Rumaan Alam and Jameson Fitzpatrick on Sex, Poetry, and Textiles
With Two Poems from Fitzpatrick's Collection, Pricks in the Tapestry
I met Jameson Fitzpatrick at a reading in 2018 and immediately recognized him—imagine recognizing a poet!—from having read a handful of his poems. We became friendly on Twitter and then actual friends in real life, and in the years since I’ve come to know him as a vibrant critic and thinker as well as a gifted poet. It is such a pleasure, therefore, to be able to dive into his first book; I get to be proud of his accomplishment as a friend and in awe of it as a reader
Pricks in the Tapestry is a transporting and beautiful collection, one in which I lost myself for a day, a rare experience for me as I (to my own great shame) read so little poetry. You can hear in my conversation with him my own doubts about how I’m to engage with the form, which Jameson explained to me patiently (you can tell he makes a living as a teacher!). Pricks is a capacious book, full of intelligence, sensuality, and rigorous interrogation: of self, of language, of the society we’ve made for ourselves. I finished the book in awe of what poetry can accomplish; it was such a pleasure to pick the writer’s brain about how he does what he does.
Rumaan Alam: I don’t know how to read poetry, maybe, and this question will reveal that, but how do you read the “I” in a poem, or how do we read the “I” in these poems. In a line in “A True Account of Overhearing Andy Cohen at Fire Island,” you write, “That’s enough, Jameson.” Can we extrapolate you into these first person texts or should readers not?
Jameson Fitzpatrick: There’s no one way to read the I of a poem, I think—and not every poem has an I!—but the workshop convention of distinguishing between a poem’s “speaker” and its author is certainly pretty commonplace. If I might draw on the language of that schema to reframe your question, I think what you’re asking is: what’s the relationship between me (Jameson) and the speakers of the poems I (Jameson) write(s)?
As those unwieldy parentheticals probably betray, it’s complicated! But enough vamping: I do write out of the material of my own life and so my poems are more often than not approximations of my experiences, whether of the world or of the mind.
Still, the poems aren’t mirrors: they show the past. The conversation I was having with myself in the writing of that poem (after Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”) has been suspended in the present-tense of the page—but I (Jameson) wasn’t. So, in a sense, the act of documenting the self creates a rupture between the documented self (the I of the poem) and the self that continues in time, subject to change. The poet and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir writes brilliantly about this split in her book Fourth Person Singular, connecting the lag of the lyric I to the nature of cognition itself: “By the time our perception of ourselves registers, we have already moved on (however slightly) from that particular self and are looking back at a distance (however minuscule), so that the perceived I has become a not-I.”
I wouldn’t be the poet I am if it was a priority for me that readers not identify me with the speakers of my poems, but I do hope that people don’t mistake the partial glimpses the poems offer for a comprehensive, real-time picture.
RA: Talk to me about the title of this collection, a line from a poem called “Grasping at Being Filled.” “Prick” implies both a hole or rend in a fabric—a tapestry, here—and something else altogether. This poem, as many in the book, is frank about sex, sometimes in a playful, punning way, other times in a more direct manner. Is sex one of your subjects or a means to something else?
JF: Both? Sex is definitely one of my subjects, having been such a central source of both angst and pleasure in my life—and, for much of it, one of the primary ways in which I understood myself. Much to my chagrin, men have been another of my preoccupying subjects, and it also so happens that sex has been the mode through which the majority of my relationships with men have operated.
“Grasping at Being Filled,” which is after the late great John Giorno’s “Grasping at Emptiness,” felt momentous for me when I wrote it, as though something I’d been tapping at or around had finally broken open, and so when I was searching for a title for the book I knew I wanted to look within it (the manuscript’s original working title was The Hurt Party, but everybody said it reminded of them too much of The Hurt Locker).
I like that the title functions as a kind of linguistic Rorschach test: some hear, as I do, the “hole or rend” first; others, the phallus. People have commented, too, on all kinds of other associations: Carole King’s iconic album, the phallus trees depicted in medieval and Renaissance art, Stephen Frear’s 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears etc. I think of a clear night sky pierced with stars.
When I found my way to it, I also remembered something Sharon Olds had told me once during office hours when I was in grad school: that she’d had a vision that I was one day going to write a book that had something to do with gay history and textiles. At the time I think I was flattered but unconvinced; when the phrase triggered this neglected memory in me it felt like it had to be the title.
