Monday, December 28, 2009

A Poem by Richard Fox

To conclude  my series focusing on the work of poet Richard Fox, here's a new poem he kindly provided to Lives of the Spiders

He says: "Here's a new(ish) poem. It will probably will form the centerpiece of the next manuscript on which I'd like to start work, possibly in the new year. I have another "Swaggeresque" collection that will begin to make the rounds of the winter/spring contests. It's called "Heft" & was kind of cast from the mold of "Swagger & Remorse." Anyway, here ye be:

The Lamp Affixes Its Beam

What means
a bell tower
tolling the hour

behind Act One
when the gun
always seems

to misfire
& tramps
the scene

or when the
scuba gear
breaks down

& the neoprene
wet suit sticks
on a deep-sea wire

What goes arrears
runs aground
Let the lamp

affix its beam

Thanks to Richard for the use of his work!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

It Was Just One of Those Six Little Things

I have a new piece up at Bard Cole's Six Little Things. I am pretty sure it had it's start as a notebook entry I wrote after seeing the Jeff Wall Photography exhibit at the Art Institute in 2007.  (Note "The Flooded Grave" image. It's Christmas rush around time, and I haven't done a lick of shopping, but I'll post the new Richard Fox poem tomorrow.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Just Upon Waking: An Interview With Richard Fox (Part the Third)

Here is the third part of my interview with poet Richard Fox.  Hopefully I have mastered the "more after the jump" feature for ease of reading.  Up later in the week: a new poem by Richard.

RM: I was thinking I would say that your poems are not really poems of the self, about a self that “is” Richard Fox, and much of American poetry of the past 75 years has been one long song of the self. But then, in the poems of Swagger & Remorse, I detect more autobiographical elements than in your previous work. Poems like “At the Barracuda Lounge,” “4 January,” and “I was watching you sleep” seem to stem from a distinctly personal, experienced heart-ache. Do some of these poems come from personal experience, the poem as diary entry? Would you be comfortable having them read or perceived that way?

RF: It’s not my style to reveal much of my “self” in any aspect of my personal life. But some of the later poems included in the collection came about as the results of self-examination. Some came from indulging myself in a little self-pity over heartbreak or anger. It’s hinted at in the title of the book, too, I think. I don’t really keep a diary, so that would never have been grist for the mill. When I “get personal,” it’s usually in a broad sense, and is somewhat whitewashed by the “universal experience” brush. Loss and death are big themes, and if one can get behind those, one can get a lot of mileage out of them. Furthermore, I simply can’t imagine that anyone would be that interested in me, personally, except for my friends and family. I really can’t help how the poems are perceived, and it doesn’t bother me if someone were to read the “I” in my poems as “the real me.” And I would be VERY interested in how a reader might interpret my work; how he connects with the poems on some personal level of his own.

RM: As you prefer to steer away from exhibitionism in your own work, is this also a quality you now avoid in your reading of contemporary poetry? Plath, and especially Sexton were taken to task, particularly at the time they wrote, for being too revealing about themselves. Of course, one might argue that most of their readership’s fascination with their lives was created by the fact of their suicides. Are you interested in the personal lives of poets as revealed in their poems? Do you feel that singing the song of one’s self is a trend that has taken up too much space in American poetry?

RF: I do admit that I enjoy unearthing some arcane bit of personal history, or personal likes and dislikes that will inform/confirm what I’ve read when I’m reading someone else’s poetry. But again, I’m not much of an exhibitionist! I don’t consciously avoid reading any particular type of work; although I am put off by, and will not continue reading, any poem that reveals itself to be of a more-or-less masturbatory nature. I do become interested in the personal lives of some poets, but only if the poet writes something that inspires or interests me. As for any trend in American poetry that leans in the direction of self-exposition—and I suppose the most egregious example of that trend is slam poetry—I think good work can come out of many trends and movements, in spite of themselves. I admire the work of Patricia Smith, for example, whose stunning, heartbreaking poem written in the voices of a group of victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is one of the best poems I read last year. She is originally a slam poet from Chicago, and she may still consider herself to be a slam poet.

