A Virtual Interview with Ken Fontenot

Poet and novelist Ken Fontenot will be the featured reader on November 12, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for November’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Ken Fontenot’s most recent book of poetry, Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006 – 2013, was published in 2015 by Pinyon Publishing. He is the author of the novel For Mr. Raindrinker, which has been reissued by Alamo Bay Press in 2015. His poetry collection In a Kingdom of Birds won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best book of poetry in Texas in 2012. Fontenot’s translations of contemporary German poems have appeared widely. He recently translated Wilhelm Genazino’s novel, Women Softly Singing. A native New Orleanian, he lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What was your first inspiration to write poetry? To engage in longer fiction? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

KF: I started writing at twenty-one, but I was a late bloomer considering many, especially women (via my experience), start writing seriously at eight or nine.  At that age they are no virtuosos, but they still have an advantage over those who begin later by having more years to develop as writers. By the age of twenty-one, they already have significant gains, in reading as well as writing.

My own writing grew out of psychological needs, in my case the need to overcome clinical depression.  And in the spring of 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, three famous poets–Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Nikki Giovanni–gave a reading at Tulane University, and I was in the huge audience.  I was impressed, knowing this was my calling.  My first publication that spring was in the Tulane newspaper, a bad imitation of Ginsberg’s “America,” but in retrospect, from my limited and naive viewpoint as a beginner, I was still as high as Mount Everest.

CH: You have published both a novel (For Mr. Raindrinker) and two poetry collections (In a Kingdom of Birds and Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006-2013), as well as good deal of work in translation. How would you identify yourself as a writer?

KF: Rilke said, that for a poet writing fiction, some great and undeniable event must happen to make him/her willing to engage in the struggle of spending several years at prose. In my case, it was a stint in a mental institution, which I consider seminal in my growth as a writer and as a human being.

I identify myself as a writer engaged in Southern regionalism with a cosmopolitan outlook. Many writers are hacks.  If they don’t write for money, they write for prestige.  Even Shakespeare was a hack, albeit a good one.  But neither money nor prestige is guaranteed.  Yet, on a deeper level, authors write because they have to, because they can’t stop. Like smoking. And we can be as little certain whether what we write will last as we are in guessing how many years we still have to live. I have lost much of my ego, so I write simply because the outer world I live in–its people–have encouraged me to keep going.  In 1990 one of my former German students at LSU in Baton Rouge told me, after 12 or thirteen years of study beyond high school and qualifying as a surgeon, that he now has a “trade.”  And that’s how I feel with poetry:  I have a trade.

CH: How did you first become interested in translation? How have you gone about finding work to translate?

KF: My academic credentials are in German language and literature.  The fact is, every time I encounter the German language, I translate it in my head, whether it’s spoken or written.  That’s just what people do who practice a second language (in my case third, the other being French). Translation, then, especially of the literature I admire, becomes something else to do when I’m not able to do my own poetry.

I’m not interested in translating German literature written before, say, 1960.  Many other translators have done so in a definitive way.  Most of those poets (including women like Droste-Hülshoff or Else Lasker-Schüler) are now already fully transcultural.  The German poet Ludwig Steinherr (b. 1962) is a friend, still alive, and I like translating him because he is an innovator in his unique poetic language that continues to evolve.

CH: How has translation influenced your poetry and prose? What are its gifts? Its challenges?

KF: Translating seems to me at times to be impossible work.  First, the act of interpretation must happen, both what the original author says and how that author says it.  How much should one adhere to the original, and how much stray from it in search of a brilliant rendering in the target language? Are completely free renderings (versions) allowed? Puns are practically impossible to deal with, and one move might be to replace them with doable puns in the target language.

The process of translation involves such a concentration in language use that I almost always come away with either memorable words or memorable syntax.  And who can say where these things will pop up in my own poems, albeit unconsciously.?

