Kathy Fagan on the Poetic Power of “Misusing” Language
Peter Mishler Talks With the Author of Bad Hobby and Sycamore
For this next installation in a series of interviews with poets, contributing editor Peter Mishler corresponded with Kathy Fagan. Fagan’s sixth poetry collection is Bad Hobby (Milkweed Editions, 2022). Her previous book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. She’s been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and her work has appeared in venues such as The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Best American Poetry. Fagan co-founded the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where she teaches poetry and co-edits The Journal/OSU Press Wheeler Poetry Prize Series.
Peter Mishler: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
Kathy Fagan: So much of it is strange to me. The fact that I’m still in love with poetry and writing it is the primary strange thing. I have never—or rarely, in brief bursts of activity at a residency, maybe—been able to hold on to poem-brain for long. That impulse, resulting in thought or feeling followed by language not at all quotidian, is transitory, at least for me. I know now to make the best of it when I can: to take notes, to find ways to access poetry—through reading, or other sensory experiences, being outdoors, say—and to simply accept the fact that I work for a living, have caretaking and other duties, so I’d better not waste time insisting on precious writing rituals; I just keep at it.
This morning I read a wonderful essay on stamina in poetry by Carl Phillips, from his new book of essays, and it is strange to think that our pursuit, which yields no tangible earthly reward for most poets, could possibly hold our attention for a lifetime. He credits surprise, and I think that’s right. Put another way, I’d say I still believe the best poems contain more than a little magic in them—and that I might, at times, be capable of drawing that magic down on the thing I myself am making is, for me, poetry’s strangest and greatest reward.
PM: Would you be willing to share more specifics on how you’ve “kept at it” or uncovered ways to keep the language and the writing coming for your new book Bad Hobby?
KF: I’ll try to answer this good question, Peter, but honestly, it’s hard now for me to imagine how I found time to make poems during the later years that my dad lived with me. In addition to teaching, I was directing OSU’s MFA program then; also, Sycamore had come out, and my mother died—a lot all at once, which hasn’t, in the past, helped my writing practice. My best guess is that the strangeness of my new daily life demanded poetry–there was so much to process!
I was lucky to have a good therapist, but nothing could have prepared me for living with a parent again, much less navigating his values, so different from mine, and the public healthcare systems that he no longer had the ability to access on his own; they’re hard enough to navigate as a non-disabled person with advanced degrees.I love wordplay and linguistic hijinks, in part because of my dad’s malapropisms.
But because I had been working on the child-free poems in the book before he moved in, a spark of something happened when I was charged, suddenly, with reverse caregiving. The connections became vivid and heartbreaking, too rich not to explore in poems—and then there was the language my father was using, or misusing, as his dementia advanced, another rich source of connection and discovery for me. I remember thinking that if I didn’t get it down, no one would, and that potential loss felt unbearable in the face of an onslaught of loss. I was compelled to write through it. I wrote, as Toni Morrison advised, the book I wanted to see in the world.
PM: To what extent do you think writing poetry or making art has a degree of compulsion to it?
KF: Oh, every time I’m at work on a poem it feels like a compulsive activity. I’m teaching a forms class right now and we’re sharing our own work: metered forms, repeating forms, rhetorical forms. We were talking just last week about Jericho Brown’s form, the duplex, and how we couldn’t tear ourselves away from them once we started ours. That feels true to me of all my work, most of which is not written in received form.
If it doesn’t compel me, it’s possible the poem is as boring as I feel bored by it. No guarantee compulsive writing makes for a good poem, of course, but to be engaged in something, to feel energized and surprised by it, to wonder at it a little, to learn something by writing it: that’s all one can reasonably expect as a poet.
PM: I keep wondering what you make of Bad Hobby when you are reading from this new book or returning to it as a thing that you’re now not “inside of” writing it. And I’m wondering what you see now with some distance from it.
