Owning the Narrative: A Conversation with Megan Fernandes

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Megan Fernandes is a writer known for her purposeful, driven words that defy traditionally defined boundaries or easy summarization. She’s a poet, yes, but she also shoves aside walls that enclose poetry in form or subject. Her work has been published in countless magazines and journals, from the New Yorker to Ploughshares to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Fernandes’s debut collection, The Kingdom and After (Tightrope Books, 2015), introduced us to her voice as both blunt truth-teller and measured verse-architect. In Good Boys, her new collection published last month from Tin House Books, she plunges back into family, relationships, and identity—then explores the lens itself through which she sees and thinks about her world. Her anger and agitation speak so clearly, so compellingly, that we find ourselves reading her poems on the edge of unease: What will happen next? Is this going to hurt? Will she soothe us?

And she does, with great care and love.

I was delighted to speak with Megan about her approach to writing family, using humor to add depth and perspective to her work, and how she defines and owns the narrative within her poetry.

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The Rumpus: Where and when did this collection begin for you?

Megan Fernandes: I’d say the poems are from between 2015-2018 with a few latecomers from 2019 that slipped in there. Most of the poems coincide with my move to New York City five years ago. This has been a period of intense change in my life. 

Rumpus: Every poem in this collection feels like a story, vivid and tangible. What defines your work (or any work) as poetry versus lyrical CNF or short fiction?

Fernandes: There are many ways to think about narrative and for me, I like a narrative poem that resists chronology. I like scenes that are nonsensical and outside of time. This mirrors a sort of feminist diasporic writing tradition which, as you observed, might mean vivid story worlds that are abandoned by context. A lot of hazy beginnings and endings. I’m thinking of poets like Meena Alexander or Bhanu Kapil, here, who can really do this kind of spatial and cognitive leaping between scenes. It makes sense that if you’re a person who is negotiating a lot of homelands, maybe especially if some of them feel abstract, that ability gives you both the sense of being fragmented but also belonging to a newly enacted narrative. Poems in my collection such as “The Poet Holds a Gun” moves from an Aeolian beach to a gun range in Pennsylvania, to an episode of meeting and shaking hands with Agnès Varda. These are narrative clips, sure, except they are not held together by any kind of chronological logic, but more by this kind of “poetic leaping.”

You know, when I was in graduate school, I remember thinking that narrative really belonged to men and to the colonizer; by that, I mean that those were the demographics that got to decide the official story of history and aesthetics. In contrast, I read work that was more formally experimental. Yet I was still compelled by narrative structure and became interested in the way certain poets like those I mentioned earlier were able to reimagine their relationship to storytelling in a way that did not do violence to their own subject-making.

I’m also influenced by some of the New York poets such as Frank O’Hara, obviously, and I remember reading about his ability to employ the “apparitional aesthetic” and that really hit me because, yes, I think of some of the poems in the collection almost burst into the poem as hallucinatory visions and then abruptly exit. It’s like narrating little epiphanic spells. And then those epiphanies can generate new story worlds within themselves like mini “mise en scenes.”

Rumpus: What about the finer tenets of your craft approach?

Fernandes: I do enjoy certain tropes from prose writing such as characterization and the process of “unfolding” that some might see as necessary to building tension, but in the end, the promise of sentences with their syntactical unity is not so important to me. I think the major differences between poetry and prose are syntax, sound, temporality, and rhythm.

For poetry, you need bars. Which is a way of saying, you need lines. And you need your voice and breath to maintain a dynamic relationship to the line. I always tell my students that a line break is not necessarily telling you to pause; it might be telling you to speed up. It might be telling you that the consonant sounds that are building upon each other need some relief. Someone once told me (maybe Carolyn Forché?) that enjambment is the drama of improvisation. You kind of have to figure out the music of each poem. And you have to think of the poem as its own ecological system. By that, I mean, the slant rhyme, sudden changes from monosyllabic to polysyllabic words, the imagery of illumination that keeps recurring in a poem… all of that has its own internal logic.

