Robert Fanning, professor of creative writing at Central Michigan University, shares his manuscripts in process as well as the methods and sources of inspiration he used to draft them. His advice for burgeoning writers, poets in particular, is not the standard cookie-cutter words of wisdom you’ve heard elsewhere, and his refreshing approach to publishing will help you rethink Submission Sundays. And if you need a new playlist for writing, we have it.
Robert Fanning, professor of creative writing at Central Michigan University, shares his manuscripts in process as well as the methods and sources of inspiration he used to draft them. His advice for burgeoning writers, poets in particular, is not the standard cookie-cutter words of wisdom you’ve heard elsewhere, and his refreshing approach to publishing will help you rethink Submission Sundays. And if you need a new playlist for writing, we have it.
I’ve heard a couple of indie publishers say that they can always spot an MFA manuscript that’s been submitted without reading the bio of the author—and they weren’t being complimentary. “The style is always the same.” I’d love to hear you address how teachers can create an environment where individual styles can flourish.
I’ve heard that many times. Some of that has to do with editors having to read, yourself included, hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts. That’s a danger, I think, in teaching, that if your students might admire your work they might try to emulate it. I do not see that emulation happening in my classroom. I see a lot of diversity formally and thematically. I think it takes a lot of investment on the teacher’s part. You have to listen to your students and get a feel for what they are doing, their quirks, or where they are doing something different, and then try to feed that. I try to send them to the shelf that has the books that they need. I had a student a few years ago who was writing work that was wildly different from anything I’ve ever written, and I knew that, so I had to do my own research to find for him who his poets needed to be. I think that’s very important: learning to listen to students in order to see what they are trying to do that’s individual or unique, and trying to help foster that.
You have your own forms and structures that you use in your own writing. And you might start with one structure on the page and then realize that’s not what the poem needs. It needs a different structure: same words, different structure. You’ve discovered those structures, discovered what works for you. You’re working with such profound triggers. I’m thinking about Hugo’s Triggering Town here. Do you think that some of what we are doing as teachers is not only helping them find what to read, and helping them to find forms that fit their own work, but also to help them discover and work with and not fear their own triggers?
Absolutely. And to listen to themselves, and to go into their own lives. I would have been a very different teacher had I started teaching right when I came out of my MFA program. Which I didn’t. I went out away from the academy for many years. Returning later was liberating to me as an instructor, because I’m further down the road as a writer. I’m a much different poet; I’m trying new things all the time. So I’m in a particularly good place for working with young poets, I think, because once I’ve done something, I don’t trust it anymore, and I want to do something new. I don’t want to do the same thing again and again. I want each book to be a little different.
Congratulations. That seems to be working. (laughter)
Seems to be. To me, that’s a very good thing. I’m in a very edgy place, where I’m very open to what my students are doing. I don’t create any barriers between myself and my students. I prefer to have them call me by my first name. I write along with them. I think that’s important—for them to see me write and to read some stuff that really sucks, just to let them know we are really peers in this endeavor. Maybe poets who’ve published ten books and won loads of prizes, perhaps in some cases they set themselves above their students, maybe not even consciously. Then the students unconsciously place themselves in a position where they feel they must revere this iconic poet. And maybe that’s where a cycle of aesthetic mimicking enters the scene. None of that is my style. We’re all on a different journey as poets; I want to foster many styles by honoring what my students are drawn toward, if possible.
Do you think that maybe some of the workshop “feel”—or maybe the sense that we can tell where someone studied based on their writing—is worshipful emulation? Because there’s not the peer feeling?
Perhaps. I do tell my students when they are applying to MFA programs to look at who teaches there, to read their work, to see if they admire the work, to see if they feel they can learn from that person.
But it’s important for teaching poets to give students as many models as they can, and be willing to give students a wide variety of models. Recently, I conducted an independent study with a student on avant-garde writing since 1970, and I researched right along with him, because it’s an area I’d neglected and I’d not read enough of. So I’m always learning with my students. That increases the excitement of it all for me. I arrange my syllabus so I’m going to learn from it. I read right along with my students. In my graduate classes, I’ll read some journals and find poets who have written some compelling new books, maybe a recent prize winner, and I won’t even read the books before the semester. I read them right along with the students so we can have a meaningful, edgy, unrehearsed conversation about what’s going on in each poet’s work.
