Bookforum talks with Adam Fitzgerald

George Washington BY Adam Fitzgerald. Liveright. . $25.
Adam Fitzgerald

When I first met Adam Fitzgerald in 2009, we were both fledgling graduate students, and I knew from the moment he entered the room that he was the personification of a promising young poet, with whirlwind energy, incredible charisma, and insatiable precocity. Now, his second book of poems, George Washington, is being published by Liveright, and he’s already an eminent figure in twenty-first century poetry.

If Fitzgerald’s debut, The Late Parade, is—as the New York Times Book Review described it—“as textured as a corridor in the Louvre,” then George Washington is as gritty and gaudy as Route 17 in New Jersey. These poems are made from the stuff of suburbs—“whose veiny highways, turnpikes, gibbering tunnels / yield yet the city’s trash some passage home”—and like a time-warped shopping center, it’s overflowing with lowbrow cultural items from a millennial youth: “I generally enjoyed the nineties. / A world of Netscape, chat rooms and Fruit by the Foot. / I remember them like the debossed covers of R. L. Stine . . . Macarenas were danced. Ring Pops were had. Giga Pets / and Beanie Babies, Dunkaroos and VHS cassettes.” The book is packed with pop-culture flashbacks and bygone icons: Designing Women, Denise Austin, Bob Barker, Carmen Sandiego, Lamb Chop, Game Boys, Super Soakers—all receive heartfelt tribute in these nostalgic (while utterly cutting-edge) poems.

And if Fitzgerald’s debut was a parade, then his follow-up is a more like a funeral march, though a kind of jazz funeral, because Fitzgerald remains exuberant even at his most morose. Starting with the first line of the first poem in the book—“After my family died there was a replacement family”—the poet possesses a keen awareness of mortality. Loss has enriched his poetics, bestowing his lines with greater depth and gravity. But any mournfulness is also infused with amusement: “Jurassic Park comes back / Star Wars comes back / The Clintons and Bushes come back / But you do not come back.” A mature, resonant, triumphant collection of wistful elegies and whimsical love poems, George Washington proves that Fitzgerald is one of the most brilliantly multifaceted poets writing today. Bookforum recently sat down with him to discuss, among other things, suburbia, mall culture, poetry after queer theory, TV reruns, sex, and death.

Reading George Washington sometimes feels like flipping through channels of ’90s TV—these poems have a profound fondness for the commercial images of a prior era. I think a lot of the personalities of our generation are formed from behaviors learned on TV—do you feel like you were raised by it?

Yes, many of my earliest memories center around the living room and bedroom television sets that my family owned. In elementary school, I stayed up with my mom watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Late Show with David Letterman. Early Letterman was wildly cornball and renegade, such a crazy example of the kitsch and vaudeville that TV had to offer. My father worked night shifts as a psychiatric nurse, and my mother worked in Manhattan at a bank company—waking up at 6 am, not back sometimes until 7 or 8 pm—so I had my parents in shifts, watching different shows with each of them. In the morning, my father and I had a ritual of watching the Disney Channel, since he was in charge of getting me ready for school. We watched Thomas & Friends (starring George Carlin and Ringo Starr, lest we forget, as magical train conductors) and Dumbo’s Circus. The Price is Right was a favorite when I was home from school. Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The Today Show with Al Roker and Willard Scott. I associate daytime TV with my brother since we’d watch the insanity of it throughout the summer: Sally Jessy Raphael, Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, especially hardcore filth like Richard Bey. We were glued to Jerry Springer. Raw, sensational, addictive. At dinnertime—eating dinner was more the backdrop to watching TV than vice versa—my father would put on PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Then we’d watch Seinfeld reruns that came on at 7 and 7:30, or The Simpsons, also in syndication, or Jeopardy!. And lots of older TV shows were on the air on cable. I was born in ’83, yet I could absorb the vocabulary of I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, All in the Family, shows that belonged to another era. TV’s history.

Your poem “Leaves of Grass” focuses on the shopping mall—“As a child, I frequented the interconnected suites of Challenge Arcade, Spencer Gifts, KB Toys, Roy Rogers, Ruby Tuesday, Pizzatella, Wok Express, Bun N’Burger”—and the implications of consumerism abound throughout George Washington. What intrigues you about our culture’s obsession with shopping?

