Daisy Fried: On Jesus, Uncertainty, Risk, and Imagination
Interview by Amanda Newell
AN: On social media recently, you said that you’re close to having a new manuscript of poems—or maybe more accurately, that you had written enough new poems for a manuscript. There is a difference! Can you talk about your new work, and what readers can expect from your next book?
DF: I write my books poem by poem. I have never had any success predicting what I will write, or at following a program, thematic, strategic or formal, for my books. So I write until I have enough poems to fill a full-length book, which I think of as a minimum of 50 pages. I think I have about 45 pages. It’s feeling substantial, uncertain, interesting, dynamic. It has to be more so before it’s done. It’s got the eight-page poem you’re publishing at Plume, a 6-line poem that pretends to be about a cat, and a lot of poems in between! I think the longer narratives are increasingly ambitious—I do appear to myself sometimes be trying to write novellas with line breaks! And maybe the shorter lyrics are trying to be increasingly sonically dense, off-kilter and light-footed.
The poems have to be several things for me to want to publish them: I have to believe they’re worth other people’s while to read (I know a poem’s not done if I can’t figure out why anyone would want to read it!). They also need to be Daisy-poems. That is, as I’ve gotten more skilled, I can make a convincing poem shape more easily. But they have to feel like something I needed to write and that only I could write. They don’t all have to be verbal monuments or big statements—I love an amuse bouche of a lyric!—but they need to do something that in some way matters to the way I live in and encounter the world. So I guess there’s both an ethics and an aesthetics to the way I think about a poem’s done-ness. It turns out my poems tend to cohere thematically in book form, because I do use my life and interests in my poems. That’s not to say I write poems to confess my true feelings or tell what really happened—I make up all kinds of stuff. And I’m not trying to get anything off my chest. That’s what shrinks and pals are for!
Many, though not all, of my poems, old and new, have both political/public and personal/private weather in tandem, because those are what I think about a lot. In putting together poems, and in putting together a book out of those poems, I think about how narrative and fragments of narrative, and description, and the kinds of patterned language in poetry that get called music, can work together to help me understand experience, emotion, uncertainty. My poems I think of as finished usually have a mix of seriousness and humor, tonal shifts, varied diction.
I am interested in the way the idiomatic can disrupt the literary and vice versa—because my ears and brain take in all kinds of language, and I’d rather not exclude any of it from poems. I’m probably best described as a narrative poet (I dramatize events and situations in my poems!), but telling the story isn’t the goal. Using story and sound the way an abstract painter uses color and texture and composition is closer to the way I think of the goal.
And when I put together books of poems, it’s the same: How do the different elements—the different poems—their themes and their forms, their sounds and their lengths and moods—talk to each other and contrast and segue across several dozen pages? I’m almost there but the new manuscript still needs something. I don’t know what that something is. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that this uncertainty is absolutely necessary, and I just have to wait and write till I find out.
AN: How would you characterize the relationship between uncertainty and the imagination—and the risks that go along with it? I have always thought of you as someone willing to take risks in your writing— in some ways, “The Deposition” has a similar feel to me as your poem, “Ask the Poetess” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=68613). Maybe that’s because both are sort of playful in how they lay bare the writing process.
But it does seem to me that there is more at stake in “The Deposition,” where part of the premise of the poem is that the speaker/ teacher at a Catholic college likes to get to class early “to take down the crucifix” and hides him in various places in the classroom, like “under the flap you lift to adjust the thermostat/where he vibrates a little when the heat turns off.” I admit—I enjoy the thought of Jesus vibrating!
DF: Your question about uncertainty and imagination makes me wonder if my embrace of uncertainty as process requires imagination to get anywhere with a poem. So much of what we—or anyway, I—do is fidgeting with words and line breaks, wondering where I’m going—but really isn’t that a way of making room for imagination, which likes to surprise us when we least expect it?
I am always uncertain when I am writing, except for those very occasional moments when I am doing what August Kleinzahler called somewhere—also commenting on those moments’ scarcity—”pulling rabbits out of a hat.” My finished poems seem to me some arbitration between accident and intention. When I write a description of my aesthetics and approach for a class description, or job letter, or grant application, I usually say that I value confusion, encourage it, as something to hold onto as long as possible in the writing-and-revising process. I think it might be the only way to make discoveries. I distrust the whole idea of knowing where you’re going.
Even the most documentary writing requires imagination. I did a lot of features journalism in my 20s. I was always describing what I saw, situating what real people said in dramatized scenes. I was being as accurate as I could, because that’s the job of a journalist, but when you’re sitting in front of a computer reconstructing a scene, picking details that will convey the most in the least amount of space, that’s an act of imagination. Memory is an act of imagination too. My poems do sometimes still seem to me journalistic: describing, dramatizing. (No problem looking outward. My biggest difficulty used to be, maybe still sometimes is, turning description into something that is also urgent and personal.)
