Blog Exclusive: A Conversation with BK Fischer

Photo courtesy of BK Fischer
Photo courtesy of BK Fischer

I arrived at B. K. Fischer’s picturesque Dutch Colonial home in Sleepy Hollow, New York on a sunny spring morning. She greeted me at the door in an aqua VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) t-shirt and jeans, and welcomed me in. As a former student, I know Barbara, so I wasn’t surprised at the ease of our conversation as we set about discussing her work past and present, the effort to balance motherhood with poetry, and her role as a poetry editor at Boston Review.

– Adrianna Robertson, General Reader, Poetry


LUMINA: How long have you considered yourself a poet?

BK Fischer: Not sure about “poet,” but around age five was when I first had the notion that a poem was something a person could want to write. My mom still has a few poems I wrote then. There is one about my friend turning six while I was still five: you are now six, and I am still five, and what does that mean for us?

LUMINA: Wow—what a treasure to have poems like that from childhood. Does that come from a strong artistic gene in your family?

BKF: My parents are both teachers, so the idea of approaching literacy in an academic or literary way seemed natural. My grandfather wrote stories for me when I was a kid—he typed them up on the back of old John Hancock stationery, tales about a character named Crazy Claire, and a whole series about my brother and me and our neighborhood friends as secret Martians. My Martian name was Skeeter. I think I got the idea of being a writer-on-the-page and storyteller from him.

LUMINA: Those must have been great stories…and it makes me wonder what I would want my Martian name to be…Skeeter is such a good one! Your grandfather had quite an imagination…how lucky for you. I also often think that imagination can very much be affected by your surroundings. At present, where do you do your work—what does your workspace look like?

BKF: It’s this sun porch—my favorite room in the house. The room has no wall space to speak of, only bookcases alternating with windows. I love that it is light-filled and book-filled and looks out on my garden.

LUMINA: Yes, that’s pretty perfect—I would venture to say that most writers would kill for this kind of workspace. What is your process like? Do you write every day?

BKF: I wish I could say I had a process! With three kids and editing and teaching occupying most of my time, I just fit writing in whenever I can. It’s a constant struggle to clear a path through the avalanche of daily tasks to make space for writing—writing is always the last thing I manage to get to in my week, and the first thing to go when things get busy. But somehow the creative work gets done. I have stopped worrying about it because one way or another, it does happen. I have come to have faith in it, though it is streaky. For example, I wanted to start working on a poem about the painter Balthus. In December, I was given the catalog for the Cats and Girls exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I had been looking at the book on my coffee table for months and taking some notes, but I didn’t get the chance to draft a poem until February 27th when I got on the plane for AWP in Seattle. These days to find time to write I need a boarding pass. That flight offered me the protected time I needed to do it.

LUMINA: I can understand that, for sure. The only thing is I hate flying! But I love the idea of “protected time.” On that note, though, how does motherhood overall impact your writing for better or for worse?

BKF: Motherhood changes everything, but then again, everything changes everything. Becoming a parent was an intense and difficult transition for me, as it is for many people, and the experience of being a parent to young children was a constant psychological and physical struggle for me for many years. As with any demanding caregiving responsibilities, I think you accommodate and adapt. Basic human needs are always going to be paramount and all other work will stop until those needs are met. Children are unpredictable and demanding (and messy and annoying and a joy) and having to accept the unpredictability of when I can work is probably what is most difficult for me.

LUMINA: I couldn’t agree more. I struggle with that same thing—having very little control over my time. However, despite this general lack of time, you have managed to complete and publish two books of poems. Can you talk about the process of writing the two books?

BKF: St. Rage’s Vault is my first book, but it was published after Mutiny Gallery. The title poem in St. Rage’s is probably the first poem I wrote that I wouldn’t consider juvenilia. Now from a distance of 20 years it sounds very young and clumsy to me, but I included it almost nostalgically because I still dig the title. I remember bringing it to my writing workshop and everyone looking up—something had happened with that poem. A handful of poems in St. Rage’s Vault go back to my student days, but the bulk of them were written around 2004-2005, in the period right after I finished my Ph.D. dissertation. There is something evil about a dissertation. The years when I was writing it were the only period in my life, since I was five, when I didn’t write any poems at all. When I finally defended—I was five months pregnant with my second child at the time—I wondered if I’d ever write poetry again. So in the winter of 2004, I told my husband that I was just going to try to write some shitty ekphrastic poems. This liberated me to do an intense burst of work all at once, and it was the jumpstart I needed. You have to free yourself to write the worst stuff that you can, and then worry about fixing it up later.

