Robert Fanning Interview

Your first book of poems is The Seed Thieves, of which the title phrase is mentioned in the poem "Scarecrow Cross" as a reference to crows. Obviously, crows are black--are they always stealing light? They seem ever hungry, but for what? Crows are smart, are sure of themselves; are they searching for mercy? Again in"My Old Flame" you illuminate the poem with the image of an old crow. Is this an intentional thread through the poems? What does a scarecrow symbolize?

The crows, indeed, are an unintentionally metaphorical thread. They are the inspiration for the book's title, the "seed thieves" -- that symbolize somehow death, terror, the nightmare-birds that steal the light from the day, that pilfer the seeds from the earth. That poem "Scarecrow Cross" was inspired by a vivid dream a friend had about me, and it concerns those forces that seem to hover over our hope, our planted fields. Religion, for me was the Scarecrow, planted by my parents, to ward off these terrors. The poem concerns seeing that symbolic defender picked apart by doubt. Superimposed on the poem, for me, was the Columbine massacre, the images of the teenage shooters swooping across the fields to kill. So, there are many symbolic aspects to crows that the poem confronts. It is an anxious poem that concerns the morning light broken by bad news, which culminates in a question: What, spiritually, can I do against this encroachment, especially with the Scarecrow down, with my defenders not around. In a larger sense, it is also a poem about optimism and pessimism: Where one of these forces ebbs, the other advances. This said, in real life and far beyond this poem, I find crows thrilling, with their dark gleam and broken-trumpet songs. They're the loud drunks at the party, shouting truths that no-one wants to hear.

Your eyes are set to this present world, but your ears are in the ancient airwaves as the poems excrete with lyrical lines. How is it that you employ sound? What does rhythm signify? express?

Sound: the harmony and dissonance, the beautiful noise of our language is for me one of the primal and original delights of this art form. And I do think this is ancient and primal—taking us back to the early pleasure of speaking and hearing words. The effect of our language and its sounds upon the reader is both physiological and psychological. I've often said that the way to the heart is through the ear. Poetry is originally and primarily an auditory art form. Many of this art's craft elements on the page are geared toward creating a linguistically musical, sonic experience for the reader. Poems on the page are sheet music, a blueprint for the reader to follow, to call forth the poem to its full effect, whether in rhyme—internal and end rhyme (what I like to call the strings and brass section) and meter (the percussion and drums). Rhythm, whether in the meter of the poem or its pacing via line breaks and other measures, guides the emotional thrust of the poem as well.

Dylan Thomas is an influence, fair to say? What do you see as the "dark-vowelled birds"? Crows? Or, not a bird at all but waves come crashing to shore? Is it that distance between us and the moon? Is it the moon without its own emitted light, that magnet for the movement of waves?

Dylan Thomas, that Welshman of Swansea—has a huge hold on my heart, with all of his lyrical and sonic bombast, his crashing waves. He is for me, a poet of terrific spiritual turbulence and energy. I've always been struck by his line (among hundreds I love): "By the sea's side hear the dark-vowelled birds." And for this collection, that line seemed fitting as an opener—as I feel it is a rather turbulent collection, with poems of innocence and despair commingling. To me those dark-vowelled birds are seagulls, another bird I've loved (beyond its picnic-scavenging aspects) for its seeming knowledge—its way of looking out across the sea, for its soul.

What is prayer? Several poems directly address this--"Blueprint of the Ruins", "Failed Existentialist in a Field of Fireflies", "Still Shot", and "Scarecrow Cross"—while others imply prayer per their imparted images. What do you think Mark Eitzel considers prayer?

Originally, prayer, to me, was a pure and beautiful attempt to express my joy and longings to a deity, to some being beyond me, beyond humanity, who I hoped was listening and might act upon my requests. Though I no longer practice traditional prayer, I think, in all of its forms, that prayer, this outward spiritual longing and communication, is an important, solemn and amazing act for us as humans. Over time, I saw prayer as more various, that it doesn't need to take place in a church or a temple, or on our knees. Prayer, it seems, might be any act of faith: any outward expression or beckoning toward our soul, our inner life, or even toward that timeless eternal current we see in others. This is a wide-open definition. Meditation: prayer. Love: prayer. Smiling at a stranger: prayer. For me, then, it follows, the poem is a sure form of prayer: a pure and beautiful attempt to express my joy and longings—though now the listeners are often physical. I can sometimes even see their faces. The selection of Mark Eitzel's lyric as another frontispiece to The Seed Thieves: "I've been praying a lot / lately, because I no longer have a TV," is crucial to my work, through both of my books, revealing one of my main concerns—that our spiritual lives are deeply suppressed, blocked, and interrupted by the noise of the contemporary American scene.

