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An Interview with Ben Fama

[Poet]
by Zoe Brezsny
June 6th, 2019

“Every demon lives inside of me.”

Ben Fama’s playlist:
Summer’s Over,” by Dennis Harte
Grace,” The Durutti Column
Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, Brian Eno
Metallic Butterflyby Princess Nokia
N / O / I / S / E, by Ghostmane
Come Over When You’re Sober, by Lil Peep

Despite its title, Deathwish, is a strangely uplifting collection of poems. Ill lit with a melodic melancholy, it’s equally informed by rapper Lil Peep’s candid lyrics about substance abuse and depression as it is the deceptively casual flare of Frank ‘O Hara. Johanna Fateman, a musician and member of post-punk band Le Tigre, describes the book as lush with a “personal/political heartsickness,” which makes the reader feel less alone during our time of crisis. Fama writes midway through Deathwish, “The Anthropocene is a fucked-up time to be a live / yet mint grows / a chemical peel / a party at Bungalow five.”

At its core is a genuine longing for connection, a quest for new ways of enduring. Vivid scenes of being lost together are flickers of communal light in the void.  “I text you ca va? / you write back / much later / je suis triste.” Fama’s Deathwish is dedicated to those who kept his from coming true.

Ben Fama and I met for this interview at Veniero’s, the old pastry shop in the East Village, and talked under stained glass ceilings, light streaming through dark leaves and Art Deco red flowers. Ben ordered a dense, multi-layered rainbow cake, and I chose strawberry shortcake.

—Zoe Brezsny

I. “More Kindness”

THE BELIEVER: You reached out to me because I posted a photo of your Cool Memories chapbook on my Instagram. That was emblematic of how the poetry community works. It takes very little, a simple gesture of appreciation—to create a connection with another poet.

BEN FAMA: Yeah. When did I actually meet you? Apparently I met you at Brandon Brown’s hang at Hot Bird, but I’m not sure if I actually met you that night.

BLVR: Yeah, we waved and smiled. I think we remembered each other from online.

Here’s a set of questions I’d love to hear you talk about: how have you seen your writing evolve? Is Deathwish a maturation of your writing? How does it differ from the early metaphysical explorations of your chapbook Aquarius Rising and the deadpan tone of Fantasy?

BF: I think Deathwish is less myopic, even though it is supposed to have a very indulgent, self-centered title. There’s more here about the condition of mortality, which is just being aware of your life. There’s a line in here, in the poem “Conversion,” “Thinking is always a kind of prayer.”

That’s a line from “The Sandpiper”, the Elizabeth Taylor movie. There’s also a poem “Peasant,” that says, “Prayer is whatever you say on your knees.”

BLVR: Deathwish has wisdom. Despite its decadence, it’s imbued with an innate spirituality.

BF: I’ve been told it’s more mature then Fantasy. Maybe more resigned. It’s all a melancholy book. It’s involved with endurance.

We’re two years into the Trump administration and it’s a really horrible moment for everyone. People aren’t always necessarily being good to each other. It’s a palpable feeling out there: everyone is very tense. These poems are written from pause and reflection, a more openness, with more kindness.

BLVR: In the poem, “Picking Up Your Spilled Pills Off the Floor is Briefly Humbling,” you write about how poetry is “my dark heart, my secret / poetry / my baby laxative.”

Can you talk about that? Poetry as a drug, poetry as a supplement.

BF: You know, in a lot of ways poetry is an indulgence that fills a hole in my life, which is a problem. I don’t have a therapist right now, but I probably should. Poetry, my baby laxative. It’s about things you have mixed into your life to thin it out, to make it last longer, to slow it down.

BLVR: What do you think about the issue of writing poetry as a coping method, as a mode of fantasy to make yourself feel better? I DJ my weekly radio show on WFMU, and the fantasy rush, the dreamy escape, I get while playing music for strangers pretty much saves me on a regular basis. I’m thinking of your lines, “Gucci streetwear at maison premiere / that actual condo in the clouds,” and later, “this sounds like a poor man’s Ben Fama poem / but I am a poor man.”

BF: Words are crazy because they’re free. Literally anyone can write poetry, and create situations through language that give the world back to you.

