In her third collection, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Daisy Fried affirms her place as one of our ballsiest poets. Her smart, conversational, and compassionately self-mocking poems explode with the shiny clutter of the big, wide world, whether they’re set at the Louvre or in her small backyard.
Of her poetry, Tony Hoagland has said, “Fried loves the rough, tumbling texture of vernacular impressionism, all the quirks and idiomatic pell-mell of spoken consciousness.” I’d add that her love of spoken language is equally present in her prose, her review work, her blogs for Poetry, and in her responses below.
Since we live about 1,000 miles apart, I interviewed Fried by email, shortly after the release of her recent collection. I’m not a huge fan of the email interview—the practiced answers and stiff tone—but Fried’s robust stream-of-consciousness responses managed to push past the medium and infect the conversation.
The Rumpus: Let’s pretend we’re on a talk show set, and I lean in (grave) and ask, “Do you, Daisy… dislike women’s poetry?”
Daisy Fried: I clear my throat with portentous self-satisfaction. Then I say (what else), “Yes, Lisa. Harrumph. I, too, dislike it.”
The great thing about the Marianne Moore line I stole to begin my title poem1, and the great thing about Moore’s poem, “Poetry,” is that it makes liking poetry and not-liking-poetry a non-issue, while also telling us what’s important about poetry. I mean, do we say I like, or I dislike, breathing? I like, or I dislike, love? The statement is also literally true. I don’t like women’s poetry, or men’s poetry, or anyone in particular’s poetry. I only like individual poems. I need poetry. Women’s poetry, of course, doesn’t exist, and of course, it certainly does exist. Women’s poetry is like a car. It might have purple lights underneath, or outrageous hubcaps, or an enormous spoiler jutting off the back, but underneath it’s still a car.
By the way, I’m taking a poll: do you know what a spoiler is? Anecdotally, I notice men are more likely to know what a spoiler is than women, but no more likely to put them in poems.
Rumpus: Strangely enough, not only do I know what a spoiler is, I’ve actually put one in a poem (“the snub-nosed .357, the subwoofer and the spoiler“). There were a bunch of early ’90s Honda Civics tricked-out with spoilers in my old neighborhood, which come in handy, I guess, when you’re bumping Rob Bass and lose track of your speed.
In this book, the speaker is tossed around a Husker Du concert, mows the lawn, lauds Charles Bukowski as “our greatest female poetess”; she’s left holding a cigarette and a beer in public—while pregnant! You’re coming out of this American vernacular tradition so dominated by dudes, it makes me wonder—keeping with your car metaphor—if you’ve had the experience of being reduced to your hubcaps. The advice column is (among other things) funny, but I wonder if there’s a thread of real frustration in there, too.
Fried: Would it be really macho to say I feel all competitive now? Not only a spoiler but a subwoofer and a snub-nosed .357?! And all in the right order, with the right rhythm? What poem’s that from and where can I read it?
About the hubcaps, do you mean have people been sexist to me, and do I get kind of tough guy because of that? Am I tough guy? I am sitting here with a gauzy, flowery white and lavender scarf around my neck. Later today, I will bake muffins and pick up my daughter from school, and then my car from the shop (it is a drab little gray ’99 Chevy Prizm; it does not fill me with desire).
But seriously, I’ve had a lot of success due to men: plenty of male editors, one instance where a male department head gave me better classes to teach the succeeding woman department head, male reviewers, a guy host who got me more money for a reading than his female-co-host told me was possible. Plenty of great women, too. Women have, in no sense, done me wrong—quite the opposite. The Poetess says, “A woman is no worse than a man,” and she’s quite right. I just mean I don’t perceive a difference in how I’ve been received as a poet and teacher by men versus by women. I will say that sometimes people say things that make me wonder if they’d have said them to a man. A guy says “you should take a more diplomatic tone” when you’re simply asking in a straightforward way for what you want, the way a man would. Most women have experienced this sort of thing. It’s tiresome. But overall, minor. I don’t feel frustrated about gender things. I’m very lucky on top of being pretty hard-working, and I don’t think I can complain.
Rumpus: Imagine how macho I felt when I read, “There are too many / stars in poems you have to get drunk to write.” I could have dead-armed someone. Only, there was no one. That’s the thing about being a poetess: you look around for someone to punch and there’s no one. Or else there are cats. All these cats in the poem “Midnight Feeding”—Raphael, Gabriel, Lucifer—are they real?
Fried: I live in a rowhouse in South Philly and my rear courtyard is about five-by-eight feet and paved with cement. No grass in sight. In warm weather, we sit in camp chairs out front on the sidewalk and drink wine under our one pear tree, which sits in a three-by-two foot cut in the sidewalk, and greet our neighbors: “Hey, howyadoon, Frank.” “Aright, you?” “This weather. Can you believe it?” The cat is not allowed outside because he’s prone to wandering off. His name is not archangelic; it is Owen, named by my daughter after her kindergarten amour. We do have suburban friends with lawns and outdoor cats. As for the cat names in the poem, well, let’s just say I love Paradise Lost an awful lot.
