Adam Fitzgerald is a poet and educator. Barely 30, he is a founding editor for Maggy poetry journal, and teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and NYU. Here at The New School, he is one of four professors for Ashlab, the digital mapping project of John Ashbury’s home and poems. His first book of poems, The Late Parade, was published last spring by W. W. Norton / Liveright. His poems are like this interview: textural, hallucinatory, layered, scattered and smothered with the dry bones of ancient earth, lost languages and fairy dust. Read and reread and reread again, because there is always something new to discover. This summer, he will direct The Ashbery Home School in Hudson, New York with Timothy Donnelly and Dorothea Lasky.
Street: More often then not your work makes me go running to the dictionary. I had to keep one close by while reading Late Parade to get the varying definitions for the rare exotic words glittering through the text. Did you always have this love for words even as a little boy?
Fitzgerald: This is a great question, though something of a mystery. Where does the love of anything come from? Tonight, I was surfing Wikipedia about the idea of karma, my mood tending to be vaguely Buddhist in fatalist matters. Anyway, I became interested in a book published in 1912 by Rhys Davids entitled Buddhism: A Study of the Buddhist Norm. (I love the titular, abbreviated use of “norm” here.) Anyway, she was one of the first Western scholars to categorize and articulate karma in relation to the other types of cause and effect. Four (other) casual mechanisms crop up in these ancient texts supposedly: seasons and weather; hereditary (seed); mind; and law. Isn’t that a beautifully abstract yet precise list?
I would have to say that I owe my love of reading, book-buying, my chronic librophilia, entirely to my father. I grew up in a household where stacks of books resembled furniture, though not in that Oxford-y, donnish way (an image I almost pornographically aspire to). He kept stacks of tomes in his armoire, the basement and the main living rooms—everywhere, in fact, yet to its place. Even so, I wasn’t an avid early reader nor overly literate by any stretch. I think it’s my nature to confuse idiosyncratic word usage, peculiar or wrong-sounding words, bordering and transgressing happily on nonsense, with poetry itself. This I owe this to my mother, if we’re going to be get genealogical. Ever since I was young, I noticed the way she would oddly phrase things, casually, pathologically. We could call this cathecresis. Again, what I tend to think of as poetry’s shorthand: erroneously mixed figures of speech, composite phraseology, crisscrossed metonymic associations parading as metaphorical saliency. One time when I was very young we were outside a convenience store called Snap Mart and she wanted me to go in and buy dog food—so she just said to me: “Go get Snappy Dog.” This glossolalia just clicked to me. It still does. What a happy reprieve from workaday usage as well as a much more psychically-charged way to enjoy mouthing off.
So you see when I started reading poetry seriously, I already loved the musicality of language, its rustle and grain, the pleasure of chewing on it, as in Melville’s with anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket, or Whitman’s blab of the pave, lines that stick in my memory indelibly, no shocker, because of their peculiar command of commonplace and wackadoodle phrasing. Rimbaud began steeped in Latin; Crane marauded for lovely archaisms or obtuse piccadillies throughout the high interiors of English lyricism. This lexicological madness links I think many of my favorite authors: Shakespeare, Dickinson, Milton, Ashbery, Bernadette Mayer—and explains their constant fresh appeal to me. (Why I never feel compelled to reread Joyce, given this predilection, sure stumps me.)
Back to those karmic categories: The season and weather of poetry, seem to me, a grand rewriting of language by its users across unrelated periods and experiences—and what we have to link us, finally, to poetic memory—to writing itself—is reiterating these bizarrely basic units of syllables that predate and survive us. I’m aware this fetish is perhaps something unintentionally quite camp about my personality. Yes, I love the peacockish stammerings and yammerings you find exploited by many homo-Symbolists, proto-Modernists and archly Decadent poets. And while I have no theory or wisdom here, but I would hazard that, additionally, given the philological terrain post-Nietzsche, post-Freud, post-Derrida, post-Lacan, post-Bloom, that words, especially lexical rarities, exotic, Quixotic ones, like certain species of rare birds or flowers, are a psychic way of revisiting traumas, whether joyfully or painfully so; reading experiences that have marked us and the uncontained life-experiences around them, whatever continues on through our unknown or subconscious habits. For me, the love of my most favorite poets, is often linked to these moments of discovery for words I had no idea existed. Crane’s such an easy prime example. You can read something like his poem “Wine Menagerie” and feel like you’ve stepped into an entirely sonic edifice inside a new language. I would say that my love of word-combinations, juxtaposition as the foremost poetic technique for synthesizing experience, is related to this. Because I can get more than a contact-high off reading unusual words when they spike my eye—like Crane’s glozening, unskeins, carillon, but the same law holds true for encountering radically unusual pairings, if not more so, in terms of screwy pleasure: Octagon, sapphire transepts around the eyes. I mean, isn’t that all of cubism in a sentence?
