Kathy Fagan’s latest collection is Lip (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2009); her new book, Sycamore, is scheduled to appear with Milkweed Editions in March 2017. She is also the author of the National Poetry Series selection The Raft (Dutton, 1985), the Vassar Miller Prize winner MOVING & ST RAGE (Univ of North Texas, 1999), and The Charm (Zoo, 2002). Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Slate, FIELD, Narrative, The New Republic, and Poetry, among other literary magazines, and is widely anthologized.
"Fully Human,” an Interview with Kathy Fagan Grandinetti
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Izzy Montoya. Of the process he said, “It was a true honor to speak with Kathy about the craft of Poetry. Her expertise shines through in her fifth collection Sycamore.” In this interview, Kathy discusses life as inspiration, the role of teaching in creativity, and growing as an artist.
Superstition Review: This book opens with a very interesting first piece, “Platanaceae Family Tree.” I wanted to know what inspired you to work in this form, and how you managed to find moments for creativity within it?
Kathy Fagan: I am so grateful that Milkweed was willing to keep this—what would you call it?—“legend,” as the frontispiece for the book. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to an illustration—I never dreamed of submitting it to a literary magazine because I never thought of it as a poem. I very much wanted it to suggest, in visual and verbal ways, the magnificent stands of sycamore I’d been visiting. But of course the piece also becomes a sort of wink and nod to the construction of the cosmology of the book, I think, an homage to lineage, in this case the lineage of the tree family and genus, but also of poem-making, image by image, linguistic turn by linguistic turn. It’s the mind of the poet I was as I wrote Sycamore that I was attempting to map.
SR: Speaking of form, readers will find a few formalistic poems in this collection, including “Kaboom Pantoum,” but by and large this book is free verse. How do you balance these two techniques, and what informs your process?
KF: I’ve written pantoums for years—several appear in my previous book, Lip. I love how the pantoum allows for the refinement or refutation of observation or idea. More than anything in poetry I value the music of the line. Whether that happens in a traditionally formal line or what’s called a free verse line doesn’t much matter to me. My growing sense over the years is that the poem finds, in its time, its most appropriate container. I’m not suggesting that happens by magic, but I do think the more one reads and practices forms, the more likely one is to know in which vessel the sounds, the words, the lines, and the sentences live most memorably.
SR: Many of the poems in Sycamore give poetic voice to an actual Sycamore tree. Can you tell us a little more about what made you want to write from this perspective, and what it revealed to you?
KF: One or more sycamores, yes. Before I wrote poems for Sycamore I found myself taking hundreds of digital photographs of the trees—on daily walks around my Ohio neighborhood, on hikes near the river, on visits to other cities and countries. I was so drawn to them that I geeked out on sycamore tree facts, doing research, following the appearance of sycamore in myth, legend, and the arts. As some of the poems address, sycamores thrive all over the world, in wild and urban environments; they can be incredibly long-lived, and grow so large that humans have been known to live inside them. The bark, notable for its white sheen, cracks and sheds to allow for expansion. There’s something about those physical details, broken and strong and womanly all at once, that touches me. When the poems emerged I called them self-portraits—one titled as such survives in the book—but I gradually understood that the poems were a series of studies, in the spirit of Monet’s haystacks and cathedrals. I became interested in recording the trees in conversation with the weather, the light, and the landscape, with both natural and human history. When a long-term relationship ended abruptly, I turned to the trees—and to the poems—for shelter. And both accommodated me.
SR: Something I really enjoyed about these poems was how they incorporated nature into the artistic vision. For example, we see the theme of hibernation explored in several poems. Can you describe how you took something concrete and scientific, like hibernation, and made it into something poetic?
KF: Yes, as I mentioned, the sycamores felt to me emotionally sheltering during a very difficult time, they still do, like the best imaginable (giant) family, but the poems themselves mostly rose out of the darkest places, an underworld of sadness—my own “comas of survival,” as I put it in the poem “To You for Whom I Broke.” Poetry and psychotherapy plumb multiple layers of understanding. Likewise, one can’t stand at the base of an old-growth sycamore looking up and not feel both terribly mortal and bound up in history all at once. The ultimate in negative capability, hibernation is the life-death state, one in which survival and death are completely interdependent—Daphne, Persephone… The resonances are endless.
SR: The poem “Cinder” is a meditation on another artist's work. In what other ways, maybe less direct, do you feel the experience of art becomes part of your own craft?
