01 April 2010

An interview with Robert Fanning

by Jill Crammond Wickham
Jill Crammond Wickham: How did the Prophet “announce his entrance” to you? Was it, as it is in the collection’s first poem, “The Prophet at the Dry Cleaners,” with a “dull rattle of bells”? Do you remember when you “met” him? How many poems had you written about him before you realized he was here to stay?
 
Robert Fanning: The Prophet came to me a handful of years ago while I was sitting beside my brother Mike's swimming pool at his 4th of July barbecue. Kids splashing in the pool, bright sunlight, soda, grill smoke and freedom and Go USA--and there I was, feeling cynical and disturbed about the world, the environment, the wars. That afternoon I had this strange image of a man in a black suit standing on the diving board shouting to the swimmers, who didn't heed him. It was a fleeting image; I didn't know what it meant. A couple weeks later, or so, it became the poem "The Prophet's Lament at Spring Break," the first poem in the collection. That's when I met the Prophet. That was such an unusual poem for me--it felt different. Not long afterward, I had the idea that I might write another poem about the Prophet. So I did. Then another. A few poems in, I knew that this strange man with his black suit was going to take me along for a ride, though I had no idea where we were going or what we'd find.
 
Have you ever stopped and listened, as the question is posed on your website (www.robertfanning.com), “to the mad ramblings of any street corner prophet?”
 
Yes, definitely. I'm sometimes too leery to get too close, though--which is important when you consider the Prophet in my book--who goes unnoticed and unheard. I usually walk by--but stop somewhere nearby and listen. I do remember as an undergrad at the University of Michigan some doomsday preachers shouting things at crowds of students, and I've encountered them in cities and other crowds. An earlier poem, "Seaside Carnival, Late in the World" features these doomsday prophets (a poem in my first collection, The Seed Thieves) who I'd been struck by seeing on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey. I'm totally fascinated by these people and yes, I do stop to listen--but avoid engaging with them. I don't need to be told that I'm going to Hell. But the idea of a person standing in the middle of a crowd of people: rousing them, inciting them, breaking them out of their shells--no matter what their message: that urgency and passion--it's fascinating in a world where we grow ever more inward and disconnected and cyber-residential.
 
Does the Prophet follow you around, still? 
 
He stands outside the window, looking in at me. Sometimes he knocks lightly, but usually he just stares at me. He wants me to write another book about him.
 
It would be great if poetry collections, like novels, could be made into movies. In fact, as I was reading, each poem presented itself as a mini-movie, or a “short.” If American Prophet were made into a movie, who would you want to play the Prophet?
 
It is a very cinematographic collection to me, so I'm glad to hear you say that--and I often consider my poems as "small films," as I sometimes call them. I've considered in passing the idea of actually making small films to accompany some of the poems--but I just don't have the time or resources, unfortunately. I think that would be a wonderful idea: a book of poems becoming a film. Great idea! Let's get Hollywood behind this! As for the actor, I've never thought about that. He's a rather enigmatic, shadowy character in some ways--but also endearing and something of a bumbler, an ordinary man. So I'll leave that up to the casting agent! But I'll tell you some I might audition: Adrien Brody, Joaquin Phoenix, John Malkovich, Johnny Depp, Daniel Day-Lewis. Bud Cort about 10 years after Harold and Maude would've been perfect.  And hell, while we're at it, let's come up with a Director: David Lynch or Tim Burton.
 
At what point in writing “Prophet poems” did you realize a collection was forming?
 
Well, to some degree when I wrote the first few poems. I started thinking manuscript at that point--though I really had no idea how many I'd write, or if the idea would lose its energy. I entertained the possibility that it might even be a chapbook, and I put together a chapbook and sent it out, though that wasn't satisfying. I wanted it to be a full-length book.
 
How did you put the manuscript together? Considering all the poems have a single character as their focus, was it easier or more difficult to arrange the sequence?
 
First of all, as I would do with any manuscript--whether for a focused, thematic book like this one, or a diverse collection--I simply wrote and wrote--as many poems as I could, not worrying about sequencing or arrangement until much later. I think there's already an inherent danger in knowing you're working on a book too early on, or thinking too much about it. Then you become a cattle herder. So I just wanted to let the poems happen, let their various movements and turns happen. Much later on, when I felt I had enough poems to really start imagining a sequence, I spread the dozens of poems on the floor and began moving them around like puzzle pieces. And this was definitely easier with a themed collection than with a group of poems on various topics, as I'm used to.
 
What began to emerge in this process were a few different arrangements--some poems featured the Prophet trying to address a crowd of people, such as The Prophet at Elvisfest, The Prophet in Flight, The Prophet in the Superstore, and many others. Another series of poems featured him alone in a landscape, such as The Prophet in the Heartland and The Prophet at the Industrial Complex. Later, I began to notice that as the narrative arc continues, the Prophet is trying to gain higher ground--climbing up on high voltage towers and billboards. I loved that--so I began to write a few more poems toward that movement. And the same goes for the introduction of a megaphone, an idea that begins with the poem The Prophet's New Voice. Toward the end of the book, he carries a megaphone on his travels. So, as with the shaping of any collection, it's part intuition, part faith, part conscious making, and part madness.
 
