“That’s What the Fox Says”: Fox Frazier-Foley on Exodus in X Minor

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Winner of the 2014 Sundress Chapbook Contest, Fox Frazier-Foley‘s poetic collection of visceral phantoms,  Exodus in X Minor, has spiked EMF detectors and imaginations with its enclosed identities’ respective pains and triumphs. Beth Couture claims the complex chapbook to be “sharp and elusive.” Susan McCabe says Exodus “traverses an unbounded inner being.” With poetry far too bold and rich to be summed up as mere smoke and mirrors, Sundress sought out Fox for the lowdown on how this maze of meaning met the page.

Jacob Cross: In the opening, eponymous poem of the chapbook, you toy with a lyric from “another, gravel-throated & strawberry blonde,” who “picks bluegrass after hours Won’t you bury me beneath the tree where my family lies.” I read what followed as an unsettling narrative flowing between rural, southern imagery of death and poltergeists, all the way back to more contemporary modes of homicide and suffering on the streets. Was this poem an offensive against the idea of death being a peaceful close? What were you trying to accomplish with the visible contrast throughout the piece?

Fox Frazier-Foley: That’s a really interesting way to think about it. I think when I wrote that piece, I was thinking a lot about the relationship the living bear to the dead, and to death itself. I think upstate New York has a very strange relationship to death, and to its dead. It’s a heavily military area — West Point is right there — and gun culture is huge. There’s also a lot of heroin use, and (to me) a shocking amount of thrill-seeking behavior. A lot of violence, a lot of aggression.

But then, at the same time, upstate New York has historically been the central hub of the Spiritualist religion, which is incredibly peaceful. And of course, Spiritualists believe that the change called death is not the end of human consciousness. They believe their dead walk among them; they talk to them. It’s a fascinating subculture, and I was blessed to grow up among people like that, to be exposed to those ideas from a very young age. It creates a new context, I think, for how we view the brutalities of life, and human cruelty. And love. And tenderness. And suffering.

I think that all of these influences affect how people from upstate New York generally view death. It’s something that, in so many different ways, really permeates the fabric of their existence. And I think it’s perhaps because of this complex relationship with death that most people I have known from upstate New York don’t have the romanticized view of death that you’ve described — that it’s some sort of peaceful close. They usually appear to carry a visceral awareness of death, as part of their identity.

I think for people who don’t come from this perspective, it can be a terrifying thing. I once had a guy from upstate New York drunkenly slur at me, “Look: there’s a fine line between living and dying, and the closer you get to death, the better life is.” I understood what he meant — and in many ways, I suppose I wouldn’t argue — but I thought it was a terrifying thing to say. I mean, I was really horrified by it.

As someone who spent many formative years in upstate New York, but then left for a long time, it was really shocking to me — when I went back to live there for a year in 2012 — seeing that mentality more from the outside. I remembered it from growing up there, and yet it felt so strange and frightening when I saw it with new eyes. And I almost have this influence double, in some ways, because of my Southern heritage — my family especially on my mother’s side are very religious Christians, but most of them have seen ghosts and communicated with spirits. Some of them have watched spirits leave bodies as the change called death is taking place. They can see the spirit, can see it happen.

So I think I was interested in bringing those parts of my real-life experience to bear, in this poem and in this book — the speaker is in the act of falling over a precipice, into a transformative journey through an underworld. Those ideas about death you’ve described are present, as one facet of a bigger picture I was trying to create — a narrative arc that, in part, asks, what is a reasonable response to this almost unbearable view of reality, where you can’t see life without seeing death, too? And what happens when those terrifying elements start to become comforting?

JC: Daniel, Theresa, Peter, and Clare were “four Catholic workers in upstate New York” who protested the War in Iraq, resulting in their battery and detainment, a subject which you explore in Exodus. Each individual character and his or her accompanying dedication seems to move and breathe with its own form, music, and sparseness. Could you describe some of the reasoning behind these four poetic portraits and their unique elements on the page?

FFF: Well, the Saint Patrick’s Four, as they came to be called, had a couple lengthy trials in upstate New York, and their story was one that really resonated with me. People taking a dangerous, public stance to defend idealistic viewpoints about love and peace isn’t usually how we frame discussions of contemporary American Christianity — and yet there is that aspect of it, too. That was a really formative influence for me, growing up.

I get frustrated with how we try to talk about — or maybe don’t really try to talk about — Christianity in the USA. Obviously, there are some really horrible things being said and done in the name of Christianity (just like every other belief system, religious or secular, the world over, across time). But people living their religion is more complex than I think the current mainstream/public conversations really reflect — especially in a culture that is often shrilly and smugly secular. So I was drawn to write about these members of the Catholic Worker Movement.

