“The Velvet Livingness”
a conversation with Megan Fernandes
by Frances Richey
On a beautiful afternoon in August, 2023, Megan Fernandes and I met for a free-ranging conversation about her new collection, I Do Everything I’m Told, that included her thoughts on the way poets experience time, the many manifestations love can take in our lives and the lives of others, ghosts, erasures, the importance of food as a conveyor of love, the improvisational in poetry and in life, the art of line breaks, the need to believe in people, and so much more. We also discussed one of my favorite poems in the book, “In Death, We Met In Scotland,” where I fell in love with the phrase, “the velvet livingness,” which I associate with the poet, herself. I can’t say it better than the poet who told Megan, “I read your book and it really made me want to live,” except that I would add, it made me want to write!
FR: Stanley Kunitz wrote that most poets have several key images that appear in their poems throughout their writing lives. What are your key images?
MF: That’s a great question. Streets, the moon, bridges, kitchens, hands, rooftops and balconies, cigarettes, the sea, chickens, blue, tombs, churches, space travel, islands, food of all kinds.
FR: Do you have any rituals when you write? A lucky pen or type of pen? A particular kind of notebook or paper? Do you write in cafes or in the attic or everywhere?
MF: In transit quite a lot. On the bus and at airports. I’m devastated to admit that probably a lot of this book was written and revised to and from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC because that’s my commute to/from work.
FR: Do you think your poetry is in any way dangerous?
FR: There is that moment when you just can’t not write poetry. When it’s like true love. And your book, I Do Everything I’m Told, is about love from a lot of different perspectives, and it’s clear, at least to me, throughout the book, how much you love poetry.
MF: Guilty as charged. Guilty as charged. You know I was thinking that it’s almost like there’s no choice. I often want to write something in prose, but you’re really kind of bound by what sound or line or set of rhythms come into your head and you have to put them down, and if you try to ignore that voice, it keeps nagging at you. I have friends who used to write poetry and stopped. But it keeps nagging at them, and I’m always like write it down! Write the poem, write the book. Don’t let it keep nagging at you! It’s not so much a desire but something that’s outside of my control that is yearning for intelligibility and semiotic intervention. Sometimes the line really wants to come into fruition at a particular moment in time and I’m just the vessel or whatever. Poetry really is, among other things, an orientation towards temporality, or towards the temporal dimension.
FR: When you say temporality, and a temporal dimension, what do you mean?
MF: I just think poets don’t experience time the same way a lot of other people do. It’s not necessarily chronological…it’s something that feels ripe with past lives or potential future lives. A lot of poems are written within fantasy structures but we don’t necessarily talk about the temporal dimension of fantasy structures which are kind of like parallel lives that maybe cannot exist, or must only exist in the imagination. For me that’s a kind of multiplicity of time that’s being explored. Or we misremember something from the past that spins up out into a re-narrativizing of how the memory might have taken place.
I’ve been reading some Lorca and his poems about New York City are wild. The city is almost unrecognizable, like a sort of surrealist taking on something as iconic as New York, which should have a steady stream of signifiers, and what does it mean then to undermine that? Like, I don’t know, the ‘glamor of Broadway,’or equally cheesy or cringe signifiers that are associated with the city, what does it mean for someone like Lorca to come in with a whole new set of eerie, supernatural associations assigned to NYC? It’s almost like trying to deflect time because signifiers are only steady because we repeat them over and over again. And repetition is fun, you know?
FR: Do you see some of your poetry as Magical Realism or Surreal?
MF: What I’m trying to do is have a different relationship to reality. I think about emotional realities. I don’t know if that’s magical realism which historically has specific political interventions and my interventions are political as well, but not in the same context. I have my own emotional realities that I’m manifesting in a lot of these poems that sometimes mean that things are nonsensical. Like in the poem, “May to December,” which was published in the New Yorker last year, that poem is moving through sound, and the images are kind of weird and eccentric, and imagistic, and they don’t necessarily make sense. To me this is a mood, an atmosphere there. It’s not necessarily trying to tell you what happened. It’s not adhering to the rules of the objective world as deemed by man, but my own interiority and imagination.
