I Am Not a Pioneer: An Interview with Adam Fell
GL: The first poem in I AM NOT A PIONEER is called “Information Accumulated from Interviews of a Random Sampling of 1,000 American Citizens between the Ages of 18 and 65,” and it offers the reader a catalog of observations about subsets within that title’s broad demography, such that, for example, “48%” of a certain group of Americans are said to “wait quietly for their turn beneath the median trees, watch the lowest branches abscise, watch fathers tow little storms across the yard.” Each indexical finding thus provides the reader with a kind of psychical/spiritual snapshot of the “average American”; this gives your beautiful poem tremendous scope but it also, in both a sinister and playful way, seems to comment on the fact that people won’t recognize evaluations of American life without some kind of data to back it up. Do you see this poem as functioning as either a critique of our quantitative obsessions, or a kind of poetic census of the American soul, or a little of both? Or was it just a device that allowed you to write a lot of great lines?
AF: Throwing up my hands and saying “This country is screwed” or becoming an expat is not, to me, a viable option, so I try to write the stress out. Writing helps me gain a bit of control, or at least trick myself into thinking that I have some. I got sick of the tactic that politicians and pundits use where statistics and jargony language are tossed out to convince the viewer of their side of the aisle’s virginity and truth and righteousness; both sides looking at these exact same numbers, using the exact same phrases, getting all alchemical, molding language, one of the things I hold most dear, into these deceptive monsters, then telling us “See? Look how right we were. We love you most!” If both sides can use a statistic or a point of information to support their side of an issue, then there is zero meaning in it, even if the study or statistic is truly competent and correctly vetted.
So, I had this immense anxious urge to somehow grab the collar of all this senselessness, to somehow find some meaning in it, and couldn’t really, so I decided to give that political form a meaning that was personally important to me. I tried to make these percentage points into a personal accounting, a checklist of images and slight narratives that are really personal to me; each of the numbers is a particular event, a memory, a feeling, something essential to me in a deeply personal way. It’s the only way I can make myself feel like a living, breathing, tumultuous being in the middle of all that data sniping. We all have to do that at some point: stand a reckoning of how to make ourselves feel less impotent in the face of all the electioneering. Apparently, my way is to take the forms of media, the statistics, the political discourse, the data, and create myself in it. However, I can really only create myself by burning everything down to the frame.
GL: There are some moving lines in your book that point to our limited capacity to absorb or digest wondrous phenomena:
Light falling on snow
is naturally cast upward,
but we are not designed
to fully contain the glow (“Limbo”)
And sometimes your speakers make an aesthetically pleasing miscalculation: “The rain stops beneath the overpass. / What I mistake for silence is the sound / of everyone else shutting their windows at once” (“Thylacine”). In both cases, you find poetic opportunities in human fallibility. At times, you almost seem proud of it, or what it can produce. Could you explain your affinity for moments of imprecise cognition or perception?
AF: I love the fact that there are so many things, as humans, we are all simply just biologically incapable of perceiving. I love that on a badass science-y level, but also on a personal, emotional level. There are objects and ideas and feelings that we choose not to perceive, or have damaged ourselves enough to not perceive, or pushed so far away from ourselves, that we can no longer accept those things without our lives caving in upon us. It’s how I imagine all those folks that thought the end times were beginning back in May. They’re getting rid of their life savings and their pets and their houses, pulling their children out of school, in affirmation of this singular belief. And when it doesn’t happen, do they get outraged and self-reflective and reconstitute their ideas of the world? No, they just say “Ooops. Calculation error. Sorry, we were a couple years off.” Their idea of the world is so barricaded and so brittle at the same time, and instead of being willing to change their minds and pick up the pieces, they go in the opposite direction. It’s amazing what the human mind can push away. We all do it in vast and minute ways, but it’s also this human fallibility that makes us individuals, which makes us interesting, which makes us capable of redemption and empathy and self-reflection. Clumsiness, mistakes, fuck-ups, lead to searching and realization and answers and change. I love humans for that. I love thinking about these things in regard to my life and in regards to the psychology of others. I AM NOT A PIONEER is full of pretty intense, confessional poems that ached coming out, that really dazed me until I get some distance from them. I really tried to use these poems to reflect on the way I am, the good and bad I willfully commit. I try to be as honest with myself as possible, brutally if need be, tortuous and obsessive if I’m not careful, and I hope that comes across. Mistakes should propel us forward in our thinking and I think that is, eventually, hopefully, lovely.