So even when I’m saying exactly what really happened and speaking in the persona of myself, I’m choosing what to include, what tone to say it in, what shifts to make, what to leave out, when to pattern, when to change anything. An act of artifice, an act of imagination: a leap. So, uncertainty and the invitation to imagination must be preconditions for making poems.
Regarding laying bare the writing process: first, it’s interesting that you call “Ask the Poetess” a poem. You’re not the first person to do that, but it continues to startle me, because it started as a humor piece. I have no objection to it being thought a poem! It just doesn’t exactly feel like one to me, though I don’t worry much about genre distinctions. Christian Wiman, then-editor of Poetry magazine, asked me to write a poetry advice column for a summer humor issue of that publication. I figured I would need a persona to be funny—humor requires that, I think. So I developed The Poetess, a narcissist with a heart of gold, to answer made-up questions. All resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Do you believe me?
AN: While we’re on the subject of risk and risk-taking in poetry, could you speak more about your view of persona in your own work, as well as in contemporary poetry—and also about the idea that if you haven’t lived the experience, you can’t write about it?
DF: The teacher persona in “The Deposition” is probably not much of a stretch from myself. What might be interesting is that I virtually never write from prompts as she does. Here’s what happened: I’d been spending a lot of time on shorter bits and pieces—the Mr. Fisher bit, the tchotchke sculptor bit. They were all separate poems, separate computer files, the stuff we call material. And I liked it as material but wasn’t sure it got far enough all by itself. At the same time I’d been working on the longer narrative about the ROTC kid and the wounding of the young soldier – and it wasn’t working. I think the material about taking down the crucifix was yet another separate attempt at a narrative lyric.
It’s only when I worked the teaching/crucifix/ROTC/Iraq casualty narrative all together and then interrupted it with the other bits, which i subsequently realized I could position as poems written to prompts, so as to fit them into the larger narrative, that the thing seemed to me to take on a life that the individual pieces hadn’t achieved by themselves.
I’m still not sure why it works, if it works. I like not knowing! But maybe it gives complications and layers to the individual narratives/lyrics which they don’t have on their own. The way crazy Mr. Fisher partly comes to be a foil, among other things, over elapsed decades, for the university teacher. The way the sculptor is frustrated, the way the teacher is frustrated. The way public scenes along the river and the airport contrast with the enclosed classroom space. Etcetera. Finishing a poem is often, for me, about disrupting my own intentions—throwing a wrench in the works—“taking,” as the poet Eleanor Wilner once said to me, “your eye off the ball.”
Can you write an experience if you haven’t lived it? That’s both a practical and an ethical question. I’m not sure the characters in “The Deposition” are a propos. At one point my teacher persona writes as a sculptor who is a commercial artist and also plans and dreams about giant ambitious capital-A Art she wishes she were making. So a double persona there, me writing as a creative writing teacher writing as a sculptor. That persona started as a composite of two women sculptors I used to know and got overlain with my own experiences of trying to make a living while trying to make poems, and with the gap between what you might want to achieve as an artist and what you can achieve. I don’t think there were any ethical issues there; if I had said the sculptor was from Vietnam, or was a trans woman, or was in a wheelchair, would it make a difference? Probably not, since I was not interested in her identity but interested in her quandary as an artist, as to economics and as to creative achievement.
It did seem to me there were some aesthetic and ethical questions with regard to the wounded soldier. I didn’t want to write a “oh isn’t it sad” poem about because I’m against poems that are conscious or unconscious displays of the poet’s sensitivity. Though it really was fucking sad, in real life. I also don’t think it’s quite right to exploit suffering for art’s sake. But I do think about my own helplessness and paralysis in relation to the terrible things that happen in the world, and I am distrustful of patriotic displays in support of unjust wars. So I made it about that. I wasn’t writing about him—I was writing about me.
It seemed to me important not to go on too long, to get the right tone, to get out of the way of his characterization enough to let him be a minor character, but not to pretend to make it about him. One of the things one can do in those situations is to allow one’s speaker to be flawed, untrustworthy, complicit—so that it’s possible to be suspicious about anything she asserts about another person.
But the larger question in the literary and art worlds today is generally about the ethics of a white, straight, able-bodied, economically-comfortable writer trying to write experiences of oppressed or marginalized people. There are several questions: should you profit off of other people’s experience? Is there a larger pro-justice aim that’s served in doing that? Have you done it well enough to justify it? When it’s done poorly, it’s a failure of the imagination, a failure of perception, perhaps a failure of humanity, and triumph of laziness, perhaps of dishonesty. None of us wants to commit those crimes, really.
And yet—I say this as a white, straight, able-bodied, economically-anxious woman, so take it with as many grains of salt as you would like—I think it’s better to try and fail to understand another person’s experience than not to try it at all.
AN: You know, you’ve said your biggest difficulty “used to be, maybe still sometimes is, turning description into something that is also urgent and personal.” Not to conflate you, Daisy, with the speaker of the poem, but (here’s where I do it anyway!) . . . I think the speaker in “The Deposition” is, to some degree, working out that tension between the exterior and interior. All good poems do that. Can I say that? Isn’t that the goal?