You write your experiences using stark humor, raw irony, and rhythmic description conveying a nervousness that adds depth to the sly underlining opinions that build our ideas of the narrator. Who is this narrator? It's a person most of us modern Americans have met. What separates/distinguishes the writer of the poem from its narrator?

In my work, the speaker's voice and placement varies widely. I truly hesitate using the word me, because me is a flowing river. But sometimes the speaker at least tries to stand in that river, and speaks of personal history and experience. Other times the speaker is beyond the current, looking inward or outward, is more us, than me or you. However the mouthpiece is shaped, though, I want the song to be one that might be felt or experienced with recognition, that the reader will know that this is a voice I know, a life I know, whether it is mine, or theirs, or someone else's. It is an American voice, yes, and a voice springing outward from this day in the universe—but that echoes both forward and backward. Content-wise, to not evade another presumed aspect of your question, several poems are autobiographical, others aren't—this doesn't matter, ultimately. That the poems create an experience, a truth, and a dwelling place for the reader is most important, whether their source is personal history, memory, or imagination.

Why are poets keen personifiers? What purpose do you think this serves? For example in poems such as "Death Revisited" and "Watching The Wind Read" and "Last Dancers".

Personification, among other tools in our art, allows the poet to enter other lives, other voices, other times, other entities. Especially in dramatic monologue: to speak as death, to speak as the wind. To speak as God, to speak through a historical figure or via the mouthpiece of a flower. At its essence, dramatic monologue and persona permit the transcendence of the body's boundaries, allow the poet to go beyond death; it is the liberation of the soul and the affirmation of the boundlessness of the human spirit. By removing psychic boundaries—a poet may roam, may enter, may invite entrance—into other territories the waking life will not allow either the poet or the reader to occupy.

Because your focus is heavily on our modern "culture," most images are easy to identify. You use clever juxtapositions; analogies that signal intellect (i.e. "Tributary"). What's your intent behind injecting a metaphor into a poem?

I want to be a writer of my time, yes, but to also find in this time its timeless themes, to find the universal in the particular absurdity and grace of our moment. Metaphor deepens the image, yes, but is one of the several portholes into the dreamspace of the poem—it creates in the writer and the reader a truth they didn't know they knew, a recognition of something both before and beyond time. I liken it to hearing the click on a lock, striking a combination that opens a door into the new and thrilling experience of something deeply familiar.

Any thoughts on our [human] tendency to want to name things? Is this possessive? Are we trying to establish an intimate relationship? A unique understanding? Is it preservation? Compartmentalization of memory? (From The Seed Thieves, i.e. "One Day I Will Rule The World", "The Man Who Names Wars", "The List of Good Names", "Pedinkis", "Dying Star").

I've always adored the first passage of the Tao Te Ching: "The Name that can be Named is not the Eternal Name." It is one of my favorite spiritual passages—a reminder that language and our faith in it can only go so far in expressing what it can only, at its best, signify. There is a point at which words fail us. They are the shimmering curtain, the shadows on the cave wall, yes. I recognize that fully, but also recognize and celebrate our naming proclivity as humans, and indeed the poet's role as having this as his/her chief occupation: the naming of things. The affixing of nouns. The labeling of the particular. The voicing of the otherspace. If it has a name it exists. There's an inherent irony in all of this, which I love in my study of Buddhism, that despite the poet's most articulate flourishes, silence, ultimately, has as great a voice, and humbles us. The space between our words is not negative space.

Most poems in your first book are conventional in form, why is this? What is the importance of form? Is it an extended function?

