Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Chris Forhan about his memoir My Father Before Me, opening oneself up to language and its possibilities, not finding all of the answers and more.
Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Chris Forhan: I have lived here since 2007, when I took a job teaching at Butler University in Indianapolis. Before that, I lived in almost every section of the nation—the northwest, northeast, southeast, deep south, southwest—except the vast middle. However, I have some ancient roots here. In researching my genealogy as part of my memoir project, I discovered that my great great grandfather—the original Forhan who emigrated from Ireland in the 1850s—spent a few years in Ontario and then settled in Litchfield, Illinois, where he did railroad work. Then he moved fifty miles south to East St. Louis and worked as a railroad laborer there.
Other branches of my family, on both my mother’s and my father’s side, are from Missouri and Minnesota, so, although I was born and raised in Seattle, I am in important ways a product of middle America. After spending decades in the south, I moved to Indianapolis and immediately — oddly — felt at home.
MV: Prior to My Father Before Me, a memoir, you had published several books of poetry. How did you approach the two types of writing differently? Similarly?
CF: When I write a poem, I begin with no intention other than to open myself to language and its possibilities. I resist for as long as possible the temptation to decide what I am writing about. (I learned long ago that reaching such a conclusion too early can kill a poem in its tracks.)
With the memoir, I began with clearly defined questions that rose up in me and nagged at me in such a way that I knew I had to pursue them and that I could do so only in prose: What kind of person was my father, exactly? What led him to the point that, at forty-four, he could decide to take his own life, even though he was leaving behind a wife and eight children? Who were his parents, and who were their parents? What was his childhood like, and how might that have contributed to making him the man he became? In order to answer these questions, I needed to do research: to interview my mother and anyone I could track down who might have known my father, to scour census records and newspaper databases, to study at old photos. Although the memoir is ultimately an act of the imagination in that I had to shape the story and reenact events or speculate about them, the project began with me collecting material and analyzing it. For me, poems inhabit emotional or psychological spaces and gesture toward mysteries that cannot be fully comprehended. In the memoir, I didn’t want to do that. As much as possible, I wanted to discover facts about my father and piece them together in order to piece him back together.
So the two kinds of writing are, at least at their outset, very different from each other. However, as I kept working on the material for the memoir, moving from researching to outlining to writing sentences and paragraphs, I felt the experience of writing creative nonfiction was very similar to the experience of writing poems. In both cases, I find myself lost—usually happily—in a tangle of words and moods and ideas, struggling to shape a phrase or find exactly the right image or massage the music of a sentence—its cadences and vowels and consonants—so that it works just right. Poetry, in its use of diction, image, sound, rhythm, syntax, and the line, dramatizes internal experience; it enacts what it feels like to be human. With the memoir, I was working on a larger canvas, but, word by word, I felt myself confronting the same challenge: to make the language not merely communicate information but physically embody a thought or feeling.
MV: Your father’s life and death are present in your poetry. What made you decide to dig deeper and publish a memoir?
CF: Probably my previous answer addresses this. For my own peace of mind, I hoped to unravel the mystery of my father once and for all, at least to the degree that such a thing was possible. In poems, I had investigated what it felt like to be his son. I have always written in order to ground myself, to feel connected to what is essential, so I knew that I needed to continue writing about my father, but it seemed that prose—with its natural capacity to operate narratively and discursively—was the only form that would work.
MV: How has Catholicism shaped your life and writing, both before and after the death of your father?
CF: In an important way, my life has been defined by my early rejection of Catholicism, the faith in which I was raised. I rejected it not in favor of another religious tradition but in favor of an experience of incomprehensible mystery unattached to theological dogma. I write about this in the memoir. Even if I had not been raised in a religious household, I might very well still have become a poet and still have developed something close to the sensibility I have. However, I suspect that my early struggle to pursue my own nascent personal metaphysics without shame or an impulse to conceal my thoughts was fuel for something fundamental in me: an ongoing fierce desire to defend the private imagination against any force—including coerced religious indoctrination—that would insult its dignity and inhibit its power to bring joy and meaningful order and wonder to a person’s life.
Much of the writing I was doing in my twenties and thirties, I realize now, was in response to having gone through this struggle—with having been brought up with the assumption that I would adopt certain beliefs about divinity and the human soul because they were the custom of the tribe. Few things make me more furious than witnessing someone, merely because of his own subjective notions about God, limiting another person’s liberties. I can get into an intense fit of indignation. Real high dudgeon.
