I was recently asked if I would like to interview poet, Kathy Fagan. I responded as any fan of poetry would respond, with a resounding “YES!”
Fagan is, by any standards, an extremely talented and renowned poet, known for weaving rich imagery throughout her poems. Her biography is extensive – she is Director of Creative Writing and the MFA program at Ohio State University, Poetry Editor for OSU Press, a former NEA fellow, and author of several award-winning collections. When I sat down to talk with Kathy, I was curious to hear her thoughts on poetry, in general, as well as to discuss her newest collection, Bad Hobby (Milkweed Editions), which was released this month.
Amanda Rabaduex: This is a question I like to learn about both new and experienced poets –
Kathy Fagan: What else? As a child, I loved spelling and rhyming. I loved small structures of all
kinds, and learned, for better or worse, to find metaphors for my experiences rather than speak of them directly—I perceived it wasn’t safe for me to do otherwise. I love long form literature and read a whole lot of it, but I’m drawn in my own work to the moment. Even in this new book,
which is first and foremost a narrative memoir, the story is told in fragments and images across
lines that I hope complicate and enhance the telling. Line is primary for me; linearity, on the
other hand, is not something I’m comfortable with.
I began my education as a journalism major, thinking I would make a living that way—which was desperately important to me as a poor kid. When I took my first poetry workshop I realized I never wanted to leave, and I haven’t. There is nothing I’ve ever done that has influenced my life more, and I mean that as both a teacher and the student I continue to be.
AR: I love that poetry had such a profound impact on you. That workshop was serendipitous!
Your newest collection, Bad Hobby, will be published in September by Milkweed Editions. Can
you discuss the experience of writing this collection. What was your writing process? How did
the book shape itself?
KF: I cared for my dependent dad in my home for five years before moving him into a memory
care facility. We hadn’t lived together since I was a child. His conservative faith and politics had
always been a challenge for me—a queer, agnostic, liberal feminist—and though I’d long been
aware of his physical disability (he’s functionally deaf) I was not aware of the extent of his
cognitive disabilities, likely lifelong, which during his time with me evolved into dementia.
Caregiving and writing poems moved hand in hand during those years, and I felt like I was
failing at both.
Revisiting childhood in that unexpected and intimate way was also affecting the
content of my poems overall. As my father’s memories disintegrated, mine integrated as they
never had before. My father was known for his malapropisms. His dementia, sadly but
sometimes uncannily, too, created a whole other level of language mashups for him, which
appear often throughout the book; one of them gave the book its title: bad hobby for bad habit. In the middle of these years, across the country, my mother died unexpectedly, and writing the
poems gave me an opportunity to visit both my parents, gone from me now in their separate
ways, in a past I’d mostly tried to forget. Crucially these visits helped me to sort out notions of family, memory, intergenerational trauma, sexism, and social class informed by my experiences
There’s that old workshop chestnut: Write what you know. In this case I both knew what I was writing about and wrote to find out what I didn’t know I knew. I wrote into the questions, in other words. I felt my way through the poems, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, on a path of lines and stanzas that surprised me at every step.
AR: I think that is one of the incredible things about poems, taking profound and often painful
experiences and turning them into something you can look at, polish, revisit. Like you discuss,
the poems in Bad Hobby dissect complex relationships – with parents, with aging, with nature,
with womanhood. Where do you find inspiration? Were any poems particularly difficult to
KF: All the poems were difficult to write. But difficulty writing—and reading—poems is not
unwelcomed. Or rather, I expect it, and do it in part because it is difficult. For entertainment, I do something else. For inspiration, I do yet another thing. The poems are built from pieces of
language—phrases, images, and sounds—that form and re-form over time into a patterned
collage of suggested meanings. I never know ahead of time where a poem will go, or even what
all its elements might be. Because I also worked on many of the book’s “themes” in
therapy—my parents, their parents, immigrant experiences, working class lives, the American
healthcare system, my own choice not to have a child—it felt inevitable for these to also spill
into the poems. My temperamental approach to all things is oblique—another way I was meant
to be a poet, I think. The challenge of this book was to push more directly into the wounds and
make poetry out of it.
AR: In “Ohio Spring” you write, “the poet-/Teacher in me understands/The Marine-cop in him.”
I am an Air Force veteran, myself, so I am interested to know how your father’s connection to the military shaped you and your writing.
