David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Claire Fuller’s The Memory of Animal, a beautiful and searing novel of memory, love, survival, and octopuses. Says Lidia Yuknavitch, “The Memory of Animals, creates a world within a world where a young woman marine biologist faces off with a global pandemic and the hopes for a vaccine by diving into her own past. She might retrieve some fragment that could secure self-preservation as well as—if not humanity, then at least the human heart.” The Memory of Animals is out now from Tin House. Today’s conversation with Poet Megan Fernandes, I’m particularly excited to share because of the ways she weaves together the personal, the poetic, and the geopolitical and also because the aesthetics or poetics that she herself values, that she herself embraces and foregrounds are qualities that are not usually put forth as virtues. Her preferences reveal something about the aesthetics and poetics that are put forth as obviously “good ones,” skilled ones, and it reveals a politics behind those sought-after qualities that we might not have seen before, a politics we might not otherwise embrace. Today’s conversation also explores notions of home and belonging but from within a poetics of dislocation, a diasporic poetics, perhaps most of all, this is a border-crossing conversation and collection, one that refuses the confines of nation and nation-states that sides with forces like love and joy that refuse the boundaries between people, between countries, even between species. Lots of writers and thinkers are mentioned today from past Between the Covers guests Karthika Naïr to Meena Alexander to Bhanu Kapil, and as usual, I’ve included the many references that come up today in the email that goes out to supporters, which includes what I discovered in preparation for the conversation with Megan, what we refer to or explore together, and where you might go once you’re done listening. There are many other possible gifts and benefits of transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter, whether the bonus audio archive with contributions from everyone from Jorie Graham to Alice Oswald, Dionne Brand to Christina Sharpe to the Tin House Early Readership Program where you receive 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, and many other things, often things offered by past guests themselves in the hopes that you will support the show. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Megan Fernandes.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest Poet Megan Fernandes has a PhD in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara, an MFA in poetry from Boston University, and is currently an associate professor of English at Lafayette College where she teaches courses on poetry, creative nonfiction, and critical theory. She’s the author of the chapbooks Organ Speech and Some Citrus Makes Me Blue. Of her 2015 debut full-length collection The Kingdom and After, Robert Pinsky said, “Her fresh, embracing imagination attends to several continents, many languages and cultures, with the originality of one who looks at a piano from below, seeing the ‘woody spirit of the instrument,’ its cavern and brackets.” Megan Fernandes was also the Robert Pinsky Global Fellow in Portugal, has been a book reviewer for the Harriet Books blog at the Poetry Foundation website, and has had her poetry published widely from McSweeney’s to the American Poetry Review to The New Yorker. Fernandes’ second book Good Boys out with Tin House in 2020 was heralded by many of our great contemporary poets. Kaveh Akbar calls it, “A staggering text—ferocious, vulnerable, funny, ambitious, and deeply rigorous. What can a poet do for people, for a planet, literally dying of human greed? Fernandes answers: ‘I map / the storms // of the whole world.” Brenda Shaughnessy says, “The poetry of Megan Fernandes gives me courage to get up another day and fight the patriarchy & racist nationalism. Her limitless imagination and beautiful, lyrical, powerful lines are worth fighting for. Everyone should give this book to someone they love, and everyone should love someone enough to give them this book.” Bomb Magazine said, “If Broad City and Carmen Maria Machado had a poetry baby, it would be Good Boys.” Good Boys was a finalist for the Kundiman Poetry Prize, the Saturnalia Book Prize, and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Megan Fernandes is here today to talk about her latest book also from Tin House called I Do Everything I’m Told. Poet and editor of Poetry magazine Adrian Matejka says of this book, “Megan Fernandes is one of my favorite poets because she does things on the page that I and most other poets can’t imagine. Her rhapsodic lineation, her liberated image and metaphor. All that wonder is on display in her new stunner I Do Everything I’m Told. The collection is, at its center, a book of love poems like all the best poetry collections are. The pretense of love, the past tense of love, and what we do when the little galaxies we build with others start to come apart. Fernandes navigates these spaces with the kind of slick wit and care that love poems require: awareness, eros, and utter abandon. Her first two collections showed us the possibilities for a different kind of poem. I Do Everything I’m Told shows us what poetry looks like in the aftermath.” Isle McElroy for Vulture adds, “Megan Fernandes writes beautifully on the thorny relationship between grief, regret, and desire with verse that spans continents and beloveds and alternate timelines. . . . Fernandes’s poems are loving and messy but always precise, her insights the kind that make you reevaluate your entire life. This book captures Fernandes at her most mature, exciting, and brave. I Do Everything I’m Told is a perfect entry point to Fernandes’s captivating and irreverent style.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Megan Fernandes.
Megan Fernandes: Thank you so much. It’s hard not to feel really overwhelmed by the introduction but I really appreciate that. How are you?
DN: [Laughs] I’m doing good. I’ve been looking forward to today.
MF: Me too.
DN: I wanted to start with your poetics. The dedication to the book reads “For the restless” and you’ve said in the past that speed, adrenaline, and improvisation are important ways to understand your poetics. You even wrote a piece called 7 Books for People Who Like Speed for Electric Literature which includes everyone from Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers to Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem to Frank O’Hara who is a polestar poet for you. Your dedication to your latest book suggests that this relation to velocity, to speed, to movement continues but you’ve also said at The Creative Independent that COVID has changed your poetics and your relation to speed whereas pre-2020, you saw New York City as a playground of adrenaline, the pandemic made you slow down and you say, “It made me think about the constraints of the city and I mean that formally, it made me think about what a street is.” At The Adroit Journal you say you’re entering into a new relationship with pause, silence, control, and what goes unsaid. You also mentioned the book being more formal. I would love to hear about speed in its own right, as a poetics, what that has meant for you and how a collection dedicated to the restless does and doesn’t continue the project, as well as what you mean by thinking about the constraints of the city where you say, “(and I mean that formally).” Talk to us a little bit about speed and poetry, and how that speed is speeding along in the new one or not.
MF: Yeah. That’s such a great question. My mind went in 25 different directions. I guess the first thing I should say is that I have ADHD and I have a very quick attention span. I think I’m someone who’s a very associative thinker, so we’ll start on one topic and immediately my brain is just going in a lot of different places at once. I experience a sense of simultaneity with the present, so when I’m in front of something, I’m not seeing something chronologically and narrative has always been a little bit difficult for me, plot is difficult for me because of that. I’m overwhelmed with this sensory panorama. I just assumed everybody experienced the world that way which is what we all do. I’m just like, “Oh yeah, you see it too, right?” Like your head is beating really fast. Good Boys was a way of thinking about being anti-constrained, anti-precise in terms of the way that I was thinking about like this is a lot of count of a line. Some of the lines are really unruly and ungovernable. A book like Good Boys, they almost seem like they’re being driven by a stream of consciousness that it’s literally moving to its own beat. I think I said somewhere like, “This is really anti-colonial because it’s a way of thinking about time in a sense where you cannot control it.” I really do believe that. I think time is something that has been compartmentalized so that we can understand it in terms of order, in terms of geopolitics, in terms of also calling let’s say the Global South lazy, behind, or delayed and thinking about modernity as something that’s fast, progressive, and as David Harvey says, “Compresses time in space.” That book was trying to play a little bit with unruliness and also taking influences from the Black Arts Movement, and from poetry that’s maybe more sermonic to saying that when you come to a line where a lot of things are happening and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, even if the next line isn’t necessarily the most crucial to a sense of the poem, like in Why We Drink, a poem like that, there are some lines in there that are almost trying to stall the epiphany but you can’t get to the epiphany without the stall. The new book is really about trying to foreground what was once background. That’s what I mean in that interview that you quoted from The Creative Independent where I’m in a city, I’m in New York, and all of a sudden, I’m just in my courtyard looking around at all the plants that have always been in my courtyard and being like, “I don’t know what any of these plants are.” [laughter] I don’t know anything about the trees on my street. I don’t really know what the median rent is on the street that I live. I don’t know people who get by. I don’t know the names of certain people who I know who’ve been living on the street at my street. To me, that slowing down is also a form of foregrounding what makes up the ambiance or the atmosphere of the city and realizing that that actually is kind of the city, and moving against the compulsive protagonism that I think sometimes speed allows. If we march to our own beat, if we have our own rhythm in our head, that’s the rhythm and people have to either jump on the train or they have to get off the train. This book is a little bit trying to attend to what I am saying, then also what is the subterranean of what I’m saying. In that one sonnet crown, I have a sonnet, then there are all these erasures and the erasures are really about the subterranean, the unconscious, what goes unsaid, what is not allowed to be foregrounded and just trying to pick up the pieces of what might be missing when we move really fast. I love moving fast, that’s my natural speed but I also think that speed is also capitalism. Do you know what I mean? I’m trying to think about slow time and think about just time a little bit differently.
