Monday, October 1, 2012

A Conversation: Farrah Field and Dan Magers

chaos + lyric = accessible experimentation

Farrah Field: During grad school, we were asked to go around the room and say something that we wanted to happen to our poetry, a way that we would want it to change over the course of the semester. I said I wanted more controversy. Everyone else had more complicated answers, treatises on form or language or grammar. At the time I wanted controversy on a surface level; I wanted controversy—discomfort, loudness, irreverence, something that you would want to talk or know more about. I like poetry so much that I need to do something to it to make it normal, like poetry is something I need to mud wrestle or something within one’s body.

Dan Magers: I think we are similar in that I was also looking for a chaos in my work and was less interested in consciously connecting it to a poetic movement or intellectual underpinning. While I’m interested in poetics, and the discussions and debates that surround them, it also seems strangely unmoored to why I write poetry. In my book Partyknife, I think I was finally able to replicate on the one hand the wild jumps that the mind makes between different thoughts and emotions that is almost destabilizing, and on the other hand, something close to a lyric “I” that is reasonably recognizable as such. I’m pleased when I hear people saying it is somehow both experimental and accessible and a quick read. Seems to me like the best of both worlds.

FF: This is an interesting equation: chaos + lyric = accessible experimentation. As a bookseller, I watch people physically react to your book, you know, the very act of opening it and saying “wow.” While selling books I encounter many people who don’t often read poetry and their most common response to Partyknife is that they didn’t know these things could be done in poetry.

DM: Do you still aim for controversy in your work? You said you wanted it on a surface level—does it now occupy a more subterranean level of your work? When you say you have an inclination to make your work more “normal,” is it because you think the chaotic or controversial drive in your work would make an unpalatable, or even unsuccessful, work? Do you think that people wouldn’t get it? Do you think your second book Wolf and Pilot is more—or less—“normal” than your first book Rising?

FF: I don’t think I aim for controversy as much as I did when I was younger, but I’m really interested in power! I want the power to constantly change and create and take risks; I want to write and be something powerful. Rising is so different from Wolf and Pilot because with Rising I had a gut-wrenching anger about being the surviving sibling of my murdered sister. It’s so uncomfortable to talk about, and the only way I could was to go after it in poetry. I know it’s probably cheesy to say, but poetry was how I could begin to sort out the feelings surrounding my sister’s death. Poetry is the only art form that listens while doing all the other things it does. Wolf and Pilot is so different in that I approached a genre, seeing what I could do with a sort of fairy tale, like Snow White meets Twin Peaks. I wanted to make something up, experiment and invent in a way I never had before. Sexuality, both childish and adultish, and the themes of sisterhood and loss are still unavoidably present, but they surface in a world I created, as opposed to being led by the very real and very tragic event central to Rising.

Getting back to chaos, which I really like and is more or less what I wanted to evoke with controversy, I couldn’t help but think of your lines: “I’m the Jesus of making out with girls drunk” and “Sometimes I think that I’m doing all this cross training / so I can do more cocaine.” We could obviously say so much about these lines, but what is most striking to me is their chaos and irreverence. Perhaps in these two lines, is the chaos self-effacing? Is chaos the attempt at making art that is normal-seeming (accessible), spiced with feelings of failure, a general lack of health/stability, yet ritualistic, and yet poetic?

DM: I don’t think chaos needs to be self-effacing per se. And maybe chaos is the result instead of the attempt? I think I worried that people who knew me who read my book would think I secretly hated them, because I think a there is a lot of anger in the book that is directed from the speaker to the other characters (and at life generally). I was talking to my therapist about this, and he made the point that I often turn my anger inwards, against myself. That happens in my life, but it’s definitely present in the book too. And I think the sort of love/hate thing that goes on with the other characters in the book, as well as in the speaker himself, is what gives the book its animating force.

I had started therapy while I was working on editing my book for Birds, LLC. It was kind of perfect timing, because I felt like I was able to more directly channel my ideas and emotions. I think while I was learning about how and what I wanted to write throughout my twenties, I had to go through many, many iterations of “obscuring” what was driving me to write. And when I say obscuring, I don’t mean deliberately. More like what was driving me was a self-secret that I’m in the process of unlocking. One of the things I needed to do when revising the book was to improve the ending, which turned into a really intense experience. During the second-to-last dive into it before the ending was finished, I felt like I was under a dark spell, and it was like I was physically surrounded by a despair that was touching my body. It felt almost dangerous. But it turned out great.

Do you think writing Wolf and Pilot was emotionally and psychologically easier than writing Rising? Were there times when the writing of it felt particularly intense?

