Ben Fama - To live a serious life that’s a fucked up thing I would have to rent out a cabin beneath terrible angels

Ben Fama, Aquarius Rising, Ugly Duclking Presse, 2010.

"how much do you rely on planets? Ben Fama poses this question in his astounding astrological sequence of poems, Aquarius Rising. He doesn't depend on planets: he sees signs in all that's around him — sky, sea, sequins. A poetic horoscopist, he knows that there is nothing more difficult or fun than attempting to make sense of the present. For Fama, the present presages another present, and then another; and he reads it with wit and wonderment and wily smarts. I take his words to heart. Fama is the future." - Derek McCormack

"If you love someone you might want to call her and leave Ben Fama’s poems as messages on her voicemail. The messages would be informative and casual and glowing. They would be a big deal—a glamorous shrug from the heart!" - Heather Christle

"In astrology, one's "rising" sign is the public posture one takes with the world: the "face to meet the faces that you meet."A person with aquarius rising supposedly presents a public persona of brash independence, fervently unique, difficult to startle or shock — think of the quirky magical pixie girl of today's hipper rom-coms, i.e. Zoey Deschanel.
Ben Fama's first poem in his new chapbook, Aquarius Rising, titled "Girl," appears to be a series of poetic openings. It is all beginnings, a series of first lines, that implies but never delves into a text. In the poem's structure, it (unintentionally?) mirrors the 2004 Adam Sandler / Drew Barrymore rom-com vehicle, "50 first Dates." Each line connects only loosely to the next, if at all:
"I dreamed you wouldn't let me sleep in your bed

In a phone call they told me the poem was over

I was choking and there was no one to wave to

Beneath me was the sea

A stranger came out of the water"
It might tell the story of a relationship, or might be a fruitful poetic exercise — certainly, it presents a persona of mannered poetics. Fama's chapbook contains ten such poems, all of them striving for a unique voice, with titles that gesture toward astrological signs. They are relatively light, more clever than daring, as in the opening lines of the poem "Tauromachy": "Women of Odessa / I come bearing .gifs" There is a tinge throughout the collection of melancholy, “I don't know / anyone who / ever died / it makes / being human harder.” But that hardly matters. The poems evoke best a sort of intellectual and poetic intrigue; or, to put it more simply: enjoyment. They generate a kind of loose logic, as a dream structured by the links of language connection (some musical, some semi-logical or sensible). Fama mixes traditional lyricism with vocal, contemporary declarations and phrases:
To live a serious life
that's a fucked up thing
I would have to rent out a cabin
beneath terrible angels
[. . .]”
As with his poem of beginnings, through his jolts of casual phrases, Fama never gives in completely to the seriousness of his poetry. He implicates the medium, and the wells from which he draws, in this un-seriousness. The poems sometimes seem to turn back on our enjoyment and accuse. Gently. Maybe knowingly and with a little nudge. They move into grave questions and out of them, back into a world full of confusion and odd ephemera:
sometimes the world at midnight seems empty
like an empty room in a sad empty gallery

or the way a white horse
floating in the center of a lake is a full lake

my apartment at midnight is a collage
of wrapping paper and strange feelings

the world thrives on misunderstanding
a cloud full of moods for mature situations
” " - Daniel E. Pritchard

