Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “not human enough for the census” By Erik Fuhrer

Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews

Not Human Enough For The Census by Erik Fuhrer

Erik Fuhrer

(@Erikfuhrer) is a poet, artist, collaborator, and educator. With his wife, the painter Kimberly Androlowicz, he is co-collaborator of not human enough for the census (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2019) and in which I take myself hostage (Spuyten Duyvil Press, forthcoming 2020). Erik is the author of 3 additional poetry collections, all of which leverage poetic erasure: every time you die (Alien Buddha Press, 2019), which includes art by Marcel Herms,VOS (Yavanika Press, 2019), which includes redacted digital collages by the author, and At Root (Alien Buddha Press, 2020), which includes digital art by the author.


The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I initially turned to poetry, over 15 years ago, because it doesn’t need the same scaffolding as a novel, though I had originally always wanted to write a novel (and still do)— I have recently written a chapter of a lyrical novel that explores two characters in a post-apocalyptic future, but I stopped because I have no idea how to construct a narrative world beyond poetic specifics. Once I started writing poetry, I learned to love the freedom of the poem, which is at once consumable and resistant to consumption— it’s short (usually), but it can be locked to narrative meaning, perhaps functioning at a more musical or imagistic level. Poems are fungible and flexible. This is, of course, all true for most experimental prose too, which I have dabbled with in flash form. I like my poems and flash rife with imagery, and a little weird.

Long answer short: I signed up for a fiction class my first year of college, got bumped, and reluctantly enrolled in a poetry course instead, which kick started my love affair with poetry. Can’t say I have any regrets at all.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Jeff McDaniel was my first poetry teacher, and the first to introduce me to a more expansive poetry than what I was exposed to in high school. That year, I fell in love with poets like César Vallejo and Terrance Hayes, and started reading widely. It was the poet Barbara Cully, however, who changed my perception of what poetry can do, attuning me to the power of images locked to narrative meaning, poems that relished in partiality, and poems as musical compositions.

2.1. What do you mean by “power of images locked to narrative meaning”?

That there’s power in images and even sounds that obfuscate and exist and pulse purely as visuals and sonics within the poem, without providing readers with the keys for interpretation. Poems filled only with these more opaque images and sounds can perhaps be too closed off to readers, too “locked.”  Some of my poems, and the poems I love to read, certainly press closely against the boundary of nonrecognition,  but as Barbara emphasized, a relationship (though not necessarily a balance) between the locked and unlocked, or the inaccessible and accessible, can help navigate a reader through the work.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Poetic lineages that are important to me and informed, as well as continue to inform, my work range widely.  Olivia Cronk’s blurb for the book mentions a lot of what she sees as poetic influences on the book, and 90% of her suggestions are spot on. Though I owe a lot to my reading of modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot, and, though not poets per se, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, it is contemporary poets such as Kim Hyesoon, Nathaniel Mackey, Solmaz Sharif, and Susan Howe that have really helped shake my poems into being. There are many others, but it would be a long list. I guess I don’t see any particular poets, but rather certain styles and traditions as dominant, and they mostly include a very white, male, western, poetics that tends to be safe, autobiographical, and, often incredibly not self-aware. I think we need a greater focus on texts that embrace weirdness, and make us see poetry anew. Olivia Cronk’s work is a great example of that, as is the work of Lucas De Lima. I also think more access needs to be given to work in translation, and that more people should be encouraged and aided in doing this work, which provides more cultural, linguistic, and historical lenses to what can often be a myopic poetry landscape in the US.

4. The book seems like a comment on Donna Haraway’s “Staying with the Trouble”, that you quote from at the beginning.

Haraway’s work, with its exposure of the enmeshment of the human and nonhuman, the insistence that the human is and always was not only itself but multiple, has been a constant inspiration on me from when I first read The Companion Species Manifesto. I watched an episode of the PBS special NOVA recently that visually demonstrated the wide array of nonhuman creatures that inhabit our bodies, which are less human than they are other, that provided me with new ideas for representing the border spaces between species, both natural and constructed. Haraway’s work had me thinking about the ways human bodies are always already partial, and how they can be pushed even further into marginalization through systematic dehumanization. We live in a world where we are all mostly nonhuman, but some have the privilege of claiming full humanity, forcing bodies like the “fleshboy” or the bodies of “body count”, into the margins (of the page, of life, of breath).  That we are all networked to one another through bacteria and viruses may never have been as obvious as now, during the age of the Coronavirus, where contagion and contract tracing is revealing the ways we are all most terrifyingly connected by things we can’t even see. Yet, the present time has also revealed that all networks are not made equal, and that social, racial, gender, and class inequities, press the already marginalized even further out. If we are all “compost,” which I think is a helpful and unique way of thinking about how we are all enmeshed with one another, some bodies are pressed closer to the shit than others, and it’s imperative that we all take the responsibility for both recognizing this inequality and actively engaging in creating a more equitable enmeshment through the destruction of institutionalized networks that continue to marginalize and exploit bodies and narratives that are too often not considered or treated as human enough.

