An Interview with Poet Kathy Fagan
On opening up, finding your sixth sense, and getting out of your own way
As part of Penn State Behrend's 22-23 Smith Creative Writing Reading Series, award-winning poet Kathy Fagan will be visiting the campus to read from her work. The event will take place in the Metzgar Center on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
Kathy Fagan's sixth poetry collection is Bad Hobby (Milkweed Editions, 2022). Her previous book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. She's been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an Ingram Merrill fellowship, residencies at The Frost Place, Yaddo, and MacDowell, and was named Ohio Poet of the Year for 2017. She has also been honored with awards from Ohioana Library, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Raymond Hanley Foundation from the Greater Columbus Arts Council. Fagan's work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Poetry, The Nation, Lake Effect, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, and Best American Poetry. She co-founded the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where she teaches poetry and co-edits the Wheeler Poetry Prize Book Series for The Journal and OSU Press.
Celine Gauge: In the preview for your latest book, Bad Hobby, you wonder how a child who grew up with an antagonized understanding of sensitivity became a poet. How did you begin writing poetry? Does that tension in your collection reflect any tension in your own coming of age as a poet, or was it different?
Kathy Fagan: That's copy from the amazing editorial team at Milkweed. I didn't write it myself. What I do hope is clear from the book is that poetry as a way of life or career or whatever was definitely NOT modeled for me. As a first-generation college student, I majored in journalism because I knew I wanted to write, and I figured that was the only way I could get paid for it. That changed when I realized that there were people who found a way to make a living while writing creatively, and by the time I took my first college-level poetry workshop, I was done with journalism for good.
I'm working on an essay now having to do with your good question: trying to figure out why I felt so removed, as a creative and sensitive working-class kid, from the larger world of the arts and artists; why I was so ashamed of my uneducated working parents; why I have felt set apart from my peers as both a student in universities and a teacher in universities because of my background. It's taken a lifetime, really, to come of age as a poet — and by that, I mean someone who is not only comfortable claiming to be a poet, but confident enough to believe I'm contributing something to the craft with my poems.
CG: Bad Hobby is your sixth book. How has your poetry changed from when you first started?
KF: Well, I was 26 when my first book appeared, so I really hope the new books hold within them both a more mature sense of the craft and greater range. In some ways, though, it occurs to me that I've returned in Bad Hobby to my roots, which were evident in my first book, The Raft — family, socioeconomic concerns, and a love for mixing lyric and narrative modes in a single poem.
CG: A question I always want to ask poets is what is your writing process like? How do you find your poems evolve throughout it, and how do you know that a poem is complete?
KF: My writing process is not enviable at all, and you're right to suggest that my poems evolve. I've worked throughout my life and never had swaths of uninterrupted time, so instead I gather materials—notes, titles, images, little melodies, and ideas—and when I have an hour or two, I arrange those materials in collage-like ways, looking for sparks, interesting juxtapositions, suggestions of where the poem might wish to travel. I only know a poem is done when it's in a book. Then I give up. I might revisit that position should I ever put together a volume of Selected or Collected Poems.
CG: You write about very intriguing images and themes, from memories to bloodlines to birds. Where do you find inspiration for your writing, and how do you seek that out when it feels hard to find?
KF: It's never felt to me as hard to find as much as hard to open myself up to. You have to be attentive to write poems. You have to really pay attention, with all your senses, including a sixth sense. You need to be open — or I need to be — to make a poem, or let a poem take me on the journey it chooses. Over the years I've developed a few tricks to open that window in my head: sleep, be outdoors, go someplace new, look at art, take photos, read or listen to challenging books, and really listen hard to the incredible things people say and how they say them. These are the ways I get out of my own way and get into poem mode.
CG: Who are your influences? Are there any writers or artists who you feel are especially important to your own work?
KF: There have been so many poets by my side over the years as I've worked. With some of these poets I'm stupefied with admiration. Others wake me up. Both can be really generative for me, but these days I prefer the second group because I need wonder more than perfection.
CG: In an interview with Sundress Blog, you mentioned that some of the themes within your book were also common themes you worked through in therapy. Was there ever any discomfort or challenges you had to overcome in writing about things so personal, or is there something about the two processes — therapy and writing poetry — that you find works together ideally?
KF: Yes, a lot of Bad Hobby pulled me away from the privacy I cherish and into territory that was both uncomfortable and not even fully recoverable or explicable for me. What happened, though, in the process of making poems out of the raw autobiography, was what always happens when I write (as opposed to what happens in talk therapy): as I search for ways to pressurize my language and shape my poem, I become, in addition to myself, the speaker or persona of the poem. Then I can find some distance from the subject. When you're fussing over syntax and line breaks and whether or not to use the article "a" or "the," your father's conservatism or your mother's neglect become secondary to the overall impact you wish your poem to have — secondary also to its artfulness, to the experience you make with it separate from the original experience or your feelings about it, which in turn honors your subject matter as well as your own humanity.
CG: Finally, what advice would you give to people who are new to the medium of poetry or who want to try writing poems but haven't yet?
KF: Read or listen to some poems by poets who've lived within the past 100 years first of all. That's a primary and ongoing part of the practice. I've never understood the impulse to write poems without reading poems, as if you can play the cello or run a marathon without learning scales first or building strength and endurance. Then, if the reading and writing stick, maybe take a workshop at a school or community center; there are plenty online these days, too. Most colleges offer writing workshops, so if you're a student it's easier to find community and guidance. But the internet has provided a lot of access to those who haven't had it before, and websites like ones hosted by the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets are really helpful to anyone looking for a way to begin making poems.
Celine Gauge is a senior double majoring in Creative Writing and English at Penn State Behrend.