A Conversation with B. K. Fischer
Interview by Andrew Wessels
ANDREW WESSELS: Mutiny Gallery, your first book, is labeled as a “novel-in-verse,” and I think I would largely agree with that designation. The poems have a singular trajectory following the consistent, developing characters of a mother and her son traveling together across America. However, that “in-verse” aspect of the book seems to exert itself over and above the sanctity of the novel, with the poetic and lyric moment embodied in each individual poem being more important than creating specific plot points. How did you toe this line between poem and novel (or, perhaps, muddy the line)?
B. K. FISCHER: I am interested in muddying that line, and smudging what we mean by the lyric moment. My process in writing Mutiny Gallery was exploratory—I wanted to see what the lyric could do in the aggregate, and to blur the boundaries of what we typically think of as innovative collage-making and narrative poetry. I wrote this book quickly, drafting it almost entirely in a six-month period in 2008, and its initial inspiration was neither novel nor verse, but painting and drama. I had written a short play, a dramatic monologue, that was prompted by and performed against the backdrop of Francesca DiMattio’s 2006 oil on canvas Black Ship, a tessellated image of a clipper ship in a clutter of non-sequiturial details. The play was part of a production at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, New York, where the audience moved among large-scale paintings in the exhibition Size Matters: XXL. My piece evoked the fractured memories and thoughts of a woman named Claire who had inadvertently allowed another person’s child to drown on her watch, while she was wading at a river beach with her toddler son, Max. Claire’s voice was constructed and refracted through the ekphrasis of the painting, and the actor who performed the role staged the anguished and halting attempts at narration against the disorientations of the painting itself. When that production wrapped up, I was looking to start something new, and two things converged: I wondered what would have happened to Max and Claire (or anybody) ten years after a tragedy like that, and a friend gave me a book called Little Museums: Over 1,000 Small (and Not-So-Small) American Showplaces, edited by Lynne Arany and Archie Hobson. One thing led to another, and the scaffolding of the backstory fell away.
I’ve always liked Jasper Johns’s formulation “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that”—the hybrid genre of Mutiny Gallery evolved in this manner. I did not set out to write a novel from this material. I simply made a list of names of little museums that interested me, and took them as titles for potential poems—riffs, meditations, image-episodes. Later, as I generated more of these, they started to accrue to themselves significances that seemed to connect, and to take the shape of a story. I found that I could put them in an order, and that they suggested both plot progression and character development. I was and am interested in the ways that the lyric, in its many forms, can be put to the service of storytelling. The lyric as song and as prayer, the lyric as it intersects the prose poem, the disjunctive collage, the monologue, the ekphrastic encounter—all of these forms, and especially the spaces between and among them, seem to me to be ways stories can be provisionally articulated. I’ve never wanted to write a long narrative poem per se, and I don’t think Mutiny Gallery is one. I’m put off intellectually and temperamentally by the notion of writing that creates an illusion of seamless narrative continuity, by the smoke and mirrors it takes to sustain narrative realism, and by the burden of having to connect all the dots. I wanted to write the dots, the pins on the map.
AW: Your use of the museum archetype as inspiration for the poems seems to resonate with your approach to the construction of the collection of poems-as-suggestive-narrative. A museum, in essence, tells a story of something through largely disconnected or disjunctive objects, whether it’s a period of art history through exhibited paintings, the evolution and extinction of the dinosaurs through reconstructed skeletons, or Liberace’s life and career through costumes and pianos. If I’m correct, you have also published a critical work on the relationship between museums and poetry. I’m curious, how did the idea of the museum play into the composition of the book and the individual poems, and also more specifically, how did Little Museums work its way into the manuscript? Is the book itself a museum?
BKF: I’ve long been interested in the ways museums both ritualize cultural narratives and become spaces for interrogation. Researching my dissertation (which became my critical book Museum Mediations), I waded through vast numbers of ekphrastic poems published in the later twentieth century to find those poems that foregrounded the museum setting itself. I made a case that for some poets, the museum—and awareness of the institutional framings and conventions surrounding collections and works of art—becomes a space in which to navigate and critique entrenched cultural divisions, including the divide in verse culture between the lyric-confessional mainstream and the avant-garde. I like to hope that this reductive divide is a critical trope that is now behind us, that it has been complicated by a much more interesting pluralism and eclecticism in contemporary poetry, but it still bisects critical thinking from time to time. “Site-specific” museum poems by poets from different coteries, different places on the lyric/innovation spectrum—Kenneth Koch, Richard Howard, Anne Carson, Cole Swensen, Alice Fulton, Kathleen Fraser, John Ashbery—all seemed to me to be doing critical work regarding experimentalism, avant-gardism, cultural capital, and ideas of liminality and charisma as they pertain to aesthetic experience.