KF: What I see with distance is how much I didn’t yet know when I began writing the poems—about dementia specifically, but also about socioeconomic class structures and how they’d shaped my family, about my own indoctrination into the Church, my family’s rejection of Irish immigrant culture, embracing the so-called American Dream, and all the racism, sexism, classism, and general bullshit that accompany working-class 20th century American life.
In other words, I learned a lot about my family writing Bad Hobby, my most autobiographical book, but I also learned a lot about where I come from, where I went to, and how that works for me—emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, aesthetically, and politically. I was amazed by how much I read and researched for these poems even as I revisited a very personal past: its poverty and shame, mental illness and addictions, ignorance, loyalties and hopes. Context became crucial, context and craft. I wanted the poems to move beyond my own experience and become something new–a reader’s experience.
And it’s been gratifying to me to hear readers and audience members respond to the poems and share stories of their own adjacent to mine; it happens across gender, racial, and age lines, too, so it’s become more than MY book—that really takes the lonely edge off, you know?
PM: That’s wonderful to hear, and certainly my experience of reading it. What was the most difficult part for you—perhaps from a poetics/aesthetics point of view—about writing that feels and is more autobiographical?
KF: Self-revelation is challenging for me because I’m by nature reserved, shy, and private. For reasons perhaps having to do with age and the sense of urgency I spoke about earlier, I felt a freedom, making these poems, to engage with myself next to myself, and with my parents and grandparents as if they were characters in a story I could read as I was writing it. I let the crafting of the poems carry me forward while absorbing lessons from creative nonfiction. I’d been reading memoir, Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, to name but two books important to Bad Hobby.
PM: I hope it’s clear that I am asking this question with an understanding that the misuse of language by your father was related to his condition—but while reading this new book it struck me that noticing “misuses of language” has been a kind of motif throughout your work. I wonder what you make of that.
KF: Yes, you are exactly right about this, and I’m flattered you noticed. There are lots of ways to answer this question, one being how word origins are generative for me and always have been. Bad Hobby could not have been written without etymological research. Hobby, in the title, is my father’s misuse of the word habit, which is cool in itself, but it wasn’t until I looked into the origins of both words that the poem could be born.
My second book is titled MOVING & ST RAGE, referring to a moving and storage sign with the letter “o” obliterated from the word storage. In the eponymous poem, first published in Agni way back in 1994, Moving and St. Rage become mythic characters from a failed romance. I admire experiments arising from error, Bishop’s misreading of mammoth for her poem, “The Man-moth,” is one of several I can think of now, and a good example of what you’re talking about.
I love wordplay and linguistic hijinks, in part because of my dad’s malapropisms, which he was famous for even when he was young. He likely had lifelong cognitive issues, but no one had the time, money, or education to recognize them and seek help. He was kicked out of Catholic school for being “backward,” he failed the detective tests in the police department and had to remain a patrolman—that kind of thing. By then his hearing was severely compromised from target practice in the Marines and the force; protective gear was not required in the ‘50s. He passed, inasmuch as he did pass, because he was a reasonably attractive, good-natured white man.
His misreadings and malapropisms were delightful to me as a child, as if he were deliberately inventing them. When his dementia was diagnosed, he was already living with me, in his eighties, and it was clear the condition was serious. But his speech, all but nonexistent at the end, continued to strike me as poetic. My dad was not a poet by any means, but was a chronically attentive sharer—his perspective on the world was unique and often very beautiful.
PM: Would you be willing to talk in any way you’d like about the series of “AccuWeather poems” throughout the book?
KF: While noting dad’s creatively evolving speech patterns, I became sensitized to the ways language is used in public discourse as well: human resources departments, granting institutions, the Veterans Administration and other government entities, social media, healthcare settings. The AccuWeather poems use the innocuous but suggestive language of weather reports, phrases such as “clouds breaking” and temperature “real feel,” to think about how we encounter, interpret, and—with awareness—question and resist the abusive and coercive forces of language in the culture.
PM: I appreciated the humor as well as the asides to the reader in this book—or maybe what I would call the self-reflexive nature of some of the poems where you’re suddenly talking to yourself, and it appears you’re talking to yourself to work out your thinking as you’re making the poem. I wonder what you think of these qualities within a book with all its grieving and loss.
