INTERVIEW + NEW WORK
John D. Fry is the author of the chapbook silt will swirl (NewBorder Publishing). He serves on the editorial staff of Newfound: An Inquiry of Place and Front Porch and is currently an MFA candidate at Texas State University-San Marcos. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pebble Lake Review, Konundrum Engine Literary Review, The Dirty Napkin, BorderSenses, The Texas Review, and Blood Orange Review. He lives in the Texas Hill Country.
TSE: John, since I don’t know you at all, would you tell us a story about how you came to poetry? Also, what do you find your poetry haunted by, or what spectral presences make themselves known to you in your poems?
JF: Thank you so much, Sun Yung, for giving me the opportunity to speak about my work. & you’re right: we don’t know each other with respect to physical proximity, have never spoken “in person,” as it were — but if it is possible for language to create connections across space & time, as I believe it can & does, then this is (hopefully) the beginning of becoming acquainted.
“How did you come to poetry?” is one of those perennial questions that I think gives way to answers that are often apocryphal or, at least, somewhat self-mythologizing (though I don’t mean mythologizing in a pejorative way). Mine is no different, & I guess the story could be told in two different, but related, ways. Like many, I began to write poetry with intent & seriousness as an angst-ridden adolescent around the age of fifteen. Why poetry instead of prose — which I’ve only attempted in highly self-conscious fits & starts over the years — I couldn’t say, though I have a few theories. I think I turned to the (blank) page — as opposed to other pursuits, some more savory than others — because there were things at work in my life then that I didn’t understand. &, well, felt a burning need to try to understand. Paradoxes, contradictions, mysteries: the enigma of self & world(s). The identity crises to which nearly all young adults (& I’m not that far from still being a young adult!) are prone.
A simpler, & perhaps deeper, way of telling the story of how I came to poetry, which begins to dovetail into your other questions, would go something like this: I am the gay son of an evangelical United Methodist minister. Having been raised in a devoutly religious household/community, & having spoken at length with other people who were similarly raised in an environment where religious observance was of paramount importance — irrespective of the faith practiced — I’ve become convinced that such an experience indelibly impacts the way a person experiences being-in-the-world(s). Sometimes for the better (one would hope!) but, also, sometimes for the worse. It informs the form of a person’s perceptual framework, for lack of a better phrase — in a way that she or he might or might not recognize — & becomes an indigenous part of her or his psychic pathways.
I would even go so far as to say that being steeped in a particular religious tradition from early childhood gives you an additional mothertongue made up of that tradition’s mythology, symbology, liturgy — that is, its poetry — iconography, etc. And even if you cease being observant, stop going to church, embrace heretical or blasphemous ideas, or say to hell with all of this & walk as far outside of orthodoxy as you can possibly go — that language, which in a very real way is your native language, is as inextricably a part of you as the bones beneath your skin. As your skin itself. I’m not sure that such a fluency ever completely disappears.
The presence of this other mothertongue — & the sense of belonging among a particular community, of having a people: they (Christians) were unquestionably my people & I (a Christian) unquestionably belonged among them — is incredibly powerful & can be an abiding, empowering gift. The loss of either is painful beyond words, & it so happened that both of them were called into radical question/cast in doubt when I was a teenager becoming more & more aware that, contrary to all of the ways I was raised, I wasn’t attracted to girls but to other guys.
For me, then, perhaps because the words of the Bible were poured into me from infancy onward — which I’ve described before in poems as having verses tattooed onto my inner eyelids — particularly (but not only) the New Testament, it is literally & figuratively true for me to say that in my beginning was The Word. Maybe because the mystery of the Incarnation is described as the divine word being made flesh, I cannotnot believe that language also partakes of flesh. Is an incarnate, corporeal thing that calls the world(s) into being. And while I have wandered quite far afield of the orthodoxy of my childhood and, later, adolescence, I have retained a faith in words even if I no longer believe in The Word.
