NER staff reader Alicia Romero talks to Megan Fernandes, whose poem “Letter to a Young Poet” appears in NER 43.1, about the rhythms of quiet survival, the permission to stumble, and staying raw—unruly.
Alicia Romero: When I first read your poem, it made me think of music. It’s like listening to Miles Davis in “Kind of Blue” or Chopin’s lamenting Preludes. Then I read your poem “In the Beginning” from Good Boys in which you write, “Muddy waters in the floods with Bach.” You seem to riff in that same way in this poem, “Letter to a Young Poet.” Could you talk about how music influences your writing?
Megan Fernandes: My relationship with music is part blood, part brain. I was not the kid growing up who was listening to all kinds of experimental music and knew obscure songs from limited release albums by heart, but I was surrounded by people who had a crazed and instinctual relationship to music. My sister was an excellent pianist. She could really get into some dreamlike zone and I was more of a plonker on the keys, not terribly nuanced. My closest childhood friend growing up, Judith, had musical tastes that were wildly diverse (she listened to everything from Rachmaninoff to Brazilian dance music) and her presence in my life shaped my sonic appreciation, not necessarily in any technical way, but she really got mood. She used music as a way to curate a car ride, a heartbreak, an awkward gathering of people, a necessary silence. Poets need to know how to do that, you know?
My parents listened to a lot of jazz and blues and would attend festivals and take us to clubs to listen to them in Philly. My mom was into opera and introduced me to Kathleen Battle and Maria Callas. And of course, I grew up in the 90’s and so lived through a great era of hip hop which taught me a lot about flow, wordplay, slant rhyme, and what can be great about rhythmic irregularity, the cognitive surprise and pleasure you get when the rhyme isn’t fully true. Recently, I’ve been reading about triplet flow in contemporary hip hop (Lamar, Migos) and femme folkloric performance in Portuguese fado music.
AR: You emphasize via clipped sentences: “Bridges. Ideas. Destabilization. Yellow tansy. Cities. The wild sea.” The reader experiences surprise with the idea of “destabilization.” Why is a sense of destabilization important to a poet’s sense of language?
MF: It’s hard to stay awake. The lull of the homeostatic is so comforting. It’s easy to make decisions that are based in comfort and stability and social expectation. It’s easy to believe in the scarcity politics of capitalism and literally “settle” into a set of static relations with the world. I mean that broadly. But why? To be a poet is, I think, to understand flux and dynamism. I’m not saying one should court destabilization (the glamour or romance of the tortured artist gets boring the older you get), but I do think poetry requires us to be a little raw. And stay raw. And with rawness, you’re a bit more porous and tender to the world. A bit more unruly. I think in a moment where poetry is becoming hyper-professionalized, it’s good to remember that to be destabilized is also to be moved. To allow yourself to reorient. To be the kind of person who can change their mind, to change their life.
AR: You talk about ritual in absence of love and in recovery. When and how does ritual come into play when you’re writing?
MF: The only ritual I have with my writing is to read constantly, widely, and voraciously. My writing happens in spurts and when I force it, it’s not very good. My mind has to arrive at the right time, in the right space, with the right set of constellations aligned. Then it happens. It’s tectonic.
But in this poem, I was kind of thinking that ritual is a way we cope with grief and loss. When you lose someone and you become unintelligible to yourself, sometimes all you can do is the basics. Eat. Sleep. Work out. Take a walk outside. Make coffee. Feed the cats. When any kind of stimulation or emotional engagement feels violent or violating or you’re just too tender, ritual is a kind of armor. It builds daily expectations that give structure and order to interior chaos. Ritual is a way into thinking about the durational, how to survive when time feels long and the absence of a beloved feels unbearable. You still need to eat. Sleep. You still need to step outside into the sunshine. When your heart goes on strike, ritual enters. That rhythm of quiet survival.
AR: This poem makes me laugh out loud and it also brings up deep, serious emotions. Sometimes, in one line, the reader experiences both laughter and quiet turmoil. For example, in the line “Pay attention to what disgusts you.” What do you think our dislikes reveal about us as people and as artists?
MF: I’ve read a lot about disgust. From Ahmed and Ngai. It’s an emotion of the gut. Disgust is that weird dual motion of revulsion and attraction. We are disgusted by something but we can’t look away. And it happens mostly when we come into relation with some other subject, where we are no longer sovereign over our own bodies. Haraway says something like, “sex, infection, and eating are old relatives,” which are three examples of what it means to be in relation to some other person, species, virus. To succumb or consume or fuck. That’s when we’re most vulnerable. When I said, “Pay attention to what disgusts you,” I think at the root of it is some fear of being contaminated by an other. And we should pay attention because often some dehumanizing feeling (racism or homophobia or some other prejudice, conscious or not), is lurking there. One only needs to close read the way the media talks about immigrants and the language of disgust and animalization to understand this.
AR: Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels as though our lives have come to a screeching halt in so many essential ways and yet in your poem you advise young poets to “Go slow.” Could you say more about why that might be wise?
MF: We’re in a moment where people seem both reactive and certain about what they believe. What I’m saying is that it’s okay to go slow. Both in your arrival to the ideas you have about the world, but also, as in, go look at the ocean today. To build a belief system requires experience, requires you getting burned a few times. It means you will stumble. “Go slow” is the permission to stumble. To walk to your beliefs instead of rushing headfirst into them.
AR: A powerful line in this poem is “A good city will not parent you.” How does your upbringing influence the way you approach identity in your work?
MF: I think what I meant by that line is that New York’s indifference to you, your heroic subjectivity, your belief in what you can do, can be useful. You become resilient to the need for validation because in the end, you’re just another person walking across the Manhattan Bridge. You’re not special. A good city will not fool you into thinking you’re exceptional, that you’re an exception to anything. It’s healthy ego prevention.
AR: The title of your poem beckons Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” Could you discuss the mentorships that have impacted your work?
MF: Dead or alive? I’ve had literary mentorships with some dead folks for a while. Gwendolyn Brooks. W.B. Yeats. Etheridge Knight. Jorge Luis Borges. Meena Alexander. I go on these obsessive little deep dives into the work of some dead authors. They talk through time, from the grave.
In the land of the living, my PhD adviser, Bishnupriya Ghosh, is brilliant. I never know what she’s going to write about next, but she also believes in fun which I think in academia, is kind of radical. I came to her at the age of twenty-two and she modeled for me in this fundamental way, how to live a life full of joy, friends, dinners, critical thinking, a radical living politics, in a way that few have, I think. The poet and my former colleague, Lee Upton, is another person who I count as one of my most important mentors. Again, she just did this by modeling kindness and an unparalleled work ethic.
Lastly, my older sisters. Everyone should be so lucky to have older sisters.
Alicia Romero is a graduate of McGill University. She taught AP English in San Diego, CA and led the English Department for the Oakland Unified School District. She taught English teachers curriculum and instruction at McGill University, San Diego State University, and Saint Mary’s College.