Sarah Fox: the populist instinct

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Sarah Fox walks into Second Moon coffee shop on a mild Thursday morning in June wearing faded blue jeans and a nondescript T-shirt. Her blond hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail; a few strands have gotten free and fall around her face in long wisps.

What I am struck by, in an instant, is how completely ordinary she looks. There is nothing of the reckless meandering of her poems in her laid-back gait, not a trace of the hiccuping spaces that inhabit many lines of her first book of poems, Because Why (Coffee House, 2006). Fox does not look at all like the kooky, postmodern poetess my imagination conjured while soaking up the gems readers will find throughout the collection. But as Fox will tell you herself, her work is polished but not premeditated, nonlinear but not deliberately so. For her, poetry – even postmodern poetry — is quite an ordinary thing, as ordinary as blue jeans at the neighborhood cafe.

Does Because Why have a subject? And if it does have a subject, is the subject the form itself?
Well, that’s really interesting, because a lot of the feedback I’ve gotten so far has really focused on the form of the poems. And I’m totally surprised that people think the book is really postmodern. I’m totally shocked by people saying, “Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not good.”

To me, the forms are just what comes up. It’s really not intentional at all. I used to write really different kinds of poems – much more traditional, much more of a one-focus metaphor, and rotating through this one thing with a narrative behind it. I guess that they were more imitative, but maybe more accessible. And when I kind of just said, “I’m just going to write the way I’m feeling, putting thoughts down the way I see them,” it was really freeing, and actually a lot easier for me to write.

Six or seven years ago was kind of when it started to shift for me. Maybe it’s just a maturity, or an aesthetic shift that happens when you’ve been writing for awhile, and you kind of start to find your voice.

So I have my own ideas about what the content of the book is, but I don’t want to force them on anyone else. I don’t believe that my ideas are that evident when you read the book. But for me, it’s really about getting to a point where questioning is more important than resolving and knowing.

I would say that my primary character, if there is such a thing, is the fool. The one who is sort of at zero, and all of his knowledge has been eliminated, and he’s just going forward with questioning.

The way that I hope that my poetry will continue to go is more in a spiritual direction. Not so much of this cold and ironic thing that seems very prevalent to me in contemporary poetry. I love Alice Notley and Theresa Cha and people like that, who are not doing that at all. Maybe it’s a feminine thing. But being less worried about the trends and things like that, and just going from a really emotional and intuitive place.

Writing for me is very intuitive – and so is reading. When I’m reading a book of poems, I really try to get rid of all my critical faculties and intellectual stuff, and just let it happen to me. Not try to figure out, “What is this poet trying to say? What does this even mean?” Because it’s not linear. Poetry is not a logical, linear thing, necessarily. It’s really more like an organic, emotional experience.

I guess that’s where the form comes in. The form, for me, is more of a freeing of that. This doesn’t look like it goes from A to B to C. It’s more sort of all happening the way thoughts happen.

How do we even theorize the postmodern right now, when it has become like so many other terms – it means so many things to so many different people? It seems like you’re resisting the primary descriptor of the postmodern.
Absolutely. I totally resisted postmodern poetry a while ago. I was like, “This is just so pretentious.” But then I realized that it’s not just one thing. It’s not just postmodern poetry and traditional poetry. I mean, the field of postmodern poetry is huge. There’s so many different ways of thinking about language, and thinking about form, and getting it down.

Playfulness for me is really important. That childlike way of looking at the world, and thinking about it and talking about it, which is much more playful and not so self-conscious. Where it’s like, “I have to be smart, I have to say something. Or else I have to fool people into thinking I know more than they do.”

Which is where that image of the fool comes in. The fool is the one who says, “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m just sitting here, and things are happening to me.”
Absolutely. I just think you get more freedom with language, because you’re getting to a place where you can actually think about, “OK, this is the way I speak to myself. This is the way thought sounds in my mind. And I can actually find a way to put that down on the page, instead of trying to follow a more conventional form.” And maybe conventional forms are the way that other poets find best expression. It’s really a personal thing.