RM: In a workshop we both took with David Wojahn in the late 90’s, I remember taking you to task for using a sort of royal we. Who is this “we” in your poems, I demanded. It’s pretentious! Now, of course, my poems are populated with “we’s” of various make-ups. And you are still fond of the pronoun: “There were multiple things we did in all the wrong order.” “We begin by forgetting the planets:” Do you know how and why you’ll be using “we” in a poem as opposed to “you” or “I”. Maybe I am still asking, but in a kinder, gentler way, in order to help see why I use it, too, who is this ‘we” anyway?

RF: You know, I am beginning to see the error of using that “we” pronoun, but it’s so convenient: I can relinquish personal responsibility by using it. Not only that, but there is also a perverse joy I get out of implicating others in my poems. And it does hark back to some antiquated, poetic usage. But to answer your question about who this “we” is, I think that it’s nobody and everybody. Or at least, it is when I use it in a poem: I can really hide a few skeletons behind that pronoun. On the other hand, it is inclusive, but not in an embarrassing, USA Today, “we Americans,” populist kind of way, which is a “we” that is not very inclusive at all.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Just Upon Waking: An Interview With Richard Fox (Part 2)

Herewith, part two of my interview with my good friend, the poet Richard Fox. You can read some of his work online at Apparatus Magazine here .

RM: Your poems often have their genesis in form, and then you obscure the end-rhyme or alter the form. Do you consider yourself a closet formalist? Can you comment on your use and affinity for form as opposed to “free” verse?

RF: I use form, especially the sonnet form, as a framework or a springboard. I like to start out with a tight structure because I know the finished poem will most likely be torn apart and recycled. It’s a good way to freely generate lines in which I have nothing invested. They go on the scrap heap, if they aren’t used, and I’ve got no regrets. It’s also a set-up for failure, really, and I like entropy in art; in my case, one could say that out of order comes disorder. Right now, however, I am working on a series of poems that relies on one very tight restriction: I am using only monosyllabic words in an effort to examine every word choice I make. The restrictive nature of this method also helps me to flag my overuse of modifiers, and is a way to streamline the poems. It’s a kind of exciting form of self-torture. I am thinking of calling this form masochismetric or monomasochism. Or something.

RM: Is there a school or movement in American Poetry that you feel an affinity for or an affiliation with?

RF: Maybe I’m not conscious of the influence of any American school to speak of in my work, but I’ll bet it’s there. Perhaps I have an affinity for the pastoral (i.e., Robert Herrick, channeled by Anne Bradstreet and through to John Berryman) as it relates to America and the American scene: Manifest Destiny, the “incursion of the mechanical into the wilderness,” the End of Empire and all that. The origin of the word pastoral is “pastor,” which is the Latin for “shepherd,” and there are certain religious, Christian mythological references (Christ as the Good Shepherd) in my work that I can trace to my upbringing. So that’s another affiliation that is inescapable for me.

RM: You have a background in the visual arts. Do you feel poetry is a progression from the visual arts, a logical extension of your early interest and training in the visual arts? Is poetry something you have always done, in addition to your print-making and painting and photography?

RF: Writing has actually been the foundation of any creative output I’ve had; it was my first venture into art. Throughout my childhood, (even before my poetry launch in sixth grade!), I scribbled in notebooks. These writings were usually detailed short stories derivative of the science fiction novels and short stories I read as a kid. I was also a great fan of the Brothers Grimm and Anderson’s fairytales.

I was, in fact, steered to my study of visual art by my interest in sound production. I originally enrolled in the undergraduate Film Department of the first college I attended in Canada to learn sound design for film. I was pulled away from that by my successful work in the printmaking workshops I took as part of my first year foundation program. I immediately fell in love with the process, wholeheartedly embraced the visual arts, and declared a printmaking major. And as my work developed, I started to include text with image. Barbara Krueger, Robert Rauschenberg and John Baldessari were my great influences at the time.

