MY IDEA OF SELF IS SELF-INFLICTION: Jared Daniel Fagen in conversation with Vi Khi Nao

MY IDEA OF SELF IS SELF-INFLICTION: Jared Daniel Fagen in conversation with Vi Khi Nao

Jared Daniel Fagen is the co-publisher of the publishing establishment, Black Sun Lit, and the literary journal, Vestiges. Shared in its prodigious and monumental task with his wife, Erin, he is also its editor, its designer, and its engine of ever-unfolding artistry. His talents expand beyond these self-contained erudite, poetic, and artistic containers. He is also an outstanding poet, a benevolent soul, and a luminary thinker. His philosophy in publishing (on life & love) always and continues to surprise me with his impeccable generosity, exquisite vision and performance.

I had the most fortunate opportunity to sit with him via (& outside of) Google Docs to witness his brilliance in real time as he discussed his deft debut poetry collection, The Animal of Existence, and to observe, from a distance, the muscular beauty of his reasoning and perceptive prowess. His thoughts have depth of originality, noetic magnetism, and philosophical captivation. I hope you are spellbound by his super gorgeous book, as I have been, and by this conversation.

VI KHI NAO: Are you in Brooklyn or in the western Catskills, Jared? And, to borrow your words, if the “entrances are a revolving door” to your work, is Brooklyn more revolving, or the Catskills?

JARED DANIEL FAGEN: At the moment I’m in Brooklyn. It’s difficult for me to say whether one place is more revolving than the other. In both I’m a temporary resident, a tenant of the threshold, a fugitive with farewell permanently pressed on my lips. My entrances into each are a simultaneous exit. It’s utterly dizzying. In a sense, I live mostly within the passages between them, maneuvering the motion of blurred landscapes, in a persistent state of recovery from the surprise of “how strange it is to be here again,” in the meanwhile of distantly familiar elsewheres. This is the principle condition of “SOON TO BE,” for example, which meanders in simultaneous lostness. If my work is at all elusive or disorienting, this is why (I apologize). I suspect, for most, writing asks that it be settled into, to be made one’s home. Yet I’m nowhere, never wholly here nor there and never for long enough. Writing has made other demands of me. Instead, the work takes as its basis liminal pursuit, a stalking of the interims. This perilous space, however, is as much a vertiginous corridor as it is the unsuspecting provocation of an opening, through which language and images arrive temporally and wondrously flawed, conjured in the intervening glimpse that—startled by its emergence—I attempt to fix into a gaze (often unsuccessfully). If the work is to be found anywhere, it’s in the accidents of transit. It’s everywhere that is hazardous.

VKN: I have two favorite pieces of yours from your debut collection, The Animal of Existence. They are the opening piece “RATHER/INSOMN” and “WILTED.” I think I love them so much because they are more deeply philosophical and quietly experimental. The first one, in particular, has breathable spacing, and your use of language is more acute. Since the text is meta-aware of itself, of its own creation, the words you use seem to have eyes beneath them, like freshwater fish breathing beneath ink. I know as parents of words and ideas we prefer not to have favorites, but is there a piece or two from this collection that occupies a space in your heart the most?

JDF: I confess that “RATHER/INSOMN” and “WILTED” are probably my least favorites in the collection, or among the texts to which I’ve given less attention. I think because they’re immobile and (improperly) conceptual, whereas most of the others are composed by another impetus entirely; are more restless, haptic, haphazard. But I’m glad that you mention them, since they represent a mode of pseudo-solipsistic thought of which I’m still fond (or ambivalent). A kind of remote sadness I still find admirable. Instilled in sadness is quiet, and quiet, I think, is closely tied to shame. In silence and shame I accept myself.

If I understand correctly (and generally), philosophy is premised on excavation (and, if I may be allowed to grossly misunderstand, tempted by mysticism). Modern philosophical discourse has always appealed to me precisely because it speaks to the depths within, to a self from which we’ve become wayward, for which we ache to recuperate. Novalis says that “philosophy is properly homesickness: the wish to be everywhere at home.”1Novalis, from Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia He was also a (salt) miner. Or was he a foreman of miners? In any case, the dig begins and ends with the anguish of acknowledged absence. It requires persistent rigor and the sharpest spade. He knew the transcendental cavern of the “absolute,” the basement of the uncorrupted, pre-subjective spirit, had been buried, built upon, and abandoned by the very scaffolds of philosophical understanding now left to rust in the rain, panged by the presence of unpresentable feeling. As “deep” as it gets, the problem of philosophy is its own internally designed logic at once determines and undermines that which it attempts. The soul is laid bare but shivers in its pit. I’d partially written “RATHER/INSOMN” and “WILTED” wanting to (aesthetically) expose this malady of philosophy, to admit what philosophy withholds. The “Earth’s womb”2From Hymns to the Night is an uninhabitable tomb. The soul survives by what distresses it. I learned (with help from Deleuze, who has ruined a great many things for me) that retreat could not console, that transcendence distinct from the dimension it traverses is impossible.3Deleuze’s “plane of immanence” If or once reached, what is the result of returning, at last, to your a priori home? You find it inhospitable. You see yourself but only as a memory populated by impaired objects of forgetting. You’re brought back to yourself but undone, without a language for the mend.

