To Account for a Life: Talking with Jameson Fitzpatrick

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The line between poet and speaker is often blurred. Jameson Fitzpatrick’s first full-length collection of poetry, Pricks in the Tapestry, experiments with this common confessional and lyrical misconception, allowing the poet to create a hall of mirrors that reflect many modes of a self. In Fitzpatrick’s previous chapbooks, Mr. & (Indolent Books, 2018) and Morrisroe: Erasures (89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014), the first-person is used in narrative and formal techniques that guide the reading away from autobiography, projecting a distinctive set of voices that should be read as certainly not the poet’s own. Pricks in the Tapestry entertains that impulse with lines like “Everything that happens in the poem happens to me but the me is not me.”

The first-person becomes a formal device all its own that allows the speakers their own set of individualities, yet by collection’s end, they begin to be heard in concert, using they/them in a collective and singular sense. Together, the speakers compose a self-portrait reflected back, the “I” becoming most distinctively singular when viewed from countless strands within the fray. Fitzpatrick allows history to be questioned here as the speakers’ become less afraid of what they might say. There are phantoms in the book—phantoms of queer history, queer poetry, and the phantoms one encounters interrogating the experience of daily life. The questions being asked are already answered, and so, with Fitzpatrick as our guide, we peek behind the thick curtain history has crafted.

Fitzpatrick’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2017, Poetry, the New Yorker, and elsewhere. A 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in Poetry, they live in New York City and teach at New York University. Pricks in the Tapestry was published by Birds LLC in June 2020.

I spoke with Jameson via Zoom about how the book came to be, what grammar might do in a poem, and the capital “P” Poet’s conflated self.

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The Rumpus: The poems in Pricks in the Tapestry were written in the last few years, and they vary in form and the speakers’ point of view throughout the collection.  When you sat down to compile the manuscript, were you looking for poems that fit a specific criteria?

Jameson Fitzpatrick: I have said this, and I feel like it doesn’t sound true, and I’m acknowledging that, but I didn’t set out to write this book in particular. I’d written a book that was basically my thesis from grad school and which I really wanted to have published. I sent it around a ton. Then I started writing things that I knew that I couldn’t add to that.

Most of this book I wrote between 2015 and 2017. There are a few poems that are more recent, but I would say it was by 2017 when I kind of looked back and was like, Oh, these poems I’ve been writing, not with any sort of larger arc or intention in mind, are sort of a piece. And that was when I started to go, Hmm, maybe there is a book here that is distinct from this other one that I’ve been preoccupied with. A lot of that was sort of doing things that I just hadn’t done before, writing about things I hadn’t written about before. I really resisted writing about childhood when I was in grad school, and not because that wasn’t encouraged in grad school. I think one of the lyric poem’s favorite purviews might be childhood, but in a way that I think I was kind of bored by. I was like, I get it, my childhood determines all these like problems I have as an adult. Who cares? But I guess I did have things to say! I began writing these poems that were about things other than love, and were a bit more situated in the world, I think, as opposed to existing in this compressed lyric vacuum. Although there’s some of those in here, too.

Rumpus: Some of the poems in the collection do explore love, but the central themes of Pricks explore the speakers’ familial and communal history. Was there a poem that acted as the collection’s prompt?

Fitzpatrick: Maybe not surprisingly, but to me it’s surprising, the two poems that felt like breakthroughs for form or subject matter didn’t end up in this book. They were in an early version of the manuscript, but I decided that they both did things that other, later poems did better. These were really meaningful poems to me as someone who wrote them, but I don’t know that they needed to be in the book.

Really the only old poem in here is “The Tuck,” which was a part of a long sequence I wrote in Eileen Myles’s craft class at NYU. They were teaching a class on long poems. I abandoned the rest of the project, but that one piece I thought might fit in this other, new thing (what became Pricks in the Tapestry). But I was already writing it at that point!

