9TH ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 14 :: LAUREN RUSSELL on JOANNA FUHRMAN
“If loneliness is going to be a song,/ let the song/ be so loud that the ears of all the un-lonely/ are permanently damaged” Joanna Fuhrman writes in “Essay on What I am Most Afraid to Write About” from her 2003 collection, Ugh Ugh Ocean. I first met Joanna that year, when I enrolled in her Genres and Games workshop as a twenty-year-old volunteer at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. I have long inhabited a loneliness that can become as resounding as the one in Joanna’s poem, and when I have found respite from that loneliness, it has often been through poetry. The Poetry Project in general, and Joanna’s workshops in particular, were where I began to appreciate the potential for poetry as community.
Community is an operating mode in Joanna’s work. “Facts of Survival,” a poem in her 2009 book Pageant, is composed of answers responding to the questions Sharon Mesmer raises in her poem “What Becomes Us,” published in The Virgin Formica the previous year. In response to Mesmer’s query, “Does anyone let all things happen — beauty and terror alike — unto them?” Fuhrman responds, “Beauty and terror — terror and beauty — / those would be good names if I ever/ adopted a pair of puppy schnauzers.” To Mesmer’s question, “What is the consensus nowadays on becoming a grotesque mirror of one’s own mother?” Fuhrman quips,
… I’m also sorry to hear you’ve
become a grotesque mirror of your mom.
But it’s really not so bad. Is it?
At least your mother knew how
to clean a coffee pot, which is more
than I can say for your dad.
The spirit of playfulness and comradery alive in poems like “What Becomes Us” contributes to the effectiveness of Joanna’s cultural and political critiques. As I wrote in my review of Joanna’s 2015 collection, The Year of Yellow Butterflies, for Boog City, “sometimes I don’t know if what I’m looking at is a current or imminent reality or its funhouse mirror image.” In the review I wrote,
In the title poem, a series of surreal and speculative worlds unfold, and some of their attributes are all too familiar. “It was the year those photographs appeared everywhere: big-toothed Americans smiling next to naked, hooded, bound dark men” immediately conjures up images of Abu Ghraib abuses, but in the next sentence torture becomes yet another marketing ploy, “We’d see the images printed on T-shirts, embossed on popcorn cartons and caught in the silver, cinematic underskin of our eyelids.// We thought the image would cause a rearrangement of our dormant atoms, that the lion sleeping in our waterbed would wake and burn a rapturous path out of its oceanic nap.” But hyperawareness of (someone else’s) torture and our own complicity in it is not the transformative experience we had sought. The poem ends, “Instead, the powder on our nacho chips stayed the same blunt orange, the ballet dancers remained perched, spinning forever on their lovely, bloody toes.” Despite continuous, almost voyeuristic, exposure to graphic images of other peoples’ pain, our own lives remain remarkably unchanged, in all their prosaic ugliness and beauty. It’s a kind of surrealistic realism, an answer to Ilya Kaminsky’s “we (forgive us)// lived happily during the war.”
Reading “The Year of Yellow Butterflies” in 2020, I am reminded that only months ago I watched ProPublica’s video footage of a sixteen-year-old boy dying in an immigration detention facility, a video that, we later learned, his family had never given ProPublica permission to publish. I watched this video in the comfort and safety of my own home, until, finally, I had to look away. I wrote my representatives and donated to immigrant rights funds, but my life continued on its course and the life of the boy in the video did not. If I had been eating nacho chips, they would have “stayed the same blunt orange” in the face of this boy’s death and my tidy consumption of it.
If the stakes were high in 2015, now in the midst of intersecting health and human rights crises, they are colossal. I am reminded of Sonya Posmentier’s essay “A Language for Grieving,” published in The New York Times that same year. Posmentier writes, “By making violence strange and unfamiliar, very different poets like [Gwendolyn] Brooks and [NourbeSe] Philip have gone beyond merely repeating its effects, like a viral video of a police shooting, and beyond the realm of the evidentiary to that of the imagination, where we might not only observe violence but mourn and counter it.” While Posmentier is speaking specifically of traditions in African American poetry, Fuhrman’s surrealistic approach to the political poem does a similar kind of work. Inequities and abuses are thrown into startling relief when seen through an unfamiliar lens. In “Change the World,” published on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet the Blog in 2018, Eleni Sikelianos wrote,
I know that imagining change doesn’t make change and that one person’s changed world is not enough. Yet poetry actually made my world, in many of its daily textures. Imagination, the primary engine of the poem, is a power of mind, and if we don’t teach children (and ourselves) that it’s valuable, and guide them in exercising those muscles, we will never change our world.
Poetry changed my world, and it did so partly because of Joanna, whose 2003 workshop at the Poetry Project marked a turning point in my life. In that and subsequent workshops, Joanna invited me to practice poetry as an evolving, multi-step process. Joanna was one of the first people who ever took me seriously as a poet, and she strongly encouraged me to pursue undergraduate and then graduate study.
I agree with Sikelianos that one person’s changed world is not enough, but for that one person, the change is everything. My loneliness is still loud, but poetry has given me fellow travelers in my loneliness, a sense of community and camaraderie among congenial occupants of adjoining planets, and perhaps as importantly, the means to transform my loneliness into art. Like the speaker of “Moraine for Bob” in Joanna’s 2006 book Moraine, “I was never a shaking castanet/ in the midnight sense of a song.” Joanna gave me the confidence to create my own song — while singing hers so brilliantly in her own singular and spectacular key.
Lauren Russell is the author of What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta Press, 2017) and Descent (Tarpaulin Sky Press, forthcoming June 2020). She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Bettering American Poetry 2015, and Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, among others. She is a research assistant professor in English and is assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.