4.1. The book explores what it is be human, and what it is to be other.

Yes, and to be caught in between as well. We are all always human and other at the same time, some of us are just made to feel that otherness more acutely. This is something I hope the book continuously brings to attention.

5. What is your daily writing routine?

I tend to write in between other events of the day. I do a lot of scribbling on small pieces of paper I may have in my pocket. I also tend to make good use of those very tiny scrap papers and small pencils at University libraries. I then usually transcribe everything onto my computer when I am able. So, I don’t have a daily writing routine per se. Sometimes I go days without writing a thing. I never was able to block out writing time for myself every day, I get way too fidgety and end up doing something else instead. Since I write in between other things, my early writing life in the pandemic was strange, because a lot of those things that I used to write between had disappeared, so I had been having to figure out new ways of worlding myself into writing. In doing so, I actually found myself writing more every day, though I can’t quite put my finger on why that was happening. Now that I have been teaching again this fall, I’ve been writing around and between moments again, and that has felt very familiar and satisfying. I like to just let writing come as it does, I’m too impatient to sit there waiting for it.

6. You blend unusual points of view with everyday idioms which can be unsettling and humorous:

“greymatter just escaped the brain and went to a party hosted by the great gatsby (who actually turned out to just be ok but) had great scarves the color of lemon ice or orange Julius or a baboon’s buttocks”

I want my use of the bizarre to get a bit under the skin and disrupt comfort at the same time that it invokes humor, so I’m glad it is registering this way for you. The effect I am going for is perhaps something akin to the humor evoked by early 90’s cartoons like Ren and Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, and later by SpongeBob Squarepants, in which the bizarre or grotesque would be zoomed in on and even further exaggerated. I remember thinking those scenes were quite gross or disturbing when I watched them when I was young but they also were quite compelling because of their unique and hyper-focused visuals.

7. What subjects motivate your writing?

I miss living in an area where I had closer access to mountains, as I feel like this type of landscape plays a large part in my work. My companionship with my dog is important, the sensory nature of it. I also like paying attention to insects— their movements, their patterns. I’ve been told by quite a few people that my poetry often fits the description of body horror, so I’ve been looking into horror films a bit. I was quite impressed by Argento’s Phenomena. Very cool to see Jennifer Connelly harnessing the power of flies, their bodies pressing against the windows.

8. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

When I was a kid, I loved the Goosebumps series, and I remember exiting the saga with the rather disappointing Beast from the East, while on a long car ride in Arizona. Other than that, I wasn’t really a super avid reader until my senior year of high school, during which I fell in love with Virginia Woolf. A lot of the writing I consumed as a kid was through video games, particularly the Final Fantasy series and other RPGs. Final Fantasy 7 remains one of my favorite pieces of storytelling to this day.

The discovery of Virginia Woolf did not happen until high school. Most of my influences are very much contemporary and/or influenced by what I am reading and experiencing in the moment.

8.1. Why did you fall in love with Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf’s novels, especially The Waves, taught me that writing was as much about atmosphere, color, and image, as it was about narrative– perhaps even more so. The Waves was the first book I read in high school that I felt I didn’t have to dissect– that I could just experience it for what it was. Woolf gave me permission to experiment, to see and write in a new way.

9. What are you reading and experiencing in the moment today?

I listen to a lot of Tori Amos– I was obsessed with her music in college and over the last year or so have returned to her work quite deeply. She was a big influence on me as a poet. As are the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is currently seeping into my work, The Leftovers, and Lovecraft Country. Recently I’ve been trying to write essays that integrate quotations as refrains: Janelle Monáe features here, as does Kate Bush– their songs are always occupying space in my mind. Poets such as Nathaniel Mackey, Kim Hyesoon, Solmaz Sharif, and Mark Doty always provide me inspiration, as does the art of Kara Walker, Nick Cave, and Francis Bacon.