Rumpus: Speaking of long sequences, there are a few in the book. Can you tell me about how you approach narrative, and when you saw Pricks in the Tapestry’s narrative begin to take shape?

Fitzpatrick: I am, for better or worse, a narrative thinker who has, with time, become skeptical of straightforwardly narrative forms, like, Here’s a moment from my childhood that contains everything else. I’m drawn to lists; there are many poems in the book I think you could consider “list poems.” And even more that contain lists within them, even if the list isn’t their organizing principle. I’m drawn to lists because they are, in a sense, inherently narrative—insofar as they are a method of accounting, sequentially—but also necessarily multiple.

I didn’t set out to build a unified narrative, or a book, really, when I was writing these poems. But at a certain point I realized that the poems I had been writing shared a common impulse: to account for a life and its preoccupying questions, troubles, pains.

Rumpus: What else started to become clear to you as you were writing and compiling the manuscript?

Fitzpatrick: I think that it became clear to me that the poems were interested in the various forces that produce a self, or the various expressions of the self. It’s not just the desiring-self, but also the self as a political subject. It’s not just the self that has been harmed, but also the self capable of harm. I was interested not in any one vector, but in trying to refuse any one story about the “I” of the poems in favor of thinking about the different ways that the “I” might be understood. And again, that wasn’t what I set out to do, but as I began to look at them, that’s definitely something that I saw, the self as existing in the world.

There are lyric forms that I think you can block and put in a very different book in here. My first manuscript was all love poems, and basically, it was just: “I” and third-person man, or “I” and “you.” Anybody could be the speaker of those poems. Okay, maybe not anybody, but someone unmarked by the things that mark us in the world. I was interested in trying to let more of that in when I was writing.

Rumpus: The “I” is used in the book to vacillate between many points of view. Can you tell me about the grammatical role point of view plays in the collection?

Fitzpatrick: I’m obviously super attached to the “I,” and I think they’re good poems in [the book] in spite of that fact, but definitely if you’re a reader of poetry, who’s like, The first person is overused and poets today are narcissists, I would imagine that reader would not love my poems.

“The Poem They Didn’t Write” comes to my mind as the poem that’s most explicitly engaging with point of view. One of the things that my friend Diana Hamilton—who’s mentioned in that poem—does in her own work and had recommended to me when I was working on some unrelated writing projects that I was stuck on was just to try to write it in the third person, even if a sense of the what’s being described is an experience one has had in the first person. I think one thing the poem— the capital “P” poem— can do is create a pocket in space, or an alternate reality, however small. Since writing that poem, I have actually started using they/them as pronouns, but that wasn’t true when I wrote that poem. I had a bunch of versions that were in the first person and I was like, I can’t figure something out. And then I was like, What if I let the person who’s experienced this poem be for a day? Suddenly, I could write it.

Rumpus: That poem forges a new relationship to the first person. In the book, you state the speakers’ “I” is not your own. In earlier works, persona and erasure help the reader avoid that assumption altogether, but in Pricks in the Tapestry, with its more lyrical and confessional forms, why continue to renounce the “I”?

Fitzpatrick: I wouldn’t renounce the “I” of the poems. Something I’ve said was that they are me, but they’re also fixed in time. They’re not reflections per se, but I think the other thing particular, in this case, to the lyric is that poems are too small to show the full or the accurate complexity of the person speaking, or the life of the person speaking. It’s not that I don’t think that poems often accurately show something; it’s just that mistaking any partial glimpse for the whole picture, I think, is an error. It’s like metonymy, right? I want to invite people not to lean into that assumption, not because I don’t think that I do that thing, but I don’t think you know something profound or total about me because of two-and-a-half pages of text.

Rumpus: Asking readers to forfeit preconceived ideas about confessional and lyrical traditions is part of your appeal as a poet. Another technique I noticed is writing into poems’ negative potential. Once you found yourself writing in a negated lens, what made you continue?

