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Ins and/or Outs: A Conversation with Tracy Fuad

By Henry Goldkamp

 

Henry Goldkamp: Your first book, DAD DAD DAD DAD DAD DAD DAD (TxtBooks, 2019), wittily explores all things “dad,” using him—that over-sung, New-Balanced suburban unit—as a sounding board for a multitude of shortcomings inherent to American Patriarchy. The book is so damn “dad” that anything “mom” is notably absent.

So let’s start with an important craft question: What’s the difference between a dad joke and a mom joke? Your book is a rare find in the sense that it is both dead serious and hilarious. Would you call DAD an underhanded yet principled dad joke? A dad joke written from the mom joke lens? Are all dad/mom jokes lowkey high-minded?

Tracy Fuad: Actually, DAD DAD DAD DAD DAD DAD DAD really is sort of dad joke. I’m glad someone finally got it. I wrote DAD all in one burst while I was also editing my poetry thesis, which lies at the intersection of performance and jumping through hoops. Trying to make something in the mold of what I imagined an imagined audience would want. This yearning and grooming and squeezing, like dressing my poems up for poem prom. DAD was the antithesis of this. I mean, an anti-thesis in caps lock. It takes up more space than it needs—its true form, I always thought, was this huge binder clipped stack of 11×17 paper, just insisting on existing and not fitting on a book shelf. But I love the book-object that TxtBooks designed, too.

A dad joke is sort of synonymous with a bad joke, but its moniker isn’t an accident: “dad,” here, stands in for a white man of a certain age and position, the archetypal TV dad who cracks bad jokes without any fear of rejection. Anyone can make a bad joke, but it’s a dad joke when it’s told with the blunt confidence of someone who lives without systemic marginalization dogging them.

My poet friends love dad jokes, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence either; dad jokes are usually also playing on the multiple meanings of a word, or of syntax, or sound. (I like telling my father dad jokes. Sometimes he laughs!) So they have this attention to language, its slipperiness (So a vowel saves another vowel’s life. The other vowel says, “Aye E! I owe you!”), which is not entirely unlike poetry! They both are sort of displacing the reliability of words, of language, which is also maybe why they annoy so many people, including, sometimes, myself.

Dad jokes are not the same thing as mom jokes! I like to use image search engines as a barometer, and if you search “dad joke,” you get a bunch of stylized images of winking men with bowties. If you search “mom joke,” you get memes with maternal insults, which are basically just distilled misogyny. What does it say about humans that insulting someone’s mother is a universal insult? So while “dad jokes” are told by dads, “mom jokes” are told about moms in this way that from an early age really instills all the ways it is unacceptable to be a woman.

With DAD, I wanted to get at the heart of everything else I’d been thinking, reading, and trying to say in my poetry, but with everything stripped away, and no trace of the voice I sometimes felt I needed to adopt. So it was sort of a joke, but also deadly serious. It also deals with this overwhelming hurt I carry about bodies and sexuality and conformity and the difficulty of escaping from the patriarchy we live in, however disguised it is as something else. I also wrote a manuscript called mom mom mom mom mom mom mom, in the same voice, which mostly consists of a hyper-realistic account of getting a bikini wax on International Women’s Day, and ended up feeling pretty bleak.

My first poetry mentor was a sort of father figure to me. I think everyone has a natural craving for affirmation from authority figures, which often appear as maternal and paternal. But ultimately the people most important to me are my peers and friends, who are so talented and inspiring. Siblings, if we want to go with the family metaphor. I think it’s apt for a discussion about DAD. It’s easy to get caught up in the pull of the algorithmically like-driven poetry-industrial complex, but it just takes me so far from the source! I prefer to share what I’m reading and thinking with a few close friends one-on-one.

