Interview with Richard Fenwick
I have the good fortune of knowing Richard Fenwick, and living in the same city. I have been delighted to post his poetry in the past and will be doing so this week, from his book "Around The Sun Without a Sail". Richard's poetry is smooth and well polished. His words draw the reader into an emotional connection, with him as the poet. It is my plesure to post this interview with Richard.
BCP; How is it that you came to be a poet?
RF: Like a lot of kids in the 60s I started playing guitar at an early age. The difference was that I wrote song lyrics and was willing to share them (everyone likely tried, but few were willing to share). So I wrote songs from about age 10 into my late 20s. I studied English literature and creative writing at the University of Maryland, where all those years of crafting lyrics sort of meshed with more mature poetic notions. But I’m always hesitant to call myself a poet. That seems like a title best left for others to decide. At any rate, that’s how it began.
BCP; When did you first begin to feel the need to put down on paper, as poems, what you were feeling inside from observing things out there?
RF: It's difficult being a sensitive kid with a penchant for observation. I recall how much of a thrill it was for me to listen to the Lord’s Prayer at Catholic mass. Not for the prayer, but the way a huge group sounded when they pronounced words with the letter “S.” It was like a sonic symphony: “Forgive uS our treSpaSSeS aS we forgive thoSe who treSpaSS againSt uS.” I’d get home and write about what I’d heard, and for some reason I always included all the externals (which birds were singing, what the clouds looked like that morning, all these observations about what was happening around the event). It wasn’t sophisticated writing, but it was observational. I was paying attention to metaphor at an early age.
BCP; You have a poem in your first book of poetry, “Around the Sun without a Sail,” entitled “Coffee Shop Noise,” which, for me, sort of exemplifies your take on the very craft of poetry, sitting in a public place metaphorically noting the movement of life before you. When you write your lines of poetry would you say it is a cognitive process or as stream of conscious writing?
RF: It’s very cognitive eventually (logical narrative), but for me it begins with evening free writes. “Coffee Shop Noise” is typical of one way I like to write: short bullets written on a patio as I listen and watch the world around me in that particular moment. That night I wrote my typical stream of conscious lines related to the notes I’d kept at a coffee shop that morning, and the next day I highlighted the phrases that seemed most useful in terms of metaphor. It’s all observation to me, like I said. With that particular poem I loved the idea that the overhead power lines against a deep blue sky were like five-line sheet music. One thing leads to another when you think like that: the birds perched on the lines become eighth notes, and yet the humans below are too busy with their lives to notice any of it. I figured I’d notice it for them. I hope it worked.
BCP; Your poem “Halfway Point” is a rather poignant example of indecision or inner tension, seemingly an almost indifference to either continuing or returning. Was this an abstract poem or did you have a specific example you are writing about.
RF: It is completely abstract, but on purpose. It seems to me that readers have the option of inserting whatever tension the poet proposes into their lives, or ignore it. So I often create scenarios with no apparent conclusion. In “Halfway Point,” the woman in her canoe stops, mid-lake, to make some sort of decision. Should she return from where she came, or should she continue to the lonely cottage on the other side of the lake? We all think like this, in terms of choice, so I don’t want to tell the reader what it is they ought to do. Pose the problem, let the reader determine her or his decision. Perhaps the poem widens their thoughts about making that decision. The one thing here was that I describe the journey to that cottage as being “lonely,” but that’s because we most often have no idea whether our decisions are right. Should we return? Or should we cross the lake instead? Cause and effect. Leave it for the reader to decide and the poem suddenly becomes more universal.
BCP; You have a second book of poetry due out this year entitled “Unusual Sorrows.” What can you say of that collection of poems that might be different from the first book, and what spurned you to write them?
RF: My family suffered several losses in a short period between 2011 and 2014. The poems in “Unusual Sorrows” try to grasp how I deal with loss, especially the loss of my father and brother in a nine-month period. The operative word in the collection is “disappearance,” a very vague word that somehow feels significant. I can’t quite grasp it. Still, I think it works because the poems are me struggling to make that grasp, to understand the disappearance of a loved one. “How do I prepare for disappearance?” is the final line of one of the poems. It’s so ambiguous, but so is loss. I don’t know if the collection’s title will work, but I’m not sure I care either. I mean for it to be slightly ironic, that sorrow is a thing that feels so foreign to us and yet we all go through our sorrows uniquely. Sorrow’s not unusual at all; it just feels like it ought to be.
