Published in Panhandler Issue 3
Kenneth Fields is a professor of creative writing and literature at Stanford University. His collections of poetry are Classic Rough News, The Other Walker, Sunbelly, Smoke, The Odysseus Manuscripts, and Anemographia: A Treatise on the Wind. His current projects are a novel, Father of Mercies, and a collection of essays on Mina Loy, H.D., Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, J.V. Cunningham, Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Ben Jonson, Wallace Stevens, Jorge Luis Borges, Henri Coulette, and others. Fields teaches the Advanced Poetry Writing Workshop for the Stanford Writing Fellows. He is developing a two-part course in American film, Men in the Movies: Film Noir and the Western. He delivered the Russel B. Nye Lecture at Michigan State University’s American Studies Program: “There Stands the Glass: Voices of Alcohol in Country Music.”
April 3, 2008
Doug Moon: Your collection The Other Walker was published in 1971, and you’ve been writing and publishing poetry since then. How have you seen poetry change and develop over the years and perhaps how has your poetry changed?
Ken Fields: My poetry has changed somewhat in that I just needed to be able to write in different ways. The Other Walker was a book that I didn’t completely understand. And I’m not the kind of poet who writes a poem and figures it out later or what a collection could mean, so I was maybe halfway through that book thinking that I was nearly done and had a freshman class in which I was having them learn to write about their past and telling them you think you understand it but it’s not like your tail that follows you around. You have to discover it. And I had a couple of assignments, and I had this rare moment that teachers don’t often have where I thought, you know, maybe there’s something to these assignments I’m giving them. [laughter] Maybe I could try it myself. So I wrote a poem about being a twin, and my twin died when we were a day old. I remember going back to the little graveyard, and I was back recently again, too, but seeing this little tiny head stone, and I was a little boy and I started crying. I knew all about it. It was this weird, powerful thing. I always hated the theme of the double. It always feels so contrived, so I wrote this poem about my twin in my twin’s voice. When I got through it, I started crying again. That’s not something I do when I finish a poem. Then I realized that there were a lot of other double poems in that book, and I hadn’t noticed that before. It had this sense of something that was evil or awful, some secret about me that I didn’t know and that I didn’t want to know because I couldn’t change it. Sometimes I thought other people could detect it, and I had ways of keeping them from revealing it to me. So that book took shape, and it made me write out the rest of the poems, and I could do that. Still a long time. I had a book called Sunbelly and I had a book called Anemographia, which was a little tiny private book, a treatise on the wind. It was more or less in haiku form. So I was already doing other things. Then I made the discovery with the help of a doctor who intervened with me that I was an alcoholic. I started writing Classic Rough News about that time. Suddenly, I understood what this secret other self was in the first book. Although I even identified it with alcohol in the writing of the first book, somehow it didn’t click with me. So that part of it with my own kind of writing I suppose, that’s partly how that stuff evolved. I was writing in blank verse sonnets, so I was probably thinking of Lowell’s blank verse sonnets. Something of Berryman’s The Dream Songs, though his character never does get sober; my character starts out trying to be sober. So there’s that. I don’t know. I guess it changes the poetry. It wasn’t that I was even wedded to Lowell, for example. But it would have never occurred to us in the 60s and 70s that there would come a time when most young people would not be reading Lowell. So that’s a way that things have changed. I mean, I like Bishop’s poems, but it never would have occurred to us that people would just assume automatically that Bishop was a superior poet to Lowell. Well, it had so much to do with us for the 60s and so much political stuff as well and it went away. So that’s one of the ways in which I think some kinds of poetry have changed. I’m probably better on how mine have changed because I don’t always keep up. I keep reading all the old people, 16th century up. That’s what I like to do. I’ll try to answer questions more briefly.
DM: No, extended answers are what we’re in for. In Classic Rough News the poems abide by similar formal constraints with very few exceptions. What work do form and constraint do in constructing poetry for you?
