Kevin McFadden: An Interview With Serena Agusto-Cox

December 18, 2009

Poet Kevin McFadden, published in 32 Poems

Poet Kevin McFadden, published in 32 Poems

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

If I were to meet such a crowd, the one ready to hang on every word, I would first warn them. Be careful, the words give. Like when a handhold gives, or a dam, or when a damn handhold gives. Love them, but don’t lean on them. Every few lines there is one word set to break into at least two–so I would be a bad steward of my poems if I didn’t offer a heads-up.

I don’t teach writing, which many poets do today. I work at a humanities council and I help coordinate programs meant to reach a broad public. In that sense I am a poet who has gotten to work with hundreds of poets and enjoy expanding the audience for poetry inclusive of academe but beyond academe as well. That informs my approach a great deal.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I really enjoy the way poetry appeals to our many intelligences, and there are valuable interactions whether you’re hearing a poem aloud or taking it from the page. I do like to read my poems out loud–so an audience can hear a poem the way I hear it in my head–and some say it improves their understanding of what may look dense on the page. But there are other poems I compose with the idea of a visual reader. I write a kind of poem, the anagram poem, which relies on a visual and material fact of language in letters. Every line must have the same letter count–Scrabble-tile style–and my job is to edit a pleasant or piquant ordering of the letters.

Can literature humanize us? Literature works, when it works, at a very basic yet profound level. Reading’s not a natural interaction–it must be reinforced to be a habit. But if we have the habit, we can then go to writing when we need it. We are looking for something there. We are blessed when we find it. Perhaps that moment of experiential recognition between individuals across time or distance, and in that moment or prolonged experience of recognition we see our own struggles reflected. When the experience is deeply painful, the recognition can comfort. When the experience is joyful, we have a sense joy will be preserved to be shared.

The experience is something we carry with us, like a dream memory, when can be helpful when a moment of crisis occurs. I think it reminds us to be human–that needs reinforcement too. I can’t speak for literature as a solution to humanity’s struggles; centuries of literature have not stopped intolerance. But I do believe this deep memory comes to life in our actions in the world, that literature creates an imagined internal encounter that helps us when the real encounters arrive.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Obsessions…well, puns. As if words didn’t have enough punch, freighted with their lively histories, there are moments when by dearth of available syllables words can sound or read like something very different. I love when the difference can be leveraged against the reason we so earnestly strive to defend. So many jokes–the great and the groaners alike–use puns. In poems, when used right, we get instant interdimensionality. We begin hearing double.

Many writers come down on the doctrinaire side of whether to use wordplay–that is to say “never”–a position which has persisted since classical times yet is uniformly resisted through the centuries when you probe literature a little deeper. I listed some of the pun’s supposed enemies in “It’s Tarmac,” the 20+ page chunk of prose smacked right into the middle of Hardscrabble. There’s little I could say here that I haven’t already said there. My obsession with wordplay has been fruitful in generating the poems I write. Sometimes those debts are not obvious, but they still are generative. I don’t think I’d write very much if word collision were discounted.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

My first writing group was me and a monk. We looked at poems. Me setting them up, him knocking them down. I owe an unpayable debt to this Brother of the Holy Cross, Joseph Chvala, who took an interest in my work in high school. He was a grammarian. Vocabulary and usage. Shades of meaning. His class was feared. My brothers feared him. I feared him. I think by Americans standards, which are sadly declining for language studies, this man’s program was decades out of step. It was old school. He wanted to produce Olympic athletes of English…which means most people will wash out. You’re facing the English language–who doesn’t wash out? But he was a language coach with a deep love of precision and a hard disregard for mediocrity.

I took workshops during my undergrad years, and I went to the M.F.A. program at the University of Virginia. I was very grateful for the help of poets along the way, James Reiss, Rita Dove, Greg Orr, Charles Wright. Then for poets whose work taught me by reading it: Heather McHugh, Anne Carson. “Western Wind” by Frederick Nims was a textbook I liked, but those kind of books weren’t as much help as the people I read and who read and talk to me. I always got more from a reader (who reads me) than a reader (one reads).

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

Well, “elitism” is the new “communism” as far as I’m concerned. I can’t use that word without suspicion…hurled by pundits with a fake populist agenda, it means too little now. Does poetry have a smaller audience than most mainstream endeavors? Undoubtedly. It is concerned with ultra-subtle notions and infra-human moments–there’s not a feature-length film’s worth in a sonnet–and, yes, there is the reality that you generally aren’t going to make a lot of money from writing it.

