Ari Banias reads “Fountain”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of October 8th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Ari Banias lives in Berkeley where he teaches poetry and works with small press books.
Lindsay Garbutt: His poem “Fountain” is in the October issue of the magazine and it captures his observations while recently living in Paris for a few months.
Ari Banias: I think I was sort of negotiating my idea of the city or the sort of mythology and history of the city and sort of the expectations of how you’re supposed to experience it, versus, sort of, how you actually experience it.
Don Share: Banias told us that he paid attention to the smallest details of the city and what was going on next to the famous sites. One day, he was sitting outside of Notre Dame, and he noticed the haphazard landscaping of the flower beds outside the cathedral.
Ari Banias: And I was so taken by that, by seeing the sort of human imperfection there, that was so much in contrast to this ornate, you know, mathematically beautiful piece of architecture right next to it.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is the poem.
Ari Banias: Fountain
You recount the history of the French garden.
From above, I see tight rows of trees beside threadbare grass.
When the language teacher talks about le capitalisme:
the gesture of three fingers rubbing imaginary fabric.
I’m a tourist, vulnerable and stupid,
my legs showing, shoes practical, face red.
Together, we try to reconstruct an anecdote
whose contents have scattered. A motorcycle passes, a French police siren
you say sounds innocuous then we both laugh sourly.
I hadn’t seen a woman slap a child in some time.
A truck reversing, and the alarm that continues for hours one morning.
Porn on a handheld device, its tinny echo in a room
with bare floors and very little furniture.
Across the courtyard, this T-shirt on a hanger out the window
turns in the light breeze as if trying to look behind itself.
I’m consumed with not knowing where to buy paper, safety pins, stamps.
The window frames of that building are red, emerging from gray gables.
Enormous bumblebee at the threshold investigates the doorway, doesn’t enter.
The flies do; they’re promiscuous; they leave.
I don’t know the word for because.
So each act is disconnected from another.
I can almost imagine there are no consequences,
the days just pass, one sunny, one cloudy, someone unseen shouts, sirens
every few hours, clouds move in a solemn procession across
a wide sky staggered with chimneys,
people wait to cross the street, a large tree tosses its wig a little.
Other small trees in the courtyard flicker.
They are responsive.
The sun heats the pavement; le pavé répond.
You send me a short erotic video, you’re naked, propositioning me.
Do you act more like the coin or the water?
Across the narrow street this bird
sipping from roof puddles
seems more dove than pigeon.
Pacing, grandmotherly, she stops to look at me.
Do you just know how to love another person
like someone knew to paint those window frames red?
Most of the architecture looks floral, like a boring math problem.
The crosses that reach and reach.
Why does the scrape of the furniture when I rearrange it
sound like crass American English to me?
I slept late, now I’m watching the clouds, like clouds
in an eighteenth-century painting. Overly articulate.
Except these clouds are not trying to symbolize anything.
Where’s my dove.
I always want to go look at people.
A booth selling copies of copies of Louis Vuitton.
The small shadow the roof makes on another roof right next to it.
When my friend came to Paris she wanted to break everything.
Impeccable shoes on the impeccable feet.
Clothes so new they’re creamy, and to seem to never have to compromise.
I feel tattered when I’m actually not.
I’m an American, I eat.
A huge decorative basket of citrus snugged beside me in the upscale bistro.
The woman from a building opposite comes down, indignant:
Who threw a pomelo into my window?
You read to me about the history of the barricade.
I picture the drab suburbs.
The shoulders and elbows of people in the museum evoke more reaction
in me than most of the paintings.
A young lithe person with live eyes tends bar, gender trouble tattooed up their arm.
I count twenty-nine sleeping bags lined up beneath the overhang
and each one inhabited.
I read to you about the history of enclosure.
Two people talking on a balcony, their black hair blowing.
One leaning over into the courtyard.
Behind the cathedral, vulgar black felt stapled in the raised flowerbeds
to mask their frames.
The river stinks, allures, as a specific person can.
A repository, a consequence, a long sentence, an ongoing story.
The generous current cut through by a party boat shouting
wooo! wooo! wooooooo! wooo!
emitting an obscene light
waving at whatever will wave back.