So we are professional writers. We got our jobs in large part because we’re writers, and we’ve published, and we’ve done writerly things. But once we have those jobs, we are urged to become professional teachers. So some of what you just said strikes home with me because there might be this line between the two. We might become such good teachers that we are not authentic in our writing practice anymore, and we can’t bring that authentic writing practice to our students. Instead, we teach them things that anyone could teach them, if we are practicing our pedagogy and doing what all the teaching workshops would have us do. So there’s that line. And the magic moments we have with students are when the sides merge: when we are helping them from our authentic writing practice, but we just also happen to be teaching them something.
That’s what most of us hope for.
How do you manage that line?
It depends on the level. I teach undergraduate through graduate classes. In my intro and intermediate courses, I have a body of things I feel I want them to learn and know. There are things that I did not learn at their age. I want their tool kit to be completely full. I want them to have a really strong sense of form, and rhyme, and meter, as many craft elements as possible to build upon. I try to be a professional teacher, whatever that means, but I don’t think I’m any good at that, frankly. To me teaching is a deep and mutual engagement; it’s a conversation, and it’s very human. I don’t think students are as willing to open up and trust this wild process of writing and self-examination, if you’re up there being Mister Professor-Man, spewing facts. They’ll start looking out the window, just as I would have. Being able to teach poetry is an absolute privilege, and yes, I prepare to teach; I spend hours and hours and hours preparing, but I don’t lecture, per se. One, I’m not very good at it. And two, then it takes the learning away from me, too. I think that we, as teachers, also learn in those moments that are off the cuff. When that magic is happening in the room, it’s because it’s human, and it’s in the moment.
I love that idea of co-learning. It’s not what you said, but it’s what you meant.
So when we talk about the models that you use, the texts that you use, in your teaching, what is something you continually return to? I know you want to stay fresh and always bring in new things, but what are some things you constantly reach back to use?
I have certain texts I constantly come back to in my undergraduate classes. I like the Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry. I like the way it’s designed, as a bunch of mini-anthologies designed chronologically and by form. I like The Poet’s Companion by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio. Also, Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand, and other such How-To Manuals that have good, solid advice and poems in them.
My intermediate class is really built around forms and modes. I arrange it so I can “drop poems in” from class to class, that are really good examples of whatever I’m teaching. So if we’re talking about internal rhyme, I have my go-to poets I’ve used for a long time, but then there will be a poet I read yesterday in a journal or a new book, and I realize I can drop that in right here. I build these little modules, but I’m constantly looking for new models as well. Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” is always a great poem for teaching scansion, because its meter is both simple and surprising. It’s a particularly amazing poem to scan. Yeats is good to scan, and Kim Addonizio is great to scan. I look at Plath for image and metaphor, Yusef Komunyakaa, Phillip Levine, Dorianne Laux, Matthew Olzmann, Vievee Francis, francine j. harris, John Rybicki, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Peter Markus, whatever I’m into that day, week, or month. It’s changing all the time, but I keep a keen awareness of diversity too.
I want a myriad of voices in the room. Poetry is so eclectic and diverse now that it’s quite easy. There are so many good models now, such a wide array of voices, styles and modes. But that’s the hardest thing for me as a teacher—I want to cram the class with so many poems, and it’s really hard. I will have reached a really zen moment in teaching when I can take one poem to class. Instead, I drag my Santa sack of parcels and poems to throw around the room, and that’s too much. It’s overwhelming. I tell students constantly that you can learn so much just from slow, focused reading of just one poem. Just reading it over and over and over. But I love too many poems to bring in just one!
It’s another one of those lines. So many of our students have never really been exposed to poetry. And so when you’re trying to teach a craft class, you want to expose students to forms and drop in examples of all the forms, but then you also think this might be the only opportunity to expose them to all the poetry that turns us on to what we do. Where do you see that line, and how do you manage that?
That’s my hardest line. Teaching is a great sharing process to me. I’m like a tour guide in this incredible country of poetry, but we have limited time. It remains my biggest challenge as a teacher: to try to slow down and really focus on one or two poems. And I think I’ve gotten better at it, but I’ll still have on the syllabus: read these 20 poems, instead of focusing on one poem. It is absolutely the hardest thing for me, because there are so many amazing poets and poems I want my students to experience.
Do you think any forms are dead? Or do you think all forms still have some life in them?