Rumpus: How about the anxiety of motherhood?
Fried: The great thing about the anxiety part is at some point, a year or three into it, you realize your kid hasn’t read the parenting advice books you’ve read, so she doesn’t know she’s supposed to act the way it says in the book, so then you get more calm about it.
Also, motherhood is negative capability.
That said: what I get a little anxious about is talking too much about motherhood. This is not to say you shouldn’t ask. But am I going to be typed as a Mommy Poet? I don’t think I am one—motherhood and politics and sunlight and sex and work and money and weather and, good god, even kittens, are all what we have always with us, so why exclude them from poems? And it’s true I did just write potty training advice in my letter this week to my low-residency MFA student who has a daughter, but then I also went on to write to her about Francis Ponge and defamiliarization techniques, and whether or not she should include two long prose poems in her Master’s thesis. I do feel this all should be natural, not remarkable, this wearing of various hats, the code-switching between potty and poetry. Or should there be any switch at all?
I was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for my last book, and there’s a reading the night before where each finalist gets to read for ten minutes. Well, my daughter was two months old then and I was addicted, or crazy, or anxious, or in love, and I wore her strapped to my front during the reading. Not that I self-Google ever, or anything, but this blogger—female—said something like, I got the prize for worst career move/fashion accessory for doing that. How funny: I hadn’t thought of it as a career move or fashion accessory. (Perhaps as living hot water bottle?) So that’s why the prize went to somebody else…! (Kidding!) From her post it was clear that the blogger was a Boomer, and I mentioned it to my mother, who is pre-Boomer, and my mother said that women of the Boomer generation often felt that, in order to be taken seriously, they had to partition family and career, and that therefore I shouldn’t be too irritated by her snippiness about wearing the baby.
Rumpus: I definitely wouldn’t characterize you as a Mommy Poet. I wonder who’s earned that designation. Plath and Sexton wrote about their kids, maybe they’re Mommy Poets? It would be ugly to slap your poems with a “plus” label, but I guess if I had to, like if I were drunk at a party and I had to explain your poems to a good-looking, less-drunk person, the modifier I’d use is “funny.” I mean, the poems are sad sometimes and dark at times, too, but they’re often funny. One doesn’t open a volume of “women’s poetry” and expect to laugh, as fucked up as that may be. But then you’ve gone and done this brilliant thing and called your book Women’s Poetry. Thus, anything inside it—booze, curse words, horror movies, Henry Kissinger—is “women’s poetry.” It’s indisputable.
Fried: I’m happy to be called funny! And I’m glad you like the title! There’s them that don’t. They worried it would be mistaken for second wave feminist criticism or something. I like to think the little bald devil girl on the cover (by the stained glass artist Judith Schaechter) helps with that.
Rumpus: What are your concerns in this, your third collection? How have they shifted since My Brother is Getting Arrested Again?
Fried: My concerns with my new book remain the same as before, really: to write good poems. I don’t really have any thematic or strategic or formal goals; I just start writing and rewriting and basically harass the words and myself till I have a feeling the poem might be a keeper. I do want them to get better and better. I don’t want to repeat myself (and honestly am not sure how I would do that since I don’t really know what I do each time I write a poem). I’m sorry to be vague, but this is really all I can say. Of course when I’m applying for a grant or fellowship, this is also what I say, but in more detail and at greater length. So let’s try that: “Minds like beds all made up,” writes William Carlos Williams in the beginning of Paterson. The made-up mind is important for poets to avoid. How to stay open and unmade when it’s so much easier not to?
Right now, I don’t know what I’m doing—the normal state of things. That’s not false modesty—it’s simply how I work. I guess what follows is about my next book (of which there are about four pages), not the current one you’re interviewing me about, but: I was in Paris for two months last year (we rent cheap apartments, and I think our two-month vacations cost less than lots of people’s two week vacations), and I’ve got all these notes:
There’s a square in northeast Paris where the 20th Arrondisement’s Communist Party headquarters are a distribution point for summer farm shares. A guy is crunching an enormous carrot while walking his bike across the square, leafy greens billowing from his handlebar basket. There’s a worrying old woman with blank eyes and bent back who keeps going from table to table at the café, asking us to smell her colander—does it smell? Does it stink? A street corner plaque says Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, the prosecutor of the Terror, rented a house here during the months he went downtown daily to send his friends and enemies to the guillotine. A couple on a first date at the next table earnestly discusses a book, Comprendre la Chine d’Aujourd’hui. Understanding China Today. I think that little kid just gave somebody a Socialist salute. He’s about six and my five year-old tries to attract his attention by careening around and around the magnolia grandiflora in the middle of the square as he unstudiously ignores her. But she’s happy because yesterday we went to see the glyptodont and megatherium bones at the Galerie de Paléontologie, and earlier today she got to climb up the outside of a giant fortress made of ropes and concrete ledges at the playground at the Parc de Belleville. You’d never see such a playground in America, where our play spaces are level, padded, modest-size and supersafe. Paris life isn’t so litigious, thanks I guess to universal health care and fewer insurance companies. So the playgrounds are pretty thrilling. The kids assess risk and make mostly good decisions. There’s my curlyhead, 20 feet up in the air about to disappear through a chute with apparently sheer sides. She waves at me. I wave back. I wear my sunglasses and you-go-girl grin, so she won’t notice or be infected by my terror.
