Megan Fernandes is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review, Boston Review, Rattle, Pank, The Common, Guernica, the Academy of American Poets, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. Her second book of poetry, Good Boys, was a finalist for the Kundiman Book Prize (2018), the Saturnalia Book Prize (2018), and was published with Tin House Books in February 2020. Fernandes is an Assistant Professor of English at Lafayette College.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to celebrate Megan Fernandes’s poetry in her February 2020 collection, Good Boys (Tin House Books). Biographical notes will tell you that the author resides in New York City; when a friend tells the poet she is the “new New York,” she doesn’t know how to tell him that she’s “not even that.” The book jacket describes her homelands as “theoretical and rootless,” yet we will find “trees pushing their arms / back into the ground.” I’d like to say that this poet lives in the world, traveling between countries, from “city to city,” as her “cosmically-abandoned” speaker, restless with “messy feminist rage” and uncertainty, redefines concepts of belonging and identity.
Wherever contradictions that are intrinsic to civilizations “intent on their own ruin,” include the cultivated and curated violence of ignorance, Fernandes’s own “violence of insight” shines. So many of the poems corral examples of common cruelty and the “fascism of vanity” (Joshua Cohen) that characterizes politics, commerce, and popular culture today. For this reason, Fernandes never seems afraid to take on difficult subjects, to unveil what Kafka once called the “alive” and therefore “lively changing face” of truth. Nothing is off-limits and no one, including this interviewer, escapes her challenging gaze; this comes as a welcome discomfort. We can’t, and won’t, want to look away. Megan Fernandes’s poetry provides weapon against the dangerous culture of complacency. She is countering habits of thought during a period of intense change, in a time when all bets are off, when life’s “unearned paradise” favors its close relative, doom, and when “anxiety” creates “the dizziness of freedom” (Kierkegaard) and revelation in the arts.
Books like Good Boys, that can “resist chronology” (Fernandes) in their narrative, offer compelling reminders that observers become voyeurs who become complicit witnesses. The example of a disassociated society’s exploitation-use of Anne Frank’s home highlight’s a culture’s global ideology of greed; “small price to pay for” justifications originate from the same fear that created genocide. By challenging accepted “norms,” and by becoming “intimate with discomfort,” (Roland Barthes) Fernandes creates her own agency of new awareness and authenticity. Any visceral unease created by these relevant poems comes, not just from an inherent provocation that each topic might raise, but arises as direct result of the author’s precision of detail and poetic skill.
Imagine darkness is no longer a noun, but a verb and, like a boy who walks into a forest and does not come out, it becomes an active verb deeply-rooted in reality; imagine too, the kind of vertigo one experiences when facing unforeseen wild beauty in nature for the first time. Wearing the “accusatory look of the afterlife,” the poet, “like a seer / peering into a bucket” of the world, opens the well-oiled door to human tragedy. With juxtapositional ease, Fernandes lyrically investigates how paradox coexists with belief, how dark humor can trouble the waters of pretense, and how “very adult” sadness might be found “nested at the bottom rung of your spine,” or can be experienced like an underwater radio inside of the body where “everyone sounds as if they are choking.” After all, loss creates equations: “Poverty must be / a color / but color / is like sky,” where only “white people / can imagine a past/ that was better / than now,” and all “our futures” can’t really happen because they are really just “time beating backward into sitcoms / with the laugh tracks of the dead” still playing in our one good ear.
Good Boys will provide its readers with sonic, cinematic, unflinching insights, what Fernandes calls “hallucinatory visions,” “epiphanies” capable of generating “new story worlds” in her poetry that, like an exorcism, will “drain the floodplains,” “talk in circles,” and from “[t]urpentine skies,” from “sleeves blooming with moth holes,” will resurrect the dead, the deceived, the adored, with all of life’s “mismatched / silver like guns in a western” in order to reclaim the kind of resilience that is long-perfected from vulnerability.
Elena Karina Byrne: I am always looking for new writers and books like Good Boys that can provide fearless revelations about their authors and our world. Your lyric narratives combine energetic diction and imagination with passionate story-telling. These are wild poems as full “of a torrential love” and tenderness as they are of “Icarian terror.” So, when the speaker says, “I think of all the women / turned away from us in art” in your poem “Night, The First”, we already know that you are a woman who never turns away but would look any subject dead in the eye.
Perhaps your poetry’s rhythms, for me, resurrected Keats. “What wild ecstasy?” do you look for, what “spirit ditties” from your poems best express you, and what you see as surviving or vanishing from human relationships you have witnessed?