The way you articulate the “beneath”—as translucence, as a kind of gasp—is what brought me to poetry (to which, admittedly, I came late and out of desperation). Attending the source that’s scarcely evident, that rises like a burlesque-ascending breath through aquatic interiors, reaching rather than receding but stirred toward its own expiration, and detected only by the form it disturbs, the ripples it enacts, at the exact second it perishes. This respiratory operation of language—the elation of an aletheiac siege, the soul keen on the tumult of a world-oblivion that provokes its swell—remedied, at least for me, the paralysis of (something like Cartesian) metaphysics. The soul isn’t a relic to be rescued, dusted off, and then left to idle in a tomb of thought but, rather, is caught ad infinitum in a process of life and death, ebb and flow, accumulation and erosion, sent hurtling and reeling. After Novalis, Badiou calls the poem philosophy’s “suture,”4From The Age of the Poets an expression of what philosophy can’t reach with certainty or emerge from without moral resignation. Poetry, in other words, responds to philosophy’s fatal enterprise. There’s a moment-of-death clarity in both “RATHER/INSOMN” and “WILTED” that’s so gravely mistaken. A more lucid relationship to form and language develops only as it’s too late. Now that I think about it, this all feels profoundly Faulknerian. “My mother is a fish” is a transformative existence, a regenerative death. The interlocutor of “RATHER/INSOMN” is awake to its alterity, its stasis as ekstasis, seeing its life as another’s flash before its eyes, “as I lay dying.” The commemorative voice is intended to anticipate a sorrow that will come to pass sans reason, like poor Vardaman drilling breathing holes into a coffin set to drift upon a river. In “WILTED,” the supine speaker’s lexical repetitions—typifying a philosophically deductive meticulousness that collapses into esoteric obscurity—might be misconstrued as a device of anaphora, reconstructing the text just as it rebuilds a hostility for its philosophical prose-framing façade. The concise use of language is the swearing of a renewal, but only of its own languishing. Death is not the end (hi BD) but, as Michel Deguy puts it, the “epitome of metaphor.”5From Figurations The Animal raises itself to elegy. The reading experience I’d like to solicit is largely grief.

As for favorites, then, I suppose I’m more partial to the texts in the second section of the book: “but not without the potential of death.” In the wake of philosophical withdrawal, the work here just remains more sharply felt. Writing seldom excites me—in fact I often find it torturous—but there was something undoubtedly liberating in allowing tendency to erupt, in surrendering to the current, not leaving behind but taking with me, as I tossed, the quiet and sadness and shame, with which the spirit’s interior could be collaged.

VKN: In this collection, it appears that you have a compelling proclivity toward “p” words and their inherent alliteration. Just to name some of the exquisite, rapierlike combos of your philosophically lexical creations: “Perennial pose,” “praying to anything porcelain,” “perpetually perish,” “providence of reproof,” “pyramidion plume,” “pebbles the pigeon pecks,” “petals and splinters,” “perspiration fertilizing prosimetrum god’s acres,” “precipitation seeding prosodic mind,” and “pronouncing surgeries of parentheses.” Tell me more about your relationship with the “p” word. Is that relationship limited to just sound and its essence? Or is that relationship more perennial? And, how does it exist beyond “an ontology of indecision command[ing] rhythm”? I could see from these dyadic experiments (of the two “p” words, words that start with the letter “p”) how perceptive and piercing your love is for the materiality and textuality of language. How has surrealism influenced your love for writing? And, co-creating poetic logic from the recombination of these “p” words.

JDF: I surely love this question because it can’t be answered by me, or, whoever can answer it has just surreptitiously left the room, leaving me as a stranger to myself (hi Julia). I guess “p” words must be somehow imprinted in my psyche. I wasn’t aware of their persistence in the book, but now that I think about it, some of my favorite words begin with “p.” In addition to those you mention: precipitous, porous, prostration, pining. I wouldn’t be surprised if all or most of these make an appearance in the Animal or elsewhere in my writing. There’s something about the consonant “p” that’s almost voiceless, visceral, even pejorative—the tension it builds of the mouth, the shape of puckering, the explosion of air behind it. I would maybe argue that language is the most seductive material or mechanism in any artist’s repertoire.

