The Aaron Fagan Interview

Ryan Simón interviews poet Aaron Fagan about his poetry, art, skateboarding, American surrealism, and the meaning of "nothing."

Aaron Fagan Interview Profile
Photo by Camilla Ha

AARON FAGAN is an American poet from Upstate New York and the author of three books: Garage, Echo Train, and A Better Place Is Hard to Find, as well as a collection of fourteen sonnets titled Fishing with Electricity. Through both his written poetry and his brilliantly crafted video poems, Aaron Fagan lyrically poises the seemingly irreconcilable paradoxes, contradictions, and ambiguities of everyday life with undulating epiphanies of wholly unified eternal truths. Yet, as always, it feels almost sacrilegious to explain poetry in prose (“Prose is a prison, poetry a prism,” Fagan says in one of his poems), and this is doubly true for Fagan’s work, which truly does succeed at expressing the ineffable — and so rather than attempting a write-up of his work, I opted to speak with the poet instead. I first became aware of Fagan’s work through several online publications before stumbling onto his video poetry, which has since opened my mind to the possibilities of poetry as a multimedia art form. After briefly corresponding with Aaron via Instagram, I spoke with him on the phone, ostensibly with professional intent, though honestly I just wanted to meet the poet whose work I greatly admire. What followed that first conversation was this interview, conducted over Zoom.


RYAN SIMÓN: Earlier this morning, I was watching your video poems and there’s a line in the “Spoon Reflection” poem about “cat shit dog puke,” about the dog that eats cat shit and pukes it up, that’s inspired this phrase that’s been replaying in my head OCD-like all day: that “Birth is Regurgitation.” That all of creation is just regurgitation over and over again.

AARON FAGAN: Oh, that goes back to, like, the Upanishads. There’s lots of traditions with creation myths about either throwing up the universe or shitting out the universe — it’s all very colorful, very fragrant, and, you know, “what goes around comes around” and “you are what you eat.” [Laughter] But yeah that poem was sort of a hybrid of a guided breath meditation and also all of this harvested information about death from Reddit threads I’ve found — and the video footage was from the opening scene of Harmony Korine’s Mr. Lonely, so I really just threw everything, including the kitchen sink, into it. I wanted it to be a really nauseating but funny death meditation.

SIMÓN: That’s perfect. You know, I grew up with animals, like farm animals, and that’s something I’d think about while watching, say, cows give birth. The mother gives birth and licks her slimy newborn and eats her placenta, while the chickens are eating up all the afterbirth leftovers.

FAGAN: That’s gorgeous, that’s poetry to me. Anything that has anything to do with the natural world — I mean, I think we’re denatured from just appreciating how everything is useful. Just how you said: nothing is going to waste in that portrait. Somewhere along the way, we’ve been denatured and taught to be averse to anything that’s real.

SIMÓN: Aside from how artificial it all feels, covid is on some level a sort of return of nature into our homes. The neurotic outcry against covid reads like a harsh reminder that we are still these carriers of organisms and “microbiomes,” or whatever, that cross-transfer from person to person to thing — that we’re not these perfectly self-contained little units. We’re part of something here.

FAGAN: Yeah, we’re playing with fire when we start messing with the source code.

SIMÓN: And it all comes back with a vengeance… but, yeah, that’s been the theme of the day here: Birth is Regurgitation. We’re spat out and eaten back up — repeat……… You know, it’s funny that we started here: my order of inquiry that I prepared, I was aiming to end the interview with all this, but, uhm… [laughter] but that’s alright.

FAGAN: It’ll be like a palindrome: those sentences that read backwards and forwards the same way. It’ll be that kind of an interview.

SIMÓN: I’ve also been listening to Aphex Twin all day after rereading your poem “Hedphelym” from the Aphex Twin poetry anthology You’ve got so many machines, Richard! I love Aphex Twin. Like, “Alberto Balsalm” is a genuinely holy song to me, it feels almost spiritual — and so when you mentioned awhile ago that he’s an inspiration, or on some level important to you, that was really striking.

