B. H. Fairchild on Usher, Beauty, and Craft
By The Editors on 4.07.09
B. H. Fairchild’s new poetry collection, Usher, will be published on May 4th. We invited Fairchild to talk with us about his forthcoming work as well as his poetic craft.
Poems Out Loud: In Usher you’ve created “a verbal cinema of America.” Part of that project, you’ve said, has involved locating theology within cinema, politics within agriculture, and poetry within philosophy. Could you discuss how your aesthetic here developed? Did you always envision Usher taking the form of a verbal cinema?
Fairchild: Actually, “verbal cinema” is a way of describing the book, but it was in no way my conscious intention when the book’s first poems were being written. On the other hand, as the book and its structure evolved, I did begin to see “The Gray Man” as a kind of usher into the book, which then ends with me as an usher in high school in “On the Waterfront.” (I also appear in a Roy Garcia prose poem, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”). And “Usher,” the middle poem in “Trilogy”—about an usher/theology student in Manhattan, a city I continuously fantasized about when I was growing up in Kansas—is to my mind the most important poem in the book, its soul, so to speak.
Poems Out Loud: Still, you’ve organized the poems in Usher into five thematic sections (“Trilogy,” “Godel,” “Five Prose Poems from the Journals of Roy Eldridge Garcia,” “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” and “Desire”). How did it happen that these five themes came together to form a collection?
Fairchild: The book’s structure evolved slowly, and it’s difficult to remember the precise order of the decisions I made to bring the book to its final shape. I knew that I wanted the philosophical poems (an awkward, rather inexact label) in “Godel” to follow “Trilogy” because of the link with “Usher,” and I knew that I wanted “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” which deals with a political/agricultural issue close to me (basically, the vanishing of an entire stratum of American culture) to be somewhere in the middle. Later, as I was writing and arranging the poems in “Desire” (the universal mystery as well as a theme important to Kojeve writing on Hegel), I thought of how I wanted the book to close—a triptych of poems, each with connections back to the poems in “Trilogy.” As with my earlier book Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, I wish I could have the reader read Usher straight through, but I guess that’s always too much to ask from poetry readers.
Poems Out Loud: Readers often marvel at the “suicidally beautiful” images that fill your poems. You’ve been called, too, “a surprising painter, one obviously indebted to Edward Hopper, whose paintings always seem darker than they are, with their parallel lines of light-catching windows and bricks extending beyond the frame into invisible potential.” Do you have any thoughts on why these kinds of images—images that seem darker than they are—can be so arresting? What might be the value of these images for the reader/viewer?
Fairchild: I don’t have an adequate answer for you here. I will say that I am certainly indebted to the paintings of Edward Hopper. I was never in an art museum until I went to college, but I remember opening a book on Hopper back in my marvelous hometown library and being absolutely taken away by those paintings in reproduction. It was only a book, but it might as well have been the Whitney in New York. There was something about them that seemed an extension of the deepest part of myself or of my experience in the world. I had no way to explain it, and still don’t, though I tried to approach it in a poem in The Art of the Lathe, “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings.” I suppose I ought to write something in prose on Hopper, but I believe Mark Strand has saved me that trouble in his wonderful little book, which begins, “I often feel that the scenes in Edward Hopper paintings are scenes from my own past.” As for the images that “seem darker than they are,” it’s difficult to say. I’ve been made aware of the obsession with light/dark imagery in the poems, but not of that particular quality in the individual image.
Poems Out Loud: Building on the last question, how do you think our historical consciousness affects our perception of beauty?
Fairchild: It’s obvious that our historical consciousness—as well, of course, as our cultural experiences and inherited cultural assumptions—influence our perception of beauty. Not only the way we perceive beauty but also the way we judge, define, and politically permit it to take on forms initially alien to us. However, having said that, I don’t believe that beauty is entirely an historical/cultural or social construction, and that’s because I don’t believe that the imagination is a social construction. I’m rather Blakean in that way, not just because of Blake but also because of my own experiences as a poet.
Poems Out Loud: Hart Crane is a major presence in Usher. You’ve brought him to life by way of postcards he wrote the day before he leapt from the Orizaba to his death. And then there’s Frieda Pushnik, “the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder,” whose dramatic monologue is mournful and beautiful. She says of the crowds who watch her, “I might even be their weird / little saint, though God knows I’ve wanted everything / they’ve wanted, and more, of course.” One might wonder, while reading through this collection, whether you see Frieda Pushnik and Hart Crane as holding something in common. Would you feel comfortable linking them in some way?
Fairchild: Well, Frieda made her living from appearing in what were called, much to our shame, “freak shows.” Hart Crane, because of his homosexuality in a thoroughly homophobic world (but for other reasons as well) thought of himself as a freak, as he says in my poem about him.
Poems Out Loud: Shifting gears, let’s talk about place. Do you find that living in a particular place—in your case, originally, rural Kansas—affects the mechanics of your art? In other words, does the physical place, the topography, inform the line—the syntax, diction, breaks? Does your physical landscape inhabit the form of your poems at the macro and micro level?
Fairchild: I haven’t lived in southwest Kansas for some forty years, but I can say that its influence on me when I was young and now when I write about it was, and is, profound. But I think that influence is primarily psychological. That is, the day-to-day experience of living in a very flat and relatively featureless landscape fostered not only loneliness, a sense of emptiness, and fits of depression, but a deep need to imaginatively escape it—boredom being, I suppose, the mother of invention. But an actual influence on the way I write poems? The machine shop and the work that was done there had some of that in terms of the love of craft, and I’ve written elsewhere about that, but syntax and line? I don’t think so. The only thing I can think of in this regard might involve my love of metaphor. Local talk, especially oilfield talk, could be quite metaphorical, especially in the use of profanity.