MF: Thank you for your kind words! I think what Keats was saying in that poem about spirit ditties is something like, how do you find the music for something that maybe is best unsaid? So much of what we need to say is not expressible and everything falls short. In that poem he says there is no “tone” for some melodies that best go unsung. Good Boys has a lot to say, I think, but more and more, I am preoccupied by what it still can’t say, what it refuses to name. There were poems that I pulled from the book, poems that probably no one will ever see, not because they aren’t “good,” but because they haven’t arrived at themselves yet.
I like your word choice about “surviving or vanishing.” Much of our unconscious structures are described through the language of early psychoanalysis (repressing, surfacing, transferring) and so this idea of what disappears and what remains as evidence on a psyche, a body, a people, a nation—well, that’s quite interesting to me. I think the book is dealing with that. What will the legacy be of this ongoing shitshow? And also, during this time, there was also falling in love and everyday grief and morning coffee. We’re living in multiple times at once. That fragmentation is as jarring as it is liberating, I imagine.
EKB: Right out of the starting gates, your stunning first poem “In Which I Become a Mythology And Also, Executed” delivers a fresh kind of confessional: you become both seer and the seen. Candid declarations definitely add emotional heft to subjects, especially to those tumbling rants like “In The Beginning,” “Alice and Eileen,” and to poems like “Modern Nation-States,” and “Amsterdam.” These are poems that have the ability to juxtapose sight and insight while navigating personal, geographical, and political spaces simultaneously. Whether a re-imagined, re-invented self emerges like elegy from the past’s “vortex / of dizzy neglect” or from ongoing threats of identity, an authentic, audacious you survives.
Francis Fitzgerald’s Pulitzer book, Fire in the Lake, describes what happened to language use during the Vietnam War years; Fitzgerald discovered that, prior to invasion, the Vietnamese were addressing themselves in conversation as an “I” that always contained culturally-embodied versions of a collective self “I” that belonged to something, somewhere, or to someone else: I, your brother, I, husband of, I from this village, the carpenter, etc…. Deep into the war, these were soon replaced with the use of a first-person, singular pronoun “I.”
Do you think the visceral use of the narratorial (I and i) in poetry books these days represents a collective persona responding to alienation and, so too, arising from what literally or psychologically is endangering humanity such as on-going practices of political/cultural/social/ hate and, environmental challenges that face our global population?
MF: I’ll start by trying to offer an understanding of this binary as I learned it when I was in school. For the reader of this interview who might not be aware, in poetry, sometimes (and it’s a very frustrating), but some folks might say there has been a split in lyrical and language poetry camps. Lyrical poetry makes use of the “I” and often conveys personal experience, while language poetry disavows the “I,” resists narrative, etc. This is a really crude paradigm, but I’m shortening the explanation for the sake of time and space. Language poetry, it should be noted, has been associated with more experimental and avant-garde schools.
Okay, so saying that, I’m very suspect of critiques against first-person or against a certain mode of confessional, lyrical writing, especially when it comes from women, LGBTQ folks, or writers of color, etc. I would direct readers to two incredibly smart essays related to this subject. The first is called “On Boundary Constructs and Invisibility” by Hafizah Geter, published in The Volta. In the essay, Geter argues, among many other points, that the ability to abstract from one’s positionality is pretty much a privilege. She says that “this privilege to write away from and distort one’s place” only is possible because that “place has been tirelessly validated.” Only when your world and position have been “tirelessly validated,” have become the very material of the canon itself, do you get to say that lyrical, first person is aesthetically boring or over done or too personal or uncomplicated or too sentimental or too sincere or whatever the argument people have about it, which seems to revolve around a false idea that you can have an aesthetics that is apolitical, that you can have a system of evaluation that is not ideological. I don’t believe in that. Geter writes about the experience of writing poetry as a woman of color:
The canon of American literature allows marginalized voices to exist in opposition to it, never beside it… Poetry is one of the ways we chronicle our individual and shared experiences. Poetry is the ledger we can return to, a bookkeeping of sorts… So, I write what I write. I write towards the emotions of the complex stories from which I’ve emerged. I write to take leaps, to blur the lines between seemingly divergent ideas, images and responses to the everyday. I write to climb the walls built for marginalized people to speak from behind.