DN: Well, again, at The Creative Independent, which I think is one of my favorite interviews with you, you speak to another element of your poetics that we don’t often hear put forth aspirationally in poetry which is messiness, which you’ve already alluded to a little bit already. You talk about how you’re against economy in poetry where everything is tight and precise which goes against an improvisational aesthetic. You go on to say that you feel like a poem can feel messy when the reader is walking alongside the speaker of the poem as opposed to a speaker who is omniscient and in a controlled aerial position which makes me think of Jorie Graham on this very thing actually, on the dangers and problems with speaking from above life rather than from within one’s limited embodied self, which to me suggests that your desire for messiness isn’t just an aesthetic but also political, and you’ve already nodded to that already. You say about your own poetry, “I write it with the reader close next to me. I write it with a sense that the flow is going to be a little bit unruly. And I believe in unruly. Philosophically, I believe in it because it’s anti-colonial, and it feels really Global South to me, it feels informal and inconvenient and cognitively disruptive. So for me, that’s very crafted. Improvisational flow is a craft because you need to know how much you can get away with. And what you are trying to get away with is time. Digression. Clearing your throat. Clearing the air. Being against efficiency… which is also a way of being against capitalism.” Those thoughts on messiness make me think of Johannes Jørgensen’s thoughts on excess where he says, “In US poetry discussions, metaphoricity is something that always has to be disciplined from MFA pedagogy to language poetry poetics. It’s the site of potential excess where the books are unbalanced, tastefulness transgressed.” He speaks a lot about how things are policed around tastefulness, so much so that the notion that one should be slow and economical, spare and precise seem almost like a truism in the discourse. But you say in your last book, “But you see, I was seventeen and alone and nobody gave me anything except one book by Dickinson and she was so neat, so precise, so human and I wasn’t. I just wasn’t. I was just a dog. I wasn’t even that good.” I’d love to hear any further thoughts you have about messiness and also like speed, how your new book either extends this relationship or departs from messiness.
MF: I’m against mastery, I’m against the idea that poets need to be super professionalized, I’m against disciplinarity in all interpretations of that word because I think it’s bad for poetry, both the craft of poetry and I also think it’s bad for the world and life of poets and poetry. Then I love what you said about excess because I do think that there’s this idea of being the unruly subject, being abject, being outside of the container of oneself, being boundless, and being in relation with the world in a way where your body, your poetics, your language, your emotions spill over of what is tasteful as you said or what is appropriate or acceptable demonstrates or shows those drives within us that are unable to be regulated. I think that there’s a lot of truth in those drives. I think that we have created a lot of taboos in society and are controlling those drives. I remember reading Dickinson. As a young kid, it was one of the two books that I had on my shelf. My parents had Kahlil Gibran and they had Dickinson, really randomly. [laughter] I just remember being like, “Okay, she’s really tight in her poetry and she’s so declarative.” There was something really unrelatable about it to me because I am more neurotic in my thinking. I think, then I unthink, then I overthink, then I change what I think and I think I’m a very impressionable person in a good way, in a bad way but meaning like an idea comes to me and I really do entertain the idea about the world, about myself, about somebody else. I think that if we had that freedom in poetry, even the permission to be like, “I’m going to be a little bit messy here,” and I’m showing almost like as an ars poetica the way the process of thought is messy. The ways also that in modernist literature, there was a kind of artifice of mess. Like every chapter of Ulysses was an experimentation with excess, with mess, with different forms of stream of consciousness again. I don’t know. To me, it’s in a way a really old modernist idea which is like one should be able to be imprecise, unruly, and not exacting on the page because that actually shows you what is a semiotic failure, what is the failure of language. It never captures grief. It can approximate it but what do we show on the way to the approximation of grief? That’s why I love poets. I love Whitman, I love Ginsberg, and I love O’Hara who you can see how they think. To me, that was really important. Then for this book, I think Etheridge Knight and Gwendolyn Brooks were really important for this book, Gwendolyn because she’s so tight in her early career, then there’s something that happens later in her poetry where she’s allowing herself to change her mind about things. Again, the Black Arts Movement was just for me a place where improvisation meant like it was anti-formula, it was like, “Hey, the epiphany that you think we’re going to arrive at is not the same as the Gentile tradition.” It’s not what is not always going to be in the line that you think it’s going to be in, and that also there’s so much that potentially can happen in terms of interpretation with some mess in it.
DN: Well, we have a question for you from the poet and novelist Hala Alyan. I think this is a good place for her to ask it since we’re looking at a little bit of a shift in your poetics between books, still speed and still messiness but maybe more constraint and formal containment than Good Boys. Here’s a question from Hala.
Hala Alyan: Hi, lovely Megan, it’s Hala. My question for you today is which poem did you have the most difficult time with? Which one gave you the hardest time? I feel like most difficult often means richest but it could have been in terms of conceiving it, writing it, editing it, and finding a place for it within the collection. I can’t wait to hear your answer. Love you.
MF: Oh my God. I love her and I love her voice. Thanks for that question, Hala. Two things. As a set of poems, I think the crown was the hardest thing I’ve written ever. It took me an embarrassing long time to write that. I revisited those poems, I gave those poems to people I really trusted and one of them said something really helpful to me. They’re like, “You can’t tell if the city is the beloved because every poem in the crown is a base of a city,” so there’s a Lisbon sonnet, there’s a Shanghai sonnet, there’s a Philadelphia sonnet.” They’re like, “I can’t tell if the city is the beloved or if the beloved is the beloved in the city.” I was really struggling with that because I think that those poems really are about diaspora and what it’s like to move through a set of seven really different cities, a lot of them have different relationships to empire but also to be able to talk about love. This is something I think about all the time as a person of color writing right now is just sometimes, I just want to write a love poem and not have to contend with the zeitgeist, not have to have the ceiling of the zeitgeist so low where I feel like what I’m answering to is the low ceiling of the zeitgeist and not the beloved of the poem. I was struggling with the triangulation, what the moment is asking of a lot of poets, particularly poets of color, my own personal desires, then what was actually coming out in the poem which was some kind of mixture, a struggle with both. I look at that crown and I’m like, “This isn’t about diaspora. This isn’t about race,” then I’m close reading that poem and it’s like, “Nobody told me how to raise a dark child.” The speaker knows that certain people have to break rules in order to love her, so there’s just this contention with being a dark-bodied person, being seen differently, having unintelligible love stories, having to compartmentalize a lot in order to move through the world and just psychologically, I don’t know if you know this but Hala is also a therapist.
DN: No, I didn’t know that.
MF: Psychologically, I think those were the hardest poems to write, then the erasures which were the sight of some unconscious were also really difficult to try and figure out what was the thing I wasn’t really saying, how can I say it in really [inaudible] lens. Then I would say secondly is the first poem of the book which is now Tired of Love Poems. I really struggled with the third and fourth line of those poems because I was like, “What is the poem really trying to argue?” I think that poem says something like, “We wish to worship more than just each other. We write a sonnet to a bird or sometimes a tree.” We have all these grand signifiers that we love to write about like bird poems and the tree. I’m like, “But what are these really stand-ins for?” Unfortunately, we know what these are stand-ins for and it’s often a thing that cannot love us, a person who cannot love us. It’s so boring, it’s so cliche, and it’s so annoying. Here I am writing about this whole book and here we all are writing love poems.
DN: Well, I just got the final copy of the book yesterday, so I’ve been working off the galley, so I just opened it when you were talking. I’m like, “Oh my God, you switched.” So Tired of Love Poems in the galley was the last poem and Love Poem was the first poem but now it’s reversed. They’re still bookending the collection. Is there anything you wanted to say about flipping them between the galley and the final?
MF: It’s so funny. I’ve been reading the Inferno and I’ve been watching these lectures online. There’s this professor from Yale who was like, “Does anybody know why it’s called The Divine Comedy?” I was like, “Actually, no because it seems like a bummer, why is it called The Divine Comedy?” [laughter] He said something like, “In terms of genre, a comedy is that which begins in disorder and ends up in order, and a tragedy is something that begins in order and ends up in disorder.” If you think about that from a Shakespearean point of view, it’s actually really helpful and true. The Divine Comedy begins in disorder but ends up obviously in paradise and order. When I was thinking about the bookends for this thing, I’m like, “Okay, Tired of Love Poems, that begins in a kind of like the title is disordered but the poem is actually you approach on a red bike in summer, then the Love Poem looks like it’s going to begin in order but actually the last line is, “Even if it was ugly, it was joy.” I think to me I was trying to think about, “Where does the book begin? Where does it end?” I wanted it to subvert both of the genre, kind of expectations of what that arc might look like. It felt more like an invitation to me to begin the poem in exhaustion, to be like, “Listen, it’s a love poem book, guys. I know you’re all tired of this b*llsh*t but this is not a book that’s geopolitically going to change the world, whatever. This is just a book about feeling in love, feeling rejected, and being humiliated and desire as deeply instructional.” I don’t know. I think it’s better to begin the book in exhaustion and end the book being like, “Well, it was exhausting. But it was still pretty f*cki*ng great.” [laughter]
DN: Well, let’s hear a poem. I was going to suggest possibly Drive. It felt like maybe one example of a poem that works against efficiency.
