New School MFA student Brooke Ellsworth caught up with Adam Fitzgerald about his new poetry collection The Late Parade. Renowned poet John Ashbery exclaimed: "Adam Fitzgerald is a master of defeating expectations so as to fulfill them farther along. One has the feeling of climbing higher along a path that is giving way under one’s feet, in pursuit always of ‘a waltz on our breath.’ Yet the rhythmic and consonant commotion of these poems ends in joy. This is a dazzling debut.” The Late Parade is forthcoming this June from W. W. Norton's Liveright imprint. Lucky for you, it's currently available for preorder online.
Brooke Ellsworth: I want to start with your title, The Late Parade. Did the book always have this title? Which came first, the eponymously named poem or the manuscript title?
Adam Fitzgerald: I had no title for my thesis manuscript at Columbia, which I was hoping would be my first book of poems.
BE: Which is the hope any MFA student.
AF: I knew that, for me at least, and I imagine other writers feel the same, that the title is so important because it’s the handle that takes hold of the bundle. But I had no idea, so I figured it’d come when it comes and hoped it would be a good idea when it got there. It was some winter a while back, maybe two or three years ago, I was driving around New Jersey near where I live. I had my iPod plugged into the stereo, playing randomly, as one does, and this Cat Power song came on, “The Greatest.” What I’ve always loved about her songs, like certain Bob Dylan songs, is that you can’t really make out what she’s saying. She mumbles. So I make up the lyrics as I go along. For example, I kept on hearing in that song the phrase “the corporate South,” which I thought was an amazing line, but I don’t think that’s right. But it started triggering my mind. And then she started singing the chorus, “the late parade...” I thought, That’s it!
BE: Did you mishear that also?
AF: No, I think that’s an actual lyric. It instantly evoked something for me that I recognized without being able to paraphrase. So then I thought, okay, now that I’m going to call my book The Late Parade, I have to have a poem with that title.
BE: Why’s that?
AF: Well, I figured books or albums often have a title that comes from within. And this title felt that it deserved a poem—except I didn’t have one. But I kept imagining a poem, so to speak, with these larger-than-life boulevards. Sometime in 19th century Paris, Georges Haussmann widened the boulevards to stop all the different kinds of revolutionary antics. Basically if you have smaller avenues and streets, it’s easier to blockade them and then you have "Les Misérables" on your hands. And so, part of the way the city got re-districted was with the extensive widening of the city’s main boulevards. There were obviously more reasons than political ones for the re-design of the city, I’m sure. Anyway, like I said, I kept imagining a poem with wide avenues for “The Late Parade.” I didn’t know what that meant, but that’s what I was thinking. This was around 2010.
BE: It immediately recalls for me the ending of John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run: “The wide avenue smiles.”
AF: Yes, that’s true! Something I’ve learned about writing, in poetry specifically, by John’s example, is to trust my subconscious. It’s much smarter than I am. My intelligence is a little better than average, but when my subconscious is on—I mean it’s also totally not to be trusted, shifty, full of gaps of like, “when did you meet so-and-so in your childhood?”—but, when it’s on, it’s a self-oiling machine that makes uncanny connections. And John, as artist and person, has instilled in me the idea to trust whatever happens in the back of your brain. You know, here I am talking about wide avenues and could very easily have been reformulating Girls on the Run and I wouldn’t doubt it at all. Anyway, around this same time I had written a poem called “Ode to Tribeca.” Unforgivably bad title. It was summer in the East Village. I was hanging around with this boy I had a crush on. Kind of a massive obsession with—
BE: A crush-slash-massive obsession?
AF: (laughs) You never know which way it’s going to go. He was a total prick, was from Paris, and a photographer. I think his aunt was one of the head editors of Vogue. We would bike to different places in the city and take guerilla-style photographs. One day we broke into this rail yard around the West Side Highway on 30th Street then made our way gradually down to Tribeca. I’m not sure if you’ve been there at a certain time of day, but as you get towards the water—again speaking of wide avenues—all the streets are these rather gigantically desolate alleys with light just flooding in. There was no one there and it felt like I was in some kind of stage set—an intense de Chirico quality going on. When I got home that night I wrote this long “Tribeca” poem that had everything and nothing in it. And then later when I was reshuffling and retooling poems, I realized that this was my “wide avenue” poem. It evoked the same feeling that the title The Late Parade had done.
BE: So the title happened first, and the poem happened not necessarily in succession but as a total separate event, and then the two intersected at some point?
AF: Right. It all felt very felicitous.
BE: In a way your poems parallel this act of letting your mind go where it wants to go. They definitely encourage an associative drift. In the first line of the first poem in the collection, you assert: “To write about one thing, you must first write about another.” This feels like you’re preparing me for what’s going to come out of the rest of the poems. To not necessarily hang on to one image as much as the accumulation of the imagery. Do you find that you give an image’s associative meaning precedence over its literal meaning?