In Ken Chen’s essay, “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” published in The Margins, Chen links the critique of lyrical writing to a critique about race and the performance of sincerity. First, he states that conceptual or avant-garde poetics, poetry that decenters the “I” or the lyrical or personal, has long been “racialized as the literature of white cultural elites.” Secondly, he says that arguments against lyrical writing or the use of the “I” from certain critics has more to do with the white subject being “bereft of content, neutral and disembodied” and therefore, “these traumatized racial bodies represent the sublime substance of identity. They come imbued with that pure primal ethnicity imputed to them by the colonizers and stolen also by the colonizer, ingested through simulation: the excess of authenticity.” Chen also rightly names writers of color who are engaging with their own sense of the “experimental.”
All of this is to say that when certain people have approached me about how personal my poems can be or about poetry and identity politics, I always wonder what they are saying about themselves. Are they telling me that they feel their interior lives have nothing left to mine? Are they grieving a sense of being left out of the zeitgeist? Their own fear of irrelevance? What I’m saying is that the first-person narrator, the “I or i” you might see emerging more in contemporary poetry books by young writers of color, tells us something interesting about the culture of poetry. It tells us, as my friend Randi says, that the violence of inclusion is real.
EKB: Good Boys represents your turn-on-a-dime ability to create a marvelous, film-like forum for life’s paradoxes. I experience your poems like “false beloveds” or like “a new body, newly close, / ready to love,” all working in tandem to reveal powerful relationships between public and private truths.
Those rite of passage seasons “all fucked up / and reversed by your body” become “neon-green blooms gathering on a branch.” It doesn’t stop there, you have this effortless ability to stitch together unlikely subject metonymies, to tight-ropewalk between political and apolitical––all, while exposing an inherent ambiguity found in the art of poetry, namely, a lyric slide between every day, casual vernacular and the artful, unexpected image-play found in certain conceits and more complex metaphors.
But a poem’s raw content can appear as evidence of certain universal truths while simultaneously challenging their source, don’t you think? Is that why, for example, you bring mythology referents into the picture… As a contrasting, omnipresent gaze?
MF: Thank you so much for these lovely words about my work. Personal insight is often at odds with universal truths, but it is true that learning that “universal” truths are actually socially constructed and not really truthful at all requires a learning process and can be destabilizing for the speaker/subject. I grew up in a household (and through a large, extended family network) with some pretty traditional ideas about gender, about being a lady, about who gets to be an intellectual and taken seriously. I’m not sure these are “universal truths” culturally, but they felt like them in my house, and to grow up under them was, in some way, to grow up under a regime that I had to unlearn. On the other hand, there are cultural things about my growing up and how I see the world that are untranslatable to certain dominant audiences in the United States. I’ve learned to understand that these contradictions are not necessarily violent, just that the language of them is violent. To be part of diaspora is to be theorized as fractured, but diaspora is also a kind of poetics, as the late writer Meena Alexander suggested. She was located in multiple spaces all at once, and so your use of the word “omnipresent” is interesting since it suggests that simultaneity, a way of being in all places at once. I definitely relate to that in poetry.
EKB: Multiple spaces, YES! Memory is prophecy and taxidermy. “Memory is a spiritual concept!” for poet/filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Memory is eulogy, and as we are told, another kind of reinvention… A Hockney set of Polaroids. A reckless blessing. To borrow one of your great aphoristic phrases, it can also stand in as the “cruelness that could keep you alive.”
I’m interested in your timeframe-weaves! When you dare the past, when you, the writer, dream, swoon, destroy or create, when you wake the future, rage at, attend, invent, give voice to, and, therefore believe in something hard-won and revelatory, while hating “the violence of insight,” where do you end up?
MF: I think you’re asking about the relationship between time and epiphany, yes? As in, how does one interrogate different temporalities and resist being mauled or interpolated by the insight that such interrogation demands? It’s a pretty meta question, but I’ll give it a shot. The first thing I’ll say is that time really operates differently for all of us, and I don’t really feel like my imagination is organized by chronological time. I’m a time traveler. I have flashbacks on the regular. I court fantasies of alternative futures. I am always trying to outpace time. I like to think some of us can exist comfortably in a kind of simultaneity, and probably certain drugs taught me that when I was younger. I remember one drug trip where I couldn’t remember who my parents were and therefore, without an origin story, felt that maybe I didn’t actually exist. I was reading a lot of Borges at the time. And yes, when we’re young, we might enjoy these kinds of experimental playfulness with reality, but I think those experiences affected me differently. I took them seriously. I used those experiences as phenomena for rigorous cerebral inquiry. It was at that moment that for whatever reason, I understood how flexible my own position was in the world. I no longer had any steady sense of ego, my own self-annihilation was easily imaginable. This was decentering for me. At the same time, it was a bit of the kind of revelation young people have from time to time…, that we are small but not inconsequential. Or maybe that we are inconsequential, and that’s okay, too.
