Thomas Fink: Let’s begin at the beginning. . . of this book. You open Pageant with a poem called “The New Realism,” which, as I read it, does not refer to the art movement of that name in France but to U.S. Pop Art and the sense of how artistic perception is tied to the fashioning, unfashioning, and refashioning of a self:
When the New Realism strikes,
you might find yourself listening
to soup evaporate like I did
after every other pleasure failed me
a million times. Try to drape yourself
in Edwardian post-punk glory.
Look into the mirror. Erase the idea
of what you thought of as a self.
Andy Warhol’s eyes are now your eyes.
Wear them until they break. Wear
them until they leak. Wear them until
they are your only eyes. Then lose them.
Finally, you will be as profound
as an air-conditioner. (1)
It’s interesting that, in the first line of the passage above, you put the New Realism in the future, as though Pop is a movement that has to be reconstituted every few years to renew its “new-ness” and help people escape from the boredom of the old. In other words, the new isn’t new; it’s just a freshening up. And an emergent present can be both “Edwardian” and “post-punk”; its “glory” is collagistic. Well, maybe Pop’s freshening up is really achieved through emptying (out). Campbell’s soup, Warhol’s breakthrough icon, re-presented to confuse the distinction between art and advertising) is subject to the pleasure of physical decomposition rather than that of taste. And such decomposition is like the erasure of a “serious,” emotionally intense “self.” To appropriate “Warhol’s eyes,” his way of seeing, is to eliminate a surface/depth distinction in cultural symbolism and, to paraphrase Ashbery in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” when he talks about the eyes in Parmagianino’s mannerist master work, to perceive everything as surface. In your series of instructions, however, even the Warholian attitude of depthless re-presentation is “lost,” as though any stance, even one of impregnable irony, is suspect. And then we get to the remarkable lines about another consumer product that became popular and affordable early in the age of Warhol: “an air-conditioner” offers physical comfort without a lesson, and who is to say that that lack of profundity is less “meaningful” than pseudo-profound language and visual art?
So could you talk about your engagement and negotiation with Pop Art and its effects as you wrote “The New Realism”? Is “Pop Art” significant here, or is it just an arbitrary target of parody and reflection standing in for something else/ And how do you read the poem now? What do you make of the fact that it sits at the head of this book?
Joanna Fuhrman: First, yes, I wasn’t talking about the ’60s art movement when I used the phrase “New Realism.” I was just appropriating it for my own ends. I didn’t mean it as a stand-in for Pop Art, either. I think the “New Realism” in my poem is more of a tone or mood—a sort of deadpan moment slightly outside of time—that might or might not coincide with Pop Art.
But yes, I agree that Warhol’s art suggests a certain attitude about the self, in particular the self as an artist that is relevant to the poem. To see a Brillo box as art, one has to stop believing in the idea of the artist as someone who is, as you put it, “serious and emotionally intense.” Of course, this in itself might not be a new idea, but I think it’s still a useful reminder, and freeing and wise. I have very little patience for a poetics centered on the idea of personal suffering. Poetry can be healing and cathartic (one of its great gifts to the world), but I hate the idea that an artist needs to suffer to be, as John Berryman put it, “in business.”
The line about Warhol’s eyes refers literally to the image of Warhol looking at the camera with a lack of affect, as if he had not hidden his emotions, but somehow lost them or never had them; and it also refers to the world created in his art. You described the work as “impregnable irony,” but I can never tell when Warhol means to be ironic, and when he is simply mirroring the shiny beauty of the consumer culture. What can be so captivating about his work is the way it exists in the cracks between irony and sincerity. This is the space I wanted to explore in the poem (and some others in the book) and one way of understanding the title.
