posted Aug 4, 2009
Robert Fanning is one of those rare poets whose work manages to be both refreshingly approachable and rife with ringing depths. His latest collection, American Prophet proves no exception, mixing plain speech and crafted song, humor and high art, the ridiculous and the sacred. Armed with an expansive vision and an acutely musical ear (not to mention an enduring love of the Smiths), Fanning writes poems that reveal the world with poignant precision and rawness of heart.
How did you start writing poetry? What drew you to it?
I loved, like most poets do, the beautiful noise of language from as early as I can remember. The music first, then the act of putting words together and making pictures, making a story. I remember my dad reciting his favorites to me late night: especially Poe, who mystified me, too. My mom’s incessant love of language and words. And several good English teachers: Mrs. Menard in 5th grade who showed me those beautiful trees: branches of sentence diagrams across the board; Mr. Lytle in 11th grade—the first to bless/curse me with the words “you’re a poet.” So I was first drawn by the music and the acts of making language. Later, by the transformative power of this making: that with words I could create experience, could deepen experience—could make sense of experience, for myself and for others. It felt even early on like writing poems connected me to life and to something bigger than life—to language and to something beyond language.
You received your MFA from Sarah Lawrence. What has your career been like since then?
My writing career has gone grindingly slow; I don’t typically write quickly. And I publish even more slowly. The Seed Thieves was a long labor (8-years or so) ending in a C-section. American Prophet came with a little less pushing. But before the writing life, that rare dreamscape; there’s that other life—in which, since Sarah Lawrence, in the span of 12 years, with my wife, I’ve moved 5 times, had two children, worked as a technical writer, a journalist, a substitute teacher, a grocery store clerk, a managing director of a nonprofit, a writer-in-residence, and a professor. It’s been a beautiful whirlwind and I’m somewhat amazed I’ve come through this time with two books in hand.
The subject matter in your previous book, The Seed Thieves, was very personal, even autobiographical at times, as you wrote about your family, your childhood, etc. Was this a necessary departure?
The Seed Thieves didn’t begin that way. In fact, it began with a conscious avoidance of autobiography: a lot of the early poems transmuted my experience. Until at some point I felt I was able to approach some of that life material in a meaningful way—and felt I needed to—then that book took on my life stuff. American Prophet, on the other hand, really came out of the blue in some way—so I can’t call it a conscious departure, though necessary, perhaps. I do think, in retrospect, it is a necessary departure from my lyric narrative poems. It is, in retrospect, more of an important formal departure. I must have needed to take on another story.
You write in a narrative style but there are also strong lyrical, musical and even formal elements to your work. How would you describe your approach?
Normally, I tend to work small-outward—trying to tighten each thread, each line, as much as possible before moving to the next one. Though that approach was much more prevalent in The Seed Thieves than in American Prophet. Overall, though, I’m much more of a weaver than a painter, or more like a figurative sculptor—a connection I’ve realized in watching my wife at work on figurative pieces: continually shaping the clay as I go until some sensed form emerges. However, I hope to establish a diverse formal base for myself early on; I want to try different styles over the span of a career—and hope to intuit from each poem or manuscript what formal direction that body of work will require.
What appeals to you about narrative poetry?
I’m drawn to the coherence and clarity of story—in that I can move a reader in time and from point to point; and therefore surprise them in different ways. Narrative often evolves for me in a surprising way, and I like taking readers on that journey. I think of the emotional build-up of music, the complex unfolding of plots: I much prefer this to a random, chaotic flitting of images and ideas. I go to poetry to make more sense of the complexities of a difficult world, not to create even less sense.
You taught poetry in Detroit public schools for years. Did teaching influence your work?
Teaching, and especially the teaching of children, I consider one of the most sacred acts. It does not influence my writing, however; it is a necessary offshoot of it.
What’s important to you in a poem?
I like to be moved by a poem, whether my own or someone else’s. I like to feel haunted, by an image, a line, a pairing of words. I like poems that are memorable—that invite further readings.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
I go to my various favorites to refresh my ear, my eyes, and so on. And of course there are just too many poets to mention here—including a slew of contemporaries I admire—this is a fantastic and vibrant time. I have my old standbys, though, I love symphonic poets, great conductors: Thomas; Yeats; Plath; Hopkins, Roethke—are some I return to often and learn from continuously.