LUMINA: Yes…I can see that you just needed to find whatever it was that would allow you to tap back into your creativity. However, let’s be real here—you did not end up writing any “shitty exphrastic poems.”

BKF: (laughing) Oh, they were plenty shitty to begin with. Eventually, I started sending the manuscript out to contests and started to get some finalist hits—seven or eight times—it was my “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” manuscript. Getting close was frustrating, but also encouraging. In the meantime, in 2008, I wrote another manuscript in one six-month streak, and it became Mutiny Gallery. That book was sparked by performance—I was asked to write a monologue for an event at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, New York, and took as my inspiration Francesca DiMattio’s Black Ship, a large-scale painting of a clipper ship in a tessellated array of fragmented images. I wrote “Mothership” (which appears in St. Rage’s Vault) and the piece was performed by an actor against the backdrop of the painting. A short while later, I found myself (standing at the kitchen counter) at a loss for what to write next, and I wondered what would have happened to the characters in that poem ten years later. I got the idea that Max and Claire would take a road trip. A while back my good friend Troy Thibodeaux had sent me a book called Little Museums from a stack of remainders at a publishing job he had, because he thought I’d like it—a guide to strange little museums and galleries around the United States. I made a long list of museums that interested me. Then I just started writing poems as episodes for these characters. It was fun and energizing and it came together and made a story of a sort.

Maybe I should also say that at that time I felt totally disconnected from the Po Biz—I was quite literally standing at the kitchen counter stirring the mac and cheese with three brats hanging on my legs. I wasn’t getting out to many readings, and this was before Facebook and I really had no idea how to be connected to other poets and their work via the Internet or listservs or anything. Since it was totally uncool to write narrative and I was pissed off about being totally uncool and suburban and out of the loop, I thought, screw it, I’ll write a story. In a way writing a mother-and-son road trip narrative seemed the most experimental thing I could think of doing.

LUMINA: It’s so ideal when you can turn being pissed off into something creative and productive. And, in terms of the narrative—though it is a sort of narrative—one can pluck the poems out of the story and they stand up on their own.

BKF: I hope they do. I wanted to experiment with putting the lyric to the service of story, a fractured story that included the gaps, the lacunae, in thought and perception.

LUMINA: Your work (as a whole) is so sound driven—would you consider yourself a sound-driven poet? Do you think first of sound?

BKF: Yes, but in that regard I don’t think. I have an alliteration problem. It’s compulsive. My mind is collated under sound. There’s that board game Scattergories, where sound is the premise and it’s all about making lists with alliteration—that’s the one game on the planet I could be the world champion of. (laughs) I’ve always been drawn to poetry where sound is paramount—Hopkins, Keats, Stevens—sound takes precedence over sense. I am interested in the textual arrangement and collaging of sound through words—in that sense it is almost an abstract art. T.J. Clark has a brilliant analysis of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, showing how they were exceptionally crafted, though they don’t give that initial impression—Pollock was working in the medium and with motion in a way that was so deliberate. I’m striving toward, aspire to, a writing practice that is not so unlike that—a finicky and exacting craft that captures wild and diffuse energy. But at the same time I also want to communicate something, even represent experiences—god forbid—so perhaps this creates a kind of tension in my work.

Much of what passes for avant-garde writing right now is so self-consciously smart and theoretical. How clever we all are. It starts to sound the same to me—poems that prattle on tepidly and discursively until they lead us to some moderate insight, something about suffering or complicity or commodity or bias or exclusion or enlightenment. Until one arrives at something cognitive that cuts two ways. My stuff doesn’t sound slick like that. I forget how nutso hyper-sensory-semantic and uncool (i.e. simmering) it comes off. Gerard Manley Hopkins buzzed-up on Starbucks. I often feel very much the fish out of water—like I missed the day in school when they said what poems are and what they should sound like. I keep doing my thing, but I’m so egregiously lush and talk too fast and everyone else seems to have already realized that we should slow down and say spare careful things. I’m interested in layering and counterpointing sounds, in fugues and collages and braids and erasures. And in content that arises like the shout-outs of a drowning woman, or the rants of a sane jester (to an insane king) who is about to be sent to the guillotine.

