Death interviews me about my apparel, asks who I’m wearing, who I’m looking forward to seeing tonight. Not having had voice lessons or PR coaching, my answers fall flat.
—Ben Fama, “The Function of Fantasy in the Lacanian Real”
Welcome to Ben Fama’s Deathwish, a poetry collection that catalogues a world where “evil is normal” and “debt is a pet / a suit to pass out in.” Hey — this world doesn’t sound so different from our own. As Fama puts it, “the Anthropocene is a fucked-up time to be alive.” Deathwish, forthcoming this June from Newest York, is written in the lexicon of the “Kardashian zeitgeist”: its convergence of queasy pill-popping, Opening Ceremony-aspirations, sexting, violence, and “poses on the internet” read like part-satire, part-paean, and part-elegy. The society Fama describes doesn’t need to sign its own death-warrant: it wears its Deathwish on its sleeve.
Fama, a graduate of The New School Creative Writing MFA and now assistant director of the program, spoke with Public Seminar editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham about branding, submission, and the alienation of post-Internet life.
After a Party
After we smoked angel dust you asked how I was feeling.
I wanted to say, but couldn’t, thinking through a Deathwish,
tangled up with you, someone who didn’t interest me should have been
in the soaking tub, but wasn’t and kept talking as you
ashes out of the louvered penthouse windows. There were roman
shades in the large solarium, moans from the MMF happening nearby
heavy liquidity, strange and lonely, was that you
I stroked the cheek of, leather and champagne,
my wanting like
a mist spread over this room of strangers,
satanic courtship dating
how lovely love only finds it’s truth in death
dust burning into the plastic daybreak, a plain morning
you wish to sleep alone
but send me selfies from bed, I like it cruel like this
how the sun rises just like yesterday.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham [ERG]: What is the origin story of Deathwish?
Ben Fama [BF]: Deathwish is my second book. I was working on fiction and poetry — poetry was sort of me cheating on my novel. I write a lot about media and public life. My first book was in 2015 and the world changed so much since then. In one sense, I was writing it just as a way of processing my subject position regarding what’s happening in the United States. And a lot of the book is very personal — about friendships and relationships. So I was working through things that were happening, in my personal life and in the world at large.
ERG: One site where these personal and political themes seem to interact is the relationship between the narrator and their audience. Many of these poems take the form of a direct address, and the “you” they speak to seems unusually mutable. While sometimes the “you” seems like an identifiable love-object, a companion with a distinct identity and set of behaviors, at other times there are hints that this recurring “you” is not exactly the same individual, but rather the same character.
BF: This [narrator] is a subject of late capital, a subject of melancholy, a subject who has to confront a world that basically blackmailed our generation through debts. We’ve been born into our debt, our generation, while also being maligned for them and for having different values. I think the “I” in here is a subject speaking that’s trying to resolve what it means to stand alone in a world where there is a limited capacity to effect justice, a limited capacity to assert yourself.
There is a companionship: I think that’s like the “you” in this book that you mentioned. And that is moved closer to at some points and [seen] from a distance at other points. Being part of the world while also not part of the world is something I’m interested in — the alienation and atomization of art and post-Internet life. What does it mean to process feelings there? I think the “I” is doing that work, if that makes sense.
ERG: This sense of companionship is part of what makes the book is such a pleasure to read. We go through so much with the narrator, but we’re never yelled at. I was wondering about that strategy in Deathwish: in place of anger, deploying what might be understood as forgiveness — or submission.
BF: Wow, forgiveness and submission. Those are things I do think about a lot in my personal life — what it means to have been justifiably harmed, what it means to refuse to forgive someone. What are the ethics of those things?
The refusal to forgive fuels bad feelings so much. Our online discourse right now is in the gutter: I really am loath to participate in social media, even though I feel caught in the game of it. We’re in the middle of a big movement for outrage and call-out culture. I think that the hyperbole that exists in cancelling someone comes from a lack of political efficacy. People can see how the world could be better, but to actually effect change and improve our lives is really hard, the way our systems for change are set up — especially with politics being so bad right now.
So the subject here — I think — wants to look in their personal relationships and not handle them in the way the dominant discourse is being handled (from our president down): in petty dominations, micro-aggressions, slanders, Internet-beefs, whatever. Posting shitty memes — you know, President Trump posted a Game of Thrones meme this morning. It’s crazy; it’s like something a 13-year-old would do. And my politics don’t really want much to do with that.