Really the only problem which translations don’t solve concerns the cultural atmosphere in which a poem takes place.  A reader won’t necessarily understand the local things endemic to that culture.  But then so many poems in English need footnotes to their allusions in the Norton Anthology of Poetry.  I see no difference.

CH: It has been said that the work of each poet is infused with that poet’s obsessions and preoccupations. What are the obsessions of your work? What themes or images do you find yourself frequently exploring?

KF: Robert Hass said in a poem, “all the new thinking is about loss.  In this it resembles all the old thinking.”  Loss, transformation, a great astonishment at simply being alive in an often beautiful world: all these inform my work.

With respect to images, the sun, the moon, and the struggle between light and darkness in both the physical and the symbolic senses–these things occur frequently.  Animals show up a lot.  In Just a Trace of Moon, music is a recurring theme, a leitmotif around which the collection is built.

CH: Your novel, For Mr. Raindrinker, was recently re-released by Alamo Bay Press. How did this re-release come about?

KF: For Mr. Raindrinker was originally published in 2010 by Chuck Taylor’s Slough Press, then located in College Station, Texas.  Mick White assembled that text to be sent to Lightning Source, the print-on-demand company.  Mick went on to Alamo Bay Press where he showed the novel to the director, Pam Booten.  She liked it enough to reissue it with new artwork on the cover, artwork done by a painter with a gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans.  Her name is Mina Zavala Lanzas.

CH: I have long admired the craft of your poetry. How would you describe your journey to deepen your craft as a poet? How has your work in poetry influenced your prose?

KF: Originality results from the complexity of influences.  One woman I mentored said she was afraid that by reading someone else, his or her style might somehow have a detrimental effect on her writing.  I said:  “Don’t worry about that.  It doesn’t work that way.  Just read.  Keep reading and the influences will sort themselves out in their own manner.”

The theory of the writing process is no secret.  Read something, then write something.  Read something else, then write something else, and show, by what you have written, what you have learned. Of course, it’s not quite so simple.  The processes of seeing, remembering, and experience with the world must come into play.  To continue to test the limits of syntax and diction: that’s what I shoot for.

Since my novel claims to be lyrical, there are individual poems in there–two or three.  But a parataxis is included even in the prose itself. In two sections, for example, I make use of the list device Whitman was so fond of.

CH: Who are your literary influences in poetry and fiction? Your favorite writers/books?

KF: I have read so many poets intensively that if I started listing them, I would leave most of them out.  Some are Robert Bly, James Wright,  Carolyn Kizer, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Mark Strand, those American poets of my father’s generation.  Too, there’s the New York School of Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery.

Foreign influences include Tranströmer, Ritsos, Apollinaire, Desnos, Jacob, Jozsef, Vallejo, Lorca and all the Spanish surrealists.  Of course there are my exact contemporaries as well as the roughly two generations born since I was born.  It’s so hard to keep up, but I do my best.

The influences in my fiction have been mostly the German writers and filmmakers I encountered doing coursework as an undergraduate and graduate student.  In Raindrinker I tried to create a unique first-person narrator with all the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

My favorite books have to do with classical music and jazz:  The Lives of the Great Composers, Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz, and Ken Burns’ Jazz.

CH: What projects are you working on now?

KF: At the moment I’m writing as few new poems as possible.  Rather, I’m going back to poems written since 1996 or so and seeing if I can breathe new life into those which are not beyond repair.  Revision means much to me.  I belong to a poetry critique group that meets once a month.  There I can get great feedback on how my poems strike other poets, who often happen to be the ideal readers, too.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

KF: I’ve most recently been reading the collected poems of Frank Stanford who died so young at 30. Actually, I know writers in New Orleans, former friends of Frank.  His poetry is filled with narrative localisms of rural Arkansas along with surrealism.  It’s quite good.  I met him once, I think, in the spring of 1978 at the home of fiction writer Ellen Gilchrist, living at that time uptown in New Orleans’ Garden District.

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