Soon After First Light: BK Fischer
Soon After First Light is a series where we talk craft, process, and pandemic with Columbia's accomplished writing professors.
Here, we talk with alumna and adjunct faculty member BK Fischer '97 about the poetics of interruption, generative failure, and allowing ourselves to lie fallow.
BK Fischer is the author of Ceive (BOA Editions 2021), and four previous books of poetry—Radioapocrypha (Mad Creek, Ohio State UP, 2018), My Lover’s Discourse (Tinderbox Editions, 2018), St. Rage's Vault (The Word Words, 2013), and Mutiny Gallery (Truman State UP, 2011). She is also the author of a critical study, Museum Mediations: Reframing Ekphrasis in Contemporary American Poetry (Routledge, 2006). Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Jacket2, Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, FIELD, Literary Mama, WSQ, Modern Language Studies, Ninth Letter, and other journals. She lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York, with her family.
What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project?
BK Fischer: I wish I had a more stable writing routine, but there are a lot of moving parts in my family’s life and in my days. I do the best I can to find time at my desk. It’s always like clearing a small path through an avalanche of other responsibilities and tasks. I just keep shoveling a path and try not to be buried.
All of my books were published after I became a parent, and the interruptive nature of parenting and its changing demands has been the condition of my entire public writing life, a circumstance I have navigated to get writing done, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, for 20 years. People would ask me when I found time to write with three kids in the house, and I would say “the seven minutes while the mac and cheese macaroni is boiling, those are seven good minutes.” That’s not really funny anymore. I did write most of Mutiny Gallery, my first published book, standing at the kitchen counter with my laptop open, moving it out of the way of all the sticky family flotsam and jetsam. But the truer answer is that I just pieced it together—found time while they were at school, while they watched a truly obscene amount of PBS Kids, whenever I could swap time with other parents and squeeze out a few more hours, and a rare getaway once in a while when I could focus for a couple of days. Now I do have longer stretches of time, but they’re still home, coming and going, and conditions are always changing. Especially through the long months of the pandemic, when everyone was doing their schooling partly or fully at home, nothing that resembled a schedule really held for long. Constant change and constant interruption are the name of the game here.
I’ve been wanting to write about the difference between fragmentation and interruption. The fragment is so foundational to literary forms and their ethos since modernism, since postmodernism, since post-postmodernism or wherever we’ve landed, but interruption is something else, and I’m trying to parse the significance of that difference. Interruption—the abrupt curtailment of a sentence, the broken-off thought—is really the opposite of the fragment. It’s not the detritus of a disjunctive mind, a mind detonated by the alienation and estrangements of modern life, though that might be the end result of too much of it. Rather, an interruptive poetics reflects the mind striving, the mind reaching to throw out a line in hope of rescue, or of simply being heard. An interrupted sentence wants to be understood, to connect to the listener. The syntax reaches to make sense, even if only provisional and contingent sense, and then gets cut off. A poetics of interruption is a reaching toward connection or completion that is curtailed. The intention, the vector of moving meaning or resonance is there.
One book that explores this very powerfully is Sarah Vap’s Winter, which documents her repeated effort over many years, when her kids were small, to get up before dawn and write a poem called “Winter.” I can relate.
Can you speak more about the difference between fragments and interruption?
BKF: I want to make a distinction between the fragment and the interruption because writers often turn to fragments when they want to dramatize or enact or represent that condition of having to stop and start. I don't know if fragments are the only answer, or if they are the only outcome of trying to embody that condition in a poetics. What we're talking about here is closure and anti-closure. Anti-closure as an aesthetic and political-aesthetic principle is not new—the idea that any sense of closure arises from false consciousness, that it is fake or imposed upon us, authoritative or hierarchical in a way that denies the reality of lived experience. But anti-closural aesthetics need not always be fragmentary. Interruption implies that you did have something you wanted to finish saying. There's an intentionality that I think is relevant. The other term that we could throw in this mix is failure—the poem as a document of failing to write the poem. Sarah Vap’s line gets cut off because her kid shows up in the middle of the night with his binky or her other kid vomits and she has to deal with it. I mean, somebody always vomits. Just when you think things are copacetic and you can get a little work done, you get in a fender bender or somebody vomits (or there’s a global pandemic). Life is just like that. Vap will have a line in a poem where she'll have a subordinate clause leading in—“When I ………, then I”—and then she’ll drop a period, meaning I didn't get to finish that thought. There's no mistaking that the sentence was headed somewhere, but we'll never know where. The thread has been lost. That’s a different poetic unit than a fragment.
