Patricia Fargnoli is a poet who invites the reader into a world of precise vision as if we are viewing the world for the first time through a microscope. Fargnoli was Poet Laureate of New Hampshire from 2006 – 2009 and the author of several books including her most recent, Then, Something, Tupelo Press, 2009 Tupelo Press — Recent Releases. Here, we encounter spirit, the raptured beauty of the natural world, life and death, in an all encompassing melody spoken with fresh tones of youth.
When asked about women’s writing as it has changed in the past twenty years, Fargnoli admits, “I grew up in the 50’s and was, for many years, a housewife and mother in a time when women’s voices were seldom heard and women’s concerns were not seen as important material for poetry. I used to feel bored and alone in my desire to be heard. No more.” Fargnoli shares her voice in a complicated sense of space and direction, metaphysical meditations that surround our experience of this life, this gift in-between.
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
The earliest poem I remember writing was when I was 7, the year after my mother died from leukemia. It was Mother’s Day and I had the impossible hope that somehow I would be able to reach her and let her know how important she was to me and how much I loved her. I don’t now remember the words I wrote but only remember that I showed the poem to my Aunt Nell (who was taking care of my brother and I) and that she was appreciative, and gentle as she explained to me that no mailman could take it to my mother.
I have loved poetry as long as I can remember. Our houses always had many books and I was always read to. When I was very young, my mother read me nursery rhymes. And I had a favorite book of poems, Peter Patter and His Owl , that I asked to have read again and again even long after her death.
After she died, Aunt Nell (a kindergarten teacher who had retired early to care for us) read to us every night from all the children’s classics (The Jungle Books, Black Beauty, Little Women, etc.) as well as from the poetry books One Hundred Favorite Poems, Silver Pennies,
and More Silver Pennies. I still own One Hundred Favorite Poems and go back often to reread the poems I loved then: “Little Boy Blue,” “The Raven,” “The Highwayman,” and so many more.
I attended Chaffee (now Loomis-Chaffee) prep school was I became the Assistant Editor of the school newspaper. I wrote poems all through high school (very bad ones) and we published them in the paper. The recognition I received from pupils and teachers for those poems no doubt motivated me to write more of them. Besides those poems were an outlet for my adolescent loneliness. Here’s part of one of them:
“Alone, alone and afraid stand I
Apart from the world and its battle cry”
I married a year after high school, became the step-parent of a six and twelve year old and soon the parent of a baby boy. On my 21st birthday I had my second child, a girl and three years later another boy. So by the time I was 25 I was caring for five children and there was no time or thought for writing poems
Although I studied poetry superficially in a couple of adult classes, it wasn’t until I was in my late 30’s that I somehow happened by great good luck into a graduate poetry class taught by Brendan Galvin at Central Connecticut State University. There, for the first time, I learned about the craft of poetry and began to learn about other poets and the poetry world. Along with several other women who became close friends, I took the class over and over…maybe five times, and began, at last to write a few poems that had value.
When, in the 3rd year, Brendan submitted a sestina I’d written to the then excellent journal, Tendril, and it was accepted for their fifth anniversary issue, I was exalted ….and hooked.
Shortly after, another poem was taken by Poet Lore. I began to read poetry extensively
and attended some poetry conferences (Bennington Summer Seminar, Wesleyan Poetry Conference, The Frost Place (several times). And I continued to meet regularly with the group of women I’d met in Brendan’s class. In fact, we still meet….over 30 years later. They have made a significant contribution to my work.
When I first entered Brendan’s class, I knew of only two contemporary poets: Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, and these were my early influences. Over the years, I’ve admired Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, Charles Wright, Louise Gluck, Linda Gregg and more others than I can name. More recent favorites are: Alicia Ostriker, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Ilya Kaminsky, Michael Dickman, and Sean Thomas Dougherty to name a few. (and I have a dread that I am leaving out some that have been very important to me).
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
I have never been an academic writer and, thus, have had little contact with poets I consider “real life” mentors. However, Mary Oliver, since she chose my first book, Necessary Light as the May Swenson Award Winner, has been very supportive of my work. I consider her a mentor and my poetic touchstone. And I am enormously grateful for her kindness and generosity. Brendan Galvin taught me to write and what it is to be a poet over thirty years ago and I have considered him a mentor since that time. And, over the years, my workshop poets have motivated me, given me extremely helpful feedback and sustained me in my life as a poet.
