Where Language Can Take You — An Interview with Poet Fiona Chamness

By Julianne Linderman

Fiona Chamness is a poet, songwriter, and native Ann Arborite. Her first book, Feral Citizens (which she co-authored with Aimée Lê), was published in 2011 by Red Beard Press, a youth-driven independent press that is part of the Neutral Zone. I recently sat down with Fiona to talk about some of what inspires her writing. Afterward, she sent me three of her poems, previously unpublished (which can be found on the next page). The poems immediately drew me in and struck me in fresh and unpredictable ways. It’s hard not to be pulled in by them and then surprised at where you end up.


Julianne Linderman: “Marianas Trench,” to me, is an accurate description of pain. When you keep searching for the root cause of pain, keep seeking to get rid of it, it seems to just get deeper (so deep that even the deepest part of the ocean, Marianas Trench, can’t suffice as an appropriate comparison for it). What do you think this poem is trying to describe or say about pain?

Fiona Chamness: From when I was writing it, I didn’t have a thesis that I was trying to illustrate with metaphor; that’s not usually how my writing happens. The poem actually started with the title, which came into my head as a really ridiculous, melodramatic line. I think I expected a farce, but it ended up getting serious. In its current state, I think it has to do with the idea that there’s no working absolute by which we can measure suffering. I don’t buy the idea that we all suffer the same amount just from sharing the human condition — that strikes me as too easy a cop-out in the face of staggering social and global inequality — but it is true, if tautological, that the deepest suffering you’re able to feel is the deepest suffering you’re able to feel. You can’t replace it with someone else’s, at least not sustainably, and you can’t duck it by telling yourself it’s smaller than some entity outside you. You’re not a trench or a mountain and if your pain is overwhelming you, it’s just overwhelming you, and that’s that. There’s obviously much more to the story of processing pain than that, but I think this poem in particular deals with pain in its moment of distancing and non-acknowledgment, which many, if not all, kinds of pain pass through at some point on their way to or from moments of sharing or opening or collective expression.

Julianne Linderman: There’s some “unpretty” imagery both in the “Last Witch” and “Marianas Trench.” In Last Witch: You can squeeze her eyes to cure the common cold, and in Marianas Trench: … she could eat your body, layer by layer, squeezing and pressing you like a lemon juicer … “squeeze” leaves a strong impression in my mind. Is this a common — or conscious — device in your poetry, these darker images, blood, and so on?

Fiona Chamness: It’s certainly common. I suppose it’s conscious in the literal sense of my being aware that it’s happening. The underlying question of whether I favor it above gentler language on purpose in order to elicit specific reactions is more complicated. For better or worse, I’m an intense person, and I’m drawn to language I can experience viscerally — language that can conjure smells and tastes and textures, that feels physical in some way. I need and employ that language because it speaks to the intensity with which I experience and interpret, not because I have any particular reverence for the shocking or the destructive. I need to be free to go to unhappy or discomfiting places when that’s where I’m going, and I relish the way language can be evocative, but it’s the evocative rather than the provocative that generally guides me. If I lose sight of what need ugliness or disturbance is in service of, I don’t generally feel good about the work; the same is true of beauty.

JL: I’m tempted to connect this back to something you said when we met, but I can’t quite remember the context — something along the lines of “you don’t always write about ‘the flowers,’” which I took to mean your not being afraid to confront deeper issues and themes. For whatever reason, “not writing just about the flowers,” remained with me. Is there something to that for you?

FC: I had a really good conversation with a friend a while ago about the idea of content being “heavy.” I think it’s a deceptive description — things often feel a lot heavier to people who aren’t used to carrying them, and there’s a way in which, when approaching art, we tend to measure “deeper” or “darker” content using the responses of people who haven’t had the experience being discussed as a benchmark, and I think that can sometimes erase the way in which the same piece of art is experienced by people for whom the content is lived and familiar. As I said, beauty is important to me (as is joy, although they’re not the same thing), but so is approaching things that are difficult, whether I’m afraid to or not (and often I am.) What’s more, it’s important for me not to have expectations about people’s reactions — what feels heavy for me might feel commonplace to a reader, and what feels commonplace to me may strike a different reader as strange, difficult, or overwhelming.

JL: The last lines of “Last Witch” speak to one of the themes you told me you often write about — gender. In this case, the witch herself embodies a woman who isn’t afraid to challenge gender norms, specifically the rigid expectations of her “boring century”: Her rebellion is her legacy — Her skin will foam and rise like simmered cream. Her fingernails will peel away and point in new directions, an impossible compass, until there is nothing left in the square but the hard blood smell of her life, which could power a high-rise for a year, or feed an army of women, breath by breath. Can you talk a little more about gender and your poetry? How does your own life experience (being a 25-year-old woman) factor into this?

