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A Conversation with B. H. Fairchild

conducted by Paul Mariani


Fall 2005

. . . even then, before the dust would thin
from Kansas skies and we would take the rags
from the windows and breathe again,
even then, I could turn with Seton's bear
at the gateway to the last canyon
as the Angel of the Wild Things waited,
as the fumes rose like night's warm quilt,
as the hunters crept closer slowly, slowly.
     — from "Ernest Thompson Seton's Biography of a Grizzly"

Born in 1942, B.H. Fairchild grew up in small towns in the oil fields of Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, later working through high school and college for his father, a lathe machinist. Image, Fall 2005 Fairchild’s third collection of poetry, The Art of the Lathe (Alice James Books, 1998), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, the California Book Award, and others. His latest collection, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (Norton, 2002), earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. He teaches English at California State University in San Bernardino. This interview, conducted by Paul Mariani, began informally at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe in late July, where Fairchild and Mariani were both teaching, and continued by e-mail over the next several weeks.

Image: Much of your work is firmly planted in your Texas and Kansas years, the years you spent in your father's machine shop, working a lathe, living in a world very much like that portrayed in Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 film, The Last Picture Show. Often this Midwestern experience is refracted through the lens of what we used to call high art – Texas and Kansas refracted through the lenses of Cicero, Augustine, Rilke, and René Char. Your long poem "Beauty," for example, takes place in the Bargello in Florence, where you are looking at the paintings on the Renaissance palace walls in company with your wife, before you circle back to your youth in Kansas in the late 1950s and early 1960s, remembering what the word beauty meant in a context of violence, boredom, and fear. Like William Carlos Williams, James Wright, and James Dickey, all writing in the American grain, you insist on the beauty to be found in what seems to be a desolate landscape. Would you comment?

B.H. Fairchild: Thank you for mentioning The Last Picture Show, which is probably the best visual and dramatic representation ever of the kind of small towns in which I grew up. I saw, or tried to see, that movie when it was first released, and after the first two minutes I had to get up and leave. I later saw the whole film, but that first look – tumbleweeds blowing across the main street, dirt in the air, the absence of trees – was hard to take. "Refracted through... the lens of high art" is an interesting and useful phrase, though I'm not sure it quite describes what is happening in my poems when high art appears shoulder to shoulder with physical labor or popular culture – in the title poem of The Art of the Lathe, for instance, when Mozart and Patsy Cline are mentioned together, or the machine shop is compared with the drawing of the blacksmith's shop in Diderot's encyclopedia or with a cathedral such as Suger's Saint-Denis.

I resent the way blue-collar labor is often stereotyped as being utterly divorced from high culture, as if it were performed only by men and women whose lives are a cycle of beer drinking, Monday night football, and NASCAR, and who have never read or wanted to read The Brothers Karamazov or Anna Karenina. I have a cousin, for instance, who is a machinist and comes in and sets the parameters on the lathe (they're computerized now), then leans back and reads Heidegger. Maybe that's exceptional, but I also have a poem, "Toban's Precision Machine Shop," that resulted from walking into a very old shop in San Bernardino (so old the lathes were driven by belts connected to an overhead shaft) where a Mahler symphony was flooding the air.

A large part of my intent in The Art of the Lathe was to blur the line between craft and art. The men in those shops, including my father, were highly skilled laborers who performed tasks whose intellectual complexity was at least equal to if not more demanding than those performed by academic intellectuals. Take a good look at Machinery's Handbook if you don't believe me. Maybe lathe work is not an art, though it is certainly a craft, but as a child my first sense of beauty may have been lamplight reflecting from the blue spiral of iron as it peeled off of a threaded end of drill pipe.

One of the most important transitions for me, psychological or otherwise, was the gradual, halting movement out of the physical world of work into the world of art and literature and ideas. Very often, especially in my later teens and early twenties, I was existing in both worlds at the same time, watching a welder lay down a perfect seam while Madame Bovary was walking around in my head, or observing the gleam of a freshly shaped and honed piece of stock while remembering the arc of a Brancusi sculpture. I don't "insist" upon beauty being found in strange, overlooked places; that's just the way it seems to emerge in many of my poems.