FAGAN: This is going back to, I guess, when I was in high school, I got a bootleg of the “Bubblebath” EP, Analogue Bubblebath, and that was just like that Emily Dickinson line — I mean, it’s a cliché in our culture now but Emily Dickinson has that line about how she doesn’t know how to define poetry but she knows when she’s in the presence of it, which is when she feels like the top of her head has been taken off. There are these moments in my creative evolution where I feel this and from many different sources, and Aphex Twin is one of them. Same with the first time I saw [Harmony Korine’s] Gummo. I was thinking about that the other day, as I was talking with my friend. We saw it together in the theater in Chicago, and afterward we were just looking at each other like we were both just altered. To experience something like that that aesthetically provided grist for the mill, something that was going to stay with you for a long time, was a different way of making sense of the world. It was like mirroring something back to you about the world or something inside of yourself that you didn’t know how to organize previously or engage with, like… I say a “vocabulary,” but it doesn’t necessarily have to be language. It’s a feeling that gives you a sense of groundedness — or even a sense of sanity. You feel strangely recognized.

SIMÓN: Kids did that for me, my introduction to Larry Clark and Harmony Korine. I know what you mean. And it’s not like I lived the lifestyle of Kids necessarily, but there’s a lot expressed there that felt so true to life that I hadn’t seen up to that point.

FAGAN: Absolutely. I relate to that 100%. [Laughter] That was another one of those moments. But that was the beginning for me: Analogue Bubblebath and, I guess, Polygon Window after that. That album in particular for me is just a total — like from start to finish, that’s one whole piece. Interestingly enough, the Selected Ambient Works, those were all sort of pulled from disparate projects, but those hold together so cohesively to me. The Selected Ambient Works, that’s where I first heard “Hedphelym.”

SIMÓN: “Hedphelym” is one of the darker tracks, too, on that album.

FAGAN: That’s what I gravitate towards. You know, it’s like a sound engineer, before they record dialogue, they take a recording of the silence in the room as a baseline for the quality of the room’s silence — and so if you translated that into an emotional baseline for me, I’m a pretty pitch black person. That’s the “room tone” for how I am in the world, and everything else is a lot of hard work to stay sane. Like a duck, or whatever: on the surface, it’s just cruising along and it looks really serene and beautiful, but underneath its legs are going wild.

Gummo (1997)

SIMÓN: The trailer video for your book A Better Place Is Hard To Find, like the book itself, has that dark quality. Its animation style reminded me of Lynch’s six short films from the late ’60s.

FAGAN: Yeah, those are my wife Camilla Ha’s animations. We talk about David Lynch quite a bit, just in terms of his aesthetics, his worldview, his spiritual perspective. There’s something like a spiritual surrealism there, like a very, very distinct brand of American surrealism. People say “surreal” where he’s concerned, but, really, it’s its own thing. It’s not like European surrealism, which was very explicitly attached to a political movement when that came about. It’s a different thing. Harold Bloom wrote about the “American Sublime” — you know, things that go back to transcendentalism with Thoreau and Emerson. There’s a strain of that kind of naturalistic spiritual sublime that is, for me, a throughline in American art. It shows up in music, film, literature, and it’s a very particular thing — it’s what I see as a very specific tradition. Whether it’s one that’s formally recognized or not, I can’t answer to that — but it is a cohesive thing that I respond to. I try to write to that tradition that I perceive, though not in a programmatic way.

SIMÓN: I could totally see that. I feel like much of your poetry is within that tradition. David Foster Wallace had a great take on the meaning of “Lynchian,” in which he used the example of Jeffrey Dahmer storing body parts in his fridge next to his food — like, the image of a decapitated head sitting next to the milk. The everyday and the mundane juxtaposed with the grotesque — that hits close to this sort of distinctly American flavor of surrealism. It’s the same thing with your “cat shit dog puke” line, which is funny and gross but also very grand and profound.