I was in a writing group with you when you wrote the first of the Prophet poems. It seemed at the time that this character had sort of come to you. How did he originate? What made you keep writing about him?
I wrote “The Prophet’s Lament at Spring Break” first—with no idea it would become a series. That poem came to me when I was at my brother Mike’s family pool party one 4th of July. (It was, in reality, my little nephews and nieces in the water, not a bunch of half-naked, wasted, blissed out co-eds.) Anyway, I was really depressed that day for no good reason. Then I started getting more depressed because I was wondering why I was depressed. Middle of the summer, bright sun, America’s Birthday—and there I was in this end-of-the-world zone—listening to the splashing in the pool, the music, the fun—and I felt like I was wearing one of those fucking lead cloaks they wrap over you when you’re being x-rayed. I felt like I was wearing death. And I had this image of some guy dressed in black, standing on my brother’s diving board, trying to tell everyone to not be so happy. That something is wrong. Anyway, so I wrote that poem. Then one morning, a few days later, it occurred to me that this “character” might want to go other places. So I decided to write another. Then another. And before you knew it, I was on a pilgrimage with this good freak. As the poems continued, I found influences elsewhere—in the music of A Silver Mount Zion National Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, Allegri’s Miserere (which I often listened to on repeat while writing the poems); also, in visual art—in the sculptures and installations by my wife and by sculptor Antony Gormley, in the photographs of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison.
The Prophet, with his old fashioned, threadbare garb (you have him in a black thrift store suit and wingtips even at the beach) seems perpetually out of place, alienated, horrified and amazed by the mechanized nature of modern life. It’s hard not to draw a parallel with the art of poetry. There’s even a scene where he falls asleep in a boring poetry reading. Were you thinking along those lines?
Any conscious/semi-literal connection between the Prophet and the artist, or more specifically the Prophet as akin to the poet—happened very, very late in the process. “The Prophet at the Poetry Reading” was one of the latest poems in the collection—which I wrote after I formulated the idea that this would-be prophet is certainly garbled, entirely inaudible, and quite possibly invisible to his imagined audience. It wasn’t a far stretch to think of the relationship of this prophet character to the poet, who once was, in some cultures a widely respected, divinely-inspired oracle who advised the nation and its leaders and is now, or has been for a while, and perhaps will remain permanently an oddity to the American public at large.
Of course I was having great fun, at my own expense, having the prophet falling asleep at a poetry reading (the poem I reference within the poem is my own, “Light’s Bright Lies” from The Seed Thieves). This certainly takes a cynical stance on the reception, or lack thereof, of poetry within our culture.
People often make the assumption that a character has elements of the poet himself. Do you relate to the prophet?
In quite basic ways, yes, though he’s far from autobiographical. As a poet, of course, I relate to his wanting to have angelic songs in his mouth. I relate to his longing to connect with people. Beyond that, there’s quite a bit about this person I don’t understand. I would never try to address a crowd of strangers with a megaphone, or yell at a factory. Or at least I haven’t yet.
Obviously there are religious connotations tied to the notion of a prophet. This one seems to be secular, although deeply affected by America’s spiritual ills such as war, excess, greed, corruption, alienation. How did spirituality figure in your writing?
I think the Prophet is, among other things, searching for some sort of spiritual connection, no doubt—but in typical American fashion, he is looking in malls, in video games, online, on TV, in movies. He doesn’t really know where to find it. Which is problematic, because by definition a Prophet ought to have made that connection already. And religion is not the answer either. Ultimately, though, the book is less concerned with types of spiritual practice than with the question of if and/or why genuine spirituality is more difficult in this culture. Is it becoming less and less possible? And is this harmful to us? For me, there is also the idea of our own connectedness to each other, on a human level. On one hand, we can instantly text a Facebook message from our cell phone to a newly re-discovered 3rd grade friend who now lives in Zimbabwe, but we may find it very difficult to talk to someone beside us on the bus. This current, this theme of the difficulty of communication, runs deep in the poems. Are the human/spiritual threads that hold us all together popping loose? Are they being replaced by fiber optic ones?