FR: It has been interesting to me in this world of poetry, and coming to it late in life, how sometimes people seem to have a need to put down poetry that’s not in the style they write. A person can like jazz and rock and pop and classical music. Why can’t that be the way of poetry? You like Keats and Simic and Hayes and erasures and rap and hip hop and Mary Oliver…
MF: I like a really wide range of poetry, but I also think it’s important in all art, and certainly in poetry, to have principles. There are principles in poetry that I think, Nope! I don’t believe it. I can’t make room for it. And then there are things about poetry where I’m willing to be more flexible, where I can meet the writer somewhere in the middle and see where they’re going with it. I think you need both.
FR: Okay. Yes. I agree with you on that. Can you give me an example of a principle applied to poetry where you would say no, I don’t believe it, I can’t make room for that?
MF: I’m guilty of using words like always and never and only and even and once in a workshop, Maggie Millner (who by the way, is the smartest person I’ve ever been in a workshop with) said it’s a shortcut to a prophetic voice. It’s almost like a trick, an easy way to sound like you’ve arrived at an epiphany when you haven’t had to get the reader there. It’s something I’ve been more cognizant about; what am I trying to rush? So that’s a principle I’m more aware of upholding, that I don’t get to shortcut.
Another principle I have is a little controversial. If you’re going to write a poem with grandparents in it…I think I have a poem in this collection where I say I hate poems about grandparents, it’s just too fucking easy. The sentimentality is super easy…it has nothing to do with grandparents, it has to do with my thoughts about ancestry and kinship and deified relationships. There’s so much reification of kinship by blood, like poems about children and heteronormative structures. I would love to read a poem where somebody is talking about a grandfather they didn’t like or that they’re ashamed of, you know? That to me is interesting. I’ve written about my grandfather. I loved my grandfather. I had a very good relationship with him before he died. But I also think the poem is not important just because you said the word grandfather. A relationship should be important in the poem without telling the reader why it’s important.
FR: I’m with you. I’m guilty of all those things.
MF: I’m guilty of all those things too.
FR: Just a thought. Sharon Olds has written poems about her father who was abusive to the extreme, and she doesn’t spare the reader those horrifying details. Her father’s father, even worse. I’ve read criticisms of her explicitness, but I love her poems for that, among other things. What do you think?
MF: I think Sharon Olds knows what she’s doing.
FR: I guess when you free-write you don’t worry about it and you go back later and take those things out that violate your personal principles. Is that what it’s like for you to revise?
MF: Most of my poems, I know in the first draft if they hit, and the revisions are more about lineation. Line breaks are something that I overthink and that can then look inorganic. A lot of good lineation is about intuition. And a lot of bad lineation is about intuition you question. Intuition you build after years and years of writing, and reading poetry. Sometimes being overly conscious about line breaks, you can kill the poem. The best thing to do is give the poems to your most elegant friend in terms of the line break. I give my poetry to my friend, June. She writes the most elegant, meticulous lines, but she also knows that we write differently. She can always find the line. She can always find the music. My other friend, Lisa, has a great idea where she thinks there’s one line in every poem that’s the musical key. Find that line and arrange the whole poem around that line. My other homie, Edgar, man, he is a master at his lines. He’ll straight up tell me when I missed an opportunity with a line break. What I’m saying is that when I free-write, my lines are usually correct. But if I’m over-revising and killing the music, I’ll show it to someone I really trust just to become reoriented.
FR: I loved Your Crown-of-Sonnets, especially juxtaposed with erasures of those same sonnets on the facing page. There was something magical about the two versions. What gave you the inspiration to do the erasures of the sonnets, each sonnet facing its own erasure?