So a museum is a loaded term and a locus of inquiry for me—maybe writing about weird museums in my own poetry was just a way of working out some of the trauma of dissertation-writing. At a practical level, as I was writing Mutiny Gallery, the guidebook Little Museums was a source of potential material, a cache of detail and diction that I could raid to suit my lyric or narrative purposes. I was drawn to these sites as “anti-museums,” as “Museums of Ordinary People,” which is an oxymoron—the elevation of the unremarkable to public display. So, yes, the ways the disconnection and disjunction of artifacts in a museum create a fiction, the ways the arrangement of disparate objects can script an overarching narrative, is very much at the heart of my enterprise in this book. The museum trope allowed me to foreground the artifice of that fiction as such, but clearly I wanted to have my cake and eat it too—I wanted the story to be a page-turner, to propel the reader down the road from one collection to the next, and I wanted it to give pleasure.
AW: How does your current writing continue to build on these same themes and poetic ideas?
BKF: My forthcoming book St. Rage’s Vault includes the monologue “Mothership” that is the prequel to Mutiny Gallery. But other than that cameo appearance of Max and Claire, this book follows a different storyline. It is a series of ekphrastic studies and soundings of images of women’s bodies, and it is structured as a pregnancy memoir that unfolds through poems, one for each of 40 weeks. I look at images of maternity—from the Madonna to the monster, from painting and sculpture to signage and journalism—to explore kinship, community, creativity, and mortality. It won the 2012 Washington Prize from The Word Works and will be released in February 2013. I am currently at work on two more “versa-novellas” that would round out a trilogy with Mutiny Gallery, one about a medieval monk who is reincarnated as a gas-station attendant in New Jersey, and one about euthanasia and television. Don’t ask.
AW: In addition to your writing and teaching, you recently were named poetry editor at Boston Review. How have these various roles informed your approach to the creation of the new, the avant-garde? How do you create, curate, and teach contemporary American poetry?
BKF: Working as an editor and teacher, I find myself in many conversations lately about the need to discover new ways to talk about avant-gardism and innovation in contemporary poetry. Too much discussion of contemporary poetics is hung up on what I’d call the nostalgic psycho-dynamics of the avant-garde—the notion that postmodernism, or Language poetry and its spin-offs, or conceptualism, has liberated us from the false consciousness of the lyric narrative. Maybe they have. But I’m suspicious of the terms of conversion narrative that surround this train of thought, and the piety that accompanies it. I’m leery of unreflective rejection of the first person, or the subject position, or the personal anecdote, or the idea of voice, or normative syntax. I’m also fatigued by fragmentation. When I’m greeted with a text that supposedly invites me to collaborate with it in meaning-making, however moving or riveting the fragments, I sometimes feel impatient and even a little resentful. I don’t need another fragmentary consciousness. I have one of my own, thank you very much.
That said, I’m not inclined to succumb to bourgeois illusions either (at least not the ones I haven’t already succumbed to), and I certainly don’t want easy poetic self-identifications that smack of complacency and privilege (“I am standing at the kitchen window, and I am important”). I don’t want to be controlled by oppressive cultural narratives or hegemonic discourses or corporations or capitalism. If I can send anything out into the world so that my children, so any children, won’t be controlled by those things either, I will do it. But I don’t think fragmentation in poetic writing, or destabilization of the subject position, or ironic performances of marginalized selves, or insouciant re-appropriations of official discourses, as useful and delightful and provocative as these strategies can be (I’m especially fond of doing those last two things in poems myself), are an end in themselves, or the end-all-be-all.
So I find myself, as an editor and as a writer, returning to that first principle: it must give pleasure. A poem’s pleasure may be sensory or cognitive, imaginative or intellectual, or a pleasure that could better be called the grace of empathizing with suffering, or the motivating hope of a call to action, or it can take many other forms. The poem has to have, to make, some kind of appeal, to function as entreaty and enticement. I try the best I can to write evocatively, and to find and publish evocative writing, and what that means is a moving target. I’m not afraid of difficulty, and I’m also not afraid of clarity. Each poem, each project, each occasion for poems or book of poems, demands mystery and accessibility in different measure. I have a perhaps old-fashioned faith in process, in craft. But it’s a sustaining faith in the work itself. We’re all going to die soon. Who cares if we establish sufficient avant-garde street cred? Believe me, I’ve got post-postmodern messes to make with language, confrontations and collaborations and appropriations to enact and refract, but I’ve also got stories to tell, suffering to relate, characters to envoice. I always go back to Adrienne Rich’s lines: “This is the oppressor’s language, / yet I need it to talk to you.”