Nobody could be more surprised at this than I am. I did not have a talent for machine work and could not wait to escape that little town, at least for nine months, to the world of the university. But that town is where my mind seems to locate the startling fact of beauty. And the stranger the circumstances or source of beauty, the more authentic it seems to me.

Image: I wonder if you might talk a bit about your own long, solitary apprenticeship to poetry. Let's start with how you came to compose your first book, The Arrival of the Future, which originally appeared in 1985, when you were forty-three.

BHF: The Arrival of the Future is simply a selection from everything I had written since the early seventies. The delay in the book's appearance had less to do with my development as a poet than it did with the poetry situation then and now. These days, if you have a manuscript of merit, are outside the MFA bureaucracy, and have no one of influence to recommend you, you are limited to entering competitions in order to have a book published. If the manuscript has real value, it will likely be a runner-up or finalist many times before it is actually selected. If it takes you five years to write the book, it may well take five more years before it wins publication.

This makes it so important that the competitions are run fairly. A couple of years ago, I read at a university with a prestigious poetry book series, and two of the professors there – very nice folks and fine poets – asked me whether I remembered submitting a manuscript to them some fifteen years before. I didn't, because I had been submitting to so many contests then. They confessed that they had chosen my manuscript as the winner, but the final judge insisted on giving the prize to his student. I'm glad that they didn't tell me at the time, because I may well have thrown in the towel.

Image: How have you been able to write while teaching all those literature and composition classes, year after year, without any real time off? This had to take away from your ability to sit down and write with the leisure one needs to produce good work.

BHF: Everyone struggles with this. Everything ultimately seems to circle around economics, and someone somewhere is surely writing a book on poetry and money, or they should be. I might still be working on Early Occult Memory Systems if it weren't for the awards given to The Art of the Lathe. With the money from those awards and some generosity from my school, I was able to buy myself a year off from teaching. I had never in my life had a year off to write, and it's amazing how much you can produce when you have the time.

I could never seem to land the good job, though God knows I'm lucky to have any job at all. I've taught eight to ten classes a year at state universities my whole career and had to wedge the writing in whenever I could. The worst part is not the constant awareness of what you're not writing but rather the guilt you feel for the time you're taking away from your family. But other writers who, like me, teach in the Cal State system have been impressively productive: my colleague the novelist James Brown, Tim Steele, Ron Koertge, Charles Harper Webb. The work gets done, somehow.

Image: How long did it take to, as they say, find your voice?

BHF: I was never very concerned with this when I was trying to teach myself the art of poetry. I was working in almost complete isolation, had never taken a poetry writing class or workshop, and therefore did not hear the phrase used much. Furthermore, I don't think I quite believed in it. I was trying to find my mind more than my voice. Also, because I had once been an aspiring jazz musician, I was trying to teach myself the way such a musician does: reading the best poets, trying to analyze what they did, then trying to do it myself, the way in those days a kid would listen to Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt or Art Pepper to pick up their technique and ideas. I would also practice each day, giving myself little exercises in image, metaphor, syntax, or form, the way a pianist does five-finger exercises. Instead of trying to find my voice, I thought about precision of technique.

Something of a breakthrough came for me sitting in on a class in prosody taught by the poet Don Welch at Kearney State College, where I taught briefly. It opened up the interior life of the poem for me. Another lucky event was taking a class from Winston Weathers at the University of Tulsa, where he taught a sort of modernized version of classical rhetoric, mostly tropes and schemes.

Image: Who were some of your models? James Agee in prose? James Wright and William Stafford in poetry? Who else? What about European influences?

