In each of the past two years, Robert Fernandez has agreed to take an e-mailed questionnaire from my classes at Tulane University regarding one of his books. In 2012, a group of students from a poetry workshop class had questions about We Are Pharaoh. This fall, a literature class added a couple questions about Pink Reef. Below, you’ll find the results. Check back tomorrow for a final installment in our two-week feature of Robert’s work. — AS
We Are Pharaoh Q&A (2012)
What’s exciting you about poetry right now? Why should I be excited about poetry?
Like they say about the “spice” in David Lynch’s movie Dune: It extends life. It expands consciousness.
In one interview, you mention “sifting through the wreckage of high productivity.” What does Robert Fernandez look like in periods of high productivity? Where do you do your writing? Do you feel that your writing space has an identifiable impact on your work?
I used to work every day, for hours and hours, on poems. Now, having found a rhythm and a direction, I work mainly in bursts, separated by long periods of dormancy.
I was struck by how many of your poems seem to be constructed of discrete thoughts in succession. How did you work at forming separate ideas into a coherent whole–or is wholeness a concern of yours?
While the poems might seem to jump around, my hope is that they form a unified experience: word to word, line to line, stanza to stanza, poem to poem making up the totality that is the book. Experience itself is never really clearly outlined or paced, and Pharaoh undergoes extremes of feeling, seeing, and desire.
Do you consider yourself a lyric poet? Are there poems in We Are Pharaoh that you consider non-lyric poems? Do you have any favorite poets that fit into the “non-lyric” category?
I am working in the genre of the lyric and out of a certain lyric tradition, which I’d call something like the tragic-lyric, practiced more recently by poets like Hölderlin, Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Vallejo, Celan, Trakl, Stevens, Amelia Rosselli, and others. Beyond a range of conventions, the lyric I think is quite simply a reservoir that when accessed opens up a certain range of potential dispositions that the human animal might take toward existence. If you’re interested in non-lyric work, I’d recommend a forthcoming book by the critic Dee Morris, called, I think, What Else Can Poetry Do?
Do you see yourself as in any way constructing a coherent set of symbols through your poetry? Does that seem like something worth doing, either way?
I’m interested in life and the world and history, so I have no symbology, a la The Book of Revelation, in my work, though certain imagistic and numerical obsessions and preoccupations accrue. These acquire what might seem to be a “symbolic” or occult-like weightiness by virtue of a substantial investment of desire and attention. They are perhaps like symptoms in that sense. On the other hand, the question of faith is essential to my work.
To me, “Bonfire, Jetty” reads like a submissive examination of a sort of ruling, lyric state. Do you ever deliberately try to create the conditions under which your language may be “possessed by lyricism” when you write? Are you pursuing the lyric as an event that allows you to “get on”?
That sounds right. One is “possessed” by the hollowing music that is the poem. It comes like grace to the hopeless and holds open the promise of “getting on.”
Many (perhaps all?) of the poems in We Are Pharaoh seem to touch on the frantic nature of being human – “who compels us with their batons?” “we are always running,” etc. In putting this group together into a book, were you aware of this? Did you intend to relay any sort of philosophy, or specific outlook, through this organization?
I think that Pharaoh is concerned with things like dread and wonder and the violence of being: all things related to the “frantic nature of being human.” It’s also intoxicated with the human possibility for change and transformation, justice and love—possibilities it attempts to convey via beauty and music and a certain profligacy. It also wants to think about, and even at times mimic, in structure and feeling, evil and injustice.
Do you have any epistemological convictions that you feel inform your work?
Only that epistemological convictions are always tenuous—i.e., determined by a context and subject to change. (In this sense, I’m very much a child of our current episteme.)
How has your poetry changed since you first began writing? How did you start out?
I started out very young convinced that poetic work would be the work that I would do, and I knew that I wanted to preserve my commitment to that conviction despite a range of obstacles. I read and took on reservoirs of feeling and thinking from my early teenage years through my early twenties. Only in my early twenties did those reservoirs become available to me as a potential for realized work.
When working on a poem, do you tend to concentrate more on ideas you hope to convey or on the way things sound in the piece?
I try to align listening and thinking, imagination and reality, but sound comes first. Poetic truth is foremost the truth of music.
Do you still see yourself, in newer work, as being focused on “embracing language of desire, abandon, laughter,” as mentioned in your interview with Zach Savich?
I do. Desire, abandon, and laughter unfold new horizons in poetry as well as life.
Many of your poems contain a specific and indefinable emotional crescendo, which strongly impacts the reader’s attention. Can you talk about establishing this emotional effect without necessarily writing in a “logical” or “narrative” manner?