I also listen to a lot of lo-fi, melancholy, sad kid hip-hop. That definitely has influenced my understanding of how stories can be simultaneously poetically and cinematically enacted.

Rumpus: Humor plays such a role in your poems, and you’ve published some hysterical and oh-so-cutting pieces in McSweeney’s, as well. Can you speak to how humor and the truth of your lived experiences interlace in your writing?

Fernandes: I feel lucky to be surrounded by some ridiculously funny people who keep me on my game and who can trade playful insults fast. To me, this banter is the ultimate chemistry. Most of my closest friends are not poets and so they can always show me to myself when I’m being intense or ridiculous. I kind of need that form of lightening; it keeps me from emotional indulgence.

I also get that we’re living in very serious times. We don’t need humor right now to get relief from that seriousness, but we need humor because it offers nuance. Humor betrays the truth of a situation even if that truth is a little messy. Humor can dwell pretty comfortably in contradictions.

As a brown woman coming up in academia and the creative world, I’ve experienced my fair share of being underestimated or belittled or humiliated at various points of my life and so, laughter has been really important. And laughing at myself feels kind of radical. It’s complicated to convey what I mean here, but I’ll say that it keeps me from feeling like an object of pity at crucially difficult or painful moments.

The power of humor and the ability to wield it gives you agency and it can be protective. A professor once told me that laughter is, in some ways, about shifting superiority. By this, he was referring to, I think, the prepositional orientation of laughter. To laugh at someone. To laugh with someone. My close friend was a gay kid at an all-boys Catholic school during a time when one would be persecuted for their sexuality, and he received the “Biggest Wise Ass” award. It still hangs in his apartment to this day even though he’s a thirty-something-year-old, out man living in Brooklyn. Humor saved him. It preserved his dignity.

Rumpus: Writing about family is always this bumbling tightrope walk for me, where I struggle with honesty and expectation in an anxiety-fueled process. How do you approach writing about family in your poems?

Fernandes: Henri Cole once told me that you can write about your parents, but your siblings deserve their privacy. I always thought that was interesting. I write some persona poems that are about family dynamics, but they are not always coming directly from autobiography. I think it is kind of dangerous to assume an uncomplicated fluency between the poet and the speaker. For example, in my poem, “White Insomnia,” it opens with a mother telling the speaker to look after their sister and in the dreamscape, the mother is a broom. The speaker sweeps monarchs with the broom. Obviously, my mother is not a broom. But this kind of surrealism interjects into the familial.

I would also say that poems are impressionistic, but that impressionism is a kind of truth. Poems shouldn’t be read for their evidence of rights and wrongs nor for their voyeurism into a person’s life, but for the ways they make atmospheres, music, and imagery communal with the reader for a brief moment. All writers struggle with this issue of being fair or not, presenting episodes or interactions in ways that are just or truthful. I guess I’d say that poems are not meant to be fair and that all artists should be allowed to present complexity and multidimensionality in ways that expand our humanness. A good poem doesn’t necessarily take sides, but offers layers to interpret. I think my poems about family really begin from a place of uncertainty and confusion, not necessarily from a place of authority. To me, this distinction matters. I’m figuring out something with the reader as the poem unfolds, I’m not going in there with an agenda.

Rumpus: I would love to talk more about both truth in writing and that concept of “place of authority.”

Fernandes: I heard somewhere that poems begin either from a place of authority or a place of doubt. I’m embarrassed to say that I forget who said it, but maybe it was communicated to me in a classroom at some point. There are certain poems that operate within the sphere of the didactic. They are there to teach us something or the voice of the speaker writes from a space of omniscience. An obvious example might be Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a less obvious example might be a poem like “Another Insane Devotion” by Gerald Stern. 

Rumpus: Do you have times that you do write with an agenda? Times where you want to express yourself from a place of authority? Those McSweeney’s pieces feel very strong, in terms of your knowledge and experience!

