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FINDING NOBILITY IN THE STRUGGLE
Poet B.H. Fairchild was born in Texas and grew up in the small towns that dot the Midwest plains of west Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The son of a machinist, he grew up surrounded by the successes and failures of lives intimately connected to physical labor.
Against broad landscapes of wind and dust, Fairchild's poetry reveals the essential Whitman-esque nobility of the human soul; in his close observation, characters rise to grandeur and fall, endure, persevere, and reveal surprising, touching depths. His poems are of unabashed honesty, yet seem unfailingly to evoke a certain reverence for the human spirit.
The Fresno Poets' Association will welcome the acclaimed poet for an appearance in its annual reading series on Thursday, Dec. 7.
Fairchild was a finalist for the National Book Award for his third poetry collection, The Art of the Lathe, and has received numerous other major awards, fellowships, and grants. His poems have appeared in many magazines and journals, including: The New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, Poetry, the Yale Review, the Sewanee Review, and the Best American Poems of 2000 anthology. Norton published his fourth book of poetry, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, in 2003.
I was fortunate to correspond with Fairchild recently by e-mail, and I asked him about his poetry and his influences.
Your poetry evokes very particular landscapes: Kansas, Oklahoma, the plains -- flat lands of sun, wind, and dust. It seems like your poetry raises these landscapes to an iconic or even mythic level, transcending regionalism. Is it dangerous for poets to be too tied to a particular setting? What would you say about the use of landscape in poetry?
No, I don't think it's dangerous [to the quality of the work] for a poet to be tied to a particular landscape. Robert Frost seemed to do OK.
I would say, though, that it's dangerous [for the poem's critical reception] to be tied to a particular landscape since critics and reviewers may begin to stereotype you as only a kind of verbal landscape painter. All the easy, predictable cliches about "poet of the land," "Midwestern poet," "poet of the plains and its people" will then be forthcoming, and your central concerns and efforts in the poems will go unnoticed.
I feel the same way about the characters in your poems, men and women of a certain type, connected to the labor of their hands, living lives of immediacy and frustration. In your poetry, these people gain the same sort of mythic element I see in your landscapes. They seem to represent the lives and labors of all people. Do you draw characters from memory, from observation? What techniques help you envision them not as simply people, but as poetic expressions?
Of course, all writing is the work of both experience and imagination, in varying proportions. I don't think there's any technique for thinking of people as "poetic expressions." Either the character is in the poem for a reason or he isn't.
I am drawn to the quiet stoicism -- or perhaps it is a dulled sense of acceptance -- that characterizes the way people handle life in your poems. It seems there is always blowing dust, always an edge of futility in human endeavor, but sadness would not completely describe their lot. There is nobility in their acceptance and perseverance. Is that how you see them, quietly noble in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- their flaws?
Well, it depends on the character. But 90 percent of what you draw on for imagery, metaphors, narrative situations, etc., comes from the early part of your life. I grew up in the rural, small towns of the oilfields where life was a struggle for most people, and I think that there is always nobility in struggle.
In Kansas, in particular, I was surrounded by older people who had somehow held onto small farms through the depression and the dust-bowl years. That was a struggle that defeated many good people, and so, yes, the survivors did have a nobility and stoic dignity about them.
I am interested in the lathes in your poems, which you introduce as both real machines and metaphoric elements. What about them draws you to them?
My father was a lathe machinist who later in life had the opportunity to be part owner of a machine shop, but only by investing every penny that he and my mom had and some that they didn't have. And the success or failure of the shop was entirely on his shoulders since the other investors were in it with money only.
So, as the last poem in Early Occult Memory Systems tries to dramatize, the shop became everything to my family. It consumed us. It was our house, our car, the food we put on the table, our clothing, everything. It was a prison and a cathedral. It shaped me.
It is almost never out of my thoughts and often in my dreams. Standing in a grocery line, I can still hear the sound of the lathes.
Many of your poems deal with the fragility of the human body and spirit against the unyielding, "ahuman" (as in amoral) world of steel pipe, towers, lathes, and massive drills. There are moments when the human and metal almost merge, as in the skilled manipulations of pipe in the cutter's hands. Is it fair to say the knife-edge between mastery over the machine and death or dismemberment compels much of your work?
Well, I wouldn't put it exactly that way. My grandfather was a farmer, and for him, nature was an adversary, the thing he had to wrestle in order to make a living. My father was a machinist, and his particular industrial world of drill collars, milling machines, lathes, etc., was something he had to wrestle in order to make a living. He was a true craftsman and admired good metal work, but he certainly wasn't sentimental about it.
Yes, at times, especially after 12 hours standing over a lathe, the machinist feels that he is only an extension of the machine. But it is also his means of livelihood. There is some danger in heavy machine work -- my father was almost blinded at one point, and I've seen other accidents happen -- but it's going too far to characterize it as a life/death struggle.
But, machine work is only one of my subjects. It is central to The Art of the Lathe, but I have plenty of other subjects.
You currently teach at Texas Christian University, after a long stint in California. What is that like for you? Can you "go home again," so to speak? Has being in California influenced your poetry? How much does an author's personal setting bleed over into his or her work?
I am back in Texas. No, I don't think you can go home again, figuratively speaking. Home has changed, and you've changed. I think any place, any environment, shapes your work to some degree.
I'm sure California has influenced my poems, but it's difficult to know how or to what degree. What most influences you, I think, is the place you grew up in, the place where you left your childhood and adolescence.
In Fresno, many people in the writing community are fond of poet Philip Levine and his prodigies, and newer writers owe deep debts of gratitude to Chuck Hanzlicek, Peter Everwine, Connie Hales and others for their mentoring and talent. Who were your deepest influences and mentors? Who do you respect most among current writers?
I have told many people that back in the day, Fresno was as much a poetry center as Iowa City was. They had an incredible assemblage of poets: Everwine, Hanzlicek, Levine, Robert Mezey, etc. They produced some of the best young talent in the United States: David St. John, Larry Levis, and Suzanne Lummis being only a few of them.
It's always difficult talking about influences, since I think the poet is often blind to his most important influences. I know that my first important reading experiences were with the usual list: Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Keats, etc.
Because I didn't think I had anything to write about in college, discovering contemporary poets who wrote about blue collar or rural subjects -- William Stafford, Richard Hugo, James Wright -- was immensely important to me.
In graduate school, I read The Hard Hours by Anthony Hecht and was simply astounded by it. I did not meet him until I was almost 50, and I was self-taught, but he became a friend and a bit of a mentor after that. Among current poets, I respect Richard Wilbur more than any other.
Finally, what advice would you give young poets? Of course they've heard the "submit and submit often" mantra, and the "get a thick skin" aphorisms. What would you add to the standard fare?
The advice I would give young poets is to write fiction since it's possible -- not probable, but possible -- to make money at it without teaching. And they shouldn't write either fiction or poetry unless they're absolutely in love with it, or it's an obsession they're psychologically unable to overcome, because there's just too much disappointment and injustice in the publishing world.
B.H. Fairchild will read Thursday, Dec. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Fresno Art Museum. For details, visit the FresnoPoets.org website.