I was thinking of the poem as a sort of Ars Poetica, which is why I placed it at the front of the collection. In many of the poems in Pageant, it’s not completely clear when the tone is ironic or not. People these days sometimes say they hate irony because they associate it with a certain mode of glib cleverness, but the poems in this book in general come out of anger (they were all written during W’s second term), and I think the irony is inseparable from the primarily political and social arena the poems exist within. I think the irony is needed to acknowledge the fact that the language we use to express ourselves in poetry is in a fundamental way corrupted by its misuse in political rhetoric and advertising. I still think it possible to write political poetry that is not only, or even primarily, ironic, but I think the difficulty of the task has to be acknowledged in the language of the poem. Otherwise political poetry becomes just another mode of empty rhetoric. I also still believe that the most interesting work comes out of the unconscious (and I really try to stay true to this), so this might change the appearance of “political” poetry.
I hate to say what the poem is “about” because people can, of course, read the poem themselves, but I think you are correct in suggesting that I don’t think that Warhol’s perspective is a satisfactory solution to how to be without suffering. Eventually, as the poem says, Warhol’s eyes will “break” and “leak.” They may be one’s “only eyes” and may work better than the vision created by a limited narrative definition of the self, but they don’t work all that well. It’s not necessarily good advice to “wear them until they are your only eyes.” It may alleviate suffering, but at what cost?
I don’t think the poem offers an answer to the questions it asks. When I think about the poem now, one thing I notice is that the images at the end don’t really go together; they all seem to answer the question in a different way. The syntax and the structure suggest that the three images are all equivalent, but they are not. They are all images of what is there and what is missing. (The air conditioner removes nature from the room, and the television writers remove the messy reality of sex—which is itself not authentic, because even the fluid removed is “neon,” which suggests the duality between what is nature and not nature is in itself false.) I think the lack of equivalence in the images suggests my own (or the speaker’s) lack of certainty about what it actually means to enter the “New Realism”:
Finally, you will be as profound
as an air-conditioner. You will be the negative
space between awkward teeth, the neon fluid
missing from every television sex scene. (1)
It’s not clear to me whether or not the air conditioner is profound. Is this image ironic or not? I genuinely don’t have an answer.
TF: Even if all irony is potentially unstable, as language is, some poets encourage the reception of stable irony, and others point their readers to places where the literal and the ironic seem to be fighting for contextual “ground.” Your work tends to have the latter impulse, and that’s precisely why it’s a mistake to read your ironies as glib.
It’s fascinating that much of the work in Pageant comes out of political anger in response to W’s second term. “Testimony” and “On Some Gossip Overheard at the Meritocracy Bar and Grill,” two poems early in your second section, come very close to direct confrontation with the consequences of Bush administration policies, foreign and domestic:
You see, I was only trying to understand
what America must feel like after all the boys
and girls have left the classroom, and all
the streetlights are turned off to allow
for the multiplying of what will come to be
labeled “private space.” (“Testimony” 13)
“The rich are a new brand of sneakers.
The rich are my favorite rock band.
The rich know how to throw a war.”
Those rich, always polishing
their oil tanker Christmas ornaments. . . . (“On Some Gossip” 15)
Given that, as you say, the language available for poetry “is in a fundamental way corrupted by its misuse in political rhetoric and advertising,” what strategies are you conscious of using in such poems to call attention to this misuse or provide alternatives? Also, could you please elaborate on how you “try to stay true to” the notion that “the most interesting work comes out of the unconscious” in your poetry?
JF: I would say that I never start with the goal of writing “political poetry.” My writing usually starts with a phrase I hear in my head or from a writing procedure (or in-class game), and then I just write without thinking about what I am “trying to say.” When I am writing, I am focused more on the poem’s music and imagery than its meaning. I think this is one way of staying true to the unconscious. The poems in Pageant are engaged with politics (maybe history is a better word for it) because it was so unavoidable; it was what I thought about a great majority of the time, so it came out in the poetry I wrote.
I don’t feel that while I am writing I have deliberate “strategies” I use to avoid misused, “corrupted” language. Rather, I would say that I try to remain playful even if I am aware the content of my work is “serious.” I also am an obsessive re-writer. Most of my poems go through dozens and dozens of drafts, so I tend to take out language that is clichéd as I go along. (At least I hope I do.)