I try to trust the logic of moods, feelings, and sensations, which have their own unexpected syntax and arrive at their own truths. Such a syntax is more acceptable in, say, music or painting, which need not necessarily participate in the language-game of giving information. We expect language to be instrumental and communicative, not a material independently alive, seeing and perceiving.
What is the purpose of poetry, in your eyes? What are you hoping to accomplish when you sit down to do your own writing? Are you writing more for your own benefit, or for a reader – and what difference do you see between those two possibilities?
I agree with the artist Ai Weiwei, who recently said that he is interested in art because it deals in possibilities. Also, with art (and poetry) the mind engages in the existential struggle of finding “what will suffice.” I find that art also hones the spirit of revolution—hones the practice of risk and exposure, of love and commitment—like nothing else.
Are there any particular poets (or other artists or thinkers) who you would name as foundational to your development as or approach as a poet? Are there others who you feel moved by or spurred by in a very present sense? What is it absolutely necessary that I read?
Aeschylus and Sophocles, Archilochus and Sappho, Song of Songs, Pindar, Horace, the Troubadours, Malory, Shakespeare, Milton, the British and German Romantics, the Symbolists, Hopkins, Dickinson and Whitman, the Modernists, Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, the New York School, Elizabeth Bishop, Jack Spicer, Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian-Creole Poetry. I like Robyn Schiff of contemporary poets. Also Mark McMorris, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, and Timothy Donnelly. Mary Hickman. Mark Levine and Emily Wilson. Peter Gizzi and Cole Swensen. Roberto Tejada. Cal Bedient. Many more. You guys might also like my friend Nick Twemlow’s book, Palm Trees. I’d basically recommend reading the long history of the lyric and of tragedy.
Thank you all for these smart and insightful questions. —RF
Pink Reef Addendum (2013)
What do you pay allegiance to in poems?
Thank you for this question, which is intriguing, strange and thoughtful. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you, however, other than the answers the poems themselves may or may not provide.
How do you interact with others’ work in your own poetry? That is, how do you incorporate it, work off it, defy it, etc.?
I think that most artists acquire reservoirs: stores of life and attention that constellate and, by a mysterious gravity or as a consequence of an event of some kind, reach a critical mass. So there is an entire background of reservoir acquisition that’s lent itself to any work of art, whether that work directly alludes, appropriates, and cites or not. As to moments of allusion and citation in Pink Reef (you’ll find Stevens, Blake, Lorca, and others), these are little bits of language that have embedded themselves in my attention and stayed lodged there for years. They’re like splinters or glass: I can’t get rid of them and they irritate and call me back to them to scratch them out but I also love them so I try to use them, work through them, and maybe internalize/digest them. Through the four books that I’ve written, I also cite and re-cite myself, I’m afraid to say. And yes, I’m also interested in defiance, but less so in the manner of killing the literary greats who have made it impossible for me to proceed than in doing what poets—from Milton to Blake to René Depestre—have always done: give the grand Fuck You to the tyrants, the deceivers, the servile and complicit and comfortable who make change impossible and for whom words like righteousness, justice, care, love, and freedom mean nothing.
Does any particular music influence your poetry? Many of the poems in Pink Reef have a repetitive, musical quality, and I wonder if there’s anything you’d pinpoint as a specific source.
Great question. Lately I’ve been listening to Scriabin, A$AP Rocky, and Lana Del Rey. I like Le1f a lot, too. I listened to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue about 100 times this past summer. We were subletting a place that had a record player, and I was able to find a first printing of Kind of Blue for around $60. The purchase, which was a bit excessive (I later gifted it to a friend who really appreciates vinyl), was mainly nostalgia driven in that it was an important record for me as a teenager. Around the time I was writing Pink Reef, I think I was listening to this live recording of Sasha @ Hyde Park Café in Tampa, FL dated October 2, 2008. It—the recording—is funny. The quality is awful, and there is this woman in the background who keeps asking “Where’s Brian?” and saying “We took them without anything, yeah…” Then later, when Sasha really gets the crowd going, a dude breaks in and shouts “Oh my fucking god!” Really very funny. But the set is incredible. I’ve always thought that Sasha gets—maybe only occasionally, but he does it—very close to resonances that are genuinely, deeply dark, uncanny, wonder soaked, poetic thru and thru. He’s been at it a while, making records when I was still a teenager in South Florida in the 90s, where the club scene and the electronic music scene had its own particular inflection and stars (check out DJ Icey’s first album, for instance; it’s great). Anyway, I mainly listen to house music, all manner of hip hop, and classical. This summer I moderated a talk on Schumann’s Dichterliebe and its use of Heine’s Lyric Intermezzos. It was fun. I got to chat with a soprano and a pianist about the relationship between language and music, sound and sense, and also sequence, which the Dichterliebe, Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, and Pink Reef all are. All of which is to say: music has always been very important to me and my work.