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What the Light Gives Back: An Interview with B. H. Fairchild 

Interview conducted by Jenny Molberg 

This year, W. W. Norton & Company released The Blue Buick, a collection of B.H. Fairchild’s new and selected poems, which spans five previous volumes, including The Arrival of the Future, The Art of the Lathe (the winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award and finalist for the National Book Award), Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the California Book Award, and the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry), Local Knowledge, and Usher: Poems. Poet David Mason calls Fairchild one of “the best poets of his generation” and Barbara Berman of The Rumpus writes, aptly, that he is “an essential force in contemporary letters.” He is also the recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Arthur Rense Prize, and the PEN Center USA West Poetry Award. B.H. Fairchild, or “Pete,” as his friends know him, currently teaches at the University of North Texas.

Fairchild’s poems, in their precision and rhetorical force, mirror the meticulous lathe work in his father’s machine shop that he so often recollects. His work embodies the topography and vernacular of the American Lower Midwest, but it also possesses a wisdom that transcends its geographic location; the poems consistently meditate on the potential of language itself.  Reading Fairchild’s poems, one uncovers new insights into the self, memory, and the role of the imagination: as he writes in one of the new poems, “The Story”: “This is where the story ends. And now you know, / this is also where it begins, and you lean / into the light, put the pen to paper, and write.” It is exciting to read The Blue Buick from cover to cover, to see Fairchild’s oeuvre unfold in a new way, which illuminates his sensitive intellectual questioning. The Blue Buick, especially with the inclusion of new poems, highlights a quality in Fairchild’s work that critics often neglect: the idea of making as a holy act. In “Rothko,” this relationship between working-class culture, art and the sacred is especially clear as he juxtaposes “rust-red Pandhandle clay,” “grease” and “[blue] jeans” with a meditation on Rothko: “…kadosh, he might have said— / what the light gives back, and finally, what it doesn’t. Kadosh.”

I have read and loved B.H. Fairchild’s poems for years, and have recently been fortunate enough to call him my teacher and mentor. During my time as Fairchild’s student, I have laughed until I cried, and I have improved enormously as a poet. His willingness toward emotional openness in his poems—the way he allows moments of raw intensity, through lyricism, to “come back to us in slants and pools and uprisings of light”—continually reminds me of the fact that poetry is not about emotions, it creates emotions. Fairchild achieves this with characteristic precision. The result is akin to the work of a machinist: when the light hits the work just so, we are stricken by the beauty that arises from intricate, thoughtful craftsmanship. The Blue Buick represents a fruitful and significant poetic career, and the twenty-six new poems in the book only intensify the reverberation of Fairchild’s voice.

Jenny Molberg (JM): Congratulations on this beautiful new collection, The Blue Buick. Can you say a bit about the experience of making a book of selected poems?

B.H. Fairchild (BHF)It was much more difficult than I thought it would be. You make a list of the poems that you most want to represent your work, then suffer over the ones omitted, cannot imagine why you omitted them, put them back in, take others out, and so on. It is interesting, though, to take a hard look at the way your poems have evolved over forty years. I finally chose only about a dozen poems from my first book, The Arrival of the Future

JM: You have often been described as one of the best narrative poets of your generation. What does narrative form offer that other forms do not?

BHFA narrative poem offers a lyric depth that is seldom available in narrative prose and a narrative complexity and scope that are rarely, if at all, available in lyric poetry.  I believe that it’s certainly possible to write a pure lyric poem, one that aspires to the infinite moment, as Rilke and Keats famously did, but almost impossible to write a pure narrative poem of any quality, that is, one that offers only horizontal movement in time, with no lyric depth.

JM: Much of your work feels grounded in personal geography. Even when (and I’m thinking particularly of “Beauty”) the speaker of the poem is an ocean away, you so often return to the American Lower Midwest. Could you say a bit about the relationship between place and language in your poetry?

BHFIn “Beauty,” the return to Kansas is necessary simply because the narrator is an adult, and the crucial event that occurs there is a memory from his adolescence. And I suppose that