KF: My father is a Korean Conflict-era veteran. He served stateside only, but like a lot of older
vets he never talked much about his service. He’d gone to a vocational high school in Brooklyn,
the youngest of five living children, and joined the Marines at the same time his (slightly) older
brother did. A lot of those guys came out and used the GI bill to go to college; my dad, however, had what we call now learning disabilities. He was a devout Catholic all his life even though he’d been kicked out of Catholic school for being “slow.” As a cop he failed the detective’s test. But discipline he had; patriotism he had. For reasons I’ve never fully understood, my father wanted a daughter after he and my mother were married. Maybe because, in his book, daughters were meant to care for their parents—and his bet on that was a good one, maybe the best bet he ever made. As a parent, what he gave me in return was a strong sense from childhood that even though I was born a girl, I could do and be anything. I may not have gotten to college without his faith in me; no one else in my family had been to college. I may not have succeeded in avoiding any number of the usual pitfalls of adolescence and young adulthood without his faith—and his expectation that I would do well. He was the guy who asked why I wasn’t bringing home an A+ when I brought home an A. I don’t think this entirely answers your question except to say, despite his disadvantages, disabilities, and the economic obstacles in his way, he was almost always curious about what would come next in life, and curious to see what I would do next. Not pleased all the time with me, for sure, but curious.
AR: You did answer my question! It sounds like the determination instilled in military members
was integral in the way he raised you and guided you.
Speaking of being curious – I love the varied forms your poems take on throughout Bad Hobby, particularly in poems like “Birds Are Public Animals of Capitalism.” I’m curious, how do you develop the form of your poems? Do you have a favorite form or style to work with?
KF: “Birds…” is a uniquely visual form for me that was entirely prompted by the circular paths
in multi-floor parking garages and circling patterns found in nature, bird murmurations, for
instance. I wanted to explore the similarities and differences of those shapes in the poem, natural and human-made, just as much as I wanted to question how we cope with the quotidian—or if we can.
As I say, I love line and all the ways lineation, stanza breaking, and other shaping elements can create meaning for us in poetry. I like to think that I give the poems the space they each need to thrive. Bad Hobby turned out to be, like my previous book, Sycamore, something of a project book, but the poems don’t all look alike, and that’s mostly intentional. Perhaps if I were a poet who wrote quickly they would resemble one another more, but I work slowly and deliberately and think of each poem as a stand-alone entity. I want to help it find its most effective delivery system, and that takes a lot of composing, recomposing, and revising.
AR: I like that you let the poem form as its own entity, even if it is in conversation with other
poems in other ways. Thinking back on your experiences as a poet, what do you wish someone had told you about becoming a poet? What advice would you give to people interested in writing poetry?
KF: Hmmm. Read a lot of poetry. Read a lot of everything. Have a life. Be interested in stuff,
stay open and curious and engaged. Play. Don’t be afraid of sorrow. There may be more specific “career” advice I might give to a poet beginning to publish books, but in general, poet to poet, it’s mostly just this: be attentive.
AR: Great advice! A wonderful professor I studied under often spoke about the need for writers
to “fill the well.” I think reading and having a life, like you say, are some of the best ways to do
that. Which poets have influenced your writing, and in what ways?
KF: So many poets. My Irish grandfather read Poe out loud to me with a brogue. I loved his
high goth and rhyme. I read Plath later as a teen; returning to her in middle age, I recognized her true and lasting genius. Yeats, Merwin, Walcott. I’d work through crushes: Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Franz Wright, Lucille Clifton, Les Murray. My teachers were Levine, Strand, and Levis; when they’d bring a poem in to class, Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” or Bishop’s “The Fish,” I had the sense I was climbing inside it, trying to figure out how it had made itself and why it was affecting me the way it did. I don’t engage with all poems like that, but I do with many of them, including student poems; I’ve been fortunate to have extraordinary students, many of whom make memorable work that I learn so much from. I was also privileged as a very young poet to spend a summer in residence at The Frost Place, Robert Frost’s house in Franconia, New Hampshire. It’s a combination museum/educational center now, but when I lived there in the private quarters of the house, recordings of him reading his poems played every weekday in the barn for visitors. I don’t think I realized at the time how influential those cadences were on me, much less his syntax and diction. I’m not a formalist, and of course Frost was all about tennis and its net, but his combination of clarity and music has stayed with me. Likewise, the inventiveness of more recent poets like Terrance Hayes, Harryette Mullen, Mary Ruefle, Brenda Hillman. All of them and so many more have influenced my poems, and frankly, just taught me how to think. One advantage of getting older is witnessing the variety of poetries available to readers now. I love all the different ways a poem gets made, all the different ways a poem can mean. Those discoveries are everything to me.
Order your copy of Bad Hobby.
Kathy Fagan is the author of Bad Hobby and Sycamore, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, as well as four previous collections, including The Charm, the National Poetry Series- winning The Raft, and Vassar Miller Prize-winner MOVING & ST RAGE. Fagan’s work has appeared in venues such as the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Poetry, The Nation, the New Republic, Best American Poetry, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Fellowship and served as the Frost Place poet in residence. Fagan is co-founder of the MFA program at The Ohio State University, where she teaches poetry and co-edits the Wheeler Poetry Prize Book Series for The Journal and The Ohio State University Press.
Amanda Rabaduex is a poet, writer, and college lecturer. To learn more, visit her website.