FAGAN: The closing line, too, from that poem about going into a 7/11 and finding someone eating a dead seagull with a plastic spoon. With a poem like that, I’m trying to do my thing in my corner of the sandbox with poetry, but it makes me think of another one of those “a-ha” moments from when I was living in New York. I went to go see Beautiful Losers, that documentary by this guy, Aaron Rose, who used to have a gallery in New York called the Alleged Gallery. This documentary has Harmony Korine and Ed Templeton and Margaret Kilgallen and a bunch of other crossover skateboard artists — and, again, it’s capturing a generation of visual artists that have that sort of skateboarding culture sensibility. I really responded to that, the idea of, you know, these “beautiful losers” — that spirit of just getting kicked out of everywhere.

SIMÓN: You got into skateboarding before poetry, right?

FAGAN: Yeah, I was… 12? 12 years old when I started.

SIMÓN: Essentially self-taught? Well, I guess all skateboarding is more or less self-taught but…

FAGAN: Yeah, but this was a different kind of self-taught. Today, there are so many resources available and — I mean, this was in Upstate New York, too, so it wasn’t on the West Coast. There was one skate shop and it was over an hour away and nobody owned a VCR, so nobody was watching the skate videos. That didn’t come until much, much later. The skate magazines would have like a “trick tip” in each issue, but it was literally like three or four photos. So you had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps and use the, like, limited caption-type instruction. You really had to exercise your imagination to figure out what they were even doing. I’d never actually seen a professional skateboarder ride one, so you’re making it all up in your head and you’re bloodying yourself up for hours to do what you think it is that they did to do what they’re doing. There’s just no precedent, no rules for how to actually do any of this. There’s no YouTube. No one who’s older than you to show you how to do it. It wasn’t until probably 20 years later that it dawned on me that the reason the younger kids who were coming up behind me and my friend were learning, like, a kickflip ollie in a week where it took me and my friend months was that, like, “Yeah because you’re right there doing it all day everyday right there in front of them so they can see how you position your feet, the speed that you go at — all of that. You know, they’re learning from you.” It didn’t occur to me that that’s how they learned how to do it so quickly: there’s an example of how to do it right in front of them.

SIMÓN: I’ve always admired skaters from afar. I never could quite get into it myself, but what I love about skating culture is how it turns cities into parks and play arenas. Because so much of the civic world is designed to organize human traffic, to direct us where to go, but through a skater lens that all changes. Like, that handrail over there can instead be used for this purpose — for, you know, grinding or whatever [laughter] — and that over there can instead be used as a ramp or halfpipe or whathaveyou. It’s sort of this rebellion against the civic rules set out of for you, and I can totally see how that lens would be conducive to poetry as well. The poetic outlook — of looking out at our world and seeing how it’s designed with a certain intent, but while also seeing how the intent of what’s been created doesn’t fully capture its only use or purpose — you know, of seeing how there’s an even broader world of organization or meaning within our creations.

FAGAN: You’re totally on point, and that goes back to what we were talking about with American surrealism. There’s this quote from Craig Stecyk, the photographer — he said something to the effect that over 200 years of American innovation, we’ve inadvertently built this concrete playground and it took the imaginations of 12-year-olds to realize its potential. We didn’t know what we were making, and, to me, that’s that chopped-off-head-next-to-the-milk situation where, you know… everything just kind of explodes in this psychedelic multiplicity. When you can go into a parking lot and one person just sees a parking lot but a skateboarder sees infinite potential — that’s the experience of those civic spaces. Skateboarding and the things that came out of it are a different way of experiencing that kind of organized reality, the one that’s all on a grid with painted lines on the road and your house number is “three seven oh whatever.” But it’s not so much that it flies in the face of all the ambitions of modernism and civilization. To me, it’s a deeper intensification of all that. It’s like in video games where you’re on rails but then you bump up against this wall and you find out that if you hit the side of the wall three times you can break into some secret level that the designer built into it. Art and skateboarding are like these cheat codes to find different ways of experiencing the status quo — or what most people accept as the status quo. I mean, that’s the purpose of shaman culture and all that: to use stories as a way of showing people how to live more deeply and more presently in their life and in their relationships — to each other but also to the world around them.