MF: This is my favorite poem in the book. It was a super last-minute edition. Yeah, I feel like that’s a lot of pressure now that I said that out loud. Okay, so this is Drive. I just want to say when you’re a young person, David, you look at self-help books and you’re just like, “This is so funny and ironic,” and you’re super whatever, then when you’re in your 30s, you’re like, “I’m going to try and buy all of these books and listen to them, and hope that I just come out better.” [laughter] Something you made fun of you start doing earnestly. At the time, I was reading Russell Brand’s, the British comedian book, so that’s all you need to know about this poem. Okay. Drive.
[Megan Fernandes reads a poem called Drive]
DN: We’ve been listening to Megan Fernandes read from her latest book I Do Everything I’m Told. You’ve described the lives of your parents as messy and illegible insofar as identity politics in the US seeks to reduce the complexities of diaspora and colonization into something legible and more easily understood. Here again, I think of excess and Johannes Jørgensen’s line about translation, “Translation troubles borders, makes versions, creates excess. Translation unbalances the books.” It feels like you’ve done something unruly with your poetry in the spirit of your impossible-to-categorize identity. Your family are East-African from Tanzania but of Goan origin, so their ancestors are from the once Portuguese colonized Southwestern province in India but the complexity just begins there. They were part of a Christian minority in their small town in Tanzania, 90% of their neighbors were practicing Islam. You have family in Africa and Zanzibar, Mainland, Tanzania, Uganda, family in India, in England, the Cayman Islands in Australia, and New Zealand. Different grandparents of yours spoke Portuguese, English, Hindi, or Konkani and you yourself were born in Canada but grew up in the United States. I suspect you were frequently mistaken and probably continue to be mistaken as Hispanic due to your name of Portuguese origin. I’m going to read a couple of excerpts from your essay Obama in Kenya: Geographies of Diaspora in Four Movements where you are attending your Aunt Bessie’s funeral in London where you say of your father, “When he speaks Swahili, it is as if he’s been keeping a secret from us his whole life,” then later about yourself you say, “You are Indian, but you must explain your Portuguese last name, your parents’ British accents, your parents’ Swahili tongue and Hindi ignorance, your white as fuck first name given to you by your parents who liked a character in the TV show, the Thornbirds,” which is just amazing, [laughter] “You are Indian, but your mother is third generation Tanzanian, your father grew up in Tanga and never visited India until he was in his 40s. You are Indian, but no, you are really Goan. You are Goan, but someone once told you that this means you are white Indian, but black Portuguese. You are not Portuguese, but your grandmother only spoke Portuguese and Konkani. She refused to speak English or Swahili. You are not Portuguese, but your aunts and uncles are all named Zelia, Maria, Luis, Teresa, Evaristo, Zerina, Basila. You are not. You are not. You are. You are.” To me this is another way to understand your dedication to restlessness, to this constant movement of your family as a poetics that troubles nation, borders, race, language, and identity, the ways your own family does. I don’t know if that’s too reductive of a connection but you also have a line in your work that isn’t incompatible with this framing but I think adds an interesting additional complexity to it, a line that goes, “I don’t believe in kin by blood.” I was hoping you could talk to us about family, family by blood, about diaspora in relation to your poetics a little bit more, and how kinship that isn’t predicated on blood relates to this illegible identity.
MF: Thank you for that question and for, again, reading those passages a lot. I haven’t thought about that essay for a while. I think somewhere in there I say like part of the diaspora is that you go and you bury people in the suburbs of Global North cities, and that was definitely true of going to my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and just being like, “What is London to us?” I think the opening about the epigraph is from a book The Hadrami I believe that says something like, “Nation state is where you’re born and diaspora is where you die.” I’ve just been thinking about the mortality of a certain generation, my parent’s generation right now where my aunts and uncles are dying, how far it is from home, that sense of longing, that sense of invention that one has to have with their childhood. It’s funny you’re asking this because just yesterday, I was with my dad and I was like, “Where do you feel the most at home? Do you feel the most at home when you think about India?” which again, he didn’t go to in his 40s, “Or when you think about Tanzania or when you think about England, you came of age in England,” he moved there when he was 17 to go to school. He was really thoughtful. He said something like, “All of them, all of them at once.” Obviously, when you have a childhood, you re-experience those kinds of precious memories. But one thing I’ve noticed, there’s a lot of older family members, once they get to a certain age where they’re becoming a little bit more, I don’t know what the word is, disoriented in terms of where they are and where they think they are, they’re always like, “I’m ready to go home.” [laughs] By that, a lot of them do mean back to Tanzania or if they were in Tanzania, back to India. To me that idea of a return, that is one of the heartbreaking parts of diaspora and also one of the major fictions and myths of modernity and the idea that people are trying to leave the Global South to come to the Global North for all sorts of reasons that extremely narrow-minded, mostly conservative people think they are as if the Global North is the site of everything possible which it isn’t. I think by kinship, kinship by blood, I just have a very, very big group of friends that I’m really close to, and in some ways, I’m closer to than a lot of members of my family who know me and know parts of me that I will never be able to fully express to my family. I think that going back to poetics, I don’t know if you’ve read Glissant’s Poetics of Relation where he has this concept of opacity. To say that you love someone because they are eligible to you is easy because you can see them, and they relate to you. But to say that you love someone where you cannot understand them, where they have no stake in your livelihood for any other reason than they love you, I think that to me is much more radical. It is. I think also the discourse of ancestors is really interesting and it has become very prevalent right now. I’m very wary of any kind of language that deifies, in an abstract way, anything. The movement between the deification of a people versus the mythology of a people, I think that space is tricky. In this poem, I’m also just laughing at the idea of being like there’s a poem where I wake up naked in Bushwick on a roof and I’m like, “Oh my God.” [laughter] My ancestors aren’t taking my f*ck*ng phone call, David, for that. [laughter] I know [inaudible] of them, they’re not taking that phone call. They’d be like, “Get your ass home, get an order, get yourself together.” There is also this way of being like I’m forever parented by the ancestors who probably don’t even understand a lot of what my contemporary life is and that’s also funny. Also, these are sites of misunderstanding, illegibility, and humor. I don’t know if that answers your question.
DN: It does. I want to spend some time later or maybe now just as a beginning around how you enact kinship in the realm of poetry and poetics. But in the spirit of kinship beyond blood, I think a first step to that would be to spend some more time with the sonnets, the sonnets that you call the Sonnets of the False Beloveds with One Exception OR Repetition Compulsion. It’s the place that’s both the most formally legible of your poems and that travels the world— Shanghai Sonnet, Brooklyn Sonnet, Los Angeles Sonnet, Lisbon Sonnet, Palermo Sonnet, Paris Sonnet, Philadelphia Sonnet, and Wandering Sonnet—but also, as you’ve alluded to, it may be the place in the book that’s the most formally illegible at the same time because of the facing page of each sonnet and its accompanying erasure poem of that sonnet. But to put aside the erasures, which I want to talk a little bit more about with you for a minute and also, we have a question for you about the erasures, so putting aside the erasures for a second, I want to hear about the sonnets and this most formal aspect of the book. I don’t know if it’s related to the way you notice constraint of the city under the lockdown. But why did you want these poems to assume a formal constraint around these cities and why sonnets, if there is a reason for these being sonnets versus villanelles or some other form?