BCP; As an independent author, what are your thoughts on the advances in digital publishing, and how that has affected you as an author/poet?
RF: Digital publishing is a godsend to writers and will continue to evolve until it’s validated in the publishing world (it still gets panned at those levels, which I think is a mistake). Book publishers, unlike those in film and music, have been resistant to change. But it’s coming. Unfortunately, many writers who use these opportunities to publish themselves have poor word processing skills or don’t study book interiors to borrow ideas from the industry. I happen to be pretty good at this, so I offer my time to my writing friends who aren’t quite as adept with their computers. My advice to writers who use independent means to publish is this: do all you can to present your book as closely as possible to the industry standard, whatever it is at the time. Study contemporary books for interior design purposes, and mirror their qualities with your books. No funky, odd, or sans serif fonts, no boldface, pay attention to font size and leading. Study what Copper Canyon does, for example, and mimic their designs. The best tool available to you is a physical proof of your book. I order numerous proofs as I’m putting a book together to see the thing as a piece of art rather than assuming that what’s on my computer just “looks” right. It usually isn’t. All these bad interior elements lessen your book’s quality, they mark it as amateur in design. A lot of psychology goes into book design—people do, in fact, judge books by their covers. The last thing I emphasize to poets is this: don’t ignore outside publication. No self-published poet can validate their own poetry; that takes poetry editors from various quarterlies and journals. It’s a mistake, I think, to write inside your own bubble. Take part in the process, submit to journals, continue to publish your collections. Try not to take rejection to heart. I could line entire walls in my house with rejection notes from editors. Each acceptance is a small nugget of validation.
BCP; Do you have a writing philosophy or what might be called an artist's statement that describes you, or your method of writing?
RF: I don’t have a philosophy, no. There are times I simply have to write what I’m seeing or feeling, and there are times I just don’t. One important thing for me is to keep away from being too sentimental, but that’s difficult. So I fudge it: if I start from a sentimental perspective, I make an effort to find a metaphor that makes it more universal and less “Hallmark-y,” as I call it. Sentiment is fine if presented properly, and even now I’m in the middle of a poem whose narrator is 55 years old but whose emotional capability around a particular woman reminds him of when he was 14. The poem ends with the 55-year-old man blurting out that he can hold his breath for at least five minutes, which a young boy might to a girl he wants to impress. Tough proposition, but is it ever fun.
BCP; Do you have a particular method or approach to writing your poetry?
RF: I journal at night, and highlight those phrases that appear in journal entries several days later. The nighttime writing is a free stream, but the highlighting is much more critical and left brained. I’ve also become adept at slashing as I edit. One of my poems, “To the Twenty-Something Girl Who Winked,” began with over 60 lines that I whittled down to just six. The poem was published in Virginia Quarterly Review as part of their “instapoetry” series. Editing requires as good a mindset as drafting, so I wait until I know I’m in a good editing mood before I begin. I can’t tell you how many poems I’ve destroyed by editing in the wrong mindset. Also, drafts are best in pencil…the gifted poet, Lucia Perillo, said in an American Poetry Review interview recently that she keeps away from computer drafts because it’s too easy to start editing too early. Just let it flow and fix it later.
BCP; One question I am always interested in asking another artist or writer that I will ask here. Is there a writer or poet who's work inspires you to emulate? Someone who might be considered a literary mentor?
RF: It’s difficult to say whether I emulate anyone, but I think any poet who loves another’s work gets excited enough to want to mimic that voice at first. I’ve done that, then later simply incorporated some of the poet’s craft into my own. I love George Bilgere, whose collection “The Good Kiss” I fell for in a huge way. I love to read Ada Limon and Lucia Perillo, and return to Frost and Whitman from time to time (I loved to mimic Whitman when I was younger), and even Thomas Hardy. My current favorite is Wendell Berry, whose sense of “Kentucky” reminds me of my father’s side of the family. I have mimicked Mr. Berry, I must confess. And, of course, while Billy Collins seems to have made a turn towards something a little more commercial of late, his first several books taught me so much about how oddly wonderful and ultimately twisted any observation can become. Mr. Collins’ poem about shoveling snow with the Buddha is just terrific. There’s a lot to be said about a poem with a slight amount of humor that ends, somehow, with a magical sigh.