MF: The sonnets are following ideas about Freud and the unconscious. The erasures were trying to live in that space of indeterminacy, where meaning is not obvious. It’s more moody. It’s the unconscious of what was said. It’s all mechanisms, no meaning.
FR: There was this moment in one of your interviews where you talked about the natural, the improvisational, and you said something about preferring the messy in your poems.
It reminded me of this quote from Diane Seuss, “What sounds natural, improvisational, is still the product of decision-making and still leads to a consciously made thing.”
Would you expand on your thoughts about improvisation and messiness in your poetry?
MF: Yeah, I know that quote. I sometimes think that poetry is closely related to stand-up comedy. When you listen to somebody do stand-up, it sounds like they’re just talking to you, casually, like a friend, but it’s a pretty tight fit. They understand pacing, sound, have a good sense of when they need to land the joke, the punchline. They know how to build you up in a story and they also know how to loop you back through repetition. It sounds natural, but in reality, it’s a precise craft. Somebody has edited the monologue down to all the information you need to know, and then says it in a way that doesn’t sound like they’ve rehearsed it before.
For me, that’s also the way I teach. I’m high-low. I don’t walk into the room in a blazer and put T.S. Elliot on the board and talk in that modernist kind of cadence. No. When I go into a classroom I’m deliberately low-key. I talk to my students casually. I tell them a joke. I tell them a story. I get them invested in my voice. And the improvisational part comes from that space of comedic timing. Like a lot of the poems are very talky and very funny. But it also comes from this place of wondering how can I deliver something that might be devastating to you, in a way where I’m not devastating you just to devastate you. You’re learning to trust the voice of the speaker. I’m telling you a hard thing, but not to hurt you, just to let you know that sometimes things are hard.
Also, I love Diane Seuss. I think she’s a genius.
FR: I do too, and when I read your poems in APR the first time, I think it was two years ago, I was sitting with a friend at an outdoor cafe, and I read your poems out loud to her, and they kind of reminded us of Seuss, though they weren’t Seuss poems. The subject matter was different. I think it was the fearlessness in your poems, an abandon, a vulnerability, and a commitment to sound and depth. The speaker isn’t hiding. There’s a wildness. And there’s no need to be the hero of your poems.
MF: Maybe it’s a little East Coast kind of energy. A ‘let’s get to the point here, we don’t have a lot of time.’ There’s a sense of the direct.
I’ve been touring with this book and it’s been interesting to see how these poems make sense to other people in other places that are not New York. I always get the laugh in New York. When I read in Paris or LA, well, you know, the poems are deeply referential, and they also have a certain kind of speed and sense of humor that is really particular to a kind of New York or East Coast sensibility which I shamelessly advocate for and am part of. I think that’s something that is not talked about a lot, which is what does it mean to read your poems that are so, I don’t think it’s just American, I think they’re East Coasty in places that are not like that. I gave a reading in Dar es Salaam once. I was so excited to go back there. My parents are from Tanzania, and it was probably among one of my worst readings. A lot of it didn’t translate.
Certain epiphanies come from certain rhythms of speech. And of course, when you go to some places, they have really formal poetry. I had a student once who was from Egypt, and she was like “Why are people writing poems about going to the grocery store?” She was a graduate student and she was genuinely interested because in her education, in her culture, that was not something she was familiar with, the idea of a mundane, everyday adventure.
FR: When you talk about high-low, would you say more about that because it’s a phrase I’m not familiar with in the context of poetry.
MF: I mean I like both high-brow and low-brow things. Like I dig Carvaggios but also cheddar cheese. Taste is socially constructed and often reflects historical wealth and poetry is no exception, it’s sometimes made out to feel alienating to people. And I don’t think that at all. I think poetry is written from the ground, not in academia. When I say high-low, I mean sure, I’ve read in places for hundreds of people, like at an Ambassador’s home in Portugal, but mostly I read my poems in bars for 10 or 12 people. Poetry gets a reputation for being pretentious, but I think in terms of its audience, in terms of people who are really there for it, committed to it, when it’s happening and when it’s done well, it’s usually happening in places that are deeply not-institutional, which is important. It reminds people that it belongs to them.