Long ago, or not so long ago, I began to think of “essence” as a synthesis of strained relations. Like between philosophy and poetry, as we previously discussed. Is that an obvious observation? Doesn’t matter. Tensions fill the empty foyer. For Heidegger, to whom I partially subscribe, essence has to do with the endurance of an origin that lies in that beloved beneath of being, the space of the heart, captive to the external forces which conceal it. Being is found, and becomes available, in and through language, whose “truest” annunciation is, vitally, poetry: the founding of a beginning that “contains the undisclosed abundance of the unfamiliar and extraordinary” and at the same time their opposites,6From “The Origin of the Work of Art” the familiar and ordinary, which render language an operative property rather than the experience of an ethereal, essential abstraction. My relationship to words is tantamount to the inconsolable cry that projects them. If the defining hour of a word is the fulfillment of its function, a culmination and destination, the absolute errand of some grotesque meaning, the penultimate moment is, perhaps, the event of its pronouncement. The intensity of a word resides there, in sound and sense, that delicately brief and fragile refusal to be more than to which it might refer, to be no more than merely a gesture, no more than wind, an unsolicited whisper. That’s why Rimbaud—who we all know and love—is sorry for brass having woken up a trumpet7From his letter to Paul Demeny (becoming an instrument). Why Alejandra Pizarnik—who we should all be reading—listens to death at her side but only hears herself (silent and bewitched). Or why Celan asks, “Why should words not have their graveyards too?”8From Microliths They Are, Little Stones In the “precinct of language,” being is “a song whose sound does not cling to something that is eventually attained but which has already shattered itself even in the sounding, so that there may occur only that which was sung itself […] a breath for nothing.”9From “What Are Poets For?” This, to Heidegger, is what poets are for: to offer presencing rather than representation.

The innate sonorousness of iterative and alliterative language demonstrates the immensity of words in and of themselves, stretches them to their extreme limits before they’re taken over by an imperative to signify, and echoes what words can withstand, both individually and in proximity (or relation) to one another. While alliteration (or literature as a whole) can be abhorrently “useful”—as a memorization technique, as a moral compass, etc.—in a far more attractive sense, at least to me, it’s a figure of speech that speaks in vain, that unsays what it means. I love Bataille and Blanchot (as you probably already know) because for them, I think, ontological limits aren’t the precursor to an impasse but, instead, the ecstatic reverberation of exile. Once the transmission of meaning, or an end to meaning, has been “accomplished,” the limit-experience (or inner experience) throws the whole of being and the totality of existence into question, brings being back to itself. Poetic thinking, poetic experience, refers only to itself as this tense-ridden recuperation process. This is the metaphysical tradition of being to which I adhere: the self we’ve lost and for which we ardently yearn. The self who is inaccessible to us because life has compelled it to exceed the (nominal) outside that excludes it. Essence is perpetually on the verge of the precipice. Nothing in itself is perennial except its failure—hence beauty—to always be such. Blanchot’s cat that doesn’t know it’s a cat. Mallarmé’s flower plucked from every bouquet. To name something directly with a word is to annihilate it with an idea. Alliteration is a whim, the divertissement of not sitting still long enough to be idealized. I think poetry is the language of “an ontology of indecision,” to be within rather than “beyond,” stealing from the shadows what words reject.

A sonic-sensuousness is also what allures me to the materiality of language, to how words are plied as they flee the tongue. If poetic language is the emergence of being whose essence, by necessity, is always fraught with that which deserts it, then an emphasis on performance, on capricious litany—in the alternative sense that yourself and I and other writers concerned with the ontological stakes of poetry employ it: for its own sake—is one way in which the oppression of rational meaning might be tempered. This comes, first, from Dada’s (problematic) primitivism and anarchic resistance to, amongst other things, the stratification of bourgeois logic and the mass commodification of art. While far from intending any political implication, the stammering syntax of “RUSTBELT” and “TREADMILL,” for example, is in service to a sort of urgent un-languaging in which the absence of verbs, determiners, articles, and other hinges of speech establishes, as far as I can tell, a cadence of innocent hesitancy, unknowing, forcing the reader to fuss (like an infant stomping their feet in front of their “dada”) over every disagreeable word.

