What the Light Gives Back: An Interview with B.H. Fairchild
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.
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?
BHF: A 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?
BHF: In “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 at other times and in other poems I return because I lived there or in other parts of the lower Midwest until I was forty years old. It’s simply a dominant part of my experience on planet Earth. But I’m not so sure about a relationship between that place and the language of the poems.
Lazy critics often want to assume that relationship and then leap to the easy yet erroneous conclusion that the poems are written in a “plain style.” But I do not write in a “plain style” (flat land, therefore flat language, or so goes the stereotype). And so I wish they would stop saying that. It may roughly apply to William Stafford, a poet and friend whose poems I much admired, and whose style was “plain” but never “flat,” but I don’t think it fits me.
JM: Reading your poems, I often find myself laughing out loud. Do you think it’s important for a poet to be funny, or at least to have a sense of humor? Do you find it difficult to write with humor, or do you think it is something that comes easily to you?
BHF: I don’t think that any poet is required to be funny, but I have to think it’s important for poets, like all human beings, to have a sense of humor. I find it difficult intentionally to write funny, but sometimes the content of the poem just causes it to play out that way. Three of my favorite poets who do seem to be able to write funny anytime they want to are R.S. Gwynn, Ron Koertge, and Charles Harper Webb.
JM: Many of your poems, like “The Blue Buick,” “Frieda Pushnik,” or the newer “On the Death of Small Towns,” come from history, literature, art, even news stories. Could you talk a bit about your creative process and how much you draw from outside sources?
BHF: I’m an obsessive reader, as are most poets that I know, and my original ambition was to be a scholar/poet, so I enjoy doing research for poems or picking subjects that will cause me to do a lot of reading and research. In Usher I wrote several poems on Western philosophers or philosophical texts, and the reading and research I did was great fun. The title poem for Usher required considerable research about parts of Manhattan and certain theologians who taught at the Union Theological Seminary. And I spent a lot of time reading biographies of Hart Crane for “Hart Crane in Havana.” Sometimes the world, or the world of print, just hands you a poem free of charge, as was the case with “Frieda Pushnik.”
JM: You often populate poems like “Keats” or “The Art of the Lathe” with artistic figures, as well as images from your father’s machine shop (the lathe, brass rivets, the band saw, etc.), creating a relationship between poetry and manual craftsmanship. What is the relationship between the craft of poetry and the “art of the lathe”? Do you feel a certain responsibility to the artisanship of your father’s generation and those who came before him? If so, how does poetry fulfill this responsibility? How does it fall short?
BHF: This question goes right to the heart of who I am as a poet. I fell in love with craft, specifically lathe craft, before I fell in love with poetry, and I have written about this in “Lathework” in Local Knowledge. As a child I would stand beside my father’s lathe and watch hypnotically as his hands maneuvered the rotary handles, easing the bit into the stock, making blue spirals of iron rise up and then drop into the collecting bin beneath. And later in adolescence, I would be walking through the shop with him as he would gesture toward some recent work and say, “good work,” in a tone of voice that one might use while admiring a Rembrandt painting, or, on the other hand, “sloppy work,” underlining it with a dismissive gesture that made me cringe. Doing precise, clean, elegant work was a moral issue with him.
Later, in a kind of psychological breakthrough that might otherwise have cost me dearly in therapist’s fees, I realized in the course of writing a poem that my craft was not so different from his. It was a mediocre poem, and later I read Seamus Heaney’s great “Digging,” and realized that that poem had already been written, much better than I would ever write it. I’m sure my students must get tired of my constant emphasis upon precision, but that’s surely where it comes from. As for my “responsibility to the artisanship of my father’s generation,” no, I don’t think there’s much of that (and the lathes are all computerized now, anyway), but I do have a feeling for the honor of the craft, whether it’s lathe craft or poems or painting or music or whatever else.
As for the relationship between art and craft: not long ago I went to a showing of the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto, photographs of mechanical forms often found in industry—a quick release lever, for instance, or a cam shaft—and it made me think of the aluminum boxes of the postmodern artist Donald Judd, which are housed in two large buildings in Marfa, Texas: rows upon rows of seemingly identical aluminum boxes though they do vary almost imperceptibly in design. Which is the greater accomplishment—Judd’s conception of the design and placement of the boxes, or the extraordinarily beautiful machine work done on the boxes built entirely by Jose Otero of Bernstein Brothers in New York? Judd was the artist, yet I had to ask the docent to find out for me the name of the (and would it be “artisan“or “artist”?) who made the boxes with such consummate skill.