KF: I was in college when Bob Hass’s second book, Praise, came out—a book that was important to many young poets. The epigraph opening the second section, which I’ve held with and in me, is: “It’s funny, isn’t it, Karamazov, / all this grief and pancakes afterwards…” We go on living until we don’t. A brilliant prof of mine, in a class on Virgil, Homer, and Ovid, once said this is the reason the gods love mortals: our lives are precious because we die. This may be a tenet of most art; it’s one of mine.
PM: Is there a moment or image or memory or feeling from your childhood or youth that—thinking about it now—in some way presages that you would become an artist in adulthood?
KF: There was a small, built-in bookshelf in the hallway of my parents’ home. I’d sit on the floor in front of it touching the books, maybe two dozen of them total, sometimes reading or trying to read them, sometimes just holding them because I liked how they looked, felt, and smelled. I also spent a lot of alone hours creating rhymes out of my spelling book.
Spelling was easy for me—maybe because of my time with that bookshelf—but I was enchanted by how I could find, inside the spelling exercises, words that echoed each other, and I arranged little chants or songs from them. My memory is that I engaged in the activity so compulsively that I finished my spelling book homework long before the school year was out.
After that I wrote a “novel” after seeing a set of old steps in the woods on a walk with my grandfather in the Bronx; it was titled Only Stairs Left and it was very maudlin. I also kept detailed journals all my young life, though I’ve found less need to keep them as I age. I should say that it didn’t occur to me to become a poet, that anyone could become a poet, until I was an adult.
PM: Something about your description of touching the books, admiring them in the hallway, reminds me of the feeling evoked from the epigraph to your new collection—that desire for a kind of protected-ness. I wonder if your early life as a writer, a person, felt much like what Sheila Heti is describing.
KF: Protected-ness or solitude, which may be similar for a writer. The book from which the Heti epigraph is taken, Motherhood, was central to the organization of Bad Hobby. There is in both an emphasis on the child-that-was and the parent-to-be, and in Bad Hobby the reverse of that arc. Her image of being a lone star among the stars is, as you suggest, emblematic of the solitary reader, the aspiring writer, the lonely child, and the aging adult.As far as becoming a poet is concerned, that happens freshly each time I write.
But of course, there’s community in the image as well: the (right) sense of being one of many, connected and not connected, perhaps no longer there at all but an afterglow of oneself. Granted, I was a weird and sensitive little kid, but I did have a sense of these things, of fleetingness and mortality and their opposite.
PM: Could you talk a little bit about when it did occur to you that you could become a poet?
KF: Obviously I was drawn to poetry, or at least to language and patternmaking, as a child, but I didn’t know a living person, a femme-identifying living person, could grow a life in poetry. I mean, is that even a JOB? And there were two things I knew for certain at an early age: 1) that I couldn’t do the jobs my parents and grandparents did, and 2) I’d need a job, fast; my family stopped supporting me when I was seventeen. The logical place to fall was school—then more school and more.
Philip Levine was my first poetry teacher, and while he didn’t necessarily encourage his students to become poets, he demonstrated that it was a viable choice. I was around 20 when I was convinced, but I still needed that job—so after the MFA at Columbia, I went on for the PhD in Utah, where I was paid to teach and write. I took my first TT position in California, then came to Ohio shortly after with the promise of starting up a new MFA program, which I very much wanted to do.
Writing programs get dissed and I understand why, but without them I wouldn’t have had what I needed to get on in the world, and need still. My students and I learn together. And while academic and arts spaces still feel, even after all this time, uncomfortable for me as a first-gen, queer woman of the working class, I am in them nonetheless, and consider it my “real” job, as a poet and educator, to make those spaces more accessible and welcoming to people like me.
As far as becoming a poet is concerned, that happens freshly each time I write. What I am, what I love, and what I do are now inseparable—I can’t imagine greater fortune than that.
Bad Hobby by Kathy Fagan is available via Milkweed Editions.