SF : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
SE : Do you have any pet peeves about the ways in which your poetry, particularly your latest collection Humanly, gets discussed?
Well, firstly I am very grateful that anyone is bothering to discuss my work at all, but it really grinds my gears when I see myself (the person) and the poetic speakers in my poems (crafted personas) being conflated. On one hand, I think this line gets tricky when engaging with confessional poetics and much of my work is inspired by lived experiences. On the other hand, the fact that I have dealt with many of the issues (i.e. suicide) discussed in many of my poems and that some of my identifiable autobiographical information (i.e. being from Michigan) shows up within the collection does not mean that there is a one-to-one correlation between me and the speaker in any particular poem. Such readings tend to dismiss the craft of this collection and focus instead upon my personhood, upon me as a survivor or as opposed to me as a poet. As somebody who has spent over half of my life studying and writing poetry, I find this dismissal very frustrating. Furthermore, calling me the actual speaker of some of these poems becomes pretty absurd when you consider some of the claims my speakers make. For instance, I have a poem where the speaker claims her body is a coliseum that contains lions, tigers, and bears. Spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure I’m the only animal inhabiting this body, unless there’s a tapeworm waiting to be found. And gosh darn it, I reserve the right to be fictive and surreal. After all, what is more surreal than surviving what reason says should have killed you? I think there is a tension between realism and surrealism in Humanly. As I was treating myself to a mani-pedi today (because it’s my birthday tomorrow), I was thinking about how weirdly intimate it was to have a man I didn’t know gently hold my hand and file my nails, about how these small daily acts are what realism is built out of. To some degree, I think of realism as an active assertion of sanity: I did this, I went there, I ate, drank, spoke, wept, shat, etc. But I also think that survival requires a certain element of fantasy. Because to live beyond something like suicide, to live inside of a body you thought you’d never see again, is a fantastical act. I set about this collection with the intention of writing an epic of surviving oneself, not a memoir. And this epic has predators and pills, shitty selves and shitty exes, gloom and inner light, that are simultaneously mine and not solely mine. On a slight sidenote, I’ve been considering sending “Against Explanation” by Tarfia Faizullah as a response to people who email me questions or write publicly under the assumption that I am the speaker in my poems. Then, I decided that was too passive aggressive, but her piece is definitely worth a read.
SF : How do you begin a poem?
SE : Usually poems begin in my head during the moments I have to myself. When I lived in Chicago, nearly all of my poems came to me on the subway during my hour-and-a-half commute to and from work each day. My current commute is a ten minute walk and ten minute bus ride, which is more desirable in many ways, but sometimes I miss having that block of time each day with no specific task(s) to complete. Here, in Ithaca, I go on a lot of walks, and sometimes I’ll start to hear a line, or sometimes a poem title. I find being quiet in public is for some reason a good poem recipe for me. Today, the title “On Celebrating a Birthday I Tried to Swallow” came to me, but I haven’t written that poem yet. Also, I find that if I walk with the cadence of a specific poem in my head (this week it’s been “Angel’s Heart Clowns the Ocean” by Angel Nafis, but it alternates a lot) often lines will come to me in a similar rhythmic pattern.
SF : Thank you so much for writing Humanly. It is one of the most necessary pieces of work that I have read this year, baring every inch of your roller coaster mind and heart for readers to sink into. From mental health to heart break to menstruation, it is a smashing of highs and lows. You break it down into four chapters: Dread Clothes, Take, Fang and Fantasy and Anchor. Could you expand on these titles a bit more?.
SE : I’ll give some brief comments in the order of the sections.
I: “Dread Clothes” is a line in the first poem of the collection, “Luck, Luck, Noose,” and also reocurrs in a couple other poems. At one point, this entire manuscript was called “Dread Clothes,” but I ended up thinking Humanly captured the emotional range of this collection (which isn’t all dread all the time) in a more complete way. When I think of “Dread Clothes,” I think of the way that sometimes we wear grief and depression around town each day, the way you can’t just neatly pack them away while you go do all the daily things you need to do to stay employed and socially engaged.
II: I chose the section title “Take,” because this group of poems is largely about what can be taken from a person by non-consensual sex and other forms of disregarded personal boundaries and also about trying to take that ineffable thing back. The poems in this section are both wounded and fang-baring.
