Kathy Fagan’s newest collection is Lip (Eastern Washington UP, 2009).
She is also the author of the National Poetry Series selection The Raft, the Vassar Miller Prize winner MOVING & ST RAGE, and The Charm. Fagan is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Ohioana Library, and the Ohio Arts Council. She is currently Professor of English at Ohio State and Editor of The Journal.
The palazzo di Maia flushed coral at dusk,
blossom of rosy chocolate, bowl of oxblood bloom.
When dusk falls in Godthab, now known as Nuuk,
reindeer lick the fawns clean, eat placenta off snow,
the tundra spotted with birth each May, with spring
lichen and low, red cabins, like flowering quince
at our latitudes. Ancient herders honored the ox,
crowned it leader of a new alphabet. In another story,
because its sound is silent, God rewarded the humble
letter with first place. Only one in three reindeer
bears a live calf anymore, but warm as the earth gets,
no one will ever instruct an Inuit to cut flowers
on a slant with a sharp knife in the cool part of day.
Quince will never bloom there, or set its fruit,
which is a pome, and in its raw state inedible,
but once bletted, makes a sweet liqueur or marmalade.
POEM WITH ITS HEART BURIED UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS
A long time you have been frowning, Mr. Poe.
For a long time grandfathers & their charges
walk from the library into days of black & white.
Large cars move funereally under black trees, black
birds; the sky is white, the lawns white where snow
has fallen. In spite of the snow, nothing is beautiful,
& it is always 4 on a post-meridiem Sunday.
The floor may creak—a cri de coeur—
but outside two teens outpace a white panel truck
climbing uphill in the slush. For a long time
the wheels have been spinning, Mr. Poe.
Our charges don’t hear. Nor do they speak.
Their earbuds are white as snow.
They have some place to get to & they go.
LIFE, WITH EYELINER
Fellini’s ship sunk in undulant lamé. The soprano sung an aria through it, and later, wore
it to the wrap party. Nor did the refugees drown, but emigrated and multiplied,
bequeathing nothing to their children but their wiles and animal magnetism.
The rat lying drowned at the curb near the storm drain is not a rat but a puppy. Is one
duty of art, likewise, to turn repulsion to sympathy?
When the Gulf receded, Katrina survivors widely tattooed themselves with fleurs de lis,
an emblem of New Orleans. Hospitalized for hepatitis, one citizen said, I like my tattoos
like my disasters: homemade.
French monarchs adopted fleurs de lis from the Florentine Medicis; its upright stem,
standards and falls, like a sword or a cross in a field. Some see penises, uncircumcised.
The Capuchins of Rome arranged the bones of their dead to resemble French scrolls and
rosettes. The original Corvette bore the fleur de lis logo as a nod to the heritage of Louis
Chevrolet; Detroit displays it on its flag.
The eye Fellini cast on life, on death, was less cold than kohled: grotesque but sweet.
When the water rises, working men and women know to park their Chevies aimed uphill,
for the good it does them, gassed to the golden hilt.
Kathy Fagan Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
I’m particularly interested in the origins of two of the poems gathered here in A Poetry Congeries, “Elelendish” and “Life, With Eyeliner.” In the latter, I’m drawn into the poem by its yoking together of historical and contemporary information and by how the poem manages to make these things cohere. In the former, I’m compelled by the strange world of the poem, the ritual and transformation. Could you speak to these poems and how they came to you?
I’ve been working on a strongly thematically unified—for me— series of poems for over a year, John, so I’m not entirely sure yet how the poems here fit into the mix, except that they are, like the poems in the series, interested in metamorphoses and query. “Elelendish,” an archaic word for foreigner, strives to imagine birth, heat, spring, and other life-giving elements in an environment that might be considered hostile, even antithetical to them. The lush and familiar, if fabular, “palazzo di Maia” is set in opposition to the wild and unknown, if equally fabular, frozen north. As a result of that exercise the poem somehow discovers both its own myth and science: etymological/cultural origins and the cold—or rather, less cold every day—fact of global warming and the ways in which that fact domesticates, literally brings home, what is terrifying to us. I’m also very drawn to how the somewhat Stevensian language of the poem’s opening morphs into the jargon of botanical text by poem’s end. Those textures that language makes are irresistible to me.
“Life, with Eyeliner” draws directly from Fellini’s 1984 film “And the Ship Sails On,” a very strange and horribly cheerful movie. I don’t often work in prose but this poem required a discursive, liberated line. In form, spirit, and rhetorical inquiry the poem reminds me of the Hitler poem, “Leap of Faith,” in my last collection, Lip. Both use the technique of accumulating journalistic “facts” in order to create a new emotional fact or some undeniable bit of human knowledge. And both poems feature historical figures and events: in “…Eyeliner,” the Medicis, Hurricane Katrina, and Yeats; in “Leap…,” Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and the Holocaust. I’m glad you find that the information in the poem coheres, but I don’t think of myself as an expert in that regard. I’ve always liked to play with small scraps and miniatures, to make little tableaux and collages; that comes naturally to me. I’m a gatherer, a non-linear thinker; poetry is traditionally very capacious, open to juxtaposition, opposition, and elliptical thought. I’m lucky to have found it.
