Farrah Field explains her topsy-turvy relationship with the south and the ravenous beauty that arises from anger in a discussion with M.L. Martin on her new book, Rising.
MLM: Let me first say, congratulations on winning the Four Way Books Levis Poetry Prize and on the publication of Rising. How did you learn of Four Way Books and of the contest, and had you entered the manuscript in other contests before winning the Levis prize?
FF: Thank you so much, Meghan. I knew about Four Way Books because of their involvement in the local (and beyond) poetry scene. Martha Rhodes teaches and visits various schools, so she makes the press very visible. Four Way also runs a local reading series. What I particularly admire about the press is its versatile approach to emerging and established writers. I once attended a reading that Four Way put together for the poet and boxer David Lawrence, which was held at Gleason's gym near my apartment. Poetry can be anywhere and should be everywhere, even in a gym where you smell that day's sweat and imagine yourself letting loose on one of the punching bags hanging in the corner.
MLM: How much time did it take to write the poems in Rising and when did you realize, or decide perhaps, that these poems were the ones that would comprise the book?
FF: Who said that you have your whole life to write your first book? I forget. I wrote many of the poems while I was in graduate school at Columbia and although I started sending the manuscript out to various contests and publishers, I added poems here and there, tweaked some and that sort of thing, all the while sending and sending it out. This went on for about three years.
I tend to write through thematic projects. I even put them in different piles on my desk. I set up some rules, figure out what I can do to be naughty, then start putting in things that totally don't belong at all. Rising, was the first time I did this— took some brutality and ran with it. Martha and company went to great lengths to make it a better book by taking out the section divisions I'd originally had (and hated) and created something with, I think, a more hard-hitting arc.
MLM: The book opens with a poem called “Self-Portrait in Toad Suck, Arkansas,” a self-portrait which is delivered in third person, and even though the title divulges a specific location, it is a remotely known place, “a gravel road/ not even on a map.” Another poem, later in the book, “Mosquito Hawk” asks the question “is love renewal or distance?“ Can you discuss the significance of distance and of anonymity in these two poems, and in the book at large?
FF: I never thought about anonymity and "Self-Portrait" in the way that you have called it to attention, but in using the third person I was trying to attain a feeling of the speaker addressing the self by watching the self. (I think I talk to myself a lot; you may see evidence of this if you ever bump into me on the subway.) Even though the place seems remote, the details are very particular to a southern scene: heat, gravel road in the middle of nowhere, rice fields, the Devil, and candle lit trees. (By the way, I have a friend whose dad installed a chandelier onto one of his massive oak trees.) So this quasi-anonymity and particular distance says that the whole southern thing will be used with, as you say, anonymity and distance, with trepidation and certitude, with boldness and confusion, with nostalgia and a little distaste. The speaker in "Mosquito Hawk" wants someone else to be there so badly that it could just as easily be the mosquito hawk. So a bug flying around the room is being addressed as the lover, but the lover is also being addressed. So a kind of anonymity is created in this two-for-one "you."
MLM: You said that you often begin creating poems along a theme. Does your focus naturally gravitate to such a theme, or is there a degree of premeditation in such a theme? What theme were you initially attracted to when you began writing the poems in Rising?
FF: It's difficult to pin down exactly how it all starts. I'm currently working on a series about four sisters who run away from home. I was thinking about sisterhood, sisterhood as the collective, and girls being daughters, being "the girls." This rather large project has grown to encompass why the girls ran away (because their mother is a witch who has witch orgies) and where they find shelter (with the detective assigned to their case and he's having an affair with their former teacher). So the poems begin to take their own shape around the project.
With Rising, I initially wanted to explore my topsy-turvy relationship with the south, a place where everything takes longer and nothing makes sense (read Flannery O'Connor or a biography on Huey P. Long) yet where everything, even run-of-the-mill silly stuff is spoken with beautiful accents and intonations. All southerners sound flirty to me. Where else can you hear email spoken with three syllables?
The title Rising, besides its overt sexual reference, refers to the redneck motto: the south will rise again. I saw it on a bumper sticker when I first moved down there. It's funny because it will never happen, and you sort of hope the person with the bumper sticker also knows it's never going to happen, but they feel the need to say it anyway. What's so backwards is that Louisiana has some of the highest rates of reported domestic violence. Also, Louisiana is where my sister died. I find it all unsettling to say the least.
