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.
RM: And in relation to the previous question, is the “I” of these poems most often akin to the I of Richard Fox? “the instant I is more patched & corrected than anything.” says the speaker in the poem, “I don’t know which comes first in my self-unfinished life: din or delight.” Is the “I” in these poems always a persona?
RF: Sometimes an “I” is just an “I” (like a cigar is sometimes just that). But for many of the poems in this collection, I am working with a “partial I,” in that it IS a persona, composed of me and someone else. That someone could be friend or family; acquaintance or public figure; nobody or everybody; animal or mineral. God or Satan. The same could be said for the “you” in my poems: sometimes the “you” is “me.” Or “I.”
RM: Another thing I quarreled with you about in the Wojahn workshop was your use of “&” instead of the word “and.” In this you have not won me over, or at least, I myself don’t use the ampersand in my work. (Although I have no ill will towards those who do!) Can you explain your affection for it, why you use it instead of the humble “and?”
RF: I started using it as a tribute to the late Larry Levis, whose wonderful work I discovered in the early 1990s. He used the ampersand exclusively in place of the word “and.” I love the way it looks on the page, too. It adds a bit of a drawing element to a page filled with letters that form words. This purely visual symbol breaks things up nicely on the page, just as the colon did in the work of A. R. Ammons (although it did/does more than that). I like to use the colon and the two-em dash as well, for visual and grammatical purposes. But there is another reason that I use the ampersand, and it is a weird one: I used to HATE writing the word when I was a kid. I remember being acutely aware of the word “and” in anything I was reading. It irked me. It seemed superfluous. I grew impatient reading it. It slowed me down. It made me feel as if I were coming down with the flu if I read too many in one sitting. So I have excised it from my poetry. It’s really an homage to my childhood dream of ridding the world of the scourge of that little, nearly inoffensive, conjunction.
RM: Can you comment briefly about titles, and your use and sometimes erasure of them? I saw some of the poems in Swagger in earlier versions that had titles, although most of the book is now composed of poems without titles. Do you have a rule for yourself, or guidelines, about when a poem does or does not “need” a title?
RF: I am absolutely inept at titling things after they are created, be they poems or paintings. I don’t necessarily have a rule about titling, I simply discovered that allowing a poem without a title takes the “performance pressure” off the poem. There is anticipation when anything is titled, I think, for the title to be a readymade summation of whatever follows, be it poem or painting. I just don’t want that kind of pressure!
RM: Do you keep a journal? If so, how important is it to your poetry practice?
RF: I don’t keep a formal journal, really. I do carry around a small notebook in which I jot things down, and sometimes I have a legal pad or two in my bag. I can’t really compose on-line; I reserve the computer for editing, or the “post-production” stage of my work. I think this has more to do with my dexterity skills (or the lack thereof) on the computer keyboard. I can scribble in longhand faster than I can type. I love that fever of trying to keep up with and recording thoughts on paper as they are formulated in my head. The physical act of writing is central to my process. So it is the act of writing—and I use either a pencil or a fine-point, rolling marker pen to do it—whether it is recorded in a journal (and one calls it “journaling”) or not—that is most important in the process.
RM: Can you talk a bit about process? Are any of the poems in this collection sprung from the head of Zeus, full-grown? Do the poems you labor over and rework multiple times feel different in some way from poems that just “write themselves?”
RF: My process is one of writing stuff down (single lines as they occur to me) and then ordering & re-ordering, editing and polishing: “post-production” work, really. Rarely do my poems spring, fully formed, out of any part of any ancient god’s anatomy. Although in this collection, the poem “On the train through Switzerland” pretty much wrote itself. I think I may have tweaked one part of one line of it after it was written, basically, in two sittings. The first line, in fact, was given to me in a writing workshop. We were exchanging lines with one another to use as springboards, and I got the sentence “On the train through Switzerland a girl with raven black hair handed me a perfect orange.” I went home and thought about saying something humorous about words that rhyme with “orange,” since there aren’t supposed to be any in American or British English, but quickly abandoned that idea when searching for a rhyme for “statute mile,” and “crossed the aisle” came out. And of course, we began the poem on a train, anyway, and so then I was off and running. The last lines about traveling through Europe or Hades and the rhyme with Euphrates came to me a few days later while I was out for a walk. I take walks for the exercise and for a change of scenery. Walking is often a part of my process as well. A walk always clears my head or deepens my thinking, whether it is about a problem or it is to indulge in creative woolgathering.
Many times I go out to a coffee shop just for a change of scene. I usually take reading material with me (poetry journals, books, whatever) in order to spur the writing process. I can be very prolific during those sessions. But that is only the beginning. It’s in the editing and arrangement of lines that things really happen.
Lately, I’ve been trying to write down anything I can remember from my dreams, especially if I wake up in the middle of the night and some amazingly weird poem appears. So I keep a notebook on my nightstand.
A few other poems in the collection were written in single sittings or were refined only slightly after they came out of my pen. These include “Nature is a small idea,” “Garden,” “You are late of autumn,” “You met yourself on the road today,” “This is not the view from St Paul’s” and “It’s late.”
RM: Can you give us an example of lines that came to you in dream, or just upon waking?
These all came from my little bedside journal:
1. I was outside the universe in my plant mask
2. Dog, dog: negative ground
3. Live modern, under the continuing influence of the atom
4. You gave her to me; now I give her back
5. Who knows why Eve comes in flames
6. What could be worse than to be mad with fear?
RM: Can you briefly discuss any on-going projects you are working on now?
RF: The last few years I have been working on sound recordings. Ever since my parents bought a decent stereo system when I was a kid, I've been interested in the way recorded sound is made. Close listening to the folk, jazz, pop and classical LPs my Dad brought into our home helped expand my ears.
I currently use GarageBand, a sound recording and editing software. This software allows me to re-edit vocals of some existing spoken word recordings I made a few years ago. With the help of GarageBand's pretty sophisticated repertoire of effects and pre-recorded samples and loops, I have added sound to the re-mixed vocal tracks, thereby creating completely new collage poems. I have also created brand new vocal recordings using an on-line, text-to-speech software designed by AT&T labs. The voices have a wonderful artificial-sounding quality that I have grown to love. Not only that, but they come in male & female flavors of various timbres & accents. I could see some of this stuff being used in performance, especially movement pieces.
(Next up: a new poem by Richard Fox)