DF: You can definitely say that—I’m always grateful when anyone says anything about my poems! I think you’re probably right, but that I don’t describe it to myself that way: I think of myself as always trying to connect up personal weather to political weather, or if not explicitly political weather (though the war and army stuff that runs through “The Deposition” is hard not to read as political, maybe?) then what happens to me personally and what happens to me publicly. Are those two me’s the same person? So even if I didn’t actually take down the crucifix every week at the Augustinian college where I teach (I’m not saying one way or another! My colleagues don’t need to know this sort of thing!) the teacher-persona who does that provides a way for me to create friction between what you might call individual versus collective experience. But I think maybe a successful poem does “work out a tension” between opposites—whatever names we might give to those opposites.
AN: I do think there’s a progression towards interiority, or maybe a deeper or different kind of interiority as we move from section to section, no? For instance, the last poem responds to the prompt instructing the writer: “Write a about a life change; no punctuation. Employ metaphor. /Address it to a ‘you.’ Break at least one rule at least once in the poem.”
The lack of punctuation heightens the sense of interiority for me because I think it more closely mimics thought-movement, which is naturally fragmented. Fragmentation, too, seems to be a theme that recurs throughout “The Deposition”—of body, of mind, of lineation (the line break after “suck,” for one example):
it was you and me
the weather too hot to bear and you pushed
the misery forward into something that could be remembered
with a grim fondness let’s just go sleep on the floor
in the living room it’s cooler there let’s just suck
on some ice till our bodies take the cool here
rub some on your wrists let me run
this ice down your body
DF: Huh, I think you might be right. In the prompt resulting in the poemlet in the voice of a sculptor the teacher-speaker takes on someone else’s voice entirely. In the one about Mr. Fisher, the teacher-speaker’s focused on someone else, but speaking as herself. In “Life is So Good Here” she’s creating and scene and looking around and that makes her think about how she feels—so her emotions and uncertainty become focused. And in the final one, yes, this goes on in her head in memory at home, in bed mostly. Seems entirely personal. And rather disoriented and improvisatory maybe, like thoughts…Thank you for saying this because I organized those bits instinctively without ever explaining to myself why I did it that way!
AN: At the end, I love, too, how we get a free-indirect “whiff” of the interior life of the “leafy branches rubbing at/the window let me in”. So we’re everywhere at once—omniscient!—but then, ultimately, “Nowhere. That’s all. Nowhere.”
DF: Oh! Can I get you tell me what I’m doing in my poems more often? Thank you, and I love the way you describe this. What was I thinking with that ending…trying to reconstruct it here. I wanted to open up the poem again at the end—is the way I thought of it—sort of like a release valve, that does that thing we probably want closure to do, which is open and shut at the same time. (The Harry Potter/Golden Snitch ending, I call it: I open at the close…).
I showed an early version of this piece of the poem to my husband, who generally reads my poems in early drafts—it ended with the lines “as I keep rolling the gems, blue red purple,/hand to hand to hand.” He said exactly what the husband in the final draft of the poem says: “what gems? where did they come from?” And I didn’t think the ending as I had it did much but be scenic and a little vague; it needed something else to complicate things. So I just stuck that in, his question, and added my “nowhere” answer.
(Though I actually do know where the gems probably came from, which has to do with my daughter who loves to go to gem stores and touch gems and minerals, the same way she likes to let her snake crawl over her hands “like a liquid,” as she said in life and as the daughter says in the poem. But I don’t want to ruin the everywhere/nowhere dichotomy of the end of the poem by explaining it away, so I hope nobody reads this parenthetical! Since the real story behind the poem is never the same as the action of the poem! But as you can see, I do hoard all kinds of sights and sounds and mix and remix them and just see what happens if I wedge weird stuff together. It’s very confusing! But sometimes some alchemy happens, and then, whoosh!, a bunch of lineated writing transforms into a poem.)
AN: And finally, I’m taking a page from Amy Beeder’s book of interviewing tips and will ask the same question she always closes with: What are you currently reading?
Novels: Just finished Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which was a good read! The woman can do plot. Just finished Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I never read before—superb of course. I’ve never seen female friendship written about like that before. I’m rereading James’ The Portrait of a Lady, for the third time, and reading Anna Burns’ Milkman, which is weirdly and wonderfully written, and very witty and intense and political. Set in Northern Ireland.
Oh, you want to know about poetry, probably? I’ve been spending some of my poetry reading energy on books I’ve assigned to my poetry workshop at University of the Arts of which the two most recent are C.A. Conrad’s While Standing in Line For Death, and Taneum Bambrick’s brand new Vantage, which is a book about work and the environment and a woman working on an all male crew, told in various formats—quite impressive first book. For my other fun, I’ve got on deck Elise Partridge’s The Exile’s Gallery (she’s Canadian), and brand new books by Reginald Dwayne Betts (Felon) and Henry Israeli (Our Age of Anxiety).