Fitzpatrick: The first one was “Poem in Which Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me.” There were two things that created that poem. In grad school I did feel a certain imperative to write into trauma. I just felt like there was this desire from editors and publishers to find traumatized people willing to turn their trauma into art. There was a real investment in that, which I really resisted. It felt really bad to me.

Then the other reason why that negative came to me was because I really didn’t want to write about a lot of the things that I ended up writing about in that poem. It was a very difficult poem for me to write. I didn’t find it cathartic or like, Oh this is so therapeutic! It did feel like maybe it was easier to say it that way. And then obviously something about that worked for me, but that poem is cribbed straight from Olena Kalytiak Davis’s “The Poem She Didn’t Write,” from her book with the same title. As I narrate in the poem, my really good friend, Elisa Gonzalez, I told her I was stuck and tried all these attempts and she asked is there a poem that has some kind of structure, or some kind of device that you might be able to like borrow for this time you can’t write? And I was like, “The Poem She Didn’t Write”! Our poems are not that similar. Davis’s poem uses a less clear narration than my poem does, but once I found that title, and that repeated failure became the engine of the poem, the rest followed.

Rumpus: This makes me wonder, and it’s a question more about poetry in general and our tendencies to self-reinvent in reality and in the poem. The question is, is self-reinvention in service of poetry, or is it perhaps a harmful craft attribute?

Fitzpatrick: I don’t think I can speak broadly because I don’t know that all poets self-reinvent. I might think it does different things in different contexts. I hope it’s in service to this book, I do. Even though much of it is coming from the “I” so much of the book is sort of legibly confessional, I did want to resist serving up a tidy narrative of, I was wounded and then the wound healed and everything is better now. Or, I was implicated and then I saw that I was implicated and I was no longer implicated, you know? I think that one of the things that the reinvention serves to do, or served to do for me, was to evade any definitive version of experience.

Rumpus: Situated at the center of the book, “Roughly” explores Fire Island pines and the speaker’s relationship to a gay ancestry. You incorporate medical research and your own family history into an essay, narrative style. How was that writing process different?

Fitzpatrick: I started “Roughly” a long time before I finished. It was the last thing I finished in the book and I was racing against the deadline to finish it. I was interested in this sort of blank-dead-gay-uncle trope. I know so many people who have uncles who were gay men, many of whom died of AIDS, and depending on the particular families, there are varying levels of intimacy or access. Often I think it is a kind of similar question of, Who was this person who I have only heard the shape of? So many of the other poems [in the book] were about childhood, and this was another really huge part of growing up queer in my particular family.

It was the summer of 2016 and my mom found a box in our basement that had come from her mother, who died in 2012. Somehow, this box had never gotten opened, and there was all this stuff in it that felt like some kind of access point I had not been aware of before. The questions in the poem entered as an attempt to address this imagined version of my uncle. All of the question sections in “Roughly” are also a way of describing the present of the speaker, which is in Fire Island Pines, a place also super connected to gay history. There was an almost-complete version for a long time, but the final longer, scientific section was really hard. I wanted to write in such a way where I showed the non-expert contending with this scientific literature. I didn’t want to position myself as presenting the facts because I knew I was going to fuck it up. And the point is actually about this process in a number of different arenas, like, trying to figure out from stuff that is sort of beyond your comprehension. I feel like that’s as true of family history as it is of scientific literature.

The poem used to end in a different way, that I felt was a bit too pat, too easy. The mother’s voice in the poem dropped out, as it does in the latter half, and then didn’t really come back. I really wanted it to end with some kind of testament to the love between the speaker and the mother, which is where that concluding unscientific postscript came from, which is also in reference to Kierkegaard.

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Photograph of Jameson Fitzpatrick courtesy of Jameson Fitzpatrick.


Chris Stewart is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Dazed, Gayletter, Vulture, and more. You can follow him on Twitter at @_christewart. More from this author →