Do you have a routine or ritual that you follow, and how does that routine help you "stick to" your work?
BKF: If you had asked me 25 years ago, when I was in the MFA program at Columbia, when my best hours for writing were, I’d have said 10:00 pm to 2:00 am (laughs). Now I can’t even put a simple sentence together at that hour. I was a night owl until parenting, which broke me. My first child, my son, didn’t sleep through the night until I redefined night, which apparently ended at 5:30 am. I painfully adapted. But now I am very much a morning person—I have more clarity and focus in the early morning, and I make good use of those hours whenever I can (especially now that I have teenagers and don’t see any sign of them until later in the day). Unless, that is, I fritter the time away with whatever nonsense is scrolling across my screen. The distractions of the constant bombardment of media, social and otherwise, is a big threat to creative continuity for me right now.
I might've had writing rituals when I was younger, but now that time is more pressed, I am loath to add anything that is a task to my process. Thinking about the 17 pencils that Hemingway sharpened: ugh, do I have to do another thing before I sit down? That sounds like domestic labor. I've not been very ritualistic in that way because I don't have time for the framing. In terms of getting in the zone, getting into flow, I rely on more ordinary things like having my cup of coffee, maybe using essential oils, or just creating a provisional space where I can focus and feel a bit less fragmentary and distracted, or to just shut out some of the noise. There’s a post-it note on my study door that says “Do Not Disturb Unless There Is Fire or Blood,” but it doesn’t work.
I do have longer-term process rituals. I'm a notebook writer, and I do have phases I follow in creative projects. I know project-based poetry feels less organic to some people, but I have to work in projects so that I'm invested and I'm not reinventing the wheel every day, so I can just step in and get down to it. When I'm in the early stages of working on a book, I will dedicate a notebook to that brainstorm, and it's my favorite part of the process, because anything can go in there—ideas, song lyrics, something I read, lists, details—and it starts to accrue. That's the material. When the notebook is full, I jump onto the computer and start shaping and drafting, but the notebook is a very important, tactile, embodied, human first step for me.
Do you ever experience periods of creative block? How do you counteract these?
BKF: I don’t really believe in writer’s block. There’s always some work to be done. It might be unpleasant, and it might not be thrilling work, like the incandescent heat of writing a first draft, but there’s always some shitty writing waiting for me. If I’m stuck with some aspect of my process, there’s always research, revising, editing, submitting, begging friends for feedback. When it comes to writing new material, I’m definitely streaky—there are bursts, periods of time when I’m making progress on something in a flurry of activity and concentration. At those times I’m blissed out but bewildered in the real world. I miss my exit on the highway or forget something is simmering on the stove—I ruin pots. Then weeks go by, life gets in the way, and I don’t get back to the new thing at all, don’t even open the file or touch the notebook. In those times, I just plug along at some other aspect of the craft and the work when I can.
What is your relationship to drafting/editing—what is your advice for writers who may find the editing process daunting or difficult?
BKF: Whether we are working on a story or a novel or a poem, there are going to be small, medium, and large problems with it. And if I knew how to fix the problems, I would have done that in the first place. We all have these blind spots, so we have to seek feedback. Whether that's just a few trusted friends or a workshop or a mentor or an editor, whoever, we have to bounce it off another mind and then go back and rethink.
I always like to have two early readers on something. I'll write, fill my notebook and then eventually write the full draft of something, and I’ll get as far with it as I can. I'll persist with my own internal revisions until I can't go anymore, and I’ll know there are still problems with it, but I won't know how to fix them. Then I’ll appeal to my friends. I barter my time with other writers, saying I will do your copy edits in the middle of the night on a moment’s notice if you will read this thing. It's a big ask to ask people you trust to give you feedback. I think that's one of the most important things to get out of the MFA program—building relationships with people who you can ask for help and offer help. We all need those relationships. Once I have two readers on a thing, preferably two readers with different attitudes and preferences, then the work is an object. Then it's in the middle of a triangle and I can see it for what it really is.
I think there's also something to be said for letting work sit for a while, getting a little distance so you can let it be its own separate thing and feel free to mess with it. Things take a long time and sometimes the MFA program makes it seem like everything must be compressed into a semester or two. That's really artificial. Writing takes a lot longer than that. People have asked me, would you be happy if you just wrote, but never had an audience? The answer is actually no. It does matter to me to make a book eventually from what I’m working on. I like making books. That is what I’ve wanted to do since I was six or seven—to be a book-maker. That process of taking it all the way from the notebook to where you're proofreading the galleys is what I really love. But that’s a long arc. It's many, many years.
