B. K. Fischer is a poet, critic, editor, and teacher. Her novel- in-verse, Mutiny Gallery, won the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize from Truman State University Press. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Boston Review, Ekphrasis, Southwest Review, Western Humanities Review, FIELD, and other journals. Our Associate Editor, Lisa Olstein, recently had a chance to ask B.K. Fischer a few questions about her new book, Radioapocrypha (Mad Creek, 2018).
LO: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?
BKF: Radioapocryphya started with skeptical curiosity and a bit of obscure reading. In May 2014, I came across the Gospel of Mary, a Gnostic text some people think records Mary Magdalene’s interpretation of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s cryptic and fragmentary, and it describes the resistance she encountered from the other disciples when she presented her vision. The disciple Andrew objects: “Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas.” They are strange ideas indeed:
The first form is darkness, the second desire, the third ignorance, the fourth is the excitement of death, the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh, the sixth is the foolish wisdom of flesh, the seventh is the wrathful wisdom.
Desire! The excitement of death! The foolish wisdom of the flesh! This was a very different take on Jesus than the one I was used to hearing, and it made me wonder about the shape of the received narrative that underpins Christianity. I decided I needed to reread the canonical Gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—so I did, straight through, over the course of a couple of weeks. I was raised Catholic, and I had heard portions of these scriptures at weekly Mass since before I could remember, but in the liturgical cycles they are piecemeal and pegged to the church calendar. This is no accident—it’s fundamental to Catholic dogma that the priest must interpret scripture for the layperson, and I guess scrambling the narrative makes it harder to question it, or more mysterious, or better suited to advancing other rhetorical aims? All of the above.
In any case, I fell into the gnosis and read the Gospels straight through that May, and I thought: what a crackpot story. Jesus of Nazareth was a radical, a pacifist, an iconoclast, and an incredibly charismatic spiritual teacher who surrounded himself with weirdos. He delivered some great one-liners, and it’s pretty easy to see why he was popular. Then I wondered—what would have happened if Jesus had appeared not in Palestine two thousand years ago, but in the rural-suburban subdivisions of Gambrills, Maryland, in 1989, the year I graduated from high school? That was the inciting question for Radioapocrypha. Also, not coincidentally, 1989 was the year Depeche Mode released “Personal Jesus.”
LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work? How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture?
BKF: This book was a formal project through and through. To tell the tale, I started to play around with point of view and forms, beginning with the Mary Magdalene figure, whom I called Maren—I knew I wanted the story to be told from her perspective, looking back on adolescence from middle age. As Maren spoke in first person and in a mode of reportage, those pieces settled into a stanza shape with alternating indents that seemed to capture her ambivalent retrospection. I also wanted to work directly with the Gnostic text, so I interpolated quotations (as assemblage and erasure) into long-lined verse paragraphs that advanced important moments in the plot, and these became the “Garage Gospels.” I gave JC, a high-school chemistry teacher, a mouthpiece in prose—his teachings appear as block paragraphs that are looser in association and imagery. Then I threw in some parables in tercets for good measure. When I came to the events of the Passion—Good Friday through Easter Sunday—I realized I needed couplets to get it done. In other words, I found I needed an amalgam of forms to embody the different components of the story. I wove the various types of poems together to create the sequence, which felt a little like cheating—we all know how the story ends.
LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?
BKF: Well, I didn’t have an affair with Jesus when I was eighteen, but my childhood bedroom did have powder-blue shag carpet. Maren is absolutely a fictional character, indeed an imagining of a latter-day Mary Magdalene, shamed for her sexual past, but she is also a woman who was shaped by the same circumstances that shaped me—from hairstyles to the Cold War. We listened to the same music in the ‘80s.
I wrote the story with a frame narrative—a reporter contacts Maren 25 years later to ask what she remembers about the 1989 events—to reflect both that Maren could not have had the clarity or understanding to relate this experience while it was happening to her and that looking back from mid-life lends its own measure of distortion. We are complicit in the willful invention of our memories even as we succumb to them. Maren is meant to be human, that is, unreliable in ways we (and she) both can and cannot detect.
LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work? How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?
