Where Speech Fails Us: Talking with Martin Jude Farawell
Martin Jude Farawell’s work on behalf of the poetry community as a teacher and the director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival has often eclipsed his own work, but Sibling Rivalry Press is remedying that with the publication of Odd Boy.
Despite a lengthy list of publications in noted journals, the full-length collection is Farawell’s first, coming nearly twenty-five years after the publication of his chapbook, Genesis. Farawell admits to being “terribly inconsistent” and having serious self-doubt about his work and even when Sibling Rivalry Press’s publisher Bryan Borland asked to see the manuscript, he was “nearly overwhelmed into inaction.” Luckily, Borland’s calm encouragement moved Farawell to hit the submit button. Odd Boy, with its unflinching cycle of poems about surviving abuse and poverty, was worth the wait.
In the spirit of transparency, I cop to being Farawell’s pressmate at Sibling Rivalry Press, but I wasn’t very familiar with his work until I received an advance copy of Odd Boy. Farawell and I conducted this interview by email and phone, talking about the intersection of trauma and religion and how the Dodge Poetry Festival has been part of his life for more than three decades.
The Rumpus: The sense of vulnerability in the poems is palpable. How did you arrive at these poems and was it a long gestation period?
Martin Jude Farawell: I think what you sense as vulnerability in these poems is that they capture the effort to not look away. There are things we fear might destroy us if we allow ourselves to really see them, that we could not survive feeling our profoundest grief. That’s what denial is for! And alcohol and drugs and binge-eating and binge-watching: to let us look away, turn down the intensity of our feelings, the volume of the noise in our heads. Entertainment lets us look away from the things in life we don’t want to face. Art helps us find a way to face them.
These poems emerged over about a twelve-to-fourteen-year period. In the earliest, “Casino Pier, Asbury Park,” I was still very much influenced by the school of thought that personal experience had to be abstracted, mythologized, that I had to find some symbolic objective correlative to get at what I was trying to say in a way that would keep the poem from being “too personal.”
At the time I couldn’t see that I was using what I thought was an aesthetic ideal as an excuse to hide. No one could say a poem was really about me because all the autobiographical facts had been revised out of it. Yet the poets who took off the top of my head, Dickinson to name one, were distinctly personal, individual, unmistakable voices.
This was part of an essential problem in my life. I wanted more than anything to communicate, but was afraid of being seen, ashamed of my own story. I’ve hidden my childhood poverty and violence for most of my life. My mother was deeply ashamed of our poverty, would send me to pay for groceries with food stamps so she wouldn’t have to face the cashier. I can’t recount how many times I was told as a child that, “nothing that happens in this house is anybody’s business.” I was charged with hiding the violence I witnessed and suffered, with protecting the reputations of my abusers, and I took on the burden of the shame for their acts as my own.
Rumpus: Odd Boy hinges on surviving an abusive childhood, but also acts to subvert the trauma into understanding, if not forgiveness. Can you talk about how you processed and channeled your past into the work?
Farawell: I’m still trying. These poems are not the end result of something that happened once and is now done. They are about trying. I try because the alternative, to not try, to give up, is unbearable. I’m not only talking about making poems. Making poems is what I do. Trying to be who I am means writing poems.
So many things conspire against our being who we are. Child abuse is only one of them. How do we stay human? Especially after terrible things were done to us that we could not protect ourselves against? How do we grow our capacities to stay connected, creative, loving? We have so many qualities that can make our lives better. It is the source of all tragedy that rage, fear, bitterness, ego can smother “the better angels of our nature.”
My father called me dummy more often than he called me by name. That sounds like a melodramatic exaggeration, but I think if there were a database of our every interaction where such things could be tallied, it would be proven true. From the time I was in kindergarten my mother told me often that I “was the slow one of her children.” That was her expression. I was one of six kids. I wasn’t even the fourth or fifth slowest, but the slowest. That’s pretty dumb. In fifth grade I was almost transferred into special education classes. I think now I must have been so muted by trauma my teacher thought my unresponsiveness was from a lack of intellectual capacity. I begged my mother not to do this. She said she didn’t want me to “have to struggle to keep up with the normal kids.” Wouldn’t I be happier with kids like me? Where would I be now if that ten-year-old boy hadn’t understood the desperate situation he was in?
