Interview by Derick Varn and Dinesh Raghavendra
Adam Fell is poet and fiction writer. Author of Dear Corporation, and I Am Not a Pioneer. He is the co-curator of Monsters of Poetry Reading Series.
How much of a role does research play in this, and is it generally before or after the broad conception of the poem?
The cultural and pop references in the book are what existed inside of me on a minute to minute basis during the writing process. The more “research” driven lines of poems are knowledge I had gathered from National Geographic or Smithsonian Magazine or cultural references that I’ve read about or hang in the air and have somehow permeated me. I guess this is all a way of saying that these were not facts and references I went searching for because they fit the poem, they were parcels of information I had gathered and found fascinating and obsessed over while I wasn’t writing and ended up, somehow, through the magic of the mess, re-contextualized at moments where they seemed to take on greater import to me. These poems purged out quickly and, while I revised a bit and touched things up, they aren’t much different than when they first came into the world. The other side of that is that I have probably 50-75 other Dear Corporation, poems that are complete garbage, that are tacky or cliched or preachy or presumptuous or totally mean-spirited or all of those things combined that were not good poems at all, but need to be written in order for me to calm down, to dig deeper, to get past the obvious feelings I was having or my own pre-conceived notions about what I believed.
What are your plans in the future?
Most of my days are taken up with teaching, which is both a constant inspiration and a constant drag on getting any writing done (though I wouldn’t really have it any other way). My students and colleagues and the day-to-day struggles of helping urge poetry and fiction and creative writing into the lives of people who may not have gotten to experience it in a heart-driven, blood-born way is of vast importance to me. You have to really dedicate yourself intellectually to be a good teacher, and I can’t imagine stopping that anytime soon. As for my writing, my interest is in fiction right now, but I’m sure poetry will come back someday soon. I also plan to marry my fiance and start a family and buy a house. You know, nothing big.
Which other artists should we listen to at this moment, who are grappling with the issue of late capitalism?
I think it’s less important to listen to artists grappling with the same issues as you’ve grappled with as to open yourself up to new art that influences your life daily while writing. For me it was: Kendrick Lamar, George Saunders, Claire Vaye Watkins, Forest Swords, Adam Johnson, Jenni Fagan, The National, Chants, Frightened Rabbit, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Jeff Vandermeer, Future Islands, Leslie Jamison, Mina Loy, Roberto Bolaño, Etheridge Knight, Titus Andronicus, Marcel Theroux, Apollinaire, Louis CK, and more. They all share themselves with me in a way that the assholes are afraid of. To value a creative mind, a mind dedicated to the truest communication of separated souls, a mind that lives to find themselves in other’s stories and other’s lives in their own, that’s the closest thing, besides all out rebellion, to an antidote I have to politics, corporate greed, power hunger.
Why did you choose to write “Dear Corporation” in an epistolary form? What freedom did that constraint give you?
It felt natural to interrogate my own beliefs in letters to people I love, and the act of writing for a singular, personal audience inherently argues against the political and moral idea of corporate personhood. It also allowed me to push back a bit against our culture of soundbites and blurbs and posts and news clips by using long, winding sentences and compounding images that couldn’t easily be extricated from the whole, that couldn’t easily be, say, tweeted. I wanted each poem to have a context that was inextricably linked to its entirety, which is, I guess, another way of saying: I wanted each poem to be its own community, to not have one line or image appear more important than any other, so they each get equal emphasis. That was really important to me on a formal level, but it was also an indulgence because, while I was working on my previous book, I Am Not a Pioneer, I became bogged down in form and construction, spending months, if not years, on individual line breaks and line length and stanza placement, and I just couldn’t mentally do that anymore. It was stressful and a bit obsessive-compulsive of me, so I put these constraints into place when driven to write poems again. I enjoy the idea of an overarching narrative and a theme to the work. It helped me keep focused and interested and to push myself into strange places and not let the form get stale.
These are obviously topical and political and seem very rooted in the corporate culture that has become even more predominant in the last decade. Did approaching this topic lyrically seem overwhelming in anyway?
Not overwhelming, no. Helpful. Stress-relieving. A stumbling but hopeful way toward the bonfire in the distance. I tried to use the poems as an opportunity for self-interrogation as much as, if not more than, interrogation of our political system. Politics and Corporate Personhood in and of themselves are a pretty easy target. We’re the ones letting it happen. We’re all a part of the problem, and the poems were a reminder to myself of this and how we can fight back against the overwhelming strands of society that want us to be uninformed and un-engaged, who need us to be demure and static and materialistic. Without monetary backers, we, as individuals, can fight back through community, through art, through friendship and love, through finding the right language, notes, artistic movements to truly communicate with one another, and not trick or pander or market or advertise to or push economic gain as the only way to happiness.
We’ve all witnessed so many selfish, greedy, self-righteous, pompous acts by our politicians and the corporate world that owns them, and, after witnessing 80,000 citizens marching peacefully around the Wisconsin State Capitol a few years back, and one man, our governor, completely blowing off the gathering as some outlier of belief with brazen disregard for self-reflection or any real sense of humility, I felt we had lost control of the very system we were all supposed to be in control of. That was my ignition point, and using poetry to interrogate myself on these topics was an attempt to redirect the anger and disillusionment I felt into something more productive, protective, and inclusive.
What is your general opinion of highly polemical poetry?
The same as I feel about any kind of poetry, really: if the poet writes with style and grace and voice and a sense of humility and culpability and self-interrogation, I’ll probably feel it in my blood and be enlightened by it. If it doesn’t engage on those levels, you’re left with preachiness, and that I think we all tend to cringe away from. I may agree with your political perspective, but if you’re not asking me to think anything beyond “I sure do agree with this sentiment,” I’ll dismiss it as pandering. It will be up to the reader to decide what side of the divide Dear Corporation, is on, but I tried my best to discuss my own culpability, my own part, my own avenues of avoidance. Sure, the poems can be read as diatribes against corporate America, but they’re also diatribes against my own feelings, my own beliefs, my own sense of morality. The murk in which I live and decide and feel everyday when I don’t have to actually explain myself to people. To question oneself is essential, to admit when one’s wrong is essential, forgiveness and attentive listening and compassion and empathy are essential, and that is what I find missing in the political and corporate spheres so often (though they try to convince us they care), and what money tends to obliterate completely.
Were you working on other manuscripts at the same time, and can you say if the experience or process of writing other kinds of poetry was markedly different?
I was working on a novel at the same time as the Dear Corporation, poems, and fiction writing is a craft I’m totally new too and terrified by and teaching myself to navigate the labyrinth of. I wanted to incorporate as much of what I’ve learned from the novel, as much of that anxiety and newness, as I could into these poems, which one could pretty easily argue are prose pieces or microfiction. It helped me to think less about line and stanza in order to really push the epistolary form to its limits yet have each poem still feel grounded in the personal communications between two people.