In his understated manner, the Prophet is a powerful, captivating character. Is American Prophet more your book or the Prophet’s book?
 
It's both of ours, of course, but definitely more his book. I had to fight the urge to make it more my book. I kept wanting to get into his head, to know more about him, to make him do some grand thing or to really have the book be contained or epiphanic, as I have a tendency to do with my poems. He won in the end--by just wandering, by not being heard or seen, by being misunderstood, and yes, very understated. And I'm glad for that--his book ended up being better than my book would have been.
 
Would you consider American Prophet to be more of a collection that sends a message or one that presents a series of cultural observations? Or perhaps both? What was your intention?
 
I think it's definitely both, though my intention was never very clear. The book was really a wandering, a gut sense. I feel like by having the Prophet to travel with, I was able to write about many different scenes and cultural contexts that I may not have been able to write about as easily without him. Many of these landscapes, the superstore, the casino, the city, the Midwestern fields, the strip mall--they all fascinate me and move me--this nation is so various yet homogeneous, so absurd and breathtaking. I love these landscapes. I love driving in this country, through farms and cities. I love all of it. But I don't know that you can write a book that just wanders around taking snapshots of these American worlds. That's been done and done perfectly and can't be done again, and it is called Leaves of Grass. There's some aspect of my book that is almost a minimalist version of Whitman's grandiose and epic American wandering, I realized afterward. This Prophet is a nobody, a searcher without a voice, a lost soul wondering why we "his people" aren't listening, aren't watching. So if the book has a message, it might be that there is no one or no message capable of bringing us together, or that the message is now inaudible or irrelevant.
 
Though there are clearly religious overtones to the collection, they are not presented in a heavy-handed manner. Can you discuss the secular versus non-secular aspects of the book?
 
Anytime you're calling a character the Prophet: yes, you've got religion swimming around in the current. But I definitely wanted to wrestle the subject of religion out of the spotlight. This guy's message is not about Christ or Allah or any nameable God. And though he is in many ways a doomsayer, he also sees hope; his is more of a secular call to prayer, and I perfectly recognize the contradictory nature of that. Perhaps he is more of an anti-Prophet, in that he hasn't been blessed as other prophets were, with a flaming tongue, with a divine message. The guy watches Star Trek and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, fer Chrissake. He Googles Native American spirituality and reads the Farmer's Almanac. He's kind of a loveable numbskull. He's not a priest or an evangelist--though he may look like one, skulking around and shouting at crowds in his black suit. In fact, he looks for God's face on the side of a barn, he sees the evangelists gathering at a huge convention--he knows on some level that those folks aren't looking for what he's looking for. So, yes, religion is a large undercurrent, among many--but the book isn't about religion. The secular and non-secular are intertwined and superimposed in the collection, as they are in our nation of superstore cathedrals.
 
Do you have any religious training?
 
I once was an altar boy. Does that count?
 
What is your favorite poem in American Prophet?
 
It's hard to pick one because I like poems for different reasons. I like the inherent humor in a lot of the poems, like The Prophet at Elvisfest, the self-deprecation of The Prophet at the Poetry Reading and a few politically charged poems that address the "War on Terror" (The Prophet in the War Zone and The Prophet and the Seabird Dream).
 
What inspires you? In your daily life, where might you find a poem?
 
It's really impossible to predict and hard to discuss where inspiration comes from. For me the sources are just about anywhere: from something I read in a book, or some strange news segment on the TV. I'm drawn to things that pique my interest, that spark emotion in me. If I'm tickled or disturbed or moved by something, then I'm moved to write, and hopefully will then move a reader.  I like things that have an emotional complexity to them--that suggest a maelstrom of feeling. For instance, I have a recent poem called "A Deer in the Target," inspired by a news clip I saw of a deer running wild in a Target department store. Other recent subjects: a poem to my twin who died in utero, a poem about a Buddhist temple overrun by Red Fire Ants, a poem about encountering family members on Facebook. I love things that seem funny, absurd, and somehow sad all at the same time. Most recently, I've been writing poems of a personal nature. In the past, I've consciously avoided those poems--now I embrace this impulse: to write about my life. I'm lucky enough to have a wonderful family; my wife and children amaze me and startle me. Recent deaths in my family--having lost a brother and sister--have also shaken me to my core. The challenge is to make these very personal experiences as intense and moving for strangers, for readers. Departing from American Prophet, my next collection will be quite a wide spectrum of subject matter and tones, I think. I like that in a poetry book.
 
Could you give us a glimpse of your writing process? Do you have a daily writing practice?
 
Daily I lament not writing daily. I try to accept that I just don't have time in my life right now to do so. With a new teaching career and two young children, there just aren't enough hours in the day. On good days I'll sneak a few lines in or a stanza. More importantly, I collect ideas, jot down the sparks. When I get the time, hopefully in the summer, I'll start some fires. I try to do a lot of poetry readings, which are a great impetus to finish up some new drafts. When I have a reading on the horizon, my productivity level increases. As for process: hammer, chisel and saw. 
 