FF: Hell yeah! At first Wolf and Pilot seemed so easy. I wrote many of the poems with the collective voices of four little girls in mind, while watching really young cattle curiously and timidly approach my car on a ranch in California. All the while I was thinking about the collective “the girls” in The Virgin Suicides and how that concept is unified as one in Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls. I guess there is the collective consciousness thing, but also the collective way in which “the girls” are handled and treated. I was also reading about Iraq and about torture, particularly Naomi Klein’s investigation of it and Glenn Greenwald’s reporting of it, and what terrified me the most was how torture (at least US government-sanctioned) targeted consciousness, disrupting it so much so that victims, sleep exhausted or deprived, don’t even know if it’s night or day. That place of being lost, on which someone actually wrote a handbook, that someone actually does this to other people, began to creep into the girls’ reasonably safe space in Wolf and Pilot. They’re safe in their collective consciousness—they run away together, they choose their teacher to take care of them, but one of them allows herself to be taken and dies.

So in the Rising sense, this territory of disrupted sisterhood and loss is of course dark and very familiar to me. It occurs to me now that Wolf and Pilot and Partyknife both address youth in very different ways. My work approaches childhood and the adultish nature of childishness and yours confronts being twenty-something young. Do you think your work will continue to investigate youth and youthful approaches? Our books are set in incredibly different places—yours seems so cityish and mine so woodsy. (Shall we compare book trailers here?? ha ha). Is city life still influencing your work in the same way?

DM: It’s hard for me to talk in print about what I want to do next, since I’m mindful of the fact that what I’m working on may not, and will probably not, be successful. One of the hundred reasons I’m happy I’m no longer in my 20s is that I spent so much time working on poetry ideas and projects that didn’t go anywhere, which made me feel like “what’s the point?” It’s easier for me to just write now, knowing that what I’m working on won’t necessarily turn out how I first imagine it. I’m doing a lot of writing right now, and experimenting with new ways in which to generate and manipulate text, and I’m enjoying the freedom of not writing towards any particular goal, whether it’s writing a second book, or making more publishable poems to place in lit mags. Pretty soon, urgency will kick in, and I’ll focus on something, but for now, I’m just writing.

FF: Last but not least, I want to ask you about your relationship to poetry as an editor. We have both worked together, workshopping together, and you have been my graciously ruthless editor for my chapbook Parents. I have seen very early drafts of Partyknife and in fact still sometimes reminisce on the former title, Sweet Christ How I Love Partyknife. Do you like to read more as an editor or as a poet? Do you feel your work as an editor influences your creative work? You said that the revisions you made with the Birds, LLC edits made the book turn out great; what was it like being on the other side of the editing process?

DM: I really felt like the extensive editorial process that Birds, LLC does was a luxury. Because of the nature of how poetry is generally published, the poet is often left to his or her own resources when writing, and then trying to publish, a poem or book. And often when they publish a book, it’s often published without edits, or maybe with some minor tweaks. I also think sometimes poets (especially poets) get fretful when they do get edits, like they are being faced with a deficiency in their work (and being). I think that maybe my book was more conducive to being edited because of the use of narrative elements as well as the collage-like composition of the book. But since also my day job is at a big publishing company, I think I tend to trust the editorial process more, and understand that writers have blind spots. That said, I definitely read more like a poet than an editor. Everything I read is filtered through what I’m thinking about in my poetry.

What are you writing right now? Do you have a 3rd (or 4th?) book in mind? Does being a poetry book seller affect how and what you want to write, and who you want to write for?

FF: For the past few years I have been working on a series of poems, all of which have the name Amy in the title. I love what the project is doing and how it’s growing, so I just keep it going. The Amy poems have sort of taken a life of their own; they surprise me and it’s really fun working with that. Originally, I started the poems as revenge against an artist who did not allow me to use her art for my first book. I’m grateful she said no because Rising turned out to be such a beautiful book. So over time the poems have delved into investigations of female characters from books and films, the language of female relationships and what they might sounds like in a culture that valued them, and the voices of women revolutionaries such as Ulrika Meinhof.

Lately I have begun a rather in-depth project regarding research on television addiction. I have been going to libraries (any excuse to visit Butler Library!) to research and take notes. I haven’t done any research in so long that it’s daunting, but I’m really getting into it. I actually thought about going back to school and getting some kind of degree in sociology or political science, but my friend Keith told me to write about it, which is a great suggestion because I don’t want to go back to school. I should just write it. I’m not thinking about whether or not any of this will be a book, but I’m really learning so much by being with them, having a focus but being sloppy, letting myself put poems in piles, and making notes in a handmade notebook.

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