Leora Fridman is the author of My Fault (Cleveland State University Press). In this interview, we talk about Alice Notley, Leora’s influences, and her writing process.
Kallie Falandays: You incorporate an epigraph by Alice Notley. When did you first come across this Notley line and how did or does it continue to affect you and your work?
Leora Fridman: Alice Notley’s a grand auntie to me of sorts, and her work has been around me for a long time, since I was lucky enough to be introduced to her work in college. My first poetry teacher assigned Descent of Alette and I remember having no clue whatsoever what to do with it, but knowing there was something there for me.
As for that line in particular, it comes from her poem “Choosing Styles,” and evokes much of what I find a home in in Notley – the tremendously generous and direct way that she deals with the impulse to care, to relate, but also the drag of that, the unfortunate compassionate impulse, the complexity we gain when we see ourselves in relationship or choose to be in relationship. “Pained and similar plants, now don’t I have to / give,” she writes, evoking a reluctance to give but the necessity of it when realizing similarity. This is important to me in this book as I work through impulses to care and connect (which are, of course, also gendered) and my desire to complicate them, make them visible – make them visible as labor and as conflict, work taking place that allows conversation and social engagement to function.
If you had to describe your book to a 3rd grader, what might you say?
It’s not all your fault, but you should still say you’re sorry when you mean it.
What was the most interesting thing that you discovered about your collection after publishing it? What do you think other people will think is the most interesting aspect of your collection?
Caryl Pagel, my editor at CSU, was an astoundingly thoughtful reader of the manuscript. One of the first things she started talking to me about once we were editing the book was my politics and the explicit discussion of politics in the book. In some ways I thought my politics were implicit, hidden, opaque in this book, and it was a surprise (in the end an enjoyable one) to feel myself exposed. I always feel exposed in this way when other people who aren’t me draw connections between my poems and talk about recurring themes or words they see. I don’t usually see these recurrences until after I finish a group of poems, and then it feels like this strange mirroring to look at the poems from the outside (or have someone else look at them from the outside) and realize they are hashing out certain topics or turns of phrase over and over again, that my obsessions and interests are really that pervasive and obvious.
Can you talk a bit about what you thought publishing would be like vs. what it is actually like?
Hm, this is a tough question – to some degree the book itself being published came about as a surprise. I’d been sending out another manuscript, a serial long poem that kept being a finalist for contests that I’d always thought would be my first book. After almost four years of sending it out I got sick of it, tore apart a bunch of old poems, put them back together, and made My Fault – and only sent it out to CSU. It still feels strange in some ways that this book is my first book. But it also feels fresh and good.
In general, my publishing experience has been very lucky: Caryl and everyone at CSU is incredibly good, responsible and organized, and demonstrated so much care for my poems and for the publishing / promotions logistics around getting the book out. That’s different than what I expected: so many of my friends had published their first books on very small presses that didn’t have the means to really edit the book, promote it in significant ways, or bring in design help. I feel very lucky to have had so much help with those things.
Your book opens with a poem that incorporates an “I am” anaphora. Why start the collection with this poem and what was the ordering process like for this collection?
As Dara Wier refers to in her blurb on the back of the book, I’m not hiding in this collection. There’s a definite “I” here. The “I” is not always me, but the engagement with a singular ego in a community context is definitely important to the book and to the ethics it’s trying to confront. Given that many of the poems can be more conceptual, I wanted to start the book with something that felt friendly, like a person introducing themselves. Again, even though that “I” isn’t necessarily always me, I wanted to greet the reader and say that I’m happy they are there, shake their hand. As I was ordering the collection as a whole, it was very important to me to figure out how to be friendly (or, take care of the reader) but also make it clear that friendliness is not my only / primary goal in the book, that in fact I’m trying to challenge the culture that requires women to smile on the street in order not to be perceived as rude. And so I thought about this as I was ordering the book, and tried to balance my friendly instincts and my instincts to be “rude,” or just closed and private.
What was the first poem you wrote in the collection and when did you realize that you had a full manuscript coming together? Was it a conscious effort?
As I said above, this was a book made of torn apart poems that had been sitting around for a while that I rewrote and put together very quickly. So, yes, it was definitely a conscious effort to make it a book / a new book. I pretty much always have to trick myself into believing that I’m writing a book so that I can feel motivated to write – my labor feels more deserving when it’s leading up to something big.
My favorite line in your collection is “Can you tell me / what an arcade / means” because it points out the inherent difficulty of language and the necessity of begging for it and pulling it out. What is your favorite line from this collection?
Oh gosh, that’s a tough question to answer. It changes all the time, especially since I’m giving readings a lot right now and I start to like new lines depending upon how different audiences react to them. When I read in Seattle recently I started to like the end of my poem “Rigor” more – it goes, “how keeping it on / makes me respectful, / and keeping it meek / isn’t shown.” The meek > shown movement people seem to like.
There are certain tropes – of speaking, of hands, of bodies, of being silent – that run through this collection. Can you talk a bit about what haunts you as a writer? Are there certain ideas, words, sounds, or voices that you keep coming back to?
I hesitate to generalize, because, yes, of course I have my obsessions, but I also want the book to be associative. I want people to digest it and associate it with whatever it makes them think of. That said, this book is definitely obsessed with fault and responsibility, how we assign it and how it we take it on. It’s also interested in gender performance as it comes through and effects the body, with living as a sometimes grungy high femme cis-gendered woman who enjoys performing my femininity but also feels so angry about my gender positioning and often desperately unsafe in my body in public. So, I want to talk about how to be caring and receptive while also boundaried, protective, safe. I’m interested in the deep ambivalence there.
Can you make us a playlist to listen to while we think about your collection?
Here’s a smattering of what I was listening to as I put this collection together:
Disclosure – Sam Smith
Mapei – Don’t Wait
Nico & Vinz – Am I Wrong
Las Cafeteras – Luna Lovers
Ana Tijoux – 1977
Asher Roth – Tangerine Girl
Sia – Chandelier
Lupe Fiasco- Old School Love
Sylvan Esso – Coffee
What was the most important advice you received about this collection?
Ah, I wouldn’t say I really got advice. I don’t really take advice easily! I definitely was exchanging poems in this collection with other poets I respect who would write back their own poems, and that’s the best advice I get these days, seeing what kind of poem in a response poem to my work.
What are you currently working on, reading, and thinking about?
I’m working on a collection of essays – yep! Prose is happening! I’m writing poems too, but at the moment I’m writing a number of essays that I think will eventually be together in a collection. In some ways related to my fault, they’re interested in incidents of care and networks of care, how people care for each other when they are separated from their families and traditional care networks, how people care for each other across histories of trauma and difference. They touch on my own family’s history as well as experiences with mental illness, gentrification, racial justice work, and spiritual practice. They are ongoing!