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anatomy of a poem: Joanna Fuhrman
This is an interview I conducted several years ago with Joanna Fuhrman via e-mail about her poem “In the Basement of the Museum of Potential Urges”, which appears in her book Ugh, Ugh Ocean (Hanging Loose Press). The poem appears below, followed by specific questions about the poem.
In the Basement of the Museum of Potential Urges
Those greenish lights reveal the restrooms
layered scum. The faucet by the window is always on.
No water needed.
You might want to linger with your eighth grade crush,
that vegetarian you inhaled veal near
in the prep school cafeteria. Her teeth are still so vertical.
Who cares if there are more “exciting” exhibitions
on the floors above: a rumor of some porno
projected on a fifth grade teacher’s smile,
a stick of butter churned to never melt?
Desire here is so hush-hush, docents bow
their heads in admiration. I bet you never
knew that girl whose hair you tried to stroke
was still recovering from chemo?
And yes, it’s true,
the gift-shop’s nearly out of souvenirs,
the buyer’s too ashamed to check the inventory…
but still, I want to meet you here.
Please bring the look you hid from
when you turned fifteen. I’ll shine
my nipples like the drool-wet stars.
Jeffrey McDaniel: What inspired this poem? Was there an initial blast of language, a phrase? Or did it begin with an idea?
Joanna Fuhrman: Often for me poems come from language or an image, but if remember correctly, this poem started as an idea. I was dating someone at the time who was very in touch with the memory of being an awkward adolescent. It seemed like his identification was kind of ambivalent. In some ways, he seemed sort of proud of maintaining the sensibility of a geeky thirteen-year-old, but also he was aware of how it was embarrassing. The poem started from my attempt to enter what I imagined to be his mental space: to envision his sensibility and emotions as a building one could enter and describe. In an early draft, the poem starts: “It is wise to avoid the men’s room/at this level. Those greenish lights/ reveal the pimples we’ve outgrown/ The faucet there it is always on./ No water needed.//Better to linger, in the third gallery, with my first college crush: that blond vegetarian I inhaled/ veal near in the college rec, hall. Her hair’s still parted.” In this draft of the poem, (at least the first two stanzas) the speaker is more obviously male. It wasn’t just adolescent sexuality I was trying to explore, but particularly the “guy” form of it. The anecdote about the blond vegetarian was an anecdote that boyfriend had told me. It’s hard to say where the other images came from. I could say the “unconscious,” but, um, who knows what that means. I have to admit that some of the images are a little stock for me. I think every poet has a few kinds of images that they tend to use over and over again, unconsciously and obsessively. For me I think it tends to be images of food and of film projection. Can’t really justify it. When I am writing I am not that aware of what I am doing, but then later I notice, “oh that again.” Oh well. My friend Noelle Kocot will sometimes write imitations of me and she will just stick some weird food image in every line, but she has picked up on the projection thing, yet. David Shapiro too made some sort of joke about there being food in every poem in Freud in Brooklyn. So yeah I would stop if I really thought it was a problem, but you know, who cares?
JM: Where did the title come from? It’s interesting that they are in the basement, while the “exciting exhibitions” are upstairs. How did you arrive at that decision? It’s like the speaker and the you are twice removed from fulfillment.
JF: Actually part of the title came from a fortune cookie, I can’t remember exactly…something like “You have many potential urges.” I thought the idea of a “potential urge” was funny. Isn’t an “urge” the opposite of something is “potential.” For awhile I was trying to stick the phrase in every poem, most of which were too abstract and awful. (Months later my friend’s girlfriend found the same fortune in a cookie in Tucson, 2000 miles away.) But anyway, to answer your question, the poem was always about the basement of the museum. I supposed that seemed to be the place in the building where one would put the most shameful exhibits. People usually hide what they don’t want others to see in the basement, no. But I think the poem started with the image of a bathroom that I suppose could have been anywhere. Though actually, hmm have you ever been to the bathroom in the basement of p.s. 1? There has been a really disgusting (in a good sense) installation there for a long time with organ-like sculptures and strange noises, but I don’t think it was there when I wrote the poem, but it would fit perfectly in the poem. So yeah, the basement might also be quieter, darker and less visted than the rest of the building.
JM: How conscious of music were you in this poem? There is a fair amount of half and full rhyme–some of it close together, like “on/scum” in the first stanza, some of it far away like “crush/hush-hush” and “”porno/chemo”–and lots of alliteration, especially in the 2nd stanza with the plethora of “l” and “v” sounds?
JF: Yeah, I was aware that this poem required more of a driving rhythm than some of the other poems in the book. I think I am always pretty conscious about sound, but I think the beat of this poem is maybe different than my other poems—more foregrounded. There is something about the music of this poem that reminds me of Richard Hugo, particularly “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg” which starts “You might come here Sunday on a whim. Say your life broke down.” I think I associate that poem, and Hugo in general, with my own adolescence. It’s kind of ironic I guess because so many of his poems are about feeling old, but I think there is something kind of adolescent about enjoying one’s own self-pity. So yeah, at one point working on this poem I imagined it as kind of a rewriting of Hugo’s poem, in music and tone. Of course, now looking at it the form and music of the poems are very different from his, which I can’t account for. I would have liked it better if my poem had more formal verve and a sense of development, but I didn’t want to overwrite it. I guess I sacrificed the feeling of a kind of fullness for density. The images are all kind of emblematic so I don’t think I could really have to many of them without undercutting each one. It’s always a little frustrating for me when I have a kind of abstract formal vision in my head for a poem and the poem just refuses to take the form I want it to. I really wanted to have even stanzas with even lines for this poem, but it just didn’t work for me that way. It’s not that I am not capable of writing in a stricter meter or whatever, but I am never willing to sacrifice other values for the meter. Plus I mean now I think some of the form’s awkwardness may work pretty well with the content.