GL: Your poems “Bomb-Making Materials, Pt. 1 & 2” show the speaker being, at least temporarily, held aloft and saved by a group of cheerleaders from “riot cops” and “college kids,” among others, who run amok, inciting and responding to violence in their urban milieu below. The poem is hilarious and strange, and it’s obviously invested with having a bit of crooked fun. But beyond the tonal audacity and adventurousness of the content, I wonder if this piece provides a kind of commentary for how we (or you, or one) push reality away. The speaker, after all, revels in the health, beauty and cooperation of the cheerleaders (an image here of civic and sexual utopia), who are in nearly every way antithetical to the marauding, violent masculine hordes below. That is, the speaker shields himself from anomie and societal decay with a fantastical mass of beautiful women. Is the poem, among other things, pointing out that this is something we all do—insulate ourselves from news of catastrophe by retreating to the extremes of idiosyncratic fantasy?
AF: Man, I’m glad you think that poem is funny! I really wish I meant it that way, I really do, but those poems scare the hell out of me!
It actually came out of one of those happy poetic coincidences. I had given an assignment to my students where they had to use a line from a song to jumpstart a poem, then cut out that lyric. I chose for myself this line from The National song “Mr. November” that says, “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.” I love the use of that image in such a decidedly non-athletic, non-triumphal sense—a failing falling from grace. I thought, “What is the most un-clichéd thing a group of cheerleaders could do to me?” And “Save me from a riot” seemed like a good answer.
The character in the poem isn’t carried in the arms of cheerleaders because he’s the hero of the game or pulled a toddler off the subway tracks; it’s because he was caught in this, as you point out, young, masculine horde, and this guy, who feels such distance from that horde, who is trying to be a one-man, anti-masculine horde, still finds time in his brain to do what these masculine hordes would do: objectify sexually these people that save his life because of who they seem to be on the outside. What started as an exercise in destroying stereotypes became, to me, an exercise in trying to dissect why this man does this, even though he feels it is wrong. Is it biological? Is it that this stereotype has been so drilled into his head that he can’t fully cast it aside even though he knows he needs to? Is it something in his upbringing? Some societal influence? I ask myself similar questions in a few other poems in I AM NOT A PIONEER too. I’ll be honest, it terrified me when I was writing those poems. They were a bit agonizing coming out, but I also think it led me to some really interesting and important places in my poems and in my brain.
GL: Let’s talk titles. Why is the concept of (not being) a pioneer at the center of this collection? Why the negative definition of self? What would it mean to be, as a poet, a pioneer, and why do you push this designation away?
AF: I realize that the idea of not being a poetic pioneer is inevitable in the title since it’s a book of poems, and also the idea of a kind of faux humility (I am not a pioneer, but…) is there too, but its role to me is to represent my own version of being human. I have these two disparate parts of me. One wants to just walk out into the woods, build my own cabin, hunt, wear pelts, live off the land, hike, haunt the mountainsides, etc. Just be mist-clung and knot-haired and pull myself out of crevasses and shit. However, I also love air-conditioning and pillows and video games. I get so distracted by technology, caught up in it, and that scares me, but I also see the immense value in it, bask in it. New technology immediately overwhelms, but once our brains quickly rewire themselves, that overwhelming becomes acceptance then ubiquity then impatience and disdain. If I walked into the woods one day and never came back, I’m very sure I’d go through that exact process with the natural world. That might seem trite or obvious, but it’s a tension I struggle with and I think that tension is alive in most of my poems: an attempt to balance the technological and the natural in my life.
Also, however, from that one title phrase come three distinct sentences in three separate poems in the book, and each one has its own emotional resonance to me, its own personal connotations. It’s a really pliable phrase I found as I was trying to deploy it. The one in “MAKESHIFT MEMORIAL” deals with the idea that when we’re in high school we tend to think we’re the only ones who have ever felt a certain way or experienced heartache or tried to hide beer cans. We think we’re pioneering being human, when, in fact, we have no idea what being human means yet, being a part of a community, being depended on. The version in “HUMAN RESOURCES” deals with how a romantic relationship will be remembered after it’s gone, down to the anthropological impact of it. And the version in “THERE MUST BE SOMETHING LEFT OF THE MINOTAUR IN ME” deals with escaping a terrible fate because of a combination of luck and desperation and determination.