Frank Bidart, in his long poem “Ulanova at Forty-Six At Last Dances Before A Camera Giselle,” writes about something that he calls a “radical given.” In the poem, Bidart is talking about the radical given in relation to tragedy (Renaissance, Greek) as a genre: he gives the examples of Hamlet and Oedipus. What’s compelling to me about the idea of a “radical given” isn’t the inevitably tragic way it’s cast in Bidart’s poem: what interests me is the degree to which that given, whatever it happens to be, is inescapable. Which, I suppose, depending upon one’s view of free will, etc, could be viewed as being prone to a tragic frame of mind. Notwithstanding that, I would still say that each of us has at least one thing that could be called a radical given. Being a preacher’s son & a queer one at that are, I’d say, examples of radical givens in my life.
When I write, then, it’s in a way inevitable that some glimpse of the panorama of the Judeo-Christian tradition — the Bible, theology, liturgy, etc — can & sometimes will announce its presence within the plane(s) of a given poem. (It’s one of those things where though I have in many ways wandered far, far away from the church — gotten out and/or been cast out — I haven’t been able to get the church out of me, as it were.) A fact that is sometimes salutary &, other times, a kind of further insult to injury. & because my relationship with the Christian tradition is vexed at best, I would definitely say that it often haunts my poems. The extent of the haunting remains at the periphery of some poems, but in others the specters stand front & center.
I would say, too, that my poems are haunted by language itself — haunted, that is, because the battleground of the crisis of faith I experienced as an adolescent young adult (early twenties) began & ended with the Alpha & Omega: language. & my sense of language’s ability to signify — to mean at all — frayed & fragmented. This is one of the reasons, I think, for the spareness present in the poems I’ve been writing over the past several years, as well as why syntax becomes a quicksilver thing. The manuscript that I’ve been working on over the past year (my MFA thesis, which I hope might become my first full-length collection) chronicles what I only know to call a pilgrimage.
TSE: Ah, the PK–a special tribe of people! What an anthology that would be! I’m always intrigued by people who started writing poetry at a young age–which does seem to be most poets–because I didn’t start until I was in my twenties, and was shamelessly hostile toward poetry before then.
I like the idea of “radical given”–I’ve been teaching Hamlet for the past two years and I’ve come to the conclusion, which may change, that one of Hamlet’s radical givens is that he, as written, is having a profound crisis of masculinity. He cannot become a man until he becomes the king, but since becoming the king means becoming a murderer, he is doomed to be stained, stained in a court (world) that is already corrupt. It’s interesting to study it with teenagers, who all think that he’s about 15 or 16, and are shocked when I point out that the text implies indirectly that he’s 33 (?) in the graveyard scene. He’s well past the age when he should have “become a man”. Anyway, I’m digressing, but Oedipus is of course also, literally, cursed. So what is a man to do, a man who is must become the king, but that throne is tainted? Is that basically the Christian story in a nutshell–original sin, etc. etc.? And it must be said that those two narratives leave little in the way of satisfying journeys for the female characters, although if we look at the characters as archetypes we can see that each of us has a desperate prince and a man-of-action king within us…perhaps one could see Hamlet and Oedipus as quasi-queer characters because they are made as thus and thus but the mold that is before them cannot accommodate them (Hamlet the thinker must become a man of action, Oedipus the man of action pursues the murderer back to himself…)…
What are you reading these days and what are your reading practices like?
JF: I love the reach of your question – what is a man who must become king to do when his throne is tainted? – & your observation that characters like Hamlet & Oedipus represent mythic(cally tragic) examples of people who are, as you say, “made as thus,” yet unable/incapable of fitting the mold that’s been fated them. (Another analogue to this is Bidart’s “The Second Hour of the Night” in Desire, where he takes the myth of Cinyras & Myrrha out of Ovid & spins one of the most haunting, devastating statements about desire that I’ve ever encountered.) If becoming king is one way of describing the process of becoming who you are – which begins in how you’ve been “made as thus” – & if the taint of the throne is that feeling not of being lost so much as not belonging, of not fitting in, I think every person on earth has felt that way at one time or another. Has felt like a stranger to one’s self. Perhaps it could be called the existential crisis I’d say almost everyone eventually experiences or undergoes once they awaken to things as they are. Dante illustrates this moment as finding oneself in the middle of a dark wood, & the ensuing journey takes him through Purgatory & Hell until, at last, he glimpses Paradise. The idea of going into the Underworld from Inanna’s descent to the various Greco-Roman figures who entered & then exited those gates – & the alchemical crucible of that – is very powerful to me. Christianity teaches that Christ also went there & came back.
