Midwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talked with poet Robert Fernandez about his collection Scarecrow, truth in the abstract, tracking the music in poetry and more.
Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Robert Fernandez: I came to the Midwest at 23 to begin graduate studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I remember driving into Iowa City in the early morning, Fatboy Slim’s remix of Jim Morrison’s “Bird of Prey” on the speakers, and feeling hopeful that it could be the beginning of something great. After graduating, I was accepted to Iowa’s PhD in English. My wife and I bought a house, participated in the literary life of the Workshop, and eventually became friends with a number of local writers. While still in the PhD, I was offered a creative writing job in Nebraska, and have been teaching poetry workshops here ever since.
KP: You were born in Hartford, Connecticut. You grew up in Miami, Florida. You earned your MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You currently live in Nebraska. Given these changes in landscape, how has your understanding of the Midwest shifted overtime? In what ways has your poetry reflected this shift — if at all?
RF: I admit I didn’t have much of a sense of what to expect from the Midwest. I had some sense of the region’s history, and I understood Iowa’s significance in the political landscape, but I had no real read on the area’s culture or ethos. I did know some Workshop mythology—its tales of hard-drinking writers like Cheever and Berryman—but, to be honest, my sense of what to expect was probably mostly conditioned by having watched the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1999). I half expected to be partying in barns, breaking up fist fights, writing poems next to a space heater during heavy snowfall. (Which turned out to be not far off.) I think I expected something much more rustic and “American Gothic,” but ultimately it’s a very middle class, well-appointed town.
Settling in was refreshing because there wasn’t the feeling of the dispersion and relentless hustle of South Florida. It was new to me to see a community of people intent on a shared, non-lucrative, marginal practice, and to see that practice celebrated in the larger community.
I’ve done almost all of my work here in the Midwest, but my books are mainly Florida books. There is, however, a noticeable shift in Scarecrow away from a dominant coastal sensibility toward something more landlocked, Midwestern.
KP: Scarecrow is your third collection of poetry, following We are Pharoah (2011) and Pink Reef (2013). What do you see as the most notable difference between Scarecrow and your first two collections? How have you grown as a writer and poet between and among these publications?
RF: If I were to make some general distinctions, I’d say that We Are Pharaoh attempts, through its interconnected lyrics and sequences, to transmit a sense of the lifeworld of South Florida and a sense of its basic contradictions: extremes of wealth and poverty, a multiplicity of languages and identities, and the desire for continuity and history where the earth and money always acutely threaten to erode both. It’s a global place, charged with the feeling of possibility (every fifth car on the highway is a $150K car) as well as the heaviness of blockages to possibility, behind which the earth continuously reveals itself with sublime profligacy and extravagance. Pink Reef, a book-length serial poem, distills Pharaoh’s methods and lends them a more ungoverned, devotional emphasis. Scarecrow was written after completing my translation of Mallarmé, Azure. Unlike We Are Pharaoh and Pink Reef, Scarecrow is interested in how to move forward when restless willing and striving are no longer possible. It’s also the only book in which the collapse of the distinctions between the sacred and profane isn’t a primary conflict.
The books are very different from each other, but I’d like to think there are clear continuities borne out of the same essential questions. If I’ve developed as a writer, I’d say it’s in my ability to recognize and affirm those questions and to pursue the poems on their own terms in a more joyful manner.
KP: Scarecrow seems to push and pull at the extremities of life, using tangible Gothic details to help navigate the spaces between despair and hope. In your poetry, what is the relationship between the concrete and the abstract, the visceral and the philosophical? How do you choose to explore, complicate, or expand this relationship?
RF: I’d refer to Coleridge, whom I may butcher a bit here, and say that — contra what the Imagists said about going in fear of abstractions — when the imagination is present (here a disclosive faculty, able to see things that are concealed or beyond our scope) even something seemingly abstract can have the taste, feel, and force of truth. One should really go in fear of “fancy,” which Coleridge places in distinction to the imagination, because fancy only manages to synthesize or arrange what’s already at hand and thus doesn’t reveal or transport with the inevitably of a truth.
The questions this brings up are philosophical in nature: Is a work constructed or revealed? Willed or given? Is it really possible to be (in Alain Badiou’s terms) a subject of truth? How does one remain open and have fidelity to such a process?
KP: In previous interviews, you’ve emphasized the importance of sound in poetry, claiming that “poetic truth is foremost the truth of music.” What, to you, is the relationship between poetry and music? How is your work in Scarecrow influenced by this relationship?
RF: I think this is a question of metaphysics, in the sense that Heidegger pursues it, one taken up by modern poets like Rimbaud, Lorca, Jack Spicer, and Amelia Rosselli. These poets, in distinct ways, are making related and radically revisionist claims about our understanding of the human. Rimbaud claims “It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought.” And: “I is someone else. No matter for the wood that finds itself a violin…” Lorca talks about the duende as a “spontaneous creation,” “a power, not a work…a struggle, not a thought.” Spicer remarks that “Prose invents—poetry discloses.” And Rosselli says that “…the poem is made of liberation, not of reflection…”
Is the poet an agent that imposes truth, or one taken up by its demands? Is truth a matter of unconcealment or of correspondence—of the emergence of something unforeseen or of rational thought?
For the Pythagoreans, music was an ecstatic process—one that takes us outside of ourselves—and I think that when something truthful emerges in language it’s not essentially a matter of calculation or willing, but of anticipatory preparation and receptivity—of being prepared to be taken up by and submit to a rhythm not given in advance.
For me, Scarecrow is a very foreign book—it’s not a familiar music, not a mode I’m really at ease with; nevertheless, I tried to be as rigorous as I could be in tracking its music.
KP: Who is your favorite contemporary poet, and what type of inspiration do you draw from their work?
RF: I’m especially fond of the work of Mary Hickman. I was born in 1980, and I also like several US poets born around that time: Ariana Reines, Jon Leon, Farnoosh Fathi, Lynn Xu, Shane McCrae. Ten years or so on either side of 1980, I’d also mention Darrin Gonzales, a student of mine, and Anthony Madrid.
KP: What’s next for you?
RF: Since Scarecrow, I’ve completed two new books, Niños del Sol, which is a collection of voiced, rhyme-driven lyrics, and Crowns. I’ve also completed a fairly substantial body of visual-poetic work, which I’m calling “imaj-vers.” For instance, I recently completed a big visual book, Grand Grimoire (12.5X10.75in). With its debts to graffiti, illuminated manuscripts, children’s art, and studio art, Grand Grimoire is, at around 250 pages, a more sweeping (if smaller scale) extension of the other imaj-vers works that have occupied me for the last year: photographic, sculptural, and video sequences that use visual media to make poems. Finally, my translation partner and I have undertaken a translation from the Creole of the great Haitian poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy’s Antigòn (1953), an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone into a Haitian context. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to see some of this work into the world within the next few years.
Robert Fernandez is the author of the poetry collections We Are Pharaoh (Canarium, 2011), Pink Reef (Canarium, 2013), and Scarecrow (Wesleyan, 2016). He holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, The New Republic, Poetry, Conjunctions, A Public Space, and elsewhere. He was selected by Robyn Schiff as a New American Poet by the Poetry Society of America, and received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative American Poetry. In 2014 he served as an editor for the PEN Poetry Series. He is co-translator of Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre” (Wesleyan, 2015). Author site: www.robert-fernandez.com