BLVR: Yes. And often the best poems are the ones that are raw, pure, less manicured, and less academic.

BF: Yeah. A lot of these poems that ended up in here are the first drafts that I wrote. I published the first draft as the final even though I worked them over a few times. I have a friend Rachel Rabbit White who helped me a lot. I would send her my drafts, just text them. I would take a picture of the document and send it to her and say, “This is what I did today.” Just as accountability. A week later I would send her the final and she’d always say, “The first one (draft) was better.” And that helped me learn to edit myself.

BLVR: Interesting. I know successful poets who have poems from their youth that are amazing, but they deflect them because they think of them as amateur. They’re actually quite good because of their rawness.

BF: Yeah. I have a daily writing practice that I try to maintain. Once you get into that flow when you sit down to write it just feels so good. Something clicks and it feels you can write about anything. You can work it over but sometimes the initial rush that comes out is all the raw material that you really need and overworking it takes away what made it interesting in the first place.

BLVR: You make poems look easy to write. For instance, these lines seem effortless:

“I appropriated a corporate apology / and saved it / in case something happened / but my end date came / and my vacation days paid out.”

Some readers might not realize how difficult it is to write the way you do. I’m wondering how you achieve your unique approach to language: your lucid, streamlined cadence of meaning and imagery.

BF: I don’t think about sound as much as I should in poems, but I do think about tonal registers a lot. I tend to write more for the page.I do love performing. Cutting out extra stuff to just keep the poem moving fast is really important to me.

BLVR: Are you consciously thinking of the beauty of language? That seems important to you as well.

BF: I really never want to publish anything that seems overwritten. I feel allergic to that. I remember once someone described something as being writerly; which shook me because it’s writing, like, isn’t that the point? But now I understand. You rinse the poems off and take out the extra stuff. And everything is still there that was there before.

And people read it and don’t know what they’re missing because it’s better. The poem can be full without being excessive.

BLVR: Yes, indeed.

BF: I mean, a poem itself is excessive.

[Laughter]

II. Fillers, Spells, and Altars

BLVR: One thing that I’m really interested in Deathwish is how you use glowing, lyrical words with an elegant pedigree, like “emerald, blood, ash,” and fuse them with crystals of the modern, like, “Restylane, Juevederm, dysport.” I like how you go back and forth between the old language and the new.

BF: I don’t know, those things don’t seem that different to me. They’re all part of our contemporary moment. I mean if you’re on Saint Marks Avenue you can pass a gem store right next to a plastic surgeon. These are all elements of change. They all are things that seem to hold alchemical power, whether it’s eternal life, beauty, cultural cache. At the end of the day, we’re just staring at ourselves in the mirror wondering what the fuck to do with our lives, and people make these decisions to consume. They want to get some fillers, they want to cast a spell, they want to make an altar. People are superstitious and place value in things—it could be a rock, it could be another person. People dream the things they want are bound in things, so I wanted to buttress those two together because they all seem to be informing our cultural moment right now.

BLVR: Let’s imagine that every poetry book is, in a sense, a grimoire, a book of spells. What spells do you want to cast on yourself, on your readers, on the world?

BF: In a sense it was a healing spell on myself. It was also a healing spell for someone I was in a really intense BDSM relationship with. We were going through really horrible periods of our lives outside of that relationship and we sort of smashed together, and used poetry as a way to mutually help each other heal. So I guess the spell is a sort of loosening spell to open up the space for an easier, softer way to deal with relationships, to endure, to deal with consciousness.

A lot of this book is about money, how we are stuck with money. I am kind of allergic to big statements about capitalism, but that’s the moment we are in right now.

BLVR: I work at a niche record store called Commend that does specific curation of esoteric records. A friend of mine came in and bought a new age tape called “The Goddess is Dancing.” We discussed how our generation is so in debt that we can’t buy houses or even go to the doctor, but we buy ourselves nice little things.

BF: We are held hostage by our debts. Student loan companies that advertise how we wouldn’t be able to get a job without a college education twenty-eight years ago, they were probably advertising that stuff, and turned out to be not true.