"Ben Fama, in his life and his work, fancifully cultivates an aesthetic somewhere between mid-cult mystic and cosmic troublemaker. Sitting on the couch of his Brooklyn apartment, you’re as likely to find him enthusiastically watching a documentary on Aleister Crowley as you are an episode of My So-Called Life; a conversation with him about the publishing industry is likely to be speckled with incongruous references to the Twilight Saga and the films of Kenneth Anger. The earnestness with which he absorbs a psychedelic patchwork of cultural influences, and reformats them under the rubric of his personal style, eschews the twee irony of hipsterdom. Not to mention he is an exciting and kick-ass poet. Not to mention he is one of the trendiest and integral operators in the youthful Brooklyn poetics scene today.
Let me explain that previous statement. Ben is the driving force behind the Supermachine reading series, which has run at Brooklyn’s Outpost Lounge, and which has routinely featured some of the greatest, probably coolest, contemporary poets in and around the city. A list of the most recognizable names from Supermachine’s sparkly stable of featured readers include Joshua Beckman, Chelsey Minnis, James Copeland, Matvei Yankelevich, Christian Hawkey, Jen Bervin, and Dorthea Lasky. The Supermachine series has been providing a catalog of fantastic examples re what’s up in poetry today (at least on the East Coast), not to mention ensuring an array of fabulous nights for lovers of verse. Moreover, this year Supermachine launched its own biannual journal, also called Supermachine, with the purpose of presenting some dazzlingly great poetry all wrapped up in the giddy, trance-like, but impacting style that characterizes Ben’s endeavors as organizer and publisher. A few poem titles featured in Supermachine #1 might help illustrate what that style leans toward: “Do Me, Dreamlife,” “Your Mom’s a Falconress,” “Journey to the Sun,” “Two Small Vampires,” “Your Sorcery Embarrasses Me,” “Dreams in Winter,” and “When It’s Sunny They Push the Button.”
Fama’s newish chapbook is titled Aquarius Rising; it was smartly selected by Ugly Duckling Presse for their really awesome series of chapbooks. For anybody who happened to miss Fama’s earlier poetry collection Sun Come, or what he’s published in journals like GlitterPony, Pank!, and No, Dear Magazine (plus, let us not forget, Correspondence), you’re going to want to hunt this baby down. A weirdo pessimist might dismiss Ben’s shiny verse with some semi-clever put-down (“Ben Fama is the Progressive Insurance Lady of poetry,” for instance, and no I cannot recall if I made that up, or if Ben did, or if somebody actually said that), and granted: his poems have a distinct and fun lightness to them, but if you let the kid talk to you from his pages, and he will, gregariously, you will, omg, totally develop a crush on this writing. There is a sassy gravity to his lines… take this (the opener from his ingenuously and ingeniously titled piece, “Glitter Pills”): “To live a serious life / that’s a fucked up thing[.]” That really strikes me, for its honesty wrapped in playfulness, but I might as well just reprint the whole poem:
'To live a serious life
that’s a fucked up thing
I would have to rent out a cabin
beneath terrible angels
if I get old wipe the dust off my tits
I should have a serious log cabin
the cabin’s name is Ben Fama
find directions on the internet
when you want to leave you can
I’ll stay there just me and my heart

bigger than the sun'
That’s not the best poem in Aquarius Rising, but it’s pretty representative of his ability to mix real feeling with the unpretentiously transcendental and some trademark winking, celebratory, hyperbolic mystification of the self. He plays fast and loose here and there, but not to the detriment of the reader’s possibility to enjoy, which seems like something Fama strongly wants you to do, even if he’s dancing around other complicated emotions. So, here’s this book, little and winsome, that Ben’s given us as a sort of spirit gift. Go and play with it in the grass. Try to keep an eye on Fama himself too, as he continues to engineer stellar venues, in print and in performance, for contemporary poetry. Yay!" -

"This is a lovely chapbook by a sweet-talking boy, one who thinks too much and too deep for his age. Or maybe he's just acquired a different sort of wisdom still mixed with playfulness and awe. I have no idea how old he actually is, but the spontaneity of the poems and some of the images make me think he's in his mid 20's, tops. A phrase like "I come bearing .gifs" is a techie twist on an old phrase. Images of waves, bullfighters and sequins contrast with the deeper and sometimes darker message underneath.
"Angel Youth",
Later in my sleep
I say aloud: take my word on it
this beautiful shipwreck
can never become real
but wake me up
and tell me I'm wrong"
In "Tauromachy" he creates a list of comparisons and conditions but adds visual details to keep them from sounding like dull axioms, and the effect is of a roguish observer, too young to yet be jaded:
"happiness exists only if it can
be spread across a grouping of days

sometimes the world at midnight seems empty
like an empty room in a sad empty gallery...