I realize that it’s not completely accurate to say “language is corrupted by its misuse.” I worry that it implies that I believe there was once some sort of “pure” language where sign and signified were joined without difficulty, and that the difficulty of language was a historical consequence, not an ontological fact—or that the “difficulty” of language is necessarily a “problem” of language and not part of its possibility.
I think the problem of political rhetoric is that the words tend to be unidirectional, while in a poem a word’s meaning should be multi-directional. Language works this way more in some of my poems than in others, and I’m okay with that. I am not a purist. Sometimes, I want to be able to use language to tell a story, too. Or a joke. I feel like meaning can work in various ways in a poem, and I’d like to think that I avoid a singular approach.
TF: Yes, it may not be precise enough to refer to the “corruptions” of language, since no absolute standard of referential correspondence is available, and, further, the idea of the mendacity of political language is itself an automatic thought, verging on cliché. However, it is fair to say that the unidirectional flow which you mention as a problem in political rhetoric involves an emotional pitch that does not encourage ordinary citizens to think through the complexities of issues but urges them to succumb to a rallying cry. One interesting thing about President Obama is that he collages “American apple pie” rhetoric with brief but trenchant analyses of issues that the English composition teacher in me might call an invitation to critical thinking. In other words, tired poetry—which many on the left have called obligatory rhetoric for any Presidential candidate who hopes to be elected and any President who hopes to have an effect in the White House—coexists rather peacefully with serious discursive elaboration.
Even if you don’t intend to write “political poetry” but focus on “music and imagery” rather than “meaning,” many readers would find critiques of emotional pitches in political rhetoric. Take the lines I’ve cited from “Testimony”; the language of “no child left behind,” a bad joke of an educational strategy without financial teeth, is turned into a talk show host probing for “America’s” “feelings” about students’ questionable performance, and the right-wing (and at times centrist) mania for privatization is happily captured by the local trope of darkening (as opposed to en-light-enment). And, in “One Some Gossip,” how about those “oil tanker Christmas ornaments”—as though “the rich” want to think about their sentimental pleasures and the oily means of their enrichment at once!
What are some of the writing procedures or games that have proven most generative for you in this book, and why? Also, as you move through those many drafts, do you continue the discipline of not “thinking about what [you are] ‘trying to say,’” or does the gradual consideration of meaning interact with and perhaps have an impact on the “music and imagery”?
JF: This is a difficult question because while I play writing games with my students all of the time, it feels pretty unpredictable which exercise will help me write a poem. For me, and probably for many of my students, most of what we write in class does not make its way into the poems we share with the larger word. The point of playing a writing game isn’t necessarily to produce poetry. Often it’s more about getting into the habit of seeing language as a means of play and teaching your mind to be open to chance, but whether what one writes is “a deeper outside thing” (as Ashbery puts it) or just flat and boring is not always predictable.
Looking at a copy of Pageant, I can explain how a couple of the poems were started in workshops. I remember the poem “Song with Borrowed Shoes” was started in a class I teach in my apartment in Brooklyn. I had given the group a packet of poems that used a lot of slant rhyme. Then I took a stack of books from my shelves and asked the members of the workshop to flip through the books and see which words jumped out at them and to put a word on one side of an index card. Each person had around six cards they had to write words on. We then passed the cards around and other people would write slant rhyme to pair with the word on the same cards. I then redistributed the cards again and everyone got a random assortment of index cards with pairs of slant rhymes on them. I remember the words, “tricky/cricket, needle/thistle, patience/ penitence, dice/ knife” all came from the exercise.
My poem “Love Song with Loose Toes” came from a workshop on writing portrait poems that I adapted from a talk Andy Clausen gave at Teachers & Writers on writing what he called “Spirit Portraits.” Clausen would have his students, usually elementary school kids, generate questions about the person they wanted to write about such as “If the person were an animal, what animal would they be?” I took his idea, made up my own questions and made a worksheet out of it that I use when I teach the idea of portrait poems. I can’t remember where I was, but I remember some of the language in “Love Song with Loose Toes” came out of answering questions on that worksheet and then using the answers in a poem.