On the other hand, rhythm for me is the calligraphy of the mind at work. “When rhythm has become the sole and unique mode of thought’s expression, it is then only that there is poetry,” Hölderlin writes. “In order for mind to become poetry, it must bear in itself the mystery of an innate rhythm.”10From his conversation with Sinclair A use of language that thinks and flees its capture in conscious thought is what fascinates me about surrealism, which I fully climbed aboard around that time I was buried by philosophy’s stalemate (and waning from the gravity of fiction). “WHOSOEVER WE ARE” and “ID” are “surrealist” insofar as their narrative trajectories are directed by associative rhythms, giving sound permission to dance spontaneously, compulsively, and alone solely to the tune of the texts’ aimless mental procedures. The indefinite act of thinking adverbially, ongoingly (e.g., René Char’s “love of desire remaining desire”), the recalcitrant retracing of thought (e.g., Breton’s “always for the first time”): I can’t think of anything more poetic (or poietic). But my first love for surrealism—what’s been most influential and has made the biggest impact on my writing, or how I’ve come to approach it—began with its poetic inoculation of rational existence via the texture and topography of le poème en prose, the locomotive motions of poetic prose, in which the unconscious (estranging, inexhaustible, intoxicating) moves amidst, through, and transforms something like the frame of Merleau-Ponty’s “prose of the world,” or what Todorov calls “the prose of life”11From Genres in Discourse (i.e., “dada” that becomes socially intelligible; collective discourse tethered to referentiality), making external reality a marvelously strange place to live. Of course the prose poem was inherited from the symbolists, but for me it was the surrealists who pushed it from Baudelaireian brevity to sustainability, from the fleeting moment of an inspiring image to that image’s bifurcation into competing images, and elevated poetry to the scene of antithetical alliances, to a contradictory and recombinatory essence that precludes categorical or generic (i.e., hierarchical) agendas, alleviating the burden of unbearable plots I never had the strength in me to write. Prose fiction, over which I’d previously toiled, is the genre of consciousness par excellence, and made so by narrative. The problem of consciousness, for Artaud, is that it’s “in the habit of clinging to apparent reality,”12From “Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society” and “an unfortunate result of narrative,” according to Erín Moure, is “[t]he inability to sustain a home.”13From A Frame of the Book

VKN: Why did you decide on the title, The Animal of Existence? I recalled you briefly discussing it in one of our email exchanges, but its fugacious energy expired rather quickly from me. After I read your opening piece, I thought of a few other possibilities: “The Penmanship of Existence” and your “I’m Alive I Tell Myself.” When I think of “animal” I don’t think of fauna or wildlife, I think of something savage and barbarian. Something zoic which isn’t subhuman to existence and which should imply the entirety of existence but which doesn’t live in my mind as existence—the animal part of it, I mean. Though I can see now why you were compelled by your collection’s “animality” and decided to stay faithful to it. Many of your pieces after “RATHER/INSOMN” are voracious and hyperly loquacious. There was a high population of “you”—the third indeterminate person. It’s language masticating itself like a beast exiting a cave. And they contrast colossally with the elegant nature of the first piece.

JDF: For a while I struggled with trying to land on an “appropriate” title. At first I wanted to call it Asunder. Then I thought: Wanderlust. Both are persistent themes in my work and, like the “THE ANIMAL OF EXISTENCE,” already exist as individual texts in the book. But as I thought more about the nature of the collection, I began to question the nature of (the) work itself, and what my work had become. If I’m remembering correctly, “THE ANIMAL” was the first text I wrote during the period the book anatomizes. This long “poem” or short “story” (or whatever it can or refuses to be called) came to me instinctually, as the vision of a rotting body (mine?), and set a precedent of degradation, of de-evolution, for the “book to come.”14Blanchot: “The book is all that matters, just as it is, far from genres, outside of the rubrics, prose, poetry, novel, testimony, under which it refuses to place itself and to which it denies the power to fix its place and to determine its form. A book no longer belongs to a genre; every book stems from literature alone, as if literature possessed in advance, in all their generality, the secrets and the formulas that alone make it possible to give to what is written the reality of the book. It would thus be as if, genres having faded away, literature alone were affirming itself, shining alone in the mysterious clarity that it propogates and that each literary creation sends back to it, multiplied—as if there were therefore an ‘essence’ of literature.” A primitive, intuitive, untamed impulse, written against the risk of being written, neglecting my responsibilities as a human, and effacing myself in the process. The Animal could have just as easily been titled I’m Alive I Tell Myself, The Penmanship of Existence (great suggestion), The Animal of Essence, The Human of Nonexistence, or even simply Untitled. It would have disavowed any name I’d have given it. It’s disobedient to all (myself included) it does not desire, flee from, or for that which it salivates. The uninteresting (not untrue) answer is that I often feel like an animal myself. In the work, I roam and hide.