Since the book came out, I’ve been more and more concerned with the whole element of accessibility. I didn’t think about it… I thought, “These are easy. They shouldn’t be a problem for people. It’s not that abstract.” But I’m finding that people don’t get it.

Really?
Maybe it’s the way it looks on the page, more than anything else.

I’m really concerned and hopeful that I can move into a place aesthetically that can be a lot more accessible. Because the kind of people that I primarily work with and care about are not in this tiny little community of intellectual poets who read this stuff all the time. I’m really interested in people who don’t read that much poetry, and including them in my ideal reader.

The poems I’m writing right now, naturally, are becoming even more abstract and experimental. I don’t really want them to be, but that’s what comes out.

I almost think that if you haven’t gone to school, if you haven’t read anything, in some ways, postmodern poetry is more accessible to you, because you don’t have these expectations drilled into your skull, such as: “Poetry is Robert Frost.” It’s very narrative.
You kind of have to de-program people. Because the whole academic path is about deconstruction, and critical thinking, and analyzing things according to a method. I think that that’s one of the main things that overtakes me when I’m writing a poem – to really resist that.

I wish I could just say to people, “Don’t think about it. Just let it occur. Let it happen. It doesn’t have to be hard.” In fact, I would like to make it a lot easier. Because I don’t care what meaning you get out of it at all. Anything is fine. Anything is good. I think that would be a less threatening way for people to approach poetry. To kind of own it like that. Own it as an experience that happens in their own mind, however they want it to happen. An experience more than an assignment.

I think poetry can really be a living experience, like ritual in a way, or prayer. Where you have this thing happen – it’s mental, it’s emotional, it’s intellectual – all those things happening at once. You’re not just sitting there in a very focused kind of way. You’re actually opening to an experience.

So I guess the form in Because Why, it wants to facilitate that. It wants to facilitate an experience, more than a more narrow way of approaching poetry.

Let’s discuss your use of italics and indentations.
I’m trying so hard to just get down the way it sounds in my mind. There’s definitely different voices coming up.

“Guidebook for a Pleasant Stay,” for example, is sort of this accumulation of imperatives that I guess I was thinking about right around the time when Bush declared war on Iraq in March 2002. I was thinking, “He’s just telling us what to do. And that’s what the media does, and that’s what parents do.” That’s how you’re raised into perceiving the world – you’re following this whole imperative thing of, “This is the answer. This is the way it happens.” So I wanted to get that out of the way at the beginning of the book.

The italic voice to me seems like the voice of paranoia. The inner voice, listening to this stuff and becoming paranoid and anxious. Trying to absorb all this stuff, but really feeling oppressed more than anything else.

I guess the indentations are the middle-of-the-road voice – maybe the more objective voice. It’s so hard to explain because it’s so intuitive. I think throughout the book, the italic portions are inserting more of the inner, personal thoughts, and commenting on what is happening in the poem. And inserting thoughts that are occurring while the poem is being composed. Like, here’s what’s happening, and here’s the language that’s like, “Oh! This just came up.” Or, “I just thought of this.”

But it’s also a way of delineating the different voices that are happening. Because there’s parts where I need to clearly differentiate the voices. How do I orchestrate that? How do I make an architecture that shows different voices? So I’m using italics for emphasis. There’s not a set way; it’s more intuitive.

With indentations, it’s sort of the same. Using the space to actually see words. So, a blank space is part of a language, and it moves, and it has a body, and it has rhythms. I don’t just write a paragraph and make it justified. I let it happen the way it does. The form is something that comes up naturally, whenever I write a poem. I try not to impose any approach on it when it happens. I don’t even know why it’s happening; I just let it happen. And then I can go back and say, “OK, this is what’s going on. So I need to make it consistent somehow.” So the form is an extension of content. It’s another layer of interpretation, of what’s going on in the poem.

The poem “Life on Earth” felt like a mantra and a ritual. Even the way that the words are spaced on the page add to that feeling.
Maybe it’s syntax, too. I don’t often like to use complete sentences, unless that seems to be what the poem wants me to use. When you’re using different kinds of syntax, you’re not completing sentences, you’re not doing that traditional kind of communicating, the spaces and the indentation and stuff like that really seem to matter. It becomes part of the voice in the poem.