And, as I already knew I wanted to write about these people, I found it irresistible that each of them shares a name with a prominent Catholic saint. So I tried to create voices that dealt with the events and concepts of their protest, but were also shaded by a kind of shared identity — where the saint is also speaking to this situation, experience, and cause. Teresa was an ecstatic poet-mystic; Daniel was a publicly insistent about his faith, and about the directions he saw his government heading in — he was prophetic, in that way; Peter was a leader of a religious-political movement — a letter-writer; Clare was an ascetic who found God through nature.

So once I thought about the identities I wanted to construct — and they are constructed, conflated identities after researching each saint and reading and viewing public interviews with each protester — the voices and cartography of the page came through easily.

JC: Piggybacking off that, Exodus features other poems with repeated titles, yet strikingly distinct forms and subjects depending on their place in the chapbook. I really appreciated this effect of titles as refrains, for it seemed to sustain the feeling of a haunting, or “unfinished business” if you will. How did these echoed titles come about?

FFF: I think they mostly grew out of my desire to create a sense of woven reality; each poem is a continuation of a specific thread, but provides its own illumination, its own singular experience. I also know — I’ve frequently been told — that sometimes my writing can leave a reader feeling disconcerted. I like that feeling in a poem, but not everyone does. I thought about the fact that these titles could serve as anchors, in a way — not just narrative anchors, but emotional anchors — that would then free the poems to get as crazy as they wanted, while kind of instructing the reader who needs something more concrete to latch onto that this book is also a story.

I wanted the trajectory of the exodus to be discernible, and I thought that repetitive title construction might help. Additionally, I thought it underscored the sense that life and death are (both) cyclical. These things happen, and then they happen again. In life, we learn things, we lose things, then we learn them again a little differently. We lose again, and maybe in that repeated loss realize that the initial loss left us a little less-bereft than we had thought.

JC: In each “Letter to Diane Arbus,”there seems to be a consistent use of extra white space and word islands that make the readers eyes move across the page in a way more akin to the way one might view a photograph’s focal points. Did Arbus’s role as a photographer influence this? How did she inspire your letters?

FFF: Her story was so tragic and inspiring to me. I know what it feels like when you’re younger to carry dual identities of “artsy girl” and “good girl” — to be creative and curious, to want to ignore boundaries — but also to feel really compelled to always do what is expected of you, or what is seen as appropriate. Especially for a young person, I think the tension between those two can often be difficult and destructive. It’s hard to achieve balance when your own spirit pulls you one way, and the people you love and respect and trust push you another.

I understand what it feels like to abandon certain more conventional aspects of your identity — a domestic relationship with prescribed gender roles, for example — to cultivate others — to guard your freedom to exercise and create your own voice and perspective, to look at unpleasant things that you’re encouraged to gloss over. To make a home there. I think probably a lot of people understand that process and those feelings.

So, because of my own understanding of that, I feel a lot of tenderness for Diane Arbus. She lost so much, too — I think she was deeply lonely. She was very sick towards the end of her life, with hepatitis, which she contracted through frequent (and frequently careless) sex with strangers. I don’t know what that feels like, but I felt great empathy for her sense of loneliness, her constant need for a greater intellectual stimulus or discovery. I thought it was so tragic, but also so unsurprising — almost inevitable — that she killed herself. I started writing these letters to her years ago, when I was frightened by how much I identified with her, with the things that seemed to motivate her.

That white space — I like what you said about the focal point(s) of photographs a lot — I think of them as emotional punctuation, in those poems.

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JC: Could you expand upon the red bearded man motif? The image surfaces in and out of the incarnations of “Exodus in X Minor,” as well as in another poem’s lines, reading “… I was two and had just died for the first time, ensconced by my river, my father had caught and breathed me back. I blurred towards his sky colored eyes, the mud-red of his hair.” I love the recurrence, because you frame the physical trait seamlessly, amplifying already emotive scenes with subtle awesomeness.

FFF: Well, in the opening poem, I try to use it to conflate a terrifying, violent, villainous figure from a very dark pocket of human history with a figure who represents some sort of complex safety, love, comfort, and reprieve or escape from the Fox-Haired Girl’s harsh reality. The goal was to create a trajectory in the book that defines these sorts of influences — joy and trauma, pain and relief, safety and threat — as inextricable, as inevitably linked. I don’t really believe you can have joy without suffering.

