Interview with Kathy Fagan

Shannon K. Winston: Thanks for taking the time to discuss your newest collection, Bad Hobby. How did you choose this title and what is the eponymous poem’s relationship to the larger themes of the collection?

Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan: I cared for my dependent dad in my home for five years before moving him into a memory care facility. We hadn’t lived together since I was a child. His conservative faith and politics had always been a challenge for me—a queer, agnostic, liberal feminist—and though I’d long been aware of his physical disability (he’s functionally deaf) I was not aware of the extent of his cognitive disabilities, likely lifelong, which during his time with me evolved into dementia. This is a long way of saying I suspect the title appealed to my rueful sense of humor, in that caregiving and writing poems moved hand in hand during those years, and I felt at the time like a failed hobbyist at both. Not to mention how revisiting childhood in that unexpected and intimate way was affecting the content of my poems overall. As my father’s memories disintegrated, mine integrated as they never had before. My father was known for his malapropisms. His dementia, sadly but sometimes uncannily, too, created a whole other level of language mashups for him. When he swapped “bad hobby” for “bad habit” at our VA visit, I was curious to dig into the bigger brain of the error and was rewarded with the weird etymological collage of hobby, habit, and horse. At that point the poem began to make its own world, which feels to me connected to other poems in the collection primarily by the recurring appearance of my parents, but also by notions of family, memory, and social class informed by my experiences with them.

SKW: Bad Hobby is organized in three sections. The poem, “The Rule of Three,” also meditates upon the importance of the number three, especially in relation to the Trinity. The number three also comes up in other poems (“Stray,” “Latecomer,” to name a few). Can you talk about the importance of the number three both structurally and thematically in the collection?

KF: Yes, yay, I can totally geek out on this question! Like, my mind was blown when I first read about the rule of three principle many years ago because it so resonated with me emotionally. My poem, “The Rule of Three,” explores those resonances in very personal ways: the little trio my mom, her mother, and I made; the concept of the Roman Catholic Trinity, considered the central “mystery” of the Catechism; and the liminal conditions just before birth and just after death—those thresholds, which to me are, as I say in the poem, “a third thing,” but feel to me very real. I’m reading the memoir Thin Places right now by Kerri ni Dochartaigh, a young Irish writer, and was happily reminded that the Irish (my grandparents were Irish immigrants) have powerful cultural connections to these liminalities or thin places, brief in-betweennesses, that they consider sacred. In Bad Hobby I wanted to bring attention to that idea of the worldly and otherworldly and the spaces where they intersect and overlap. “AccuWeather: Real Feel” in section 1 explicitly references a Venn diagram. Arranging the book into three sections seemed another obvious organizational device for the poems. And then there’s the group of poems written in tercets with caps at the beginning of each line, which you mention, “The Rule of Three” being one of five in the book that are physically and thematically linked in this way; I wanted them to stand out like mountains on a terrain model map. In contrast, there are other poems I consider more psychologically recessive, like the three weather poems, one in each section, and “The Children” three-poem sequence in section 2, which most definitely invokes the thin places of almost-lives.

SKW: How do you conceive of the poetic line and how did this conception help shape Bad Hobby?

Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

KF: When I encounter a poem it’s almost always the line of it that strikes me first. Even if the poem isn’t lineated, line feels to me embedded there, just under its clothes or skin, a skeleton or, more likely, speaking of thin places, the spirit of the poem, its essential self. I annoy students a little with this point of view and I accept that it’s idiosyncratic. I think of line as a mode of order inside the larger syntactical order that can either follow the breath and/or perception of the poet or break them. In other words, it’s an opportunity for discovery and meaning. But I’ve also come to realize that language and its grammars never fully contain experience, that poetic line is not a vessel so much as a voice; and voices, characteristic as they are, have tremendous range. Using line offers me an opportunity to explore the mutable. It’s line’s potential that energizes me the most, the way it bumps and rumbles within its sentence or emphasizes the sentence or fractures or extends it. The critic-poet, James Longenbach, whom we lost recently, speaks at length about line types as parsing, annotating, or end-stopped in his book, The Art of the Poetic Line. Another, if old-school (1960s style) resource for my ever-evolving idea of line, has been Denise Levertov’s essay “Notes on Poetic Form.” There are many good books on poetic line. One I often use with students is the collection of essays titled A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee.

