About as simmering as they come: Adam Fell, I AM NOT A PIONEER

Exuberance and nostalgia. Punk rock. Is friendship political? Boredom, bodies, vision. Four interview prompts for Adam Fell. Inspired by his first book of poems, I Am Not A Pioneer (H_NGM_N Books, 2011). Preceded by a poem from the book. Second interview (here is the first such interview, with Robert Fernandez) that acknowledges do we sometimes read interviews to see how people get away from the questions and say whatever they want, which is what we want, too? This detective I know gets a confession, not by asking about the crime, but by mentioning [whatever]. Adam Fell’s first book confesses a “carload of sparrows” and “a field of black telephones ringing.” Is there a word for the opposite of nostalgia? Sure there is. He asks below. ZS


There Must Be Something Left of the Minotaur in Me


The children load me into the trailer,

padlock the tailgate, take the dirt road,

past the sanitation plant, the tannery,

the strip club where my friend

watched his student dance.

I put my arms through the grates,

feel dry wind, feel chaff and silt.

There is the long fence, there is the far complex.

I see the first fields maw, bristle-mouthed

wide with the wrecklings of cornstalks and soy.

I see the long, scuffed lines

of my friends being lead into buildings

by men with glowing sticks.

The workers greet the children,

unload me, laugh at their prodding,

at the glitch they make of my muscle beneath skin.

They tend me toward the line, toward

the funneling fence, the doorway.

I can hear the lowing of my friends around me.

I can hear the faint-dull puff of the bolt gun

at the temples of my friends already inside.

I can hear the collapsing, the skidding

of hooves on the draingrate, the hum

of the tangling machine lifting them to be slit.

I am nearing the doorway.

I am nearing the doorway.

A gray cloud catches in the sky

and our bronchia unrest, the men and mine,

and my friends ignore us.

The cloud stills, stalls the dry light,

brings the blunted shadow.

The men notice this.

They scuffle to look up at the sun,

bearable enough for their eyes to gather

into guarded piles for an instant.

I smell their eyes catch

like living motes in the light.

A uterine second of distrust.

This is the moment I needed.

I am not a pioneer,

I am just scared to my animal blood

of the doorway, of the men,

of what they will keep of me

and what will be grist.

I take my first step

and cannot untake it.

I gore my way through the men,

feel their stomachs give,

feel the razorwire,

the chainlink buckle before me.

I run.

The children scream near the trailer.

I run.

The gravel milling my hooves,

adding me quietly

to the dust by the teaspoon.


from I Am Not A Pioneer


1. Exuberance and nostalgia


I constantly learn interesting and enlightening things from my students, who tend to be eighteen, nineteen, twenty year olds, but one of the best, that came up in the context of discussing Black Swan Green, the torrentially funny, sweet, morally-complex novel, written by David Mitchell, is that when we look back and feel nostalgic, we’re mostly looking back at the world through the eyes and brains and hearts of ourselves when we were adolescents or toddlers. We remember this free, careening, colorful, waterslide of a time because we had no real grasp on the enormity and complexity of the human world, we had no real grasp on the moral grey matter of it all. I think that’s why older people can look back at the 1950’s and 1960’s and say how lovely and freeing and simple “the times” were. Or my students can look back at, say, 2004, and say how yippeeeee everything was. It’s because we cannot even begin to fathom as children how much of an emotional hurricane the present is for adults, we lack the ability to empathize with adults in any real way. Fortunately, for a good number of us, that changes though, our imaginations are never dumbed down enough so that we can’t imagine what it’s like to be someone else, or remembering what certain experiences in the past felt like.

There is nothing wrong with remembrance or yearning—god knows those are inside me too—but when remembrance and yearning are stranded and unable to push into future, when self-reflection is denounced and progressing is denounced and learning is denounced in favor of looking backwards, I get scared for the world. I think a lot of the poems in I AM NOT A PIONEER try to argue against nostalgia, argue against exuberance. There’s a poem in PIONEER, called “Makeshift Memorial” where the narrator actively lets the high school kids keep drinking shit rum and beer out by the frozen lake, despite the real, larger world swooping down on them fast. They don’t need to be finger-waged or It’s gonna get better’d. We all learn about the realities of the American experience soon enough, and then the really hard decisions need to get made.

That said, I’m wondering: Is there a word for the opposite of nostalgia? Not the disdaining of the past, but the looking forward to when you’re elderly, looking into the future and seeing simple times and joy? Sometimes, I imagine myself as I hope I am as an old man and I hope to god I’m a curmudgeon that knowingly winks at his curmudgeonliness, who swears into the air at Thanksgiving dinner, whose children pat his hand and say “Dad!” in exasperation with how untethered he is from polite social mores and niceties. I want to be the old man that looks angry as he todders out of his sliding glass doors to joyfully throw the errant whiffleball back over the fence to the neighbor kids.

Oh, those will be the days, my dears, those will be the days.

As far as exuberance goes, it just scares the hell out of me, because isn’t exuberance always a delusion? Or always a disguise? I feel like it’s those faces I trust the least, those smiling masks, those are the faces I’m waiting to unhinge their jaws.


2. Punk rock


I was a late bloomer to punk. In high school in the mid-late 90’s, I was a grunge kid. And, in fact, I’ve lately found my way back into In Utero and Nevermind again without any sense of nostalgia, just in undisguised awe of the emotionality and honesty it seems has seeped into these songs. Especially, In Utero, which is one of my favorite albums ever, and one I didn’t really like all that much when I first convinced my mom to buy it for me at Target the week it came out (I had to convince her “Rape Me” was not actually about rape, which was, in a way, a lie, and Mom, I apologize here.). I could talk all day about how powerful “Serve the Servants” and “Scentless Apprentice” are to me today, not to mention how poppy-field on fire “All Apologies” always has been.