BHF: Some of the early influences included prose writers who were doing interesting things with syntax: Hemingway, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and yes, James Agee, mostly the prose-poem preface to A Death in the Family, a small portion of which I used as the epigraph for my fourth book. I later read his poems, reviews, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Remember, I did not come from a literary background. Some Frost and Whitman excited me in high school, but college was a huge intellectual adventure, and each writer – Keats, Shakespeare, all the big ones – was a great discovery. Poetry itself, truly understood as an art form, was a great discovery. As I began to write poems myself, Bill Stafford, James Wright, and Richard Hugo became very important to me because they validated my subject matter. I had grown up in small towns in the oil fields, and I had thought that poems needed to be about Grecian urns and unrequited love and nightingales. Those three poets made it immediately clear that I could write about my own experiences.

Later, in graduate school, I read Anthony Hecht's The Hard Hours, and it impressed me in every possible way. I was as attracted to his sound – I mean his complex phonemic textures – as I was to those in Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle and in Sylvia Plath. I'm not sure how all of this plays out in terms of actual influence. As for European or other influences: as you can see from the epigraphs in The Arrival of the Future, I was reading W. S. Merwin's translation of Osip Mandelstam and Cesare Pavese's Hard Labor in the later stages of my manuscript, and they made a deep impression on me.

Image: Can you talk a bit about the shape of this first book, and why you chose the cover you did, your friend Don Van Radke's The Wasp Killers (1977)?

BHF: It's difficult for me to remember now how I constructed the book out of the poems I had then. The title poem, with its epigraph from the theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, I knew I wanted as the closing poem, and the book is roughly divided into three parts, but it is not a tightly, intricately structured book such as I would later try to do.

The cover I can be more specific about. I made the acquaintance of the painter Don Van Radke when I was putting together Arrival of the Future, saw The Wasp Killers on the wall of his house, and recognized it immediately as a visual translation of the phrase "the arrival of the future." I knew I wanted it on the cover, and when the book finally won a competition, I arranged it with the publisher. But the publisher (a brave, noble, small poetry publisher, like so many) was going out of business even as the book was being produced, so a less expensive cover was substituted, and I was very disappointed. Later, after The Art of the Lathe, Alice James agreed to republish the book the way I originally wanted it, and I thank them for that.

Image: Can you talk about the cross-fertilization process between narrative and lyrical structures – the vertical heightening of the lyric, as well as the insistence, if you will, on the more horizontal fidelity to the quotidian?

BHF: It seems obvious that most poems these days are lyric/narrative hybrids. I think of pure lyric as being a vertical movement within a moment of time – sometimes an infinitely small moment – and pure narrative as being a horizontal movement in time. I think you can have pure lyric, such as Rilke's "Rose, oh pure contradiction," but that it's almost impossible to have pure narrative, at least in poetry. In fact, I think a narrative poem always has to be a hybrid, even though it's closer to the horizontal axis, because a poem must have at least some lyric depth. Beginning as far back as "In Czechoslovakia" in my second book, Local Knowledge, I became interested in this problem of writing a narrative that sustains momentum without sacrificing lyric depth.

Image: You speak of your first book as a miscellany, but certainly your last two books are finely honed and highly structured. Would you comment on this development? By extension, where do you see your new work going?

BHF: Thank you for the compliment and observation. Yes, it was certainly my intent to make The Art of the Lathe and Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest more than just collections, especially the latter, though it is probably immodest to say so, there being such a gulf between intent and execution. But I at least wanted more of a thematic consistency in The Art of the Lathe; I hoped that there would be a development between the strangeness, even forbiddenness, of the idea of beauty in the first poem and the location and celebration of it in the work itself (that is, the machine work) in the title poem which closes the book.

Early Occult Memory Systems has two memory systems and two centers. One, the subject of the first poem, the title poem, I invented for myself as a child. It is about not only memory but memory's desire: to forget nothing, to hold on to everything as if one were going to live forever. The other memory system is the one that was so important to Renaissance intellectuals such as Giordano Bruno, whose wonderful memory theater really derived from classical rhetoricians (thus the Renaissance habit of referring to such systems as "occult," meaning simply pre-Christian or pagan).