MF: First of all, repetition compulsion, I mean I’m sure most people know what it is but it’s like Freud’s most basic 101 theory. I was going to my therapist a lot and thought I was super complicated. I was like, “I’m definitely the most complicated, interesting patient this therapist has.” I took PhD, I’ve read a lot of Freud, Lacan, and Melanie Klein and I re-read the Pleasure Principle essay. [laughter] I was like, “Oh, I am the most basic b*tch in the world.” [laughter] It was so embarrassing, David. Basically, the idea is like when a kid throws an object across the room, it freaks out because it’s not with him, then the primary caregiver or somebody in the room brings it back and he’s so excited, then he throws it again, then you just want to kill yourself because they’re like, “Why is this kid doing that?” Freud basically argues the kid is practicing abandonment and the neurotic pain that comes from that abandonment, then the joy of the reunion, and is willing to stand the abandonment of the toy or the separation from the toy in order to get the pleasure of the reunion. Most behaviors that we repeat, so any young people out here are just trying to check yourself, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, and you don’t notice it’s a pattern until you actually stop and you’re like, “This is a pattern that I have. Let me try and figure out what psychic drama I’m trying to understand,” then that can lead you to thinking formally about what actual repetition does. Repetition to me is like you do something over and over again because you can’t figure it out. It’s like you’re stuck and you need to find a way around it, and you can’t. It’s also based of course on trauma which is we repeat things over and over again because there’s something that happened to us that maybe we can’t even access, it’s below the surface of what we can access. It made so much sense to me that this had to be a crown because I was going around all these different cities and a lot of the things that were happening were similar. I was like, “What is wrong with me? What’s going on with me that it doesn’t matter where I am?” This is so me. I’ll be in a city and I’m like, “It’s the city. It’s not me. Boop, I’m going to a different city.” I don’t have any children, I don’t have a mortgage, I have no wealth accumulation, I have no car, I own nothing but my whole life is based on being able to get on a train, a plane, or whatever. I’ve built my life around running or spontaneity, whatever you want to call it. No matter where I was, it was me who kept doing these things. I was like, “Okay, what’s happening here?” I cast beloveds, I kill them off too with just this idea of object replacement, beloved object replacement, and thinking about, “Why so many poets use beloveds as plot devices and how that’s colonial and sh*tty when we can make beloveds do whatever we want? Why aren’t we thinking about that more?” Then the opening and the last line, it forced me to think through what is not just the origin but where is the trauma of the psychic world getting caught. Then the last sonnet which is the Wandering Sonnet is like the seven lines of the repeated lines, then an answer to the line. I think that last one is like, “I cast beloveds. I kill them off, too,” then the answer to that line is something like, “I am a beloved. I keep mine too.” They’re almost like these reparative lines. Then not in the galley but in the actual finished product, there’s also a diaspora sonnet where they have all the erasures and almost this Diane Seuss-looking sonnet that are these long run-on sonnets, then at the end, it’s all these verbs.
DN: Just like the Wandering Sonnet is different than a lot of the other sonnets, the scattershot verbs, the active verbs at the end, they’re not really like the other erasures, “I cast,” “We make,” “I lose,” “you are” blown across several pages. What is going on there?
MF: I was reading Carson’s on Bittersweet, the Eros the Bittersweet. She writes a lot about love triangles and the triangulation of the lover, the beloved, then the object between them and how you can’t desire what you already have, then she says something which of course is like the epigraph of the section like, “Eros is a verb.” What longing is is the inaction of agency that takes place in the verb and how childlike that is. If you’re around kids, they’re just like, “I want, I need, I want,” but then also trying to figure out that their arm is not like the chair and the mirror stage of them like, “I am. I am. You are. You are.” It’s that trauma of separation from whoever they’re around where they become a cohesive subject but it’s also always that kind of management of agency and desire that you have which you’re just constantly enacting verbs and action, even if you don’t have the agency to do that. I wanted to see what the poem was actually doing if you took out all the other clauses and it was just you and me, like me and the beloved in a room. It’s like, “I am, you pour. I think, you scare. I sink, you insist.” It almost is enough where you can already tell what the dynamic is between them and you don’t even need any of the context if that makes sense. It’s a decontextualizing moment of thinking about Eros. Eros doesn’t need a lot of context. It’s mostly like singing your desire into the world and everybody’s desire typically is they follow this formula.
DN: I love that. Well, let’s step back into the crown of sonnets and into the erasures of most of the sonnets. Here’s a question for you from Eleni Sikelianos.
Eleni Sikelianos: Hi, Meg, it’s Eleni. It was so fun to read your book which was being gifted with explosive party favors throwing confetti in the air but at the same time, secretly testing the limits of time and space. Here is a question for you. Tell me what you’re up to or after in the erasures and re-gatherings you do in the false beloved section sonnets. I really love that section. The poems seem to exist in both apophatic and kataphatic space, offering, divulging, taking back, diverting, reconstituting. I’m curious about your process and what you were thinking about in the formal gestures.
MF: I love Eleni’s work so much. Eleni is also one of my first poetry loves I should say. I’m so thrilled that she was given an opportunity to ask a question. Thank you for that question, Eleni. One thing I was thinking a lot about is prepositions actually and how prepositions are really orienting the word under or in, and what it means to be oriented and reoriented within the poem but then also to distill out not the thesis topic of the poem because I don’t think that’s even possible, almost like the rhythmic undercurrent of the poem to see a more naked version of what might be the question of that poem. If you look at something like the Palermo Sonnet which really is about me and a friend being in Palermo, and being surrounded by men who couldn’t understand what our relationship was, sort of been in spaces where we had to change the way we were behaving or think a lot about our relationship to masculinity in a different city which is also something gender and sexuality are so immutable in these situations, then the erasure of it is really just about that place that you go to when you go to that space of shame, like how to raise a child underwater for me was really about like, “Oh, this is about queerness. This is about queerness and shame. This is about having to pay for that.” You’re always paying for that even if you’re not paying for that to your parents, then it’s like in a wild fear, men pay our fathers like insist, like this way, you’re always paying for feeling abject or feeling you’re not quite fitting at a certain mold of femininity or of the performance of gender. Me and this person who’s the beloved in the poem, we always joke, we were at a table once and we were the only two women there, and they’re all men around us and this person is actually a big deal, she’s a big deal artist. I’m not nothing. I was also a professor at the time and nobody asked us a single question at the table, then she just screamed across this long table of men like, “Megan, what do you do?” Then we started screaming across the table and I was like, “Eliza, what do you do?” [laughter] People thought we were crazy.
DN: Yeah. I love it though.
MF: The erasures are really about like, “Where is the behavior coming from? Where did we learn it? What’s the undercurrent of the way that we act?” I really do think women in particular are socialized to be actresses in order to make other people feel okay, to take care of people, and to do a lot of emotional labor. It’s a little bit like, “Is it a persona or is it like a persona that we can step into and have to step out of depending on a violence that we perceive around us?”
DN: Yeah. Well, could we hear the unerased Palermo Sonnet, then the unerased Paris Sonnet so we could hear how they’re related to each other, how all of them are typically related to each other? Then I want to talk to you about the connective tissue between the sonnets.
[Megan Fernandes reads from her latest book from Tin House, I Do Everything I’m Told]
DN: We’ve been listening to Megan Fernandes read from her latest book from Tin House, I Do Everything I’m Told. When you were talking about the sonnets using the framing and language of Freud, I came up with a different one that I want to propose, not an incompatible one but just an entirely different one and I want to hear what you think about it.
MF: Let’s go. I love this.
DN: Alright. If one just glanced at the table of contents from your three books or the places referenced one poem to the next, one might think you were a jet setter, that this was simply a book of global travel from one great city to the next. But I feel like the way the last line of one city’s sonnet gets pulled into the first line of the next city sonnet or becomes the seed from which the next emerges is enacting something, obviously poetically but I think politically also, that perhaps like Eleni mentioning first the sense of explosive party favors but then really the undercurrent of testing the limits of time and space, the book is doing something deep, not that a book about love isn’t enough but I think you are underselling the various things that this book is doing and this is one that I really loved. The pulling of lines from one sonnet to the next made me think of another book and it’s one that you’ve reviewed A Different Distance which is co-written by past Between the Covers guests, the Poet Karthika Naïr and the poet and translator Marilyn Hacker. They wrote it in the depths of lockdown, so even though they lived in the same city, Paris, they were really experiencing a different distance. They might as well have been on opposite sides of the globe. The pandemic had changed their relationship in a way that I think we can all relate to both space and time. To close that distance, they decided to not only collaborate on a book but to use a collaborative form, the 700-year-old Japanese form called the renga where one poet writes the first stanza which in the most traditional version would be 3-lines long with 17 syllables, then the next poet adds the second stanza which would be a couplet with 7 syllables per line and so on. Typically, the newsstand is written as if it leaps from the stanza preceding it in order to create a link. For Karthika and Marilyn, that manifested like your sonnets with a word in the last line of one poet stanza finding itself in the first line of the other poet’s subsequent stanza. It feels like in a way, you’re writing your renga between cities rather than between people, not simply moving from place to place but doing a stitching together that reminds me of this notion of kinship not associated by blood. But I wondered if this is feeling like a stretch or if I’m reading too much into it to think that there’s something you’re doing formally beyond sonnets that is about the project of kinship and family that isn’t family by blood.