Truthfully, I don’t think that the cipher the Christian story whirls around ultimately is the idea of original sin. Though this certainly isn’t always the case with Christianity in practice, I would say that God’s overwhelming love for Creation This may merely be nostalgia on my part, or the fact that I’ve recently spent a great deal of time with the Revelations of Divine Love by the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, whose visions of Christ as Mother present a radically different view of the relationship between God & World than is more common nowadays in Christianity. One focused not on the eschatological fire of the Last Judgment or the lurid spectacle of human sinfulness – in fact, Julian doesn’t seem to believe in original sin at all! – but, rather, on the wonders of Christ’s love.
For around ten years, I didn’t so much as crack open the Bible to read it or study it the way I did as a child & teenager – save for scholarly purposes when writing on poets like Chaucer, Milton, Donne or Herbert – because I was too angry with Christianity in general & wanted to get as far away from it as possible. It was too hot to touch. Being a queer kid raised in the church – I can only speak to my experience, though I imagine mine wasn’t anomalous – was a schizoid experience. On the one hand, you grow up believing God not only loves who you are: God has always loved you. For who you are. &, as Psalm 139 says, God hasalways known who you are – before you ever were. And yet, simultaneously, you’re subjected to all manner of sociocultural prohibitions, or taboos, about cleanliness & uncleanliness that I now believe to be anachronistic and/or irrelevant to the teachings of Jesus that can take a lifetime to counteract and/or unlearn. A case in point: the story of Sodom & Gomorrah. I cannot remember not knowing this cautionary tale, but it wasn’t until I was an adolescent that I learned the supposed real reason why God smote that city unto ash. Or the juridical prohibitions from Leviticus or Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that evangelical Christians fling about like bludgeons at the bugaboo of homosexuality. As a teenager, trying to untie such a Gordian knot is enough to leave a person unhinged. &, for a good while, I certifiably was. & I’ve known people who didn’t survive the undertaking.
When you belong to a religious tradition that holds contradicting notions about something like sexuality, the cognitive leap from a recognition of same-sex attraction to an increasing feeling that there’s something unspeakably awful & evil inside of you happens before you’ve even realized it. & not only is there something anathema somewhere within you: you become anathema, too. Within some sects of Christianity, homosexuality is believed to be symptomatic of demonic possession. As are things like clinical depression, or other forms of mental illness. Laying-on-of-hands prayer & exorcisms are routinely used to cast out such devils. I feel it’s important to point out that the United Methodism of my childhood was nothing at all like this – & I was never subjected to any of the above – but I did grow up with an increasing sense that there was something within me, a thing I neither asked for nor actively sought that just was, that as a child I could only understand as wrongness. Badness. “Made as thus.”
Notwithstanding all of the ways the Bible has been oh-so-effectively used as a weapon to disenfranchise, marginalize, & silence anyone designated as “other,” I think that it’s a beautiful thing that, despite all of the ways various factions within the Christian have tried to make the Bible mean in a monologic, which is to say hegemonic, way – the Bible invariably ends up speaking out of both sides of its mouth. It speaks in tongues. By that, I mean that it doesn’t speak in or with one unified voice. Claims or pronouncements made in one book contradict those made in others (which brings to mind, for me anyway, Whitman’s willingness to contradict himself). Of course, this is particularly true with respect to the Old & New Testaments – one of the many things too often forgotten by Christian fundamentalism, I think – but it’s there between the books of the New Testament, too. When I began to read the Bible again a few years ago, I was spurred by writers like Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (her book The Beginning of Desire, about Genesis, is unbelievable) and Alicia Ostriker (her book The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions) who are contemporary practitioners of midrash. That is when I seriously began to invite & invoke scripture into my poems.