MLM: At the end of the opening poem, the speaker stumbles onto a birthday celebration and positions herself in a photograph that she doesn't belong in, so that the speaker creates a portrait of herself by disrupting and appropriating what seems to be someone else's portrait. Similarly, to what extent is the poem, or even parts of the book, an accurate portrayal of something that wasn’t meant to happen?
FF: Wow. I hope any teacher reading this brings this writing exercise to class: write an accurate portrayal of something that wasn't meant to happen. The first poem of any book of poetry should teach its reader how to read the rest of the poems in the book. In that regard, my first poem focuses on the quality of the outsider, the girl by herself, who makes an entrance into a place with people. So there's a shift from a haunted rural place into a community, over-heated and gothic as it must be to exist there. What drew me to the image of the birthday party is this idea of celebration even when the mode of doom and tragedy is the place itself, with its ruined history and self-aggrandizing mythology. It's easy in that humidity to imagine the fantasy of "something that wasn't meant to happen." It's a bold move to step into the middle of a picture (maybe it was her party after all), but a move that doesn't necessarily say that the girl belongs there--the south there.
MLM: When writing poetry on personal experience, how do you navigate between an allegiance to the actual experience, the ‘true story,’ so to speak, and an allegiance to craft, or to the composition of an effective and moving poem? Is it ever difficult to balance the roles of truth-teller and poem-maker?
FF: A British folk singer I like named Kathryn Williams has a song called, "Tell The Truth As If It Were Lies." One lyric to the song is: you say I feel dead. I like that we don't really know if the you is having a bad weather day and is feeling kind of dead, hungover maybe or feeling ignored. Or is you telling someone else that they feel dead underneath them, isn't bringing any excitement to the table or wherever, or isn't being responsive to what's going on?
Poetry begins with an active imagination, one that goes where it wants, one that isn't satisfied with all the mainstream crap in the world. There is always more than one thing happening at a time in a poem and it was interesting and useful to write about my sister's death, for example, because I can't really talk about it very well. People talk about siblings all the time and when someone asks if I have any, I have to say that I used to. It's awkward and it makes everyone feel uncomfortable. When I write about it, I don't feel awkward. Someone else can make sense of it for a change.
Straight forward language doesn't necessarily constitute a line-by-line, this-is-how-it-happened account of anything. After my dad read the book, he reminded me that my mother wasn't washing the dishes when a tornado flew over our house (from "Peel an Orange for Me"). What would it mean if she had? That's she's crazy enough to clean the house for anybody, even if it's a tornado? That's she's stubborn and unflappable?
In "Murder, An Ancient Mystery," I mention cemetery grounds keeping. What do I know about that? Is it a personal experience because I saw it? I didn't see it, but I heard it happening in the distance once. Would it be personal if it had been my job? It wasn't. It's personal, actually, because it's a terrible thing to think about, that we stuff our people into the ground then figure out how to mow and hedge around their markers. Was someone supposed to have mowed over my sister's grave while I was standing there in order for me to write about a poem about it? In Louisiana, it's hot outside and I sometimes ride my bike to my sister's grave. Poisonous bugs fly all around and I can't help but wonder if I'll make it home without getting run over by an idiot unaccustomed to bikers. The truth is, I really don't want to die on my bike.
MLM: I’d like to continue our discussion of distance, and distancing, for a moment, because it seems to be integral to how many of the poems operate, and also one of their main concerns. You described how a figure such as the mosquito hawk allows the speaker to address someone who is not overtly present in the poem, thereby endowing the absentee with anonymity. I am curious if you consciously created similar masks for the speaker, in poems such as “In Le Compte Bayou” and “Vixen,” in which the speaker uses the second person voice to speak about herself. In these two poems, and perhaps also in “Self-Portrait in Toad-Suck, Arkansas,” in which a ‘self’-portrait is delivered through third person, I’m curious if this shifting of point of view acts to preserve, or even create, an emotional distance, or to carefully traverse it.
FF: I'd like to say first off that second person sounds so soothing. You sounds so much better than I. And if you're kind of southern, you gets two syllables as well as becoming a little sexy. It sits nicely in your mouth (my mouth?) and in a very pretty way, tells the reader to focus right here and over there at the same time. To be honest, I'm much taller as you than as I.