RA: Tell me about your interest in form. You’re not working in traditional forms like villanelle or sonnet, but still clearly engaged in playing with what you can accomplish in free verse, or discrete sentences, or hybrid and more unruly forms the names of which I don’t know, if they even have names.
JF: I have a restless relationship to form. My MFA thesis—which was an entirely different book, containing none of the poems from Pricks in the Tapestry—was written primarily in long-lined couplets, very much all of a piece. When I started writing the poems that eventually became (and/or precipitated) this book, I challenged myself to write poems that I didn’t already know how to write or that couldn’t be mistaken for anybody else’s. I would not be so arrogant as to say that I succeeded, but I do think it pushed me to think more about form than is really my nature as a poet—“the line” was the aspect of poetry that took me the longest to grasp—and to try new things, rather than remain in my comfort zone.
It was also around this time that I became friends with a lot of poets whose entrees to—and understandings of—poetry had been much more informed by experimental and avant-garde traditions than my own: Sophia Le Fraga, Diana Hamilton, Shiv Kotecha, among others. Reading their work, and the work of the poets they loved, really expanded my sense of what poetry could be and do and look like, and eroded my sense of a meaningful distinction between poetry and prose.
That said, the short, ostensibly lyric poem is obviously a natural form for me; I wasn’t interested in abandoning it so much as seeing what else I could let in or juxtapose it against.
RA: To that end, I think the showstopper here is a long piece called “Roughly”—I hesitate here over the noun because it’s verse, and essay, and transcription (I think!). It’s a text about your maternal uncle, a gay man who died of AIDS. Is it true, or is that just asking some complicated question about “what is truth, anyway?”
JF: Funnily enough, I think of “Roughly” as animated by this very line of inquiry—is it true? what is truth, anyway? (Hence the final section’s subtitle, a nod to Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments). But I don’t mean to be coy: I know nothing in the poem to be untrue, but I’m also certain it contains inaccuracies. (I’m still being evasive, aren’t I?)
I was interested in how my uncle’s life (and death, when I was 16) has so shaped my own—particularly my experience of growing up gay, particularly in my family—though virtually everything I knew about him was cobbled together through things I’d heard secondhand, from my mother and grandmother. He was never properly estranged from the rest of the family, but he maintained a distance that felt quite deliberate, and so was never a regular presence in my life.
“Roughly” was really difficult for me to write. I started it in early 2017 and didn’t complete it until January 2020; it was the last thing in the book I finished. I felt—and feel—conflicted about how, in a break from the rest of the book, the poem takes as its material not just my own experience but also my uncle’s (and my grandmother’s, and my mother’s). I’m reminded of one of the epigraphs to Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts—which, along with its predecessor Jane: A Murder and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman,” were influences—from Nietzsche: “In all desire to know there is already a drop of cruelty.” I wrestled a lot with that, and with the question of what subject matter—and whose language—I had a right to incorporate, particularly because my uncle seemed (to me) to have such shame around his sexuality and status.
But it also felt important to refuse that shame—and, in doing so, to defy the familial and cultural imperatives to suffer in silence that I believe were the source of so much pain in his life. And some of my own, too, though I was born a generation later and at a profoundly different moment in history to grow up an effeminate queer boy. Maybe there’s a way in which, having come of age under such better circumstances, I feel it’s my obligation to insist there was never anything to be ashamed of.
When I began writing, I thought I might end up doing much more research into his life than I did. At a certain point I guess I realized the impossibility of replicating a relationship that way, and/or that my subject was not in fact the “truth” of his life so much as my relationship to the version I grew up piecing together, along with the various ways—scientific, philosophical, narrative—that people attempt to comprehend life’s mysteries.
RA: How did you determine the order of the poems in this book? So much seems to exist in the flow, the way one poem might brush up against another, the particular charge as the register or form shifts between poems. Are you meant to read a book of poetry straight through? This is something else I never understand as a reader of poetry! The thing demands something from the reader but I’m never sure what that is.