FR: You once said, “We’re becoming practiced self-branders. It’s kind of gross and unbearably boring.” You talked about liking messiness and fun and ridiculousness in poems, and being allowed to be disgraced. To be given moments of grace in moments of vulnerability. You said, “That’s the poetry community I want. If being a successful poet is measured by one’s ability to be perfectly poised on a panel at AWP or perform banal diplomacy on Twitter, poetry is dead.”
When I read your words, I loved everything you said, and at the same time I felt a little sheepish because when my poems are published in journals or magazines or newspapers, I post that information on social media, and it does feel good, but also strangely commercial.
MF: I’m not against posting things, god knows I’ve been unbearable on social media at times, but also, just don’t be boring, you know? This over-professionalization and language of interventionism, it feels like a lot of people are performing something in line with human resources capitalism and I just think that’s boring. Your time is probably better spent reading or saying something funny. I just don’t like when people have that language of interventionism: ‘Here’s why poetry does matter.’ Well, of course it matters. That just feels obvious.
FR: Does it have something to do with careerism?
MF: I’m not going to say anything about careerism. I’ve been published in the New Yorker, and I’m a tenured professor so it would be hypocritical to say people shouldn’t have careers in poetry, of course they should. But I also think within the poetry community it’s okay to extend grace to people who act crazy sometimes. Poets are supposed to be a little crazed. You don’t always have to be on your game. If you have a bad night, it’s not going to say something deterministic about you. I think people are always trying to be on their best behavior, but we’re artists.
FR: Would you say something about not having to “bleed on the page” for a poem to be perceived as profound? Is it that the publishing world wants something from you…Should a poet open a vein so people will be moved?
MF: That was a quote that was specific to race and what the white publishing industry pays for to make certain poets believable. Sometimes I think POC writers almost have to show a certain amount of suffering, disavow your family, talk about your traumas in a way in order for people to think you’re authentically Brown or Black or a woman or queer. I don’t know. I think it’s something we should be thinking about more as a kind of white, hetero, cis voyeurism. Who’s eating our suffering? I’m not critiquing the writers, I’m critiquing the publishing industry. I think people are being coached to write certain kinds of work. It’s a more systemic kind of critique, like people need to change the economics of the marketplace because the marketplace is a white supremacist playground full of lazy readers who only want their own ideas reproduced in the world.
FR: Maybe for some publishers, sales supersede any other considerations about a book. They look for whatever angle or sensational aspect works…
MF: They also press on wounds and conflicts. But I think there’s a difference between writing that feels titillating and writing that is bluntly truthful. And I think we don’t always know what that is. You know how when you’re reading a poem or a book and you want to keep reading? Where does that propulsion of energy come from? Why do we want to keep reading? Why are we curious about a particular subject? What is it saying about us individually or ourselves as a culture? Maybe we should be asking more writer-oriented questions. Why do we want to read what we want to read? Why are the best sellers on the bestseller list? It’s not good or bad, but I think it’s relevant information. It will tell our culture about its own id, its primal drives for vengeance or desire.
FR: What kind of books do you want to read?
MF: I read widely. I just read the Wendy books, which are these hilarious graphic novel books by an artist in Montreal about an art student who is losing her mind. They’re so much fun and weird. I just ordered a book my friend Sabrina recommended that is like a queer slash-fiction version of Gossip Girl. I just re-read The Little Prince. I’m also reading Lucille Clifton, Jack Gilbert, Edna St. Vincent Millay. I think it’s good to read five or six things at a time.
FR: Somewhere I read that you said something about hoping redemption is possible. I’m wondering how that figures into your own poetry.