I can imagine a professional art critic claiming that Judd’s part was art, after all, but Otero’s work was only craft. I think that would be a false distinction. And I think that for the poet, too, it’s a distinction that belies the fact that the poet has to be Jose Otero and Donald Judd equally in the same body and mind, that the craft is the art, that the one is nothing without the other, and that the inspiration or grand vision or imaginative flight that gives rise to the poem is in no way a superior or somehow loftier thing than the heavy lifting of putting the subordinate clause at the end rather than the beginning of the sentence or rummaging through your entire vocabulary for a word that has a deep rather than high vowel in the second syllable or a phrase with two stresses rather than one or any of the other small stuff that makes me—and I will now finally admit it—actually value Jose Otero a little bit more than Donald Judd. In fact, I have written poems in which Jose paused in his work to look up at Donald and say, “I don’t think I’ll be needing you today.”
JM: The first poem in the “New Poems” section of The Blue Buick, “The Story,” seems to speak profoundly to your tendency toward narrative. Would you talk about the origins of this poem? Why is it the first poem in the book’s last section?
BHF: I was commissioned to write a poem for the graduation of MFA candidates from the Seattle Pacific University program, and so I wrote “The Story,” since it would be relevant to the fiction writers as well as the poets. It’s the first poem in the section because I’ve written quite a few narrative poems, and it seemed the right time and place to write a poem about the writing of a narrative. I should go ahead and say that I think the narrative impulse, like Chomsky’s grammar machine, is innate in human beings; I don’t think it’s socially or culturally constructed at all. In fact, I think syntax (grammar) is rooted in narrative—a sentence, any sentence, being a kind of story. The reason, I believe, that pure lyric is so difficult is that it goes against the mind’s inborn narrative impulse. Perhaps that is also why pure lyric is so beautiful.
JM: In the same poem, “The Story,” you write, “…Where can a story end? / If it arrives from nowhere, where can it end?” Is this an anxiety with which you struggle in writing poems? Do you ever feel, when you write, that you have come to the end of a story?
BHF: No, I don’t believe it’s an anxiety of mine, though I have plenty of others. I mean you come to closure, and I suppose, even in a lyric poem, that it feels like the end of a story. I will say that the final poem in the “New Poems” section of The Blue Buick is placed there because it is about the end of a story, the most important story that we have.
JM: Several of your new poems, like “Red Snow,” “The Game,” and “Alzheimer’s” present what seem like archetypal figures of a mother and a father, but they also seem deeply personal. As you have been writing this new work, what are some of your recent preoccupations?
BHF: “Red Snow” and “Alzheimer’s” are deeply personal, though “The Game” is not. One of my recent preoccupations is the cause of my night terrors, which I have had for several decades. It finally occurred to me that they could be the result of repressed trauma resulting from a head-on collision my family and I experienced when I was four years old, and that is what “Red Snow” is about. I can remember the headlights of the drunk driver coming towards us from about fifty yards away, and I can remember the aftermath—our car upside down with my sister and I alone in back, the lights of the ambulance and police car, my father somewhere outside, my mother being carried away on a stretcher, her face covered with blood from pieces of windshield glass–but I cannot remember the collision itself.
The poem refers to this but is focused on my state of mind when I wake up from the night terror. They are incredibly intense, and when you wake up, you are in two worlds simultaneously for about five to ten minutes—very strange, very disorienting. Alzheimer’s” is about my sister, who suffers from it, and the connection with my mother when she was agonizingly waiting for my father to return from WWII.
JM: Dr. Fairchild, thank you for your poems and for taking the time to answer these questions. What is next for you?
BHF: I want to write screenplays based on three poems of mine: Rave On,” “Body and Soul,” and “The Blue Buick.” One of the Hollywood studios was interested in doing a film based on “Rave On” but finally decided against it. I’ve never written a screenplay, so that will be an interesting experiment. I also want to write another book of poems, to be entitled “Little Maupassants,” and a book of essays, “Lathework: Essays on Poetry and Film.”