Image and text continued to play important roles in the work I did for my second undergraduate degree in photography at Temple University in Philadelphia. At the same time, I began to paint. I always thought of photography as satisfying the conceptual needs in my creative life, while painting was an outlet for my intuitive side. But words were never far away from me in my creative work, no matter what form it took. And poetry still seems to address needs of both the rational and emotional sides of my brain.

RM: You have experimented with several works that use sound, color, image and text in Powerpoint, and of course this work can only be experienced with a viewer using a computer, or a DVD player. (Or, in the case of your recent Hyde Park Art Center installation, a projection on a giant screen) Is this one direction you’d like to take your work in the future? Is this synthesis of your various interests: poetry, sound, image, technology a sideline for you, or a new path for your art? Can you imagine, for example, making Powerpoint or video representations involving the poems in Swagger & Remorse?

RF: I have really only been puttering around with sound and video for a couple of years now, so those are still new media for me. I am trying to approach them as new materials, to work with them in ways that are different from the ways other writers have used them. I am especially happy about what I’ve done with sound because I am such a sound geek! But the work I’ve done is really only window dressing for work that can stand by itself. Some people might call it enhancing the written text, but I tend to call it “gilding the lily’; it’s a bit of overkill, or maybe over-production. Truly, though, I am doing it in order to try to reach a broader audience. Someone who may not read poetry off the page may listen to it. I have already taken some poems that were recorded a few years ago at Experimental Sound Studios here in Chicago and re-mixed them with sound. In some cases, I have even collaged lines from different poems together to form a new piece. I have also sampled bits of recorded text and made something that sounds completely new; the original poems are unrecognizable. This is something I’m most excited about pursuing.

RM: Why do you think you have turned to poetry and not to fiction, or essays? I know you read widely and deeply in fiction. Why poetry?

RF: The shorter form of poetry holds my attention best. I’ve tried my hand at tangling with the Big Picture, but lost interest. I started writing a novel a little over fifteen years ago, but quit writing nine months into it. I ran out of steam, really; I felt as though I simply could not sustain the process. I have nothing but admiration for those writers who commit to all the writing, re-writing and re-re-writing that goes into working with the longer forms.

RM: I know from talking to you about writing that you often hold onto lines from one “failed” or abandoned poems for years, waiting for the right companion lines to come along or the right place setting to present itself. What are the oldest such lines in your new collection, Swagger & Remorse? What is your favorite culled line currently waiting to be adopted in your home for orphaned verse?

RF: In my new collection, one of the oldest lines can be found in the first part of the third stanza from “The air out here is mild” (the poem formerly known as “Work”):
Born a sky-blue baby—
an arbitrary child—

That line hung around for a very long time before it found the others. There is a bit of autobiography imbedded in it because I was born an oxygen-deprived baby and spent two days in an oxygen tent. The doctors wanted to make sure I didn’t have blue baby syndrome. Blue baby syndrome is a congenital heart defect characterized by the newborn’s skin having a blue tinge due to de-oxygenated blood re-circulating the body because it has bypassed the lungs and has not undergone re-oxygenation. It used to be that many blue babies died before there was corrective surgery, hence the “arbitrary child” reference. Anyway, that line sat around a very long time (three or four years, I think) before it got placed. And that finished poem is one of the oldest (it’s probably at least 12 years old) in the collection. So those lines are sixteen years old. But the roots of this poem go even deeper. The subject of the poem is actually a college roommate of a friend of mine, whose family chicken farm we visited once, 30 years ago. It’s ultimately about human stewardship of the Earth, and who lives and who dies. I was interested in the places where agriculture and animal husbandry meet real animals.

As far as current orphaned lines are concerned, here’s a favorite from among them:
if not for the church of bones that holds the boy

Know anyone who wants to adopt?