FC: It’s a pretty fraught place to think from, to be honest. What I have to say from gender doesn’t always connect clearly to what I have to say about gender. I come, for example, from a family history that includes a lot of physical and emotional violence that I would call gendered, in that it has targeted women in the places society rendered them most vulnerable. Some of that is the kind of violence we have narratives for, but there was also, for example, an ancestor who very much desired to be a writer and who may well have been queer and/or asexual — the line, I think, was that she “always disliked the company of men” — but who was gaslighted by a male friend into marrying him because he convinced her that pursuing her dreams would condemn her to a life of isolation and misery. I feel an intense, embodied connection with that history, and it has shaped both the way I speak from gender in my writing and the lessons I’m learning about it in my own life. I also, however, am deeply opposed to an essentialist view of gender that serves to divide and conquer, and to erase and abuse my loved ones who cross, straddle, or exist outside of the gender binary. I need to write about the way my particular female experience has shaped my perspective, but also about the very real ways in which gender itself can be violent, can empower, collectivize, isolate, and destroy in one breath. At heart, I find that for me gender is less a subject than a lens, both clarifying and unfair, through which to observe and test the interplay between emotional knowledge, the body, and social expectation. I suppose that’s not a very coherent answer, but when it comes to gender I haven’t had a particularly coherent experience.

JL: In your poem “Jerking Off” (published in Pank Magazine), I loved these lines, and they seem to partly relate to what we are talking about now: When I was twelve I learned the term ‘Fruit Cup Girl’: She who asks a boy to break open her fruit cup in a feigned or actual display of weakness. I am not a fruit cup girl. I’m curious to hear a little about what you were like when you were younger — I bet you were not a Fruit Cup Girl.

FC: When I was younger, I was very smart, very moody, very sensitive and more than a little insufferable. All of those things are still true. I was not a Fruit Cup Girl. In fact, I bought into the regrettable idea that in order to be taken seriously I should never need to ask for any help under any circumstances and that it was up to women to prove through utter independence that we were strong and worthy of respect. That idea made me scornful for girls who flirted, or dressed cute, or asked for help at all, and it’s a lot easier for me to recognize the misogyny inherent in that thinking now that I’ve had more time to learn how to be vulnerable. I have a lot of admiration and respect for my younger self for her scrappiness and stubbornness, not to mention for being a far more disciplined writer than I am now, but I’m also grateful at 25 to have the space and opportunity to at least try to get humbler, and to spend more time surrendering to what I don’t know.

JL: “The Ghost,” I admit, was the most challenging poem for me. After a third reading, I thought, Identity. That must be it! … Cell phones, high school, missing persons, to ultimately zombies and secret names. What’s your take on this?

FC: I came to and away from writing that poem more with a feeling than with an argument. My high school experience involved a lot of clandestine communication, a lot of crises (both major and minor) of which most adults in our lives were completely unaware. I used to sleep with my phone turned on all night (before social networks and smartphones made that standard practice) just in case there was an emergency and someone needed me. I think teenagers have dealt with that sense of vigilance for a long time — my mother and grandmother certainly remember it, and the idea of “teenage invincibility” has never rung true for any of us — but for my particular place and time the phone felt particularly indicative, kind of a talisman. Our phones also broke a lot, from our clumsiness and from shoddy construction, and part of the poem came from wondering if they were really breaking because they couldn’t stand up to the emotional voltage passing through them with such frequency.

JL: Speaking of high school, can you describe a little more about your work at the Neutral Zone? What have you learned from working with younger writers? Have they read your work? Were you surprised by their reactions?

FC: God, what haven’t I learned from working with younger writers? The teens I work with humble me every day. They challenge me to be a better person. I know that’s a clichéd response, but it’s true. I’ve learned from them about the importance of both emotional honesty and self-protection, about giving yourself permission in writing both to ask genuine questions and to be unafraid of stating your earned knowledge and emotional truths. I also receive assurance every day that writing is a living art. Although I exercise some care about what pieces I choose to bring into that space, my teens do read my work, and I assume they can find it if they want to. In fact, it was the Neutral Zone’s teen-run press that published my first (and only, to date) book, and the attention, critique, and care the teens put into that project is something I treasure to this day. I can only try my hardest to demonstrate the same kind of investment in their work and growth. It’s hard for me to be surprised by their insightfulness because I’m immersed in it, but I am awed by it nonetheless, and I wish there were more people in positions of power who were aware of the incredible gifts teens have to offer when they’re accorded respect and given spaces to express and explore.

JL: What are a few of your favorite poetry books as of late?

FC: To be honest, a lot of my more recent reading has been in fiction and memoir (two genres I’ve been trying to get back into writing.) Books I’ve loved most recently include David Vann’s Aquarium, Neal Schusterman’s Challenger Deep, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive. This is off the top of my head, but poetry books that have become and remained favorites include Sherman Alexie’s One Stick Song, Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter, Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odyssa, Aracelis Girmay’s Teeth, Rachel McKibbens’s Pink Elephant, and multiple works by Naomi Shihab Nye.

JL: Is there a particular stanza or excerpt that has stayed with you over the years? That has continually inspired you or remained true to you?

FC: There are several, both old and new. One is from a very old madrigal we sang in high school choir, of all places, “Since First I Saw Your Face”: “Where beauty moves and wit delights and signs of kindness bind me, there, oh there, where’ere I go, I leave my heart behind me.” Another is from a poem, to my knowledge unpublished, by Angel Nafis: “It’s okay to love everything so much that you feel like a practical joke.”


Posted on December 31, 2015 .