The Rumpus Interview with Josh Fernandez

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I remember reading a journal, thinking, “If I read the word ‘tendril’ one more time, I’m going to jump out of this window.” Luckily, I was outside. But the point is: What the fuck is a tendril? I’m not even looking that word up. I’ve never heard anyone use tendril in a sentence. I’d rather be ignorant than write like an asshole.

What’s fun about Josh Fernandez, literarily, is how his writing cracks people up or pisses them off, without getting stuffy or false. The first poem in his debut collection Spare Parts and Dismemberment is called “After Watching Maya Angelou on the Oprah Winfrey Show.” It begins, “Here’s a fucking poem,” and doesn’t take long at all to get “into a syrupy pool / of David Sedaris’ / literary sperm.” Happily, many more strong feelings and big subjects and indelible images follow. Fernandez is also the author of In the End It’s a Worthless Machine, a chapbook, and he writes about music and culture for Spin.com and several alternative weekly newspapers. He lives in Sacramento and spoke with me about his life and work, which generally involves wearing pants when leaving the house and not being boring or a dick.

The Rumpus: So how did your official book launch go?

Josh Fernandez: It was interesting. We had it at Sol Collective, a community center and art gallery in Sacramento. The place was packed. In fact, it was so crowded that when I got on stage I had to ask if they knew they were at a poetry reading. They laughed, but I never really got an answer. I realized something, though: that I only get nervous when just a few people show up. When it’s sparsely attended I think about each audience member as an individual person. I think, “Hey, she’s wearing a t-shirt with a cat picture; I wonder if I have anything that appeals to that demographic,” or, “That guy is looking at me with lusty eyes, perhaps I should tone it down … or tone it up.” When there is a big crowd, it’s all a blur. I just focus on reading, which makes for a more comfortable experience all around. I do have cat poems, by the way. Just in case you’re wondering.

Rumpus: Maybe I am. Can you describe the differences between reading poems in a book and having them read aloud by their author? And also the differences between publishing a book of your poems and performing them?

Fernandez: I’ve noticed that poetry can be very boring. Even poetry that you read in a book that comes alive on the page can become a very different beast when read aloud. There’s something that dies in translation from the page to the vocal chords. But it can also be the opposite. Poems — even bad ones — can come alive when spoken aloud. That’s why slam poetry can only exist in the air. So I wrote this book with that in mind. I wanted to write poems that could be read in a book and also be read aloud. I’m not sure yet if it worked. The only thing I pay attention to when writing a poem is that I don’t want to be boring. It’s a fear. There is so much boring poetry in the world and I’m convinced that if people stopped writing that way more people would be willing to go to the store and buy a book of poems, rather than a novel about a muscular vampire or a hormonal wizard. Although those sound nice, too.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about what makes boring poems boring?

Fernandez: I remember reading a journal, thinking, “If I read the word ‘tendril’ one more time, I’m going to jump out of this window.” Luckily, I was outside. But the point is: What the fuck is a tendril? I’m not even looking that word up. I’ve never heard anyone use tendril in a sentence. I’d rather be ignorant than write like an asshole.

Rumpus: The other day, over lunch in a Sacramento restaurant whose management you once incensed, a stranger stopped by to compliment your work. Is this the kind of thing that requires processing through poetry?

Fernandez: Maybe. Or masturbation. It’s one and the same.

Rumpus: Ah, so how were the poems in your book selected and organized?

Fernandez: We — me, the publishers and editors — were very clear about wanting to start the book with a kind of brutality — drugs, hatred, confusion — because that’s how my adult life began. I wanted this book to be, in a sense, autobiographical. So I wanted the book to show this struggle of a lost person finding some sort of salvation — not God, or anything like that — but with humanity. With each page, I think there is a little bit of humanity introduced. By the end of the book there is supposed to be a little bit of light. Not a lot, but enough to provide a little bit of warmth.

Rumpus: Yes, three quick stanzas about your grandma. The last words of your first book are, “she loved me.”

Fernandez: I don’t have a PhD or anything, but I don’t think that qualifies as a question. But if you asked a question at the end of those statements, I think it would have been: “So you think a few stanzas about your grandma qualifies as ‘light?’ I’ll show you light, you son of a bitch!” To which I’d respond, “Christ, take it easy, man. It’s only poetry.”

