Faculty Profile: Showing Up to the Party—A Conversation with Kathy Fagan on Poetry

April 29, 2019

From my walks between my two homes, south campus and Denney Hall, I’ve become accustomed to the dynamic green of the Oval as it shifts with the seasons. Now, in April, we witness the emerald conversion from winter as verdant spring crawls from grasses to branches. Maybe this springtime reorientation is why we laud April as National Poetry Month, a celebration of the language of renewal.

Poetry transformed my daily walk to Denney. On the north side of the Oval near Derby and Hopkins Halls stands a sycamore. Its peeling, motley bark of gray, white and brown has always made the sycamore unmistakable in my eyes. But after I read Kathy Fagan’s Sycamore last spring, this tree was reshaped by her words: “Sycamore. Sick amour. Seek no more.”

When I ask what’s running through her mind when she’s leading her poetry workshops, Professor and Director of Creative Writing Kathy Fagan immediately replies, “I’m terrified.” Still, after almost three decades of teaching generations of students, giving poetry readings and being the kind, charismatic face behind purple-framed glasses that we in the department can’t help but be in awe of, Fagan admits that she’s naturally shy when speaking in front of people.

Yet with calm confidence and earnest sensing, Fagan sifts through verses, line break by line break, and coolly ignites conversation among her students. As a student in her Advanced Poetry workshop orates their work, fellow classmates follow Fagan’s lead, meticulously deciphering and appreciating each sound articulated by the burgeoning poet. Fagan’s natural adroitness with verse saturates the room so every student soaks up drops of poetic prowess each week.

Sitting in class, one may not always realize they are one of only a handful of students getting an education from one of the nation’s most acclaimed poets. Understandable because Fagan, whose Sycamore (Milkweed Editions, 2017) was lauded a finalist for the lucrative 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, bears homey and humble magnetism wherever she is.

“I was that little kid making up stories,” Fagan tells me, recollecting how she always wanted to be a writer. Although nowadays she admits to staying away from anything linear. “I’m not much for beginnings and endings and middles. I’m annoying in movies—definitely not a plot person.” What she says she lacks in narrative, she more than makes up for in verse, evident as she stands at the top of her game, thirty-four years and four books since her debut collection The Raft (Dutton, 1985).

In an interview with the Kenyon Review, Fagan shares that the scope from which she gathers material has evolved since she began writing over thirty years ago: “I [also] cast a wider net in terms of influences: lots of different kinds of writing enter my poems, but other arts, experiences and stimuli as well.”

We see the fruits of her evolving inspirations within the alabaster landscape of snow-mottled trees that binds Fagan’s latest collection Sycamore. Intertextuality imbues poem after poem. Take “Cinder,” in the aftermath of the demolition video “Disquieting Landscapes” by Ciprien Gaillard, or “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” which follows Christopher Howell’s poem “He Writes to the Soul.” Within these pages are dialogues across time and mechanism.

A miniaturist, Fagan calls herself; the one to notice when you change your glasses. “I like the little things, the way they accumulate.” She pulls from sources across all genres and modes, gluing fragments that only the keenest eye can notice, let alone make whole. Accordingly, her mantra for writing is Pay Attention. “Look. Listen. Be present,” she urges.

In Sycamore, images of time’s process—creation, decay, change—manifest on the pages. Sycamore bark curling apart: “It is the season of separation & falling / Away.” Cottonwood pollen, fresh and fertile, falling like dead winter snow and ash. I asked what inspires such familiar yet occult, pastoral yet unearthly verse—i.e. what inspires her. This, too, has metamorphosed.

“When I was younger, that was a question I couldn’t answer. But I did answer when asked, just not honestly. Now I know. It’s the people I talk to everyday. The global, political and ecological news. The birds and feeder. I’m amazed at the breathe-in-breathe out stuff. That people try so hard for themselves and their kids. Everything is complicated and worthy for poetry. I love the messy, the beautiful, the complex, the sad and the joyful.”

Ever ranging in her own tenor, Fagan strings together these everyday details with sophisticated variety. Prose and verse; traditional and exploratory; long and short; lyric and narrative; and everything unnamed and in-between—she’s dabbled in, if not mastered, it. “I’m most proud that I’ve tried everything,” Fagan declares, after a pause. “All different kinds of poems, ones that I thought were impossible to read. Because it’s hard to challenge yourself, but I truly do try everything.”

In the classroom this same philosophy permeates how Fagan carries herself around students. Viewing them as companions—scholars to learn with rather than students to teach to—Fagan cultivates an environment that reminds students that they work within a great terrain for writing, flourishing with innovative techniques, unexplored inspiration and ever-green ensemble of fellow writers ready to guide them.

But it’s difficult for writers just starting out to realize that they are already part of a community. It’s too easy to think that one needs to work one’s way up the ladder, alone, to deem oneself worthy of a place among “real” artists. To combat this detrimental intuition, Fagan takes on the role as matchmaker, setting up students on dates with poems or poets that resemble a particular subject, structure or voice a student features in their work.

I asked her how she so readily spouts recommendations. Simple: “Read everything,” she replies. “From authors who are thirty years younger than I am to those that have been long dead.” Her inbox floods with poem-a-day subscriptions from the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation. In itself, this exposure to material propels Fagan to advance as a writer and teacher. “I read different poetry types and ask wow, how did they do that?  Then I deconstruct it—try to figure it out and put it back together.” This straightforward yet fastidious task dictates what poetry prompts Fagan assigns her students. By doing so, Fagan gives her students the opportunity to experiment with different forms and make them their own.

As a writer, you need to seek out challenges, always. Writers need to have commitment and the ability to take joy in the work, because that’s what it takes to survive in this field, Fagan says. “The biggest thing I want my students to take away from my teaching is to not be apathetic. Poets are creators: we care what we do. You need to think what is at stake for me?  and realize your work is worthwhile.”

Fagan is ardent when commending her young writers. She absolutely adores them.

“I’m teaching students who are willing to take risks,” praises Fagan. “They bring everything they’ve got because that’s what it takes to do this weird thing we’re doing. I just like being around them. They teach me things, bring me into conversations I otherwise would not have. Without them, I would have a much lonelier life,” she says.

This dynamism between student and teacher fuels Fagan’s teaching and writing, alike. One of the founders of Ohio State’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, Fagan stressed that a mentorship component be engrained in the curriculum. This in turn has built the MFA program to be a powerful, extensive circle of writers able to talk about poems and about life with one another.

Invigorated by Fagan’s sincerity and enthusiasm for her writing and her fellow writers, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Fagan closed our interview by comparing what she does to a party. “Last year I heard a piece of advice from a peer, a historical nonfiction writer: Keep showing up to the party. When you don’t immediately find success, don’t quit. Keep bringing what you have to the table. You have to keep showing up to your own party in your life, in your writing and in your community.”

By Madalynn Conkle