Form for me is a vehicle toward emotion and is of profound importance, but not of primary significance. There are certainly poets for whom, form, whether traditional or experimental/non-traditional is in sharp focus. I don't necessarily want the reader drawn to these marks on the glass, but to what is beyond the window. That said, I delight in the shape of my poems, in how they're arranged, and I'm constantly looking for the best vessel for my language—based on the poem's intent, as it develops. I want to be a poet who ranges in this way, who can't be labeled a "neo-formalist" or "experimental;" I resist these categories—I'm always listening to the poem, to what shape it's calling for. I feel that if the poem has its best form, it will travel farthest, and the form will be ultimately invisible. Poets who want the reader's attention on their use of form, whether as traditionalists or experimentalists, seem to want the reader to admire their arrow. The reader should be heart-struck by the flight of the poem instead, and not know, initially, what hit them, or care how.

What effect does humor have? What's its role in poetry?

Humor in poetry is crucial for many reasons. For one, it debunks the myth of poetry as the artistic dwelling-place for our singular sorrow and angst. Those who think of poetry as the expressive vessel of tortured souls have not read widely. And those who write using only those colors of the spectrum are just as limited in scope. There have been throughout history many, many, many poets of great and giggly wit, many jesters rousing the court, and this tradition continues in the contemporary poetry arena, and certainly in my own work. For me, humor is either a way into or beyond the pathos, a snicker before the ultimate brutal fact of our existence. It is a release, a celebration, a massage to relieve our tensed-up bracing for annihilation. I love Frost's quote that a poem is the "sad-happy blend of the drinking song." Life is ultimately bittersweet—one of my favorite words in the language, and humor adds that all-important sweetness in. It is a necessary ingredient in this art. Not in every poem, of course, but a poet who doesn't access or employ humor limits their potential in mapping the entirety of the soul's interior. One of my favorite quotes of late, by a critic discussing a poet, was that: the poet's work emphasized that "One needs to not take life so seriously, in order to take life seriously." Voila.

There's not an emotion you're evident to abandon is there? (Awe, despair, bitterness, humor etc.)

No. I want the full palette. I love people like that, that can rail and roar and weep and whisper, conversations that blend laughter and tears. I love those kind of movies that have you laughing and crying, and that change the shape of your heart, if only momentarily. I want my poems to reflect this, my books to reflect this, my poetry readings to reflect this. To me, poetry is a way to express, experience, and share our emotional lives. We remember what we feel. We are most alive when we feel. This is one, among many things, that I love about this art form—its potential to pluck, truly and palpably, the notes within another's being, soul, existence. I've stood in front of paintings because the greyblue in them knew a song in me, I've listened to a song over and over again because it captured the exact shade of an ecstasy, a pain, a memory, a moment. I want my poems to do that: to strike and strum, for the reader—their moment here.

I'm curious about your relationship with Terry Blackhawk, as you mentioned your indebtedness to her at the conclusion of The Seed Thieves. How did you come to befriend her? What has she taught you, or—more appropriate—what have you learned?

Terry Blackhawk is my friend and was my supervisor at InsideOut Literary Arts Project where I worked as a Managing Director and Writer-in-Residence for eight years. We met at a gathering that convened Michigan poets and writers around a particular issue. She recruited me for InsideOut at that meeting, and I'm ever-thankful for that moment and for her friendship and influence. Though she has taught me many things about how to be an artist and an activist in this world, ultimately the most enduring lesson she imparted to me is that poetry has incredible and necessary importance to not just the soul of the individual but to the soul of the community. To our society itself. On some level, I knew this power already, of course, but she taught me how to put it into action. The work that she has done, in sending dozens and dozens of poets, myself included, into the Detroit Public Schools to work with children, has had a profound influence on thousands and thousands of lives, those of young people, of adults, of writers. I've carried this influence forward as a writer and professor at Central Michigan University, this art-activism, in my founding of the Wellspring Literary Series, a public poetry and music series, and in my volunteer work with students at the Isabella County Commission on Aging, among other things. Poetry is not a hobby. It is an age-old craft—an art that celebrates, inspires, engages and changes—the souls of all it reaches. I thank Terry and other mentors I've had, for showing me how to recognize and use the power of poetry to stir the world.

Works by Robert Fanning

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