Still, the symbols and rituals of Catholicism—the manger and sheep and chalice and host and crown of thorns and nailed palms and empty tomb—are deeply compelling, in the way a richly-textured dream is. My imagination was steeped in those images and structures, so I often find them informing the structures of my poetry: the shapes taken by my imaginings and rhetoric.
MV: How did you go about doing research for your memoir? Were you concerned about interviewing your mother?
CF: One thing that was important for me from the beginning was to be open with my family — my mother and siblings — about what I was doing and why. I hoped for their blessing, even their help. Each of them agreed to be interviewed, and those talks, especially with my mother, were essential to my ability to piece together a narrative of my father’s life and of our life with him.
I was concerned about interviewing my mother. She is a dignified and discreet woman, and many of the years she spent with my father were difficult ones. I knew that she would not enjoy revisiting them. Still, I hoped that she would feel some of the necessity of this project that I felt, and I think she did feel that — or at least she respected my own feelings about it. She is a very smart and loving woman, and I sensed that intelligence and love strongly as she shared her story, very candidly, with me. It wasn’t easy for her, and seeing the book published — and seeing her name, in the newspaper, attached to its publication — wasn’t easy for her, either. I owe her a lot.
The other research was deliriously enjoyable because I was learning things I had hungered to know for decades. I interviewed whomever I could find who might be related to my father or might have known him, and I looked wherever I could for information, such as census records, newspaper databases, and a trove of photos and other documents about my ancestors that I was given by relatives I hadn’t heard of before I started investigating. I visited cemeteries and traveled to East St. Louis and Litchfield, Illinois, to try to get a sense of where the original Irish immigrant Forhans lived in the 19th century. I was fueled by a kind of reckless curiosity that was rewarded over and over again. It was invigorating.
MV: How has teaching in Indianapolis influenced how you approach your own writing?
CF: There hasn’t been a noticeable influence. I still approach writing as I always have: indirectly. I pluck a phrase or image or rhythm from the air, jot it down, then see if anything happens. I follow the scent of the language into the woods, where, if I’m lucky, I’ll find a poem.
I can nonetheless say that living here has altered, if slightly, the content of my writing. I lived for many years in places—all in the south—that, no matter their eccentric charms, made me feel alienated and alone. My poems often showed that; their energy was the energy of an imagination gasping for air. Indiana is a red state — it voted overwhelmingly, joyfully, terrifyingly for Trump. Still, I live in a little spot of blue within the state and generally don’t feel encircled by strangers, so those desperate feelings don’t show up in my poems as much anymore.
With these new dark days that are upon us all, that may very well change.
MV: You’ve said in a past interview that you were trying to figure out who your father was and what that meant for you, being his son. After writing My Father Before Me, do you feel as though you found the answer to those questions?
CF: I haven’t found all of the answers, but that’s because my father took most of them into the grave with him. Still, I feel much closer to knowing what it might have felt like to be him. Early in the writing, and more intensely as the writing progressed, I felt that the central subject of the memoir was silence: both its power to nurture and heal and its power to distance us from each other and from ourselves. I think there are important things that my father kept to himself and would have benefited by expressing and grappling with, however difficult that might have been. As his son, I live with this legacy, and I try not to allow my natural inclination to turn inward and go quiet to be used as a means of escape, not discovery.
MV: What’s next for you?
CF: Glory and riches.
Oh, just the next poem, and the next, and the next (“the next handhold out of the pit,” as my old teacher Charles Wright once said).
I have put together a collection of poems, half of which were written quite long ago — before the writing of the memoir — and half of which were written more recently. I hope it will find a publisher.
I am sometimes asked whether I have another nonfiction book in me. I don’t know. Writing the memoir was rewarding but exhausting; I wrote it in the first place because I felt I had to — I had no choice. Before I decide to embark on another such giant project, I’m waiting to feel that sense of necessity again.
Chris Forhan is the author of the memoir My Father Before Me as well as three books of poetry: Black Leapt In, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize; The Actual Moon, The Actual Stars, winner of the Morse Poetry Prize and a Washington State Book Award; and Forgive Us Our Happiness, winner of the Bakeless Prize. He is also the author of three chapbooks, Ransack and Dance, x, and Crumbs of Bread, and his poems have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Parnassus, Georgia Review, Field, and other magazines, as well as in The Best American Poetry. He has won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes, has earned a “Discover Great New Writers” selection from Barnes and Noble, and has been a resident at Yaddo and a fellow at Bread Loaf. He was born and raised in Seattle and lives with his wife, the poet Alessandra Lynch, and their two sons, Milo and Oliver, in Indianapolis, where he teaches at Butler University. For more: www.chrisforhan.com.