KF: I guess in some ways I think of it as a kind of lens. If you have a lot of lenses, you can see a lot of different things. I didn’t bring my camera in, but I like having different lenses. So I don’t think of them as constraints. They’re kind of avenues for freedom and for perception. That’s how I think about it. They’re sonnets, mostly. The sonnet itself was not just fourteen lines. But it sort of plays on something of the sonnet, with some that are longer and a couple that are shorter. I guess it allowed me to do some things—what I liked was the idea that I didn’t start out to write characters. I had one character, and then suddenly there were other characters. There was more than one Burton and then there was Billy. Then there were two Billies who spelled their names differently. I didn’t know that the female Billie was gay until later in the sequence when she sort of revealed herself to me. So it turned out to be something like, I suppose, writing a novel. I improvised them. I went to my secret office in the library and would write one a day or sometimes two or three a day. I was trying to figure out how I could live my life not drinking. Which seemed hard at the time. So I guess the sonnet—I wanted to see how that short form could be one to contain all kinds of digression and quotation. So there’s many quoted things. Nobody should know where they all come from. There must be some days I forget where some of them come from. So it’s a different sort of way of revealing character. So I was probably thinking it was a combination of Ezra Pound, but writing in sonnets, blank verse sonnets, and maybe Horace. Those ways in which the odes often will start in one direction and shift to another subject, that weird relationship. So I was thinking a lot about that. I’d played jazz as a kid and liked jazz. Nobody would know that much from the poems, a couple places maybe. But I had a sense of improvisation. Whatever I wanted to write about I could write about. I could sit down and write the word “chainsaws” on the page. I’d think I always wanted to have a poem with chainsaws in it, so then chainsaws were comforting to Billy’s mind. And I had these different characters with various troubles, and most of them related to alcohol. I didn’t think of it as a constraint. I’m not sure that Dante would have thought of it as a constraint. Unless it means we need to have something we call a constraint to talk at all to be understood. In English, right, instead of some unknown language I make up for myself.
Virginia McPhail: Many times when you have poetry, you don’t have characters that continue to develop. So that just fascinated me. It took me a while. I had two Billies. All of a sudden I realized the names were spelled differently. Well, one’s male and one’s female.
KF: No, it took me a while to figure that out, too.
VM: So where did these names come from?
KF: Maybe the core of it was that my twin who died when we were a day old, his name would have been Billy in my family. And I had some Burton stuff in there. I was depressed at having to give up alcohol.
VM: How long has it been?
KF: Twenty-five years. Alcohol and marijuana.
VM: I really liked going through the book and got to like this character.
KF: Except maybe at the end a little bit where I was fooling around, but that book pretty much is just organized in the order I wrote them. Without knowing exactly where it was going to go. I had some ideas. So I’d just go ahead and think, “Today is going to be Billy, the male Billy,” who was a vet and had all kinds of other issues as well.
VM: I know about that, coming from the 60s, I picked that up.
KF: Well, there was something in the 60s, a kind of craziness that was interesting. And I was trying to distinguish what had been true craziness for me and for others and a kind of craziness that I could maintain without hurting anybody but not drinking. It sort of let me do the slightly wilder thing. I always wrote my poems kind of deliberately. I still do that sometimes, but I thought, you know, I should be able to—I know how to write poems now, I should be able to see if I can write them fast. And I was thinking of Miles Davis, sort of late career, when he was hiring very young kids to play with him, and Tony Williams was a young kid, and I said, “What do you look for in a musician?” and he said, “Speed, you need to be able to play a song fast,” and his songs weren’t always that fast. If you can play fast, you can play slow, and you can play anything if you can translate that thing from your idea into something on the page then you can do it. I guess I was thinking about, say, the pieces of a poem getting spread out as if you were doing a big chord or something like that. A ninth or a sharp ninth or something like that. Where there’s a lot of space in between. And it allowed me to think about making transitions quickly. And the truth is I talk that way, and I’m interested now in digression and tangents and “going off on a tangent” is how we describe it. Mathematically a tangent touches a circle and if you take it 25 miles or 25 inches, if you bring the line back down to the center of a circle, it’s a right angle. And so a tangent can be related to a subject, and instead of feeling apologetic that I talk that way, that I talk that way in class, I thought, well, there are a lot of people who did that. Horace was one. Why don’t I just dignify it instead of feeling guilty about it and teach it as a subject and write my poems that way, so when Stern says something like, “I begin in writing with the first sentence and trust in almighty God for the second.” Why not think of it that way?
VM: That’s a good line.
KF: Yeah it is a good line.
VM: One of the lines you had just struck me. In “The Wain” you write that “goodbyes are sadly easier than I imagined.” That just really hit me. Not only that your goodbye was easier, but what I was missing there was nothing was regretful. There was no regret.