KF: Aside from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the poems in Sycamore draw very specifically from arts other than the literary, like film (Fellini and Herzog are credited in the book) and video (the Gaillard demolition video you mention that “Cinder” engages), dance (ballet and Kabuki), sculpture (Bernini, of course), architecture (the destroyed and the extant; there’s a poem about California’s first woman architect, Julia Morgan), and even music, which to my uneducated ear reads as almost pure abstraction and emotion. As usual for me, there’s a mash-up of characters in the poems, too, aside from the individual and choral groups of trees: many, many saints, Caesar Augustus, Edgar Poe, Alice Toklas, Virginia Woolf, and Michael Jackson, to name a few. Travel has also allowed me to see sycamores and their cousins thrive along the Tiber, for instance, in Rome, and the Seine, in Paris, cities that I can’t help but equate with the visual art found in them. I mentioned Monet’s studies earlier; I like also to think of poems as constructions, like Leonardo’s inventions, each created as experiments devoted to different purposes. I’d say that finally it’s languages and weathers that these Sycamore poems have made themselves from, seasons of listening to and watching everything, including art.
SR: Sycamore is your fifth collection. I am curious to know what has changed for you, as a writer, since your first book. How is your process different? Do you see writing differently? How about publishing?
KF: I’m more humbled by the process of writing and publishing now. But I’m also more relaxed about both. As long as I’m scratching out some lines now and then, collecting them on paper, trying them out in my head while walking or driving, seeing—when time allows—what they look like when I put them together in different combinations, I’m alright. In other words, I feel less precious about the process. I need fewer rituals and props, I need less quiet and time, though I still yearn for both every day. I’m much more aware now of my work in conversation with the living as well as the dead, of my responsibility as a poet—we “unacknowledged legislators,”to quote Shelley—to community and the planet. I guess what I’m saying is I feel less precious about myself, too. I’m shy and awkward and inward-turning, but I live here; and while I’m alive I have a responsibility to be fully human as a poet and a person. Coming up I saw some poets who believed they got a pass on that last thing; they don’t.
SR: Sycamore is divided into three sections. In your eyes, what divides these three sections?
KF: Well, when I was finally at the stage where I was making the book, I realized that I didn’t want it to be “about” trees any more than I wanted it to be “about” a bad break-up. I wanted the poems to tell a larger story together, but not a story that moved in any linear way, which feels false to me. What that left me was a much more naturally cyclical, seasonal way to organize the material. I was conscious of beginning the book in winter—and, in keeping with the mythic undertones of that, balancing mid-winter with mid-summer, the invisible with the visible, the young with the old. I hoped that the two over-arching “events” of the book (the speaker’s grief and the tree studies) would weave in and out of the whole, allowing for discovery alongside recovery. One of the reasons I adore the image that Milkweed has given to the cover of Sycamore is its aerial perspective; the photograph is taken from above, and the objects photographed suggest the tops of trees—or barbed wire, or brain synapses. The poems spend so much time on the ground (or, as you noted earlier, under the ground!), that there had to be a vertical movement upward, too, a literal branching. The three sections of the book provided the space or air, it seemed to me, to promote multiple perspectives.
SR: The final poem of the book begins “When I was dead, one of the whiter/ sycamores who live on the river said,/ Kathy, why didn’t you live in your body more?” Can you tell us more about the ways you feel nature speaks to us, and how you incorporate that into your craft?
KF: I come from an urban, working-class, Irish-Catholic family. I’m second generation American, first generation college. Until I went to graduate school I wouldn’t have been able to identify an artichoke. But there were books and there were trees, and both were revered in my family. There was a willow, for example, that my parents dug up and moved from one place to another in New York because they were entrusted with its care. Incredibly, it thrived. I think I internalized early that notion of the tree as a being, and over the years I’ve carried close inside me some small discoveries, like, for instance, the etymological relationship between the word beech tree and the word book, and the beech’s Latin name that rhymes so closely with my own (fagus). Though I never claimed to be an environmentalist poet, writing Sycamore has taught me so much about the natural sciences that I’m a card-carrying Sierra Club member, support the #NoDAPL movement, and am devoted to stewardship causes in ways I was ignorantly unaware were even necessary before.
SR: You are also the Creative Writing program director at Ohio State University. How does your work as a teacher inform your writing? Do they feel connected, or compartmentalized?
KF: When I was a young poet-teacher I definitely compartmentalized writing and teaching. Interestingly, back then I was writing less and teaching more. Now that I’m older, I am more clearly able to integrate my creative and working lives—in fact, I see very little distinction between the two where teaching specifically is concerned; administration is another matter, of course—and I learn both with my students and because of my students’ engagement with their poems and our world. In very practical terms, my relationship with students keeps me alert to how language evolves, to how the culture of art—and I mean by that the makers of art, not the sellers of art—is trending. Together we trace influences and departures and patterns. I also feel frankly honored to witness my students' progress as poets, and I know that gives me the courage to continue to grow as a poet myself.
SR: Finally, I’ll end with our traditional question. What does your writing space look like?
KF: There have been so many! Always with three things in common: a window, real or remembered books, and a pen.
SR: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.