Satanic Physical Allure: Dan Magers Interviews Ben Fama
Ben Fama has two brand new chapbooks out: Cool Memories (Spork Press, 2013) and Odalisque (Bloof Books, 2014). His first full-length book of poems, Fantasy, will be published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2015.
His work is a mixture of chillness and sincerity. Take this line:
I want my headstone to say ‘stay cool’ or ‘have a nice summer.’
Fama is also the co-founder (along with Andrew Durbin) of the literary publishing and events platform Wonder. I sat down to chat with Ben on a snowy Sunday afternoon in December 2013 at Lincoln Park Tavern in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. We discussed the Virginia Tech massacre, Los Angeles, and Lacanian readings of Paula Deen.
DM: Where did you grow up?
BF: I grew up in Newport News, Virginia, which is in the Mid-Atlantic area. It’s between Richmond and Virginia Beach. Very weird city because it’s essentially like a military city – there’s a shipyard and army bases around there where basically I’d say like 75 percent of the population is tied to the U.S. Military who work there. And then my parents ended up there ‘cause their parents were military, but they aren’t. The most classic suburban sprawl…this sort of new urbanism. But it’s like a very impoverished place, demographically completely mixed.
DM: So what was your childhood like? And what was your childhood and adolescence like living there?
BF: It was pretty blissed out. I had all the appropriate signifiers of a healthy teenage boy. I owned a guitar. I had video games. Had a Guitar World subscription and collaged pictures on my wall of Twiggy Ramirez from Marilyn Manson and Bush and like had a Nirvana cassette and long hair. And, oh, there’s a lot of surf culture ‘cause Virginia Beach is kind of near so has this like fake surfer thing going on.
DM: Did you go to college around where you grow up? Where did you go to college?
BF: I went to school at Virginia Tech. Virginia Polytechnical Institute. My dad went there so I applied, and I went there. I had so little to do with the college, I mean you can imagine, it’s kind of an engineering school, but they have some liberal arts stuff.
I just sort of found my way into this sort of alternative community I was a part of, which was essentially farmers’ markets and tall bikes and critical mass organizing. It’s in the Appalachian Mountains in southwest Virginia, as opposed to where I grew up. Really gorgeous area; extremely impoverished. I was there for about five years. The infamous Virginia Tech massacre happened my last year. And, uh, I was already disgusted with the collegiate environment, and that nudged me to move, so….
DM: What was your experience of that? What um, first of all talk about how you were disgusted with the collegiate environment and how did the shooting make you want to leave?
BF: Well Virginia Tech was a very violent experience for me. I lived in this sort of punk house called the Solar House that ended up shut down because the floor where the shows were on was on the third floor. And it was called the Solar House because they had these really large windows, south-facing windows. And they busted during a show and all these people fell out
DM: Fell out of the window?
BF: Yeah. And so they all landed on this concrete patio, which was essentially my front door. Um, there’s also some friends of mine…I don’t know if I should bring this up…I have a friend who is now on death row in Virginia, just one bad situation led to a bunch of other desperate situations.
And you know the culture of a football school where Michael Vick, I suppose, in the early 2000s, kind of redefined Virginia Tech’s culture. It’s just so anti-intellectual and idiotic. There’s no investment that I could find in there other than alienation and sort of like…but ironic posturing wasn’t even available as a way of being there, um so it was a really uncomfortable experience outside of my immediate friend group.
I started getting interested in contemporary poetry world I suppose in college. I made some friends who were writing, and I was always interested in writing, but I never had a community to graft onto. I read Cate Marvin’s World’s Tallest Disaster, which made me excited about contemporary writing, and I still love that book.
DM: So you were writing a lot by then, and so you moved to New York, and like I, one of the things I’ve always been impressed by is the fact you accomplished a lot in poetry, but don’t have an MFA. So you moved to New York and became an intern for Ugly Duckling Presse, so what was the decision-making to move to New York City and how did you get into the New York poetry community?
