Kathy Fagan Q&A
Penn State Erie, The Behrend College welcomes Kathy Fagan to the Creative Writers Reading Series.
Poetry writer Kathy Fagan will be reading at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College Thursday, March 22—the first of Behrend's Creative Writer's Reading Series. Her work shares with readers those beautiful intricacies in life that get overlooked. Using poetic form and diction, accompanied with an employment of voice and perspective, Fagan gives readers a look into delightfully detailed worlds of otherness.
Kathy Fagan's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Slate, Field, Ploughshares, The New Republic, and The Missouri Review, as well as in other literary magazines. She is the author of the National Poetry Series selection The Raft, the Vassar Miller Prize winner MOVING & ST RAGE, and The Charm. Formerly the Director of Creative Writing and the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, she is currently Professor of English there. Kathy Fagan's newest collection of poetry is Lip.
Dani Dicenzio: What kind of issues or thoughts do you like to confront in your writing? What is your thought process as you get ready to write?
Kathy Fagan: Issues and thoughts, per se, are antithetical to my writing process. As is the notion of confrontation. I don't mean to sound difficult or ornery about it, but my experience suggests that analytical thinking is not at all conducive to poem-making. I'm most open to poems when I am open to an experience of both the world and its languages—and I include, of course, the senses here, but also the imagination and (gulp!) the emotions. Ideally, or at least most typically, a sensory perception or an imaginary one is fueled in some way by an emotional stance, which in turn sets off a series of images and rhythms that manifests in words. If I'm lucky the words become sentences and it's at the sentence level that I become more conscious of thought. And it's only when the poem is ready for a round of revision that I look logically at what you might call "issues" that the poem could possibly address.
DD: How do you go about recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of your poetry without the help of others? What advice might you give to other writers on the subject?
KF: It's ideal to have one or two reliable, unbiased, honest readers of one's work available at all times. But that ideal hasn't always been possible for me. Because I've never been particularly enthusiastic or speedy about submitting work for publication, however, I've almost always had time to live with poems awhile before they get sent into the world. I think if they seem vital and odd a few weeks or months after their composition, if they're still surprising or annoyingly pesky, then they're probably worth salvaging—and if not, I'll sometimes simply abandon them. My advice is to find some good readers, of course, but to also have the courage to bury the corpses.
DD: Your writing seems to converse with past works of literature to gain a sense of clarity in your own writing. Could you talk a bit about that? Why do you think this should be a concern for other writers?
KF: Converse, yes. Clarify, I'm not so sure. In my most recent book, Lip, I purposely reference Dickinson, Blake, Bernard Shaw, Ovid, and the Bible, as well as other sources, primarily as a way to introduce the many voices in my head to whatever it is I am trying to work out on the page. What results is a kind of opera, in which the anonymous, the infamous, and others in between get their moment in the footlights. That's one way I've conversed, as you say, with the past. But in general, as a practitioner of the craft, because I both value and question what's gone before, I'm almost always engaged with it. My husband is a chemist, who, every day, has occasion to cite The Great Equations of the Past. As artists we may be overly worried about the issue of influence; it seems only natural that the words of Dante and Shakespeare, Keats and Stein, Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Bishop would be echoing in our ears.
DD: Your poems do a wonderful job at confronting traditional use of voice or perspective; could you discuss how you address or think of voice and why other poets, or writers in general, should consider the same approach to voice?
KF: I don't think writers should consider the same approach, no, but I do tend to admire writers who invest in voices other than their own or the ones most immediately accessible to them. There are exceptions to this, of course. I mean, when I read Frank O'Hara, I want to hear Frank O'Hara. But I appreciate, for example, what the great persona poets like Robert Browning, Richard Howard, and Frank Bidart have done over the years. And I am especially interested now in the nuanced ways that persona has been resurrected by the likes of Anne Carson, Sabrina Orah Mark, and many other contemporary poets. I suspect that, among other things, the field of identity studies has bolstered an interest in multiple perspectives and vocal plurality. Whatever the sources, it's a trend I encourage my own students to explore; because it enhances one's points of reference, it can never be anything other than a good thing for the art.
DD: A balance between the narrative and the lyrical is a recurring tension that seems to drive each poem from its beginning to its end. Can you discuss why you feel the use of both lyrical and narrative writing is important?
KF: Well, it's important because they're the traditional modes we have. There are others—meditative, discursive, performative, to name a few that have been named before—but lyric and narrative have become, for better or worse, the larger rubrics under which all others fall. When I was a child my grandfather read to me the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. "The Raven" tells a story. "Annabelle Lee" tells a story. I loved those gothic stories. But what I adored more were how the rhymes and repetitions made me feel. I mean, I didn't really care so much in "The Bells," for instance, about what preceded the lines "the tintinnabulation…from the bells bells bells bells bells…." I was just happy to live inside the word tintinnabulation, or have it live inside me. And that may be where narrative and lyric meet: at an emotionally raw "place," a liminal space, a nascent longing perhaps to become something. To my mind, that is where all poetry comes from. I've noticed, for instance, that some very young writers of poetry (those who are born- if not made-poets) write messy prose. It occurs to me that poetry is the one literary genre that means to communicate what cannot be communicated, and uses language to express what language cannot express. Dance, art, and music do this, but typically literature does not, unless it's poetry. So poetry is, I daresay, nonverbal to some extent. I think I totally believe that now in my middle age, and am fascinated by how the concept is connected to the pre-verbal, the unconscious, and dream. Stories are perceived as such after a certain amount of processing (can we call this revision?); the lyric experience, on the other hand, is unprocessed (can we call this composition?). The two don't have to cohabit but often do in the artifice of the made things we call poems.
The reading will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, in room 180 of the Jack Burke Research and Economic Development Center, 5101 Jordan Road at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Parking will be available in the deck south of Burke, off of Technology Drive. The event is free and open to the public.