Throughout the poems, he keeps trying to speak to “his people” and is somehow prevented or cut short. He never seems to get his chance to actually prophesy. What’s the significance of this silence? Who are his people?
This silence is crucial in two ways. First, the gulf of silence—between himself and “his people” is created by all the static of machinery and noise, the traffic and interference of American life. The Prophet is rendered voiceless—as many of us are, by machines, by so much noise. His alienation, his loneliness, is palpable. The book does not answer whether a Prophet is possible now, but to the question: would we hear him/her, or care? The book says no. Not in this nation, not in this time. And there is an undercurrent of lamentation on this note. Secondly, those he’s trying to reach, aside from not hearing him, are also voiceless—in the face of all he’s trying to warn them against. His “people,” (Americans in general,) seem to be themselves dazed, lost, muted, disempowered. That end of the silence is perhaps more deafening—the lack of that collective voice, the voice of a democracy: the will of the people; they appear silent and numbed at a time when they should be most revolutionary, most alarmed, most roused.
In addition to being moving, beautiful and, at times, hauntingly bleak, these poems are quite funny. The Prophet is always alone, wearing black and reciting half-envisioned verse, like a character in a Smiths song. And he watches Star Trek. Reading through the book, we see the prophet encountering a variety of jarringly mundane situations and viewing them in unexpected, lofty ways. For instance, the poem set in the shopping mall, where he sees a throng of people heading toward him and gets excited only to find that they’re actually racing to catch a performance by a pop star. What role does humor (and pop culture) play in your poems?
Thank you for noting the humor in these poems, and for referencing the Smiths: A Morrissey quote opens the book. The Smiths are a bigger influence on me than any writer. It occurs to me there was this TV show, The Greatest American Hero, or something like that, in the ‘80s—about this bumbling superhero guy who would fly into billboards. The Prophet is kind of like that guy. I usually avoid pop-culture references in my work, but in this book they are crucial—because they are such an important facet of his character: He has taken some of his Prophetic “cues” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from Star Trek, from Jaws 2, from X-Files, from Star Wars. And I think that is hilarious and moving and sad. His Prophecy, then, in a sense, is coming from pop-culture.
In these poems, we’re taken from the dry cleaners to spring break to the world of dreams. How did inspiration come to you?
You’d think because I’m writing a book about a Prophet that the poems might have been automatically downloaded in a dream—or channeled in one sitting. No such luck. Inspiration comes with work—always the work. But between writing poems, I’d look around while walking and driving, looking for places the Prophet might visit. And of course I’d receive tremendous visions (from television) or hear voices (on the radio.)
“In The Prophet’s Final Dream,” one of your wife Denise’s art installations makes an appearance. Are you inspired by her work?
Deeply. In particular, the piece What Should We Do?, which I also selected for the cover of my first book, The Seed Thieves. That sculptural installation, which she was working on while I was writing the Prophet poems, featured more than thirty life-sized paper-mache figures staring at (motorized) dying birds on live grass in a large gallery space. The piece had so many elements to it, so many undercurrents—one of which, was, of course, the futility and fear, the alienation that runs through parts of American Prophet. The desire to intervene in a crisis, but the inability to do so.
Places in Detroit—for example the old abandoned train station—appear throughout these poems. Do you see the city—or the Midwestern region in general—influencing your work as a whole?
I typically don’t like poetry that is too tied to a specific place, and I always try to avoid overt regionalism. Yes, though, Detroit figures into this book in several poems. But so does the Southwest, the Plains, the Pacific coast, New York City. I wanted this book to feature several American landscapes. In some sense, I used the Prophet’s wanderings as an excuse to write about landscapes I otherwise might not: the beach, the farm, the city, the industrial wasteland.
Where do you see your work going next?
I’ve always loved a quote by Tess Gallagher, that goes something like ‘the time between poems is like the time when your Mom would call you in from play to peel potatoes.’ Right now I’m peeling potatoes. I have a lot of new poems, and a lot that I like, but they’re so many errant atoms looking for a nucleus, which will formulate—given enough time and concentration. Until then, what will become a third collection remains a mystery. If I was a prophet, then I’d tell you.
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