RM: Which poems in the collection are the oldest? Which are the most recent compositions? Did you find it difficult to group poems from different time periods in your career together? Did some worthy works get left out because they didn’t play well with the others?

RF: Among the oldest poems in Swagger are “On the train through Switzerland,” “The air out here is mild,” “Now consider the woman” and “The Greenhouse Fire,” all of which have been around between twelve and sixteen years. Recent work includes “This is not the view from St Paul’s,” “If anything is a gift from God,” “American Cul-de-sac” and “At the Barracuda Lounge,” all written within the last one or two years.

Swagger was put together, at first, so that the poems formed an arc, moving along a trajectory marked by birth, work and death. At least they did this in my mind. Stylistically, some of the poems were very different from one another when put together in a sequence, but because I felt as though they belonged together thematically, it didn’t matter to me. Then, in one incarnation, I threw a bunch of poems from this manuscript, and another group of poems, up in the air and picked them up in random order, which freed me from over-editorializing. From that exercise, I found that the order didn’t so much matter any more, since there were already “themes” upon which I had originally modeled the collection. I liked that method of doing things, but still liked to make little groupings, or what I called “islands” of poems, that could surface, occasionally, in the collection. In the final version of the manuscript, I let little “island clusters” coexist. There are groups of three or four poems each themed on nature, mythology, fairytale, work, prayer, love and death, in between the opening (“There were multiple things we did,” “We begin by forgetting the planets” and “The new year begins & so begins the tale of woe”) and closing (“Medusa. Superman” and “It’s late”) groups of poems. There were poems that were excised from the manuscript even after it was accepted by my publisher (Tebot Bach). And today, there are a few poems I would add and minor rewrites I would do, all in the name of tweaking: I am simply never pleased. But this manuscript will serve as a record of what I’ve been doing, work-wise, over the last few years; in this way, it is a time capsule. It is imperfect, however, as a record of who I am or who I was, even though it is somewhat autobiographical—and others might say it is more than somewhat autobiographical.

RM I know from putting together my own (unpublished) collections that a danger for a first book of poems is that it’ll turn out to be “The Selected Poems of X” rather than a collection on its own. Swagger & Remorse feels very much of a piece, organically grown. Is that a wonderful illusion, or did you have troubles assembling the works as they stand in their current order?

RF: Well, I did originally put things together by theme and let things flow together “naturally” (organically?) that way. But then I would occasionally rewrite sections of poems to make them “fit” together as a group—although some are misfit, I’ll wager. The rewrites were sometimes minor, and included such things as the shifting of pronouns. At some point, in fact, I had changed ALL the pronouns to “you,” then back to whatever they were originally. I also did the usual rearranging of layout, line-breaks, etc., of individual poems. Major overhauls happened, too: there was wholesale slash-and-burn of entire sections of poems—you never saw so many modifiers scattering so quickly for their lives!—there were entire stanzas cleared and replaced with sleek, urbane couplets. And this was done and re-done until things felt “right” as they sat on the page; a lot of intuition went into the process, in other words. I usually know when to stop fiddling with something like an individual poem or painting or drawing. But as soon as they get put into a collection, the tweaking and trimming can get intense. And I can work on something until I “kill” it with overwork; that’s always the danger, I think. So maybe I’m admitting that the topiary styling wrought by my editor’s shears has sometimes, in part, compromised the organic nature of the book?

(Check back in a couple days for part the third.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Just Upon Waking: An Interview With Richard Fox

Richard Fox’s collection, Swagger & Remorse, is a stunning volume of poetry. A book length sequence of speculative meditations upon faith and man’s trust in human possibility—and the potential loss of both—these poems are philosophically protean, stylistically adept, and constantly shifting in their perspectives and attitudes. The authority of voice here is startling. Working at times with parable and fragment, Richard Fox often places us in the context of the natural world even as we are asked to question the stability of any “place.” Swagger & Remorse is elliptical, gestural, and elegant in all of its observations and methods. These are the mature poems of man in the middle of fierce and powerful reckonings with experience and the residue of hope, a man recognizing that he may look to the constellations above yet will always walk the earth beneath. These fragments of prayer, ecstasy, and regret make Swagger & Remorse an unforgettable collection of poetry. The following interview took place via email in late 2008, with some follow-up questions added just recently. I am posting it in celebration of Richard’s reading this week. Part One follows, with parts two and three to be posted soon.