In the current consumer pipeline, what you kill time looking at—whether it’s art or entertainment—primarily happens on a screen. The mall has become a physical center where you go to browse and buy, to extend your relationship with all those different screen-memories. I’m interested in how common space is defined by a culture in each generation. When I was young, the local convenience store literally looked like a Norman Rockwell food mart or Edward Hopper gas station. And then times changed. But I think we carry those old ways of relating forward into the new iterations. I related to AOL and Netscape as though they were shopping malls to get lost in. Browsing chat rooms, pornography, GeoCities fan sites—there was a sense of walking around, with identity and language as kinds of fictional brands regulated by the virtual environment.

In the final poem, you write that “Grief and desire are just two of the key themes in / ‘George Washington,’” and one of the major distinctions between this book and The Late Parade is a intense awareness of mortality. Erotic connection and distance are also so prevalent—the first title poem concludes: “One thing we share is worshipping the image of a person we never knew.” Tell me about grief and desire.

Grief and desire are more synonymous than . . . not. Both states can have topsy-turvy temperatures, from inhuman cold to red-hot mania. They also share a pattern—that merry-go-round of absence/presence, with caresses and losses. Luckily whatever’s lost has a kind of substitutive persistence, which structures experience for the rest of your life in ways you can’t predict and sometimes don’t welcome.

For me, being a consumer is this type of grief/desire cycle. We keep buying and buying, disposing and disposing. Are we cheating death, dress-rehearsing for it, repressing it? Grief and desire both instill a form of distance. Desire can be incrementally deferred in a very hypnotic rhythm. It’s the rhythm of poetry, of music: a reaching out, and a return from reaching out. It’s the same rhythm when you mourn: you’re desperate to touch a person even as they escape you.

And of course poetry, like sex and death, is about intimacy. Intimacy is a drug: you think you’re managing it but it’s managing you.

Intimacy is one thing I admire most about your poems. I always feel like your “you” is me, and I don’t think that’s just my narcissism, I think it’s the extraordinary charisma of your voice. You write in “Vader in Love”: “The ‘you’ of the poem like night and day— / all moony with special ambiance,” which is a quintessential Adam Fitzgerald riddle. Say more about the “you” of your poems.

The “you” is an aggregate. A kind of snowball rolling down the mountain of the poem. The “you” is as important as a pitch down the plate, and you can practice how the curve and spin of that “you” is going to come off, but I don’t think you can do it too calculatingly.

I love David Shapiro’s poem title “The You of This Poem Is You.” The “you” can alternate and shift like a channel click within the same poem.That said, in the poem “Oregon Trail,” the shifting declarative bursts of You do this and You do that feel peculiar to me; there, I was interested in the peculiarity of game-speak—You are now dead. You are back to life—and how that imperative can command your reality without your agency, so it’s really a surrender.

Another facet that distinguishes these poems from your earlier poems is a more pronounced queerness, as well as a kind of self-consciousness about whiteness and privilege. I’m curious about how identity politics inform your poetics.

When you write poems today, you’re writing after queer theory. I was interested in parodying certain queer theoretical jargons or framings while at the same time embracing them. That said, to be honest, the word queer never circulated in my consciousness as a teenager or young adult in the ’90s. It would have been too remote and political to the world of New Jersey where I lived. It points to realities of gender fluidity, spectrums of orientation, AIDS, homelessness, and so much more that were absolute abstractions to the hate and repression that imbued the casual affluence of my hometown. I heard “homo” and “gay” a lot growing up, because boys loved to use these terms as weapons. Even the word gay caused me panic until college—a time when I knew I liked guys and had spent years enjoying mostly gay pornography, reading gay erotica online. “Gay” seemed to imply that if my desires were real, I would have to become a different person, one that was only modeled for me in unrecognizably campy, grossly misogynistic parodies by the entertainment industry.