As a reader, I’m omnivorous, obsessive, & active. I read with a pen in hand or near my person. & rather associative in the way one text will lead to another text which leads to another text which leads to another text. I am often reading multiple books at any given time, & my backpack usually runneth over with whatever is occupying my mind on a given day or period of days. (The book(s) that I carry around can change within the span of a day, too, which leads to piles of books all over my apartment, something that drives my partner beyond distraction.) An observer looking at my bookshelves will find subjects like mythology & folklore, anthropology & archaeology, astronomy & astrology & alchemy, religion & philosophy, literary theory & linguistics, sexuality & cultural studies, but the vast majority of the books are volumes of poetry & fiction (more poetry than fiction). My tastes, I’d say, are eclectic, ecumenical, trans-historical, cross-cultural. Anne Carson will send me back to Sappho just as Frank Bidart will lead me back into Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Thomas Merton has been known to share space on my desk at the same time as Foucault & Monique Wittig. It’s all over the place almost all of the time.
I also return to certain authors & particular books over & over the way some migrating species return to the same place year after year. These, I guess, could be called touchstones. Or talismans. Or both. Virginia Woolf, especially her diaries, is one writer I go back to often. Carole Maso’s AVA is another. Emily Dickinson’s poems & letters – one could spend a lifetime in them & still never touch the bottom of that blue!Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels is a novel I read every year as if doing so were a religious observance (which, in a way, I’d say it is). Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, because she writes about the borderland area of South Texas, especially the Valley, where she & Iboth grew up (I lived closer to the coast, near Corpus Christi); when I first read it in high school, it was the first time I’d encountered a book that explained the complex spirit of the place where I came of age as a queer person.
Most recently, I’ve been dipping in & out of the collected interviews of Robert Duncan’s recently released by North Atlantic Books called A Poet’s Mind, which I’m sure will lead me back to his poems. The interviews are as wild & dizzying as the little bit of his The H.D. Book that I’ve read &, now that I’m finished with my MFA, will be able to begin again in earnest. The work of Jean Valentine & Fanny Howe are never very far away from me & essential to my writing life. I just finished the new chapbook of Valentine’s poems, [A ship], released by Red Glass Books — which is marvelous! & the newest things I’ve been working on (post-MFA writing, that is) are what I think might become a sequence, or long poem, that attempts a dialogue with the work of Fanny Howe’s. But they’re so new & messy that I have no idea what to make of them yet.
Paul Celan’s work has also become hugely important to me, & I have been carrying his books around with me for the better part of a year now on/off, both the poems (I have Hamburger’s Selected) as well as the little gem of a book of his prose, which I think contains some of the most profound meditations about language in general & poetics in particular that I’ve ever encountered. I’ve also been reading his letters — specifically, the correspondence between him and Nelly Sachs, & have been working on a series of erasure poems that I call “ghostings” of their letters to each other. What has moved me so much about Celan, I think, is his belief that a poem is en route — its language reaches out toward something, somewhere, someone — & the way that his poems seek what he calls an addressable Thou. Which could be God, or G-d, or god. Or the impossibility of. A friend, a family member. Someone living, someone dead. An individual or a collective. (I think that Valentine achieves something similar, in fact, in her own work, which so frequently, & so intimately, addresses a you.) That reach is palpable in the letters Celan & Sachs wrote each other, too — their words ache with the effort to reach each other — & this is increasingly what I hope might happen in my own poems, which have begun to address a you that is more than merely a self-reflexive way of referring to my ‘I’.
TSE: Thank you, John Fry.