And so forgiveness and submission — finding easy or softer ways through relationships with people as a way of healing — is something that I continue indefinitely to strive towards.
ERG: And yet there’s a playful slipperiness in Deathwish , in that the persona sometimes shares your name.
BF: One of the times where my name is in here is the part that’s like a voicemail. I really like the aesthetics of the phone call, the way people sound on the phone, especially when they’re leaving a recording. We lose so much through written communication. The parts that used to be fun — I’m thinking of texting and emailing — are no longer fun. It seems more like labor.
So to be able to put in voicemails into the book — they’re really fun to read, and I think that you get extra emotional information in the inflection of people’s voice. You could hear their resignations or enthusiasms or affection. I really wanted to try to put that in here, because it seems very similar to other things I try to do in my poems as far as the tonal registers go. Putting my name in there is the moment I chose to disclose something about myself:
Heyyyy it’s Ben … sorry to leave a voicemail, I really hate it when people do that…
That basically is a voicemail I left trying to make plans with someone.
ERG: The raw intimacy of the voicemail in Deathwish is like a message from a world external to the book’s own reality: a call from the world of physical encounters, which comes with its own emotional uncertainties, vulnerabilities — a tonal register, as you say. This seems in contrast to some other uses of your name, like the inclusion in earlier poems of the phrase “a poor man’s Ben Fama poem” in “June emotional poem,” and a personal Gmail address in “Sun Bath.”
BF: Yeah, that earlier section of the book does think a lot more about personal economics and the economy of having become visible in a sort of a public way. And what that means to create art after you have one book out. I heard someone say you explore the same book over and over again, or write the same poem over and over again. There is a point of feeling like you are ripping yourself off, or you’re repeating themes or ideas without necessarily deepening or complicating them.
So I tried to remain patient and I think I got to that — by dragging myself. Like — “Maybe I haven’t pushed myself enough yet in the new poems to get to a new dimension in my practice.” So I was having some fun there.
I’m really obsessed with public life. In that long onslaught of celebrity names at the beginning, I was thinking about some people can’t escape public life. Two summers ago, when I wrote that first poem, I basically recalled all those names from page six headlines, and built a narrative out of late August. And I can read those names, and remember what was happening in my life by triangulating the time and space that those names were trending — because I know why, but also because they were also offered up to the public. That sense of lives lived in public, whether online or not, in which people just know things about you or think they do — I really like to fuck with that.
ERG: I was going to ask about the construction of that poem, and if there are names that you wished after publishing the book that you could have included in there. But now I understand the process of “Fantasy 2.0,” I get more of a “no regrets” attitude from that poem.
BF: That poem was originally called “Leo” because August is my birthday month, so I wrote it during August’s news. Listening to the news all day, waking up and the weather is already hot. That long poem, and the names after it, are triangulating or aestheticizing the crazy shit that was happening nonstop — it was coming whether you wanted to or not. You mention submission: I think that in engaging in any kind of media, you just have to submit. You can’t control what’s happening to you. Looking at Twitter, seeing that the Mueller report was released, that Comey’s happening — it does totally dominate you. So there is some submission.
ERG: Yet your depiction of submission before a tyrannical culture and language in Deathwish is also very funny — like in “Sun Bath,” in which the narrator says:
I quit writing poems.
enjoyed tranced hours.
as a blue chip brand ally.
sex positive online and glamor obsessed.
That really made me laugh. I was wondering, how would you characterize the Ben Fama “brand” of Deathwish?
BF: Oh man. That’s very tough.
ERG: I mean, “sex positive online and glamor obsessed” is already pretty good.
BF: I am glamor obsessed for sure. I think it’s the inheritance I have from growing up in the suburbs. And then “sex positive online” seems like a good way to be. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the Deathwish “brand” — there’s definitely a lot of sex in the book. As far as a “blue chip brand ally,” I think that was more about the fantasy of quitting the hard work of writing — which has no utility — and just becoming a copywriter who makes gobs of money, which I guess would be selling out. I do copywriting, and I do have skills to write for brands and create a brand of voice. I enjoy that kind of gaming and I guess I have done a lot of that in this book.
So, asked what the brand is, I’d say: sometimes shy / sometimes cocky / sometimes peasant / feelings-positive / internet person.
Follow Ben Fama on twitter: @benfama