Your use of “zoic” is immensely intriguing. As a suffix I find it favorably generative to this topic of conversation: an adjective relating to a manner of animal existence; the end-of-a-word formation of a derivative; something based, or dependent, on another source (that if frequently usurps). Zoic, to me, best describes what’s inside the work, which, citing Mallarmé, Blanchot says is the place that “allow[s] no luminous evidence except of existing.”15From The Space of Literature For the animal, the gerund is nothing more than a mode of infinite deprivation. “Savage” and “barbarian” are derogatory adjectives only for a “cultivated” and “cultured” species that seeks to perpetrate and secure (thus destroy and triumph over) existence for itself: to make it illusional, a comprehensible, graspable object. The animal knows no choice. It doesn’t choose to be inhuman—only humans do. The savage, the barbarian, the primal, the irrational: all are that which the light of existence has suppressed for the sake of an irreducible “entirety” that’s never entire but exclusionary, never anima but animal in its conquered, “subhuman” sense. The preposition “of” in the Animal’s title, while subtle, is not inconsequential. It directs attention, I hope, to the precarious relationship between “animal” and “existence,” their juxtaposition, their vehement correspondence (or correspondance). Had I titled the book The Animal’s Existence, the syntax of the possession would devour the Animal’s words immediately. There’d be no book, nothing on which to gnaw. In a rhetorical sense, the apostrophe—in this hypothetical title—would also personify the animal where a person, alive or not, should be absent. For the “animal,” survival is primeval: petrified alertness and paranoia (there are those alliterative “p” words again). For “existence,” survival is progress. The Animal asks to meagerly exist. Without knowledge, without meaning. Derrida writes “the difference between the animal and the human is the relation to death.”16From Aporias But Noah’s wanting to name—and therefore make mortal—each animal on his Ark, wanting to know the purpose of life before or as one dies, belongs exclusively to humanity. As much as I love surrealism, the Animal is fairly unimaginative. Its instinct is for the trace, an originary lack, not to contribute to the world (or to literature).

Of the Animal texts, “RATHER/INSOMN” was the last one I wrote. It’s the author at night, at work, no longer able to see himself in it, attempt as he might. The discord is gentle and civilized, but author and work can never reconcile, even as the first- and third-person subjects blend together, find unity in the failed exercise. I made it the preface because, for the rest of the book to appear, its author must disappear, remain anonymous, ambiguous, for in his place a beast to gradually emerge. The author mustn’t look for himself but oppose himself, confront himself as other. The proliferation of “you” in the book—as second person, third indeterminate person—addresses the self as split, as plural person in a single speech act, first with acquiescence and accusation, then vexation and wrath. This is the tension of Heidegger’s “rift design” and Blanchot’s “torn intimacy,” and the prose poem’s “exalting alliance of contraries.” That’s also why between “RATHER/INSOMN” and “TEAR” (the final poem in the collection), the “breathable spacing” you mentioned earlier—separating the paragraph fragment, stanza, or line—turns quickly to asphyxiation. More than a site of resistance, the poem in prose acknowledges a flaw of subjectivity, the restless relationship between self and self-seen-as-other, presenting itself as a block of text in which to drown. Because where I come from, who I am, and to whom I belong is an unanswerable question in and of the work, because my face refutes my identity, my idea of self is self-infliction. In the Animal I renounce myself by not naming myself, by replacing myself with pronouns, by which “I” am erased. Just as an animal is devoid of human attributes, the Animal is genreless, indistinct.

Yet this is all allegorical. In his prose poem “Fauna and Flora,” Francis Ponge writes, “There is no getting away from trees by way of trees.”17From Les parti pris des choses Elsewhere he writes, “There is always some relation to man. . . .one cannot get outside of man.”18From Proêmes The concern in both lines, I think, is for reluctant anthropomorphic methods of language and form. I am a human, I guess, but trouble existence by a tentative willingness to be such, disengaged and semantically unrestrained. The literal can be figurative too, if one is willing to consider that all language is a matter of substitution, of vague resemblance.

VKN: Can you talk more about that reluctance?

JDF: The reluctance, perhaps, is the passivity of writing: to let be. Alone, like Breton, “quite alone in myself, indifferent to all the world’s ballets.”19From the First Manifesto of Surrealism

VKN: If that question is deprived of its rhetoricalness, I would reply to that question: anything that is blind and has to crawl on all fours. Ontologically speaking as well. One of the most compelling openings to some of your pieces lies in your “YEARNS”—it opens with, “Lullaby chimes for a kiss trapped in my lungs. Send respiration into atrocity language.” As I read these two lines in my mind, I feel the immediate force of its musicality. As if the poet (you) has thrown a child into the sea and its legs (these two lines) are kicking very rapidly. How did these two lines arrive to you? Have you chiseled the sculpture of your piece before it arrives to you or has this exquisite opening arrived because you have shaved so many words down already?

