EXCHANGE ON JOANNA FUHRMAN’S THE YEAR OF YELLOW BUTTERFLIES

Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink: Each of the 21 units of 2 to 10 prose-blocks, all under a page, of the title-poem of The Year of Yellow Butterflies (Hanging Loose P, 2015) begins by asserting that an “event” or trend is central to a “year”:

It was the year all the clouds resembled noses. (36)…

It was the year it was trendy to wear wool socks on your arms, but only if your arms were skinny and pale. (41) …

It was the year drive-thru prayer shacks popped up everywhere. (45) …

It was the year hipsters started using coffins as coffee tables. (48) …

It was the year us geezers wore digital masks. (53)

After such predominantly zany beginnings, each unit tends to get progressively zanier—indeed, out of control. In talking about “trending,” this prose-poem makes fun of trending. It parodies hipsters, geezers, the rich, “fashionistas” (35), and anyone else who bands together with others to take superficial “innovations” or stylistic tweaks as though they’re consequential. You’re no Luddite, and I recently saw you wield your I-phone with panache and dexterity, but I can’t help but think that “The Year of Yellow Butterflies” offers a frolicsome critique of Web 2.0 culture. How did the poem emerge? Where did you think you were going with it as it began to take shape? And now, in retrospect, to be perfectly sententious, what kind of “cultural work” may it be doing?

Joanna Fuhrman: The first section of the poem came out of a dream I had in which I was working as a teaching artist/visiting poet in a public school. I was wearing a clown watch, and in the dream “clown clothing” was very “in” among the girls I was teaching. Maybe “in” is the wrong word; it was a way of teenage girls signifying something important about themselves. In the dream, my watch was a way of connecting to the girls, who were different from me not only in age, but also race. One thing about being a white person teaching in public schools is one becomes aware of one’s “whiteness” in a way that one perhaps wouldn’t in other contexts. The dream may have been a sort of fantasy of being able to be seen as something other than white. The girls could see that I too had a clown watch and was “one of them.”

Usually, when I write poetry I don’t transcribe my dreams, but use the ideas in the dream as something to riff on or play with. Many of the images in that poem came from things I dreamed.

The other early idea for the poem came out of the epigraphs, both of which are lines that have going through my head for almost 30 years:

“Terrible to dress in the clothes/ of a period that must end.” – Frank Bidart

“You must remember that certain thing die out for a while/ so they can be remembered with affection later on.” – John Ashbery

I was interested in the idea of how we feel nostalgic for things that are not pleasant in themselves, but that make us feel that we are part of a group or an era. I think people around my age all had similar dreams as young teenagers about nuclear holocaust. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but there’s something tender about how it connected us, and I feel kind of nostalgic for those conversations. In my life, I have rarely felt a part of a group, so the poem was a way of exploring that idea. How does it feel to be part of a moment in time? I hope that my tone is not merely dismissive, that I show sympathy for the people in the poem who are trying to find some sort of connection to others in an absurd world. It’s ridiculous how products go in and out of fashion, but I think there’s also pathos in the change. I don’t think I knew where the poem was going, but I wanted to explore different manifestations of the idea. It was also a way of connecting various dreams of mine into a larger piece.

I don’t think of the poem as a critique of digital culture. I love digital culture. I get that social media platforms are owned by corporations, but I don’t believe that it makes the products of social media “pure products” of capitalism. We all exist in a context of late capitalism, but as a writer and a person, I am more interested in seeing diversity and cracks in the hegemony than I am in “critiquing” the medium. I think the poem in a way is about how people connect (often unironically) through products. I am not really (or primarily) critiquing this, just feeling it. I think there’s something sad about this, but not without its humanity. Fashion is a commodity and can be limiting, but historically for women it’s also a tool for connection and expression.

If the poem does any cultural work, it’s connecting the world of dreams and the imagination with the feeling of daily life in our global, sexist, racist, commodifying culture.

Fink: What motivated you to solicit “poetic and fictional responses to ‘The Year of Yellow Butterflies’ (and to [have people] add [their] own” (90) on your blog: theyearofyellowbutterflies.weebly.com?

Fuhrman: I was inspired by people who created platforms of other people reading poems from their book. As someone who teaches a lot of writing prompts, I thought it would be fun to ask people to do more than just read the poem, but to write something riffing on it.

Fink: In several poems collected in The Year of Yellow Butterflies, there are references to letters. In “The Letter,” you explore the potential problem of assigning weighty symbolism to poetic imagery:

You asked me to write you a letter for tenure.
I handed over a fossilized pear.

Better than words, I thought,

until you left the conference room,
inchoate rabbits falling from your eyes. (24)

I love that the “rabbits” are “inchoate”! As in the work of earlier poets who are, I think, important to you such as Dickinson, Stevens, Ashbery, Shapiro, and Lauterbach, you marshal language to show where language falters, where it can’t perform:

I should have known the pear
would fall to ash if touched.

I should have known the pear
was too beautiful to be a symbol

or argument for anything but
itself, its own dry peariness. (24)

And in the poem’s last four couplets, the speaker uses words to express her longing to be able to use words to persuade the tenure committee of the pear’s “bare/ fragility,” its darkness “with every atom, every mercurial/ cell of their alien and aching flesh” (25), and the concerns of the actual tenure candidate have been displaced. What do you make of this utilization of poetic language that signals how it falls short? As you reread the poem, do you find that it would be possible not to attach symbolism to the pear and to have a full, unmediated experience of its veritable “peariness”?