BKF: At first I didn’t want to offend believers (like my parents) but I did and do intend to challenge pieties (I loathe piety). When I first wrote the story, I wanted to be able to say to believers that my act of imagination and re-casting of the story need not alarm them as apostasy: in fact, if Jesus’s life story is divine revelation, then it doesn’t matter where and when it takes place in human history. But I don’t think most believers are willing to try to get their head around the idea that Logos could be transferrable. In any event, the intervening years and our country’s disgrace and attendant disasters have removed any vestige of compunction I may have had about lambasting piety and rigidity of belief. If it smells like apostasy as much as teen spirit, I’m fine with that. I’m ready to flip some tables.
When I was a teenager, I had a favorite t-shirt from a summer arts program that had a quote from the artist Ben Shahn written vertically within the letters of the word WRITE. I wore that t-shirt until it decomposed. Turns out the quotation is obscure, and I had a hard time tracking it down to record it here, and finally found it in a dissertation by a woman named Shirley Swayne from 1966. Thank you, Shirley! Memory had it almost right: “If the artist, or poet, or musician, or dramatist, or philosopher seems unorthodox in his manner or attitudes, it is because he [sic] knows—only a little earlier than the average man [sic]—that orthodoxy has destroyed a great deal of human good, whether of charity, or of good sense, or of art.” That’s my ethics. I also think it was Jesus of Nazareth’s ethics, come to think of it.
LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?
BKF: Radioapocrypha was written with the radio on—the radio of memory, especially. A central thread in the story is the collision of two musical aesthetics—80s pop and post-punk—in the milieu of the characters. The disciples are a garage band and its groupies, and they strain to write an original song, unable to escape the canned melodies around them. In a real sense the book is composed fundamentally of earworms, especially from The Bangles’s “Eternal Flame.” Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” is never far from consciousness either. My editors were concerned about my use of song lyrics without permissions, but I pointed out that the Brickell lines I cite are echoes of 1 Corinthians 15:10, which in turn echoes Exodus 3:14. I also listened to Depeche Mode a lot.
LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?
BKF: When I gave a reading with friends and family to launch this book, I joked at the podium that next I was going to have to tackle the Old Testament. Be. Careful. What. You. Wish. For. I started to read about flood stories—I can blame part of this on a conversation about deluge narratives I had with the poet Jenny Browne while we were jogging around the Lincoln Memorial—and the scaffolding of the Noah’s Ark story started to take shape in my mind as another paradigmatic plot I needed to reimagine.
Narrative has been out of favor in many poetry circles in the United States for a long time, and for good reason. There was a pile-up of boring and self-aggrandizing lyric narratives, and after too many poems took on a pseudo-epiphanic (and blind-to-privilege) stance of “I am standing at my kitchen window and I am important” (and I see a bird!), pretty much anyone with any taste wanted to stab themselves in the eye. Also narratives are really good at bludgeoning you with ideology. Eschewing the culture’s hegemonic scripts, insistently interrupting them and disrupting their false veneer of being natural, is a form of resistance. But it’s not the only form of resistance. Another way is to take up the dominant narratives, put them through a sausage grinder, and make something new. That other way—if you’ll bear with me—was Shakespeare’s way. (And Keats’s. And arguably Stein’s. And Rauschenberg’s, and now I’ve gone down a rabbit hole.) That is, one mode of resistance is to disrupt and dismember the hegemonic stories at a micro-level, to refuse coherence until the fictiveness of those stories becomes visible, negotiable, malleable. Another way is to borrow the shit out of everything and adapt its plots for other inventions, show where the foundations and the cracks are, and wedge some light in there. What if we take up the old stories, take them down to the studs, and see what edifices we can rebuild? What buried garbage does that expose? Who could the new buildings shelter? What energies do the actions of wrecking and rebuilding release?
I’m doing that sort of thing now with Genesis, chapter five. Because all poetics are eco-poetics. Because dark ecology. I imagine a woman, Val, who survives a catastrophic collapse in the New York City area. She is found in the wreckage of her house by her former UPS man, Roy, who takes her to a container ship that is escaping for a new settlement in now-temperate Greenland, and who becomes her lover. It’s called Ceive, and it is also an extended homage to the Latin root that gives us the -ceive and -cept words (catch, take, seize), a meditation on menopause, and I blew up a Shakespeare sonnet and the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer and threw those fragments (shrapnel?) into the mix, too.