9.1. in what way do “Nathaniel Mackey, Kim Hyesoon, Solmaz Sharif, and Mark Doty always provide.. inspiration, as does the art of Kara Walker, Nick Cave, and Francis Bacon”?

Francis Bacon and Kim Hyesoon’s work permits me to wade into the strange. Mackey’s work offers a path into the mythic and the musical, reminding me that poetry can work on different sensory and aesthetic levels. Walker and Cave challenge me on form and performance, both relating to art object and as spoken act. Solmaz Sharif reminds me to always be careful with my poetic gestures. Doty, well, I just really like his work, even though I write nothing like him— his poems have been recently helping me write a bit more narratively.

10. How did you decide on the order of the poems in the book?

I just placed all the poems on my living room floor and started to read through them in different directions and orders, looking for themes. Some sections were already clear to me since they were initially conceived of as long poems, but those that weren’t took me some time to get right. I’d order them and then read through them a few times to see how they looked and sounded together, shuffling when necessary. I’d have my partner, Kim, read through them too, to see what she thought, since she is always a very good reader of my work and has an eye for composition, being herself an artist.

11. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

That’s a good question. In high school I was very into painting and I almost went to art school for college. It was discovering Virginia Woolf that led me to stray from this path and choose a writing-focused college instead. That said, I have been getting back into painting, as well as collage. I think my practice has always been multimedia-based, even if I have tended to work on the page for the last decade or so. I say this because the sonics and visuality of each poem are so important to me. In a way, it’s kind of like I am always collaging, even when just putting words to the page since I am always very focused on visual arrangement and composition.

11. 1. I am surprised that you have not explored the typographical possibilities: shape, size of letters, and so on.

Yeah, that’s a good point. I did explore that for my book At Root, but I think I can always push it further. In that book I used different fonts and tried to mess around with placement on the page. I also have a series of collages published as a photo essay in the journal, Sonic Boom, that also play with text as form. I’m really interested in VisPo, and have dabbled in it, but feel like I need to be a little more technologically savvy to really pull it off. Some of the things people are doing with VisPo these days really blows my mind.

12. How important are “sonics” in your poetry?

Pretty important. The resonance of consonants and vowels, the way the space forces breath when spoken, encourages stumble and improvisation, these are vital elements of the poems. I still, however, have not figured out how to read them out loud yet in a way that really harnesses the sonics of the page. I want to figure out almost a performative method of recitation that really captures the complexity of the poems’ sonics. It’s something I am still working toward. I feel like my poetry really want to be part of a multimedia expression and I am still in the process of discovering what that looks like.

13. What did you mean by “Solmaz Sharif reminds me to always be careful with my poetic gestures.”?

I work a lot with erasures. Solmaz Sharif’s wonderful and powerful essay, “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure” has been a helpful companion text by which to evaluate the effectiveness and ethicalness of my practice. I also just absolutely love her debut book, Look, and have taught portions of it multiple times.

14. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I think we are all always and already writers, especially in this digital age, we just might not recognize what we are doing as writing because we are often taught that “good” writing needs to follow set rules. There is no such thing “good writing” (or at least I have no idea what that means)– that’s what I always tell my students. There are rules we must follow for every audiences/ institutions and this can include the vibrant writing that is occurring not only in research papers but in text messages, social media, letters, music, etc, etc, etc.

15. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have two in particular that are both half-developed at the moment. Both books wore born in quarantine but one flickers with a more grotesque inability to function that draws on elements of horror and dark magic. The poems in this book are often resistant to narrative disclosure, like much of my previous work. The other book was born a bit after this first one, I’d say in April, and is the most straightforward book I have ever written. It focuses very deeply on personal trauma, something I had never been able to give voice to before, until one day, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as I often do, something just clicked. I was drawn to the show because it gave me comfort, it gave me an internal language to translate my own trauma, through identification with Buffy. Once I started to pair my own narrative with that of Buffy’s things began opening up for me. It was like I had been given permission. This is the book I am currently spending the most time on.

16. Once they have read your books what do you want the reader to leave with?

I think I hope the reader will take away something they can connect or empathize with. Doing so may be more directly accessible in my most recent poems about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and trauma, as well as in which I take myself hostage which are more narrative driven– yet is also featured in books like not human enough for the census, which too focuses on how bodies are too often silenced or dehumanized. The language and form of my books are also important to me, and I would hope these elements would also leave some impression on the reader. Ultimately, I write because I feel like these poems need to be written—it would mean very much to me if any reader recognizes that urgency, and even more so, if one feels it as well within the work itself.

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