KF: Maybe if there’s any regret, it’s kind of weird. “Wain” is wagon, so in other words, being on the wagon. At the beginning I really thought I wanted to get sober. Part of me was hoping it’d be so hard I couldn’t do it. So when I began to see it wasn’t as hard as I thought. It wasn’t impossible. There was regret for that. The other side of it that doesn’t come across as much in the book—maybe that would be in other poems later—was my sense of fearfulness. I was afraid that I couldn’t stop drinking. When you decide that you’re going to do this thing, it seems like the last stop—after this is the nut house or death. What if it doesn’t work? And then there’s the other fear that it will work. Later when I gave up marijuana I had the same fear. And that second fear came from not having any idea of what being sober felt like. So I thought it’d be like in The Nut House, which is a bar I used to go to, with the taps turned off. I knew how drunks talked to each other, I was afraid to even go around other drunks. I thought they’d be so pissed off they’d just be yelling at me all the time. I thought, “What if I could do it?” I’d have this horrible life. As if alcohol was doing me a lot of good. I told my wife that when the doctor finally intervened, I was furious, but I was partly relieved. I was driving home and I said I was not going to drink again, but we’re not having any more fun. As if the last few months or couple years before you stop drinking had been a barrel of laughs. And as if I got to say, for the both of us, that’s it for the fun. And she said, well I thought, I guess that’s what it means, for better for worse. That’s how we hook up with people. We get them set up so they believe, oh yeah, the drinking is the good times. Now that I really want him to stop drinking but I guess this is going to be the bad times. Our minds are backwards sometimes. I had fun working with some of the stuff early on, and I started about the time I had stopped drinking. But I got better at being a human being.
VM: That’s wonderful. What do you think are your contemporary influences in poetry? What trends or movements interest you?
KF: Well I was at Stanford a long time ago.
VM: How long have you been at Stanford?
KF: Forever. I came to Stanford in 1963 as a graduate student. And Yvor Winters was my teacher. And he was a friend, and I loved him, and he was a grouchy kind of guy. But he was a real genius and a great poet. And his wife Janet Lewis stayed my friend long after Winters died. She died in 1999. She was a great novelist and a great poet. So in ‘67 I got my PhD at Stanford and I was hired to stay on the faculty, so I’ve been there ever since. So ’63, ’67, forever. And the influences, well, my first teacher in Santa Barbara was Edgar Bowers, and he was a wonderful poet. J.V. Cunningham would be an influence. William Carlos Williams, certainly. Wallace Stevens. And a lot of other people we’ve spoken of, I love. For this particular project, and I hope I don’t sound too much like them, but Berryman and Lowell were people I thought about a lot when I was writing these poems.
DM: For students who are writing poetry right now and developing manuscripts, what advice would you give them as far as developing them for publication?
KF: You know I’m not very good at that. The only things that have ever happened to me, the way I’ve gotten things published is by chance. Somebody will get in touch with me or something like that. So I’m not good, and I haven’t done all the ambitious things which is like, you know, making sure I’m getting out to magazines all the time. It must be some defect of mine. There have been times in the past, I don’t think I do that now, somebody would write, “I want some poems—send them to me.” And I go, “Right.” And I won’t send them, and then more, “Please send them to me,” that kind of thing. So I guess my advice would be don’t do it the way I do it. But putting books together. In the advanced creative writing classes I teach, the Stegner workshop classes, and I’ve done that forever, I tell them not to refer to their stuff as their manuscript. When they give readings, they go, and here’s another one from my manuscript. Call it your collection of poems. They can figure out they’re not available, or somebody will ask. Right away I ask them what the title of their book is. And they kind of go, “Oh, I don’t know.” But when you have two poems put together, try to figure out what the title is. I can sometimes go through your manuscript, I tell them, and can find you maybe 20 or 30 titles. Some are going to be bad. Just from the book itself—underlined words and phrases and things. Those are lenses in some way. If they’re right, you can think, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was up to that. That’s something.” When somebody’s reading a book, it’s like this italic moment: Oh, that’s the title of the book. There’s this joke I had, where I had Jeremy Fickle. I made him up. People have written about him in reviews once in a while, and I don’t get that many reviews, talking about the 18th century Jeremy Fickle, and I just made the quotation up. I was writing on a newsprint pad taking notes, those kinds of things, sometimes different colors, that was part of the sort of improvisation. I was trying to get away from a list which was harder to break up, so I would do circular lists, one thing over here and one thing over here, and the pad I was working on was about this big, and I couldn’t find it, it may be hidden away, but at one point I was trying to use it as the cover. But the the brand was Classic, the texture was rough, and it was news print. News. So it was right there Classic Rough News. Classic and roughness and news. Those kind of jostle each other in a way that I liked. So that’s how I came up with that title. But I ask people to find a title and be open about different ways of organizing their materials because you can find out some things about yourself if you’re lucky that will almost allow you to see which other poems you need to write. As if you graph it. There’s something here that I can concentrate on that’s useful. There’s a kind of superstitiousness about those things.