Is this going to be a poem? Just before we got to Paris, the French replaced Nicolas Sarkozy with the Socialist François Hollande. In the lefty section of the Père Lachaise Cemetery, I see a grave shared by two women with the same name. Someone has left there, among the flowers, a copy of the newspaper L’Humanité with the front page news about Hollande: they’ll be happy to hear about it in the beyond. Hollande is going to meet with Angela Merkel and get some sense out of the Greek economic disaster. (That doesn’t go very well.) Hollande lowers the VAT tax on books. (That goes well.) At home, Obama has to win the election. We watch worried from afar. We will of course vote for Obama.
Again: is this a poem? Not yet. A poem isn’t journalistic details, however much charisma journalistic detail brings to poems. Something has to happen to make it all perform, and perform differently from what I’ve written before, and yet still be a Daisy Fried poem. But I haven’t the faintest idea what.
Looping back to Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, there’s a ten-part poem in the book called “Attenti Agli Zingari,” which is about motherhood, neo-fascism, Roma, and being American overseas. Or something. That came out of several trips to Rome, and started with the same jumble of notes. What I do know is that I can’t—and won’t be able to, can’t step in the same river twice—rewrite that poem, and have it be “Attention aux Gitanes,” which is probably non-idiomatic French, but you get what I mean. It has to be a different poem because I’m a different person now than I was a couple of years ago when I wrote “Zingari.” Has to, or it won’t ever exist…
Rumpus: Part of what’s so interesting about that poem is that it involves the reader in the speaker’s woe—a once-happy Rome under the shadow of the Bush Regime, neo-fascism, the vanishing of the Roma from the city—but with such editorial restraint. It feels journalistic in a way, but there’s no pretense of objectivity. As if the speaker’s anxiety and grief are transmitted in a glance. The feeling of oppression, of silence, comes in the restraint.
Fried: Poetry’s strange isn’t it. I worked and worked to get the right complex of feelings into that poem, and then: what joy to feel I was getting the sadness just right. “Bad things happening make you feel alive” the poem says. True in life? True at least in poetry.
Rumpus: So we take the most sober feeling into the final section, the Poetess advice column, which is basically an effusion of opinion and silliness. Juxtaposition intended?
Fried: I wrote the Poetess column for a Poetry magazine humor issue a few years back—the one they called Peotry (and actually got letters correcting the spelling afterwards). Chris Wiman suggested either an advice column or (I think) classified poetry ads, and the former appealed to me more. Do I like to tell people what to do and how to think? And then, I needed a persona. Part school marm, part Dan Savage? Anyway, the Poetess is a narcissistic know-it-all with a heart of gold (resemblance to real persons living or dead entirely coincidental).
I think it occurred to me to include the advice column somewhat late in writing the book. I’d written “Women’s Poetry,” the pimped-out car poem, and many of the others, and I was beginning to think about book titles. My first two books had titles which were complete sentences and not very poetical, which I like, and I wanted something unpoetical but a little bit different this time. And I was worrying about the number of babies in the poems. (I mean, “Midnight Feeding”: babies, kittens, and getting drunk? Poetry No-No’s 101!) I think it was my husband, the writer Jim Quinn, who suggested I meet that head-on and include the advice column and ironize the whole thing. So then “Women’s Poetry” suddenly became the right title, with the addition of “Poems and Advice.” I did think, too, that it would be nice to get more mileage out of that column—I got some very nice comments from other poets after it ran in Poetry.
Positioning: I put it at the end because I wanted the poems section of the book to stand on its own, have its own integrity as a sequence. As for going from serious to silly, I’m fine if people read from front to back (do they? I almost never do) and end up laughing. We do both in life. Humor and seriousness in the same place: it’s accurate to experience, isn’t it? I hope so! Or why go on living?
1. For context, the title poem in her collection riffs on the Marianne Moore poem, “Poetry.” Both poems begin with the line, I, too, dislike it.↩