Goldkamp: Ah, yes, the “algorithmically like-driven poetry-industrial complex”—the nightmare braying outside the experimental poem-camp. I think you certainly buck the equational drone with DAD’s innovative layout. After all, it’s a 112-page poem in massive font, that, if traditionally formatted, would fit in a Word .doc of two pages. It sort of out-internets the internet via its book-form container, yet smacks of all the meme-seasoning and bingo-bango lingo of a grill- and webmaster, if you’ll allow me my mixed drink metaphor…

Fuad: It’s healthy to poke at medium from time to time. Writing long pre-dated the book. Before the codex was the scroll and before paper (made from the pith of the papyrus plant!), there were tablets of wax or clay. I recently wrote a poem called “I wanna be a luddite,” but in fact, I was basically born with a mouse in my hand—I was born the same month and year as the world wide web. My dad bought http://www.fuad.com soon after domains went for sale (before that, they were free). “Domains”—rule, power, property…

I also am interested in the evolution of the web page (modeled after the paper page): in scrolling, in flipping, in clicking “next,” in the autoplay (the self-turning page) of the most addictive platforms.  I’m not calling the death of the book or anything at all in that vein; I just think it’s fun to push at it.

Goldkamp: Your dad’s domain name, for whatever reason, each time I click its link, is in a constant state of loading in my browser. The tab contains its lolling circle, continuously chasing its loom. The ouroboros of the new millennium, really. In this sort of clickable hypnosis, I can’t help but consider how those thousands of years between the eras of our search engines and the ancient Egyptians’ scroll are daisy-chained along the same track. Yet, somewhere along this paper trail, tangibility went by the wayside: you can’t crumple a webpage, you can’t rub abrasive cleansers on your “desktop.”

We think of a papyrus scrolls as rare objects, sacred texts—which they often are, today—yet in their heyday, those basic reeds were a staple commodity in ancient Egypt. They weren’t used only for writing material, but for food, medicine, clothing, ritual, rope, and even boats. Basically, ancient “content.”

Now, our epoch’s version—the sticky-icky world wide web—has been transmogrified into similar, but metaphorical, objects: the foods, medicines, fashions, ceremonies, and crafts of ideas. And yet, somehow “content,” which is to say the tenor of all media, has been trivialized into something often associated with cacophonic boredom: an “endless” scroll. Funny, because you’d think something endless, and therefore infinite, would be endlessly engaging!

There’s something about DAD that feels like it comes from a place of boredom—not necessarily in the oft-quoted Berryman way (“Life, friends…”) but more in the vein of Chelsey Minnis’s response (“Well, be bored then.”). That is to say, a place of opportunity, a springboard for the bored! Certainly the world, in its ubiquitous pandemical state, is talking boredom in all of its forms: depression and high anxiety; sedentariness and entropy; lulls and lolz. So, given this opportunity, who have you been singing kumbaya with lately? As you said, we do have our “siblings.”

Fuad: Definitely a product of boredom times anxiety times feeling caged. I am interested to see not only what social changes this period of collective quarantine will bring, but what new forms it produces. I was really fixated on what a poetics of boredom might be, before I left New York. Of this sort of bored state of mild annoyance.

I don’t know the extent to which it’s personal to me or if it’s generational, a product of fractured and commoditized attention, the din of so much content, or malignant surveillance, or really just the constant overhang of climate apocalypse—but even before the dawn of the global pandemic I felt this frenetic uncertainty that seemed to be constantly breaking over me, or breaking the day or my mind into small pieces.

I am not sure if boredom is being inside the thing—for me, it feels like being outside of it. A product of dis-interest and dis-placement; of detachment. These forces are really rife and sometimes they hound me. And yes, these can appear as the opposite of awe, of overflow, or that certain, suddenly palpable attention, or condensation or crystallization that is often associated with poetry.

But I’m not completely satisfied with that dichotomy.

For about a year, after I finished my MFA, I lived in a small town in Iraqi Kurdistan. My room looked out over a field between two mountains. Days were very expansive; there were very few demands on my time and nowhere to go except up the mountain or on a walk. I didn’t really speak or understand the language, so I was so much inside myself at all times. An abundance of ripe mornings and afternoons.

