The Interview — Joanna Fuhrman by Anthony Watkins
AW: Do you feel that other poets have influenced you? If so, who and how?
JF: So many poets have. It’s hard to know where to begin. For me, poetry is so much about that conversation with other poets and poems. The most obvious answer is ALL of the poets associated with the New York School. I’ve received from Koch the tension between a conceptional project and the chaotic fun of words, from Ashbery the pluralistic approach to language (I love how his poems shuffle between a kind-of zaum sense and lucidity), from Guest a love of slippery surfaces, from O’Hara the ability to move between the world of daily life and the surreal within the same poem, from Schuyler the odd in the everyday . . . I could keep going (!) and list all the second-generation NYS poets whose work is super-important to me: Maureen Owen, Paul Violi, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Frank Lima. Does Elaine Equi fit here? I am a huge fan, and she’s also a good friend. David Shapiro, who edited the famous New York School anthology with Ron Padgett, has been an important mentor and friend to me. I knew his work from when I was a teenager, but then met him at a party at Frank Lima’s in the early aughts when everyone else there was watching boxing. His poems are important to me because he combines the wildest surrealism with the largest heart and moral compass. I got to know him after interviewing him for Rain Taxi. I am never sure if my dear publisher (since I was a teenager) and friend Robert Hershon is considered NY School. I love how he was able to find the absurd in the everyday. In general, I am drawn to playful work that includes humor.
Other poets who have influenced me include Jack Spicer, whom I return to when I want to be reminded of how language can unmake the world, Jayne Cortez, who teaches me how joy and anger can co-exist, Denise Duhamel, whose use of form I love; and a lot of poets in translation, especially the South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon and all of the original surrealists. Most of the books I buy are in translation. I just discovered the Peruvian poet Blanca Varela. I don’t think she has influenced me yet, but I am sure she will.
I am in a writing group with Sharon Mesmer, Jean-Paul Pecqueur, Boni Joi, and Yerra Sugarman; reading their poems every month and getting their invaluable feedback has also been a huge influence. They are brilliant poets and great readers.
AW: How do you teach poetry without destroying it? In fact, how do you teach any writing or art, other than technical writing or illustration, without destroying it?
JF: I never felt that learning about an art form destroyed it. I guess toxic teachers could, but I try to just share my love of poetry and encourage a wide range of approaches and aesthetics. One thing that’s a little different about my approach to teaching is that I emphasize in-class writing exercises which force students not to overthink or worry too much about intention. I think being overly intentional about what one “WANTS TO SAY” is more of a detriment to creating good poetry than learning about the art form.
AW: In the Boog City Interview Liz Axelrod says you have a humorous touch in your writing? Is it intentional, or organic? I know several of my poems draw laughs, but I never write for comedic effect. If you do, can you explain how you do it?
JF: I don’t think that I set out trying to tell a joke, but I think that like a lot of Jewish writers I tend to see the absurd humor in suffering. But I suppose my approach to art is playful, so that also leads to humor.
Joanna Fuhrman's new book.
AW: I notice you write on a very personal level as well as writing what I call “grand sweep” poems that are about all of us or at least cover a larger swath than the narrator’s personal story. Do you see a distinction, or is it all of a piece to you? If you do see them as separate, how do you see the function of the narrator, both in general and in your poems?
JF: I definitely feel that some poems are voiced from the point of view of a speaker who is very close to the person I am in the world, and other poems are more obviously persona poems. I’ve written poems to my husband Bob which are clearly autobiographical, but I’ve also written poems from the point of view of Orpheus and bougie moms who are also planets. (In case you didn’t know, I don’t have kids, and I’m not a planet.) But I think your question is interesting and a little different from this simple distinction between persona and autobiography. I am really interested in poems that address a collective we that’s larger than two people; I am interested in speaking as a generation or in the voice of history. In the title poem of The Year of Yellow Butterflies, the speaker(s) change(s) in every section. Sometimes the speaker is old and sometimes young. The gender also changes. I am working on a book now about life on the Internet, and here I think I am really working on trying to create a collection of speakers that embody what it feels like to exist in a digital space. Also, in Pageant, I have a long poem, “The Summer We Were All Seventeen,” satirizing but also feeling nostalgia for the summer of 1968 (before I was even born.) You were asking about influence. When writing poems about eras, I always think about Apollinaire’s poem “The Little Car.” I know I was thinking about that when I wrote the aforementioned poem in Pageant. But of course, in my latest book, To a New Era, there are two poems with the same title as the collection. In both cases the titles are ironic (they are both poems of complaint) but, of course, the phrase also echoes Apollinaire’s little car driving the speaker into a “new epoch.”
AW: I noticed, in the same interview, you said you don’t see the poet as having a special place in leading social change. Do you think the poet has to even be involved or interested in progress or justice? Or can a poet be a disinterested party and still be a poet worth reading?
JF: I would hope everyone was interested in saving what’s left of our democracy, but I don’t think in our culture poetry is much use as an agent of social change. So yeah, people can write whatever they want. I don’t think I am the judge of what’s worth reading. But at the same time, I think it’s impossible to be fully conscious while being unaware of the social/political reality (tragedy) we are in, so that’s going to become part of what you are writing. I am not interested in poetry that is only didactic or primarily didactic, but I am also not interested in poets living under rocks.
AW: In an older interview, you mentioned being disappointed in hearing a poet, whose work you liked, reading their poems. Do you generally find poems on the page to be more enjoyable than the spoken version?
JF: No, in general I LOVE poetry readings. There’s nothing better than being in a room of people all laughing at the same joke or having goosebumps at the same image. When I was younger, I would often go to three or more poetry readings a week. There are a lot of poets whose work I wouldn’t understand without having heard them read.
AW: What are you working on now?
JF: I’m working on a book of prose poems about life on the Internet and some other odds and ends that don’t fit in that book. My mom died a year ago, so I’ve been writing about that. I took a break from making poetry videos, but I am looking forward to getting back to that when the semester ends.
AW: Thank you, Joanna!
Joanna Fuhrman reading in a collaboration with the artist Toni Simon.
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