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Interview- Fairchild

09-04-09

An Interview with B.H. Fairchild

                                                                               -by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

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Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Beauty” is a poem that travels a great distance, starting in an art museum in Florence, Italy and moving back in time and place to the speaker’s upbringing in “the machine shop / and the dry fields of Kansas, the treeless horizons / of slate skies and the muted passions of roughnecks / and scrabble farmers drunk…” before coming back to the museum in the end with that wonderful image of the dome breaking into flame. 

What I find most striking about “Beauty” is how it tells such a large story with such simple, elegant language.  Just about anyone can read and appreciate this poem even though it’s very complex with many stories, images, and themes working together in various stages of the poem and oftentimes all at once.  This is a very difficult thing to accomplish: clarity within great complexity.  How’d you do it?

B.H. Fairchild:  Thanks for the compliment.  If you had asked me this within days after I wrote the poem, I might have been able to recall the sort of minute decisions I consciously made to create it, but it's been a bit too long now, and about all I can say is that I have always strived for a clear literal surface for poems.  On the other hand, "clarity" is a highly relative term.  What is clear for the experienced reader of poetry might be obscure to even a very intelligent reader who is unfamiliar with the art of poetry.  That said, I don't see why there should be, for the poet who knows his/her craft, any opposition between clarity and complexity.  Neither do I think there should be any conflict between clarity and mystery.  It's easy to be mysterious about mystery (or complexity); the difficult thing, the beautiful thing, is to be clear about it (e.g., Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," Bishop's "The Moose," Hass's "Meditation at Lagunitas," Schnackenberg's "Supernatural Love," and thousands of other poems).

AMK: What can you tell us about the importance of clarity and complexity in a poem?  Did you ever consider sacrificing any part of this story simply because it asked too much of the reader?  Which is more important: the poem and what it desires to say or the person the poem eventually hopes to speak to?

BHF:  Sorry to disagree, but I don't think it does ask too much of the reader, or at least not of the experienced reader.  When I was an undergraduate, the close reading of poems was a primary subject in English departments, though that may not be true any more.  I'm writing for close readers, in which case the reader and what the poem wants to say are not mutually exclusive but rather on the same level.

AMK: “Beauty” is a narrative of the mind, narrating what the speaker is thinking rather than the events themselves.  I find this very interesting because, ultimately, it is a choice made by the writer rather than some sort of inspirational element.  You easily could have chosen to write a poem about a piece of art in the museum that made you think of the two men who undressed in the middle of the machine shop.  Or you could have written that poem without the piece of art, the museum, or your wife who asks “What are you thinking,” which is a touching moment in and of itself.  Then again, it’s easy to imagine B.H. Fairchild in a museum in Florence and actually going to these places in his mind and rushing home to record what, eventually, became this poem.  So, I’m wondering how much of this narrative of the mind comes from inspiration and how much of it is the result of revision, invention, aesthetics…

BHF:  Well, I can certainly say that it is a heavily revised poem, though it began with my suddenly realizing one day exactly what the persona confesses in the beginning of the poem: that he can't recall any man in his family or hometown using the word "beauty" except in ways that safely conformed to the conventional masculine aesthetic he had grown up with, i.e., the "beauty" of a dead deer or a new pickup truck.  And it was not too difficult to go from there to other issues of masculinity and "beauty" as a curiously gendered term, including the central narrative event of the poem, the men undressing in the machine shop, which I had wanted to write about for some time.

AMK: I’m curious to know when you decided the best way to present these narratives was via the overarching theme of beauty and its various forms.  When did beauty become so central to the poem and why?

BHF:  I hope the previous answer covers that.  As you can see, the theme of beauty (and that word's strangely twisted uses) was there from the beginning, inseparable from Bobby Sudduth's weird aesthetic admiration for  the accuracy of Oswald's gunshot or the suspicion that there is something inappropriate about a man uttering the word, "lovely" (or Robert Penn Warren and Paul Weiss discussing "beauty" as an abstract concept).