DM: Well that’s a part of the process, too.
KF: It is, it is.
DM: Teaching a writing workshop, does that offer an interesting dynamic for you when you’re writing as well?
KF: Yeah, I don’t mind it. I used to not like, and that’s partly because when you’re teaching sometimes you have less time. But people who have real jobs sometimes have even less time, and some of them manage to write eight or ten hours a day, so it’s not so bad. Yeah. They don’t hurt each other, but I have more and more tried to discourage people from hostile readings of each other’s poems. Sort of the way it was in the old days, and I don’t think that helps anybody. So I say, your first responsibility is to try and understand the poem before you say what you don’t like about it. And what you don’t like about it might be the most important thing. What I found is that some really wonderful poets come into our program, and they are really experimental in one way and conservative in another way. Not because we are a conservative program. But often they will talk about, well, this here seems to be from left field. And I say, what, just because it moves over here? What phrases do you use all the time? Taking risks. That’s how you talk about poems. And yet when somebody has taken some kind of a risk, you all pounce on it. Be adventuresome. Take some risks. But then when they get into practice, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem to follow.” So I guess in my own sense, I don’t teach my poems to them, but that sense of spreading things out a little bit and making room for digression and stuff has made me a different kind of teacher in that I don’t come down on them that try to do that. I try to let them at least see some of the reasons for operating that way. You could come up with a list of really great poems that could have been effectively stifled by a creative writing class. Flannery O’Connor said that she thought it was the job of a creative writing class to stifle talent. And that was good, but we’ve taken that a little too hard, I think.
VM: Can you tell us about your novel Father of Mercies?
KF: Richard Russo, one of his characters tells somebody else every colleague in the English department has a novel in his desk drawer. He says, the miracle would be to find a colleague who did not have a novel in his desk drawer. But I started writing that novel, and it is partly about myself. Although I’ve got a different character who’s doing it and who’s not exactly aware of his relation to alcohol, even though I think it’s an alcohol counselor. So he oughta know, right? And it has to do with his relationship to his father. So part of it is one of these impossibly constructed novels where it moves back and forth from Texas in the 20s, 30s, to contemporary times, and back and forth. It has to do with kind of larger family configuration about alcohol and about violence. So that’s what that’s about. And it becomes a kind of murder mystery, too, because, I mean, why not? The main character is doing some research, and he’s down in Santa Barbara. He’s drinking and he obviously blacks out because he kind of comes to on a long pier out there. He hears voices and what he hears is someone beating somebody with a strap while somebody else holds him. And then they throw the guy over the thing, I think they kill him and throw him over, and he can’t figure out why he won’t call the police. But the trouble is that the guys who do the killing, they’re kind of professional killers. They find out they’ve been observed. They start trying to find him, and his daughter comes to visit, and she’s in danger. So I’m probably trying to do too many things. And I’ve got a whole chunk coming, a send up of the English department. But somebody said that doesn’t work, you have to pull that out. So I may never finish it, but that’s what Father of Mercies is about.
DM: Unless a novel is literally some superstitious compulsory thing that everyone in an English department has to write, you’ve consciously decided to write a novel as opposed to poetry. Does the novel as a form offer something that poetry doesn’t?