MF: Hugely, I mean in that way, I think it’s a queer kinship crown which is like, “Here are the ways that I’ve learned about something that maybe I should have learned about elsewhere or I was told I was going to learn in one setting and now this is the setting where I’m learning it.” I’m purposely being abstract just to be protective. I just want to clarify. I’m like, “Oh, it’s love poems, blah- blah-blah.” I think it’s the most complicated thing in the world. I think that love, desire, time, seasons, and grief are all the things we have and have not figured out. Sometimes I feel like we’re in a moment where we want our books of poetry to almost enact essays, like what essays do. They need to have arguments. They need to be ideological. I just am a little bit of a sloppy philosopher where I’m just like, “Well, I think this one day, then I change my mind. Here’s why I came to this idea.” I think that to me there’s something a lot more honest about that way of moving through epistemologically, what’s possible to know about the world. I don’t think what you’re saying is a stretch at all. Definitely, it’s about this collapse of time and space but it’s also a little bit about like I think about that Tommy Pico line where he’s like, “I want to think about a curiosity that’s not colonial.” I have that line in my head every time I go to any Global North city that has a history of empire which is a lot of the poems in this book and just think about like, “Well, what do we mean in terms of this hemispheric analysis? What are we actually saying in terms of the people of color communities that live there, like the Paris Sonnet where the beloved and myself are also people of color.” Well, I guess what I’m saying is we are constantly creating borders, creating understandings of the nation in order to understand violence and understand the way the world has been made into what it is. I think a lot of books have been doing that and have done it really well. I’m trying to think a little bit about boundlessness and what happens when those boundaries, and nation-states collapse under love, desire, or longing, which can be violent, of course, but where the thing inside you also travels with you, which is what I think diaspora is. It’s like being outside of the nation-state but also mobilizing a lot with you and a lot of what is with you also changes based on the new place. What you’re left with is a kind of boundless subject position which is made up of every place you’ve ever lived, every place you’ve ever fallen in love, every place you’ve ever made a mistake or let somebody down, as one of the poems says. But not only that, all the places your parents have been, your cousins, and your sister, and then also on top of that, all the people who are not related to you and are not family who you can make a home within their kind of space, if that makes sense. There’s a hilarious, it’s not in the book but something that happened between me and one of the beloveds in the book where we were in Southern Italy, which is another thing that’s interesting is a lot of people are like, “Ooh, Europe.” I’m like, “Have you been to South Italy? Have you been to Palermo which has been colonized by literally everyone and it’s such a mixture…” There’s something also that’s trying to complicate I think what we understand of as Europe as the seed of empire. It’s like okay, it is that but there’s a lot of people of color there and these cities are extremely complicated and have different and really complicated histories of conquest, of abjectness, and they have their own race politics. As a person who’s from a family not from the US, I think sometimes the US race politics model can feel really like it’s one model and there’s a multiplicity of other models out there. I was in the south of Italy with a friend and we had to go pick up the keys for a house. I’m like, “Okay, well,” in my New York [inaudible] like, “We’ll go pick up the keys, that’s going to take five minutes,” and she was like, “Megan, we’re in the south, if you pick up the keys, it’s going to take an hour because they’re going to make you coffee, you’re going to have to ask about their mother,” the slow time, the idea that you don’t make efficient all of your intimacies and to me, I’m like, “Right, that to me is very much a hemispheric understanding the south everywhere of no, being anti-speed in that way.”
DN: I was reminded of something you said in your essay about the Poet Meena Alexander, which I really loved. You say in that essay, and I think this relates to the stitching across cities also around the diaspora politics, “Here, Meena demonstrates a poetics of dislocation that was not based in the amnesia of lost, fractured, or forgotten homelands, but rather on the intrusion of those fragments into life. This is an important distinction: to think of a continuity that interrupts. It sounds, almost, paradoxical. But she would move in elliptical leaps between a vivid scene in New York to a train in India, a boat ride across the Indian Ocean to the ‘rim of the South China Sea.’ And then she would interrogate herself as to how these juxtapositions made up a life, made up a consciousness.” That’s just brilliant, this continuity that interrupts, this flipping of what it means to, and you just mentioned that as well or evoke that as well with this sense of boundlessness, almost like a holographic sense of identity where you’re containing everything. But could you speak to Alexander’s influence on you if she has an influence on you as a writer?
MF: Oh, my God, yeah, hugely. I was so devastated after she passed because we never met but she was somebody that I picked up when I was in graduate school. I entered my PhD when I was 22 and I really loved her work, particularly The Shock of Arrival. I was actually thinking a lot about shock at the time and about rupture both in narrative studies, also trauma studies, and what shock tells us about time, which is it points out what time is because let’s say it’s like, “Okay, I have to meet you at 1:00 PM today,” time is linear and I know what 1:00 PM is but when things shock you, they actually take you out of time and space and you’re able to look at time and space, which is why when we’re in periods of shock, we do experience time differently, either it’s a really long and generational, it’s like psychotically clipped, or we wake up in a space of disorientation. I think that she was really able to theorize a kind of disorientation for me in terms of shock, both in the shock of going back home. I remember being in India when I was young enough to be like, “Oh, my God, this is not home,” but old enough to remember it, taking a ricksha in Mumbai, just being really like, “Oh, sh*t, nobody’s following traffic laws,” and being really in this world that was so different than the world I was living with at home. To me, I felt really guilty about that. It felt even at the time that to be shocked by things that were part of you, because of course, that was part of me, what felt always really disingenuous and inauthentic and then I would have to try and re-narrate that to myself and be like, “Well, why is it?” Of course, it’s shocking. I grew up in Canada and from Philly. What do I actually really know about Mumbai? I’m talking to my cousins. You always feel inauthentic when you’re a person who comes from a lot of places and you can never feel like you can speak on an authority on anything. That ability that she has in that book and many of her books where she’s just like, “I had this experience and this experience,” and experience is a kind of authority and a kind of, as we said, stitching together of many chronologies and histories, that was very helpful for me. I also think in that essay, there’s this part where she’s like, “I want to introduce people from different centuries who I love.” I feel that way all the time where I’m like, “Man, I really wish I could get this character in the room with this other character. Or I wish I could get this poet in a room with another poet and I wish time was not a constraint where that mattered or space or nationality or gender or race.” I’ve been rereading actually a lot this past year Notes From Underground of Dostoevsky, and I was just like, “I just want to pull up a chair with that motherf*ck*r and ask him some questions about one of these scenes.” The scene of humiliation of the girl character in the book and something really modern about it is something really aware of what the character is doing is humiliating a woman because he feels humiliated and yet there’s something really age as old as time about the scene too. Yeah, I don’t know, it comes from also a desire to speak across time and difference. Boundlessness is also a way of trying to make difference something that doesn’t have to cut us off from each other if that makes sense.
DN: I bet you have read The New York Times By the Book column when they asked the writers who are going to be at their dinner party, and you have answers for that?
MF: Absolutely, but it changes. It really changes and sometimes it’s like someone who’s recently deceased. I think of Meena and then I also think of someone like Franz Wright who I think is an incredible poet but is somebody who I think maybe had a reputation for being a little bit surly sometimes and he’s somebody I met, we smoked a cigarette together once and there were all these things I wanted to ask him that in life I could never ask him but that may be in a death dinner party I could ask him.
DN: Well, one thing I noticed as a reader of your poetry is a sense of feeling at home in it. I think part of it is this continuity that interrupts that crosses borders. There are elements that feel almost utopian to me, not a family across the world but a chosen family where you are, that is every religion, every race, every gender, which gets enacted also in all the meals, which I love, like you’ll be drinking a Mexican beer while eating Vietnamese food. But also there’s a political connectivity or awareness too, like in Good Boys visiting Anne Frank’s house but being aware that it’s happening at the same time as the US is starting to bomb Syria. Reading your poetry is similar to my experience of New York in the sense that I felt very out of place and othered growing up in Colorado and I didn’t have a language for it or an understanding of it entirely. I hadn’t spent any time in New York City until I was an adult, and in my mind, it was an intimidating place notionally. But when I went in my 20s, there was this uncanny comfort that I felt immediately there. It’s not just there for me, I actually also feel it in Italy and in Mexico City and other parts of Mexico, but weirdly, even though the life you portray in your work isn’t anything like mine, I somehow feel a part of it as I read it. It is the world in many ways I would dream of living in the way that there’s this connection. I want to say this without erasing that the poetry has a lot of pain, fear, and anxiety in it but I think that the connecting across difference in the face of all of that is what makes the connecting across difference meaningful ultimately. I wanted to return to how you saw this collection being more quiet and more formal due to the constraint of the city under lockdown. One way this collection feels different than Good Boys is that I think you are claiming a home, at least it feels that way, and in Good Boys, I don’t feel like you were, that you’re declaring, at least, what is not home more than in the previous book. I wonder if having more form, having poems that are more contained might parallel you also feeling a rooting down in place, a sense of being in New York City as an axis. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that as a way of going on to read Love Poem, which used to open the collection but now ends the collection. But in my reading of the book, it declares a preference very strongly between coasts. It feels like a move that wouldn’t have happened in Good Boys to me.