Rumpus: A fair point. Well, have the poems been tampered with or worked over by editors or teachers? If so, to what end?

Fernandez: With this book, there was a lot of back and forth. Some of the poems were a bit of a compromise. If I would have had my way, some of the poems would be quite different. One of the poems, “The Last Thing He Said,” is very different than the way I wanted it. I still don’t understand the editorial decision to change it, but it’s changed. It’s interesting to see it there in a book, though. It’s like remembering your jock friend from elementary school — the one who used to stuff you in a locker for being a “fag” — and you see him 15 years later and he’s turned into a slutty woman. Or something like that.

Rumpus: How do you write a poem?

Fernandez: The poem writes you, man. Just kidding. I thought I would try to say something profound and poetic. I guess really, you just have to be interested in writing. Like, really interested in writing. There are some things that a short story cannot say. There are some things an essay cannot say. That’s where a poem comes in handy. It’s like boxing. A good uppercut is really something to watch. But little jabs are important, too. And they are underrated. They get the job done. They might go unnoticed, but they’re crucial. Or, I guess, you could just bite off the opponent’s ear. I forgot the question.

Rumpus: It’s this: How do you go from an image or a memory or an event or an imaginative analysis into a full poem? What are the steps you take?

Fernandez: It all comes to me at once, usually. In my head. And then I’ll race to the computer and try and get it all down. Once it’s there I usually realize that it’s not worth any extra work. But there’s the rare time I find a little nugget of truth in there. And then, like any writing, I’ll sit down with it and try to carve out some meaning. Or sometimes it will just start with an intriguing image that comes to mind. For instance, I had this one image in my mind for a long time of a person who was really drunk, banging on the floor until his fists turned into flowers. I loved that image, but it didn’t make it into the book.

Rumpus: How would you describe what the Mexican half of you means to your writing? What is expected of you on that front, by you or others?

Fernandez: Really, I’m just trying to figure out how my ethnicity functions within the context of the world in the form of questions: What did the stuff my grandma said to me as a child do to change the way I think today? Why are my distant relatives so religious? Was my uncle drunk all the time or was he just speaking Spanish? There are all these questions that I wanted answered but it seemed like nobody really cared to answer them, so I just began to search. It’s more fun for me that way. I can kind of fill in the blanks, dream up little stories.

Rumpus: You have one called “The Assimilation,” in which that process is described as a sort of totalitarian brutalizing — an inflicted, destructive metamorphosis. The tone staggers between rage, despair and the humor of harshly beautiful irony. How does this reveal your literary and personal preoccupations?

Fernandez: That’s exactly it. You should be my PR agent. So much of life is brutalizing, but at the same time it’s hilarious. I think the problem with a lot of new writers is that for one reason or another they don’t want to see the humor in a desperate situation. Or they don’t want to see the ugliness in something beautiful. The reason people believe in God is because life is so complex. They need some big, looming figure to answer the questions. But how can we find the answers if we don’t even know the questions? I’m convinced that we can only write poems.

Rumpus: The book has a mournful quality but is not sentimental. What’s your strategy?

Fernandez: Sentimentality is something I struggle with. People assume that because I don’t hang out with academic types that I have a distaste for academia. But I don’t. In fact, much of what I read is put out by university presses. I read poetry criticism with great interest and I understand that while my writing probably wouldn’t hold up to a lot of highly academic criticism, I do absorb a lot of the values of academic writing. Sentimentality is a big issue in academia. Nobody wants to read a brooding journal entry. So I try not to write them. Really, my strategy is to write something that I’d like to read. Sometimes that works. There is a really fine line between sentimentality and beauty. Every poet shuffles along that line. It’s fun to watch.

Rumpus: What other academic values are you thinking about?

Fernandez: Aside from sentimentality, I’ve become more sensitive to precise language. Or self-conscious about it? In less formal writing, you can kind of barrel through a poem and get to the end with some semblance of a point. But academic writing tends to slow the pace and tread lightly over its subjects. Of course, the danger there is that the poet can create something so airy that it floats over everybody’s heads. And, unfortunately, that’s the poetry that’s universally recognized — the kind that nobody understands: “Ah, yes, I love poetry, but I’ll just shove this 900-page anthology over in the corner for a few decades while I cozy up with this Donald Trump biography.” I’d like to make the line between academic and non-academic a little less defined, not for the purpose of dumbing it down or even elevating it, but just because that’s the way I write. So it’s better if poetry tailors itself to me.

