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10 Questions for Gregory Fraser

My son brings home a drawing from school my wife thinks looks
like four erect penises. I say they’re just very tall mushrooms.
Daddy dick, mommy dick, son dick, daughter dick, insists my wife.
She believes all boys see the world in terms of dicks. Half of me
agrees. The bottom half. The top consents to nothing.
from “Very Tall Mushrooms,” Spring 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 1)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
As an undergraduate, I wrote a poem about Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, and it appeared in the campus literary magazine. I was reading a lot of Wallace Stevens back then, and, naturally, his “The Man with the Blue Guitar” powerfully shaped my vision. The poem wasn’t the worst I have ever written. Rather, it was the worst anyone has ever written.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I write lots of kinds of poems, and I am a bundle of influences. I have tried my best to learn from the humor of David Kirby, the lushness of Derek Walcott, the poise of Rosanna Warren, the grace of Edward Hirsch, the narrative thrust of James Dickey, the understatement of Elizabeth Bishop, the wit of Mark Strand, the sass of Gwendolyn Brooks. And then there are all of the poets I read in translation—hundreds of them, really. I owe everything to these masters and mentors, and on some level, I feel as though I’ve failed them all. But for some dumb reason, I won’t give up. 

What did you want to be when you were young?
A marine biologist. I still wish that I could study the ocean for a living.

What inspired you to write this piece?
In April 2010, I became the father of twins (a girl and a boy), and everything from my sleep patterns to my poetic productions instantly changed. I became the primary caregiver of the children, since my wife worked long hours at a cancer center. I was forty-seven years old, these were my first kids, and I had no clue whatsoever how to be a good father.

All I remember from the first several months are my terrifying dreams. I saw the babies suffocating in their blankets, choking on their pacifiers. My nights were Dantean. Kafkaesque. Even my daydreams—dawn to noon to dusk—unfolded like the triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch. I was spent, dopey. And my time to work on poems had not just dwindled—it had disappeared. I began to think that I would never write again.

Gradually, though, I found my bearings. The kids stayed healthy and grew (they are seven now), and we settled into family life. Along the way, my poetic voice underwent changes.

I have always been a pretty “serious” poet. I took workshops and seminars in graduate school with poets of global power and reach—Derek Walcott and Adam Zagajewski, for example—figures of enormous stature who found ways to sculpt terror into beauty, horror into art. I loved their work as a student; I love it still. And it was under their “serious” sway that I wrote my first three collections. The poems in my fourth book, however, diverge from this serious approach by taking more comical angles—deploying humor as a way to touch on the often absurd facets of parenthood and childrearing. “Very Tall Mushrooms” emerges from this new tendency.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I co-run Convivio, a summer writing conference in Umbria, so Italy is especially present in my mind all year long. I also carry with me the beauty of the St. Lawrence River and the Florida gulf coast, where my family vacations. For the most part, though, my poems grow out of other poems—out of my reading. So the most accurate answer to the question may be, “My library.”

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
My editor asked me this question recently, because she wants me to create a playlist that will form part of the promotional efforts supporting my next collection of poems. I haven’t answered her yet, because I’m afraid that the truth will make the marketing crew at the press cringe with despair.  The simple fact is: my twins are learning piano, and I’m the parent who helps with their practice between lessons each week. I have scant musical training myself, so I’m scrambling to bone up on Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and so on. Basically, I listen only to sonatinas these days (does that sound sufficiently pretentious?), and I mostly have classical music on the stereo or in my head when editing or writing.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I take notes in a composition book before bed almost every night, and from these notes I try to type 100 lines of poetry (“gold nuggets”) into my computer every two weeks. When a prospect for a poem strikes me, I consult this junkyard of disparate lines and try to cobble together a draft. Then I edit restlessly.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Depends on the draft. Chad Davidson. Barbara Ras. Eric Smith. Susannah Mintz. Robert Hill. Different drafts need different kinds of helpers.

What are you working on currently?
I’m putting the finishing touches on my fourth collection of poems, Little Armageddon. The manuscript is with Northwestern University Press, which published my last two books. I’ve had two great editors there—Mike Levine and Parneshia Jones. The book focuses on the joys and terrors of parenting, and “Very Tall Mushrooms” is one of the earlier poems in the collection. In 2015-16, I was on a fellowship, and during that time off from teaching, I drafted other poems that might form the basis of a fifth manuscript, so I need to return to those pieces and start the winnowing process.

What are you reading right now?
I’m teaching a senior seminar this semester, and each student analyzes a different book, so I’m doing a lot of rereading. Sense and Sensibility. Song of Solomon. Slaughterhouse-Five. And those are only the ones beginning with “S.” As for poetry: Sandor Csoori, Shu Ting, Gerald Stern. Plus the submissions I receive for The Birmingham Poetry Review.

GREGORY FRASER is the author of three poetry collections: Strange Pietà, Answering the Ruins, and Designed for Flight. He is co-author, with Chad Davidson, of the textbooks Writing Poetry and Analyze Anything. His poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Southern Review, and Gettysburg Review, among others. The recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Fraser is a professor of English at the University of West Georgia.

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