JM: How many drafts did the poem go through? How did you know it was done?
JF: I am not really sure how many drafts it went through because I didn’t keep them. Though, I remember it being a lot, even for me. I make lots of changes on the computer and I only kept two other drafts so it is hard to say. I do know that just about every line in this poem changed…also I remember a few lines being changed back and forth.
JM: I love the specificity of “drool-wet” coupled with “stars” at the end. How did that image come to be? Was it always connected to this poem? Was it always those three words?
JF: No, actually the first draft had a completely different ending. “I’d like to meet you by the marble stairs/That foot on special at the high priced// cafeteria would fit better between both of our mouths.” Those are some pretty lousy lines, huh. I don’t think they lasted for long in the poem, but I did save this draft on my computer. Anyway, I think you are right in guessing that the star image came later in the process, but I can’t remember when or where. I also realized later, a few months after writing the poem, that there is a Jean Valentine poem that compares nipples to stars (not drool-wet though.) I worry that I might have stolen the metaphor though actually the words in my poem are pretty different than in hers and it is maybe not the most original image to start with. (But I mean I love Jean Valentine’s poems, but that particular image isn’t anything in itself.)
JM: When I first read the poem, I thought the speaker was addressing herself, which made the last couple stanzas all the more jarring. Were you going for that ambiguity? The speaker seems so neutral towards the “you” in the first half of the poem, even encouraging the “you” to “linger with your eighth grade crush” and then at the end–boom, a proposition.
JF: This is interesting to me. I think I wanted the “you” in most of the poem to be both myself and my boyfriend, (but really more him than me). In early drafts, the story about the cafeteria was in first person. There was a clearer differentiation between the “I” and the “you” throughout the poem (even though the speaker was really more of my boyfriend there than myself), but anyway those early drafts seemed kind of clunky. But I wonder if your questions suggests a larger issue, I mean I think “yous” in poems are always in someway about the poet (and also, I guess the unknown unseen universal reader). I have a section poem for my friends called “Admonitions” based somewhat on Jack Spicer’s series, and yeah, in that poem it might be clearer, than in “In the Basement,” who the “you” is in each section (because each part is titled with the friend’s name and many of the poems include details about my friends). Yet, I wonder if this supposed clarity is misleading. I mean I am basically giving advice to my friends in those poems, but I am just as much giving advice to myself. I think it was Ed Foster who said in his essay on Spicer’s Admonitions that the difference between Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer was that the “you” in Spicer was more universal than in O’Hara. There’s a sense in Spicer that when he addresses his friends he is talking to them, but also talking to the phantom person behind them. In a letter in the Admonitions, Spicer uses the image of a hall of mirrors. “The frightening hall of mirrors is universal beyond each particular reflection.” I like this metaphor in relation to “In the Basement” also. The speaker is addressing her lover, but since her address is mediated by language’s “hall of mirrors” her reflection is also there. I don’t know. I’m wondering why you assumed the “you” referred to the speaker when you were first reading the poem.
JM: I guess it was a tonal thing. Or maybe my mind just jumped to that image— the speaker walking alone, commenting on the experience of visiting a museum devoted to her romantic past. At first I didn’t “see” a docent, though that notion is intriguing, especially because of how the poem ends—with the docent ripping off her docent outfit and laying herself on the line. How did you decide to end on such a sexually charged, yet vulnerable note?
JF: I’m not exactly sure. I knew when I started the poem, I wanted to write the most uncomfortable and embarrassing poem that I could. (Recently at the John Wieners Tribute at the Poetry Project Anslem Berrigan said that whenever he gets writers block he remembers that Wieners had said that he just tries to write the most embarrassing thing he can think of. Later that evening some speaker, I can’t remember who, came up and said the John Wieners was misquoted, and that he actually said, “I just write the dumbest thing I can think of,” but whatever. For me– writing this poem– embarrassing seems to be a good motivation.) I think what makes the image so humiliating is that the speaker is trying so hard-too hard really. She’s not just showing off her breasts, she’s trying to make them something which they are not. I think without “drool” as an adjective the image would still make me uncomfortable. It’s a much more “poetic” kind of image than what I usually write-cheesy, really. I’ve actually always hated that really famous Andre Breton poem, (‘My woman’ blah blah blah) but I suppose you could say the end of this poem of mine is kind of a reversal of that impulse to objectivity the other through metaphor (Imagine if Petrach’s Laura was writing about herself?) The speaker tries, quite consciously, to poetize herself, to turn herself through sheer will into the object of desire. (Actually, I just remembered that Hugo poem I mentioned also ends with an image of the waitress objectified through figurative language. Her red hair “lightening the wall” becomes the mode of release from “The Degrees of Gray.” His poem ends “the girl who serves you food/is slender and her red hair lights the wall” “-so maybe my ending also goes back to my rewriting of his poem too. For what it’s worth) But anyway, as I was saying, the image in my poem is over-the-top: the nipples aren’t just stars, (which is kind of a ridiculous thing to say about oneself to start) but they are “drool wet.” Instead of seeming beautiful and sexy–which the speaker might to be attempting through the image–she appears to be a parody of sexuality. But on the other hand, I don’t think the image is totally unsexy either. I think there is something attractive about feeling “wrong,” awkward, and uncomfortable, whatever you want to call it. It’s sort of the opposite of the Hollywood version of the erotic. As I wrote in another poem, I’m a great believer in the “inherent glamour of error.”