KF: Yeah, I don’t think in terms of superiority. One of the things about novels I knew before I started writing one is that you can’t keep them all in your head at once. Flaubert has a letter in which he’s finished a short version of Madame Bovary, which is a short novel in the first place. He complains what bothers him is he can’t keep the whole thing in his mind. I thought if that meticulous man couldn’t do it with his own novel, then we need to give that up. James had that idea, and Percy Lubbock, the book is an attempt to write, it’s an old fashioned book on novels, and he attempts to write in James’s style and it doesn’t work, but right at the beginning he’s got this great description of what it is that’s problematic about reading a novel. That you turn the page — your whole attention is there — and then you turn the page and that goes away. You know, you can’t get it all back. Some people, when I’ve been talking to them about that, said, “Well then poetry’s superior,” and I said, “No, it’s not superior. It’s just another kind of form.” But isn’t it interesting to have a form in which you do that? And what I found that’s interesting about writing a novel is that you’d just be doing it all the time even when you weren’t writing. During the day you’d be thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen to that guy? Well, what if this happens? What if that happens?” I’d be away from it for a long time, and my friends who write would say, “Oh, that’s awful. You can’t do that because you’ll kind of forget where you were.” Well, with me, I don’t care. I always figure there’s more where that came from. Something else will happen. It’ll happen again in some way. What helped me with that was, Henri Coulette, a friend of mine who was a poet, a wonderful poet, and I knew him for a while, and then I spent a summer with him and Peter Taylor, who is a terrific Southern novelist, short story writer mostly. Peter, I guess the summer before, he would talk to Hank over breakfast about what the writing he’d done in the afternoon was. And Hank said, what happened last night? And he said, well, you know, Miss Rebecca’s young man came to pay his respects to her father and he struck him down in the entry way. This would surprise Hank because he was keeping up on it. He’d say, “He did? Why did he do that?” And he’d say, “I don’t have any idea, but I’m going to try to find out today.” I love that because it goes against the idea that you would plot something out completely ahead of time. I’ve told people in any writing that if you already know exactly what you want to say before you write it, don’t write it. You may think you know, but leave room for discovery. I guess Classic Rough News was my first experiment with that. I realized that a whole lot of my lectures are that way, and some of my essays are that way. I’m collecting some essays that probably nobody would want to touch because they are organized in peculiar ways.
DM: You’ll be reading tonight at Writers in the Gallery. Are you going to read mostly from Classic Rough News?
KF: I’m going to read Classic Rough News. I’ll see how it feels when I’m there, but there are a couple of poems—one’s a little poem that I haven’t published, and then there’s somewhat longer poem about my mother and father, old days in Texas, that I’ll probably read, that I may start with. I was also asked when the Cantor Center, the Stanford center for the arts, like a big museum, when it opened if I would write a poem for that occasion and I did. Later I was asked if I would write a poem about a particular show. It was essentially paintings that are owned by people with Stanford connections or Stanford alums. It was fabulous. So I walked around in there for a long time, and I wrote a poem about being in the art gallery. I thought, well, since we’re in an art gallery, maybe I’ll read that at the end or something. I was also, and I’ll say this tonight, but I was team teaching a course with Lee Yearly who was in religious studies, and he does Dante and he does classic Chinese poetry. I’ve done it twice. He’d dropped the Dante out, so it was Chinese poetry and all the stuff I do, Wallace Stevens, American Indian poems, things like that. And he asked the students when they were reading Du Fu if they ever had the feeling that they were at the end of a collapsed culture. And they didn’t know how to answer or what to think. Du Fu is pretty clear about that, that it was true. So after that I ended up writing the poem that addressed that subject in the art gallery. Is this enough? Well, we wish it were enough to hold this culture together, but probably not.
VM: What ingredients go into a reading that make you say, “Man, this was cool tonight, or good lord, so glad that’s over with.”
KF: Well, now, this is not the time to ask me that. [laughter] I think that poetry readings are very interesting things. And they are strange performances, so that you can have somebody whose poems are instantly apprehensible and that will sometimes be a kind of success. And you can have others that, let’s say, I’ve heard Thom Gunn read a lot of times. When he was alive he was the best poet alive writing in English, and now that he’s dead he still is. He gave great readings. But I think the last reading he gave, you know, students were saying, “Well I liked X better.” But some of the things Thom read are not immediately apprehensible. So you can have people who know the poems and know what the poet is up to so the new poems at least are followable. That can make for a good reading. Other times I think it’s just interesting to hear how a person reads and to see them, and you might think—it’d be like watching Syriana. My friends were all uptight because it was so hard to follow. I just relaxed and thought that this will be good when I see it again, this will be clearer. So I think the ones that don’t go well are the ones in which the person doesn’t seem to have any way of connecting with the audience they are reading to.