Robert McDonald: You recently won a Poetry Center of Chicago contest, and will be reading at the Art Institute along with other contest winners (Wednesday, December 9th at 6:30 pm at the SAIC Ballroom, 112 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago.) How important to you are these kinds of recognition? Do such nods to your work fuel your desire to write? Or would you write poems even if no one ever, ever, said, "yes, this is good," or, "yes, this is something I want to publish."

Richard Fox: I really appreciate the recognition, actually. It's nice to get out of my dark little room and take a bow once in a while. With the Poetry Center award, I guess I'm at the bottom of that freeway to poetry fame and fortune, although I'll always contend that the term "famous poet" is a bit of a dichotomy. But I have a feeling that I'd still push words around despite any "outside" approval. I've been doing just that since I was old enough to know that I loved to read.

RM: Do you remember the first poem you heard? Or the first memory you have of “poetry?”

RF: My first exposure to poetry was, indeed, a listening experience, which I think is the best way to initially find poetry. My awareness of poetry as something more than regular speech came from listening to the records that my parents had, including a recording of President Kennedy’s inaugural address (my mother is Irish Catholic and proud of it) that included Robert Frost reciting “The Gift Outright” (“This land was ours before we were the land’s”). I also understood song lyrics as rhyming poems set to music. I listened intently to the albums of Peter, Paul and Mary, The Beatles, Andy Williams (!) and Jimi Hendrix while growing up. And I loved a good turn of lyrical phrase. In high school, I remember being utterly taken by Joan Baez’s album, “Baptism,” which was a collection of poems she read set to music. The selections included poetry of Whitman, Lorca, Blake, Jacques PrĂ©vert, Rimbaud, e. e. cummings and Yevtushenko. Hearing this work at the age of eighteen was ear-opening, to say the least.

Poems were with me from early on, though I never recognized that there was poetry surrounding me every day. In the ritual of the Roman Catholic Mass (I have the memory of it being said and sung in Latin) or in the recitation of common prayers, including those said before and after each family meal, could be found ubiquitous, public and everyday poems. During the Lenten season, we listened, as a family, to the recitation of the rosary broadcast live on the local radio station, and we prayed along with it. The cadence of this devotional sequence of prayers was hypnotic; it was designed to be. In fact, listening to chant and prayer, generally, still has the power to move me as much as anything by Shakespeare, Keats or Dickinson. But I credit Diane Gierlach, my third grade English teacher, with instilling in me a love for the written word. She would hold us rapt, at the beginning of class, by reciting poems from memory. We had to memorize poems as well. I can still recite most of “The Owl and the Pussycat” from memory. She also encouraged our reading of anything that interested us from the school library.

RM: “It’s hard to know how to offer up a prayer—” says the speaker in “American Cul-de-sac.” In his comments on Swagger & Remorse, David St. John calls your work (among other things) “fragments of prayer.” Obviously your work is informed by your Roman Catholic upbringing. Is it accurate to say that they are sometimes forms of prayer, and/or meditations on God and questions of religion?

RF: I think it’s fair to call the poems meditations, or maybe ruminations, on the infinite; how I do enjoy musing on the ineffable on a daily basis! I think poetry might be the only form of language “qualified” to begin a serious study of the indescribable. I think that in practice, most of the major world religions miss the mark in trying to explain everything away—there is no longer any mystery—and they end up doing a poor job of it in the most unimaginative ways. So I hope my work enables readers to think differently about their worlds and perhaps even deepen the mystery of living here on Earth.

RM: Do you remember the first poem you wrote, and why you wrote it? Do you feel one has a “calling” for poetry? (Another way of phrasing this might be: Why do you write poetry?)