JDF: I’m so grateful, Vi, for our mutual kinship with the ontology of poetry. I imagine these lines, and most others, arrived by staring, train riding, smoking below an awning, or by one of my routine pacings, as in the intoxicated “TREADMILL,” for example, whose timid steps create their own music out of nothingness, a symphony of undecidability, a sort of oscillating automatism, a paralysis of place on which grooves are worn, a trench, hollowing an opening for words through the fault lines of an incessant instability, a fissure between the tensions of soul and body, existing and existence, the unconscious and conscious, self and world, animal and human, work and author, etc. The arrival of lines is the unfurling of thought. I’m chiseling (or being chiseled) as I go along. The poem is made of its own exertion. It’s the material that falls from the sculpture and scatters in the wind. In “YEARNS,” the “lullaby chimes” are pushed by this gust, and signal for an “atrocity [of] language” to rescue a kiss that won’t ever land, since the poem never exceeds its initiation. The sculpture (which never realizes it’s being sculpted) is becoming by that miraculous moment when thought—which staring or pacing concurrently generates and entangles—renovates the figure into something other than itself by a process of language that contests whether it should be anything at all, and which we—the writer, the reader—only recognize in its foreignness. If that answer is depleted of its rhetoricalness, I would reply: the “atrocity” is the beauty of the flawed design, the defilement, not the faithful or accurate construction, of the “monolith.”

VKN: How long did you work on this collection? Since it is your first, do you feel its loss at the birth of its existence? What is the philosophy of your poetry, Jared? And, is your work teaching us (readers, that is) how to “anatomize the emptiness” of existence? The liminal space between breath and death and walking? There is a lot of walking in your work—the philosopher that walks, the thinker that walks, the climber that walks, the poet that walks. Should the reader walk while reading your work? Or is that too hypermeta? This dromomaniac compulsion? Do you want the readers to stab the “sidewalks with [your] wanderlust” with you? “Stabbing” is a very charged verb. I immediately think of murder and then betrayal. Are we all assassins of the sidewalk when we walk or when we write? Similarly, I couldn’t help but think of your very, very beautiful line from your opening piece, “Betrothed to a neutral echo as I violate him with folded hands.” If you had to betray an unneutral echo, what would you do?

JDF: I wrote the majority of the Animal texts mostly between 2016-2018, without knowing I would later collect them into a book (at the time this task seemed so strange and hopeless to me). I wasn’t trying to publish most of them, for whatever reason, maybe not to interrupt the hold they had over me, but later on—around the start of the pandemic—their neglect seemed a shame. I’m tremendously proud of this work and beholden to John Yau for seeing something in it, everyone who gave up their time to make the Animal the book it is, anyone who’s read it. Now, if anything, I feel a combination of anxiety and relief, and continued bewilderment. Everything I’ve written since the book came out is like a condolence.

At the risk of repeating what I said earlier—about tension and tumult and striving and opening and despair—I’ll add that my idea of poetry is certainly an acknowledgement of loss, and maybe even a bit of nostalgia. It’s probably not cool or in vogue to admit that the potency of poetry is (at least partially for me) probably still closely associated with Aristotelian catharsis or Beckettian obligation or Romantic escapism. But since the poem exists in a world in which its status is always being questioned, poetry is perhaps fundamentally a response, a dialogue or monologue, heard or not, but always listening to the appeal of language. While I (begrudgingly) agree that poetry sets as its task a unity of relation within the poem itself, this relation is repeatedly, endlessly, a negotiation with that which antagonizes its riposte. The divergent, paradoxically contending forces that make poetry’s “truth” a falsity, in which unity does not represent a whole but diversely integrated fragments. Poetry is the emptiness of a promised harmony, an unrest, the exhaustion of existence.

Language fascinates me in this way (though I still think of myself as a prose writer and don’t consider myself a poet, or if I am, a fraudulent one). To briefly resume a Steinian practice of disrobing grammar: “to exist” (as an infinitive verb) is a neutrality, “existence” (as a noun) is a crippling immobility, whereas “existing” (as a gerund) is ongoing. What happens to the motion of a gerund, as in “walking,” when the traveler goes nowhere but back to themself, like the perambulations innate in “thinking” versus “thought,” the latter being the termination of the former? I write a lot in my head while walking. Restlessness is a poetic activity that I abide very willingly. “Stabbing” in this sense resists the walk’s port of call, the finitude of thinking. Just like existence is a “betrayal” of the animal, the animal is violated by life, its hunger, its need for habitat. The echo is the animal instinct, the roar of silence against ravenous famine. I pay tribute to silence by betraying it. The echo is also remorse. Though I hope the Animal doesn’t teach anyone anything (useful), I can, however, support a pedagogy in which one is called out of themselves. Stumbling. We’re already stumbling. Or reading what’s on the page helps the reader better see what’s inside their own head. Collisions.