No, and we’re reminded of that all the time, as contemporary poets find new approaches to age-old forms, as well as creating new ones. I try to approach it as, first of all, why do this? Why write a sonnet? Are we doing this just to mimic? To try to shove a poem into a box, follow a lot of rules? So we have a conversation about that, organically. Why write a sonnet? What particular advantages does it have for the content you’re bringing forth? A sestina? A pantoum? These forms exist for a reason. They are built to enhance a poem’s content. So we examine that.
In studying visual art, a common pedagogical model is to begin with still lives. And I think that’s a great model. When my wife taught sculpture, she spent the first part of the semester just teaching her students how to look, how to see. As poets, that’s a good place to begin to, even before we get deep into form. We need to see what we’re looking at before we start to make; we need to have a solid foundation of knowing how to render an image, and to see. Later, when it comes to form: the more organic conversation, then, is about what form even is and how it benefits us as poets. I always work really hard to help my students understand that form is extremely liberating. That’s a hard thing to grasp when you’re 19 years old and resistant to structure, as I was. You don’t want somebody putting a frame around all this passion you have, all this angst. You don’t want somebody to box it all in. So I’ll tell my students: you hate sestinas? Then write a sestina about how much you hate sestinas.
Some students stick with free verse, but not without first writing in various forms, and realizing that free verse is its own challenging form, too, really. Regardless, form is then a tool they possess, and they can use it later, if they choose to—and I believe one’s free verse benefits a great deal from wrestling with the armatures of form.
What’s the most important thing students get out of a CW program? And what was the most important thing you got from your own MFA program, and how is that different from what you want our own students to get?
Beyond the mentorship, the reading, the study, I want my students to feel that poetry is deeply meaningful and a sacred way of engaging with the self and the world, and it can sustain you through life’s trials and give meaning to your life. That’s the most important thing, frankly, and I want them to take that with them. At this stage of my life, I realize poetry is something that has been there all the time for me. It’s gotten me through a lot of life challenges. It has helped me make sense of things that didn’t make sense, and opened worlds up to me. I want my students to leave with that golden key. Whether they publish anything, whether they write a great book, all of that’s great, and certainly I want them to learn a lot about the craft. But the core thing I want them to remember is that poetry is a sacred act. It is a conversation with the world within the self and the self within the world. Yes: I want my students to have a deep knowledge of the craft, the forms, and history, to have a good sense of the movements and trends that inform what’s being done currently; that’s important. I want them to have a sense of where they might be at the moment and where they might fit in to all of it. At that age, you’re just really starting to shape your aesthetic, as I was. I noticed that my aesthetic started to shift over time, so I let them know that, too. Find your aesthetic but be open to it changing.
Part of what we bring to our students is the best of what we got as students, and/or what we felt we were missing. I gained so much from my experience at Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program. That’s a brilliant, amazing program. It’s so focused on relationships. They have an individual conference system where you meet with your mentor often. There’s a lot of one-on-one mentorship. So I built that system into my teaching, too. Sarah Lawrence’s program felt fairly open, which was a good thing, for me, but can be dangerous because it requires self-discipline, which is good practice for the writing life. I quickly realized I’d have to do a lot of work on my own to make the program what I wanted. So I went into the library; I started at A and wanted to work my way through to Z and read as many poetry books as I could in those two years. So that is something I bring to my teaching, too. I tell my students, don’t wait for me to tell you what to read. You go find the poets you love, too. Then, read everything they’ve written. I bring a big focus on reading and personal exploration in the art.
Try on as many voices as you can, as many modes as you can. Don’t think of yourself as a certain kind of poet, too early on, if ever.
Earlier, we discussed triggers, and not fearing them. Some students, when they are new to it, think every poem has to be original, and new and different from any they’ve already written. Some students fear repeating themselves. We have to guide them and say, well obviously this is what you need to talk about. This is your thing; don’t be afraid of it. So we talk to them about triggers, but also about influence and how we bring our influences into our writing. That can be part of our shift in aesthetic. Do you have those conversations with them?
To speak to the repetitive issue: I think that’s an important thing. It’s tough because, yes, they could be writing the same poem over and over again. On the one hand, I’ll tell them: follow these obsessions as far as you can. If for whatever reason you’re writing these really sad poems about a partner or your father, they need to come out, and you need to work them through. But you get to the point at which you realize you’re sitting down to write another sad father poem, reflexively. And when you know that, maybe you really have to start to make a shift. It’s hard, because it’s also important to follow those obsessions to a seeming conclusion. Even in my work, themes keep emerging and emerging over years. That is going to happen organically. On one hand, I’m telling students to follow it through, but on the other hand, also practice writing poems that feel very strange to write. Try on as many voices as you can, as many modes as you can. Don’t think of yourself as a certain kind of poet, too early on, if ever.