III: “Fang and Fantasy” was another title I kicked around for this manuscript. It first appears in the preface. This is the section title I am least sure of how to explain but also is my favorite. Most of the poems are about dealing with the aftermath of a suicide attempt. I think with the title “Fang and Fantasy” I was trying, to some extent, to name the inner beast that says terrible things like, “Kill yourself.” It certainly is a thing with fangs, but it’s also a fantasy, an illogical voice that suggests a bottle full of pills will solve the things that are wrong in your life. That it could be easy and clean, without collateral, somehow less burdensome to others than your living is—when the truth is that even the loneliest person’s suicide affects others, and also that suicide is rarely (if ever) neat and clean in a literal sense. If you take a bottle of pills you will probably vomit more than you knew you were capable of. It will be gross and terrible and painful and will likely fuck up your internal organs. Suicide being easy is an unuseful myth.
IV. “Anchor” is titled after the action I feel like that section is attempting, to find something sturdy in the importance of human relationships. Maybe it’s corny, but I think that section is about finding reasons to stay alive in friendship, love, and an idea of home.
SF : Michigan comes up in more than one poem, from “Genesis of the Only Michigander Who Doesn’t Drive” to “Not Gently Will I Lose Her”. I would love to know more about your home state and how it has shaped the writer that you are now.
SE : Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but many of my favorite living writers have come out of Michigan. Sometimes I think that it’s a place that’s so economically beaten down, we have to make up stories—that there is some great need to say both “I am” and “I could be.” To some degree, to grow up in a place where many of my friends were teen mothers and go to an Ivy League graduate program was an act that required an active imagination. As far as more direct ways in which it’s shaped my writing, I think it’s a place that’s shaped my obsessions. Humanly is less about class than my first book (Good Grief), but I think the aggregate classism I’ve experienced in my life (particularly in higher ed) is always there. I feel conflicting pressures to use all the big words I know and prove that I’m smart enough to be where I am in life and to try to use colloquial diction that represents where I’m from, how I talk when I talk to people who seem like home to me. Also, I grew up in a family full of grand storytellers, and I think the simple act of riding in a car or sitting around a table and hearing the wild stories my uncles and cousins would tell taught me more about narrative structure and how to captivate attention than any book or class on writing has ever taught me.
SF : What poets do you continually go back to?
SE : Oh gosh, there’s so many. To name a few: Terrance Hayes, Marie Howe, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Richard Siken, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Nick Flynn, Patricia Smith, Jan Beatty, Rachel Zucker, Jericho Brown, Lynda Hull, James Wright, and Muriel Rukeyser.
Theory of Time
Try this: my bed is covered in Kleenex and late bills.
I am starting to forget stilled frames: where I put
the stamps, the extra cellphone battery, my dead
grandmother’s phone number I must have called
a hundred times. It started with 694. I’m afraid
these prescriptions that slow neuron riots edging
my system toward overload have taken away time,
how it used to hover before me or me behind it.
I could at least see and catalog tiny oscillations
of wing, fist, story, garbage. Broke for memories,
let’s invent a room I used to stay in. A good find
for the price, someone had bothered to paint the walls
a shade other than the landlord’s eggshell, maybe red
with sloppy trim work around the door frame—
either unskilled or possessed by the laze that comes
with temporary housing, with no time to nest
before the next life plan reaching out of Tarot cards
and spreadsheets. If I dash numb sky rational
at a rate of Lamictal and wine into tenure track
and vintage suits, at what point do I pass the fragile
center of ghosts in the brain, and is it better?
SaraEve Fermin is a performance poet and epilepsy advocate from New Jersey. An East Coast heart jumping circus trains, she is the editor-in-chief of Wicked Banshee Press. Nowadays can be found volunteering at National Poetry Slam Events. She is a Women of the World Poetry Slam Competitor and her work can be found in GERM Magazine, Drunk In A Midnight Choir, Free Verse Magazine and Transcendence among others. Her second book of poetry, The View From The Top of the Ferris Wheel, will be published by Emphat!c Press in 2015. She believes in the power of foxes and self publishing.