In answer to the second question on meaning, yes, I think meaning is always in play when one writes, but usually a dream logic. Sometimes more definite forms of meaning come later. I wrote a poem called “Ode to Television” which started as just language in my notebook, but then weeks later I realized it was about television (or it could be about television) so I added that as a title.
TF: I’m not going to ask you to tie your work to ecriture feminine or to ask sententiously about feminist responsibility in poetry, but it takes no hermeneutic magician to note that “Song with Borrowed Shoes,” though strewn with challenging tropes, confronts the old theme of the silencing of women:
Like any other woman,
a songless cricket.
I name my needle
Patience and wait
for the wet thistle
to turn into crowbar
penitence, into cellophane
or liquid glass, into
cracked ceramic dice,
a pair of muffled
cymbals, a knife. (55)
“Songless”? Hell, no—you are full of song, but the “I” is not you. And the “muffled/ cymbals” aren’t yours. The “knife,” on the other hand. . . . Can you talk a little about how you perceive what this incisive, elegantly carved poem is doing? Does it relate thematically to other poems in Pageant?
JF: I am reluctant say too much about the poem because I think a poem should be a relationship between a poet and a reader, and I worry if I say too much it will hinder someone else’s enjoyment of the poem. It’s also a difficult poem to talk about because it’s meant to be a little song, and I think the meaning (or the theme) is grounded in its formal properties, the tension between controlled music and the violence under the surface.
The first line of my poem comes out of the opening of Gregory Orr poem I loved as young teenager. Orr’s line is “Like any other man I was born/ with a knife in one hand and a wound in the other.” I remember feeling slightly jealous, that as a man he could write that line and have the word “man” mean “humans” and that if I wrote a poem with the same first line people would assume it was a persona poem. What is interesting about his line is the tension between the first and second line. Even though the word “man” can include woman, one always get the image of a male first. This idea contrasts with the second line, an image of a self that includes both genders, almost a hermaphrodite. I always wanted to write a line that took off from his. What’s interesting to me is that by changing the word from “man” to “woman” the tone is turned on its head; it instantly becomes ironic or sarcastic.
As for the second part of the question, I think the poem relates thematically, but maybe less directly than some others. Many of the poems in Pageant play with cultural constructions of reality, rather than reality itself.
TF: In this book, you alternate between poems without a single stanza break, monostich, couplet, tercet, and quatrain poems, and irregular strophed poems. And there’s one prose-poem. Are you aiming, in fact, for a certain degree of variety of forms in the course of a book? Did any principles, however loose, help you decide about what patterns to use for particular poems? And does anything other than “feel” assist you in making decisions about line-breaks and line-lengths?
JF: As Creeley said, “Form is nothing more than an extension of content” or “content is nothing more than an extension of form.” The poems that are about living within limits tend to have a more ordered form than the poems that are about the feeling of psychological expansiveness. I also tend to think a lot about timing and pace when I think about form. I tend to write a lot of poems in one- or two-line stanzas because I think it slows the poem down, and might help the reader process the imagery and wordplay, which tend to move pretty quickly.
TF: Quite a few of your poems seem to feature an “I” that’s relatively determinate and “unified,” whereas various others like “The Summer We Were All Seventeen,” the aforementioned “Testimony,” and “Boots, Mistletoe, Cookies and Thumbs” show a strong interest in the multiplicity of selfhood. In (“Rock the Hothouse, Loot the Brain,” we find pronoun roughhousing: “You and me and the other me/ fight for the pillow” 25), and in “A True Story That Is Not About Me,” a particular sentence seems to give the lie to at least part of the title: “The truth is/ I am always happier/ as someone else” (19). Obviously, these issues have been a major problematic—or perhaps I should say, funamatic—for the New York School, which has influenced you to some degree. Could you—whether comment on how you think about identity/identities in this book?
