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.)