MF: My apologies to Los Angeles, which gets a little bit of that. [laughter] I lived on the West Coast for a little bit and I think just infrastructurally, it wasn’t the city for me. Obviously, I also don’t drive so that was an issue. But I love that reading. It’s really easy to sh*t on New York City and then you leave it and then you’re like, “I want to go back there,” because it is a city where it has an indifference to your heroic subjectivity. It’s so indifferent to you that there’s something really comforting about it that also you’re just allowed to be a freak and nothing is really shocking there. There’s a constant space of not just invention but also not being able to know things. You can never fully know it and there’s always something you didn’t know. There’s always some incredible art space you hadn’t heard of. There’s some kind of scene on Monday nights you haven’t been to. That is very appealing to me. I also think, obviously, the city with a lot of problems, and a lot of the problem problems include food insecurity, which is up 50%, and housing insecurity, and a real callousness towards people who are unhoused and on mental illness, which is just getting worse in the city. But I think to declare a home, as I said and to understand what reproduces the street, is to be able to hold all of that together, to be accountable to that, and to be responsible for that however you want to interpret that. I know people who are doing different things in the city who are cooking meals for the outdoor fridges and who have become much more active. Thinking also about the compassion fatigue of our healthcare workers in New York City, which is not talked about enough. There’s a way in which I think New York thinks that it’s fine and it’s trying to go forward and then we have all this evidence that we’re not fine, there’s been not enough mourning, we don’t know how to deal with this trauma, and that this return to what we hope is a normalcy is really just a fiction. I do think it’s a little bit of a declaration of a home. I do feel at home there. I feel more at home in New York than I have in any other place I’ve ever lived, for better or for worse though because there are also a lot of hard things about declaring it as home. But I think that kind of uncanny belonging that you just referenced, I felt that at a very young age the first time I ever came to New York. I just felt like, “Okay, this is a place where one can have a sense of adventure and a sense of anonymity,” which I think are two of the great promises of the city for me anyways. Sorry, you said something about the formal part?
DN: Well, just the sense that you’ve moved to us a space of more constraint. Obviously, writing in sonnets is more constrained than what’s going on in Good Boys but I wondered if that paralleled this sense of Good Boys feels less tethered to a specific place to me than the new collection which feels like goes everywhere but also has a sense of where it’s going to return to in a way that maybe Good Boys doesn’t in quite the same way.
MF: Yeah, absolutely. Also, I think when you have been in New York during the period of time in which the book was written and you’ve seen a lot of very surreal things happen and you’ve experienced the city in that space of surrealism, but also in that space of deep intimacy, it’s an island, I live in Manhattan and there’s a poem where there are just periods of time where I’m walking from one river to the other river and it didn’t take that long. It is a small space so there’s also this at the level of scale, the way in my imagination it went from this giant space to the way it just became so small all of a sudden and so intimate. I think that for me, that is also part of it feeling like home in a really different way, getting to know my neighbors who I had not really known, getting to know a lot of people in my life who I saw on the daily who all of a sudden I couldn’t see but then I did see. That stranger intimacy which is so beautiful in New York City really played out theatrically in different ways during the pandemic where there was a level of “I don’t know you but I do know you. How are you and how’s your mother?” and this level of care, particularly obviously for people who are working in essential jobs and a lot of my family as I said were working in healthcare capacities. That also had me thinking a lot about what’s a calling and what’s a job and what we need in order to survive, which is really something that’s quite elemental and quite basic. Really, I was writing poems that were more constrained but they were also about where I can walk to. Good Boys is like, “And this, and this, and this, and this,” and this new book is like, “I could walk here. I walked to this park because that was the park I could walk to,” and all of a sudden time and space becomes smaller, your imagination has to become bigger. There are a lot of stanzas in the book. There are a lot of tercets and couplets more so than Good Boys, and I think that’s also a kind of controlled or restrained way of thinking like is the poem trying to do something dialogic, which I think is what the psychology of a couplet is. That’s coming from long periods of time where you’re just with yourself thinking and you’re mimicking that thought process.
DN: Could we hear Love Poem?
MF: Of course. Let me get to the Love Poem, which is now the last poem in the book.
[Megan Fernandes reads a poem called Love Poem]
DN: We’ve been listening to Megan Fernandes read from I Do Everything I’m Told. I want to move from your diaspora poetics to talk about how it relates to ecological concerns. A lot of your poetry is eschatological, poetry of end times, and how to live in end times. Even the craft classes you teach evoke this sense. One is called Crisis, Joy, Time, another quoting Meena Alexander who describes spring, this season of rebirth as having the Frank scent of survival. It seems like one of the questions you pose is how do we live in an ongoing crisis and that your answer, at least in part, has to do with changing one’s relationship to time. For instance, in your description for the class you teach that you open with Alexander’s words, troubling our notion of spring, you say, “How can such an image or encounter mark time when time itself has become recurrent?” Your Crisis, Joy, Time class suggests strategies I think. With the epigraphs, you include Frank O’Hara saying, “In crisis, we must decide again and again whom we love,” and Gwendolyn Brooks saying, “In a package of minutes, there is this We. How beautiful.” As a first step to talking about living within something that seems like it’s barreling toward doom, talk to us about time in relation to something that is ongoing, a crisis that defies time frames, or perhaps now is time itself.
MF: First of all, I think we should ask ourselves whether we, just as a species, it’s an unpopular opinion but I’m going to give it, but should we survive? Let’s ask that question. We have not been great. I think so there’s this weird desire for the eternal that I think everybody has which everyone’s like, “It’s so human to want to continue,” and I’m like, “Not really sure. Let’s first try and analyze where that feeling comes from. We’re not eternal. Most of us are not eternal. The species is not eternal.” There’s also taking a step back and being like there’s so much crisis rhetoric around the environment, around the disaster, and to me, that’s a problem because doom is very romantic, David, it is so romantic, people.
DN: It’s romantic.
MF: It is. We love things that aren’t going to work out. There’s something insane to me about people being like, “I can’t believe all this scientific fact, all these narratives, and all these films and whatever are not working.” I’m like, “What exactly are we feeding when we’re feeding this narrative about end times?” In a way, what we’re feeding is something really voyeuristic about that thing that we all have which is wanting to see our own funeral as a species but knowing we can’t be there for that. That’s a little bit tragic and there’s something there that’s a little bit undertheorized. I would say that in terms of crisis, the anxiety, and anticipation, I was reading this book called Cryopolitics at the time. There was an essay on it that was about how, in the face of extinction, we’ve started to want to preserve DNA and preserve things. To me, that is bananas. [laughter] We are preserving, we’re already trying to preserve our future in anticipation of an ending instead of changing things so that we have a future. That psychology of preservation in anticipation of extinction is actually deeply, deeply colonial. I think the essay was about the government wanting to—and I will come back to you if this is wrong, I want to get this right—the government wanting to preserve the DNA of certain indigenous populations because the population was not going to exist anymore. But instead of just actually being like, “Because we genocided them, there is that kind of separation of cause and effect that we have here.” I don’t know, I think those are the two things. We love doom and there’s something romantic about it, and I don’t think that the way that we talk about crisis is really effective because we both want to be eternal and we want to end so there’s this also dual desire there. Then secondly, the idea that we’re trying to preserve because we know we’re going to be extinct has this very violent history, which is to say we cause the extinction of so many. The idea that we can turn it into a case study mirrors the colonial logs that we’ve enacted for so long.
DN: I don’t know if this is related, I want to hear if you think it is, but it just prompted this thought for me, this question of this weird juxtaposition between the desire to preserve and the romanticization of barreling towards doom at the same time. Because if you look at the pandemic, how much we did immediately, shutting down international commerce, all cultural events, sporting events, everything shut down, creating entirely new expectations of populations about how they could move in the world and what access they had relatively quickly globally, we did that all because we were motivated by the dream of returning to “normal” so we’re willing to turn the world upside down if, in the endpoint, we go back to exactly the same thing. But we could do all of those things to stop the world from dying. We know the answers and they’re not necessarily technological to allowing other things to live on the planet that aren’t us on their own terms, that if you could imagine human initiative like we did for that first year in the pandemic, which was all to preserve normal, to try to prevent doom instead, it seems like, I want to say we’re clearly capable and we’re clearly incapable of walking it back it seems at the same time. I don’t know if this is even related or if you even relate to that framing of it.
MF: It’s funny, I had a friend who once said to me, she’s like, “I think we all need to be also aware of the neoliberal impulse to do something, to always do something to the idea that we can save something.” I’m holding that also in my head, which is that the idea of extinction and end is such a big overwhelming existentially devastating idea that it’s really easy to feel crushed, helpless, and vulnerable on it underneath it. Then I think people go through this cycle where they feel guilty or they don’t have agency and for me, I’m like, “What are the ways in which I can improve in a small way the life of the people around me?” To me, that’s a much more sustainable way of thinking about the well-being of the planet than to think about how I have to change the behavior of corporations that I’m never going to change and I’m always going to fail at. It’s funny, I just read in Eileen Myles’s, they did this giant reading of the entire pathetic anthology, they have a new anthology out called Pathetic Literature, and among other things, it’s about losing and being a fool, and the image of the fool in literature and the person who says, “We should want this,” even though they’re never going to get it and actually how radical that is in pushing the limits of a person’s imagination, which is where hope is. Hope can’t exist unless you know that the limits of the imagination of what is possible for the world expands. To me, the way that can expand is sometimes telling people to take their existential grief and go look at a painting, that that’s more effective.