To come full circle, “queer” is something I embrace now because it is a political commitment, a certain awareness of not simply my own sexuality and desires, but how they do and don’t conform to a much larger sense of culture around me. I cherish queer as a verb, as something a writer or artist does to wreak havoc across the borders or fences of where we seemingly don’t belong. I’m interested in how poetry can be a way to erode and deface the ideologies of mainstream culture as well as the literary tradition. So in “Vader in Love” I wanted to concatenate figures of my imagination, from Edward Said and George Lucas to Heidegger and Mary Ruefle, as well as reimagine my own personal experience and rewrite Darth Vader’s story as an unhappy, sexual romance with his son-like lover. At the same time, to identify with Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire drew me into interrogating all the ways I resist yet embrace my sense of whiteness as a gay man, and how even homosexual desires are often too comfortable in the colonial language of conqueror/conquered, taker/taken.

I was talking to a mentor about some of George Washington’s themes, objects and virtual spaces and she said to me, “Oh, you’re writing a book about whiteness” and I thought “Oh I’m not able to do that.” And yet when I was revising the book I kept thinking about what she said and I realized of course the book is about whiteness. Not because I engineered it that way, ironically, or from a vantage of self-knowing and biting critique, but because these spaces—the suburbs, consumer culture—are inherently white-supremacist spaces.

The suburbs are so central to George Washington. I think of this exemplary line from “To New Jersey”: “With catalectic rivers, gouty / topless shores, swooping shadows’ stapled masonry // you fold your hard-flecked, boiling Chrysler clouds / into the grace of these deranged department stores / and chaste used dealerships, traumatic concrete skies.

The more I thought about the suburbs, I realized there’s such a sinister banality to them. They’re based on lies. The lies of safety and comfort and entertainment. The great myths we buy into. A calculated middling, lulling language to those values: not prosperity, but comfort. Not decadence, but relaxation. Not fame or notoriety, but voyeurism.

Part of why I wanted to let this book embrace its New Jersey-ness, it’s suburban-ness, is because that seems so antithetical to poetry. Even if my imagination had never allowed those things—the proverbial Olive Garden—to enter into the poetic sphere, the young poet who was reading Keats (me) was the same person going to the Olive Garden before going to the Loews Mega Fun Forever Movie Complex. Who is the person writing these poems? And who is the person created by these poems? And what kind of relationship do they have if they accidentally bump into each other in the book? They don’t see eye to eye. It’s hard to sustain an autobiographical self, to create imaginative versions of yourself and try to keep them consistent in a way that doesn’t feel ridiculous. Come to think of it, I feel the same way about the fiction of being “one” person in real life. And poetry helps me uncork and torque those fictions.

I know The Late Parade had a number of hidden—and not-so-hidden—influences, from Stars of the Lid and Cat Power to Giorgio de Chirico and Lost. In George Washington, you’ve got Cyndi Lauper and Star Wars, and I almost see Warhol in your reverence for commercial items, like Marlboro Reds and Coors Light. What are some of the hidden influences behind this book?

Warhol would’ve never occurred to me. I see how the book will be read as a kind of Pop art, but I didn’t want kitsch and I didn’t want irony and I didn’t want yawning drollness. Instead, I was very interested in the textural dryness of documentary poetics: Eliot Weinberger, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, David Foster Wallace, the Samuel R. Delany of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue—all of these great writers who make the factoid sensuous in its conspicuous detachment, aggregation, rotation. The persistent clunky-ness of history as data, or data as history. These writers taught me how to make the text behave like that.

So I watched lots of documentaries. I read dozens and dozens of nonfiction monographs on car culture, the LC II Apple computer, early video games, the advent of the internet, the advent of the silicon microchip; books on toy factories in China, on George Washington, on pornography, on the invention of the suburbs in northern New Jersey, on highways and mass transit, on Columbine, on O.J. Simpson, on the history of the VCR and VHS, on Bill Clinton, on the Oklahoma City bombing. They all started to speak to one another. It’s like my experience of Wikipedia, another major influence on the book. I love how Wikipedia articles link to other Wikipedia articles so you can create your own corridor of causation. I started with Norman Rockwell and I ended up on Justin Bieber’s dick. And luckily that hasn’t revealed too much about who I am!

Zachary Pace is a writer and editor in New York City.