We Belong in The World: Ben Fama Interviewed by gin hart

The poet on writing about the prostrate subject, friendship IRL, and life wishes.

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What happens to a romantic when they realize “dreams have never clarified / anything [they’ve] ever wanted?” 

Let’s do an exercise. 

Imagine fantasy as skin—broadest surface, first material point of contact. 

Now, feel it (the skin) peel off. Raw-fleshed against reality, we’ve plopped into that one Cymbalta commercial. Q: Where does depression hurt? A: Everywhere.

We come to Ben Fama’s DEATHWISH (Newest York Arts Press) post-peel, and careen with him down the curve of suicidality’s spiral. Our role is as deathwisher’s seatmate on the rollercoaster of whether to die (or, if not, how to live). We’re there in real time as his world “floods [with] chaotic urges,” by turns banal, abject, and blissful. He tests the edge of each mortal limit, documents this with “sad/journal/aesthetic,” all at the mercy of precarious dualities: To live maximally is to touch death. To wish reifies the life of the mind in the living body. 

Fama and I “met”, wouldn’t you know it, on the internet, under the blessed/cursed image of Katy Perry/Riff Raff (VMAs, 2014) cosplaying Britney/JT’s iconic all-denim look (AMAs, 2001). We’re both part of a Facebook group started by poet K. Silem Mohammad called “Jam But No Bread Exchange (No Haters or Trolls)” — a very pure space for sharing pop music and not being a snob. We’ve yet to meet in the world, but when we do maybe we’ll rumble if Matvei still isn’t down to. In the meantime, we discussed life, second life, and the bridge between them. 

— gin hart


gin hartIn the title poem of your last collection, FANTASY, you wrote “The Internet is my home / Where it’s easy to be beautiful / And seen and new / In the glow / In the spell.” What’s the state of that land in the DEATHWISH era?

BF I’m not particularly “in love” with the internet; it’s not my home anymore. It’s seemed to have fallen into service of revenue streams. There are things I like about having all that access right on my phone, but I find it usually just plays into my pleasure principle of object relations. I’m just looking for a jolted mood boost, again and again and again. 

gh Where do you find your most renewable boost?

BF In my personal relationships. Looking at art, going to a theater, talking to my friend Rachel on the phone about what we’ve been reading. It’s not too hard for me to check in with the world. 

gh That’s such a vital skill! Talk to me about your relationship with death, and how navigating it via craft has morphed, or opened, your present.     

BF For years I thought death was just that: life snuffed out like a candle forever. It occupies my life less lately, and I’ve been thinking about living “as variously as possible.” 

gh Is that your life wish? Your grave marker? 

BF I’m trying a lot of new things. I think of that Eileen Myles title, I Must be Living Twice. My second life is making up for mistakes I made in the first.  

gh How did you move into your second coming? 

BF That one weird trick: Stopped drinking, stopped doing drugs. I was at a bachelor party recently, and I heard a guest comment that marriage was one of the best things to do with a life. I’ve been thinking, what really is the best thing to do with a life? 

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gh How does poetry fit into it for you? And your boxing?

BF I’m figuring out how poetry fits into it. I think I’ve enjoyed combat sports because they are just so … insane. It’s really good to get punched in the face and also try to knock people out. I want to fight a charity boxing match against Matvei from Ugly Duckling Presse, but I don’t think he is willing. I kind of inadvertently spiraled into a void of making the most self-destructive life choices possible. It’s encouraged me to try a lot of new things! 

gh “It’s really good to get punched in the face. I felt that. There’s such rowdy camaraderie to punching! I think I gravitate toward the rowdy because of the density of impact. The launch party for DEATHWISH seemed like it had an adjacent texture — fist’s wallop/wall of sound. What was that like from the inside?

BF  That launch was really fun! It was at Saint Vitus, a venue in Greenpoint. Andrew Durbin and Rachel Rabbit White read, and there were performances. Liturgy played. I understand now the venue choice and curation seemed extremely pointed. Finding space in NYC to let you do things is becoming harder and harder, I was really lucky they went for it. 

gh That curation can be such a joyful extension of the work. Would that everything could be so multiple! 

So, different from Liturgy, but still part of your work’s soundtrack, diagetic to it, Satie’s Gymnopédies have been with you for a while. What moved you from “listening to ‘Gymnopédie No. 3’ / Sometimes [thinking] it is a perfect song” in your 2014 chapbook’s title poem “Odalisque” to the present “grace to live, to see / ‘Gymnopédie 4’ on a grave” that DEATHWISH gives us? And what else has been in rotation, specifically with respect to your work?

BFI think they might be beautiful. Same with Rihanna’s song Kiss it Better. They’re cousin compositions in my mind. 

gh I agree, and love the link to Rihanna, she’s such a genius of form. Yeah I Said It, Needed Me, and Love on the Brain triangulate the erotic with a kind of bare perfection. 

In the present penitence of second life, is taking on peasant-as-title your bargain for proximity with and invocation of (in flawed shorthand) feminine glamour? This occurs and recurs in your book.

BF I’m friends with a lot of sex workers, and their embodiment or high-femme “hot girl” drag is so professionalized, the upkeep maintained, it is its own end in itself, so far as it is constant and omnidirectional. That is my relationship to feminine glamour. Sitting with my BFF at the salon in a massage chair while she gets a pedicure, talking to each other about our new poems. The drag of feminine glamour usually means performing male consumer fantasies while dissociating from their own needs or maybe it can be their needs, from what I know it’s just so hard to tell when it’s commercialized. 

gh That’s a long furrow in the socialization of women (and people who are read as such)! The melting of an individual’s plurality onto the effigy that is gender makes our survival inextricable from the fluency of our drag (or magnetism as we shed it). 