VKN: One acutely pithy line from your work that remains sacred to me is this: “Life lies in debt to linearity.” What in existence is free from this debt? Is your work exempt from, released, or immune to this debt?

JDF: I don’t feel free, Vi. Never have. I know you don’t either. I don’t know anyone who does, or has. Maybe nothing is, nor should it be. Nothing, at least, that isn’t still, like a pebble, broken off and smoothed by the centuries that move around it, the centuries that it gathers by going nowhere without the blessing of chance, a hard-fought duration, the pebble that’s “not an easy thing to define”20From “Le galet” (if not for Ponge then certainly not for any of us) without its sturdy links to onward time. We owe our life to death, that moving force of Hegel’s dialectic, imposing on us the will to make work of the world: the machinations of absoluteness. Is that too morbid? How tedious would life be if freedom moved outside the purview of the metaphorical? I mean all this, of course, with the utmost sensitivity to all humankind and not some categorical motive; in the sense of humanity, whose interrelations—historically—are both bound to and appear as objects (re: Lukács)21From History and Class Consciousness imprinting, trialing the integrity, the coherence, of what it’s capable of—its demise. Maybe existence is, in summation, wholly about what we can tolerate from it. Maybe the sidewalk being stabbed is history’s path, its unsatiated horizon, like lines of prose ceaselessly marching toward and turned away from the margins, or the poem in their guise, straying from and leading back to itself, dead on the tracks. My work is literally and figuratively entangled with death—history’s employer. Released into, or within. Yes, the world needs more assassins.

VKN: I misread one line from your piece “SOON TO BE.” I read “her bleaching image of syntax” as “her breathing image of syntax” and misread your line “I too am held together by shreds” as “I too am held together by seeds.” Have you ever used “misreading” as an editorial device/revision technique? How do you go about editing your work? Are you severe with your cuts?

JDF: Undoubtedly. As much as each word that (somehow) makes its way through to me always feels too precious to lose, as much as I habitually feel as if I’m “losing it” regardless, when read back I’m unrecognizable. The “self” that I’m usually after—or that “other self” which becomes victim to my linguistic cruelties—is only possible as it transpires in the recorded strife of an overburdened resolution to seize what must necessarily remain evasive. The self known by, and to, the work can only blossom in the war of writing, but disappears into apparition, reveals itself an approximation, is kept secret in the presumed peace of reading. Misreading lets me know the work has stayed faithful to the process of transfiguration, of mistranslation, and has not amnestied the learned behavior of identification or the tenets of utility common to our expectations of the text. I consent to the flaws of the work, the slippages of words, the flash of the instant. My editorial method is an unsteady treaty between mercy and the befouled thoughts that cascade like an avalanche over the work being written and returned to, moving things in and out of place, carrying them along, or dislocating them entirely with its flow. Nothing is safe—the images and their words already come to me shredded—and some things aren’t worth saving. If the work insists on explicit edits, on repair, then reading has already won. I won’t be delivered. I’m more inclined to give up on a work than I am to make additional cuts to how it already presents itself. Revision to me is about fixation, a preservation of something like “[a] song I was so easily wounded” that hordes the ensemble of a broken vase in “WILTED,” or the “wound textures” that clutter the “ROOM FROM WHICH WE ROSE.”

VKN: Perhaps you might like to correct me, but I don’t think you are very much a beach person. Are you really a “catalog of collected sand,” Jared? And, if you are not, what part of you audiates the following: “I am [home middest] a litany that resists the oboes and violas of obliteration.”

JDF: No, you’re right, I’m not much of a beach person. Or rather I enjoy the beach for probably different reasons than others, from a comfortable distance, as a witness. Its vastness comforts me, but I have a terrible fear of the ocean. I’m just a fearful person in general. Irrationally afraid. However, this fear of the beach “littered with bodies” (e.g., “RUSTBELT”) appeals to me: the weathering of land masses; the gentle, harmonious, but often violent rhythms of moving toward to assuredly pull away; the way in which time accumulates like an hourglass, reshaping the geography itself. The beach refers to me—“asunder,” stranded, coarse, worn, beaten, tiresome, “the beached beast that I am” (e.g., “PENINSULAE”). Maybe a “catalog of collected sand” is my prosaic/poetic “style.” A (repetitive) indifference: because repetition is the reluctance to accept obliteration, and a wave needs no instrument to make its sound. Or vulnerability, like wearing a men’s speedo (here’s my shame again): because a beach doesn’t care about one’s manner, and a shore is still a shore despite the resorts and restaurants that populate it. Just like one can never do away with sand—it just turns to dust (or desert).