RF: The VERY first poem I ever wrote is as follows:


Spring is time for pretty posies,
fun to pick for girls and boysies.

I wrote this in the sixth grade and in a panic, after I forgot a homework assignment to write a poem about springtime. Miss Comstock, our English teacher, asked us to hand in our poems at the beginning of class. In a flurry, I tore out a sheet of notebook paper and scribbled my first English language poem. Miss Comstock loved it and she read it aloud to the class. I was mortified, but I was also secretly thrilled at the attention. Luckily, the reasons I write poems have nothing to do with public adulation (well, maybe just a bit). The main reason I write is because I am compelled to do it. I love the way words look on the page; the way they sound off the page: I love sound and vision. I love the way certain words can twist my heart all around. I love the possibilities of words used creatively. It is important that they not just be used to write owners’ manuals and movie treatments.

While I am bound to write poetry, it is a struggle to get it out, too. I do feel as though many poets are more “naturals” at it; that is, there seems to be a spontaneous nature to what they do. For example, I admire Rickie Lee Jones’s approach to songwriting. The lyrics to some of the songs on her last album, “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” were sung by her in an inspired rush, and were completely improvised in one take, during the vocal recording sessions. Inspiration: comes from “spirit” and also means to inhale.

RM: Which leads me to ask how important music is to your writing process. Have you ever written poems in response to a composer or pop music artist? Do you ever listen to music as you write, and if so, do you feel it to be an influence on your writing?

RF: Music, as a subject, has never really entered into my work. I certainly reference it on occasion, but mostly, it has been the lyric of a song that I introduce into the poem. I prefer to work with sound as a separate material. At home, if there is music playing when I am working, it almost serves as to create an ambience. And I cannot have music on at all if I am concentrating on reworking and composing. I really like to have control over the environment if I am doing any close work. If I am working away from home, at a coffee shop, say, where I cannot control the atmosphere, I can tune out the surroundings. But those excursions are usually for the purpose of cranking out raw material that I will edit later.

RM: Which poets from the past matter the most to you/ have guided your work?

RF: From the semi-distant past, I have always loved and wanted to channel Robert Herrick, Emily Dickinson, Christopher Smart, John Keats and Rainer Maria Rilke. Other poets who have mattered to me and really had a part in shaping my voice include Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, James Dickey, Wallace Stevens, William Matthews and Elizabeth Bishop.

RM: Are any of these poets writers you still go to for comfort, insight, and inspiration?)

RF: I still find myself looking at Sexton quite a bit for inspiration and to Matthews for comfort and solace.

RM: What about living poets?

RF: Right now, I am singing the praises of the work of Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon; I can’t wait to read their latest collaboration, Figures for a Darkroom Voice.

RM: Since we started this email conversation, their book has been published. Have you enjoyed it as much as you thought you would?

RF: I do appreciate the work of JMW and NEG even more, since I’ve heard them read together from the work. I can almost not hear their two voices together, now, when I look at any of their works, whether collaborative or not.

I also love the work of a poet named Allison Titus, who hails from Richmond, VA. She published a chapbook called “Instructions from the Narwhal” (Bateau/Slope Editions) that is lovely. There are many poets whose work I have stumbled across on-line and in literary journals, but I’ll mention Katie Ford, Richard Siken (who I want to marry!), Sarah Messer and Simon Armitage as admirable writers of verse.

Up next, Part Two. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

First Snow

This morning as I was walking to the train the air was clear and sharp and I thought that the trees looked like they were ready for snow and the sky was close to giving the trees what they wanted. When it did begin to snow, the huge swirling flakes that make children open their mouths, and make everyone experience a sudden flashback to being a child, I was behind the counter at the bookstore, wrapping presents, and I only had one or two glances as the beautiful curtains of the snow flurry ran against the dark asphalt, and someone said, "it's snowing," that hopeful statement, tinged with wonder, that it's someones job to say every year.