I could say all kinds of things about my intellectual journey as an artist, but to say the transition in my life that made these poems possible was all about my own study and discipline would be the usual male ego bullshit. I had never expected to be in a loving relationship, not in one that was healthy and nurturing. Realizing I could actually function as a partner in one, and that someone wanted to spend her life in one with me, transformed my life. Cheryl [Solimini, his partner who is also a writer] believed it was worth the effort of pursuing what I wanted, that I was worth the effort. I had worth? What I wanted mattered? This was news to me. Having someone believe in me enough to want to be with me on this journey made it seem not so insane to try to believe in myself.
Rumpus: Catholicism is steeped in the act of confession. The poems in Odd Boy are deeply confessional when it comes to your religious education and in framing the narrative of fathers punishing sons. Talk about the intersection of these two confessionalisms.
Farawell: My departure from Catholicism began when I was twelve, as soon as I’d made my Confirmation. We were taught that as good soldiers of God we had to study our religion, which I took to mean reading the Bible. When I did, it became clear that many of the rules and beliefs I’d been indoctrinated with had come from an institution, and not from Jesus’s words. I lost my faith in the rituals of the church at too early an age to have had an adult relationship with the practice of confession, so I never experienced it as one of self-scrutiny, atonement, or redemption. There was nothing spiritual or enlightening for me as a child in telling a stranger in a dark booth what I’d done wrong. It was just one more source of humiliation, something endured under pressure, and always a little creepy.
So, I don’t feel that these poems come out of any deeply confessional urge, that sense of certain things needing to be said. Most of that kind of writing has remained in journals and notebooks, which I’ve filled with thousands of pages of “self-expression” over the decades. The poems I’ve written that rise out of the confessional impulse rarely rise to the level of art. Something else is needed, which, for me, is often the attempt to unravel something that seems impossible to understand.
People often say poems raise more questions than they answer. I’d take that one step further and say for me the poem is about the process of questioning itself, of wondering, which is right next to wonder. It’s about not turning away from those things that strike us dumb, whether in ecstasy or terror, bewilderment or grief or confusion or just plain numb exhaustion. Poems begin where speech fails us. They’re paradox in motion, the attempt to say the unsayable, to question what we know we will not find an answer for. It’s about persistence, in a way, trying to pay attention to the world, to life, to the people around us, when so much conspires to distract and intoxicate us.
Rumpus: Perhaps the greatest connective tissue in Odd Boy is the interaction with and immersion into nature. The long opening poem, “The Pine Barrens,” is where the young boy finds solace, but also comes to the reckoning that he will not be like other hyper-masculine men. It’s an audacious opener that sets the tone for the rest of the collection.
Farawell: Full credit for the placement of “The Pine Barrens” at the front of the book goes to the poet Gregory Orr. We’d been working for some months to coordinate a collaboration between him and the Parkington Sisters on a poem and song cycle based on his Beloved poems when I learned Sibling Rivalry Press was going to publish the book. Greg asked to see it, and quickly wrote to me that I had to move the poem up to the front of the book, for exactly the reasons you cite. It was one of those “Of course!” moments we’re sometimes blessed with by our poet friends.
The poem emerged from countless hikes I’ve taken in the Pine Barrens and other forests. When I was a boy, we spent a few weeks every summer in a small bungalow my grandmother had built on the northern end of the Pine Barrens. It was a different world from Jersey City, where I grew up. Some of the most peaceful memories of my childhood are of wandering in the woods for hours, or along the water’s edge of nearby Barnegat Bay. I’ve gone off on such hikes throughout my entire adult life, especially during periods of personal turmoil, and always with a notepad in my backpack. I would sometimes compose aloud as I walked, stopping occasionally to jot down passages I didn’t want to lose. Many of those found their way into the poem.