When is a poem finished? How do you polish your language to get such gorgeous lines as:
…the Prophet witnesses through his porthole:
first the sundown’s crimson dousing desert mesas,
then the dark sea pooling in canyons, night’s flood
spilling into heartland farms where streetlights
shimmer few and far between.  Through shredded sails
of cirrus a blood red moon rises… 
(from “The Prophet in Flight”)

Thank you for saying you like those lines. I often use the metaphor of sculpture, an easy thing to liken my process to, as my wife is a sculptor. Along those lines, the early drafts are wet clay, the outburst of initial feeling and language; middle drafts are the mold making process--the setting of stanzas, arranging lines. Editing and revising are when I make a lot of syntactical adjustments and focus even more consciously on the sound of the language, and make tweaks to the meter--a sort of fine tuning time--listening to a new engine. The patina, the last phase, involves reading the poem many times aloud; I'll often add new poems to readings, so that I can hear how they're working, feel how they're working on the page. As for when it is finished? When it resists change. When it feels solid. When I've lived with it a long time. When it feels like slough.
 
Who are your major poetic influences? 
 
This is difficult to determine in that I believe my writing is an accretion of nearly every poet whose work I've admired, and that is far too many to list. I studied with a wide array of poets at Sarah Lawrence, including Tom Lux and Marie Howe, who all inspired me in different ways: I'm inspired by dozens of contemporary poets who write with clarity and music. I often return to my loves: Roethke, Plath, Thomas. I'm particularly drawn to mid-20th Century poets, whose strong formal work carried over into mid/late-career free verse that I find to be deeply infused with musicality.
 
What are you currently reading?
 
I'm teaching a Graduate Seminar in Contemporary Poetry, and created a reading list consisting of some books I haven't had a chance to read, including Gabrielle Calvocoressi's Apocalyptic Swing, Matthew Dickman's All-American Poem, and others. I'm also reading a fine collection of essays on poetics that includes many of the great manifestos and ideas of last century's poets.
 
You are an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. Are you involved in the literary community outside academia? If so, in what ways, and how does this further your goals as a poet?
 
Prior to my academic life, I've been deeply involved in literary communities in Detroit and around Michigan--and remain so. I worked for 8 years as a writer-in-residence and Managing Director at InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a tremendous organization that sends poets and writers into the Detroit Public Schools. Though I've always felt poetry could be a vehicle for social change--it was at InsideOut that I truly witnessed, daily, poetry's capacity to affect change in individuals and communities. In fact, I'm working on creating a literary community in Mt. Pleasant, having created in my first year there, the Wellspring Literary Series, which brings regional writers to Mt. Pleasant to read with CMU students. Poetry, to me, is private only in composition, but it is an art that is incredibly necessary and valuable to the community. It brings people together; it makes us question our lives in the world. I bring this ethic to my students as well. We visit a local senior center to conduct writing activities; we create "poetry marathons" where we read poems all-day long on campus to passers-by. This is a living and ever-evolving art--it wants to engage with the world, not to be cooped up only in a musty library or sitting on a professor's desk, though it loves those places, too. As a professor, I want to bring my love of the living art to my students--to make them realize that this is an out-of-doors-art, a wondering and wandering art, an art that resists capture.
 
What advice do you give to your students about the poetic life?
 
Luckily, so far my students seem drawn to this art by a pure love for it--without ulterior motives like fame or money. If they ever seem drawn by those--I quickly tell them to look elsewhere. Most poets, I remind them, even so-called famous ones, still need day jobs. The "poetic life" is one of dedication to the craft: to eating as many poems as you can a day, to trying to write the best poems you can as often as possible. If you love something so much, you might be lucky enough to get good at it. If you get really good at it, you might be lucky enough to publish some poems, maybe even a book. I always remind my students to focus on the roots--the making, the hard-work of making poems--and not the leaves--those small tribulations of a published poem or a book or praise--those things wither away. Just go down into your cave and write. Come up into the air occasionally. But love the cave.
 
What are you currently working on?
 
I'm working on what will hopefully become my next collection of poems, which isn't one with a focused theme. It's untitled as of yet, though I'm starting to think of titles, so I must have that book itch. The poems are all over the spectrum thematically; they're accumulating and gathering energy--I just need to write more; I'm not quite at the point to assemble a manuscript. I think there's a new urgency in my poetic voice that may have been informed by the chaos of my life recently, and maybe even by the writing of American Prophet, which took me into unfamiliar psychic terrain. I hope the book will be done soon, of course, but what's most important is that the roots grow strong, that it's ready to sprout when it's ready.
 
Any future plans for the Prophet?
 
He wants more. Like his character itself, he's still burning with something to say. I don't get the sense he's ready to hang up his black suit for good. He's out there waiting for me now. I'm keeping my ear to the ground.

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