BF: Well, you know, I used a little bit of student loan money to travel on the Greyhound bus around the country. Took the Greyhound bus from Virginia to Portland, which took three days. And I thought Portland was cool because you could just hang out in cafés all the time, and I was kind of only in the neighborhood where the Powell’s satellite store was, so I essentially was just reading all their poetry books. And I could imagine myself there, but then I went to Seattle, Montreal, and passed through New York on the way back down. I had some friends who moved here who are musicians. I stayed with them about a week, and I just had so much fun and I thought that if I could do New York I wanted to do that, so I did.
I had a friend who was a manager at The Strand, he got me a job there and I met David Jou, who was working on my floor, and is an editor at Ugly Duckling. And he said I work for a press, hand sewn poetry publisher…I actually didn’t intern for them in any formal capacity. I think I mostly annoyed them by like smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and talking too much. So eventually I stopped going to their press volunteer days, but I remain very close with them, and I consider them my publisher for life as far as I’m concerned.
DM: You wanted to say that Cool Memories, you were able to treat the Virginia Tech shooting.
BF: I got a great email from the university I work for, saying I would have to go to active shooter training. And I knew it was because of things like the Virginia Tech shooting that inaugurated this new world where at any point someone could just start opening fire. And uh, I thought this was pure gold and also so devastating at the same time.
I had to go to active shooter situational training. And I just wrote down…These guys were former cops who had both been in an active shooter situation….And it was such a dark experience. And I was with my coworkers who interviewed me and they knew. It’s a trigger. I essentially wrote down what they said, and that was the beginning of my poem “Sunset,” which is in Cool Memories.
DM: Interesting. I would have never have thought. When I first read that poem, it was in Boston Review, and I first read that, I of course didn’t make that association, that poem very much reminds me a lot of Dana Ward’s work, where he like appropriates so many different kinds of texts and he incorporates them in his poems. That’s what I thought you were doing, and I had no idea it had such connection with your personal experience.
DM: How did you meet Andrew Durbin?
BF: Andrew, who I do Wonder with now, we met when he had solicited me when he was working for CLOCK magazine, a journal that was based in Bard College, which is upstate NY. They were doing such great work, these gorgeous journals, and we became fast friends. And he was going to move to New York, I was encouraging him to move to New York. Of course, he’s in Miami right now for Art Basel. He’s running circles around me! [jokingly]….It’s the kind of friendship where you don’t need to give a formal greeting or departing you see them so much. You, um, he’s family.
DM: Why did you start Wonder?
BF: Um I actually did want to have more issues of the journal [Supermachine] but, I uh, life is…there’s not enough time to do everything… and I really wanted to do full-length books, which is why Andrew Durbin and I started Wonder…I love the journal for how timely it is…you always have to emphasize the new…and you know, I love the new, but with full-length books, not only are they new, but they substantiate themselves sort of as uh, they seem to have a longer half-life of like haunting the life of a reader more than a journal, and I think I was interested in that type of haunting, to do a full-length book. We are publishing Kevin Killian’s book. We are publishing Kate Durbin’s book.
DM: You’ve mentioned Dana Ward as someone who seems very vital to what you think about poetry. Are there some other poets who you feel are also important to you and how you think about poetry?
BF: Brandon Brown, Flowering Mall. Usually when I’m sitting down to write a poem, I’m trying to do everything but write a poem. Which is to say look at all my social media accounts to see what everyone else is doing and procrastinate as long as possible. Brandon Brown has a piece somewhere online that’s really wonderful that talks about how when he starts to write, he goes online, look, reads, looks at things. I felt an affinity for that, I think it’s not explored so much about, you know, the stimulus that starts a piece of work. I mean one can recall Ashbery’s ekphrastic “Self-Portrait” thing, but I mean I think those types of things spark almost all works, there must be some first, you know, some first idea, but um I don’t know I don’t really sit down to write a poem very often. All my work is in Google Docs so I can work on it anywhere even on my phone on the subway cause I try to take the Q because they have Internet on there. So there’s not a lot of demarcation between not writing and writing in that sense. It’s a constant state of revision and moving on and revising and moving on.