* * *
by the light of no moon
it is time, she said, for you to go
even though you do not know this
seated at the feet of the eldest
wisewoman tree, I tied
(even though I do not
know this star-spare road)
a saffron thread to her oldest branch
for the breath’s
am I in the quiet bell
between inhale and exile
please don’t let me
forget though I do not know
how to leave ashes behind
star-spare road, remember
on the tongue
gathered around the gorsefire
this was long after sky
spun skeins & skeins
of woolen thread dyed indigo, or some other
rare shade of sorrow. after we grew hard
stone for a tongue—
I’m sorry, ancient elder
tree, but I couldn’t quite bring the faded maple leaves or us
to believe: wherever I went
I went with me. implacable
& already the derelict carillon
bells ring out wild, rust-colored questions—
of the problem: word was to wound
as hurt was to heart. I confess I wanted to
wander the wreckage piled
skyward before the angel
statue, facing the courtyard, one
wing blown away, or finger the
scapular’s prayerworn scraps, the legendary
cathedral that was our youth, an Albion
ruin under which prehistoric
wood in a sacred circle round
was laid. forgotten
like a henge of
boyhood abandoned, but tended faithfully by
discalced brothers who lay down among
where altars were, their tonsured heads pillowed
there where the Lady—who has all
but fled this place—was thought to walk,
elderberry blossoming behind her
most immaculate feet.
in the noctuary
earlier ages named the Book
of Last Light, the inked uncials shone
only below the evensong of Hesperus
many an ever ago.
& as our ancestors once
understood augury, the feather scripture of birds’
wings writing Autumn on the air, we tried
but the scratched marks left
by the beak of a quill—they could not
as if parchment might rival
sky, & we hadn’t tallow enough to trick it into
believing a lantern shaped like a nine-pointed star
was a star. on the day the last lark’s song waned
illegible in the sun, we cried out
& beat our breasts. with an ash-handled
knife, split nine birds
for a hook of a wish
but their entrails did not sing.
we further hollowed out
their already hollow
bones for the thinnest flute
of a hope we might hear—but their
spirits whistled no clarion call.
unable to see, unable to read, sorrow-spelled
our astronomers gave up their grief-
whittled ghosts. we buried them
alongside our ancient wise, adorned with woad
for the long journey
underground. whorls of blue
triskelions the only spiral pathways
few of the brothers can recall the gloom
of this ever where—so particular—
we lost our ears to
hear the gospel
sunrise etches onto the dolmens daily
when we gather every Vespers
hour in the long barrow
light of a solstice
no living eye has seen.
nights when nothing was
well, —I didn’t believe
her eight hundred year
old words, mother of my mother’s
mother’s tongue: all shall be
well, —but I didn’t know how
to drink and all shall be
well, —because the cup
was broken and the bread
did not rise
shining, showing, said
in the sweet
wound-place our Mother Lord’s
chest place spear-split holy of holies
and within that breast place
and all manner of thing shall be well
is a hazelnut
space inviting fair, far
large enough (she saw)
to offer refuge for all
even you dirty
soles, even you crooked
hands, even you
tired eye, trust me
yes even homeless
you, breath on a coal
like a needle to a magnet
—after Jean Valentine
light, no telling
how many desert
rain, a door in
mountain meets sky
—I saw it! there, where
even ghosts have towns
half a moon before December’s
solstice, do you remember how
in dreams (a wing-
bone for a pencil) you wrote
you are everyone:
open going blue
you are everyone:
truth: some star
slept inside them
—lost in the wonder thicket,
a ghost unaware he was a ghost
heavy as a wingless angel barefoot, struck blind by
a town of bright
starlit faces ghost tried
to touch them ghost hands
could not held
their red, their blue
shattered, as smoke was
once flame, this nightmare
no dream: ghost shoes
hung where, flowering
Judas was a tree
in full bloom
—carrying a dead bird
around my neck
(as word to wound)
wings lead sinkers
heavy on my chest
if loneliness aches
light zeroed bone
if heart like glass
if hurt like self
write a line
cross it out
tonight, fifteen degrees above
freezing, but warm, I wish you true
desire: a West Texan cactus
flower to stand in your septuagenarian chest
veined, bloom: like the streaking dark
Davis Mountains sky full of falling stars
even if shut
asleep, an eye can
cup starlight, drink
* * *