Don Share: I think in order to succeed at writing this kind of poem, you have to be as interesting as your surroundings. That is a really important thing for a writer to be. And we’re fortunate, because I think that Ari Banias is one of our most interesting poets. In other words, it won’t do just to, sort of, scribble things down that you see in Paris or someplace, I mean, who hasn’t done that. But I think because the vantage point and the voicing and sensitivity is so … nuanced and warm, but also presented with a kind of detachment that is essential to thinking things through in poetry. This poem really works. To me, it’s like a wonderful descendent from Apollinaire, who is also extremely interesting. But as you can hear, especially in the ending:
Ari Banias: The generous current cut through by a party boat shouting / wooo! wooo! wooooooo! wooo! / emitting an obscene light / waving at whatever will wave back.
Don Share: It just seems alive. And if you’re gonna travel in the world, let alone write about it, it’s that real obligation to be alive to what you’re part of, even briefly. To really be there, to be present in it and to take something away from it without diminishing the place you visited.
Christina Pugh: Mmhmm.
Don Share: And I really love this poem for that reason.
Christina Pugh: It’s always a temptation to kind of make the place into something over-picturesque. I mean, we see that in a lot of poems, where it becomes about celebrating the observational qualities of the speaker or the poet. And one thing I really appreciated about this is that it does not self-idealize at all.
Ari Banias: I’m a tourist, vulnerable and stupid, / my legs showing, shoes practical, face red.
Christina Pugh: You know, we’ve all been that tourist. That you can be a tourist and feel ignorant, or feel, as he says here, “vulnerable and stupid” and be able to make a poem somehow that addresses that in some way is, I think, really terrific. And ... it really does in a good way diminish the voice of, you know, the touring, travelling poet into something that feels a lot more human. And this poem to me was also really about the experience of being left out of language, the humbling experience of travelling in a place where you might not know the language completely.
Ari Banias: When the language teacher talks about le capitalisme: / the gesture of three fingers rubbing imaginary fabric.
Christina Pugh: … and how that really affects your perceptions and your ability to be in the world as a person, for example, the poem says:
Ari Banias: I don’t know the word for because. / So each act is disconnected from another.
Christina Pugh: So this sense that if you’re not familiar or conversant with the connective tissues in language that you’re trying to move in, it’s going to affect the way that you perceive the world around you. And then there is that self-knowledge about that. I liked that.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah. I like how the poem creates this sort of distance, both in the observation and also the fact that each line is kind of on its own, it’s its own stanza. But the poem to me also seems to be about relationships. So there is this “you” that is repeatedly mentioned and also the sort of relationship of the individual to history, so there is this repetition of “you read to me about the history of the barricade,” for example, or “I read to you about the history of enclosure.” So there is this repeated emphasis on how history is told to another person, how it’s relayed and how it’s both communal and also sort of individual for each person. And I found that kind of mirrored in this interesting question fairly early on in the poem, which is:
Ari Banias: Do you act more like the coin or the water?
Lindsay Garbutt: That was the only sort of ... even somewhat oblique reference to a fountain I could find in this poem…
Don Share: (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: (LAUGHING)
Lindsay Garbutt: ... which is, you know, the title and so I was thinking about that, about this relationship between: are you something that is tossed into a new environment, or are you something receiving new things into your environment. Are you the coin or are you the water …
Don Share: Well, it’s a sign of this poet’s intelligence—and by that I mean also emotional intelligence—to sort of call into question romantic imagery as we were talking about a moment ago, because you would think like, for a fountain and a traveler, sort of, like, three coins in a fountain or something. I like that this poet sort of steps back from that. And in that way another poet comes to mind, a poet of great emotional intelligence, is Frank O’Hara. So that there is always…
Christina Pugh: Mmhmm, yeah.
Don Share: There’s a warmth towards another person, there is intimacy, but there is also a sort of more realistic person behind that in the same body, as it were, holding back a little for some other purpose that remains unknowable just yet. So that’s a way of writing on the edge I think. So that, even the way the poem is laid out, as you say, Lindsay, it’s almost like each line is a stanza, it’s moving from edge to edge as a way of giving it a little bit of romance, say, warmth or relationships, but not to give away everything.
Lindsay Garbutt: I love, too, the moment at the end of the poem with the people on the party boat shouting and waving at whatever will wave back, because it’s again about the sort of performativity of being in another country. Of being in another language. You feel very aware of yourself. And that all these people are gathered together on a boat, but instead of interacting with each other, they are just trying to wave at random people that they pass by.
Christina Pugh: (LAUGHING)
Lindsay Garbutt: It’s this sort of relationship at a distance that this whole poem seems to be about.
Don Share: You can read “Fountain” by Ari Banias in the October 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all October episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from The Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.