JF: What I like about poetry—as opposed to other modes of literature—is how it can capture in words the feeling of multiplicity of selves within oneself or an experience of the world outside a constructed identity or the identities one presents to society. Still, I don’t feel like every poem needs to explore this idea. A couple of the poems that are more narrative and straightforward, like “Yes, I Would Like Another Ghost Shaped-Truffle” and “A Question,” need to have more stable speakers in order to tell a story or relate a more unified experience. I like the idea of having both of these sorts of poems in the same book, because it seems true to my experience of the world. On an ontological level, we may all be made up of multiple selves that change depending on whom we are interacting with at a particular time, but we don’t feel this multiplicity and discontinuity at every moment. There are lots of times in life where the self feels unified, unproblematic and whole. That said, I think of many of the unified speakers in the book as personas rather than “myself.”
TF: At this moment, my favorite poem in Pageant is “For Newlyweds,” which gives a lot of bizarre predictions and advice to the addressees, including “Write your vows as if// they were made out of cloud intestines and loose/ change. . . (72), and yet also includes a great deal of wisdom, if you can let the tropes sit with you long enough so that your nose registers the unexpected bouquet. The poem begins:
Walk to each other slowly,
as if in a field of flowering microchips.
Your reflection will soon be clarified
in the mirror of a gleaming cleaver.
Watch it magnified, stretched out
by the processed moonlight.
You will never again remember
what it feels like to be alone, what you
thought about as you listened to
the crackling of the radio asteroids. (71)
Every American couple should have to read “For Newlyweds”; it could reduce the 50% divorce rate to 20%!
To narrow down what I’m say to a truism, this is a funny poem that is as serious as it’s funny. You’re a humorous poet who is as serious as she is humorous. The humor should be taken seriously. What do you think about this binary in your poetry and in the general reception of your work?
JF: I am not sure if there is necessarily a binary between what is funny and serious. I don’t sit down and try to write a funny poem (or a serious poem), though I am aware of the absurdity that can arise from specificity and the jolt of surprise that can come from extreme juxtaposition. Occasionally my work is more overtly satiric (like the poem you quoted above, “On Some Gossip Overheard at the Meritocracy Bar and Grill”), but I think usually it’s more playful and ironic. As a Jew, I find the idea of making jokes about what is serious very natural. It can be a useful way of putting one’s own situation in perspective and a sort of coping mechanism. I remember that the poem “At the Evil Boss Convention” came out of my being upset about something a boss said, so then in my head I kept referring to him as the “evil boss.” I knew he wasn’t evil and that the whole idea of evil bosses was kind of ridiculous, so I thought it would be funny to try to imagine what a bunch of evil bosses would do if they got together at a convention.
As for the reception of my work, I am not sure. Sometimes when I give a reading people are falling off their chairs laughing, and sometimes no one laughs. It’s sort of a mystery to me why this is, or if it’s necessarily a problem if people don’t laugh.
TF: Your previous (third) collection was entitled Moraine. What might the movement in your titling from a natural process of fortuitous collection/organization to a highly predetermined social process of organization (Pageant) be telling us?
JF: The poems in Moraine came out of a desire to experiment with idea of expansiveness. How can a poem create a feeling of psychological space? I included the word “moraine” in the titles of all of the poems in the collection Moraine as a way to suggest their internal heterogeneity and feeling of chaotic simultaneity.
The title Pageant came out of the poem “Oh Specious Skies, Our Exit Where?” which is about a sort of dreamlike history/war pageant where clones of Charlie Brown watch a performance of a war. I liked the word as a title for the book because so many of the poems are based around ideas of social/political space; many of the poems are about a performed or media-constructed reality and its relationship to imagination. I decided on the title before I finished the book, and I think it helped me establish the tone for the work.
Joanna Fuhrman is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Pageant (Alice James Books 2009) and Moraine (Hanging Loose Press 2006.) She teaches poetry writing at Rutgers University and in NYC public schools. She is the poetry editor for Boog City, a community newspaper for the East Village and the Wednesday night reading series curator for the 2010-2011 season at the Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church. Recent poems appear in issues of Ping Pong, Quarterly West, The Brooklyn Rail, Paperbag and Trickhouse.
Thomas Fink is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008) and (with Maya Diablo Mason) Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010), and two books of criticism. He is also co-editor of a 2007 collection of essays on David Shapiro. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.