DN: Yeah. Let me ask you about one of your projects in relationship to this suspicion around doing and saving. Because you’ve not only talked about crisis disrupting time, you’ve also looked at ways to disrupt time and I would imagine going to look at a painting could be one way to go disrupt time. But I’m thinking of your work The Poetics of Suspense, which I think could also be called A Poetics of Suspension because it’s about underwater suspension, perhaps connected to the [Kronos] quote from your Palermo sonnet, you quote from Elena Past essay Mediterranean Ecocriticism: The Sea in the Middle where she says that the Mediterranean requires an understanding of migratory Pathways of humans and non-humans, circulations of global capital and toxic waste, narrative elementary and energy cultures to name but a few. Then you talk about your project’s desire to collapse geological, mythological, and contemporary temporalities through the medium of water, and water that you view as having many contradictory qualities, that being suspended is a sense of being held a possible site of connection with time itself suspended. But it can also be a place of deferral or even a space of denial, and where you say that the Mediterranean’s purgatorial and claustrophobic interiority makes it a useful framework to engage with climate despair. Ultimately, in this essay, you bring it all back to poetry in a poetics and I guess I hope you could maybe orient us a little more to what this project is and how you feel it’s connected to climate change and to poetry for you.
MF: It’s funny, it’s about water but it’s also about volcanoes. I think poets just love volcanoes. We have volcano desires and are fascinated by these ancient alive structures. I was visiting Stromboli, which is an active volcano, and I was in a town on the other side of Stromboli which is just a population of 45 people. I had interviewed a volcanologist that I know who also had climbed Stromboli so we both had climbed this volcano. I am not an outdoors kid, David, I’m very much an indoors kid and so what it took for me to climb this volcano is a psychological poetic aspiration that I will never ever understand. But what she was telling me basically, and this is in the essay, is that each rock, because it’s seven islands, the Aeolian Islands, each rock you can tell, they have a parental magma. If you do actually whatever all the tests are on the rock, you can tell where these rocks in the ocean come from a certain volcano in the area. There was something, to me, that’s so compelling about that, the idea of some object that you would just swim by in the bottom of the ocean having this long history that even what seemed inanimate literally held inside it this whole history. To me, it’s also the Mediterranean is like a space of so much important mythology in the West but it’s also off the coast of Catania, a place where the mafia would sink boats of things they didn’t want people to find and it’s also a space obviously of a crisis of refugees. It was all of these things at once being suspended together on the surface. But then even under the water where you know when you’re underwater, everything slows, it’s dreamier, it’s like being back in the womb. There was something about the womb drive of being underwater and being held in that space that I felt like was allowing for an exploration of this multitude of both ecological, mythological, and also political histories that other people who I love and mention in the essay were doing work in, including the Leviathan film, which is a Sensory Ethnography film about a New Bedford fishing community where they put all these contact cameras on the surface of the water underneath the boat and you can see something like a fishing boat from a completely different subject position of the non-human or what we might think of as the inanimate. That project was really trying to think about both what we don’t see underwater, how time is different underwater, but also the way in which these different scales of history were coming together underwater.
DN: You had this very funny tweet when one of your poems was accepted for The New Yorker.
MF: Oh, my God, you’re bringing this up. [laughter] Hilarious, okay, yeah. It’s actually good. It’s good. I’m glad you’re bringing it up.
DN: You said, “New Yorker acceptance. They didn’t take the fisting poem but still pretty stoked.” [laughter] As soon as I saw this, I knew I wanted you to read the fisting poem, but thinking about where it would be a good place for you to read it, I somehow kept coming back to the way this project of suspense explores the interiority of the Mediterranean sea as also being a place where one might experience boundlessness and timelessness due to the underwater suspension. In the fisting poem, the boundlessness around self flirting with the limits of a body, which I think raises some questions that I want to ask you about after we hear it, but if you’re willing, I would love to hear “I’m Smarter than This Feeling, but Am I?” and we can thumb our noses at The New Yorker together.
MF: First of all, thank you Kevin and Hannah for taking the poem you did, very grateful that. I don’t know, I haven’t placed this poem yet so I have a couple of more weeks. If anybody wants to find it a home, although I don’t know when this episode is coming out. Okay, this is called “I’m Smarter than This Feeling, but Am I?”
[Megan Fernandes reads a poem called “I’m Smarter than This Feeling, but Am I?”]
DN: We’ve been listening to Megan Fernandes read from I Do Everything I’m Told. I love this poem.
MF: I love this poem too. We will publish it.
DN: No, I would be so honored if somehow this conversation leads to it finding a home outside the book too. I’m going to make a stretch around maybe connecting this to something else outside of your poetry but you tell me, but I’m curious about this other aspect of your writing outside of the book either way and I see some crossovers and themes between it and your poetry. Thinking about the edging toward annihilation in the poem we just heard, even thinking about the episodes of depersonalization that you’ve had and that you describe in the essay you wrote about Meena Alexander, you also have this essay called Transgenic Imagination that in another way is about crossing borders, not of nation but of the body and of selfhood and of the species based on the evolutionary potential of mutation. You look at a variety of writers including Eleni Sikelianos’ Body Clock of which you say, “The paradigm of mutation pushes towards a more dynamic, ecological model of distributed agency.” More generally, you’re examining both the phenomena of crossing and of surrogacy and how both become poetic tropes. You talk about the notion of becoming creaturely, where becoming creaturely speaks to the sense of leaping into uncertainty. The one line that really spoke to your poems for me was this one: “The site of the transgenic here concerns not only bodies within bodies, but also the taboo of foreign matter growing where it should not.” Even though it’s talking about crossing species boundaries, the taboo of foreign matter growing where it should not feels like it could also be speaking to diasporic poetics. But I wondered how, if at all, the poetic texts you examine in this work, which you say engage with a certain kind of eco-techno materialism, and the notion of a creature containing the genomes of other creatures, which is not entirely unlike containing the fist of another person, how this manifests in your work, how you see the transgenic imagination in your work.
MF: Yeah. I don’t think that’s a stretch at all and you’re also bringing up things from really different parts and studies of my life. I just want to say first, my undergrad degree is in molecular biology and I worked on mRNA transcripts when I was working at a biotech center before I got my PhD in English. What that really did was show me the insides of things. I was doing microarray analysis on these mRNA transcripts and when sh*t was bad, I could see a piece of the RNA denatured and I was very aware of how fragile subjectivity was and how fragile phenotypic expression was based on one bad thing that went wrong. I went into my studies in literature really fascinated thinking about feminist science studies and queer science studies as looking at the ways in which subject formation was actually really distributed. I was really, in particular, interested in Donna Haraway who’s important for this answer. Haraway wrote something like sex, infection, and eating are all old relatives. I loved that because those are all times where we become in relation to somebody else. There’s a risk whenever you become in relation to someone else. When you have sex with someone, it’s so intimate and you become in relation with them. When you eat something, you’re literally putting something in your mouth. When you have an infection, it’s because something has taken over your body. It’s when boundaries are dissipated and you become what we might call a distributed subject. To me, this idea that that is taboo, it has a long history, not just in queer studies, which maybe is more obvious, but also in critical race studies. There’s this great essay on disgust by Sara Ahmed where she opens with this story about Darwin and Darwin sitting eating his steak or something and his steak is really raw. He has his servant there and his servant is a person of color. The servant touches the stake and is disgusted by the tenderness of the steak. Darwin is disgusted that that person had touched the stake. It becomes really about contagion from a foreign other. The idea that when we become in relation that the logic of similitude versus the logic of difference is governing our relationship to being in relation with something or someone else, that actually has this whole race politics to it also.
DN: I love that. That’s brilliant.
MF: I think about orifices a lot. I’m actually writing, poets and writers asked me to do these craft capsules and they’re just bananas, the first one is about interracial sex, the second one is about orifices, and the third one is about love triangles. I have no idea if they’re going to publish all of these. I hope they do. But the one about orifices is important because it really is about what it means to be penetrated by the other and also it takes up Jamie Fitzpatrick’s amazing poem called The Hole, in which the hole is both a metaphorical and a real hole. It’s a brilliant poem. I highly recommend to everybody read that poem. It also looks at Paul Preciado’s work on Testo Junkie, in which they describe in one scene having sex with their partner and that I think they’re using a strap-on and they describe it as a digging. As soon as I heard that, I’m like, “Oh, my God. Seamus Heaney’s poems are also about holes, orifices, and whatnot.” I don’t know. I just started thinking really expansively about sites of relationality. Often, there are these, the black hole of the cosmos, and in this poem watching my friends film, they’re a great filmmaker and they make these kinds of what they would describe as smut films. One of them is about looking through a telescope, also a kind of hole into the universe, and then the telescope becomes a way of talking about fisting and queer or sex. I was like, “Oh, what’s your thing with smut?” and they’re like, “It’s a f*ck*ng love story, you idiot. It’s not smut. It’s how to be in relation to someone and it’s what we do when we’re boundless with each other,” which is the site of incoherence. There’s a Lauren Berlant quote in the book, but it’s also the site of the deepest f*ck*ng intimacy. So yeah, I don’t know if that answered the question.
