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The Poet’s Corner – February, 2010
Interview with Patricia Fargnoli

February is the time of year when fair maidens grab their bikinis and head off to Barbados, Buenos Aires or Barcelona.  Those who are not so fortunate write Valentine’s Day cards.  To themselves.  (I know.  I once wrote a short story on the theme titled “Room to Rent.”)  While perhaps no longer a maiden, Patricia Fargnoli remains quite fair, while her poetry – as blunt as it is – would make the fairest cheek of the fairest maiden blush in the shame of her own shallowness.

I owe my acquaintance with Patricia also to Diane Lockward.  I read Pat’s poem “Approaching Seventy” on her Website and decided immediately she’d be the appropriate one to remind us that just when we think we’ve had enough of winter, along comes February.  I e-mailed her, she eventually responded, and here we are.

As always, and before we begin, Pat’s bio:
Patricia Fargnoli, the New Hampshire Poet Laureate from December 2006 to March 2009, is the author of six collections of poetry. Her newest book is Then, Something (Tupelo Press, fall 2009). Her fifth collection, Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005), won the New Hampshire Jane Kenyon Literary Book Award for an Outstanding Book of Poetry and was a semifinalist for the Glasgow Prize.  Her first book, Necessary Light (Utah State University Press, 1999), was awarded the 1999 May Swenson Poetry Award judged by Mary Oliver.  Her book Small Songs of Pain (Pecan Grove Press, 2003) is a collection of poems triggered by Chagall's illustrations of LaFontaine's Fables. In addition, she has published two chapbooks: Lives of Others (Oyster River Press, 2003); and Greatest Hits (Pudding House press).

“Pat,” a retired social worker has been the recipient of a Macdowell Colony fellowship, is a frequent resident at the Dorset Writer's Colony and Wellspring House.  A past Associate editor of The Worcester Review, she has been on the residence faculty of The Frost Place Poetry Festival, and has taught at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and in the Lifelong Learning program of Keene State College – as well as privately. She’s been the recipient of an honorary BFA from The NH Institute of Arts, and has won the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award and five Pushcart nominations. She was twice a semifinalist for the Discovery, The Nation Awards. A graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, CT, The Hartford College for Women, and the UCONN School of Social Work, she has published widely in literary journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, North American Review, Mid-American Review, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, and Nimrod, etc.  A member of the NH Writer’s Project and a Touring Artist for the NH Art’s Council, she resides in Walpole, NH.
RRB:Pat, I mentioned “Approaching Seventy” above only jokingly as a piece that would slap us into the fist of February, but more particularly as a piece that slapped me into a quick appreciation of your talent.  Give us some background, if you will, before we take a look at the poem.  What moved you in the first place to write about such a delicate subject?  (After all, most people prefer to forget their age once they turn downhill from fifty.)

PBF:Truthfully, Russell, I’d prefer to forget mine too because it’s frightening me.  However, the poems I write usually proceed from the themes that concern me at the time I write them. And I write, always, with an eye toward “truth,” or, in other words, toward presenting a vision of the world that I feel is psychologically and/or spiritually true. The fact is – as I know as well from my social work training as I do from my own life – our lives are filled with constant loss…and that, as one grows older, those losses accumulate at a greater and greater speed until suddenly it feels that one is inhabited by ghosts.  I’ve learned that, when I write from the truth of my own experience in this way, I connect with what is vital and meaningful in all human experience.  And that human connection with readers is, before all the other reasons, the main reason I write poetry.
“Approaching Seventy”

A spider crawls beneath the screen,
designs a web in the corner and waits
with the patience of a calendar.

This is the end of summer,
scent of decay everywhere in the outside air,

flowers, planted last spring with such
a sense of promise, leaving one by one,
disappearing into the earth.

I think of endings—

final page of a novel
and the characters you've come to love
placed on the shelf,

a wave from a doorway—those slight
or heavy sadnesses—

friend in Sagaponock the last time I saw her,
waving from the dock as the ferry pulled out
and the wake lengthened between us,

or swells on a stormy crossing,
pine boughs, dark, lifting and falling
in heavy rain, one night of my childhood,

beyond the small stair top bedroom
at my aunt's Vermont inn, as I lay awake—
wood smoke and voices from the lobby below,

a memory of suitcases standing by a farmhouse
front door, milk cans topped with snow, the pale
complexion of my mother who left and didn't return,

memory of lilacs—branches my brother and I used to climb through,
scratching ourselves as we hid from each other—
not long ago, at an airport, we hugged goodbye again—

what I left behind when I moved
to this senior apartment—some feeling of usefulness,
half of my books, most of my clothes.

Sometimes, it feels as if I've said goodbye to everyone.
Through the north window, I watch clouds move off
beyond my vision, and somewhere dissolve into rain.

“Approaching Seventy” from Then, Something (Tupelo Press, 2009). Used by Permission.- To order Then, Something, please go to Tupelo Press — Recent Releases

RRB:I appreciate your honesty, Pat.  What you describe in this poem is something I, myself, have often wondered about – and wondered, too, whether I’d somehow missed out on some great secret everyone else (or at least some large portion of the population) was getting, but that I was missing.

In NYC (well, in Brooklyn), where I live, I can’t help running up against thousands if not millions of happy faces and wondering “What am I doing wrong?  What am I missing?  Where’s the key?  Where’s the fucking key?” – and concluding that I’m the only clueless one in the crowd.  It’s comforting to know I may not be alone.

This next piece of yours, “The Undeniable Pressure of Existence,” is something that got Garrison Keillor’s attention on The Writer’s Almanac.  Let’s take a look at it – then let you fill us in on the background.