Finally, I’m sure there’s a sense of virtuoso and one-upmanship—even aggression?—involved. When I read Sir Thomas Browne, Gertrude Stein, David Forster Wallace, William H. Gass—I’m ruthlessly aware and envious of their verbal libido. How recondite their reconnaissance into the echoes and recesses of lesser-played notes, hard-to-find pigments, never-before-seen Faberge that such a Google vocabulary allows. It’s no good, of course, if you can’t put it to compelling purpose—but there’s a real titillating thrill in reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and noting out hundreds of words you’ve never seen smuggled into a literary essay or essay of any, kind for that matter, before. Maybe it becomes a gambler’s compulsion. How far can I go before I alienate the justice, the rightness, the propriety of sense, of usage, of a reader’s expectations? Somewhere someone said “Meaning is agreement.” Poetry often is about breaking that agreement, or threatening to. I think we underestimate our tolerance for delaying expectations. Shakespeare has the largest vocabulary of any writer I know but he’s still the most performed playwright in the world. This is all my roundabout way of saying that I think strangeness, deviance and complexity in diction and phrasing are the gluey glue that create interest in poetry. Difficult pleasures are an enticement, after all. Perks my head up. Makes me all hot and bothered.
Street: Here is the quote probably used the most in your press: “To write about one thing, you must first write about another” (Cathedral). I’m sorry to bring you back here, but this line is of particular interest to students. It’s something we hear about often in our workshops. Would you care to elaborate on your process of starting one thing to end up with another, or do you finish what you start? Another of my favorite lines, also from Cathedral, is the last one: “You go out for coffee. You come back another person.” (I hate it when that happens!) Is this to comment on the idea expressed in the first line?
Fitzgerald: Yes, I think these lines are about how the presence of two always reinvents (redeems) the identity (violence) of one: whether two images, two people or two sequences of lines, of experiences. Sometimes, in writing, I think the only way to get at anything significant or profound is by avoiding significance or profundity—especially, let’s say, the head-on collision technique, as in tackling the heavy subject matter of a recent grief, a new obsession, the grand wallop of an overwhelming political or historical reality. I feel loyal to the idea that you have to resist certainties in life until they overwhelm you; that meaning, which is only one aspect and mood to the Life-Interface, arrives and departs more like a perfume, sudden and fragmentary. Or maybe it’s like asbestos (forgive me this image) until after a period of unthinking years, one day, boom, you choke on the clarity of it. Then again I would revise everything I just said and remind myself that the menace of weighty utterance, the self-importance of poetic speech, needs to continually be overturned and undermined. Why? Well, for one thing, one does have joys and lightness of breath and art should reflect that too. And for another reason, the idea that the poem is only valuable to the degree it has this self-help or Rilkean imperial wisdom to mandate is dangerously egotistical, I think. As long as the ego is in totalitarian command the poem suffers. Cage said somewhere you begin painting and all your friends and influences are there in the room with you. As you continue, they leave. You continue finally and hopefully you leave…
I don’t know if the last line of my poem was meant as a comment upon the first—but I don’t see particularly why it couldn’t be. O’Hara answered your question much better in Why I Am Not a Painter.
Street: You write in the title poem of your book: “pursing always on a waltz on our breath.” I also have the sensation of waltzing through breath while reading Late Parade, the sensation of climbing a dreamscape where my feet persist through clouds and a person needs other faculties besides feet to traverse the space. Are you trying to invoke a “higher” or “other” state in your reader?
Fitzgerald: I’ve always been suspicious of common sense and rationality—because unlike an spiritual or insane view of things—the reason-based version of reality feels so smugly entitled today. We’ve enough of that shoved down our throats. Experience shouldn’t be an expertise, a framed diploma. I would make a poor logician obviously, but in the world of poetry I’ve always responded to the poem as a invitation to shoot off, other myself, pretend, distort, refract, permutate, finesse, etc. “Higher” might sound solemn or pretentious—but why not let a poem give someone a sense of their higher self? Go ahead, get high! The poem as such an experimental zone seems to suit my perverted kazoo nature. At one time, I’m sure I felt that the imagination meant imposing artificial/alternate worlds through language. These days I tend to see poetry’s altered consciousness as just a more accurate realization of what is going on inside and around me all the time. And here’s the unsexy paradox: completing a piece of writing takes as much lucidity and clear-headedness for me as possible, a severity that’s technical, emotionless, filled with drudgery. The “stuff” of my poems can be as wacky as I want, but a crafty mastery I embrace without ego—coolly, dry, and as sanely as possible. When I’m reading for myself I want to be a junkie looking for my fix. But when I’m behind the wheel editing, I try to be as merciless and corporate as can be.