DN: Yeah, way more than I dreamed you would answer actually. That was amazing. I wanted to ask you about the cover. I don’t know if you were involved with it but thinking about this transgenic trans-species essay and the cover which is a polaroid of a rabbit turned strangely, I wondered if it signified something for you and what and how in relationship to the poems.
MF: It’s funny you bring up the transgenic, one of the most famous transgenic examples is Eduardo Kac’s Bunny actually in which he has made some glow-in-the-dark bunny. It’s quite monstrous. But actually in terms of the cover, all kudos to the designer at Tin House, to Beth who gave me a few choices and there was something really striking about it to me. I had said that I loved Danez Smith’s Homie, I love a neon, I love the way that neon really captures a time period, I’m a 90s kid so to me, I love anything that’s giving me saved-by-the-bell vibes. But the bunny, I was like, “Oh, am I a bunny? No. I want it to be a more ferocious animal,” but then I kept seeing rabbits everywhere. Apparently, I think somebody told me it’s the year of the rabbit so I want to say it’s something really deep but I just think the designer got something in the book that I was slower to catch up on if I’m honest.
DN: I really like it.
MF: I love the cover now, yeah, I’m obsessed with it.
DN: Well, we can’t end our conversation without talking about gender, which I think plays a big role in your work. You say of your last book, “My book is called Good Boys but it is powered by those who identify as women.” Particularly in that book, and I think a little bit to a lesser extent in this one, it skewers sh*tty men, not those who are necessarily overtly the enemy, the misogynistic, and patriarchal by intent but those who might consider themselves part of the us, part of this kinship but do terrible things nonetheless. Like in every other way, you’ve taken this political and the world concern into questions of language as well. At The Rumpus, you talk about how you like narrative poems that resist chronology with scenes that are outside of time. You say that in graduate school, you had felt like narrative really belonged to men and to the colonizer, the people who decide the official story of history and aesthetics, and you were drawn to poets who were reimagining their relationship to storytelling. You mentioned Meena, you mentioned Bhanu, poets who do spatial and cognitive leaping. Perhaps, we could even link this to your essay on the Portuguese singing tradition called Fado, that Fado means fate, a sense of too lateness, which reminds me of trying to puzzle out a way to be alive and thrive in a time that feels too late, but where you suggest that traditional Fados interested in distance and in contrast, “Queer fado is more interested in compression. In collapsing the histories of conquest and nation-making.” “What might it mean to explore an imagination that is polytemporal? That can undo violent historicization and world-build through a playful fabulation of gender, erotic performance, lyrics, audience, sung rhyme, and vocal accentuation, and that is not situated in rigidity? This is a poetics.” Returning to the beginning where we talked about a shift you were experiencing between your last two books, at least a subtle shift between speed, messiness, constraint, and form, has there been any shift for you between books and how you are enacting or engaging with gender? And any thoughts you might have about gender in relationship to poetics and narrative that this might spark?
MF: It’s interesting, there’s a poem about abortion in the book and there’s also a poem called Masculinity in the book. I think one thing that really surprised me, although I’m not really sure why it did, is how many messages I got from men about both of those poems that were just incredibly violent and offensive. I’m just not used to anybody reading any poem, maybe a couple of people, but I don’t know why I was so surprised. I was surprised to be surprised. I also think there’s this kind of idea of inevitability of it where people who I would mention it to would be like, “Oh, yeah, well, if you say these things, the culture wars,” and I’m like, “Masculinity is a kind of subject position which really, I think in my opinion, people don’t think about it enough as a subject position.” So if we have a school shooter that’s out here, there are so many ways in which the media wants to be like, “They were of this demographic or that demographic,” and yet, they were all people who identify as men. That is something that is so taken for granted, these violent, fragile violent energies that belong to or that are part of socialized masculinity, cis masculinity I will say, that are just unquestioned and that require a lot of thought and require a lot of undoing and untethering. Y’all been acting up, that’s what I’d say, and continue to act up and will continue to act up. [laughter] I’m not sure if there’s so much a shift in the way that I’m thinking about gender except that I think that a gender is something that is not determined by sex. That is a clarification. It’s really important I think that we say that. But masculinity itself is something that I always feel like is often in the room that doesn’t know itself in the way that whiteness can sometimes be in the room and not know itself. By the way, in the way that a lot of things that we all are can be in the room and not know itself but the level of self-deception that masculinity allows is sometimes truly, truly incredible to me. If I was part of a demographic that somebody who identified with cis masculinity, I really would be taking some time to think about what are the things I don’t see about myself? I forget who the quote is, I think it’s maybe Woolf, who says something like, “Men have been writing about that circle on the back of women’s neck so they can’t see forever, but it’s time for women to be writing about that circle on the back of men where they cannot see.” The responses to those two poems just walking around in the city being like, “I wonder if somebody knows my address,” even the fact that I had to think about that, even in a small way was really disturbing to me like, “This is just something that a lot of people who identify as women have to deal with all the time,” which is constant threat against something that’s so fragile that a f*ck*ng poem is putting you into a spiral. Nonsense, yeah.
DN: I was going to suggest we hear the poem Rilke. Is that a strange one to read now?
MF: No, I love that poem. This is called Rilke and it comes in a response to Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” One thing I really love about Rilke is that in his translation, there’s a translation, I think it’s the Galway Kinnell translation or [inaudible], I forgot which one it is, but in his understanding of the Orpheus, Eurydice myth which is a big part of the book also, there’s almost a way in which he’s like Eurydice was indifferent to Orpheus because the dead are indifferent to us, and also Orpheus maybe was a little bit of a f*ck boy. It doesn’t say it like that but his argument was he knew. Okay, Rilke.
[Megan Fernandes reads a poem called Rilke]
DN: Before we go out, Megan Fernandes, with hopefully another very short poem, since we’re talking about narrative and gender, in a conversation you had with Alexei Perry Cox, they mentioned that you have an ongoing novel called ZELIA, a breakup story between a chef and a writer told in two time periods. If that’s true, now that you’re working on something more squarely in the story space, can you tell us anything about it in relation to the spatial and cognitive leaping you admire in feminist diasporic writers who are working against chronology and story even if they are themselves creating the story at the same time?
MF: Yeah, and I should tell you that I am not an expert prose writer so I will say that in terms of a continuity between the poetics and the prose, one is that it’s really funny I think and I just think that sad sh*t should be also funny. I think that’s also a way of thinking about time since we can often laugh at things when we have some distance from them. But I think that in a way, part of maturity is also being able to laugh at yourself in real-time. There’s a little bit of a collapse there. It’s like something devastating happens at the opening of the book and the speaker is just immediately going to a bunch of rabbis and priests, and not a religious person at all, just trying to asking the same question, and the question that she asks is “Is wanting the same thing as you age always a failure of growth?” and they’re just like, “Do you want to join the congregation? What are you trying to be here?” I think in terms of time, it’s trying to think about, “Is growth always changing what you want? What happens when you don’t change what you want? What happens when you do repetition compulsion?” What you learn from it is that that’s just who you are and maybe that’s not necessarily going to change. There are a lot of people I think who are really influential for that book. But probably this is so annoying because obviously, she’s a genius but I just love Ferrante. I think she’s probably the greatest writer of our age and she’s certainly the greatest writer of how to write about the intimacies between women where that intimacy is like they’re in love, they’re not in love. They’re sisters, they’re not sisters. They’re friends, they’re not friends. There is something really contradictory, competitive, loving, erotic, familial about the intimacy between her two main characters in the Neapolitan Novels that I just found so true to a lot of the relationships I have in my life. I would say that to me is in the spirit of a feminist writing where you have all this political history going on outside of the interiority but the interiority is its own turbulent zone in which the outside cannot even contest with the inside even though what’s happening on the outside is huge, geopolitical, moving, and giant.
DN: Well, I would love to go out with the poem Malaika if you’re willing to.
MF: Yeah, absolutely. Malaika in Swahili means angel and it is a poem I heard growing up all the time. It’s a Swahili folk song.
[Megan Fernandes reads a poem called Malaika]
DN: Thank you, Megan. This was great to spend this time together today.
MF: Thank you so much, David.
DN: We’re talking today to Megan Fernandes about her latest book from Tin House, I Do Everything I’m Told. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Megan Fernandes’s work, both her poetry and prose, at meganfernandes.com. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things discovered while preparing, things referenced during the conversation, and places to go and explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards including the bonus audio archive, the Tin House Early Readership Subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.