I’m sure many will disagree, but I feel like I’m walking the line between academic and outsider, just as I’m walking the line between Mexican and caucasian. Or the line between sober and addict. It’s not something I’m doing purposefully, but it’s something I’m doing because it’s ingrained in me somehow. I’ve learned to take advantage of being a mixed-breed, just as I’ve learned to take advantage of being an addict. I might as well use my awkward place in the poetic landscape to my advantage, too. When I drank, I would fill half my cup with whiskey and the other half with water. My writing probably has something to do with that.

Rumpus: Your poems often deal with distaste, but always seem to maintain an appetite for life.

Fernandez: It’s people. I love to watch people. I love to hang out with different people, talk to them. I am more interested in other people than I am myself. You couldn’t tell that by reading my book, because the entire thing is about me, but I’m a reflection of everyone around me. If it wasn’t for other people, I would have never stopped using drugs. If it wasn’t for other people I would have nothing to write about. People are so confusing that I have to write about them. I have to understand them and try to be one of them to the best of my ability.

Rumpus: There is a strong first-person presence in your work. What do consider to be the value of sharing your personal story?

Fernandez: Value is a tough word. I don’t know if there is value. A lot of women have come up to me and said they’ve given a copy of the book to their wayward brothers, which boggles my mind. Who knew there were so many wayward brothers out there? But I think my story is interesting in that I was at rock bottom, sleeping in cars and on the streets and wandering through neighborhoods searching for drugs. And then I found other things, like writing, which completely replaced my need for drugs. So far, at least. The value for me was that I got to document a story. The value for others, really, is yet to be determined.

Rumpus: Talk a little more about how you’re affected by other people’s opinions.

Fernandez: All I am is other people’s opinions. I have never been a leader. I am not a person who will ever forge a path or do something groundbreaking. It’s comforting to know that. People’s opinions matter to me. The reason I am wearing shorts today is because it is acceptable to do so. Some days I could go without pants, but I won’t ever emerge from the house naked from the waist down. I’ll wear pants because I don’t want to be arrested.

Rumpus: Why is it comforting to know you’ll never forge a path or do anything groundbreaking? Is it not a responsibility you want? Or something else?

Fernandez: I was watching the news just as the media was starting to jump on the collapsing economy, and the anchor was interviewing some random guy from a third-world country. The anchor asked him some assholish question, like, “Do you find it hard living in America’s shadow?” And the guy, real calmly, says something to the effect of, “Why would I want to run around all day being stressed out, just to ensure my spot at the top of the ladder when I can live here, grow my food and enjoy a great meal every night with my family?” That was an admirable thing to say, even if he was lying. But, to be honest, I think I might have made up most of that story.

Rumpus: In your life or your work, what most satisfies you and most disappoints you?

Fernandez: I am a lazy person. I guess that both satisfies and disappoints me. My ideal version of me would be someone who writes and reads constantly. You know? Someone who looks good in bow ties. I watch Jersey Shore and wear basketball shorts, which is disappointing. But it makes me happy.

Rumpus: How do you avoid being a poseur?

Fernandez: I don’t at all. I’ll always be a poseur and I’ll never be satisfied with who I am. The day you’re satisfied with who you are is the day you turn into what the kids refer to as a “douchebag.”

Rumpus: When I first heard you read, before I knew you, I found you intimidating. But also impressive. Maybe that’s why. Then again, I’m looking at the book and in all the photos you seem to be staring me down. No smiles.

Fernandez: Yeah, well, you know the old saying: The only thing creepier than a smiling poet is a horny priest.

Rumpus: Who are your literary heroes and what does their writing mean to you?

Fernandez: I have many literary heroes, but an unlikely one is Augusten Burroughs, the guy who wrote Dry and Running With Scissors. One, he’s still alive, which is admirable. Two, because he kind of fell into writing. He doesn’t have that pretentiousness that is associated with writers. His memoir, Dry, is the saddest, most heartbreaking, but completely fucking hilarious book I’ve ever read. He can be at once heartless and sympathetic in the span of a sentence.

Rumpus: So it goes back to avoiding or at least checking sentimentality, yes?