Mask purposefully? Me? I wish I could mask, but I don't use the second person voice to speak "about" rather than to. Most of the poems I write in second person are weird self-addresses. You ate an entire jar of spicy pickles. You're disgusting. You haven't even had dinner yet. See what I mean? Second person has a sense of command, hints at a kind of control that was really never there, but probably is a little bit.
"In Le Compte Bayou" is one of the first poems I wrote using second person point of view and it highlighted the disconnected closeness of the two people in the boat. Second person brought about all this action that was just sort of happening. The snakes became far more interesting and I was seeing them as they had been doing what they were always doing and it didn't matter whether or not I was there. Second person is filled with existential crises: you could be any body, you are you and annoying, you need to know that you will die someday and what exactly will be your contribution to the whole of it. A long time ago I said on a bench in a park that I wanted to reinvent beauty.
MLM: I’d be remiss if I didn’t invite you to expand on that last thought; can you say more about “wanting to reinvent beauty?
FF: I really hate routines and same-dayness. I hate it that no one is willing to admit what a big fraidy cat they are. I feel so hungry all the time for someone to just shake me. I remember waking up right after my appendectomy, asking the doctor where my appendix was. I really thought it'd be sitting in a jar on my bedside table, but they sent it to a lab. The nurse asked me, you really wanted to see it? I understand they had to run tests while my guts were freshly plucked, but damn. Why wouldn't I want to see it?
The corporate mind-set, the corporate approach makes me want to barf. But barfing is kind of beautiful, the whole wretching, stomach acid thing, the whole getting rid of something you've had too much of or something you were never supposed to have. Think of snow, for example. Almost everyone I know complains about snow. Newscasters, the most horrid corporate screwed humans I can think of, complain about it as though we are all supposed to agree that we're put out by snow. The only time we can like snow is during Christmas. I think snow is incredible. I think it's incredible that Greenlandic natives have hundreds of different words that describe snow. Every day is not supposed to be the same.
As Rising was developing, I was reaching for this new kind of beauty, the ravenous beauty that arises from anger, the whole violence of living and dying, the lugubriousness of grief, the beautiful silliness thereof, of feeling so sad that you could hit your own head and laugh at yourself at the same time.
MLM: That last thought draws me to two thematic threads— violence and humor— which dovetail in poignant moments throughout the collection. “Night and Different Night,” for instance, a poem charged with sexual and violent energy, ends in humor: “if I didn’t need your mouth,/ I’d tape it shut.” Can you speak about how humor functions in this collection?
FF: The poet Anne Shaw has a really great line from her poem, "Hymn": "How grief runs/ through me like a pack of eels." There's something in this line that incorporates every which way grief can be defined. It's hidden, it's something you carry like a secret, no one really wants to touch it. I like the idea that she says "pack of eels" indicating that grief is never simply one thing; it's heartbreak, anger, disappointment, etc. What makes Shaw's line such a great one is that the thing about eels is they have such ridiculous faces. They're scary, but clownish, pointy yet plastered with a weird stupid grin. There is a ridiculousness to grief, the fact that you can be so beyond the beyond of sadness; you really have to work hard to stop yourself from letting any one of grief's emotions from totally taking over. I guess that's where humor comes in. It kind of makes me take a step back and realize I'd rather have my mortar made of generosity, forgiveness, and I'd much rather mock myself than become codified by anger and self-pity.
The title, "Murder, An Ancient Mystery," I think, is one of the funniest things in the book. I almost fell out of my chair laughing when I wrote it. Often when I read that poem aloud, I say that I think it's a funny title and it usually takes people a moment or two before sort of honing in on its weird humor. A quick punch before, well, total devastation. Besides, murder— are you kidding me? Louisiana, where my sister was murdered, is one of the most impoverished states, ranks number one in gun violence, continually ranks among the lowest ten regarding education, scores the worst in health care, has a legendarily corrupt state government, is second highest in oil consumption per capita, and is considered one of the second to worst states to live in. The tension therein is suffocating. The place where my sister was murdered is known as the sunshine state, filled with beautiful flowers like the Magnolia, marked by charming manners, a slow approach to life, beautiful architecture, and people who believe they are loyal. This here is the set-up for gothic humor: my sister met the man who killed her at my parent's church. I can't ignore weird. I can't ignore the underlying grotesque behind the idea that life is so simple and normal. It's funny sad, or sad funny, which comes out to just about the same thing.