PBF:  This was a very real fox, running along the state highway through a suburb of Hartford.  He was obviously rabid, and lost, and running to no saving place. And I wanted badly to be able to help him.  But, of course, there could be no “help.”  I've learned that, when an image or event like this grabs hold of my mind and won't let go, I need to write about it because it’s telling me something important.  The fox becomes a symbol, in the end, for all of us in contemporary society (with its diminished natural world) running toward some salvation that may not even exist.

This has been one of my most popular poems. I've received fan letters about it, and it's been reprinted several times (including on a blog or two). A minister somewhere on the West Coast once used it as the basis for a sermon.  There is something about it that seems to move others greatly.

RRB:I can certainly understand why people might wish to anthropomorphize this animal and its situation.  It could well be that they genuinely sympathize with the fox.  However, I rather think that most of us simply put ourselves in the animal’s place and “feel” for it only to the extent that we see ourselves similarly stressed.  Empathy is a funny thing.

This next piece, “The Invitation,” first appeared at Poetry Daily if I’m not mistaken.  Could you please tell us its tale before we have the pleasure of reading it?

PFB:This is, obviously, a seduction poem.  But who is being seduced?  It’s a mystery – and one I wanted left open so that the reader could call whomever he or she chose into the poem.  But also, in part, it’s the reader of the poem who’s being seduced and/or the reader of the poetry as a whole. For that reason, the poem is the first in my book, Duties of the Spirit.  It’s an invitation to the reader to enter the book and the poems.  The images in this poem – or some of them at least – come from dreams (e.g. the peacocks, the fans, the garden).  The garden is a paradisiacal place – one of escape – and, just maybe, (though I don’t like to over-explain what can’t be entirely explained) the meaning of the poem has something to do with “imagination” and its seductive power.  This poem was fun to write and is also fun to read.  I sometimes use it at the beginning of readings.

By the way, about the fox, no one (poet or reader) was anthropomorphizing that animal; he was one desperate fox. 
I saw the fox running by the side of the road
past the turned-away brick faces of the condominiums
past the Citco gas station with its line of cars and trucks
and he ran, limping, gaunt, matted dull-haired
past Jim's Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat,
past the Thai Garden, his sides heaving like bellows
and he kept running to where the interstate
crossed the state road and he reached it and he ran on
under the underpass and beyond it past the perfect
rows of split-levels, their identical driveways
their brookless and forestless yards,
and from my moving car, I watched him,
helpless to do anything to help him, certain he was beyond
any aid, any desire to save him, and he ran loping on,
far out of his element, sick, panting, starving,
his eyes fixed on some point ahead of him,
some possible salvation
in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.

“The Undeniable Pressure of Existence” from Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005).  Used by permission.

I have opened the doors
near the garden.
Why don't you come into
the unfolding
of Japanese fans?
The peacocks are strolling
among the lobelia
for no one but you
in this place where
the impossible
is shaking
its bright turquoise feathers.
I have turned
off the radio,
washed purple and green grapes
for the pedestal table,
filled frosted goblets
with fresh well water.
Afterwards the bed,
its turned down silk.
What you have left behind
will forget you
soon enough.

“The Invitation” from Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005).  Used by permission.
RRB: I stand corrected on the fox, Pat – at least for the length of this interview.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a fox is just a fox.  I’ll have to ask Bill Clinton about that the next time I need the counsel of an elder statesman.  Wasn’t he the one who said “I did not have sex with that vixen!”?

I, personally, feel it rather depends upon how you define “was.”

Moving right along now, and by way of conclusion, let’s look at one last piece.  This one, as you suggest in your title (“Almost Ghazal with Thoughts Toward Spring”) is almost a ghazal.

My Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms defines a ghazal (or ghasel) as a “lyric in eastern literature, especially Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Pashto, from the 8th century onward.  Such a poem, whose theme is generally love and wine, often mystically understood, varies in length from 5 to 12 couplets all upon the same rhyme.  The poet signs his (or her) name in the final couplet.”

“Almost Ghazal with Thoughts Toward Spring” from Then, Something (Tupelo Press, 2009).  Used by permission.

Now, I must confess:  as much as I like this piece, I don’t see much in the way of love or wine in it.  Maybe the fox ran off with both – or maybe I’m just blind, deaf  and dumb to the mysticism.  But no matter – you did say “almost.”  Perhaps you can elaborate.

PFB:Many modern ghazals vary the original requirements somewhat; and they are often not about love or wine (though they certainly may be). There are contemporary ghazals, for instance, that don’t rhyme.  And there are a couple of general requirements you don’t mention.  For instance, the couplets should stand alone, complete units, almost as separate gems – and the rhyme is supposed to come before a word or phrase that repeats at the end of the second line in every couplet.

           The latter is the main reason I call this an “almost ghazal.”  I think that, although some of the other requirements can be forgone, that one should probably be necessary.  And I tried – with a bunch of phrases – to fulfill it, but failed.  None seemed right, and all seemed to detract from the poem.  After all, rules often get tossed aside in poetry if they simply don’t work for a certain poem. I think it’s the poem itself that’s important – and the rules, then, are in service to the poem.   I’m glad you liked it in any case.  And I thank you for interviewing me.

RRB:I did indeed, Pat.  And I thank you.

Nothing loosens the way a brook loosens from April,
ice hurls up along the edges, block after giant block.

Peepers rev up, mole salamanders breed in vernal pools.
It seems as if the voices of the song birds all unlock.

A poet I knew lived in a mountain cave, wrote on trees
and sang to the wind. Light's time, his only clock.

Animals have souls also, and trees and blossoms, maybe rain.
Once, I thought I saw a soul embedded in a rock.

The dream world is another as real as this. I pass between the two,
as through a membrane, through a line, or arc.

Winter leaves me in a hush, trailing its long scarf of hours. What door
slides back at last, Patricia? Light comes in. No need to knock.