Where would Plath be, or Olds be, without their children poems? Or their daddy poems? And in your new manuscripts, this focus on grief and loss and how we deal with that. The new manuscript would be such a powerful thing for students to read so they could see how, as you just said, you can take this one vein and pursue it to its end, but when you sit down to write again, that same vein will be there. It’s who you are as a poet.
In both of these recent manuscripts, Our Sudden Museum and Severance, which are wildly different, stylistically, there are a lot of the same themes. But I’ve realized that I’ve been coming at that subject matter in a very head-on way, in a very realistic narrative way, but I needed to find a new way to write about it. Luckily, it happened accidentally. That happens, too. There are lot of wonderful magical accidents that happen when we are writing and when we are involved deeply in our writing process. I can’t say muse; I’ve never liked the word muse. It’s too mystical for me. But I do feel when we are working hard, when we are quite focused and concentrating, then some of these deeper impulses come to meet us and take us on a journey. I’m at a point now where those impulses are more powerful than my conscious mind. I’ve heard other writers say that, and at one time I thought, well, that’s just wacky. But it’s happening to me now, where I sit down to write a certain poem, or I have an idea, and the deeper impulses keep bringing me back to things I don’t necessarily want to write about, but know I have to.
But it’s there.
Yeah. But it’s these deeper parts of ourselves we are in conversation with when we write. The shadow and underside.
Where the work meets the history meets the consciousness meets the impulse: some people might call that the muse.
Absolutely. And with students, ultimately I’m just trying to make them open to their own experience. I see my job as introducing them to as many poems as I can, to as many tools as I can. I feel that I give them way more than I was ever given. And that’s my goal.
Does your institution have a literary magazine? Do any of the students work there? Do any of the students or faculty run their own magazines or presses? What is the impact of that (magazine or no, press or no)? What are some of the pressures you’ve confronted with funding and support, and even the politics of the literary enterprise in the context of the larger institution?
We have two. For undergraduates, we have Central Review, and the graduate journal is Temenos. They are entirely student-run journals. We are faculty advisors, but the students often don’t require much of our advice. They do great things with the journals, and it is a great experience for them. They are small staffs. Had we more time to dedicate to it, I would like to see these have larger staffs and more students involved. The students do a really terrific job of putting the journals together, and have a reading to celebrate the work.
What is the primary value for students who edit or work with literary journals?
It’s a deeper experience with publishing. Rather than an abstract endeavor, you’re working on the physical product, the journal itself. You’re in touch with it, the shaping of it. That’s one aspect. And then having to put on an editor’s hat adds another level to the workshop. You see the journal, that issue, as an entity, a project you’re co-creating. It’s also a tremendous experience for students to learn about how to accept poems from their peers and reject others, and why.
It’s a beautiful thing to become the champion for a piece.
Yes. And then there’s the conversations involved. You have to argue for a poem with people on staff. I wish I’d had that experience early on. I think I would have a better relationship with sending my work out. We’ve talked about things that we do for our students that we do not do as well for ourselves, and that, for me, is publishing. I tell them to see what is out there, send your work out, and just be part of that larger literary conversation. And I’m terrible at it. I tell them I don’t do it. I would much rather be writing and editing my work.
It can be a huge distraction.
It is. It’s a massive distraction, and it’s utterly daunting to me. I urge students to not fear the process, and certainly to not fear rejection. It’s a part of the game.
For some people, that’s a path. Some people start as creative writers and realize that publishing and editing, mentoring other people, is their path.
That’s another aspect of it we haven’t talked about. I have my students write reviews because there’s a dearth of reviews out there, it seems. As poets and teachers, we need to foster this conversation, too. We need to be writing about each other’s work and championing other poets. So in my classes we read reviews, we learn how to write a review, and some students love it. I’ve seen some of them realize that’s a place for them to contribute to the larger conversation as writers.
What is the pressure to publish right now? Do you see movement in where and how people publish? How do you see the publishing landscape right now?