MF: I think a poet needs to believe that people can be redeemable. We have to believe in people. I don’t really like poems that are un-peopled, if that makes sense. I need some stakes in the human world.
FR: Do you believe in ghosts?
MF: A hundred percent! Of course! I mean, I don’t know what a ghost is, but I believe in them, I’ve felt presences for sure, and I definitely believe in supernatural energy. Sometimes if you’re thinking about a person a lot, I do think there is some kind of communication that can happen even if you’re not talking to that person. Like, I really feel this person right now! They’re far away! And we haven’t talked! But there’s something there, a channel of feeling.
FR: I got that feeling with some of your poems. There was a certain spirituality, I don’t mean religious, but there’s a certain expansiveness that takes in more than what we can see. I call them visitations. And they don’t happen all the time. Particularly during the years I was a hospice volunteer in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I learned people who have passed will let you know they’re okay.
MF: I also believe in ghosts of the living. People who can’t be in your life anymore but who are alive. There is something melancholic about that orientation. But I also think we keep company that way a lot. We keep a lot of company with people we can’t have in our real lives but we still need to talk to them or we still think about them or carry them with us as a kind of ghost.
FR: Do you do yoga?
MF: I’m not very good at it.
FR: No, that’s not what it’s about…
MF: Every person who’s good at yoga says exactly what you just said.
FR: You know the word Prana, right?
MF: Yes, I know that word. Laughs.
FR: Tell me about love. This is a book about love. And tell me why you switched the original first and last poems from the Advanced Reader edition to the final edition. The poem that was first is last, and the one that was last is first.
MF: “Tired of Love Poems” used to be the last poem, but I put it first because it felt more like an invitation. And I loved the idea of starting a collection with the first line of “Tired of Love Poems.”
But we never tire of them, do we?
Like a question in the face of exhaustion and exasperation, because when you get to your thirties, it’s like mother-fucker, you’ve had enough lessons, enough of a certain kind of “yesterday.” You’re hoping you’ve figured out things that you hadn’t figured out in your twenties. And there’s something so resigned about the line, it’s like, ugh, we never tire of them, do we? And we don’t. People are writing about many manifestations of love for their whole lives. You never figure it out, like we never figure out time or grief, you never really figure out why the seasons feel as meaningful as they do, you know? These are big questions and that poem to me felt more like an invitation.
The first line of the first poem matters, and the last line of the last poem matters. The last line of the book is:
Even though it was ugly, it was joy.
When things are ugly, it’s easy to be like, well that was a f-ing disaster, and then just leave it. But this last poem is anti-masochistic. No one’s going to get punished. I’m not going to punish you in the poem, you’re not going to punish me in the poem, we’re not going to punish each other and I’m not going to punish myself. Even if it was ugly, it was also joy.
It is a book of love poems and sometimes my friends laugh, because in the book there are some revenge poems, some done-with-love poems, but really it’s a book of queer love and friendship poems where the love is not always romantic. And in fact, a lot of the poems are not romantic at all, or they are romantic, but they’re not romantic in the way that I think the culture understands the romantic. I’ve always needed a lot of people in my life. I have a lot of romantic, not necessarily erotic, but romantic relationships in my life that are not necessarily easily legible in terms of the kind of intimacy they’re trying to honor, but they still deserve to be poems.
FR: When you talk about romantic, you’re not necessarily talking about…Well, maybe you are. Romantic love. I mean you’re not talking about the cousin, the best friend… you’re talking about lovers-love.
MF: No. What I’m saying is a love poem is broad. Some of these poems are love letters to my friends. But those friendships are not necessarily neatly just friendships. And sometimes they have romantic aspects to them. Also, separately, there are a lot of poems that are love letters to my sisters or my cousins. I always think about Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem, that great poem called “Sisters.” It’s one of my favorite poems ever.
FR: I love that poem too. The first time I read it I sent it to my friends who are more like sisters than ‘blood’ sisters.