AF: That’s a good question. It’s kind of the question of poetry itself: one thing calls another thing into play, why? Why not something else? The literal or the non-literal enigma has so many trap doors to it. My attitude has been to not necessarily identify the right answer. There’s that famous Eliot anecdote where someone came up to him at a reading—well, you never know how much of this is just bullshit—but supposedly somebody asked what he meant by “three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree,” from “Ash-Wednesday.” And he answered by repeating the line verbatim. This is right in that, yes, he wrote that and not something else. But it’s also not right in a sense because thanks to Ferdinand de Saussure we know that language does not mean anything in its discrete units. It means something as a system of references—that is, semantic associations. And I see poetry as a way to play on the widest possible organ of language, in terms of its associative webbing. I’ve always been constitutionally resistant to the idea of common sense, or that things can or should mean only one thing. This often gets confused for surrealism 101, but the Surrealists were very dogmatic. They really wanted art to be only the subconscious. So where do you go? Do you go towards the opposite idea of an unlimited free play of association? I resist this stance, too, because ultimately I do want the reader to have a certain mood or experience. I just try not to know what that mood or experience is in terms outside or around the poem.
BE: I know you through AshLab. So maybe I’m inclined to look for Ashbery in your poetry. But you two definitely share a general interest in leveling the playing field between colloquialisms and more obscure language. When did you first start reading Ashbery?
AF: I started reading John’s work when I was a sophomore in college. I kept complaining to all my creative writing teachers about the contemporary poets they were having me read. It was just hard for me to go from a priapic visionary like Shelley to anyone else. I was resistant then, but I’ve definitely broadened and diversified my tastes since then. So finally my teacher Paul Mariani had me read Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But I didn’t take to it at first. Then later that summer I was at a friend’s house in Boston attending the William Joiner Center workshop program. She had Self-Portrait on the shelf so I picked it up and opened to “Tenth Symphony” and read the opening lines, “I have not told you / About the riffraff at the boat show.” And something about the bristle of that language immediately clicked. It was like he was trying to use colloquial language like an abstract painter. I read the whole poem and felt like I had been punched in the gut. I sat there all afternoon, not going to one of the events I was supposed to, reading instead the entire book. Then within the year I had read fifteen books of his poetry. The oldest poem in The Late Parade is “The Relay Station,” from 2005. That poem is when I started shifting to a sound more like John’s note of an almost domestic bafflement.
BE: So when did you meet him?
AF: After college, I moved back to New Jersey. I had always wanted to see John read, but something would always come up and I would miss the event. Finally a friend of mine, Travis Holloway, called me up and said, “Listen, I’m coming to New York City. Why don’t we go see John Ashbery read?” So I thought, I haven’t Googled “Ashbery reading” in a while, let’s see what comes up. Turned out he had a reading at Beacon. So we were like, “Let’s go to Beacon.” But lo and behold, it was Beacon, New York. I couldn’t let it go once the opportunity availed itself, though. So I drove to Beacon, New York that weekend. Travis couldn’t go to Beacon since he was already planning to travel to New York City, so I went with Michael Davis and Joe Weil. I got to see him read and I brought a dozen books for him to sign.
BE: Only twelve?
AF: (laughs) Yeah, only twelve. I have the photo on Facebook. Here it is, June 11, 2006:
There was a reception afterwards but I was too nervous to introduce myself so I sat on the other side of the room and just batted my eyelashes at him. Joe went over to him and told him one of his former students was his biggest fan but he’s far too shy to go over and say hi, could he come over. So we hit it off, started talking quite naturally, and that’s when he told me about his new book, A Worldly Country, and how it was “about” in some ways September 11th, which I should add he denies he ever said. But it’s totally there, if you read it. Then a month later, John and his partner David Kermani were offering me a job up in Hudson as an intern archivist for the Flow Chart Foundation. In some weird way, I feel like this book is the completion of that thread of time. He’s influenced me as an artist in many ways. One way is by saying the way out of any problem is embrace or violate one’s own tendencies in the art-making process. Even try the complete opposite! As a younger poet, I would never have allowed myself to start a poem as I do in this book with the line “I didn’t always have this douchebag haircut.” Or in the poem, “Nigerian Spammer,” to pervert a beloved hero of mine like John Keats by taking his immortal opening from “Endymion” (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”) and rewriting it as if it were a gay porn ad (“A boy in jockstrap is a joy forever”). But sometimes that’s the necessary way into the maze. You learn to look for new entrances into what you’ve always loved, ones that aren’t familiar, ones that seem preposterous. Then you try a few.
Adam Fitzgerald is the founding editor of the poetry journal Maggy, and teaches at Rutgers University and The New School. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in A Public Space, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, Fence and elsewhere. His first book of poems, The Late Parade, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton's Liveright imprint in June. He lives in the East Village. He Tweets @HartCrane.