - Which is kind of fascinating because sometimes I could go back and read them and wouldn’t even realize that that’s where I had written it because nothing of that is distinctly about that place.
Ony: You told me a while ago that you have a benchmark in terms of what you order to realize how you actually like the diner itself. Can you explain that to me again?
Brett: Yeah, I mean even when I order here, I always order a veggie omelet, home fries, and rye toast. Or if I’m only going to go to one diner a day, then I’ll sometimes order two meals. I'll order that and French toast just to see if they are either very good at one of those things or extraordinarily bad at one of those things. Today, I’ll probably go to another one tonight because I have to go to Southern Connecticut. And so I’ll probably hit one down there. So I don’t need to eat double-breakfast today. Usually I see if they’re very good. Omelets are a hard thing to fuck up but people are capable of fucking it up. [laughs] I have been a party to that. There’s one place I’ve been to that had omelet in the name of the restaurant and had the worst fucking omelet. I was like, “This is fucking terrible. Y’all should change the name. People are coming here asking for omelets and you really suck at this.” But I’ve had some fucking amazing omelets and this place just didn’t live up to my expectations. But I wrote a good poem there, so who cares.
Josh: So as far as friends go, and it’s a whatever-bullshit day, and it’s like “let’s get something to eat”, is it like, “Oh, Brett’s around. We’re going to have to go to a diner..”
Brett: [laughs] Well, I’d go get pizza or something. But some of them are super into it, so they’ll be like, “Do you wanna go find one?” and I’m like, “Fuck yeah, I wanna go find one.” Actually, my boss does that too. We travel around the state and we’ll have extra time in some town. Once, we did this in Hamden where we were just in Hamden and had to go to some other place where we had an hour before we had to be there, and Chris was like, “Do you wanna go to a diner?” and I was like, “You fucking bet I wanna go to a diner.” We went to The Brownstone House or something like that. And he knows who I am, so he was super supportive of the page. He’s on Instagram and he follows eight people on Instagram. It’s like: the President, the Vice President, a couple of other senators, and then the diners.
It’s like this weird mixture of people. He’s very supportive of it, but he also knows that I go there to write. So I was like, “We can go, but you can’t talk to me for a little while because I gotta do some writing.” So we went and I did writing then we just talked about life and bullshit. But he’s been to a bunch of them with me. One of my friends Alex - he’s very into the idea of doing it, so whenever we have free time and he’s hungry, he’s like, “You wanna go find a diner?” He’s very good for me because it could be a day that I wasn’t going to do it but he’s down so it’s like, shit. Let’s go. I can do it.
Ony: were you going into it thinking one day, even just being a poet in general? Not just with diners but “I want people to read my work” or is it like “I am doing this for me”?
Brett: No, I have really no desire to have people read the things I write mainly because I think they’re fine, but I went to school for poetry and I never really liked poetry. Most of the things that I read didn’t really light me up inside, but the things I did really, really did. I’m conscious of the fact that for most people, poetry is kind of bullshit. I don’t really mind. I just do it because it feels good to do it. So the idea of having people read it is largely irrelevant to me because I do it almost as therapy.
Namulen: It’s like a lot of self-reflection. It seems like this is a way for you to meditate in your life.
Brett: Yeah, exactly.
Namulen: It’s very systematic. You kind of do the same things over and over again and you’re kind of in a similar setting although they’re all different.
Brett: And it forces me to pay attention to shit where it’s like if you’re writing about the same things over and over again about some evil shit you’re doing, then why the fuck am I doing that? It forces you to re-evaluate it. It really truly is like therapy and I show it to anyone who asks, I don’t mind. I don’t mind people reading it but I would never submit it to anything. Mainly because too, when I was in school, I went to the University of Iowa and all of these people there were submitting to these journals and stuff and it becomes quite clear to you that the idea of being published or being in these journals is not really merit-based, but who you know, who you’ve been romantically involved with. all of this different kind of bullshit that largely doesn’t interest me.
Usually when I read those things, some of the people who submit to them and are published are quite good and some of them are real garbage. It’s whatever. I wouldn’t feel better or validated by being there. So I just put them on my computer and just file them away. When I started this job that I have now is when I started writing one every day. I used to write a lot anyway. I got committed to one a day when I got this job because I wanted this to be who I was. So now I have like 700, 800 poems just sitting around in my computer, which is nice. One day, I’ll be a very old man and look back and I’ll remember my life from this time in a much more vivid way than I would if I wasn’t doing this.
Ony: Especially because when you read your stuff, it kind of brings you back to the real situation that you had around them. When we read it, it’s more like fiction because we don’t see the basis of the inspiration you had in a lot of things that you’re writing. But you know what this was based off of. Like, “Ohh, yeah. This is loosely based off of the two women I saw at the diner, the mother-daughter combo.”
Brett: And I can remember the context too. This one is these two women doing this thing that they’re doing…they’re making fun of this woman about this crate of oranges, which is fascinating, and they’re talking about how much they hate her, etc. And I had just recently gone on a break with my girlfriend, so I’m thinking about that too. So the poem itself is largely working through my own shit in the context of what they’re talking about. The poem itself will probably be about a crate of oranges and it’s also about the table in front of where we were sitting. this girl was talking about what’s going to happen to her when she dies. She was like, “When I die, do this, this, and this...”, And so that was apart of it to where I was sort of listening to both things and making them into one thing while also consciously thinking about the fact that emotionally, the fucked up shit I’m going through right now in my own head, and how to just layer all of those things together into one poem about oranges to the best of my ability. One day I’ll read “A Crate of Oranges” and I’ll be like, “Awh, man. I was so sad that day.” something that would otherwise mean absolutely nothing to me.