But mentors, too, are the poets I most often reread in order to learn from them: W.S. Merwin, Charles Wright, Robert Hass, Linda Gregg, Louise Glück to name just a few.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
I think one’s work changes as one ages simply because one’s concerns change over the life-span, but also because the world/culture changes, and also a poet is continually influenced by the poetry of others around him/her. I began by writing mostly narrative poems about my childhood, about the birth of my children, about the events of my current-day life: marriage, travel, learning to be single and independent. Over time, I’ve continued to sometimes write about my life, especially about aging, but the poems have become, first more meditative and then more lyrical and, for the most part, I’ve shifted away from narrative. Also there has been a shift in subject to exploring places at the boundaries of things…and to questions of spirituality and our relationship to the natural world.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
I’ve not been influenced much by other literary genres though I read both fiction and non-fiction often. I am, though, influenced by art and am interested in poetry/art collaborations (I’ve been a part of 3 of these) and ekphrastic poetry (which I’ve written a good deal of). I also have been influenced by music, most specifically by Goldberg’s Bach Variations which was a trigger for my long poem “Pemaquid Variations” which appears in my book, Then, Something. Movies also have influenced me, especially the techniques of movies, (e.g. close-up, long-shot, panning in, slowing down or speeding up the action). These are good techniques for poems also.
5.) What are you plans for the future?
Thinking about the future can be scary when one is seventy-three. I am still writing almost daily but am finding it harder to access strong words and ideas and thoughts of mortality can easily take over my work. But I’m hoping to have a new small book of poems published in 2013 by my wonderful publisher, Tupelo Press. This isn’t a “done deal” yet and I’m currently still working on the manuscript. I also plan to do readings, to teach my private poetry class and to do occasional manuscript and/or poem-group critiques. Poetry is the center of my life and I can’t see ever giving it up.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
I grew up in the 50’s and was, for many years, a housewife and mother in a time when women’s voices were seldom heard and women’s concerns were not seen as important material for poetry. I used to feel bored and alone in my desire to be heard. No more. Women are not only writing about their concerns, being regularly published and being accepted as legitimate and important voices, but they are also blazing new and original paths in language. This is an exciting time to be a woman poet.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Too many to name and I hesitate to single out any.
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Hmmm, my poems can be said to fall into the “traditional” and “post-romantic” category. But I wouldn’t want to be limited by those labels.
9.) In Janet McCann’s review of your book, Duties of the Spirit, she says “the speakers world shrinks, yet even as it shrinks it opens out – the smallest things provide a kind of satisfaction that/ seems a grace.” I am interested in your perspectives concerning what happens to the spirit in the aging process. Does our spirit in age value the minutia similar to our experiences of the world as children in your opinion? If so, what happens to spirit in-between?
An interesting question! And I can’t answer it in general for all who are aging but only out of my own experience. And I don’t think we can generalize about all who are aging. We are still, regardless of age, very individual in our responses to the world. That said, I’ve found myself drawing in as I’ve aged. This is mostly related to health issues. My world is smaller and thus I am perhaps more concerned now with things of the spirit and with discovering condolences in nature, in time with friends, in quieter joys.
10.) Your work has been described as meditating on the desire for permanence and in this pursuit recognizing the loss in this pursuit. How do you employ melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia to emphasize the feeling of loss? Where does the unobtainable lie for you in language?
Loss is inevitable in all life, but especially when one has reached old age and so it is a central theme in my work. Actually, perhaps due to the loss of my parents in my childhood, it has been a theme all along. My poems use all the aspects of craft to express this: Believing that a poem is a musical composition I am immensely concerned with sound and rhythm in my poems; and I am also very concerned with image and its ability to carry both meaning and emotion across from poet to reader. I think one of the magical aspects of poetry is that the specific image (a garden, for instance) carries with it all the history of the word “garden” and all the symbolic meanings as well as all the particular meanings each reader brings to the word. The “garden” in my poem/mind will not be the garden in the reader’s mind and yet the emotion of the word and its deeper sense is magically transmitted between us. As to “where the unobtainable lies for (me) in language? I am always stretching to try to find words for what is unsayable….and sometimes I can do it…and rejoice. Many times, I am frustrated and wish I could just invent new words. I think that that rejoicing and frustration must be ubiquitous among poets.
11. Ilya Kaminsky has described the unique tone of your poetry as one beholding great passion. How do you view this passion your own work and how is this tool utilized
I love that he said that. And I don’t view that as a “tool” at all, but simply as a deep inner burning of both joy and sadness that I hope to transmit to the page.
12. Mary Oliver writes that your poems are “vividly and gratefully aware of the comforts and assurances of the natural world; she does not miss a stitch of beauty, neither does she avoid the darker aspects of . . . human awareness of our continual aging, to which she gives sharp and poignant attention.” Can you describe how you utilize the natural world to emphasize the subject matter you write about?
I believe that the natural world is supremely important and that its diminishment in my/our lives is a great loss. Yet, I go to nature for the consolations it provides against loss, and to remind me that we live in a world of great beauty. I go to nature for what it can teach me about human nature and about whatever God there is. And I find solace there if anywhere. Of course, this works its way into my poetry.