MF: I don’t think there are enough poems that are about the complicated love between siblings. You know how sometimes you go to a family reunion and you have the two cousins that you vibe with? There aren’t enough poems about ‘these are the cousins I vibe with.’ Or like, ‘this stranger on an airplane mattered to me.’ Because all of those things feel like they should mean less than a romantic or erotic love within a heterostructure. I just don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in that.
FR: One more thing. “the velvet livingness” Would you say a few words about that phrase from your poem, “In Death, We Met In Scotland”
MF: Yeah. I don’t know. I think it’s a feeling…a poet I really trust and admire said, “I read your book and it really made me want to live.” That’s the best thing anybody has said. It’s really easy to get into routines and it’s hard to feel the texture of being alive. It’s different for everyone. For some people, it’s putting your feet in the grass. For others, it’s climbing a mountain…
FR: What is it for you?
MF: Probably something a bit manic. Like we’re going to go dancing, but first, the Italian Street Fair, and then we’re going to misbehave at an intersection. It’s about taking the time to look at a painting, or eat a meal that takes six hours. I love food. Taking the time for those sensual things which America is bad at sometimes. That’s the velvet livingness. A way of living that is not about being productive or logistical.
IN DEATH, WE MET IN SCOTLAND
Black beach, tides wild upon us,
the waters carried stunned crabs
to the shores. I knew it could not be earth
by their features and we, too, were distorted
by afterlife. But I held your hand.
Or what I think is a hand.
And you smell like your mother
and it returns, the velvet livingness — present
tension, fights we have on streets,
the red light of an Italian fair
where I rob drinks off drunks and everything
is carnivorous and lit. Our meals. Dancing,
when you get low with boys and I laugh,
room wet with joy at your nerve and swag.
You are now synonymous
with the city, synonymous with symphony,
and so it makes sense to meet
here in solemn asphalt, in death.
I touch what I think is your hand
in the afterlife and recall the story
of your mom, newly divorced,
tucking you into bed on New Year’s Eve
in Oregon. Your little brother, too.
You choked imagining her lonely countdown
and how you had slept so well
through her despair.
FR: Did you say you love food?’
MF: Yeah. I’m an earth sign and I think food is really important. Like I also love watching people I love eat and enjoy what they’re eating. And when somebody makes me a meal, it’s not lost on me. It’s really important. I know what a meal is, what it means. It’s a bit out-of-time. My whole life, I’ve had people who really go all out when they cook. Like they’ll spend a whole day slowly cooking meat for Mexican food or go to six different Korean grocery stores to find the exact ingredient they need. I’m into that energy.
FR: I think I have to go back through your books and find the food places. Which is your favorite of your poems in IDEIT?
MF: In this book, I love “Drive” and “I’m Smarter Than This Feeling, But Am I?” I think one of the knockout poems that never got placed is “Companion” about Verlaine and Rimbaud.
FR: Coming back for a moment to “the velvet livingness.” When I read that phrase, my perception of the velvet livingness was colored by the preceding line:
And you smell like your mother
and it returns, the velvet livingness—
Reading those two lines together, my mind went immediately to the womb, to the inner lining inside the skin. I imagined that kind of light, a kind of living pink transparency…
MF: When you meet the mother of someone you love, it can be dangerously compelling. It can be like time-travel, but it can also make you feel like you owe them the world.
Megan Fernandes is a writer living in New York City. Fernandes has published in The New Yorker, POETRY, The Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, among others. Her third book of poetry, I Do Everything I’m Told, was published by Tin House in June 2023 and named a Best or Most-Anticipated Book of the season by The New Yorker, Vogue, Vulture, LitHub, and Autostraddle. She has received scholarships and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers Conference, the Yaddo Foundation, and the Hawthornden Foundation. Fernandes is an Associate Professor of English and the Writer-in-Residence at Lafayette College where she teaches courses on poetry, environmental writing, and critical theory.