During 2016, the Spotlight Series (usually) focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s surprise!-special-feature third poet is Jen Fitzgerald.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?
Jen Fitzgerald: My creativity makes me feel as though I am functioning at my highest level of “human.” It comes, entirely from within me (I of course recognize inspiration and stimuli), it forms inside of me, and then I am the means by which it finds its form outside of me. It is something that I have denied others access to as a kind of self-preservation. Very little was mine throughout my childhood and adolescence. I vigilantly protected my thoughts, imagination, and drive to create. I kept my inner life sacred. Because of this, having my work in the world is alternately exciting and slightly unsettling.
Right now, I am interested in “full rooms.” I find these through a mixture of photography, poetry, prose poetry, and the lyric essay. A “room” could be completely full with only a few couplets, or it may take a series of photos and prose for readers/viewers to inhabit a space, wander around, and feel present. I do this by feeling—like reaching around in the dark until you recognize a form and grabbing hold.
What primarily propels me is that I am not supposed to be able to do this—I wasn’t supposed to be able to go to graduate school, I especially was not supposed to be able to go to graduate school for poetry, and I am not supposed to be able to define my life by my art. My family didn’t pay for my school. I worked three jobs at some points while going to school part time. It took me ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree.
Because I felt like I didn’t belong in these spaces of higher education, I was extremely anxious that it would be taken away from me, that my achievements would be credited to someone else, and that no amount of labor would ever be enough to prove that I had the intelligence, ability, and drive to be a successful writer and poet. I tolerated exploitation because I thought it was the only way a person like me would be granted access. Because of this, I worried a lot about “poebiz” at the beginning of my writing career—I no longer do.
FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
JF: I find myself most influenced by framing the world around me. I do this primarily through photography—essay and poetry follow shortly after. By moving through whatever landscape I am in, looking for the perfect frame, I feel that I am “elevating the everyday.” There is so much art present in simple moments!
I understand how important it is for working-class, blue-collar people to see themselves in art. They think, as I have been told, that these experiences are not worthy of artistic rendition. From witness comes action—this stands true, further as: from viewing comes creating. Art moves us; it moves us especially to try our own hands at building, painting, sculpting, and making tangible representations of beauty. Those with power are all too quick to cut off the majority of our population, our laboring population. There is talent among the ranks of men, women, and non-binary laborers. There are artisans and creators, there are innovators and a resourcefulness that one would have to witness to believe. But they know about whom stories have been written and who appears in portraits. It can be discouraging. We artists can subvert that understanding with our own labor.
FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?
JF: I like to think of myself as an “Ashcan Poet.” If you all are unfamiliar with the Ashcan School, definitely look them up. There were a group of artists, loosely affiliated, at the end of the industrial revolution in this country. They were disenchanted with academic realism and they rejected Impressionism. They sought, instead, a gritty realism. This was also during the time of Riis’ documentation of NYC slum conditions in, “How the Other Half Lives.” Their paintings were journalistic and sought to render truth.
Poetry, like painting, can become a sort of self-replicating algorithm, where we do what has worked best for centuries so that we can get in under the radar. I am interested in innovation, taking risks, and challenging myself to challenge the art form. I have seen a movement toward this ideal in contemporary, American poetry, especially among emerging poets. And I fucking love it.
What is cool/important?
I value impact—I know what I want to do and what I want my poetry to do in the world. I value connection. While I may not be “a poet’s poet,” I of course want my fellow poets to read and connect with the work as I have read and connected with theirs. Just as I wrote this for my peers, I wrote this collection for the members of UFCW Local 342, for my grandparents, for undocumented workers world-wide, and for anyone who works three damn jobs and still finds time for their art because it is the only way they feel at peace—the only time they know bliss.
FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
JF: Two, disparate and unlikely bedfellows come to mind as helping me form as a writer. These were, hearing Maurice Manning read for the first time and Super Storm Sandy.
What transpired on Staten Island during and after Super Storm Sandy has deeply affected me as an artist. I learned the difference between voyeurism/exploitation and framing to elevate. I began to understand that we have a responsibility to represent ourselves. If we don’t, we leave ourselves open to misrepresentation, historical revisions, and being made caricatures of through the skewed lens of the privileged.