Goldkamp: And, by your account, to be “inside yourself,” is to say: anti-bored, engaged, alive even. I imagine any origin must be a place of anti-boredom, for it is a source of creation. Actually, to go full ouroboros, Kurdistan is the region where most contemporary linguists believe the idea of writing itself—at its very root, a visual transference of sound—originated from!

Of course, every source succumbs to deterioration, fissures, faultlines.

I think the fragmentation you discuss is especially apparent in your two most recent chapbooks. PITH (winner of the Gloria Anzaldúa Prize from Newfound Press) and Imagined State (winner of the Baltic Writing Residency contest, forthcoming) both witness a kind of poetical offal in the process of learning the Kurdish language. For the typical English reader, even the act of simply engaging in the right-to-left reading of Kurdish acts as a kind of experiment. In the poem “[WITHOUT FURTHER MEANING],” you reel the reader into that experience:

Fuad: Yeah, exactly: the reversal in directionality is disorienting, because it’s such a foundational concept of the West: orderly, chronological, left-to-right progression.

This poem is actually written in boustrophedon, which means “written as the plow turns.” Ancient texts were sometimes written this way. It seems that directionality of script wasn’t so fixed: ancient texts were written this way in Greece and elsewhere. Learning a language in which the script reads in a different direction reveals this false but deep belief in the fundamentality of directionality. Boustrophedon didn’t really take off, but if records of it have lasted until today, it had to have been pretty prevalent. I like to think about an alternate reality in which writing alternates directions instead of remaining fixed. When I was small, I used to practice writing backwards when I was bored in class.

Goldkamp: A fitting metaphor for the experimental: something “used to practice when bored in class.” Turning up the Bunsen burner under the beaker (bleaker?) of dry ice. Then I’m thinking, too, of Lauterbach (in her touchstone essay on the “experimental”), who has this to say on the dichotomy of artistic temperatures:

I think perhaps science undertakes cool experiments and art undertakes hot experiments.

By “hot,” I mean the kinds of formal discoveries that serve affective or spiritual needs; when the affective space is averted, the result is often experimentation for its own sake, self-conscious and self-referential, the aesthetic equivalent of narcissism.

And from your title poem, “PITH”:

I can’t say it any other way, sometimes the words are better hot.

I love this line, how chockfull the seemingly simple word “hot” is, which conflagrates into every meaning possible, especially at its helm of the final poem of the book: language not only as fated, but as food, as potentially harmful, as new, as nourishment. As another of your poems puts it in Imagined State: “To be hot with song.”

Fuad: I wrote PITH and Imagined State while I was learning a new language “in the wild”—people obviously learn new languages all the time, but usually in either a classroom or out of demand, necessity, need. I learned the way a baby learns: by babbling, met largely with delight and encouragement and lots of patience. I got to just wade in with a dictionary and a few kids’ books and a generous community. I’m very indebted.

Ann Lauterbach writes about the shared root of “experience” and “experiment” in the same essay: “they are the flora of experiri, to try, and related to periculum, which includes the ideas of both attempt and peril.

Language is always an experiment. Trying out sounds, sounding out words, testing word combinations. There is an element of play. There is, of course, a potentially harmful element of consumption, of eating the words, of sating myself on a language that isn’t mine, arriving to a language from a position of power: English is the language of dominance, colonialization. I am aware of the fact that I wouldn’t have had the same experience if I was a Kurdish speaker learning English.

When I was writing, I was thinking about this loosening and unraveling of language, this “rewilding” that I experienced in that period, words unhinged from sentences, single words as anchor, the mess I was making, the sheer joy of saying something and being understood, or of understanding. I was interested in the brutal primacy of language reduced to purpose, rule, sound, rhyme, shape; finding where it lets me in and where it leaves me on the outside. It was, every day, a sort of semiotic epiphany to be able to able to point to an object and name it, newly. And to make mistakes. Fragments, mess, misunderstanding. “Cow” sounds like “moon” in Kurdish. “Plant” sounds like “soul.” I used to always say I was selling things at the market instead of buying them. Delight, but also sometimes terror. Freefall.