I have my students research journals, hunt for them, subscribe to them. They pass them around in class and give presentations on journals they love and talk about the work in that issue. I want them to have a sense of the aesthetic diversity out there. They need to see some of the major, long-lasting journals, some of the newer ‘zines, blogs, websites. The publishing landscape is wide open and exciting now. So many new journals appear all the time. Some students rack up publication credits with journals that are sort of blogs, really, some of them, and we talk about the advantages and disadvantages of that. I want them to send work to both new and established journals, just to get their work out there. That’s the whole idea of publishing: getting your work into the world. And it’s quicker to do now. Online publishing makes it so much easier to submit. When I was in graduate school—
Yes, I think honestly I still suffer from those early experiences of sending work out. I think it’s part of the reason when I get to work on publishing I just encounter this emotional hump. I always tell students to throw some of their poems to the moon because you never know what will happen. And find some middle of the road journals that are hard to get into but that you love, and then some that are brand new, and then choose a few that have wacky names. But not to just fling their work all over the place, haphazardly. In their longer journey as writers, I tell them that it will benefit them to publish in some longer-running, better-known journals. And I know this is oft-debated, but some editors look at acknowledgements, and some don’t. So, I tell them it can’t hurt to have some work published in reputable magazines. Overall, it’s a wonderful world for publishing right now. And especially for young people, who can get online and send out 25 poems in an hour or so.
Yes. I wish I’d take more of my own advice.
It can be difficult when you are teaching and dedicating so much to your students. You try to save that time that’s just for writing, and sometimes it’s difficult to have that time for submission, since it’s always coming from your writing time.
I tell my students quite bluntly, that I do not do the work that’s required to get my work out into the world. And I haven’t done it for that very reason: the few writing windows that I have are too rare. But there’s a lot of writing and editing happening for me. Maybe I just need to lock myself in a room for a month and just send work out.
But when I look at what else you’ve done on your sabbatical, that’s the more important work.
It is. It’s the more important work.
The world of poetry and the publishing landscape are really an incredibly massive garden now. Some sections of the garden have these crazy, spiky flowers, and some people might not go anywhere near that part of the garden. But others want to spend all their time there.
And one of your new manuscripts, Severance, cannot be submitted except as a whole. It cannot be broken apart. What you’ve done with the new work is just golden. We all aspire to have that time and focus and dedication so we can just get the work done. And I’m so grateful, now that I’ve read these manuscripts for Our Sudden Museum and Severance, that you’ve had the time to do this work. There are people who need to read Severance. And they won’t know it until they pick it up and fall into it. It’s like that sinkhole in Louisiana; they’ll be sucked into it, and then they’ll expand into it.
Now I have to do the work to get it out there. But overall, it’s an exciting time for publishing. And resources like NewPages, where students can see 50 journals publishing online, give writers a heavy dose of great writing. I try to encourage students to subscribe to some print journals, too.
I love what you do with lit mags in the classroom. It is so difficult to know the landscape, because a writer might have worked hard to establish what their aesthetic is, but out of the 10,000 journals, which 30 are perfect for my aesthetic?
I think it’s good for them to learn that it takes so much effort to find a journal that’s your match. I spent so long sending to journals that would never have been a match. Once I started to get to know the journals a little bit better, I understood. That’s a challenge for younger writers; they are still shaping their aesthetic. Early in my career, I kept submitting to this one journal, and then I realized I didn’t write anything like what they published, so of course they aren’t going to publish my work. But that’s an important lesson. I always use the analogy of a wild garden with my students. The world of poetry and the publishing landscape are really an incredibly massive garden now. Some sections of the garden have these crazy, spiky flowers, and some people might not go anywhere near that part of the garden. But others want to spend all their time there. So I tell students constantly to just stroll through this garden, and don’t only hang out where you think you’re supposed to be. A poet told me long ago to pay particular attention to the poets and books you don’t like because you will learn more by reading those. If anything, you learn more about your aesthetic and why you have a resistance to that work.
One of the luckiest experiences I had in my first semester of teaching was having a cadre of students who were seemingly very suspicious and resistant to what I was bringing to them. They were incredibly open-minded, but very resistant to just about everything I would say. And thank God! Because right off the bat, I realized, first of all, they were right to be constantly skeptical. And it just immediately reminded me that learning must be open-ended for both me and my students. I’d told myself I would never push an aesthetic on students, but I entered teaching more aesthetically narrow-minded than I knew, and they challenged me, right out of the gate. And I quickly realized it’s not about that. It’s about having a shelf that’s as wide open and diverse as I can possibly make it, and having things to hand to my students, maybe even things I have not even read. It’s about sensing what students are interested in as poets, what their aesthetic inclinations are, and helping nudge them their own way rather than my way.
