Landscape’s Influence: An Interview with Kathy Fagan
by Sean Karns
Kathy Fagan is the author of four books of poems: The Raft (Dutton, 1985), a National Poetry Series selection; Moving & St Rage (Univ. of North Texas Press, 1999), winner of the Vassar Miller Prize for Poetry; The Charm (Zoo Press, 2002), and Lip (Eastern Washington Univ. Press, 2009). She is a professor of English at Ohio State University, where she co-edits The Journal.
Sean Karns: How has moving to the Midwest changed your perspective? And how has it influenced your poetry?
Kathy Fagan: I lived many places growing up and going to school, so it wasn’t a shock to move to the Midwest. I grew used to reserving judgment, and just went where I had to go for my family or for my education and, later, for my own jobs. What was shocking were the circumstances under which I was suddenly, being fully employed, able to live when I moved to central Ohio. In a house, for example. A large 130-year-old former farmhouse, a house that was in many ways the house I wished I’d grown up in. And the house was in a small town north of Columbus, which was also, for me, a native New Yorker, enormously weird and appealing. I got to playhouse really, attending the neighborhood movie theater for a couple bucks a show, eating in the neighborhood burger and beer joint for cheap, going to the county fair, etc. I lived in that house for sixteen years, longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. I wrote about it in the new book, Lip, in a poem called “Nostophobia.” I love that house as if it were a person, and when I left it I knew I could never go back. Maybe that’s one way that the Midwest has changed my perspective: the land is flat, you can see the horizon everywhere. I’ve become someone for whom a tree or a hill or a house can be seen as a singular significant entity. Anything of beauty can flare up and throttle you: a cardinal in snow, sycamore trees in sunlight, a redbud in bloom, a child in her father’s arms. They’re all set off in high relief in the Midwest. Likewise, I look to poems, and to my own poems in particular, for something decidedly unflat: music, energetic syntax, images that radiate outward, creating light and shadow and color; I try to shape lines that will make a composition vivid, to use language that allows for emotional complexity and permits aural/oral pleasures simultaneously. Maybe I’d require all that of poems if I lived in Hawaii or Paris instead of here, but I don’t think I’m overstating landscape’s influence on one’s work and life.
SK: Do you think that the Midwest has a distinct aesthetic?
KF: I don’t have any freakin’ idea. I’ve lived here for nearly twenty years and I’m still surprised every day by it. What I think is that, on the one hand, the Midwest is one of the least provincial places I’ve ever lived. I think it’s a good place to make art—or to be a reader or writer or stilt-dancer or whatever—because nobody cares, and if they do they don’t mention it. I’ve never met people who keep to themselves as much as Midwesterners do. There’s a national perception that the Midwest is a place where it’s still the 1950s, that people go to church on Sundays and vote Republican and drive American-made cars and have abysmal eating habits; there’s some truth to that. But I have also met the most progressive and eccentric and creative people in Ohio and the Midwest, people who lead interesting lives, people who work hard and live fruitfully.
All that said, I’m not sure there is, beyond the Protestant plainness and simplicity one sees in the buildings and homes of Midwestern cities and towns, an aesthetic. I think most Midwesterners would scoff at the notion of aesthetics. It used to pain me that Columbus, for instance, wasn’t more forward-thinking about saving its landmarks and historical sites. It worries me that we don’t have a lightrail, that we build shit-malls and shit-houses where there once were natural habitats for deer and owls. There’s plenty that’s butt-ugly around here, but I’ve seen butt-ugly everywhere. We live in a climate of disposability, in this country and others, and in a disposable society the word “aesthetic,” if it exists at all, is an extremely fluid word at best, corrupt at worst. The Midwest has a little bit of an inferiority complex, I think. I think it feels insecure. When it quits feeling second- or third-best, and I think it is, slowly, doing that, it will flourish as a green, intellectual, and artistic part of the country. For my part, I see incredibly diverse work being written across the Midwest, by natives and non-natives alike. It would feel wrong to try to group that work under the heading of a single controlling aesthetic or sensibility.
SK: How would you characterize your poetry?
KF: I don’t characterize my poetry. I don’t subscribe to schools or categories or movements. I love to read poems that wake me to something in myself. I hope I write that kind of poem for other readers.
SK: Do you find any pattern ideas recurring in your poetry?
KF: I see patterns of thought and image echoed and expanded on in the poems, if not actual ideas. And some poetic obsessions or fetishes recur, of course. In the new book, Lip, I extend my ongoing work with persona, which I’ve been interested in for over twenty-five years. Maybe it’s the frustrated novelist in me, maybe it’s the fact that a single point of view never satisfies me, maybe it’s a love of voice, of many voices, that continues to motivate me to find those poems to write. I think, looking over the past four books and now into the fifth, that persona and structure, the voice speaking the poem and the vessel in which the spoken word is delivered, are absolutely central to my project, so if that’s the kind of pattern you’re talking about, well then, it’s there in spades. Making a song of a poem is more important to me than making a story. I wish for the music and texture of the language to say as much as the sentences do. And I do so love sentences and all they’re capable of, but I love the line even more. Littler fetishes of mine include the alphabet, the dictionary, the Bible, the saints, field guides, graveyards, a handful of artists, and miniatures of all kinds, which explains my affinity for children and birds.
SK: How do you manage being the poetry editor of The Journal, teaching, and writing?
KF: In the past it seemed to me that teaching and editing and life in general always came before writing. In as much as humanly possible, that is no longer true for me. I try to put writing first now, and sometimes I succeed. I started teaching to pay the rent and quickly discovered that I became invested in my students, in their lives and their learning processes. As a student myself, I worked on literary magazines and realized that that, in addition to teaching, was the best way for me to interact with other poets. I’m not much of a social butterfly, so engagement with poets in the classroom and in magazine correspondence are the primary ways I meet poets and get to know their work. I’ve made more friends over the years through teaching and The Journal than I ever did in writing programs, at conferences, or at colonies. But that’s another subject altogether. My point is that the three activities, teaching, editing, and writing, have become very interconnected, especially in the past ten years or so. At worst, I can feel like a poetry machine, churning forward for no good reason; at best, like someone who’s holding a little lantern in the dark. But I can’t imagine not writing, teaching, and editing—I wouldn’t refuse some time off, but I think the balance is just about as right as I can get it at this moment.
Sean Karns’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in RATTLE, Pleiades, Los Angeles Review, Cold Mountain Review, Folio, Mayday Magazine, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Witnessing the World (New American Press), will be released in late 2012.
[The above interview was originally published by Ninth Letter and is reprinted here with permission of the author.]