Fernandez: I think so. But even more important than that: It goes back to not being a dick. If you’re not a complete dick then you have the ability to see a situation for what it is, in all its beauty and brutality. You can damn yourself right along with the people you’re damning. If you’re not a dick you can at once horrify and delight the reader. If you’re not a dick, then you can comfortably not understand anything.

Sometimes when I go to the gym I find myself in a room full of know-it-alls — the kind of people who, no matter what you say, always answer with something ridiculously long-winded and digressive. Mostly, because I live in Sacramento, they have some affiliation with the government, which is scary for many reasons. Anyway, they like to always have the answer, even if they don’t know it. The alpha male. But I think a lot of pretentious writers are like that, too: quick to answer a question in long-form because they think that somehow they are special. Or enlightened. Writers should be less enlightened than regular people, but infinitely more curious.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about other writers’ pretentiousness?

Fernandez: A pretentious writer would say, “No, can you talk about other writers’ pretentiousness?” Meaning there’s a lack of directness, much tiptoeing and an abundance of cutesiness that I associate with pretentiousness. Have you read The New Yorker lately? It’s almost as if a really smart 8th grader — like an 8th grader who knows he’s really smart — wrote all those poems. They’re very fancy and delicate. I’ll say this: I don’t really have a lot of bad things to say about poetry until, apparently, someone asks me a question about poetry. And then, I guess, I get all these opinions.

Rumpus: OK, so which poets are you reading or hearing now, and what do you make of them?

Fernandez: Kevin Young is the poet I most admire. He writes in a way that’s historical, interesting, easy and intuitive. He’s very soulful and lyrical without being melodramatic and sentimental. In his poem, “Ode to the Midwest,” he begins by saying that he wants to be “doused / in cheese / & fried” and then he goes on to say how he wants to “die / wearing a sweatsuit.” And the thing with poetry is that you’re supposed to say, “Kevin Young’s narrator wants to die wearing a sweatsuit,” but, no, not his narrator! Kevin Young wants to do that. Kevin Young, the person, is so badass that he wants to be a hunk of deep fried cheese and die looking like a high school gym teacher. I believe that because I read his poem about it. That’s the kind of poetry I like to read. Mark Doty and Charles Simic have the same effect, but without the sweatpants.

Rumpus: What does it mean to you to have a blurb on your book from José Montoya saying yours are poems he treasures?

Fernandez: It’s very surreal. It makes me wonder if he actually read the book. I saw him introduce Billy Collins when he came to read in Sacramento and José was so funny and interesting because he just started talking, with seemingly no direction, but he had the entire audience completely captivated. I think he might have been drunk. Nobody cared. He was so good with his words that he didn’t need a plan. Or sobriety. He just needed to make sentences that were intriguing. I’d like to be like that one day.

Rumpus: Your bio at the end of the book says you’re a sought-after reader and speaker, often asked to talk about ethnic diversity, abuse, addiction and your writing background. What’s it like to be asked to talk about those things?

Fernandez: I love talking about those things, especially to junior high and high school students. I like young people to know they don’t have to be so nervous all the time, that they can really, monumentally, fuck up. Fucking up is an art, like oil painting or synchronized swimming. You can fuck up and then fix it with more paint or you can fuck up and then reposition yourself in the water so you look like the other swimmers. Or you can throw out the canvas and start again. Or you can stay underwater and see how long until you drown. The point is, there are so many ways you can fuck up and there are so may ways you can recover. But the art lies in recovery because fucking up is actually pretty easy to do. Of course, some teachers never invite me back to their classroom.

Rumpus: What question are you afraid of being asked?

Fernandez: I’m afraid of someone asking me if all the things in my poems are true. But since I brought it up, the answer is this: I made everything up, but all the poems are true, if that makes any sense. I had a professor, Doug Rice, who referred to this kind of writing as “dream memoir,” where everything is true in a spiritual sense, even if the chronology and minutia are made up. So the truth exists in a space that’s false in our physical world but it’s a perfect replica of truth everywhere else. For instance, I remember my biological father, but I have no idea what the hell he said to me. I made it up. But the things I made up are exactly what he said to me, because that’s how I remember them. Whatever he said to me made impressions, and all I did was transfer those impressions onto a page. My wife calls me a great exaggerator because I tell stories to get the point across, not to win a court case. What I’m trying to say is if I ever offer you legal representation, decline my services.


Jonathan Kiefer lives in San Francisco. His movie reviews are collected at jonathankiefer.wordpress.com. More from this author →