Goldkamp: As a new dad to an eighteen-month-old toddler, I get to witness this linguistic freefall every day. Last week, he was screaming into the corner of our dining room, with a very sour look on his face. Upon closer inspection, I saw he was in no real distress whatsoever, but rather was experimenting with distress—its sounds, expressions, body language. Watching him learn this way, I couldn’t help but think of my favorite poems, realizing I am often drawn to this exact poetic stance. The page as a dining room you can totally trash and act wild in, or tidy up and groom and pick out all the nits and ticks (as all three of your books very much attest to).

Likewise, when my son hands me an object, say, a toy banana: I say, “thank you,” and he gestures for me to hand it back—and then another handing back, another “thank you”—another handing back—“oh, thank you; oh, thank you; oh, thank you….” Each time it is different, is generating another meaning or facet. Basically, we are hot with song!

Fuad: And I think “hot with song” is a gesture toward describing that state, hot as in vibration at the atomic level, the music of that primordial activation of what it means to speak and to understand.

Goldkamp: But the primordial nature must be sought, named. All three of your books engage in many so-called found poems. The self-explanatory “Sample Sentences from the Searchable Kurdish Dictionary,” etymologies, “wordboxes” of learned vocabulary, a narrative sequence of practice sentences, Google Translate experiments, click-bait ads, Yelp review fragments:

I say “so-called” found poems because I’m not fond of the usage of “found” here. No longer the objet trouvé of chance, the term “found object” now implicitly undermines creative work. In any successful “found” poem, there is serious craft involved. What is your process of “finding” a poem—where to look, how to “lift” the materials, how to determine brick from bric-a-brac?

Fuad: A capitalist society values invention, individuality, novelty, newness over what is recycled, reused, repurposed. I think I am more interested in poetics as a sort of uncovering, an excavation or drawing out rather than the building of new monuments. I often find myself quoting when I write, something I read or heard someone say that became lodged in my head, which I return to obsessively. The root of “attention” is the Latin tendere, to stretch or pull. The series at the heart of PITH is entirely composed of sentences from an English grammar book that came to me in Kurdistan. Pulled from the book. I became hypnotized by its language, which seemed to contain some fundamental buried essence—something at the core of the idiomatic, automatic language that is usually invisible. There was so much coded, too, about gender and terror and violence and war. Of course there was. I spent hours and hours over months reading and re-writing, and arranging and rearranging. Sometimes I feel I am an “arranger” more than a poet. More like I am bidden to the language, rather than the language to me. A re-arranging. Kurdish is an SOV language, subject-object-verb, not SVO like English; it took me forever to break this habit. This drumbeat of SVO, which is a good indicator of how fundamental that is to our encoding of the world through language. Deranging. I to the mountains go.

Goldkamp: In both PITH and Imagined State, the concept of verbal tenses comes into play frequently. Grammatical tense is certainly a poet’s word: the inherent tensions between past, present, future. Perfections, imperfections.

Fuad: “Tense” shares an etymology with “attention.” To pull or be pulled through time. (It also shares a root with “content”—to stretch with—and with “contain”!) So again, we return to the Proto-Indo-European root ten-, to stretch. On book, or poem, as container. Is there anything more tender than something that holds?

On tense: I’m not a linguist but I am fascinated with how we code time in language. Tense contains time, I suppose, or it stretches it. I learned a lot about English by teaching it. One’s own language is so often invisible until you find yourself needing to explain the nuanced difference between “I will go to the mountain,” “I am going to the mountain,” “I will be going to the mountain.” There is no future tense in Kurdish; it’s the same as present tense. I think about that, too, how Western society is so predicated on ensuring an ever-greater future. On insuring it—managing the risk of owning something of value, protecting against potential future loss and damage.

I also like to think about continuous versus discrete time: the differentiation between ongoingness and completed actions, and also that we use the same tense for completed past actions and for habitual actions, like there is a fixity to habit. And that we use present continuous to denote the future, as if, by conceiving of the future, the future seeps into the present. I am going to the mountain today. This codes for future, but also for a going-to-the-mountain-ness imbuing the day with the future.