Rumpus: There is so much complicated grief that accompanies the death of an abusive or emotionally disconnected parent. I found that my grief was not so much about the death itself, but all the unanswered questions about the past and what it both robbed and rewarded me with. Your thoughts?
Farawell: This raises the “understanding if not forgiveness” aspect of your earlier question. When the person dies, it feels like a final closing off of any chance to understand if not forgive. The “Why?” that is at the center of an abused child’s consciousness remains unanswered. I don’t know how we learn to live with there being no answer. We must, even if for only brief periods of time, if we want to experience any peace.
There is no adequate explanation—it was another time, they were the product of their own upbringing, they cracked under stress… None of it adds up to an answer. There are always other people in the same circumstances who didn’t behave this way. We may even have siblings who were treated very differently than we were.
The wish that an answer or apology would heal us comes directly out of that lingering “if only” thinking from our childhoods. Abused children always take on responsibility for their abusers’ behavior. “If only I could be so good mommy would never get mad.” “If only I could stop the baby from crying.” “If only I hadn’t been born then daddy wouldn’t have to work so hard.” This fervent belief that somehow there’s one little thing that could make everything alright if only we were smart enough or good enough to figure out what it is follows us into adulthood. But, of course, we cannot fix it. We could never fix it. We were children dealing with people who needed serious professional help, and we created this goal, this wish, as a way to have something to give our attention to instead of our own feelings.
When that person dies, we are faced with the finality that nothing is going to change the past, change what was done to us, make sense of it. Death simply makes undeniable what was always true, that there are some things we will never make sense of—other people’s cruelty, for one.
And I’m not a big fan of the notion that suffering has meaning, that it can be redeemed, like a bottle at the recycling center. I don’t think there is any good reason for suffering, or that good necessarily comes out of it. Too many people are permanently broken by what is done to them. They don’t get better.
Rumpus: You’re also a playwright (No Trains, Talking Machines, Under a Falling House). How has your work as playwright informed your poetry?
Farawell: The two art forms have always appealed to me since I was in middle school. Playwrights have taught me as much about language as poets have—Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Harold Pinter, and William Shakespeare. They taught me so much about the shaping and pacing of images. If you read a play on the page, you go against the playwright’s intentions. I feel that way about the origins of poems; they need to be heard.
Rumpus: That makes for an excellent segue into your work with the Dodge Poetry Festival. How did that begin?
Farawell: I’ve been to every Dodge Festival since 1986. I was a graduate student and Galway Kinnell was my thesis advisor, and he told me he was reading, so I went. I saw him, Sharon Olds, and Stanley Kunitz. I read at the festival in 1996, and then in 1998 I started working in the office to help out. In 2008, they asked me to be the director. It has been thrilling to see poets I came of age reading and who influenced me in conversations in this casual, non-academic setting. Finding poets I’ve never heard of and inviting them to the festival is what keeps me excited. The United States doesn’t have one place that is the capital of literature—we don’t have our Paris or London—but every two years that place materializes for a few days in New Jersey.
Rumpus: Many poets believe we are in a new “golden age” of poetry thanks to the democracy of social media and the rich diversity of voices writing and publishing today. Your thoughts on this, and how do we keep this momentum?
Farawell: I do think we are in some kind of “golden age.” The internet has revolutionized information, art, and culture in ways that no one could have ever imagined. Everyone who has a smartphone has access to more text than is available in any library in the world. The internet and social media have given opportunities for a wide array of voices to be heard—young writers, women, African American, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQ identified poets. I think we keep it moving forward by supporting and showing up for other poets. If you’re inviting a poet to your series, treat them with respect and as a professional. Pay them for their time. If you can’t do that, at least try to cover their gas money. If you’re a curator, lobby funding sources. But if you are a poet or just love poetry, showing up as an audience member is so important.
Photograph of Martin Jude Farawell by Mark Hillringhouse.