LUMINA: Wow…I think I am just stuck on the idea of Gerard Manley Hopkins being buzzed up on Starbucks…that is so great! But, what you say here makes sense to me in that I think it’s very difficult (in the world of poetry today) to avoid getting swept up in the current of what one is supposed to write or in having poems that sound like all the “cool” poems of the moment sound. I believe that writing what you feel like you have to write will most likely lead you to a place of authenticity, which it sounds like you are doing, and, there is no question, you are doing well. Though, this makes me think of your concentration on ekphrastic writing. It obviously feels right to you. Why do you think you are so drawn to ekphrastic writing?

BKF: It’s fertile ground. And it’s a way to get out of your own head—a way to work around the confessional mode, to escape from a claustrophobic lyric subjectivity. It’s a projection, an externalization of aesthetic and sensory and intellectual impulses, a call and response, but it always ends up being intimate.

LUMINA: It’s interesting that you bring this up. I recently read an article by Alfred Corn on the Academy of American Poets website. He was talking about ekphrastic poetry and that these poems that seem to contain no autobiographical material still contain it. He mentioned Keats, Berryman, and Bishop as examples of this. Do you think that your poems are indeed autobiographical?

BKF: Yes, of course, and I think that’s inescapable—if we expand the notion of autobiography to include all kinds of experience, cognitive and emotional and otherwise. Berryman and Bishop are among my major influences. I couldn’t escape either of them if I tried. And Plath is hugely important to me. Plath as wordsmith. I’ve always read Plath for technique and mastery and intellection. Her anguish, her illness—a terminal illness—is tragic and regrettable. It took her from us too soon.

LUMINA: I thought of this—of Plath—when you mentioned the drip paintings earlier. Her poetry (and that of many of the confessional poets) is often mistakenly thought of as just a mish-mash of feelings brought to the page. When in reality, there is such skill, such craft, in the making of her poems.

BKF: Exactly…as if they could be created easily, by simply opening a vein. There was painstaking process involved. Think about what she does with lineation. The line itself is so underemphasized in contemporary poetry and I like to see that some recent criticism is addressing it.

LUMINA: Speaking of lineation and form as it may be, could we talk for a moment about “Mothership”? In contrast to your other poems, “Mothership” is set as prose. Of course you mentioned that it was actually written for the stage. How was that process?

BKF: That piece is a different species because it isn’t lineated (though I do work in prose paragraphs elsewhere), but it fit thematically in the book. Writing for performance, and performance by someone else, was deeply rattling and eye-opening and instructive. I felt more performance dread about that event, when I was standing in the audience as my work was on stage, than I have ever felt about anything I have ever done myself in front of a group of people.

LUMINA: Even though you didn’t act in it, did you have a say in the way it was performed?

BKF: Yes, but not having a theater background, I let the directors have a lot of freedom with it. They knew what they were doing. I loved the work the actor did with the character.

LUMINA: I love the idea of combining poetry and theater. It is something I had the opportunity to delve into at Sarah Lawrence this semester. I, too, felt it was an extremely eye-opening experience and I highly recommend it. So, to switch gears a bit here, what are you working on now?

BKF: Surprisingly a lot actually. I have two manuscripts that I would love to finish by the end of this year if I am lucky. One manuscript is an erratic rewrite of, and riff off, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse—which is a crazy endeavor—my spin-off, not the Barthes’ book. That book is so beloved by so many people that taking it on feels very risky. I don’t know if what I’m doing is back-talk or tangent or something else entirely. I have written a prologue to introduce the project and it was published last month at Sarah Blake’s National Poetry Month Daily tumblr. The idea is this: whereas Barthes’ book is male, French, and esoteric, mine is female, American, and tacky.

And, the second thing…remember I’m really not prolific when you consider that I didn’t publish my first book until I was forty. (laughing)

LUMINA: Oh, no…yes, you are! No matter what, this is two manuscripts within a few years…and before this you still managed two books while having babies, completing a Ph.D., teaching etc. It’s impressive.

BKF: Thank you—I’m always amazed any of it happens at all. The second project picks up something I am still interested in—the “versanovella” form (as in Mutiny Gallery). I wanted to see if it’s a repeatable form for me, so I wrote two more. And I am now writing a third because I had it in my mind to write (don’t try this at home!) a trilogy of verse novellas under the heading American Apocrypha.