EKB: I believe, as your book jacket says, that when you skillfully interrogate “where to put our fury, and, more importantly, where to direct our mercy,” we quickly become at once, implicit and so too, empathic, participatory readers. The cautionary tale is this: I feel injured when I see others being hurt, cry when they cry. I can’t help it. But I know my empathy and compassion are not enough to bring me to the table.
Chögyam Trungpa, the Buddhist teacher, once pointed out that any strong feeling/emotion is not the same as having an understanding of that situation: “You do not necessarily feel [compassion]” because “You are it.” Poet Tony Hoagland challenges empathy as a “profoundly inadequate” strategy in addressing the very live, corrosive presence of “racial anxiety, shame and hatred” (Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People). And Maggie Nelson, in her book, The Art of Cruelty, wrote about this “quasi-nostalgic and most certainly elitist (but not without significance) distinction” back in 2011.
So, as an artist constantly doing research, so as to bring the everything-world to my mouth, to invent out of range, and as an artist consistently hoping for human exchange, I am trying to rely less on the information provided by ghost-instinct, more on the bruised body of knowledge crowding my front door.
Considering so much of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry rely on aspects of research, imagination, appropriation of character and of periods in history, how do you see writers managing their relationships with the world and with their work? If “there is no / respectful way / to say this” on imagination’s wide-open field then, what might be otherwise available to the young writers you teach who want to address subjects that don’t relate to or belong to them?
MF: This is an important question. I think you have a good instinct in suggesting that at the center of this difficult discussion is this false idea that we can “know” certain experiences of others or have access to modes of knowledge. Often such ventures lead us into appropriation. I think a lot about Tommy Pico’s line that says something like curiosity is often a pretext for colonialism. Can we imagine a curiosity about another that is not, on some level, about consumption or voyeurism or possession? I’m thinking about that these days.
I also think that the language of empathy belongs to neoliberal institutions who are generally pretty shit about race, and so that gesture feels empty to me. It feels like “cover”–– it has all the decorative aspects of warmth and listenership without anything structural to back it up. No, I don’t think what we need is empathy.
A lot of people have been returning to Martinican philosopher and writer Édouard Glissant and his work called Poetics of Relation. Glissant has this concept of “opacity,” which basically argues (and I’m giving you a very reductive description, here), that the desire to know and to empathize and to understand other communities is part of a Western imperial imagination where knowledge and legibility of others might be linked to conquest. Glissant suggests that “opacity” counters the desire for transparency. In an interview, Glissant says, “I said that as far as I’m concerned, a person has the right to be opaque. That doesn’t stop me from liking that person, it doesn’t stop me from working with him, hanging out with him, etc. A racist is someone who refuses what he doesn’t understand. I can accept what I don’t understand. Opacity is a right we must have.”
For writers who want to write about subject matter that doesn’t belong to them, instead of asking, CAN or SHOULD you write about this, the better question might be, WHY do you want to write about this? This is a good way to reverse the positionality of the writer and to make them to do the work of self-interrogation, to ask themselves to interrogate their desire to know and represent what they cannot know and, therefore, might misrepresent. This is less about “what belongs” to certain groups and more about that colonial impulse to know or to experience as a project of curiosity or costume.
In the poem you mention, the speaker is full of self-disgust for the way she narrates bodies she sees on the way to her teaching job (an overdose and a car accident). She has a despair, but it is also filtered through something elite: higher education and the teaching of Judith Butler later in the day. There is a difference, I think, when the writer is aware of their own opacity and the work is engaged with the tension of structural violence. I’m not saying anything new here, but I’m just trying to give you a sense of how I talk to young writers about these issues.
EKB: Poet Cathy Colman calls the unconscious a kind of hidden god whose dream-place-defiance can be mined for undiscovered gold.
So much of a book’s success hinges on how an author decides to enter and exit each poem’s central subject. Not really something we can teach. Can you describe how you approach a poem and its themes? Is the process always voluntary, something willed, or involuntary, unconscious or, as I suspect, both? If it is both, can you tell our readers something about your own understanding of your process in the revision-stage of writing the poems in Good Boys?