Image, Fall 2005 One center of the book occurs in the middle of the long poem, "The Blue Buick," when Roy Garcia, having taught the boy-narrator Bruno's system, says that the boy would then forget nothing and "everything would be imprinted on his soul." The other center is "The Deposition," in which the eyes of the dead Christ twice say to the persona, "I know who you are." Here is the idea that one can never know oneself truly, that a finite mind can only be fully comprehended by an infinite one. This poem lies between the epigraph from James Agee that ends in the child's voice, "these [the adults] receive me... but will not ever tell me who I am," and the very last sentence of the final poem of the book, "The Memory Palace": "and still you do not know who you are." In that final poem, the two centers merge: the boy from "The Blue Buick," now an old man in the final moments of dying, uses Bruno's memory system to remember everything that he loved. He wants to achieve memory's desire, the same desire he had as a child, to forget nothing, to hold on to everything forever.

Image: There's not a great deal in your poems about your wife and children; that is, there's no self-portrait of yourself as husband and father. Instead, the focus is on you as a young man in the working world of Kansas. Would you care to say something about your parents as shapers? Your father is everywhere, your mother less so, except perhaps in The Memory Palace. Why is this?

BHF: There are perfectly natural reasons, including the usual psychological ones, for family, especially parents, to appear in one's poems. However, in my case they were also playing out a quintessentially American story, though I became conscious of that only in retrospect. Like so many of their generation, they grew up on small, homestead farms, and – subsistence farming being an extremely hard life – migrated to towns and cities, learned a trade, struggled through the depression of the thirties, then World War II, and finally came upon that slim opportunity, like the light seeping through a crack in the door, to pull themselves up into the middle class through unrelenting work and sacrifice and a little luck.

My father had to quit high school in the tenth grade to help support his family – a fairly common story in those days – but he was smart, strong, and, like my mom, could work harder than any human being I had ever seen. I much preferred the years when he was a wage-earning lathe machinist in Texas to later, when he risked everything they had saved to own a small piece of a machine shop in Kansas. That shop was built on rumors about the Hugoton gas field that never played out, sank entirely into the red in its first few years, looked every day like it was going under, and exacted a huge toll on the emotional life of our family and on my parents' marriage. My father was the most exploited worker in the shop. He frequently worked sixteen-hour days, often worked at night (he once stood over a lathe for forty-eight hours straight), never had weekends, and brought home, it seemed, nothing but worry and despair about losing everything. In the early years in Texas, from a child's point of view, life was wonderful; in fact, you could say I was, in William Matthews's phrase, the victim of a happy childhood.

If your father had come home from World War II – and that's a very big if – growing up in the late forties in a blue-collar neighborhood could be paradise.

There were fathers in undershirts at twilight, home from work, watering their lawns, hose in one hand, beer in the other, mothers talking on front porches, kids screaming and running through the yards, playing stickball in the street, all of this until dark. This was before the great narcotic, television, came along to pull everyone inside and turn neighborhoods into cemeteries. There was the occasional weekend fishing trip to the beach in Galveston. But then came the move to Kansas, exile from paradise, and that constant, unvarying cycle of work/eat/sleep that made less and less sense to me until it made no sense at all.

For reasons that are fairly evident if you read the poems, I have written more about my father than my mother. But my mother made me the obsessive reader I became, by putting books in my hands at an early age so that I was reading pretty well by the age of four. I was sick a lot as a kid, and for me being sick was almost pleasurable, because she would always place a stack of new books beside me in bed. She also taught me there was such a thing as unconditional love.

On the other hand, among my earliest memories is standing by my father as he operated a lathe. He was a perfectionist and so introduced me to the idea of craft, "a small thing done well." The odd fact that I fell in love with craft itself before I ever came to poetry has had a huge influence on the way I think about poetry. I vividly remember how he would point out something another machinist had done as "good work," clearly the highest kind of praise, and how disdainfully he would refer to other work as "sloppy." It was a moral distinction as much as an aesthetic one and made a deep impression on me. But then later, in Kansas, came the financial pressures, despair, and anger, and I was increasingly drawn to what was called "the life of the mind." Even later came the political arguments, and the sense of having failed him. It's an old story, isn't it? And a very American one.

