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 Prévert, 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.