The overculture’s disrespect for sex workers is violent and absurd. Decriminilazation is long past due! Sex work (from my flawed perspective as a non-sex worker) crystallizes certain material and immaterial truths about humans as beings under (but also beyond) capitalism — requires money to kneel, however briefly, to what is ancient between people. That’s a big part of your book — to lower, to submit, to “peasant.” What have you found in taking these postures? How does a posture become a position?

BF “Kneel to what is ancient. That’s so good. The “peasant” motif was a way for me to create images of the prostrate subject, economically depressed, physically ill, caught in a power matrix he is incapable of understanding. And more personally, I’m into ritual humility as an anecdote to our current social media climate. That lead to the “Peasant” poem in the book. 

gh In the third section, we slide from atmospherically slutty contemporary dramedy to hardcore history-inflected pulp with the appearance of the peasant figure, whose “wish to kill” snags the pastoral texture of “a simple mind.” The form tightens, reflexive-intertextual, as the content becomes simultaneously more genre and more embodied. 

Poems have sequels now (“Dommy”, “Dommy 2”; “Vampire Gloves”, “Vampire Gloves 2”), or siblings at least (“Peasant”, “Easy Peasant Dick”, “Lonely Peasant”). 

Ashes no longer materialize as cig’s cherry when they’re what’s said “when [the you] sits on [the I’s] face”. They’re majuscule, titular. They end it. Net for the face-sat I as in “I remember everything” and also “I was looking for the language/of the 21st century” (a voice which states but does not lay active claim to “can’t name five places/this country is occupying”). I as in “sometimes I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

What is your gesture or action in forming this publicized private submatrix, particularly with respect to the larger power matrix?

BF The submatrix seems quite literal, as what I think is currently being called “adulting” means something similar to working through the matrix of trauma one is left with after youth. That seems dramatic now that I say it, though from my experience some people are contained in quite a small holding cell. Care for the self is strenuous, a fulltime job, and not necessarily one that benefits the subject of late capital; Sarah Schulman says “relationships of all kinds are the centerpiece of healing.” I would add that they are also the centerpiece of conflict in the first place. The submissive-matrix provides a script for new kinds of relationships to the other, to power, and to the self.

gh Then sometimes your lines molt their scripts and materialities, becoming instead — to borrow from Elaine Kahn — pure moods. I’m thinking of “Even in summer/I miss summer” (from “June Emotional Poem”), “sunsets make me sad to die/love forever changes” (from “Work of Art”) and, from “Ashes,” strongly:

to endure is to endure among loss or lack
I’ve never felt exhausted by beauty  
but I’m tired of describing it
the sea keeps moving
emotions are only there
romantic and legendary
I remember everything

                 

These bring to mind what Julian Talamantez-Brolaski has called “this writing feeling” — from what I grasp, the ineffable catalyst that spurs us to write. Do you have one of those? Does it live somewhere in your body? How does it move in you? 

BF I’ve had this idea recently, not necessarily an original idea, but one I can’t shake, that the art we make helps us understand how we belong in the world. Maybe we learn we don’t belong, maybe it helps us endure. To describe how things might be beautiful is a source of intense pleasure for me, and then what comes from that reveals unexpected things. I always feel “the writing feeling,” I think, I always feel a longing to express. Staying in touch with a daily writing practice is something that I have to actively make sure to do, otherwise I end up mired in pessimism. 

gh Tell me more about this “might be” which modifies your sense of beauty. Its specificity feels like a very deliberate ellipsis. 

BF It seems smug, in the wrong way, to feel confident in what you believe beauty to be. Even if its a privately held notion. 

gh In DEATHWISH, you speak of thought as prayer, which is a personal favorite form of (what I call) beauty. Reminds me of a line from Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace (which I read for the first time recently thanks to my brilliant friend Giulia), “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” I haven’t been able to get that out of my head. To what or whom do your thoughts pray?

BF You know, I used to have a very cold outlook towards the fact of my existence—”the trouble of being born” and all that. I came to realize it was cowardly and frankly, aesthetically uninteresting. If art tries to answer the question of how we belong in the world, prayer is a way to hear yourself state your needs. In literary terms, I suppose it is an apostrophe—that poem addressed to the dead or absent subject. I think I found my way into this line of inquiry (I am admittedly very suggestible) after watching The Sandpiper, which possibly my favorite film. I was in a pessimistic relationship with my own writing at the time, and was feeling the only outcome would be a breakdown or breakthrough. The Sandpiper inspired a bit of both. 

gh I love “If art tries to answer the question of how we belong in the world, prayer is a way to hear yourself state your needs.” That’s so cogent and kind, thank you! 

Coming back to ritual — liturgical prayer, then, speaks need known enough to be continuous/communal.

DEATHWISH acts as a capsule of that — the obliteration of “death” moving through itself to the energetic potential of “wish.” More life, more everything. Thank you for praying with me lately.  

gin hart is a worker, an activist, and a soothfast fool living on Ohlone land. Find them in print in Libertines in the Anteroom of Love & West Wind Review, online in BÆST, Blush, MISTRESS, Paradise Now, Elderly and others. With mal young, they edit dirt child, a lit mag // fawbrawl.land

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