That approach could be one reason why editors won’t point at submitted work and say, “that’s a Fanning student.”
Well, luckily I don’t even know who Fanning is as a poet. I resist knowing that. With respect to my students, I see myself more as a traffic cop in the middle of the intersection saying you go that way, and you go that way. Not: everybody follow ME.
What is the best advice you can offer students who want to go to grad school for creative writing? What is the best advice you were offered, or the advice you wish you’d had?
When students want to go to an MFA program, they are pretty passionate about it. I tell them to take a close look at what’s out there. They have to do the work to figure out where they belong, where they want to be. Look at each program, look at the poets who are there, look at the program, and so on. Some students think they want to go, but they wonder whether they are good enough, or whether they are ready. So, as in my teaching, I listen to them. But if they are really passionate and really want to do it, I’ll do what I can to help them get there. If they have reservations or are unsure, we will talk about that.
I had a student the other day say I think I want to take a year off school, and I said, do it! I had a year off in between that wasn’t planned, but it was a very important year in my life. The experience of a graduate creative writing program is a couple of years away from the world to give dedicated time and attention to what you love. That’s what it is. That’s what it should be. It’s not just a stepping stone. I tell them to try to focus on simply the value of taking those two years as a gift to themselves. It’s an absolute gift, to give yourself time to do what you love. The world might not understand, and most people you meet might not understand it. But give yourself that gift, if you really want to do it, and if you feel ready. If more comes of it, great. I tell student writers, as I remind myself constantly: to focus on the roots and not on the leaves. The work first. Put the work and the time in, and maybe more will come of it, maybe not. I also tell them they can still be a great poet without an MFA program, if they choose not to go.
So let’s switch gears. Your work is so rich with ideas. Do you ever have a time when the ideas are gone? When all your ideas are gone, where do you go for inspiration?
All the time! But I don’t stress about that. I don’t feed the beast of this whole notion of writer’s block. That is a construct. There will be lulls, there will be troughs, there will be times when I don’t feel that itch, that tickle that precedes writing to the page. But over time I’ve learned to honor that. That’s OK.
I tell my students that 75% of what we do is to learn to be present in the world, and in our life, noticing things. I can be inspired going for walks, watching movies, writing in my journal. I think going to museums and looking at visual art is incredibly inspiring. Get yourself to a place where you’re struck by something. Severance had its origin in a physical injury, a slip on the ice that almost broke my arm that got me thinking about a tangled puppet that needed escape. And that metaphor was probably building over time but it broke through that day I fell. Talk about a lucky accident. But I had to recognize that there was poetry in it.
Just walking through the world and being alive and being present and looking at the world as a stranger, as an alien is the core of it. It’s an incredibly strange thing to be alive, to wake up every morning and to be in this conscious body. I think as poets we should stay in touch with that, with how magical and lucky and terrifying it all really is. But if you haven’t gathered from my meandering, there’s no formula for me.
I bring to my students this trust in receptivity, in quietude, in silence, in knowing that something’s germinating even if you’re not aware of it. To just be open. For a lot of young writers, that is a big fear: What if I don’t have any ideas! So read. Dream. Remember. As Rilke said, our entire childhood is living within us always. So you never lack ideas. I do a lot of that in my journal, just access and try to describe a memory. And I do a lot of freewriting. That’s a huge inspiration for me, writing without any goal, without any censorship. Automatic writing until my hand is about to fall off. And just pulling lines from that. My journal is a very important place where things begin. A lot of it is a sort of self inspiration that comes from tapping into a deeper consciousness. A big thing is just not being afraid of what’s down there inside.
Another important aspect to my process is keeping lists when I do get ideas. For years now, I have lists of random ideas, things I saw while walking down the street, or driving along. Maybe I don’t know what it means, but I have to write it and remember it for later. I tell my students all the time: don’t just look to yourself for inspiration. Any time something looks strange to you, or unusual, or moving, make a note of it. I’ll bring Sylvia Plath’s journals into class, and we’ll look at those. A lot of her journal entries have the feel of sketching. She’ll describe the fog, the way it looks in these trees, and the morning sunlight on the roof, and she’s really working on describing it, just that. Without any worry about whether it will be a poem or not. You can sense that she is just looking and rendering what she sees. So that’s where I’ll begin with my students; let’s just look at something and try to describe what we see, in language. Try to describe something: to make it visible in language.