Image: Could you say something about your interest in those American obsessions that keep cropping up in your poems? I mean cars, baseball, and jazz.

BHF: During the bad years, the one thing between my father and me that did not sour was baseball. He and his brothers had been terrific ballplayers, and baseball was the only sport I wasn't terrible at. In fact, one of my earliest aesthetic experiences – the sense of something that might be called beauty, though I could not have said so at the time – was playing second base in a double play. It went so smoothly, a perfect line reeled out from the shortstop to me to first base, and I felt my body disappear inside a motion, gave myself to something larger than myself, something that might possibly be called beautiful. So, without planning to do so, I seem to have written several poems about baseball. I don't follow the majors the way I used to, though Boston's victory last year in the series brought tears to my eyes. For just a few moments it felt like Brooklyn in 1955, and all the old feeling came back.

Image: What about your connection with jazz?

BHF: As the work/eat/sleep cycle began to dominate everything, to appear inevitable and unending, and as the isolation of the town became claustrophobic (the nearest large town was Amarillo, Texas, 180 miles away, which was also the nearest bookstore), I think I would have died if it hadn't been for the excellent local library and jazz. I was fascinated with bebop, though it was hard to get records (a drive to Amarillo again). I have a poem in Early Occult Memory Systems about hearing Charlie Parker for the first time over WNOE, a station in New Orleans that we could sometimes pick up late at night. I played tenor saxophone pretty well, though I had a completely oversized sense of my own talent. I used to dream about running off to Fifty-second Street in Manhattan, the center of bebop at that time. If I had, I wouldn't have lasted five minutes. I somehow discovered Downbeat magazine and would wait patiently for my subscription to arrive each month.

Nat Hentoff, the famous jazz critic and later equally famous civil rights champion, had a regular column with record reviews, and it was another ridiculous fantasy of mine that Hentoff would someday review a record of mine. Some forty years later I walked into my house and turned on my answering machine, and a voice said, "Hi. I'm Nat Hentoff, and I'd like to review your recent book of poems for the Wall Street Journal." Suddenly I was eighteen years old all over again. I couldn't shut up about it, though my wife suggested that might be a good idea. My father hated the poems, but he would have been very proud to see me mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.

Image: Does your ongoing interest in jazz figure into the musical phrasing of your own poetry? I'm wondering about what Pound calls melopoeia, the musical sense of the line.

BHF: I don't think jazz had any direct influence on syntactical phrasing or improvised meter in my work, meter with variations being, even in Shakespeare, inherently analogous to an improvised melodic line in jazz, regardless of influence. Any kind of musical training gives one an ear for the auditory dimension of poetry, especially sound texture and pulse. I was constantly attracted to someone's sound, whether Lowell, Hecht, Plath, Hugo, whoever. Plath loved internal rhyme and the occasional monosyllabic with strong consonants on each end, while Hugo had that very strong duple meter – whether iambic or trochaic – running through his poems.

Image: Can you say something about the world of art as it appears in your work? I'm thinking not only of the Bargello, but of the seventeenth-century Dutch realists as complements to your work, and even more of Edward Hopper, that quintessentially American poet of isolation, even to the point of finally emptying his lighted rooms of human presence altogether. You have a poem in The Art of the Lathe called "All the People in Hopper's Paintings."

Image, Fall 2005 BHF: That poem attempts to put into words the almost ineffable effect his work had on me and so many other American poets. I never entered an art museum until college, so I had only seen his paintings in books, but even then they stunned me, and I would linger in awe and wonder over them for hours. They explained something in me and in the America I had lived in that I could simply not articulate. Recently I gave a reading at Yale and happened onto their little art museum, which has to be one of the best of any college in this country. I went up to the second floor, walked to the end of the hall, and there were four Hoppers, including three of my favorites, especially Western Motel, which can almost be read as an allegory about southern California. I got paid well for the reading, but seeing those paintings was the real pay-off.

Image: You've also been influenced by William Stafford.