That poem I wrote when I was teaching at the arts high school. I was teaching American literature, and my students had to write five papers, five critical responses. Because they’re creative writers, I wanted to give them the opportunity artistically, too. We were reading Beloved. For this one assignment, I said, “If you don’t want to write a paper, you don’t have to. Why don’t you explore this artistically?”

I had one student who did a dance. A couple did paintings. Some wrote poetry, composed music. And I thought, “Well, if they’re going to do it, I should do it, too. I want to be part of the class. I don’t want to be this figure.” So I wrote this. At the same time, one of the students in the class became my foster daughter. She had talked with me about her household, which was just horrible. She’s from a very typical, suburban, very privileged household. Her parents were never around. And it was very structured like, “OK, you’re going to take cello lessons. You’re going to go to Breck. You’re going to do all these things, but we’re not going to hang out with you, or be affectionate towards you.”

So, thinking about this idea of house: How do you find a way to feel at home? How does your body become your house, and how do you carry it around with you? Just all the ironies about family and house. The house is so important in American culture. You decorate it, and it isolates you from the community, and gives you this idea that there’s one definition of home and family. So all of that came up when I was writing this poem. I think the ideas about family and home and all the history that happens in a house and your concept of home – it’s fragmented. It’s not always in traditional syntax. People have so many different ideas of home and house.

Shifting gears a little bit, let’s talk about the role that art has in your life. It sounds like it has a lot of crossover.
I never really thought about it very much. I just went forward in my life. I’m pretty impulsive. I chose things that seemed to instruct or encourage this poetic vision, or this way of thinking about life as art. But it wasn’t a conscious thing I was thinking about.

I’m a doula [one who cares for newborns and new mothers], and I teach. Another poet told me once,“Your life seems so integrated. Mine is so separate. I’m a mom, and that’s one thing. Then when I’m writing, I have to leave that all behind.” And I started to think about it, and I was like, “Yeah. That’s really important to me – I want it to be integrated. I don’t want to separate my art. Even though I might not teach this poetry, it’s always the lens through which I see the world.” And even when I’m not writing. Like right now I’m totally in a dry spell, not much is coming out. I want to bring my poetry to the classroom, where it’s not even a conscious thing, where it’s just what happens. I want to bring it to my house, my yard, everything, so that it is integrated. It’s more of a fluid thing in my life. I don’t have to turn the poet off when I go to teach, or when I’m being a doula.

It’s spiritual. I don’t want to sound too corny, but I think fundamentally, when I approach a poem, or being a doula or teaching, that it really comes from a spiritual place. Maybe that’s where it all comes from. And I think that’s really scorned, as far as the trends of postmodern. Especially among my generation. It’s scorned, and I really think that it’s more of a fear, of being too vulnerable. The world is so terrible right now, just so awful, and I don’t know how you can’t address that in your writing. How do you encourage some kind of collective around healing in this time? I don’t think it’s by being distant and ironic. It’s really hard to break through all of that, and really collaborate with people to make it more of an interaction. I mean, in some ways, these poems aren’t even mine – they’re what I get from being in the world.

So it sounds like you’re talking about poetic consciousness here. But what does that mean, exactly?
Maybe it means metaphor. Maybe even looking at things in a mythological context. Not mythologizing what’s happening in reality, but really thinking about, “What does this mean about our collective psyches?” And to get to that place in the mind where people can think about illness and healing, going beyond the media and material reality, and all this information. We’re just bombarded with it all the time, and it doesn’t feel useful to me at all.

I guess to continue on with this idea of community, I really would like to believe that there’s a possibility for a populist avant garde. My husband, who’s a poet as well (John Colburn), we have this vision of “How can we be populist, and still follow our aesthetic instincts?”

So for us, it’s going more and more towards myth, or mysticism. Not that we’re mystic, but that’s what really interests us. For us, a really important metaphor is sitting around a fire. Just going to that really basic place with a community, where you have nothing else – you’re just looking at a fire, and whatever comes up comes up. So it’s not linear, but it’s community-based. Not being afraid of attempting a visionary life. I know that that may not be the trend, but that’s what’s really important to us.

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