Kathy Fagan’s fifth collection of poems, Sycamore, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2016. Poems appearing here are from a manuscript in progress. She teaches poetry at Ohio State University. Her poem “Widows and Brides” can be found here. It appears along with another poem, “Structural Engineering,” in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Widows and Brides”? Did you begin with a line or phrase? With an image? With the poem’s overarching animating impulse?
I started with the words of the women trying on wedding dresses in a Filene’s Basement dressing room, but it was years before I could use them. When I randomly ran across the Panella press release, I remembered visiting the earliest version of Livia and Augustus’s rooms made public in Rome. And at the time I was also reading Toklas’s letters. I knew these events spoke to one another, so at some point it became about how to collage them in a way that surprised me and enlarged my original impulses.
In “Widows and Brides,” we hear several different voices: a professor; the poem’s speaker; an assortment of women trying on dresses; Alice B. Toklas. How is writing a poem like this different from writing a poem like “Structural Engineering,” in which a single voice is constant throughout?
I’ve been pretty obsessed with the concept of forever existing in our intellectual and emotional lives when it doesn’t exist in our experience at all. Eternity vs. Mortality. I think that obsession is addressed in both of these poems, so the focus felt much the same.
In “Widows and Brides,” many women—from Augustus’s infamous widow, Livia, to Alice B. Toklas near the end of her own life, to the youngest bride-to-be at Filene’s—are tagged to stand for what it means to join one’s life with another and how we negotiate the promise of marriage with the fact of the finite, and how this negotiation crosses generational boundaries, class boundaries, just about every boundary there is.
I was so drawn to the—to me, very moving—voices of the contemporary brides-to-be, the authoritative voice of the archaeology professor, and the historical presences of both Livia and Toklas, that the attempt to bring them together proved irresistible. And really, you haven’t lived (died?) until you’ve tried on off-the-rack wedding dresses at Filene’s.
“Structural Engineering” follows a more traditional lyric path, I suppose: a single poet-speaker commemorating love and death, meditating on beauty, etc. But again, the factual event of the giraffe kill ushers the rest of the poem into being, not unlike the archaeology dig that initiates “Widows and Brides.” “Widows and Brides” is, in my estimation, no less intimate a poem, but the arc of “Structural Engineering” is perhaps more personal, more interior, because of the consistency of the voice.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I’m much less precious about writing now than I was when I was young. I write or I don’t write. But I haven’t got the rituals and angst I had about writing when I was a younger writer. On the other hand, I do sense a greater urgency about the work: time’s winged chariot and all. I also cast a wider net in terms of influences: lots of different kinds of writing enter my poems, but other arts, experiences, and stimuli as well. Online access to research materials helps a lot; social media, not so much (insert emoji here).
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Right now, there are three. I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel with my husband, who is sometimes invited to work out of the country. When we go, I’m on my own to walk, explore, and read and write all day, which is an extraordinary opportunity. We’re also caring for my elderly dad, who lives with us, and navigating health care and services for low-income seniors has become my part-time job. I think I’m also, thanks to psychotherapy, even more conscious of, well, everything—inside and out—so the poems are influenced by that heightened receptivity.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
My fifth book, Sycamore, is out with Milkweed Editions in February 2017, so I’m in the process of revising that manuscript for publication. These KR poems are part of a sixth manuscript of poems about perception and predation. I’m also working haphazardly on nonfiction.