And speaking of the old days: I actually just found, over Thanksgiving, my old poetry journals from high school and they’re filled with Smashing Pumpkins lyrics and Stone Temple Pilots lyrics. My brother, Tyler, who is four years my junior, has this hilarious, mis-memory about a poem I wrote in high school called “Mayonnaise” and he used to make fun of that title to his friends, and it has, literally, taken me 15 years to convince him he just saw a print-out of the Smashing Pumpkins song, and that I would have never, even as a kid, named a poem “Mayonnaise.” I hate mayonnaise. Both the condiment and the sound of the word.

It wasn’t until college that I really discovered punk music, but even once the light turned on I’ve always clamored more toward post-punk than actual punk. I’d much rather listen to Wire, Mission of Burma, Joy Division, Gang of Four. Those bands, taking ferocity and politics and emotional unhinging and fusing them with industrial drive, just fits my emotional core more. I’m always a bit too physically controlled of a person to get all bubble-gummy or get all dancey or thrashing, but emotionally, I’m about as simmering as they come.

The big musical influence on my poems in college was always Radiohead. though. I used to try to copy Thom Yorke’s lyrics from OK Computer and Kid A. The disjointedness yet complete emotional cohesion of them, these little four or five line powerhouses of contemporary confusion and imbalance. I strived for that but found my own strive, a little more narrative, a little less global implication, a little less co-option of  jingoism, to my more political poems, a little more snow than rain. I AM NOT A PIONEER, I hope, is political on a more personal level, considering we are all political animals and the choices we make inherently effect members of the communities we are a part of.


3. Is friendship political?


No. Not real friendship, real love, real family. They, as I’ve experienced them, operate in opposition to what I consider the tenants of American politics. No matter what political figure you support, you are being lied to. You just choose the leader who’s lies seem to fit best with your ideal version of society. I realize that that sounds infinitely cynical, but I think the key difference is that politicians know it’s all a game, they know that I bluff here, they cave there, I misquote you in an ad, you bring up my infidelity. And we, as American people, desperately need our politics to not be a game. Our very well-being means too much to be treated as pissing contest, a beauty pageant, a get-quick-rich scheme. I realize that some of these people are good and some of them want to make changes, want to better the station of everyone else, but once they get into the American political system, they find nothing but red tape, frustration, and bludgeonings from all sides.

(And that’s not even to say anything about the people with real power, the people really in charge, the executive boards of major corporations, the CEOs, the bankers.)

In my world, friendship has nothing to do with advertising, or putting on best faces. It’s about being one’s self and finding people who accept you and love you, despite your flaws, despite the fact that you may act like an asshole some times. The best thing that a friend can do is call you on your bullshit. And the best thing you can do is listen to your friends who call you on your bullshit. Then you hug, have a drink. That doesn’t happen in politics, though I wish it did. It’s constant trickery, advertising, soundbites, dumbing-down important issues, dumbing-down real people in the process, making them vote against their best interest.

Our politics is pretty much the exact opposite of how most people work and live through their days in this country. We all work with, live with, and love people who disagree with us politically and it works out just fine the vast majority of the time.


4. Boredom, bodies, vision


It’s not boredom that scares me, it’s distraction. Boredom creates a yearning for throwing one’s self out into the world, or building something emotionally inside of one’s self. Boredom tends me to access that strange, creative place   that the technological world, the rushing setting in my brain that considers our world so mundane, is so crushing to. I mean, how seldom are we truly bored any more? How often do we let Boredom take over and direct us to do something drastic and interesting about it? If we feel the slightest sliver of boredom, we go online, we spend time with The Internet, it’s hands all over us, it’s shouting and cooing and spreading and offering. We spill into the wi-fi, not the other way around. Boredom makes makes me begin a project, write, wonder, wander. Boredom and restlessness are so so often my best friends. Distraction terrifies me.

The other thing that terrifies me, and informs much of I AM NOT A PIONEER is my warm, living, terrible body, and the warm, living, terrible bodies of others. If friendship is not political, neither is love or lust, but we may, in our inevitable shittiness, turn political in the context of both. It’s something, like distraction, to fight back against, to throw our shoes at in protest. My girlfriend told me once that she had given up hope of finding someone that love the world and hated the world as much as she did. And that spark of hope, bless her heart, turned out to be me, I guess, and here I had a whole book written about how much I hated and loved the world, my world. You can’t really be ashamed of the world, but you can be ashamed of how human beings tend to act toward the world and toward each other.

During the years I was writing the poems that became PIONEER, I learned a lot about empathy, self-reflection, forgiveness, guilt. And I really only learned these things truly and forever because I made mistakes, had friends to call me on it. I made mistakes because of my body (I include my brain and heart in that word) and the specific sociological, philosophical, psychological experiences that helped shape it. I hope I AM NOT A PIONEER is an honest accounting of my warm body, my terrible body. It felt good getting all that bile out, all that love. It felt good discussing it out in the open and having to stand behind it as a piece of art, as an argument, as both a flailing out of fists and as a defusing of fists.

Thank you, Zach and Thermos, for the space and the thought and the prompts. It means a lot. Love, a.

Adam Fell was born and raised in Burlington, Wisconsin, and holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he teaches at Edgewood College.


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