Our comfort, both individually and culturally, frequently creates others’ trauma or loss. I don’t believe that this is a new thing, either — I think it’s part of the human condition. I think we can be violent animals, with these selfish tendencies coded into our DNA, and the only way we can even begin to try to rise above them is to acknowledge their existence, and then work with our rational and spiritual minds, in concert, to overcome or work against these really deep-rooted impulses that cause people to do horrible things to each other.

I think to struggle against violence, brutality — evil — is a noble thing. But I also think that humans are imperfect creatures, and I do not believe that we will ever entirely succeed in that endeavor. And I think the people I personally find most distasteful are frequently people who think they stand only for love, equality, and respect, but are actually frequently unkind, bullying and running over other people because they’re so selfishly concerned with their own good feelings of being heard, of being right. They sometimes might feel that they have to be the loudest voice in the room.

And honestly, I feel empathy for them, too, because I think it’s hard not to be that way sometimes. I think we all have those impulses — to want to be recognized as right or as good, or to somehow dominate other people, especially if we are afraid they might be trying to dominate or harm us. I think one way to avoid acting on those impulses (as much as we possibly can avoid it) is to keep in mind that even the kindest people can have cruel impulses sometimes. Even the tenderest relationships can have elements of violence — and I think often vice versa. It’s a horrifying truth, and I was drawn to explore it because I think it is so difficult to process and address, to find your way in. Partly, the red beard seemed like an apt symbol of this to me because — as someone whose family heritage is partly Irish — the history of the Irish and of Irish-Americans provides really good examples of this human tendency — a blurring of lines where people who have been horribly victimized can also be victimizers.

So the red-beardedness was a visual anchor representing/executing that difficult concept of simultaneity. And the past life poems also deal with these concepts — it’s pretty important to the whole book, I think. I liked the idea that the present-day Fox-Haired Girl has had these past lives where her red-bearded counterpart has made appearances that emphasize this difficult concept. He isn’t always lover; he is sometimes caregiver, sometimes cause of torment or sadness or loss, sometimes protector, sometimes friend.

JC: You are serving as a co-editor of the Sundress Publications upcoming Politics of Identity Anthology. Are you excited?!

FFF:I couldn’t be more excited!! We have received a ton of absolutely amazing submissions, and we have a team of really smart readers helping us sift through them. I’m especially excited because I think it’s going to be a really inclusive collection. So, not just excited at the politically-oriented content, but really excited at the huge cross-section of American voices I think we’ll be able to curate next to each other. I think it’s going to be really special.

JC: Exodus also seems to reflect an attention to political subjects, such as the poem, “FOR MADDY LERNER, AGE 6, ACCIDENTALLY KILLED AT AN OUTDOOR FIRING RANGE IN UPSTATE NEW YORK.” What do you try to accomplish in your poetry when handling a subject recognized by many to be “political?”

FFF:I think I’m most interested in the nuances, conflicts, and contradictions of being human. I used to date someone who liked to joke that I’m incapable of feeling only one way about even a glass of water. It’s true. I think almost all of my work is about the struggles of what it means to be human. Specifically regarding the poem you mentioned — I am someone with a healthy fear of guns, and of what people with guns can do (and have done, and continue to do every single day), and I have no patience for individuals who assert loudly that their right to compile an arsenal of weapons somehow supersedes our collective need as a society to protect children. (To protect adults, for that matter.)

However, people are also frequently surprised to learn that I am a gun owner. I like guns. I think shooting guns recreationally is a lot of fun. I’ve never gone hunting, because I don’t want to kill anything, but my husband is from upstate New York, and he hunts deer, bear, turkey — and I’ve actually eaten the venison that he and his friends have shot (it was delicious). I have no patience for people who, in the guise of gun control advocacy, sneer at people in regionalist, classist, and/or racist ways — people who say they don’t like guns, but really mean that they don’t like people who like guns. They use words like “gangster” and “hillbilly” — it’s inflammatory rhetoric that obfuscates the actual issues involved in our problematic cultural relationship with guns, and with gun violence.

So, for me — I’m drawn to write about those tensions from a human perspective. I recognize vast and frightening problems in our current cultural climate regarding how we understand guns and gun culture. But I’m not really interested, in poetry or in life, in reductive answers or banner-waving. I don’t want to write a gun control poem or a gun rights poem. I want to write a poem about the confusions I feel — enjoying guns and loving people who love guns, and simultaneously being utterly revolted and terrified by the ultimate evil(s) that are routinely accomplished with guns, the shattering and staggering losses that are rendered through the use of guns.