VKN: I want to return to your exquisite art of alliteration. I want to point out how humorous it is— considering the earnest solemn or somber context of their un-sedated unfolding: “movie, monstrously,” “cataract, cascading,” “deictic days,” “exiled on an island of ash and adhesives,” “ivory void,” “the columns of cypress,” and “mantle of her matriarchal Melos.” How do you usually laugh? 

JDF: I truly love this question. There’s a line from Jude the Obscure (an underratedly decadent novel) where Hardy writes: “All laughing comes from misapprehension.” As a reader, I love this idea of humor as a hermeneutic folly, the idea of an uncomfortable laughter that comes as one’s last measure after the fact of existential hopelessness, one’s final recourse (or last “resort”—here’s that word again—because words are Pongeian branches). I can’t say, as a “writer,” that humor is ever my intention, but a lot of times writing for me serves as a sort of emotional bailout because, at the same time, it can’t all be sadness, even (and especially) when it feels that way.

In all seriousness, though, I enjoy any laughter that brings me closer to a heave. Genuine laughter brings tears to my eyes, and admittedly a little madness. Believe it or not, I’m a rather silly person on the outside (because judgment and common sense are boring), and I suppose this lack of control, as a mood, comes through in the work, in the effective playfulness that alliteration can conjure with its melody. Personally, I like to think of alliteration as a mystical incantation (or the above-mentioned litany) that pushes my writing forward, even as it’s filled with hesitation. But alliteration, as a literary technique, is also about the stress (and therefore isolation) of syllables, the consonant parts of a word. The silly person, disengaged from intelligence, is likewise isolated, or ostracized. Their world is made up of stillness and senses, free from ambition. Lispector says something about this in one of her crônicas, I think. Similar to silliness—which is in some ways a cry for help—I like to think conspicuousness compensates for absence.

VKN: These are some of my favorite lines from your “WILTED”: “The window itself, missing members of itself, the window still lost of its quartets” and “I held the vase in my hands. I turned the vase over in my hands. I held the vase away from me. I held the vase out in front of me. I considered the vase. I considered how little I knew of the vase. How little of its origin. I will hold the vase a few moments longer” and “A day has passed. Several days have passed. A stanza of days have passed. A glass past. A day had past in glass. Some days have passed in glass.” Have you thought about arranging them earlier in your collection? To break up the hegemony of the middle pieces such as “SOON TO BE” or “DELIGHT/EQUAL DREAD”?

JDF: The arrangement of the book is organic. I didn’t put too much thought into the order of the texts, since hegemony can only be assuaged. Besides “RATHER/INSOMN,” each text followed the next, in the order it was written, and that’s how they appear: in succession (which is, really, a sequential working backwards of language). The book breaks itself down.

VKN: What are you working on now? Or are you still working on this until the kerosene lamp dies out?

JDF: At this point I believe I’m becoming one of those writers who just rewrites the same text over and over again. I’m always feverish and at my last flicker. I write to save my life (or, as Blanchot would say: “to perish peacefully”). Currently, though, most of my attention has been on my dissertation, tentatively titled “The Immanent Scene of Rupture: Poetic Thinking & Metaphysical Encounters of Prosaic Topographies.” Or something like that. But, of course, I’m always assaulted by poems. I’ve even written a few recently in verse (hi Coco). It’s a new way of breathing for me. Erin, who you know is much smarter than me, says I’m finally approaching the essential. She’s probably right. An alternative reason would be I think I’m beginning to understand the line break as delay, deferment. We’ll see. I have an ongoing document of “aphorisms” called “Instilled” that will be a lifetime project. There’s also an abandoned manuscript—a notebook-novel titled Nevertheless—that I’m trying to love again, and to which I’d like to return someday soon, probably after I defend my thesis. And, as always, Black Sun Lit continues “worstward ho,” with new books by Emmalea Russo and Michel Surya (translated by Kit Schluter) coming out in the not-so-distant future. Everything is all related, keeping me from curtains.


Jared Daniel Fagen is the author of The Animal of Existence (Black Square Editions, 2022). His prose poems, essays, and conversations have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, Lana Turner, and Asymptote, among other publications. He is the editor and publisher of Black Sun Lit, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, and an adjunct lecturer at the City College of New York. Born in Jeollanam-do, South Korea, he lives in Brooklyn and the western Catskills. -- jareddanielfagen.com | @jareddnlfagen | blacksunlit.com

Vi Khi Nao is the author of seven poetry collections & of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2's Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize), the novel, Swimming with Dead Stars. Her poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her book, Suicide: the Autoimmune Disorder of the Psyche  is out of 11:11 in Spring 2023. The Fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She  was the 2022 recipient of the Jim Duggins, PhD Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. | https://www.vikhinao.comhttps://twitter.com/vikhinaohttps://www.instagram.com/vikhinao/https://www.facebook.com/vikhinao

Art by Crow Jonah Norlander.

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