Street: In the poem “The Late Parade,” I’m curious about the line breaks and indents, the form of this poem is so curious I had to track it—eight-line, five-line, four-line, five-line stanzas; indentation or justified margins (left/right). Looking at it in this way, I am almost inclined to view it as a composition, and when reading in ¾ (waltz) time I am hearing the words as notes and you are playing them as say valves on a trumpet. This last poem is most certainly musical. Do you see yourself as a musician with words? Are you balancing sound with meaning?
Fitzgerald: Yes, I would like to see myself as a musician with words. Yes, I would like to balance sound with meaning. The shape-shifting arrangements in the stanzas, like musical chairs, felt to me festive—and charmingly desperate—for such a long poem. A little like Goldie Locks. As if the mind kept on having to invent an order, arbitrarily, for things to click—everything becoming possible because nothing’s quite right. That said, I don’t see language in a poem as sound vs. meaning because I couldn’t really claim to know where one ends and the other begins. I prefer it that way.
Street: Finally, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Fitzgerald: I will be a rancher, breeding cloned ears off the backs of mice with a dog named Alberta, and perhaps a few wives and thankless children. Oh, I wish I had any idea. Most of my twenties have been spent thinking about life-in-my-twenties. As I’ve turned thirty, which for a gay man is a particular momento mori, I’m anticipating a renewal of future-time, less day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck B.S. I’d like to return to staring at things with a more teological calm. In the social media world we’re always caught complaining that there’s no past, everything has ten seconds and then is interchangeably forgotten. Stimulus as evaporating steamrolling gasps. But while I too find the flip-fucking of content dizzying, I worry less about archiving the past than just feeling intimate with and responsible to non-present time. Christian Hawkey and Rachel Levitsky are really smart about all this. They started The Office of Recuperative Strategies. It’s about how do we slow the fuck down; it’s a form of protest and experiment.
For now, I’m giddily embroiled in teaching creative writing at the university level. I want to get better and better at it, keep it dynamic, unpredictable (which is hard, considering after a few years, a ‘house style’ sets it; you gain the very competence that might tempt you as teacher to lose sight of new pedagogies and antithetical modes). I’m at work on a second book—like I feel everyone else is in the known universe, even those who haven’t written their first.
What about the big picture? Hmm, part of the book-promotion dance is this—being interviewed. It’s a form of writing I personally love, whether asking or answering. Inside the ring, you tend to consolidate and coalesce half-heard self-thinking much more than chart out any real new territory. It clarifies the animal. I list off what I’ve been processing, regurgitate what has always meant a lot to me, go searching for pith and rigor to pawn off my biases, grudges, slants, hoping to honey opinion into less decrepit form. Sound like I know what the hell I’ve been doing and am doing. But after even one effort in self-accounting, you quickly learn how meager your own default-responses are; how narrow and potentially tired your own keys if you can be honest with yourself. So you quickly have to look at yourself under this light of, I really have no business talking about X or Y ever again. I don’t want to be Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil, with my creative libido played by Marlene Dietrich cackling back at me, “Your time’s all used up. You’ve got nothing left.” I guess I fear resorting to my old somethings more than having nothing, per se.
That said, I don’t see any of my true loves going away, but they can’t be digested as they were. Books are written under the signs of lovers, the dead, literary influences, heroines and pathologies. You have to ready yourself for a new music, then wait. So I hope in ten years that I’m still writing poetry but not of a kind I could possibly foresee myself writing now. Maybe by then I’m somebody else entirely too. I’d love to finally be able to write a novel—a skill I quite envy in those able to do it. Even “commercial” novels—I ask myself, how the hell did they do that? This might be because the new music that interests me most these days is prose. I have this hunch that prose is really the poetic medium of our time. Fugitive poet-hybridists like Maggie Nelson, Dana Ward, Kate Zambreno, Ann Lauterbach in her terrific new volume Under the Sign—they’re throttling me at the moment. Now to go somewhere.