Goldkamp: This calls to mind the limbo described in your Ariana Reines portion of DAD:

LIKE THAT POEM BY THAT POET

WHO IS REALLY HOT WHAT IS HER NAME THE HOT ONE WHO WROTE THE BRILLIANT THING

ARIANA REINES

SO HOT AND BRILLIANT

SHE WAS LIKE

I STILL DON’T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK TO MY FATHER

WHO HERE KNOWS HOW TO SPEAK ENGLISH

THAT’S THE POEM

I READ IT BEFORE IT WAS PUBLISHED BUT WHEN IT WAS ABOUT TO BE PUBLISHED

SO IT WAS ALL POTENTIAL ENERGY BUT ALSO NOT REALLY IN EXISTENCE

BECAUSE IN BETWEEN=NOWHERE

An exciting question you’re raising: as poets, do our poems already exist? The interim: our brain-hearts of lighter fluid wait for a spark. Or, more appropriately, a radio seeking reception. In A Sand Book, Reines talks about something like this in her preface to the collection’s final poem, “MOSAIC” (“the part of my head I sometimes call ‘my antenna’”). You mention something similar in Imagined State (“The dimensions of the head make it a fairly good antenna”). I, too, put faith in the poetry antenna (as do innumerable poets of the past, present, and future), but I vary from day to day as to what exactly this means/receives. Is it innate talent (says Levertov)? Something not of this world (as many have said of Akhmatova)? Or, something extremely invested in this world (via Bernstein’s curation of Close Listening)? Something ancestral, primordial (as in Notley’s Descent of Alette and, more recently, Hsiung’s You & Me Forever)?

Fuad: When I am inside a poem, and especially inside a poem, I am constructing from fragments or pieces of found sources, I do get a sense of uncovering or revealing the ancestral, primordial, elemental core of something that has been buried. The pith. Or that’s what I aim to do, at least.

Notley’s fragmented, bracketed “language packets” in Descent always give to me the impression of a mythological story pieced together, something composed of shards from an ancient, shattered tablet. At the same time, there is something utterly alien about the primordial. And human! I think it is all of those, but usually not at once, though I often find that one is the door into another.

Sometimes poetry succeeds by turning the granular of-this-world into the alien, or the opposite: bringing what is alien into—I don’t want to say into focus but bringing it near, maybe at arm’s length, if still ungraspable. Or displacing the familiar. Or placing the unfamiliar, giving shape and form to it. An invitation to go inside of something, or rather, to come outside of something.

Human, alien, robot: we used to play this game in workshop with Cathy Park Hong, assigning ourselves as robot aliens, or alien humans, or human robots. I am either a human alien or alien human; I think it changes. Robot, maybe, is the necessary crafting, the mechanical and rote, which I think is more important than “talent” and arises out of habit, practice; of doing. If you’ve ever watched someone milk a cow and then tried to do it yourself, you will feel useless. I am in the process of finding appreciation for what repeats, is repeated, is repeated until a sort of smooth fluidity of habit arises. Like the special quality of the line drawn by a drawer or the flat bread formed by the baker.

When I wait to buy my stack of bread here, flat bread stretched (stretched!) and tossed (thrown!) on the walls of a big stone and wood furnace and then retrieved with long tongs, I sometimes enter this sort of humming trance state watching the hands of the baker. I am trying to incorporate this into my own practice.

“Habit” comes from the French word for “fold,” which can connote either a giving in (a folding to) but also the forming of a crease, the gentle incorporation of a dense batter into the fluffy meringue. In other words, it gives shape. Or allows substance to meet. Isn’t this the way out of alienation and estrangement? I am always looking for that door, and sometimes I find it in poetry.

 

Henry Goldkamp has work published in Denver Quarterly, South Carolina Review, DIAGRAM, Notre Dame Review, Indiana Review, Barrow Street, and CutBank, among other journals. He is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and serves as a poetry reader for The Adroit Journal. His public art projects have been covered by Time and NPR. He lives in New Orleans

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