MF: I’d say my entrances are pretty wrought, conscious—sometimes even painfully so. It’s like clearing your throat. There aren’t very many first lines of my poetry that I don’t revise heavily and get frustrated by. On the other hand, my exits are something… I don’t know… They occur as if by magic. By that time, the poem is already talking to me, maybe writing itself. I can always get out of a poem. I don’t know why. It feels involuntary.
EKB: Your response echoes what many poets have said about their poems writing themselves, and about how language can engender its own logic.
Megan, I’m not sure why, but you conjured this David Foster Wallace quote: “Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.” It often seems that one cannot escape aspects of loneliness, longing, or grief when writing about any one of those subjects! Francis Bacon once said, “Every time I go into a butcher’s, I’m surprised that it’s not me hanging there.” His art certainly expresses the subject/object-interchange––what some writers are also so good at discovering.
Do you want to tell us about some of your influences?
MF: I don’t read a ton of David Foster Wallace, but I get what he’s saying here. Some writers who court and encounter the intensity of introspection and relationality in really interesting ways are Toni Morrison, Elena Ferrante, Hamid Mohsin, just to name a few. But I also think loneliness and ontological unease have long been romanticized in problematic, gendered ways. For example, this idea that a character or speaker has existential dread and then, I don’t know, has some experience, usually at the expense of an underwritten woman character, and then “transforms” and their loneliness and becomes a vehicle for the generative, creative, whatever. I mean, yawn. Really.
Maybe the more interesting interrogation would be for us in literature to think through different models of aloneness, melancholy, and try to imagine about how that encounter, that “stare down,” might look alien to us. Ferrante, to take one example, does this so well. I remember reading Days of Abandonment, about a woman who experiences this psychological descent after her marriage falls apart, and she’s trying to take care of her children and those kids are sometimes cruel, sometimes vulnerable, and it’s a particular sort of spiraling. I was transfixed by that book, by the way Ferrante makes the interior lives of women so vivid, their interior landscapes so cinematic and brilliant. She makes the abject central. She makes the abject figure also the protagonist, and so it no longer feels abject but still retains some of that monstrosity. And her other novels, as well—Ferrante plays with the erotics of friendship between women. She captures an underrepresented complexity and the tragedy. And I mean this earnestly, the real tragedy is that so many of my male identifying friends haven’t read her. Ferrante would make them better writers, and I don’t know, it never occurs to them that those books are for them. Why? I read Ben Lerner even though I find him far from me. I read an entire canon of white straight men who felt far from me.
I also think a place for loneliness to be countenanced might be within the time of postpartum. I’ve never had a kid, but some of my friends have gone through it, and when I see them in that space where self dissolves, I want more books to give voice to those complexities. I don’t need to have a kid to know that those representations will make me a better writer and human. I don’t need to have things directly related to my livelihood, my loneliness, my positionality, to expand.
EKB: I definitely share your love of Ferrante’s books, and the series that is so well-adapted… I also agree with what you say about how we don’t always have to access direct experiences that are related to our lives to believe that complex “representations will make [us]” better humans. It’s a balancing act, one that we hope offers some universal realm of mystery combined with unforeseen knowledge.
What past/future in-thrall/pull drove you to write this beautiful book, and what is driving your next poetry collection?
MF: I love that you’re talking about energy. It reminds me of all the kinetic language in Charles Olson’s projective verse manifesto and how he really saw the page as a field in which energy was being organized or disorganized. Speed, adrenaline, and improvisation are important to my understanding of poetics. But this idea that one writes or read in a state of thrall, well, I love that. I definitely think of my poems as having a spell-like quality and, therefore, the way I read each of them is different. They have their own sense of notation, pace, emotional pulse. Sometimes when I read them, I remember the state I was in when they were first composed, and that recall, that re-embodiment, can be self-estranging in the best way. The forces that drove Good Boys were oriented around a lot of uncertainty and just… Well… How to love an increasingly destabilized world. I think the next collection is quieter and maybe even more formal (I’ve been working on a crown of sonnets for half a year). I’m trying to challenge some of my sensibilities and linguistic impulses. I’m entering into a new relationship with pause, silence, control, and as I referenced earlier, what goes unsaid. Good Boys, in contrast, is a book about impulse and those “affects” surrounding impulse such as digression, dromomania, explosive energy. But as I’m learning, there are many forms of intensity and not all things are meaningful just because they are intense. We’ll see, I guess.
EKB: It has been a privilege to encounter you as a writer, and to experience your work’s subjects, “sensibilities and lyric impulses” that will no doubt leave anyone who reads it hungry for more. Thank you!