I think trying to chip away at that is more important than making some sort of grand political statement. For me, I mean. There are plenty of other people writing the other sort of poems, filling that role in the world. It’s probably good to have that, too. It’s just not where the heat is for me. I like to think my poems serve a different purpose.
JC: In one of the poems entitled, “THE FOX-HAIRED GIRL VISITS A SPIRITUALIST MEDIUM IN UPSTATE NEW YORK, AND SEES ONE OF HER PAST LIVES,” you write between Haitian and English. Was the specific diction of this poem chosen based mostly on which language’s sound more accurately fit into each line? Would you ever consider composing an entire chapbook in Haitian?

FFF: I was definitely preoccupied with sound, and with how the enjambments would affect sound. I mean, I am always preoccupied with that, but the past life poems were difficult because in each of them, I had foreign languages that I wanted to tie in. I’ve studied several foreign languages — some for longer, and in a more academic setting, than others — but the music of the languages I was writing out of was really important to me. I actually had, in the ancient-Roman-past-life poem, a lot of Latin — ritualistic language about Vestal virgins, and Vesta — that I finally just took out, because I couldn’t get the sounds and enjambments to flow and measure in the way that I wanted.

Something similar happened with the Gaelic in the past-life poem that deals with widowhood. I was least frustrated about the Irish-widow poem losing the Gaelic, for reasons I’m not sure of — I guess maybe because Gaelic was nearly eradicated in Ireland for so long, it seemed potentially authentic for the poem to be entirely in English.

I struggled to keep at least a few words of Susquehannock in the mixed-ethnicity-early-American-seer-past-life poem, because it’s a language that has been almost entirely lost, and I really wanted to honor it with at least some inclusion. The Susquehannock lived in New York and Pennsylvania, and they were ravaged by war and by disease — they suffered aggression from other Native tribes, from what I’ve read, as well as from white settlers. They really got it with both barrels, and ultimately they were extinguished, with the few survivors marrying into other ethnic/social/tribal groups. The Susquehannock lived all along the Susquehanna River, which they named. And I grew up on that river, so I felt I wanted to do my best to include at least some of their language, as homage.

Books about Susquehannock language and grammar are actually very hard to find, because almost all of it was lost. I ended up buying some to pore over before I felt I could even try to write the poem. It was frustrating, though, because as someone who has spent a fair amount of her writing life working on translations (I was mildly obsessed with Georg Trakl for years), I wanted to create something that melded the music of both languages in a graceful way. With that one, I decided to let some Susquehannock words frame what might have been most important to the speaker in that particular life. A kind of hinge, to bring the reader back to certain visual elements, as well as spiritual and emotional elements.

So — all of that is by way of saying, I felt lucky that what I wanted to capture in the mixed-ethnicity-mother-and-partner poem seemed to come out so musically and gracefully using Haitian — and not too narrative. I like sharp enjambments, and I like a kind of gracefully jagged sound, with this type of poetic structure. I like the meaning to come from the sounds as much as from the literal definitions of the words. So I was relieved that I didn’t have to take all of that out — although I thought about doing so, since I had taken so much of the other languages out of the other past-life poems.

Your question about a chapbook entirely in Haitian is a really interesting one. Right now, I definitely don’t speak Haitian well enough to do something like that! However, I’m slowly putting together this project, with several friends of mine — it’s a book about acculturation, the blending of different cultural traditions in America, and it tackles, in part, current issue(s) of cultural appropriation, from several angles. The friends involved so far are Jamaican, Irish, West Indian, African — and many of them are of mixed ancestry (one of them identifies primarily as Jamaican, for example, but her family also has ancestry that is Indian and African and British), and so there’s an intermingling of different languages that’s starting to happen in that manuscript that I think is very cool.

I could see myself inviting one of my Haitian friends on board, once the project picks up steam — maybe I should say, if the project continues to pick up steam. It’s a back-burner, relaxed, “fun” project right now — which is such a relief in my life that I want to keep it that way. Right now, it’s a really good, go-with-the-flow group of friends who can talk about all this stuff with joy and humor and sensitivity and kindness and just patience with each other and ourselves. We can have what might, in some contexts, be difficult or stressful conversations, but the way we relate to each other, it’s nurturing and illuminating, and not stressful at all.