Fernandes: Maybe agenda is the wrong word, but there are times I write with a sense of conviction. The poem, “White People Always Want to Tell That They Grew Up Poor,” I’d say yes, that came from a place of frustration with conversations I kept having about the intersectionality of race and class with some friends. I was trying to communicate that frustration. To certain white people, brown and black authenticity must be measured through the proximity to poverty, hardship, violence, etc. Any narrative about black and brown people that strays from that lens of hardship is almost like a cognitive dissonance for whiteness. In other words, in order to be authentically brown or black, you have to engage in performing your trauma for white audiences and also, the white publishing complex.

Rumpus: Please go on.

Fernandes: Some of my friends of color and I talk about this expectation, this sad formula, and the fact that brown/black trauma pays and what does that mean for the industry and for the field of letters. Who does this actually serve? And what kind of radical politics does it make possible? I don’t have good answers right now. But I recently reread White Girls by Hilton Als and was really struck by ways in which he engages with interracial intimacies in that book. He also says something to the effect of, you know, beware the writer of color who reaps riches from depictions of his mother’s suffering. It was something like that, but much more articulate. What I’m saying is that “authority” is not something women, non-binary, LGBTQ folks, and writers of color have historically been recognized for in the canon and when they are, it is acknowledged and rewarded within a certain formula of trauma. It’s narrow. I had this one workshop teacher who said we could write any kind of story we wanted, but no dead women. We weren’t allowed any dead women in our stories because they were so tired of dead young women being used as plot devices. Recently, I have given myself the task of writing more narratives about joy and pleasure and yes, humor. This is a kind of authority, to say, no, my pain is not a plot device or pedagogical tool for racial literacy or white epiphany.

It’s also a kind of authority to say, I’m going to show you, dear reader, something about yourself which you might find ugly or uncomfortable. And I don’t mean that righteously. There have been poems in which I’ve recognized in myself a prejudice and my first reaction is to act defensively because such interpolations can feel violent or accusatory. But wherever there is that reaction, I also have to investigate where my unease is located and why it is there. That is literally what it means to be moved by something. You are reoriented. You are no longer who you were before you read that. It’s a good thing. It’s called growth.

Rumpus: What is the first poem you remember reading that struck you and made you want to write a poem, too?

Fernandes: Growing up, we only had two poetry collections in our house. The first was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and the second was The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. They were really different, obviously. Gibran felt ceremonial to me as a kid. Dickinson felt like someone you might read in private. But actually, one of the earliest poems I read was in the back of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I have this uncle, Uncle Denzil, who is sort of spiritually and emotionally the closest person to me in my family. He is very literary and reads everything and he would always send us books, classics, that were way above our reading level as kids. I remember, very distinctly, finding a selection of poems the publisher had added in an appendix in the back of the copy of Wuthering Heights. The poem was called “Remembrance” and I can still recite it by heart.

Rumpus: What poetry collections or chapbooks have you read in the past year that you loved?

Fernandes: I love this question. I’m reading a chapbook right now published by Broadside Press in 1970 of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems called Family Pictures. It’s pretty amazing. I would say books that I think are exceptional that I’ve read in the past few years include Ashley Toliver’s Spectra, Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year, Edgar Kunz’s Tap Out, Alex Dimitrov’s Together and by Ourselves, Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus. I love the poetry of Virginia Konchan and will pretty much read anything she writes. A more obvious answer that is nonetheless true includes Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.

But 2020 is a killer year for forthcoming poetry collections. I am very excited to read Danez Smith’s Homie and of course, fellow press mate Jenny Zhang’s new book of poems, My Baby First Birthday. I think Taylor Johnson’s Inheritance, coming out this fall with Alice James Books, is going to be gorgeous. I’m also excited about Ariel Francisco’s new book from Burrow Press, A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship, about climate change and Miami.

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Photograph of Megan Fernandes by Rivkah Gevinson.


Hannah Grieco is a writer and advocate in Arlington, VA. She is the CNF editor for JMWW, the fiction editor for Porcupine Literary, and the founder and organizer of the monthly reading series Readings on the Pike. Find her online at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter at @writesloud. More from this author →