One phrase, four very different ideas. Thank you, Language!
GL: What is most fascinating/sustaining aspect of contemporary American poetry? And, by contrast, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about contemporary American poetry, what would you change?
AF: Oh, man, am I ever not the one you want to give that wand to! Give that wand to Tony Hoagland, or that curmudgeonly dude from The Huffington Post. If you gave that wand to me I’d probably snap it over my knee like a pool cue.
Sure, I could list this and that which I don’t respond to in poetry, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inherently bad or a negative trait, that it has no value to the poetic community. Whenever I hear a contentious discussion about what contemporary American poetry should be like, or should be doing, or where our vast, disparate community of poets has gone wrong, I just go order another bourbon and soda, and play some Loretta Lynn on the jukebox. I don’t even know how I want to write poetry, what I consider good and interesting in my own work; it fluctuates on an hourly basis! Sure, when I was young, I was a dick about writing and had all these bullshit opinions, and felt if someone wrote a poem that didn’t do it for me they were actively trying to ruin the world. People act like that all the time, and good for them, but since I’ve actually learned about poetic history, learned about what people are capable of poetically, learned that as long as art affects someone positively in some way, it’s a force for good. I’ve never read a poem and thought, “This is bullshit! You’re ruining America! You should all be writing like this!” If I read a poem I don’t like or get into, it just means it doesn’t quicken my blood, so I put it down. And that’s fine because most things don’t quicken my blood, most art, most music, but it inevitably quickens someone else’s blood and that’s cool and powerful. Maybe that sounds like a copout, or like I don’t care about the art, or I think poetry is beyond criticism (It’s not.), but I don’t mean to imply any of those things. All I know is that when I walk into my classroom, I have 20 students trying to write a poem and the process always feels really, really good, no matter what the outcome is.
GL: Who were some of the poets and poetic models who/that helped you write I AM NOT A PIONEER? Have your tastes or your poetic mode changed greatly since you began the book? And, in general, what’s new with Adam Fell these days? What are you reading, writing, thinking?
AF: I’m always a big fan of poets who try to translate into language some sort of dark, emotional truth. Now, that, of course, can be accomplished in a pretty infinite number of ways, but it’s really contingent on an image, an idea, a narrative, or just a sound hitting me hard in the gut. It’s so personal of an effect that I’m sure it’s a different kick for everyone. I just find a lot of joy and empathy in really visceral stuff, blood and guts and mistakes and admissions, what’s really aching inside a writer. Berryman is a good place I find that, James Wright and Transtromer, and the fiction of Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy and David Mitchell. I also find a lot of kindness in George Saunders’ work and Italo Calvino, a lot of imagination and world-building and empathy. I adore that in both poetry and fiction and want to try my hand at that. I just read that Richard Siken book, Crush, which ached my blood for days. Daniel Khalastchi’s new book Manoleria destroys me, makes me want to be able to use severe narrative images like that to discuss how political of creatures we all become despite ourselves, despite our attempts at hiding, how important it is to be safe and loved within a community. Matthew Rohrer’s new book, Destroyer and Preserver, just made me want to hug everyone, which is a great feeling, if a bit intrusive to the daily lives of others. And the last couple years I often go back to Chelsey Minnis’s Poemland, because she can say more in a line than I feel like I say in an entire poem. If you can surprise me, make me see the obvious in a new way, you win, so she kicks my ass all over the place.
As for what I’m up to: drooling and twitching over the fourth season of Breaking Bad, teaching some kind, intelligent students, co-curating a lovely reading series in Madison called Monsters of Poetry (www.monstersofpoetry.org), and trying to find time to write. I actually tried to take a break from poetry the last two years. Kind of worked, kind of didn’t. Grad school and the intensity and bloodiness of the poems I had been writing for this book really got to me, so I’ve been writing a young adult zombie apocalypse novel since then, and fiction is a whole new inspiring beast. It’s ridiculously freeing! I adore that I have this strange place to go and I can create the narrative and characters. World-building is, apparently, something I enjoy immensely, something that is seeping into my poems more and more. Been trying to find my way back into new poems and that is a possible path, I see now. We’ll see what new world becomes of that, I guess, what new world becomes of us all.