I was raised in an era of American poetry that had all but abandoned traditional prosodic lines and rhyme for free (or organic) verse. But the poets who were my teachers had once written poems in meter and form. What’s more, they taught the work of poets who wrote them: Eliot, Stevens, Hughes, Bishop, Lowell, Plath, Hayden. The influence of Anglo measures entered my work before I could scan a line of Frost. I wanted to resist that unintentional inheritance, its patriarchy and convention, as much as I wanted to more fully understand the thing I was resisting, so I taught myself English prosody and investigated forms with foundations outside of Western Europe, too. I’m also very eager to figure out what poets are doing when they invent forms. It’s an ongoing process really, a sloppy and untutored way of learning, but I think it’s helped me to track poetic lineages, at the very least, and more importantly provided me a profound appreciation for the range of line available to poets and how lines help to both score the poem and promote its complexity. Line study has helped me to meet poems where they wish to be met.

While I prioritize line, I’m also aware it’s one part of a whole. To read a poem as a lifelong student of poetry is to bring your full attention to both its structure and its content. By structure, I mean how a poem is built, and by content, I mean how a world is built within it. The rhythms and effects of the poem result from both, and that feeling of being inside the poem then, as reader and maker, allows one access to the full nonverbal experience of the poem, which may be the ineffable most art wants to reach for.

SKW: I’m fascinated by the dynamic and different ways in which you use punctuation in relation to the line. For example, in some poems, you capitalize the start of the line and in others you don’t. Some poems have lines that are heavily enjambed, others are strongly end-stopped. What, to your mind, is the relationship between punctuation and the line? Can you respond by offering a few concrete examples from poems in the collection?

KF: The amazing editors at Milkweed really helped me to think about this question as Bad Hobby entered production. I mean, there’s house style and there’s good editorial judgment, and we talked a lot about both to figure out some of the problematic punctuation stuff—and other expressive cues like italics or quotation marks (or neither) in dialogue, for instance. I’ve found I’ve gone from using punctuation excessively correctly—as a first-gen college and working-class kid I never entirely lost the desire to “get it right”—to talking to students about punctuation as a series of road markers or handholds along the path of the poem in service to both the poem and its reader. Sometimes you might want to offer help another way, as I felt I had to do in the second poem of “The Children” sequence, “My Children.” The first and final poems in the sequence are conventionally punctuated, but this dreamy poem was crushed by punctuation. I removed it, letting capitalization indicate new sentences; not an original idea at all, but one that helped to bolster the primacy of each stanza’s complete utterance—Levertov calls them “units of awareness” in her essay—which was essential to amplifying the poem’s quiet voice.

Over the years you make a bunch of poems and, if you’re like me, don’t really think of each as automatically belonging to a larger set with recurring patterns of form and thought. That discovery happens later for me, when I spread the poems all over the floor to find the echoes and sparks among them. “The Children” and “Where I Am Going”/“I Dare To Live” live beside each other in the book but they were written with a lot of years and poems in between. The latter is as linguistically dense and punctuation heavy as the former is spare and unpunctuated. They’re connected through content and driven by separate engines to adjacent destinations. From “WIAG/IDTL”:

        To my surprise,
he cried. I’d forgotten what it was I felt—I needed
to see. Outside had taken me
in. I loved it not
for its vastness but minutiae,
which I observed with the attention of one who is not herself
observed and cannot bear to be.

This is a longish poem without stanza breaks or regular line lengths. As you can see in this brief passage alone, all of Longenbach’s types of line breaks are used, but the poem’s lines are primarily invested in the contrasting slipperiness of their individual meanings with the meanings made inside their sentences. Punctuation in these lines interrupt, corrupt, and extend those meanings. They help what I think of as the performance of the poem on the page—they help us “hear” the poem. I just sort of dig how deftly one can surprise oneself and a reader with line breaks that suggest alternate understandings of the speaker and their circumstances in a single move. And this is just one kind of the many leaps line and punctuation can help make happen. They’re like the tools of a Swiss Army knife, getting all the jobs done. Their purpose is not to restrict but to open.

SKW: Some of the poems in your collection have very short lines, but they also make large poetic leaps (from scene to scene or from one figure to another). Here, I’m thinking of “Dedicated,” “Bad Hobby,” and “Wisdom.” Can you talk about the relationship between the economy of the line and associational leaps in these poems?