this world thrives on misunderstanding
a cloud full of moods for mature situations...

some mornings westerlies prevail in my sleep
the open radio glaring I had too much to dream last night"
It's almost as if he's describing life according to a weather report, with the unpredictable nature and variety implicit. Similar expressions throughout make this lyrical chapbook a collection more light at heart than much of what I've read, but still provocative; it's clever without being cute." -

"Since Whitman, Brooklyn has always maintained a literary heritage. In your opinion how strong is Brooklyn’s place in world literature?
- Whitman wrote at a time when everyone was focusing on the violence and injustices that the different social groups in the city were enacting on each other. But he remained open, and refused that cynicism. He saw through the violence to a city of pleasure; probably because he actually was in love with all the different types of people you could see around (and still can).
Right now, its hard to say how Brooklyn is affecting world literature, however, I think it is the best city in the nation for writers. So in that sense, it’s the most important place for American writing. And as much as American writing influences what else is going on, Brooklyn rules; though it seems like we’re taking influence from other places, like Berlin, and the eastern European countries.
I have heard your work compared to Frank O'Hara’s. He seemed to draw his material from the people and landscape in which he thrived. In your new book, "Aquarius Rising" do you feel that your influences were more celestial or culled from the city around you?
- I remember reading that most people don’t read their own work, so I got nervous and then tried to start doing this. I’ve realized that the biggest influences on me are the intimate friendships and relationships I’m a part of, and enduring in the present that we are always trying to make something from. I guess I’m just saying that there are deeper things that have an effect on you whether you accept that or not, and for me that idea is a source for my primary imagination to understand what I think about things. Skeptics will say, there are so many contradictions around us, they mean nothing. Mystics say, there is so much, something has to be true. For me the most fun is to get in there and fuck with that. My influences are private desires, and my poems inevitably voice collective concerns.
About Frank O’Hara: I always thought his biggest lesson was in the way he could turn out a poem without taking it too seriously, even if the poem was thematically serious. I also think that when people talk about “The New York School” they really mean Frank O’Hara. He died 44 years ago, which is 4 years longer than he lived. When I think about the most exciting writing happening right now, I usually look a little outside NYC. For instance some of my neighbors, Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf split time between Brooklyn and Berlin. Uljana has just been featured in the Chicago Review as part of a portfolio of Berlin poets. Also my favorite poet, Tomaz Salamun, is Slovenian. I would take him over Ashbery ten times out of ten.
One of your lines "Try doing something beautiful / it's like wrestling yourself out of an executive headlock" stood out to me. Do you feel that your work is beautiful, and if so, what did you have to break free from?
- Sure; the influence of the past, and the limits of my own imagination. Every time I try something new in a poem I suppose it is like breaking out of a headlock.
The book is out now on Ugly Duckling Presse. They also dedicate a lot of energy to re-discovering and translating foreign poets. As a writer, are these translations of value to your craft, and do you hope to have your work treated with the same consideration elsewhere?
- Two of my favorite books by Ugly Duckling are Marina Temkina’s WHAT DO YOU WANT, and Tomaz Salamun’s POKER. Both still in print. Both of these books were formative to the way I think about the architecture and vibe of a poem. They also published a translation of Elena Fanailova’s THE RUSSIAN VERSION and won a big award for that. Genya Turovskaya, one of the best poets writing right now, co-translated that book. She’s one of the editors of the Eastern European Poets Series, along with Matvei Yankelevich, who is sort of the de-facto face of UDP, and quite a good poet too. If my work ever received the same treatment that this team gives to their foreign language translations, I would be getting the best kind of treatment possible. " - Interview with Dylan K. Jackson


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