Beyond visual art, music is utterly crucial to my process. I listen to very specific types of music.
You mentioned going to a gallery or looking at visual art for inspiration. And I’ll exclude your wife from this, because I know a lot of her work involves text. I’m thinking of Denise’s Homeland Security installation, for instance. So please forget that you know her as I ask this question. Which visual artists feel like writers to you? or speak in images that urge you to write?
Yes. I am very inspired by visual art, but not in an organized way. I will walk into a gallery or museum and not think about who it is or the name of the artist or anything like that. But if a piece is resonant, and there’s a wavelength drawing me toward it, I’ll just stare at it. Bask in it. And freewrite while sitting in front of it.
A short list of artists who have been directly inspirational to my work does include my wife, because she is my favorite artist. There are actual images from her work that I have lifted and put directly into my poems. There’s a husband and wife photography team, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, and their images are very inspiring; I want to write a whole body of poems about their work. Their “Architect’s Brother” series is directly informative to American Prophet, my second book. I love Tony Oursler, who works with video projection. His work keeps popping up in this new body of work I’m working on. Another artist I find really inspirational is Andy Goldsworthy, and other environmental artists, who remind us that art is impermanent, ephemeral, and that we can go out and look for language in other places. Antony Gormley, whose figurative pieces stand in landscapes. His imagery was really big in American Prophet, too.
I feel very much like I want to write when I go to a gallery or museum. But because it’s not using text to inspire me, it’s a different feeling. It’s a pure feeling. David Lynch is another. The sculptors Edward and Nancy Kienholz. I saw a show of his work in Philadelphia years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. In parts of Severance, the characters have clock heads, and that’s directly from Kienholz. Diane Arbus, Kiki Smith, and a slew of other artists I’ve gotten to know by being married to one—for which I am so grateful. The more I think of it, visual art quite frequently inspires my work. It is a big portal for me.
Do you write to a soundtrack or playlist? What’s on it this week?
Beyond visual art, music is utterly crucial to my process. I listen to very specific types of music. First of all, it can’t have any words. As you know, I love so many bands. Music is (sigh). I was in a band in college; I play guitar. It is very informative to my writing process. For example, for American Prophet I was listening to this band Silver Mt. Zion on a loop. On their album, He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of Our Rooms, there are recordings of preachers trying to penetrate the airwave static, which is a core idea in that book. I listen to Sigur Ros quite a bit. Jonsi, the singer’s language, not only his native Icelandic but also Hopelandic—his style of scat-singing that sounds like glossolalia is hypnotic and very inspirational, and the background music is incredibly dramatic. Ólafur Arnalds is another Icelandic musician I love recently. Brian Eno: particularly his album On Land. I write to that album all the time. A band I’m listening to now a lot is Hammock; the write very dreamy minimalist stuff. Anja Lechner is a cellist I love. Classical music. A lot of adagios. Sad, heavy stuff. I have to surround myself with a very moody soundscape to write. During Severance, I was listening to Sigur Ros over and over and over again, but I was also watching their tour documentary Heima, which incorporates constant images of Iceland’s sweeping landscapes. I kept it open on my laptop as I was writing, and I would riff on some of the images. So if you watch Heima, and read Severance, you’ll notice some of the images I used. I was also watching a lot of films, old black and white films of marionettes on YouTube.
So much of the puppets’ movement has a recursive quality. You think of what is required to move the cross; it’s a mental activity that moves through the hands through the cross through the strings to the marionette. So in order to effect certain movements, you have to practice. It’s a recursive thing. So when the puppets perform certain actions in the poem, that recursive quality comes through because sometimes it’s almost as though you’ve given the marionette agency to rehearse. And of course it’s something they cannot rehearse. It’s not just the person with the strings but with the crosses with the hands with the brain—and in Severance that’s your antagonist, Grief—always rehearsing and recursively bringing you back, and back, and back. And that’s how grief works. We think we’re done with it and are ready to move away, we’ve rehearsed it, we want to move past it, but there is no moving past it. Grief is a recursive thing.
It will keep bringing you back until it’s done with you.
So it’s fascinating to hear you say you had this video on, and you kept seeing these images again and again, and you see that inflected in the poem.
It’s very important—to be inspired and influenced and carried away. A lot of it is pure subconscious in Severance, letting music and imagery and my psyche tap into that current. It was a terrifying book to write, in a lot of ways.