One thing I’ve admired in your work over the years has been your allegiance to whatever form or aesthetic suits a particular poem’s content rather than to a particular style. So your oeuvre is full of received forms, organic forms, experimental gestures, etc. Has this been a deliberate decision? What do you feel is gained by such variety, or lost?
Oh, it’s hard to say. Perhaps I’d have been better off professionally to have sawed with an old saw for the past 25 years. But I get bored so easily, and I just don’t want to read or write the same poems again and again. To put it in a more positive light, I’m “into the poetry,” as my dad would say, precisely for the discovery part, formally, thematically, and otherwise. I’m curious about many things and do a lot of research. I usually know which poets I need to consult on a challenge of composition or voice or meter or diction, etc, and they’re rarely the same poets for each poem. Likewise, as you say, I’ve written in rhyme, traditional forms, prose, long lines, short lines, measured lines, and syllabics; in lyric and narrative modes and modes I have no names for; in my own voice and in many personae; in dictions high and low and in between. My sense is that the decision to do so is one that I don’t make alone but in consultation with each poem as it’s being made. I’m very interested in aesthetics and form as ideas; I love to think and talk about them. But I never think about them when I work. When I work my attention is given over entirely to the syllable, the sound, the phrase, the image, the line, the sentence, the shape, the associations, and the interiors revealed to me through an openness to all of these. I’ve been very enamored of voice, persona, character, and portrait in the past two or three books; but more recently I find myself trying harder to allow the poems to listen than to get them to speak.
As a poet, teacher, and editor, you have a strong, personal sense of the state of the art. To me, we seem to be in a period of great democracy, with many venues available to all manner of poetic styles; yet, at the same time, we as well appear to be in a period of self-imposed cloistering, where various groups of aesthetically like-minded poets publish only in certain journals, teach only at certain schools, are willing only to help students write the sort of poem they themselves write. We write negative reviews of poetry collections not because a book doesn’t fulfill its promise within the aesthetic register in which it was written, but because it’s not written within the aesthetic confines that a particular reviewer admires and, of course, in which the reviewer writes his or her own poems. At AWP, we tend to huddle together and whisper awful things about “other” poets under our breath. Our anthologies, whatever the foreword matter may claim to be the case, are most often clique-driven love fests rather than more comprehensive looks at the poetries available to us at this point in time. The formalists over there, the ellipticals over here, etc. Am I wrong? How do you see things?
Poets are so pessimistic and so very hard on one another. I understand but I do not approve. And I try not to participate. I’m grateful, for my sake and the sake of my students, that so many poetries are available to us now. When I was an MFA student, no one wrote traditionally formal verse; if they did, they did it secretly, and very few places published it. Nor was the prose poem as commonly practiced and published then as it is now. Performance, as a concept, applied strictly to those in theater and the music and dance fields. Theory hadn’t captured the imaginations of young poets, never mind technology, which was, beyond basic word processing, non-existent.
From that dino-perspective, I’m inclined to think that all the other stuff, the cliques and other concerns driven almost exclusively by the business of poetry rather than the art of it—assuming it’s not completely ridiculous to link the words business and poetry together in one sentence—is temporal. I’m not hiding my head in the sand when I say that. I understand that to have books in print, to be widely anthologized, to appear in leading literary magazines and to win prizes and be reviewed regularly insures a place among poetry’s small readership that is indeed both desirable and enviable. But I’m too busy to worry about it, and I find it artistically and spiritually corrosive to do so. Besides, I love what I do. I come from a working-class family, I put myself through college, I’ve been hungry—now I spend my days teaching, reading, and writing poems. It’s real work alright, and there’s nothing “ivory tower” about it in my experience, but it’s way more fulfilling than what my parents did for a living. Why would I care overly much about who’s in what anthology or who’s talking, or, more likely, not talking about me behind my back at AWP?
Lest I sound too Zen, let me confess that it saddens me that poets sometimes disrespect one another—most especially because no one else can be relied upon to respect them—but one encounters that pettiness in every field. As an editor, I’m frustrated that I cannot easily solicit well-written, never mind insightful, reviews of poetry collections. As a teacher, I worry that my students are overly influenced by poets 5-10 years older than themselves and do not engage as often with the work of poets both aging and dead. As a poet, I sometimes feel baffled by the lines drawn—based on sex, race, age, aesthetic, region, university affiliation, publisher, sexual orientation, etc—between one practitioner of the craft and another, but I suspect that’s not a twenty-first century phenomenon. What’s thrilling is finding poets of great strength and merit out of the blue, discovering poets I’d never heard of before who have been working at their craft for years without fanfare and with little interest in empire-building or in the grinding of axes. If I concerned myself too much with cliques and career I’d miss that poetry—and my own. I let the bullies have the schoolyard to themselves long ago.
I’m always amazed, after an hour or two or week or two of work, to realize I’ve been making a poem. What an utterly useless and peculiar and hopeful thing to do with one’s life! We’re very lucky, aren’t we?