Fact: History Gets Revised.
I am cursed with a long memory and a keen sense of injustice. My writing is memory interacting with artifice. I will drag a fragment of each of these facts through every sentence I write:
- The borough president reported to the city and state that Staten Island was fine after the storm, some downed tree limbs at most. He hadn’t even left his neighborhood. The entire shoreline of our island was devastated.
- It took six days for the Red Cross to show up. They started soliciting donations 24 hours after the storm. Proud people made on-air pleas to get some sort of help. The discomfort and pain of asking for help was apparent on their faces and in their body language.
- The NYC marathon was due to start only two days after the storm. AIG set up heated tents with hot food and drinks at the starting line for the runners. The starting line was near marsh land where we were looking for the bodies of our missing.
- After threats and protests by islanders asking for help and respect, the marathon was cancelled. AIG packed up their tents. The entire surrounding area was comprised of homes torn to shreds, overcrowded shelters, no electricity, no heat, and families riffling through rubble in their yards to salvage whatever they could of their lives. They watched the unused heaters carted off and the untouched coffee poured out on to the street.
- Mayor Bloomberg flew a helicopter around a portion of the shoreline, landed for a few minutes to make a statement, and then left. He did not return again.
- We set up our own relief networks. We solicited our own donations and distributed them to our neighbors.
- Entire communities were uprooted, there was a mass exodus of poor folks, renters, and those who couldn’t afford to rebuild. Insurance companies did everything they could to not pay up. Portions of the island will never be the same again.
The first time I heard Maurice Manning read, I was in the auditorium of The College of Staten Island (years before Sandy). Much of my knowledge of poetry was the classics, and I was not wholly impressed. When I heard Manning read, when I heard the cadence of colloquial, I was struck. I didn’t know I could render, so honestly, the people in my everyday life. My people have a cadence too— it may not be as melodic as Manning’s, but it still sings. And they live ordinary lives that I too, could elevate to music. It made me feel powerful.
FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
JF: I think that every poet should read books about the natural world, clouds, storms, plants, flowers, fauna, etc. I think every non-fiction writer should read The Red Book by Jung or Joyce’s Ulysses to sit in completely disorientation with the furthest stretches of what the human mind can do to reality, and every fiction writer should read poetry to release their pen’s inner scalpel. And those who don’t write, have the luxury of reading absolutely everything for sheer enjoyment.
I also suggest finding three different mediums that deal with the same content.
Lastly, I suggest reading whatever the hell you want because we get enough syllabi, recommendations, and must-reads.
FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?
JF: I’d like to talk a little about what I’m working on right now—in particular, the new collection I’ve been focused on for the past year and a half. The poems, so far, have been written while traveling the country in a sort of frenzy or fear of staying still. I just moved from Staten Island, the place I grew up, the place my family has called home for nearly 200 years. It was part of my identity and moving from it deprived me of the insulation that ready-made identity affords. This distance was necessary to create emotional and geographic space from past and continuing trauma. This is coupled with the desire to understand what it means to be an “American,” and the geographical, historical, and moral boundaries that go along with this term.
This collection is about “hiraeth,” the Dutch word that means nostalgia or homesickness not only for a place, but for the feeling a place elicits. I moved from state to state hoping this longing and confusion could be assuaged, that a feeling of comfortability could be triggered and I might feel at ease, maybe even at home.
These States of our nation, These States of mind, These States of being all represent the varied people, terrain and beauty that we are surrounded by in our everyday lives. We don’t need to run frantically, though I do recommend it for the wanderers and explorers, to find a new version of ourselves. I discovered that a physical journey to find where one belongs is actually a journey into the self, regardless of how the landscape might change. I am still on this journey and wonder is this very journey is not simply a life well-lived.
Jen Fitzgerald is a poet, essayist, and native New Yorker whose work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet, as well as in Tin House, Salon, PEN Anthology, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among other places, and is forthcoming at Colorado Review and Public Pool. She is the host of New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network, and a member of the New York Writers Workshop. Her first collection of poetry, The Art of Work, is forthcoming with Noemi Press in September 2016.