BLVR: Can you comment on the use of luxury items in the narrative of Deathwish?

BF: Well, in Fantasy, the premise was sort of cynicism is our dominant mode of discourse, this informs our behaviors as lovers, consumers, family members. Deathwish I think is more mature because it looks past cynicism and it’s not optimistic but it has more love. It’s more loving towards the situation, people who are also trying to find beauty that’s bigger than themselves, I guess I’d say. There’s no right way to live. No one knows how to live.

BLVR: I think also that when loneliness, anxiety, and depression are the common denominator for millennials, what more can they do than to turn to poetry? Because it’s free and accessible to everyone—unlike acupuncture and other expensive healing tools.

BF: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I saw this article about how memes help people with their anxiety, like really self-degrading memes, and I don’t like those kinds of memes because I they’re perpetuating this kind of poisonous thinking that holds people back, whether it’s their creativity, their art, etc.

I don’t fetishize happiness but I do seem to not feel as bad as I have in the past. Those memes about like rolling into work on Monday with coke on your face and zero money in your bank account, life doesn’t have to be that way. I did do that for a long time and I’m glad I’m not doing that anymore. There are definitely memes that I really like but they tend to be more abstract and more visionary I’d say.

Getting caught in the cynical whirlpool, I think is the most harmful thing happening to Zoomers or Generation Z. It’s been really great to work with Newest York on Deathwish because even though it has a lot of self-degradation in there, I think it also has a lot of images of liberation, jouissance, orgiastic mutual aid: ways to endure, ways to move forward.

Can I have a bit of that? [Gestures to my strawberry shortcake].

BLVR: Please. This one is epic.

BF: It looks so beautiful.

III. “Fuck the internet.”

BLVR: Is writing a way of making sense of a world that doesn’t make sense?

BF: I don’t think you can make sense of the whole world in one book. I don’t think that would be a good book but you can put certain things in order.

I think arranging words and making a poem is a nice attempt.

BLVR: Another thing about this book: even though the title is Deathwish, I find the poems to be consoling and comforting in their darkness. They offer solace.

BF: Yeah, I’m not sure if they’re comforting or not.

BLVR: They are to me. Can you talk about your relationship to the internet as a tool for inspiration?

BF: The internet as a discourse right now, I think, is so in the gutter, whether it’s art criticism, or a political conversation. The internet has brought out our worse tendencies, which is to reduce and attack, draw lines. I’m kind of lost. I don’t have that much positive to say about the internet right now. Fuck the internet.

BLVR: One of your skills as a writer is taking concrete details distilled from the web and combining them with say, Barbara Guest lines, or philosophical explorations of the inner life. “I like roses dyed with black ink,” you write in “I Clicked All Your Links,” and then later, “I am closer to you / than land and I am in a stranger ocean / than I wished.” You manage to be timeless even while commenting on the current climate.

BF: Yeah. Like the “I Clicked all your Links” poem. This was sort of an occasional poem, you know, meeting someone and starting to form this very early relationship that seems like it’s going to be a friendship, but it’s unclear. It’s processing. Just like have two lives slam up against each other, is a magical thing. This sort of alchemy that happens just in talking to someone in person, talking things out. Just to get to meet someone and maybe think about them later, just try to process what happens. That’s where this poem comes from: the first or second thought you have after meeting someone and realizing it went well and not knowing what’s going to happen from there. That in itself could be an end. And that is an end in itself in the poem.

BLVR: What drew you to put in the Barbara Guest lines as the closing?

BF: Barbara Guest is one of my favorite writers. Particularly in her book, “Forces of Imagination,” she has this idea of invisible architecture, and that’s where our unconscious guides decisions or making in the poem and through writing we have to learn to read ourselves to see what the poem is teaching us or wants to be. In the process of creation, we reveal things to ourselves that we otherwise might not know. I’m so in debt to those primary ideas about self-knowledge through creation, community through creation. And it’s my book and I wanted to put Barbara Guest in there and so I did. She writes better than I could.

BLVR: What would you say are the overarching themes of Deathwish?

BF: Being buried under interminable debt, role play—whether it’s larping, or in your day job, your work persona. It’s about BDSM, role play as a way of escaping toxic narratives, it’s about grace, lower case g grace.