People always compare me to Dana, which to me I always want to say, “You should read more,” because that’s so easy. It feels very cheap to me or reductive…just because I write in prose doesn’t make me just like Dana. A lot of people write that way.
DM: How do you feel visual style, like in fashion or the visual arts or whatever, the “visual” plays into poetry?
BF: A successful poetic image will make you see. Andre Breton, I learned through Barbara Guest, in her great book, Forces of Imagination, says, “To imagine is to see.” Andrew Durbin in Believers has this great read of Paula Deen, a documentary of, have you read it?
DM: I was just reading it on the train.
BF: Okay. Have you got to the point where he [the therapist] does [an] intervention with the [Deen] family members?
BF: Okay, let’s talk about this.
DM: He’s another person who I uh, I feel like that book is very much in the manner of Dana Ward. And I actually mentioned that to him. He found that interesting.
BF: People always say that to us. It’s so offensive, because it’s like—
DM: There’s definitely more people in the world—
BF: This is not new, writing in prose, people always just say that.
DM: The thing that I thought uh—
BF: I mean it’s not offensive, but uh we wonder what you’re really saying.
DM: The thing that connected the two in the example you mentioned was this use of pop culture, but also infusing pop culture with this intellectualism – Paula Deen talking about Lacan – um but also the way Ward, or Durbin in this case, uses this fantasy space where Paula Deen talks through Lacan, and does it straight-faced like you know. And assumes an intelligent reader knows this actually didn’t happen. Um and so yeah, I—
BF: Yeah, his gives a breathtaking Lacanian reading to this family scene of ah, you know the id, ego and the super ego and you know a fantasized identities of Lacan…You know we have to disagree with Lacan also. Um, Paula Deen is the worst.
DM: I um, Los Angeles infuses Cool Memories a lot, and according to Facebook, on May 31, 2015, you, Andrew, and Monica McClure are moving to Los Angeles. Tell me about your experience of Los Angeles, both being there, or even just your idea of it, and what does it symbolize for you?
BF: The world is about to end in LA. Los Angeles inaugurated with the very accessible, long stretches of sun that Hollywood built itself on the valley where they could cheaply light their sets, they inaugurated the end of the world. By representing what people wanted. What would happen after that? It would go away, and that’s, you know, how life is—
DM: Is there like a thing or things that you feel…the thing about Cool Memories is that like there seems so much that feels aspirational, like things that one wants, what are—
BF: Such as what?
DM: Just like…Sun…like sort of pining towards this idea of like dating an actress or having money or having leisure, being in a place where like you can be relaxed all the time, or have sun, and so—
BF: That’s so Blade Runner, that’s so sad.
DM: Do you feel I’m incorrect in that?
BF: Well, I wouldn’t have thought of that, but Gotham is Blade Runner too. I think New York, which I don’t think I could move away from, is Blade Runner. But the iteration is then different. Selfie, the selfie culture, the self-documentation I realize, I only realized, it was all surveillance. Surveillance is…Freud even said, we want to acquiesce, essentially you know we wanted to die under our own condition.
DM: To acquiesce to our own conditions?
BF: Acquiesce to the organic world. Or, you know, we want to die. We want to control our deaths. And I think selfie is about that. Want to control the way our life narrative will pass. Like choosing your funeral dress.
Um, Blade Runner, I think, maybe thought it would be more public, but now that we know the FBI is looking through our Webcam, it seems so obvious that we were the whole time. Um at the end of Brazil, when they are on the highway and the hills are so high…you know Brazil?
DM: I’ve never seen it actually. But I know of it.
BF: Okay, Dan, you have to see this. C’mon!
DM: That’s always what I hear. That is always the response.
BF: I know but like…