Poetry only requires attention. It is being produced for those who pay attention. Attention is one thing you can pay (along with homage and respect) without having to spend a dime. So, in the attention economy, where there is so much competition already, I do have a responsibility to warrant the notice of a reader in a poem. I also like to call attention to poets who reward those attentions. Readers who are paying attention find the poets they are looking for. I am completely at home with that arrangement. There is a kind of attention publicity generates, but that passes quickly. The better attention is the one good writing generates and keeps generating. It doesn’t need slogans or ads. No plans to put a chicken in every pot, and a poet in every kitchen. Pay it to whatever you like. Your attention is as free as you are.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I don’t work with music on. Especially music with lyrics. That’s because I pay attention to lyrics–it would be too distracting to hear the voice I need to hear.

One can get primed on some poets. Robert Lowell’s poetry is good mood music for my poetry; I can hear its rhythms without absorbing them. It’s a lot to recognize when you are imitating a poet. I’ve been careful, when I wrote a line rife with another poet’s style, to drop it.

It’s a hard balance to strike…to learn from the voices around you and yet silence the voices not your own. If you are very lucky, you come to realize that your voice is an arrangement of these voices…but it’s important not to let out a particular tenor or soprano over the chorus. It’s fine to contain multitudes–but you do have to contain them.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

Currently, I trade work with a poet and friend I’ve known through all of the above–Terence Huber. And my most immediate and increasingly helpful reader is the person I spend every day with, my wife, the poet Angie Hogan. She’ll read it when I just want someone to view it, and also when I want it to be ripped up.

I have worked with and hope always to work with a lot of writers. But it’s odd, among writers, my wife and I don’t like to talk a lot about writing. We are more interested in whatever outside of writing is interesting them. Their book arts work. Their garden. The boat they’re building. Maybe it was the overload of a writing program, where you obsess about such matters, but plenty of my friends don’t write. Fine by us.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

My wife and I jog–that helps the writer. Mens sana in corpore sano, says Juvenal.

As far as writing exercises, I don’t do any exercise someone else prescribes. It’s like doing someone else’s chores. All of my challenges I take from some note I’ve made, mental or jotted, and I do quite often attempt a poem as a self-dare. There are usually restrictions, some I learn to add as I go. “Write three stanzas about Americans and their dogs, make the last line of each stanza the first of the next, and obliquely refer to the Proverb about a fool and his folly being like a dog returning to its vomit. Go.” Just by following up on my double-dog dares, I keep busy.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

My writing space is a desk made out of books. They are just ordinary books I’ve collected over the years, some that probably could be disposed of, and instead of doing that I have stacked them up and put a board over top of them. On top of that board, rows of Readers Digest Condensed Books (they’re all about the same size, and have their own patterned cover art, as I learned from the artist Terri Long). Sometimes I pull a reference book out of the stack–the whole thing is sturdy, doesn’t topple. I kind of need a little weird cave, my room isn’t well lit, and in that way it suits me. For all I know, it is my ideal writing space.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’m working on an essay about humor, reference books, the TV show M*A*S*H, and how my mind has not been quite at peace these years while we have been at war. It’s basically how I spent the Bush era, jotting notes here and there and deleting them, listening to a language groan under the weight of polarized discourse. My wife and I watched every episode of M*A*S*H straight through–a feat I’d probably done out of sequence, but it’s different to do it all together. It’s an all-time-great show. It left a mark on me and a lot of people as I grew up–and I’ve been trying to capture how and why. Long after I had started, in an unbelievable coincidence, I got to meet Mike Farrell and Alan Alda in a green room. I was to introduce Farrell. I thought immediately, as these old friends traded news and jokes, “Oh my god…I’m in the Swamp!” I still don’t know if this experience will work into the essay, but how can it not?

Here’s a selection from Kevin McFadden’s book, Hardscrabble, published by University of Georgia Press:

Hardscrabble by Kevin McFadden

Hardscrabble by Kevin McFadden

A Fête

We wanted to be succored
and we were suckered:
gobsmack over goblets,
toe-holds where finger
sandwiches should be,
the beer sophisticated,
the talk domestic. Beauty,
like death, you never know
who gets it. She gets it.
A belle, I’m told.
A beau, he’s tied.
Sure, you can verb
(professor said) a noun
but not an adjective—
about which time
I blanked, the lights
shorted and a cow
in some proximity
lowed.

Nothing pressing tomorrow?
How about some pressing
tonight? Words were cheap,
and the least groped for.
Most, in the vernacular,
high. Wine came next
to felicitate conversation,
which it did: we ordered
white, all got red, all
got drinking stunk.
Some popped a cork
above the suds then
copped a pork below.
We wanted to be fêted
and we were fetid: souls
so gleefully at odds as most
would be at peace. Minds
in oneness this year,
next year in Tunis.

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