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Emily Fragos: An Eternal Poet

December 16, 2011

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Five questions for a lyric poet at her finest.

Fragos horse.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Allison Waffles.

Kaspar Hauser—the so-called “feral child” who spent most of his early life locked in a cell—has captured the imagination of many artists, including Paul Verlaine, Werner Herzog, and Suzanne Vega. His story is filled with so many unanswered questions that it teems with the uncanny. It is no wonder then that Emily Fragos should write an address to him in her latest poetry collection, Hostage. The supernatural permeates her work. Sometimes this quality appears in the subject matter as in “Away,” which begins with “[t]he faint, hoarse breathing of a near-ghost” and ends with “the red-lit hut with psychic inside.” More often, though, it is a sort of spark, an intensity that cannot be paraphrased. Fragos’s poems call out to those sensations inside of us craving articulation and rarely receiving it. That is to say, these are lyric poems at their very finest.

Indeed, her work can be fittingly compared to the lithe verses of that other Emily, and Fragos recently edited a collection of Dickinson’s letter. Here, she discusses why Dickinson is “an eternal poet,” a horse named Centares, and the sound a finished poem makes. Hint: It’s not a trumpet fanfare.

—Erica Wright for Guernica

Guernica: You’ve edited several books for Everyman’s Library, including, most recently, the letters of Emily Dickinson. What surprised you most about this project?

Emily Fragos: What struck me was the effort and the struggle to stay alive during those days. Dickinson is such an eternal poet. You can forget that she was a very real person, “a little lady with a big dog,” who had many friends and a close family. The litany of misery they endured: cholera, malaria, scarlet fever, pneumonia, deaths in childbirth, the Civil War, farm accidents, railroad fatalities, fires all over the place, flies all over the place. People literally dropped like flies. Even when there’s a lull, you come across two young brothers skating on the local pond and falling through the ice to their deaths. It just never stopped! When she wrote so ecstatically about flowers, whom she called “the beautiful children of spring,” I am sure it had something to do with surviving another brutal New England winter.

Also, Dickinson was such a genuinely compassionate and loving and witty individual. Her concern for others really permeates the letters. She was never the self-absorbed recluse of myth who hid in a room and wrote cryptic poems and cared nothing for the people of her world.

Guernica: You’ve also worked on themed anthologies such as The Dance and Music’s Spell. What attracts you to these undertakings?

I know there are systems, but I continue to use my ear, my intuition, my sense of the weight of words.

Emily Fragos: I have had the pleasure of selecting and editing five poetry anthologies: The Great Cat; The Dance; Music’s Spell; The Letters of Emily Dickinson; and Visions In Verse, Poems About Art & Artists, which is due out in the Spring 2012. Each of these books is about a true passion of mine. I have learned so much about poetry on a timeless, international scale. I have learned so much about the subjects. It’s been a ton of work, but I am glad that I got to do the work. One minute you are re-discovering Hafiz or Hesiod or Issa and the next minute you are discovering an exciting modern poet. You can find amazing poems anywhere, all over the world. It’s about casting your net wide and being thrilled to share what you come up with.

Guernica: Did guest-editing an issue on family for Guernica pose any new challenges?

Emily Fragos: I was asked to center my selections around a theme, and I had no idea whatsoever what that would be. I wanted to show the variety of poetic possibility—different voices and styles and emotional takes—even if the poems all dealt with the same idea. I just dug in and started selecting really good poems and then I noticed that quite a few of them mentioned family: siblings, parents, children. I was totally surprised, so I chose “family” as my theme and went along for the ride.

I like when accidental things happen like that. Besides, surprise and unpredictability are often key elements in good poems, so it was fitting.

Guernica: In one of our correspondences, you mentioned an encounter with a beautiful horse in a Connecticut stable. I now associate you with him even though you live here in New York City among all this bustle and concrete. What does it mean to be a city poet? Are we missing out on something important?

Emily Fragos: Oh, you remembered Centares! Yes, I have a dear friend who invited me to visit the stables where she keeps her horse, a huge, shiny brown, gorgeous champion. I have no real knowledge of horses except for the wretched ones that pull the Central Park carriages. (I wish they would ban that practice!) Being with Centares, I thought of that tiny poem by D.H. Lawrence, “The White Horse:” “The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on / and the horse looks at him in silence. / They are so silent they are in another world.”

I watched Centares roll around in the grass and spring back up again. I watched him prance and graze. If you only know animals through zoos and circuses and Central Park carriages, you know nothing of this freedom. This was innately beautiful and peaceful and right.

Guernica: The working title for your latest collection was The Juggler’s Hands. Why did you settle on Hostage?

Emily Fragos: I had both titles in mind when I put the poems together into a book. Each is the title of a poem in the book. I couldn’t make up my mind. The Juggler’s Hands felt more mysterious, fragile, imaginative, while Hostage felt raw, more urgent and contemporary. I finally went with Hostage because that particular poem is about the abuse and abandonment of living beings—human and animal—and several of the book’s poems deal with those sorrows. Hostage seemed to call forth an essence.

People ask me how I choose titles, how I decide on the order of poems in my books. I know there are systems, but I continue to use my ear, my intuition, my sense of the weight of words. Hostage held the book together in a way that finally satisfied me. Yeats said that you know when a poem is finished when it makes a sound like the click of the lid of a music box. I guess I finally heard that click.

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Emily Fragos is the author of Little Savage (Grove Press, 2004). She appears in the film The Fortune Writer and teaches poetry at New York University and Columbia University.

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