JF: When I realized it could be a book—I had not set out to write one—I had already written most (but not all) of the poems but was struggling to sequence them. I remembered a teacher once telling me that a friend had re-ordered her first book right before she submitted it to the contest it ended up winning, and asked my good friend, the writer Elisa Gonzalez, if she would do the same for me.
Elisa is always one of my first and best readers, and the final order of the manuscript is quite close to the one she put together at that time. She organized it into sections (which I’d been resisting) according to the poems’ overlapping preoccupations, prompting me to consider the possibilities of putting like with like, when before my sequencing had mostly been informed by the fear of repetition. Now I can barely remember the book before she gave me the gift of seeing it anew.
RA: Poems are so often an ideal form for the social media age—often brief, which has to do with contemporary attention span, but also able to travel widely, disconnected from the pages of a magazine. Many of those magazines indeed only exist in cyberspace. What’s the difference for you between publishing a poem somewhere—you’re widely published—and assembling them into a book?
JF: Although I do write discrete poems rather than sequences or book-length projects, I think I vastly prefer people encounter the poems in the book rather than by themselves. My friend Diana Hamilton, in the process of helping me with some final decisions about the book’s structure and some last-minute cuts, helped me to think about how differently poems work depending on their context: there’s a lot more pressure on a single poem, whereas in a book, the weight is more evenly distributed; the poems inform one another. Likewise, a poem might be good on its own, but not work well in a book (hence those last-minute cuts).
Though I’m obviously grateful whenever someone publishes or shares a poem of mine, I’m a very anxious person and primarily experience publishing as a kind of crucible of anxiety. It makes me feel very exposed—in a way I’m obviously drawn to, given the nature of what I write and that I do in fact seek to publish it, but that I don’t find pleasant. Because I wrote this book in solitude—just me against the blank page (or blinking cursor)—I like the idea of people encountering it in the same way: alone with their thoughts, and mine.
Like desires I could not keep track of.
One I left on the estate, in the house
Breuer built: a painted turquoise stud
on the bedside table. The last I lost
in church, if you can believe it, mid-
reading: the tiny triangle loosed itself
from my lobe, its back clinging on
clueless. The silver hoop I mistook
for mine and borrowed from your
drawer—who knows whose or where?
Someplace in a heap of medical waste,
my first (an infection) is buried.
Several of many crosses forgotten in
strange rooms, on damp windowsills,
sly evangelists winking in the sun.
I wondered if a diamond could make
me careful, but the lesson was more
than I could afford. Lately I’ve taken
to going without, not bothering,
so that in every mirror a conundrum
greets me: that whatever I use to fill
the hole I lose. Or that I put it there,
that it would close if I could let it—
“Story of My Life”
Two desires, like twins I tend to:
the one to be
and the other to hold.
The first looks like envy,
when the brunette in cowboy boots cycles past
smoking a cigarette, her hair in a French braid.
She isn’t sweating
like I am, through my shirt for the third time today.
She doesn’t hurry.
Or later, in the park
where I am killing time, when the woman
on rollerblades shows me the shape
of what I sit on the edge of,
the same cobbled circle as always.
Looping and looping in a short dress.
Pixie cut. Perfect port de bras.
Her own music in her ears.
I read a book about a woman
who loves a man.
I relate. My own music.
Now the other desire cries out,
as though I can only neglect him for so long—
And there he is, this time
taking the form of a skateboarder
so lithe and dark-haired it hurts to look at him
though of course I can’t stop,
knowing I’ll have to go eventually, or he will,
and then I may never again have the pleasure
of looking at him. The pain I mean.
In my teeth.
I think of an Elaine Scarry line—
“The first demand of beauty is to keep looking”—
but when I go to look it up later, it’s not there.
In fact, I wrote it, in my notes
on the book where I thought I’d find it,
the one about beauty and justice and error.
He’s not very good.
At skateboarding I mean:
he can’t quite clear
the base of the statue that’s drawn him here
and keeps tumbling away from his board.
Scarry says the first demand of beauty is replication.
I’ve already written this poem,
in this park, though it was a different statue
and a different man.
Is desire without pain possible?
Is desire possible without pain?
Really, I want to know.
I want to stop writing this poem.
I want him to say Yes.
And how graceful she is, avoiding his orphaned board
as it rolls her way.
Pricks in the Tapestry by Jameson Fitzpatrick is available now from Birds LLC.