questions posed by Selah Saterstrom, October 2006
SS: Your first book, Now the Day is Over, radically opened the possibilities for me, in terms of my own work, concerning not only what writing was for, but also what writing could do. It invited me to re-evaluate my relationship to my content as raw material that could be shaped (instead of only described). So, it is with great selfishness that I ask the following questions. The first of which would be: By what mechanisms have you been able to create the kind of work that you do? What do you think writing is capable of doing?
JF: For me the process of writing is, for the most part, unconscious and therefore difficult to describe in terms of how I go about it. This is not to say I haven’t given attention and thought to craft and learning ways to work with language, but what arises, as in Now the Day is Over, often contains a life of its own, orchestrated from regions for which I am the vehicle but not the conductor.
What is crucial is that I get out of my own way in respect to being self-conscious. This happens if I am able to enter into a state of reverie where pressures to put something into language present themselves in relation to a felt sense of atmosphere or a stray image or splinter of memory that then evolves to more. This is how I retrieve what will grow into something else. The form of the prose poem, with it’s self contained parameter, has been helpful, for the knowledge of this holding somehow results in content presenting itself that might not do so otherwise.
Writing is capable of calling forth, translating, and transforming “news” from the unconscious in relation to lived experience—what one witnesses externally as well as internally. When form and content become one a synthesis and integration have occurred that can shock us into a deeply satisfying crucial kind of knowing, a fierce recognition that, for me, often cannot be explained. Yet there are few “how tos” when it comes to describing the process. I still keep in mind William Stafford’s words: “permission and receptivity” are what we need to foster.
SS: You also work as a psychotherapist, and have worked extensively with Vietnam veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In what ways have the revelations of this work informed your writing? Based on your experience, in what ways does war and/or trauma affect language?
JF: When I began working with Vietnam veterans in 1995 I used writing and found again that for the vets retrieving splinters of experience, such as remembering fruit cocktail and pound cake in C Rations or the smell of the blue heat tab, led to the kind of authentic connection with experience that made it possible to begin to process some of the impacted grief they had carried for decades. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says to “raise the submerged sensations of that distant past.” By writing about the fruit cocktail in C Rats vets found a portal that in time could lead to other connections and sometimes to the web of unmetabolized grief that is difficult, if not impossible, to begin to fathom or connect to in any kind of frontal way.
I have no scientific data to support this, but over and over again I have found the writing of the vets to be strong and affecting, genuine, and even publishable, but
I didn’t suggest they publish since the work we were engaged in was private and for its own sake.
However, John Akins, who was in a writing group of combat vets for seven years, went on to publish On the Way to Khe Sahn, a book of poetry, and Nam Au Go Go: Falling for the Vietnamese Goddess of War, both of which exemplify what I’m saying about the writing of the veterans I have worked with. On the back of Nam Au Go Go Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, writes: "John Akins’ account of a Marine rifleman’s adaptation to violence, how he crossed a threshold into his addiction to it, along with his struggle to reconnect with his old world, is superb. I liked every aspect of his storytelling and congratulate him on bringing it into the world."
So there’s a paradox in that trauma and war appear in many cases to result in a vital, true relationship to language that is almost alchemical. It may be that something has been stripped away and made a space for what the language can
utter. The paradox lies in that the vets felt isolated from the world they never returned to. They knew something from going through the horror of combat; they possessed a clarity and truth as did their language. Yet they were outsiders,
and the words they shared were only heard by each other.
SS: What metaphors (or words or paradigms) come to mind when you think about the creative process? How do you understand and experience the work of writing?
JF: The words “attention,” “permission,” “receptivity,” and “reverie” come to mind when I think of writing and the creative process, as well as “synthesis,” “birth,”
“death,” and “utterance.”
It’s a balance between feeling and thinking, a distillation and elaboration of what we know and can discover from internal and external experience as well as what we cannot know but attempt to convey regardless.
I think for me writing is a kind of sounding of unknown depths, a listening and waiting cued by an atmosphere that can link to memory, where something resides and may retrieved, not intact in a literal way, but as a route to something it knows and I may be able to discover. In The Necessary Angel Wallace Stevens writes that each of us is drawn to a particular time of day. My attention to morning is different than my attention to dusk. What each might offer if my attention is engaged is a discovery in time I may be able to make.
The work of writing involves taking time to be with the process, to get it down, and keep thinking it through, re-seeing and revising until the language appears to be realized. It involves reading and observing, engaging in life and withdrawing from life. I like the term, “cloud-hidden.” It requires daydreaming, reflecting, confronting, and committing to the life of the process along with the daily life you live.
What texts feel necessary to you right now? What are you working on?
JF: This summer I read Seven Loves by Valerie Trueblood, and I am currently rereading it because of the uncanny way the novel peels away through the ache of what we cannot permit to let ourselves authentically see or know to the marrow of a recognition of what it is to go through one’s days on this earth, to be among others, to be young, to grow old, to die, how the weather and the sky are, the taste and hurt, how we lie to ourselves and why.
This book feels necessary to me right now. I am also rereading Wilfred Bion’s, The Long Week-End, 1897-1919: Part of a Life. Also necessary are Emily Dickinson and Rilke. Of course there are others too numerous to name.
I have completed “Provenance (Little Tales),” a manuscript of poems, and “After,” a chapbook manuscript related to mourning. I am currently writing a manuscript of vignettes with a woman who, like myself, grew up with a psychotic mother. The fact of absence in our mothers’ presence informs the vignettes as we go back and forth depending on what sliver of memory has been retrieved: crayons, powder compacts, aprons, or cinnamon toast. Its working title is, “Don’t Interrupt My Caravan.”