B.H. Fairchild is the author of six books of poetry, including Local Knowledge, The Art of the Lathe, and Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. He has won numerous honors and awards for his poems, including an NEA Fellowship, the William Carlos Williams Award, and the California Book Award. Fairchild will be reading his poetry at Santa Barbara City College on Friday, November 30. He spoke with me by phone earlier this month from his home in Claremont.
Imagine a reader flipping through an Indy and coming across your name. What might they recognize you for? Well, there seem to be quite a few people out there who have said that they’ve read “Body and Soul” or their friend has showed them “Body and Soul” [a widely reprinted poem about Mickey Mantle]. So if they know me at all they might look at it and say, “Oh, that’s the guy who wrote ‘Body and Soul.’”
What would you want them to recognize you for? I have no idea.
Recognition isn’t something you spend a lot of time fantasizing about? Well, no, I mean, I think that’s probably common with poets. It’s hard for me to imagine that any poet out there thinks of himself or herself as being an object of recognition. Poetry is almost synonymous with obscurity. [Fairchild has received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, which comes with a $100,000 prize, an amount almost unheard of in poetry. He has also won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry.]
Actually, one of the adjectives I’d use for your work is “accessible.” That has come up in interviews before. Let’s just say that I don’t write poems to be inaccessible on purpose, the way that some poets seem to do.
Another description I’d use would be “emotionally intense.” I think that does match my work, but it seems like there is the assumption that if poems are emotionally intense for the reader, then the writer must have been emotionally intense when he wrote it. That’s not the way it is at all. I don’t think you have to be feeling great emotion when you’re writing, if you get the subject right, and if you can get your ego out of the way. The more you attend to the craft of the poem-the more you let yourself be overtaken by that-the less you think about emotion or feeling at all; paradoxically, the poem is much more likely to unveil or release intense emotion.
What will you be reading when you come to Santa Barbara? Oh, I don’t know. I can say generally that I’ve found that lyric poems have more of a tendency than any other kind of poem to just float over the listener’s head when you are reading. There’s just a lot that even really good listeners can miss in a poem. But everybody knows how to listen to stories, so my usual practice is to read quite a few narrative poems, and so I’ll do that. I’ll probably read a narrative poem called “Rave On,” which is in Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. I’ll read some poems from the new manuscript, including “Frieda Pushnik,” which is about a very interesting woman who used to appear in what were called-I’m ashamed to use this term-freak shows. You know, in circuses. She died in L.A. a few years ago. I’ve read it maybe six or seven times for readings, and I’d like to read it at least once without my voice breaking in the last line.
Anything else? I don’t want to commit myself to reading other poems, because what happens is that when you get in the room, you start getting vibes off of people or from ghosts passing through or something like that, and almost always, I’ll end up changing my reading list a little.
You get inspired? I don’t know if it’s inspiration. (Laughs.) It could be fear.
B.H. Fairchild will deliver a free, public poetry reading at Santa Barbara City College on Friday, November 30, at 8 p.m. in the Fe Bland Forum on the college’s West Campus. For more information, call 965-0581 x2345.