LUMINA: Would you ever write a novel?

BKF: I would love to, and I’ve tried a few times to start, but I think I’m still waiting for a good idea for a novel to come to me. Maybe it never will. I feel like it would have to come to me as a gift from the gods.

LUMINA: I can see it happening.

BKF: Maybe…or maybe I just need a sustained amount of time. I need for my kids to grow up, let’s just say that.

LUMINA: Can we talk about your experiences at Boston Review? How did you end up with the position of poetry editor there?

BKF: I have contributed review essays to BR since 1999, almost one essay per year since then, and have always enjoyed collaborating with their excellent editorial staff. The critical work I do and my writing style seem to hit their target idiom, and they brought me on board as an editor to curate poetry content with that target in mind—publishing criticism that both advances the critical conversation about poetry at its highest levels while at the same time engaging a non-specialist reader. Timothy Donnelly and I have been colleagues and friends since we were at Columbia together in the MFA program, and I eagerly accepted this opportunity to work with him in this editorial role.

LUMINA: Is it just you and Timothy?

BKF: We are now a trio—Stefania Heim joined us this spring. It’s wonderful to have her. Together the three of us are responsible for the print and on-line poetry content—the reviews, the poetry, National Poetry Month, the contests, the blog. I think I am finally catching on, and catching up with the workload. My rookie year is over and now I need to step up my game.

LUMINA: What has been the most eye-opening experience there so far?

BKF: Reading a deluge of poems in a short period of time teaches you a lot about what a poem is and what makes a good poem. The screening of a large number of submissions all at once—you know very quickly if a poem is doing what you think a good poem should do.

LUMINA: What is most important to you as an editor of poetry submissions?

BKF: I knew you were going to ask that, and that is a very hard question. It’s a cliché, but a poem has to take the top of my head off. Whenever I try to venture beyond that statement—Emily Dickinson’s famous and oft-repeated dictum—I find myself qualifying or curtailing or annotating anything I say. There are many ways—I’d like to think infinite ways—a poem can blow me away. Sometimes it’s a function of highly charged language, or of context or intent or mode of address, or of political motivation, or of sheer force of intellection, or of musicality, or of devastating contrast, or of psychological fire, but whatever it is there has to be urgency and intensity. We publish the best poems we can find, and we are resolutely eclectic and inclusive and diverse.

LUMINA: I think it must be very exciting work to be doing—and informative. In my limited experience, I always find I learn so much about writing my own poetry by reading the work of others. Though it’s difficult to imagine you have any other time at all, what do you do when you are not writing, reading, and editing?

BKF: Mostly all the tasks associated with raising three kids and managing a busy household, but for recreation and sanity I run and swim. I was never into sports growing up (though I did dance), but at age 35 I had what could be called an athletic conversion experience. On January 1, 2007, I decided to start running, and I ran out the door, and I haven’t stopped. About two years later I took up swimming, and that changed my life, my meditative and imaginative and bodily life. If we had another hour I could and would talk endlessly about swimming. This summer I will make a third attempt to swim across the Hudson River at its widest point, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge, near where I live. I run regularly in the Rockefeller State Park Preserve and swim at the Tarrytown Y, and swim in the river in the summer. Open-water swimming is so different from pool swimming, and it is indescribably moving. Beyond the challenges posed by the element—current, tide, wake—there is the vastness of that giant sky.

I love both running and swimming, but they are very different pursuits. Running gives me time to think—I can think through something I’m working on, or have an argument with my husband in my head, or run down a list of things I want to do. I can have discursive thoughts, or daydream. But swimming forces me to immerse in a way that makes me stop thinking. It is mindfulness without chatter.

LUMINA: You are lucky to have found these two things that are so nourishing for both your mind and body. I agree wholeheartedly—and I share your passion for running. Running has been, quite literally, something that has saved me. As a final question, do you have any advice for graduate writing students?

BKF: Participate in your literary magazine. Being on the submission-receiving end of things—choosing, selecting, curating material—is so valuable. Be part of the conversation going on in the writing world. No one is writing in isolation and knowing your audience tells you so much. And read a ton, read everything, of course—from Beowulf to the new Boston Review.

LUMINA: Thank you, Barbara, for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing your thoughts with our LUMINA readers.