It had to be. It’s terrifying to read. But it’s necessary. If you’re the person who needs it, you think thank god somebody did this.
It’s a journey book. Like American Prophet is a journey book. It is a journey through. There’s a lot of middle-ness. There’s a lot of imagery of the hourglass, bottlenecks.
And not just the hourglass but the tilted hourglass.
Right. And I think in the middle of our life, we’re coming to terms, and we have to get through this bottleneck. And we have to learn how to die. That’s part of Grief’s role, too: helping Professor get off the stage and realize he will have to cut his own strings and will have to learn to dance off-stage.
And with the tilted hourglass image, you’ve slowed the sands, but you haven’t stopped them, yet. It’s slowing down time, which we don’t want to do. But sometimes it gets slowed down for us. And some of what we try to do, with our fitness or habits or whatever, is we keep trying to upright the hourglass again.
The urge is to go backwards. We obsess over our youth. Grief, I think, is teaching his friend, Professor, the other marionette, how to move forward. And to embrace the strings that are controlling him but also to realize he has room to move. It’s been amazing to discover. One of the reasons I’m so excited about that book is a lot of it involves rebelling against myself. That’s why I used the name Professor. He’s supposed to be this learned figure. And so much of being a professor, and I don’t use that term often to describe myself, is being on stage. Going into the classroom and throwing yourself around, doing the dance, hoping students will dance with you.
As the book was coming out of me, I saw that it was not doing the things that I had learned poems do. It was speaking its own voice to me. It was coming out erratically. It was coming out with crazy punctuation and capitalization, with all of these slash marks and things. I realized this is a rebellious book for me. About halfway into it, I realized it was a way of going against everything I’d learned in a lot of ways. To smash what I’d learned about the art to date. I was in a very realistic narrative mode for a long time, and this book helped me shake loose my editing habits, my ways of trying to control my impulses. I just let those poems hit the page the way they wanted to.
The best poems are the ones that end up in a place you didn’t intend. That’s what you want. Conversely, there’s a lot of conscious shaping you’re doing when you write a more conventional lyric realistic narrative poem, as I’d been used to. You’re bending it to fit, you’re hammering the nails, you’re making it a thing to be heard and spoken. The idea is to create something that feels utterly natural. But Severance had its own agenda and voice. As I was writing it, I had to ask myself throughout: who is the puppeteer here, me, or this body of work?
Beer or coffee? And what’s your favorite variety and place.
Both. Coffee I drink just about all day long. I find it just lights me up when I’m writing. Lately I’ve been doing pour-overs and investing in the slow process more. But I’ll drink coffee any old way. Beer? Michigan beer. I have a real local focus with my beer. There are so many good breweries in Michigan! Founders, Bells … we are in a great beer state. If I had one place I was allowed to go to drink my last beer, it would be with these buddies I meet up with about once a month to play darts. My friend has this place we call The Pub, but it’s really his shed. It’s really warm in there. He has a wood burning stove, and it’s strung with ornamental lights, and we play darts. It’s living the dream being in that place. He makes his own beer. Several of my friends are good home brewers. I really love a stout my buddy makes, which is so good. I’m thirsty thinking of it. I’m always looking for my next favorite beer. Like looking for the next poem, it’s a good journey.
Robert Fanning is the author of Our Sudden Museum (forthcoming, Salmon Press), American Prophet (Marick Press), The Seed Thieves (Marick Press) and Old Bright Wheel (Ledge Press Poetry Award). His poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Atlanta Review, and other journals. Recent work has also appeared on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor on NPR, and Fanning was interviewed at the Library of Congress for the nationally-syndicated radio program “The Poet and the Poem.” A graduate of the University of Michigan and Sarah Lawrence College, he is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. He is also the founder and facilitator of the Wellspring Literary Series in Mt. Pleasant, MI., where he lives with his wife, sculptor Denise Whitebread Fanning, and their two children. To read his work, visit www.robertfanning.wordpress.com.
Want to experience Fanning’s soundscape? We’ve created a Spotify playlist for you.
Trish Harris is a curator, writer, teacher, and artist. She has organized and curated several exhibitions focused on the intersections between literature and visual art. She is the curator for the transmedia Remaking Moby-Dick project. She is the founding editor of the literary journal Pea River Journal. Her poems, stories, and micromemoirs appear in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Cortland Review, and Brevity, and her essays in Computers and Composition. She teaches writing at Delta College.