AMK: You use humor very well in the poem, particularly toward the end of the first section when you come to the end of your description of Robert Penn Warren and Paul Weiss’ discussion of beauty: “They were discussing beauty and tossing around / allusions to Plato and Aristotle and someone / named Pater, and they might be homosexuals.”  That final clause works a lot like a punch line at the end of a joke.  It’s somewhat crude but is very familiar; it’s a joke we’ve all heard before and even for those of us of a much younger generation is something we recognize as being very true and very American.  It surprises us and, more importantly, places us in the time, location, and culture.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m a bit suspicious of humor in poetry.  I think this is because I take poetry very seriously and because it’s rarely done very well; this case being an exception.  What are your views on humor in poetry?  What can you tell us about what it can accomplish in a poem?  How does one write a humorous moment in a poem successfully?

BHF:  I love humor in poetry, whether it's the wit and sometimes broad comedy of R.S. Gwynn, Charles Harper Webb, and Ron Koertge, or the surreal hilarity of Russell Edson.  And if I knew how it was done, I would do it more myself.  I think that without the humor, "Beauty" would have been not only painfully somber but slightly unreal.

AMK: Later, at the end of the first stanza of the second section, a similar moment occurs near the end of your description of one of the men you worked with as a young man in the machine shop in Kansas: “I walk away, knowing I just heard / the dumbest remark uttered by manor animal. / The air around me hums in a dark metallic bass… / A shrill, sullen truculence / blows in like dust devils… / The sky yellows… / That afternoon in Dallas Kennedy is shot.”  This time we’re not moved by humor but by the sudden, emotional resonance of Kennedy’s assassination.  Considering its proximity to the more humorous side of the poem that came before it, this signals that while much of the facts of the speaker’s experiences as a young man are funny in hindsight, they weren’t funny at the time; they were, in fact, surrounded by danger.  Is this part of what “Beauty” is about?

BHF:  The humor in the poem generally comes from incidents or language which exemplify the distorted sense of masculinity which frequently surfaced in that place and time.  In almost every case, the implications are unsavory (I'm not sure about "dangerous"), especially as they attach to absurd observations by Bobby Sudduth.

AMK: “Beauty” makes use of the word beauty over and over.  It’s hard to be a student of poetry and not think of Robert Frost’s assertion that the word beauty should rarely appear in a poem, the idea being that if something is beautiful it is the job of the poet to make it beautiful on the page rather than to exclaim, “Hey, this thing is really beautiful!”  I don’t think this is a problem in the poem, but I’d be interested in hearing your opinion regarding rules in poetry more generally speaking.  Are they something we should be concerned with when we read/write poems?  Are rules made to be broken?

BHF:  Frost was referring to poetic uses of  the abstraction, beauty, as a failure to embody beauty in concrete images, tropes, rhythms, etc.  I am using the word, "beauty," in the poem in an ironic sense in order to demonstrate concretely its perverse and sometimes humorous misuse.  Your comment about rules in poetry is another matter.  The fact is that what most people think of as "rules" in poetry were never rules; they were techniques.  Rules are made to be broken, but techniques are made to be used (that is, by poets who care about craft).

AMK: Tell us about the use of sections in this poem, and tell us about the poem’s organization. Why start with section one rather than section two?  Why use sections at all?

BHF:  They are less sections than movements, and they separate and distinguish four distinct phases in the narrative.  By the way, it may interest you to know that the third movement was written last.

AMK: You clearly enjoy the long line and the long sentence in this poem.  But you also use sentence fragments from time to time and a number of very short sentences.  Why so?

BHF:  Well, it's simply a matter of syntactical rhythms, on the one hand, or, on the other, syntactical shapes and movement--that is, the idea that the form of a sentence can become a physical enactment of its own content or at least can effect a subtle emotional relation to that content.  As for the long line, I have come to believe that long narrative poems work better with long, or longish, lines, since very short lines slice up the narrative movement too much.

AMK:  What’s most important to you in this poem; beauty itself, the poem’s narrative, the depiction of the characters in the poem, the statement it makes about American culture?

BHF:  A good question, and as I hope I've made clear, they're all equally important and hopefully so entangled with each other in the poem that they can't really be separated.

By the way--and I bring this up now because I thought it would be a meaningful way to end the interview--what you refer to in your initial question as the dome breaking into flame is not as important to the poem as the fact that the dome is compared to the roof of the machine shop breaking into flame.  That suggests a reconciliation in the poem between the genuinely aesthetic (Florence) and the poet's Kansas, whose aesthetic attitudes and stereotypes the persona has been implicitly criticizing throughout the poem.

AMK: Thank you.





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