BHF: It was a wonderful surprise to discover in my mid-thirties that Stafford had graduated from my high school. I heard him read in Texas, and he prefaced a poem by referring to one of his high school teachers, who had also taught my sister and appears as a librarian in one of my poems. We corresponded a bit after that, and I would attend his readings in my area in California whenever I could. I was very proud of my hometown when they recently decided to name the high school library after him. His son, Kim, a prince of a guy who has written an absolutely beautiful memoir of his father, was there for the dedication.

But I first met Stafford much earlier, when he visited my fiction class in 1962 at the University of Kansas. He tried to explain that writing was really easy, and I was offended because I was young and angry and wanted to think that writing was the most difficult task in the world. In my office I have a photo of Stafford and myself next to his poem, "What I Heard Whispered at the Edge of Liberal, Kansas."

Image: I want to go back for a moment to Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, whose very title evokes for me the great Jesuit Matteo Ricci teaching the Confucian scholars in Beijing, as well as the figures of Cicero and Bruno. There's something evocative and spiritual – perhaps religious – about the poems, which shed a light of something like grace on the lost world of the machine shop and the lathe. It's something you seem to do so quietly and yet insistently.

BHF: I think that in that way Early Occult Memory Systems might be called a religious book (I am avoiding the word spiritual, which the New Age people seem to have beaten to death). I was raised a Methodist, then spent twenty years disguised to myself as an agnostic, then became a Lutheran, and finally an Anglican. I know: that would seem to be the slow boat to Rome, but it's a big ocean, after all. The hunger never abates. One reads constantly out of the hunger, sometimes foolishly, I think – Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Weil, Bonhoeffer, Merton, the whole boatload, and especially now René Girard – but it's always there. At this point in my life, I don't think it's a problem of belief anymore. It's simply who I am.

Image: I'm curious: why René Girard in particular? And what do you mean that at this point in your life this is simply who you are?

BHF: Girard is an anthropologist and literary theorist who, in his Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, among other books, offers a non-sacrificial reading of the crucifixion based on the ideas of mimetic rivalries and scapegoat mechanisms. It's an exciting reading, utterly convincing, and nobody has ever seen Christ's sacrifice in this way.

As for the second question, I mean that being a Christian no longer seems to present a problem of belief for me, or at least not in the same way it once did (I'm thinking of Paul Tillich's dialectic of belief: doubt and faith as two sides of the same coin). It's simply who I am. That is, it seems to be a fact or condition of my being at an even deeper level than doubt itself. My wife began learning Hebrew in high school and then converted to Judaism. One thing I envy her is that arguing with God is very much a part of her Jewish tradition. I wish that were so, or more so, in the Christian tradition.

Image: I find a certain undeniable sacramental quality in many of your poems, as if you were standing outside yourself and looking back at the world of your youth, a world that exists now largely in the golden alembic of your esthetic memory. In particular you point readers to the sacramental nature of work. You show us work's spiritual dimension, the sense in which it can dignify, valorize, and make holy the individual.

BHF: Yes, work can be sacramental, especially work that you do with your hands. I think for my father it was often sacramental, though he would have been embarrassed by that phrase as being too grand. The trouble is that in a capitalist economy, corporate employers constantly take advantage of that, saying, in effect, "If the work is so important to them, so sacred, they won't mind a cut in wages."

The work of teaching can certainly be sacramental, and in the same way boards of regents will say, "If they love teaching so much, they won't quit if we double the class size." The working-class ethic is very simple: do the best work you can do, do it on time, and never work for free, because that means you place no value on what you do for a living. If the work is sacred, then by God place a value on it.


Publisher & Editor: Gregory Wolfe
Managing Editor: Mary Kenagy
Executive Editor: Suzanne M. Wolfe
Associate Editors: Roger Feldman, Jennifer Maier

Copyright © 2005 by the Center for Religious
Humanism, a nonprofit corporation.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.

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Selected books available by B. H. Fairchild:
Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest — Paperback
The Art of the Lathe — Paperback

Selected books available by Paul Mariani:
Deaths and Transfigurations: Poems — Hardcover

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