Where do you normally find inspiration for your work? Has this changed for you after the pandemic lockdowns? How have the pandemic lockdowns affected your creativity (for better or worse)?
BKF: During the pandemic I had a crisis project. I knew I needed something to sustain my soul and get me through. It was very deliberate and desperate. On March 5, 2020, I lay on my yoga mat in savasana, right before lockdown, and I asked the universe for a story I could place my fear into. I knew the shit was hitting the fan. Things were going south very quickly here in the New York area, and those early weeks of lockdown were the most difficult and consequential for my own family. But I had my story, and I filled a notebook with panic jottings. Then in the summer and fall I wrote a long prose thing I was calling a novel, but I don’t think that’s what it is. I think it turned out to be the basis, the raw material, of another hybrid poetry-and-prose collection, one of the weird things I do. I think it will eventually be the third (and hopefully final) in a trio of book-length verse novellas, after my books Radioapocrypha (Ohio State University Press, 2018) and Ceive (BOA Editions, 2021). All three are a reckoning with the inherited forms of Christianity (and its antecedent scripture) that I was raised with.
Did you feel pressure to produce something during the lockdowns?
BKF: If I was trying to achieve my way through the pandemic, thinking “I'm going to ace this,” that would not have been healthy. But trying to create my way through the pandemic for the stimulation and solace that it brings, that was a healthy thing.
I’m neither achieving nor creating right now. It's hard for me to convince myself that lying fallow is okay, but it is. This summer I needed to back off—and yet I initially wanted to take this prose thing I wrote last year and make it into something publishable. It’s hard to ignore the nagging voice that insists that work has to count, that it has to be my next book. It might not be my next book. It might just be a failure.
But failures are instructive. If you take the long view of the trajectories of any artists or writers throughout history, generative failures are necessary. I think you just get used to it. You realize that nobody cares if the thing comes to fruition, and that's actually kind of liberating. Then it's just about the making. I'm a fan of that oft-quoted Jasper Johns advice, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Take what you made, and if it sucks, then do something else to it. Cut it up into pieces, throw it down the stairs and take every third page or whatever you're going to do, then do something to that.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life would you say most influences your writing?
BKF: I've always been deeply inspired by the visual arts. Ekphrasis has always been important to my practice. The visual arts are a way for me to practice close attention and get out of my own head, and those projections are important to my work. I also spend a lot of time outdoors. I have a garden and I hike. I live near the Hudson River and near a lot of parks and preserves, and I spend a lot of time out on trails. Meditation and yoga are also very important in my life. I think it’s necessary for me to move my body, and move my body in nature, as a counterbalance to the sedentary and cerebral work of writing.
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?
BKF: I always bring up John Cage's quote, or rather, the advice attributed to John Cage with his approval by the art nun Sister Corita Kent: “Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There is only make.”
What are you working on now and what’s next?
BKF: I have a book coming out in September called Ceive, and it’s a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story set in the near future on a container ship. After a catastrophic collapse of civilization, a woman named Val is found in the wreckage of her flooding house by Roy, the former UPS man, and they join a group escaping on a freighter to start a new civilization in Greenland, which has warmed up and is the new North Carolina. Basically it’s an extended UPS man fantasy, but it’s also concerned with biodiversity, survival, caregiving, menopause, scripture, social law, and human bonds.
Because bookmaking is such a long process, it’s been a while since I wrote that story—most of the creative immersion for that book took place in 2017 and 2018. And my pandemic project needs to be set aside for a while. Which puts me between projects. The fallow field. I’m mucking around in the fallow field and sulking. This makes me incredibly unsettled, not having something urgent to pick up and do right away when I sit down at my desk. (Or rather, only having plenty of dreary tasks that are going nowhere.) The other day I looked up “fallow field” to remind myself what it really is: it’s leaving arable land uncultivated for one or more vegetative cycles, to allow the land to recover, to store organic matter, retain moisture, and disrupt the lifecycles of pathogens by removing hosts for the critters for a while. As a metaphor, this is working well for me right now. (But does storing organic matter mean letting a lot of crap pile up?)
Also I’m exhausted. I think we all are. Everywhere I look there are signs of deep individual and collective fatigue—if I had a nickel for every time I said recently that someone I encountered was “at the end of their tether.” I’m not really at the end of my tether, not today, and the sun is out, but I’m still tired. Maybe it’s ok that I didn’t revise a manuscript or write a book this summer. Maybe all I managed was to keep the mint from taking over my garden and to meditate. And muck around in the fallow field.