KF: The tercet poems with caps at the front of lines that we talked about already may answer this question, too. I knew immediately that “Dedicated” would open the book and that the four poems most closely resembling it would appear at staggered locations throughout to further the book’s narrative. As I say, I really do think of these poems as the most visible elements on a map, but they live comfortably beside the other poems, I hope, because the frequent caps, enjambed lines, and stanza breaks create tension and permeability. There’s something disquieting about them, even though they may look conventionally poetic, and that has a lot to do with the line breaks, which for me leap across as much psychological and emotional terrain as syntactical. Short lines can make hairpin turns that also lead to swift shifts in diction. At one moment in “Bad Hobby,” the speaker is delivering a sort of art history lecture, then reveals their inner child, all within the space of nine words across a single line break end-stopped with a comma. Thanks to both, the diction can morph entirely.

The gold leaf’s intact
On the bridles, but the silver
Of the soldier’s armor has oxidized,

Darkening to ghostly shades.
My mother’s hobby was painting,
Is how I know.

That kind of layering and texture can be achieved with any line length and in prose sentences, as well, but there’s something almost sleight-of-hand about it happening in shorter lines; Dickinson’s and Clifton’s poems are two great models to consider.

SKW: The poem “Birds Are Public Animals of Capitalism” stands out to me because of its wave-like appearance on the page. Can you discuss how you chose to lineate this poem and why/how you made the decisions you did?

KF: I admire pictorial poetry but have rarely tried it. I think of it as outside my wheelhouse. I also think my poems are already so heavily imagistic that I might be in danger of gilding the lily. This poem began to (literally) take shape from its beginning in a loosely typographical version of flight. Signs and public-facing language are important to this poem, so it wasn’t bird murmuration I wanted to graph exactly, but something more predictable than that, more human or human-made, like stairs or circular paths in a parking garage or plough rows. Could be it’s just a bunch of sestets caught up in a tornado.

SKW: Can you identify a poem in the collection that was especially hard to lineate? How did the poem change from draft to revision and what did you learn in the process?

KF: Honestly, it’s the one that ended up as a hybrid verse/prose poem, “Aftermath.” If Bad Hobby is a memoir in verse, which is how I think of it, then “Aftermath” is the braided essay made for the book out of the book. In other words, locations, figures, word origins and word play, straight up narrative, and fragmented memories of childhood weave together in verse and prose, separated by (three!) asterisks, to make the whole. As the pieces came together, I thought to echo some of the commoner shapes other poems in the book had taken: indented lines, short lines, tercets, couplets. The third and fourth sections of the poem were published in a journal as a single poem in a very different version years ago; I never attempted to publish the other sections or to place the whole piece because it felt specific to the book. I remember thinking this about “Platanaceae Family Tree,” the prefatory poem in my previous book, Sycamore—that it was made for the book, not for a journal. That one isn’t properly lineated either; in fact, it’s a chart, a family tree. Unlike “Aftermath,” I don’t think it’s even possible to read aloud. To give myself permission to create a bridge or embellishment or whatever I need for the sake of my book was the lesson learned in both cases.

SKW: Can you share a lineation exercise with our readers that they might use as they either draft or revise one of their own poems?

KF: Exercises are such a great way to crack open a new poem or revise a stalled poem—I think of it as stretching or warming up. It doesn’t matter how well it’s done, what matters is what you learn, what’s revealed to you about your own patterns. I used to believe there was one right way to shape a poem, all I had to do was find it. I still believe there may be better-best ways, but thinking there’s only one is like thinking you’re meant to find one “right” person to spend your life with. So why not experiment, for example, with a ghazal, if the lines you have floating around your head are obsessively grieving? It’s a wonderful repeating form (see Agha Shahid Ali for some of the best) that can be very capacious without feeling overwhelming like, say, a sestina. Often we wish to tell a personal story in our poems, imparting a memory we have of an event or loved one, so we write in prose, which is one logical shape the telling could take. But why not try to write the narrative in short-lined tercets that are heavily enjambed to discover how many kinds of meaning-textures you can make inside the sentences? So many poets mess endlessly with their lines—you’ll be in good company!

Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan’s sixth poetry collection is Bad Hobby (Milkweed Editions, 2022). Her previous book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. She’s been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an Ingram Merrill fellowship, residencies at The Frost Place, Yaddo and MacDowell, and was named Ohio Poet of the Year for 2017. Fagan’s work has appeared in venues such as The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Poetry. She co-founded the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where she teaches poetry and co-edits the Wheeler Poetry Prize Book Series for The Journal and OSU Press.