BLVR: When you were writing the poems in Deathwish, were you imagining the people who would ultimately read them? If so, who were they and what were they like?

BF: No, I didn’t picture anybody. I think I was mostly glad they would read it when I wasn’t there.

BLVR: Do you feel that the person who wrote Deathwish is a former self? Or do you see him as a part of who you are now? A lot of images in the book are about a self-destructive cycle you went through. But I know you’ve entered a new chapter of sobriety.

BF: Every demon lives inside of me. This is all me, it all came from me and is still in me.

BLVR: Why did you feel the importance of including the erotic poems? What’s the function of the erotic?

BF: I think it adds a layer, what I was hoping was, a voice that you don’t normally see, which is male/female where the male is subordinate. The desire wasn’t in service to the male gaze, or a toxic masculinity, but rather in service to female desire, which I’d say is a de-centered PoV type of situation. My writing group encouraged me to keep going with that because they thought it was an interesting perspective and it was funny. It was really fun to write, it was much different than the other things I was working on. I guess it’s erotica because it’s sex, but I don’t know. It also seems totally normal to me. Maybe I have a totally deranged brain. There were a lot of drugs going on.

BLVR: What would you imagine the book to follow Deathwish to be called?

BF: Compersion. It’s going to be a novel about a sexually ambitious group of people. Trademark, so you heard it first.

BLVR: I just looked up “compersion” and see that it means the feeling of joy one has experiencing another’s joy. I love that. Does poetry come easier to you than writing fiction?

BF: It’s way more fun. The stakes are lower because pleasure is in the creation of the poem, and it takes so much shorter honestly—you can write a poem in a morning and feel good about it. I’ve spent four years now writing a novel. I’ve finished writing it and that feels good, but I’m trying to decide whether I even want to enter this New York literary world. I’m trying to find a model of someone who has published a novel who I want the success they’ve had and I can’t find a single person. I’m wondering do I even want to publish a novel and why that would be. Right now I could take it or leave it.

BLVR: Can you think of any nontraditional novelists who excites you?

BF: Bruce Wagner is my literary hero, I’d say. He’s a Los Angeles author who drove a limo for a long time, also went to rehab, writes whatever he wants.  A lot of people don’t like his writing.

I don’t know if he really cares if he’s successful with it in industry terms. The kind of books that get a lot of attention don’t really resonate with me typically. They are important to our cultural moment. Thinking purely from the aesthetic, in existential terms, how art is valuable to me, I can’t relate that at all to the ambitions it takes to be a successful writer.

IV. In Which Bad News is Delivered to Ben Fama’s Haters

BLVR: Have you ever thought of to what degree your poems are in service to your desire to be loved or wanted or adored?

BF: I mean, show me someone who doesn’t want to be respected. And bad news to my haters, there is only more coming.

BLVR: In Deathwish you seem to value simple lines over superfluous writerly lines.

BF: I love one syllable words so much.

BLVR: The second list poem in Deathwish is composed of simple couplets that cut to the heart. For example: “Working death / Public shaming.” Was that found text? Or how did you create this serial poem?

BF: This form is very contagious, and I caught it I think from Joseph Mosconi. He has a book [Fright Catalog] where I think he did word generators, where he came up with these word clusters. His book is more visual. The font and color combinations inflect the meaning of the words. He does more conceptual-based writing.

But I really wanted to try something where the connotations of the words made the couplets hold together. So: “Public shaming / Iphone ouroboros / Internet rash / Generation punish.” Those things build up against each other and start to accumulate meanings and snowball. I think it builds a really nice picture of what’s happening right now, a lot of the aggression and bad feelings, small moments of hope, larger moments of pessimism.

BLVR: I love an untitled poem in Deathwish in which you just trail off: “Days of war / nights of love / The more things change / things more the.” And the reader doesn’t know if it’s a mistake or intentional. Like you can’t find the right words to describe the moment so you just. . .

BF: It’s a poetic device/form I developed in Fantasy.

BLVR: I love how it frays. A collage of consciousness. I think it captures our generation’s inability to find the words to describe key moments. Why did you choose to leave it open ended?