So, in that way I could see having a book that incorporates Haitian to a greater degree. I don’t think I’m really qualified at this point in time to write a book in any language other than English, except maybe German — and honestly, I’d probably need to brush up a lot to even do that! I could also definitely see myself maybe translating some Haitian poetry someday, if I get better at speaking it. Those few lines in Exodus took me a really long time, and I still feel nervous about whether I’ll find out later that I made some sort of translation mistake with them that I don’t know about yet.

JC: What’s next for Fox Frazier-Foley?

FFF: My first full-length collection of poems, The Hydromantic Histories, is coming out from Bright Hill Press this June! Chard deNiord selected it as their contest winner last autumn, which was a huge honor, and I’m so grateful to him and my Bright Hill editor, Bertha Rogers, for bringing this book into Real Ink. I had started to resign myself to the idea that this manuscript wasn’t going to find a home, and then Bertha called me that afternoon — it was so surreal. I made a scene in the restaurant when I got her message. Ha!

Other than that, I’m currently putting together an anthology of critical writing called Among Margins, which is coming out from Ricochet Editions in 2016. Several of the other Ricochet editors are working on it with me, and our list of contributors is absolutely off-the-hook — it’s a very exciting collection of voices, writing about their definitions of what makes cool art!

I’m also working on three manuscripts right now that are really different from anything I’ve done so far. One is called Monster, and it’s an illuminated manuscript of poetry that deals with mythological medieval monsters, and real historical figures, to interrogate various human concepts of the monstrous (and how we relate to/react to what we, or others, deem monstrous). Another, An Art Like Everything, is a collection of poems, lyric essays, letters, memoirs, and religious and medical texts. It’s about different definitions of female-ness and femininity, in American medicine and religion. And family relationships, and how we define power. And then there’s Raven Crown, which is a lot like Exodus in X Minor, but more expansive, and goes deeper, into more uncomfortable territory. I think that, out of the three, it will probably take me the longest time to get Raven Crown completely right. But I’d like to finish all of those books in the next year or two, and find homes for them, and promote them well.

I’m also starting up a new literary press in association with TheThe Poetry Blog! I’m really excited about that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’ve started to term visionary poetics — poetry that is concerned with metaphysical vision, spiritual or even mystical vision — but also preoccupied with this world, and this art, and how to en/vision them. So I’ve been talking a lot lately with Micah Towery and Lisa Flowers about those ideas, and eventually I mentioned that we could be facilitating books of this kind. They were really excited about that possibility, too.

So we’ve been getting our ducks in a row to launch that pretty soon. I probably shouldn’t say too much more about that until we get things a little more finalized, though. But I think it’s extremely exciting. I think it’ll be a very nurturing experience, as a writer and an editor. I feel like I will breathe easy in that part of my life, which is a nice feeling.
Apart from those things, I’d really like to finish graduate school. Ha. I’m going to (finally!) graduate in 2016, and I could not be more ready for that step. And lately, I dream about moving to the Chesapeake Bay area and opening a bar with my husband. I don’t know whether we’ll end up doing that or not — I’d still really like to teach creative writing, too — but it’s a nice dream. It’s definitely a source of comfort lately. I dream about it a lot.

JC: And finally, the most pressing question: 

  the song, “What does the Fox say?” Love it or leave it?

FFF: HA. Somewhere in between? My husband thinks it’s really funny, after I get mad and tell someone off (not that this happens very often, but it does happen on occasion), to add, “That’s what the Fox says.” He looks really entertained and pleased with himself afterwards, and I think it’s really cute. Wait, am I a feminist poet ending an interview about her first book by gushing over her husband?

Just in case that’s a conclusion that might undermine my reputation as A Very Serious Writer and Thinker, I’ll add:

Be excellent to each other.

You can reading Fox Frazier-Foley’s chapbook, Exodus in X Minor, for free at the Sundress Publications website or order a hard copy here.

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Fox Frazier-Foley is an initiate of Haitian Vodou who hails from upstate New York and northern Virginia. Her first full-length collection of poems, The Hydromantic Histories, was chosen by Chard deNiord as winner of the 2013 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Prize, and is forthcoming in 2015. She is a Founding Editor and Managing Editor of the Los Angeles-based small press Ricochet Editions, and Editor-Curator of TheThe Infoxicated Corner at TheThe Poetry Blog. She is co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of American political poetry (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins, an anthology of critical writing on aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is a staff writer and creator of poetry horoscopes for Luna Luna. She was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Binghamton University, received her MFA from Columbia University, and is currently a PhD candidate and Provost’s Fellow in the Literature & Creative Writing Department at the University of Southern California.

Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, The Alchemist Review, and elsewhere. More recently, his poems are due for release in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and half-priced sushi.

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