Fuhrman: The poem actually came out of a conversation I had with David Shapiro. A friend of his was an artist going for tenure review, and at the meeting with the committee he said, “Oh, it’s all a crap shoot,” and mimed rolling the dice. So much of surviving as an artist of any kind is finding ways of valuing and finding meaning in what one does outside the values of the market or the limits of “prestige.” Yet, to survive in the “academy,” one has to package oneself as someone who fits in with the hierarchy’s values. After talking to David and spending some time with poets on the job market (back when there was a job market for poets), I fell asleep and had the dream. ( I was actually at AWP when I wrote the poem.) I suppose it’s ironic that even though the poem argues against symbolism, the black pear is, of course, a symbol of the poet in academy or the marketplace.

Fink: Readers never tire of referring to the surreal dimension of your poetry. Not only is much of the imagery surreal, but I’d argue that, in the course of many a poem, surreal defamiliarization results from how you jump from somewhere and land in an unexpected place. “Not Here, Exactly,” the title of one poem, registers the pro-ject of displacement, along with the title of its neighbor, “Notes on the End of Thought,” which does not signify that “thought” is “dead” but that its limits and questioning of its purpose are repeatedly touched: “We fall towards a we/ and lose it” (84). Here are the concluding tercets of “Why I Gave Up Painting Model Airplanes”:

This might be the reason why
my childhood is always suddenly
dying on me. One moment I’m

in a leafy pre-K eating veggie booty,
and the next there’s a curly gray hair
sprouting in my alligator heels. (73)

What do you want to say about the “surrealism” of The Year of Yellow Butterflies or about your surrealist tendencies in general? And if you had the responsibility of guiding students in reading a poem like any of the three I just mentioned—or “Sanctuary,” in which sanctuary is displaced—what might you tell them about negotiating the leaps or jumps to which I’ve been referring?

Fuhrman: The ideas I return to are Reverdy’s “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality” and Ernst’s “the chance encounter of two distant realities on an unfamiliar plane…or, in short, the cultivation of the effects of a systematic displacement… a function of our will to the complete displacement of everything.” The joy of juxtaposition is that it puts the reader (or the writer in one’s own work) in a place that is unknown, and this is the place where I think feeling and thinking can blur together. In other words, I think the feeling of the unknown is needed to break out of the patterns of thinking that serve to divide the mind and the body, thought and emotion.

So to answer the question, I would tell the students that it’s okay to not “understand”—that the feeling of not understanding is one of the goals of the poem. The question one should ask when reading a strange moment in a surreal poem is not “What does the poem mean?” but “How does the poem make me feel?” One might not have the language to describe the feelings, but that’s a good thing. If the emotion could be reduced to a single word, then why bother to write the poem?

But that said, I don’t think all parataxis is equally interesting. There can be a kind of rote juxtaposition, . I think there has to be some tension in a poem between different types of images. If every move a poem makes is an elision, that gets boring pretty fast.

Fink: I should inform our readers that I interviewed you on Pageant (Alice James, 2009), your previous full-length poetry collection, in Galatea Resurrects 15. When I noted that much of the work in Pageant, unlike prior books, had a political cast, you responded:

I would say that I never start with the goal of writing “political poetry.” My writing usually starts with a phrase I hear in my head or from a writing procedure (or in-class game), and then I just write without thinking about what I am “trying to say.” When I am writing, I am focused more on the poem’s music and imagery than its meaning.

The Year of Yellow Butterflies, which I surmise was written during the age of Obama, has some political allusions in the title-poem, and at least one particular poem brings to mind President Obama’s struggle with the disloyal opposition over gun control:

Everyone I ever loved is standing
on a platform with a gun.

In the cartoon version, a flag pops
with the word bang.

In the soap opera version,
my face turns the color of merlot….

In the Republican version,
two guns wrap themselves in a single flag. (“Trigger Guard” 11)

Once you finished focusing “on the poem’s music and imagery” and were done with “Trigger Guard” itself, did you find that this was indeed a poem of sociopolitical advocacy? And did this kind of “spontaneous” politicization occur with any other text in the book? Or does the unbridled play of poetic unfolding usually “militate” against the palpable burgeoning of advocacy?

Fuhrman: I suppose there is some satire there and in Butterflies. I think I don’t think the word “advocacy” fits, because it sounds too rational and serious. Perhaps “satire” sounds more playful to me. I am skeptical of “seriousness” because I feel like it allows less room for uncertainty. If my poetry advocates for anything, it’s being open to what one doesn’t understand. I suppose there is a moral/political/social underpinning to this, but I am not sure I understand it.

Fink: You teach a lot of creative writing, and the quotation from our previous interview refers to your use of “in-class games.” I suppose some creative writing professors complain about that work interfering with the energy and focus needed for their own poetry production, but I’d like to try the opposite focus: did the teaching of creative writing exert any positive influence on the development of any of the texts in The Year of Yellow Butterflies? If so, how?

Fuhrman: Yes, without a doubt. So many of the poems came out of in-class writing I did with my students or assignments I gave my students. I teach a lot and always write along with my students, and I think this openness to always being willing to experiment at any moment informed the poems in this collection.

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