BF: Rejection of closure.

BLVR: Some poets are obsessed with the golden ribbon tying of poems.

BF: I’ve never heard that before.

BLVR: It’s a pet peeve of mine.

BF: I’ll pray for those people.

BLVR: In some literary journals, where it seems you must have a climactic pop at the end. Your refusal to do that was refreshing.

BF: Epiphany poetry… I pray for them.

BLVR: What would the ideal review of Deathwish say?

BF: That’s a slippery slope into indulgence I don’t like. It might send me back into the deathwish.

BLVR: Fair enough. Because you’re very genuine in this book, were there moments you felt you revealed too much? Or you were ashamed or embarrassed of what you wrote? Maybe you didn’t have as much protection as you got from the cynicism of previous books. This vulnerability is part of what I love about Deathwish.

BF: I wasn’t worried about putting out something. There are no open wounds from this. I have distance from all those situations where it just feels good to get it out there.

I’m not traumatized or anything. I don’t need to take up space in that conversation. But this book is more about the existential question of suicide and not the ethical question of suicide. I know it’s a great privilege to even be able to consider to end your life. But for mine, my deathwish was more existential and aesthetic.

It’s so indulgent to make art about that. But what are you supposed to use your life for.

I think the meaning of life is helping other people.

BLVR: Yes.

BF: So now you know.

BLVR: Do you believe in including wabi-sabi or imperfections in your poems, or do you strive toward a perfect poem?

BF: I’m not too familiar with wabi-sabi, but I’d say relating to the Barbara Guest’s Invisible Architecture, I think a perfect poem creates itself on its own terms and if you are really in touch with your writing practice, you’ll understand what it wants to be perfect. So there can be something that is a perfect poem, but it’s not something that you can make from a blank sheet of paper. It’s something that makes itself with you. Learning to edit yourself is an extremely valuable thing that any writer can learn. We are all as my friend Rachel says, “Clowns putting words on a page.”

BLVR: Clouds?

BF: Clowns, little clowns putting words on the page. My answer should have been, in regards to the perfect review: it doesn’t matter what they say, it matters who says it.

BLVR: I love the use of gothic imagery and early 2000s goth references throughout Deathwish. Like roses dyed with black ink, vampire gloves, and My Chemical Romance. Why bring them back now?

BF: Yeah, so that’s a personal made public. That’s from the section of the book that was written along another person. I think we had smoked PCP, and were fucking around and My Chemical Romance was playing.

BLVR: My Chemical Romance often addresses mental illness, and one of their aims is to provide consolation to their young fans. Their primary message coming out was “I’m not ok,” and “we’re in this together.” Lead singer Gerard Way struggled with alcohol, substance abuse, and depression himself. So even subconsciously that might have been on your mind.

BF: Yeah, it’s possible. I like cultural references, especially ones that aren’t apropos, cause it’s such an odd choice to make. So then the task is giving it a reason to be there. So to have these intimate moments doing chemical drugs not to explain the joke fully but “my chemical romance,” doing pcp, and I know My Chemical Romance is a pretty neutered type of band. I’d say they’re pretty mall. I like the sort of evil image of like, biting somebody on PCP up against this sort of cotton t-shirt band.

BLVR: The title “1inamilli0nangel”: did you find that username online, or did you just come up with it?

BF: That’s the name of an Instagram account for Dese Escobar, who is a nightlife promoter and model. They posted this picture one day when I was really going through it and I wrote this poem based on this image they posted. I guess it’s ekphrastic based on this Instagram post and I just titled it after their Instagram account. Never thought I would share it with anyone but then I ended up keeping it for the book.

BLVR: Yeah. Those are sometimes the best. I was looking at Scariest Bug Ever, a meme account on Instagram. I jotted down a line and it ultimately became a part of poem: “She feels a short period of euphoria after running on the treadmill then drinking a tall glass of cool not cold water.”

BF: I love when that happens.

BLVR: Later when I read it at a reading someone came up to me afterwards and said, “Oh, is that from Scariest Bug Ever?” They actually remembered the post. These memes permeate public consciousness.

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