aaron fagan high school photo
Aaron Fagan, Class of 1992

FAGAN: My first professor in college was Andrew Salkey, the Jamaican poet. I went into his office with a sheaf of poems, because I wanted to be in his poetry workshop — you know, that’s why I went to college, was to study poetry — and so I sat down in his office and he threw my poems back at me and he smashed his fist on the table. He was like, “Who are you reading?? You’ve got to read Pound and Eliot!” I was so profoundly ignorant, like I didn’t know who Ezra Pound was. I went to a public school in Upstate New York, like out in a cornfield. I didn’t go to a private school — I mean, most of the people I went to college with were very well-to-do people. Not me. I didn’t know who T.S. Eliot was. Sincerely. In public school we read maybe a handful of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, maybe an Emily Dickinson poem or a Frost poem. Where the textbook’s concerned, that was it — the poetry’s over — so there wasn’t a lot of exposure there to a long tradition of poetry, let alone much other literature. So I immediately went to the library and checked out Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I got The Waste Land, the facsimile version of it with all of Ezra Pound’s annotations, and I was off to the races. I mean, it started there, but I just gorged myself on books my entire time there. That experience with him just completely terrified me, it just held up such a crystal clear image of my own ignorance.

SIMÓN: Right. I was a similar case: went to public school in Montana, read like Gatsby and maybe a couple Shakespeares as well, but then I go to college at this Jesuit Catholic school where it seemed like most of the student body came from private schools. My first English class was the same kind of deal, where my peers were aware of so much that I wasn’t — like one of them wrote the word “syntax” on the board and I didn’t know what the fuck that meant. Even so, I still had with this shit-kicking mindset like, “Okay I don’t know anything but I’m still going to disrupt and change the game.” [Laughter] I didn’t really humble myself or learn any lessons until my senior year — and even then not really until much after I graduated. I figured I had to actually learn the rules to break them — learn the traditions to break free from them — but once I did, my tradition-breaking ambitions just dissipated and became something more like, “I just want to create something beautiful and true, and to contribute to all of this.”

FAGAN: I try to look back on those older versions of myself with tenderness and compassion. There’s that instinct — that impulse, that hunger — for something that’s perhaps misdirected in some ways, but we’re still after it in some other ways.

SIMÓN: So you were into poetry before you went to college? Before your encounter with Professor Salkey?

FAGAN: Yeah. I mean, I barely graduated from high school. I was very into skateboarding and if I had — you know, again, being on the East Coast, if things were different, I wanted more than anything in the world to be a professional skateboarder. That was the real hunger, but underneath all that, I was always into nonverbal ways of communicating. In high school, I wouldn’t’ve been able to speak to you this way — you know, I was one of those people who was just buzzing with anxiety. I couldn’t even put a sentence together. I would stutter and stammer, and it was just, uhm… ah man — it was just uncomfortable. I mean, people liked me, but my experience of being me in my own skin was just a complete nightmare. I don’t know what the user experience was like for others being in my presence, but —

SIMÓN: I was that way around certain girls, for sure.

FAGAN: I was that way with everybody — but with the nonverbal thing, I was really into breakdancing, photography, painting, skateboarding. Like, not things where I had to actually express myself with language, and so when I found poetry, it tapped into that puzzle-making and puzzle-solving part of the human mind that was really, really satisfying to me, and that helped me make sense of my own mind, my own thoughts, and the world in this really dynamic way that was attractive to me. What started it off for me was an Edgar Allan Poe poem I found called “A Dream Within a Dream.” The feeling that that poem gave me, I wanted to learn that magic trick. And so here I am all these years later still in conversation with that desire.

SIMÓN: Do you remember your first poem as a self-identified poet?

FAGAN: I mean, I remember the first poem that I wrote. It was, uh… [laughter] I remember the first one. I won’t say what it was, but I remember it.

Inland Empire (2006)

SIMÓN: On the nonverbal thing — that Shakira song “Hips Don’t Lie,” I’ve taken that as a personal philosophy that essentially dictates that the most honest means of expression are the ones that you have to physically enact. Poetry always stood out to me for that reason, for being the most dance-like, the most almost physical use of verbal language. Poetry is a sort of dance, it’s a feeling. If anything, so much of current poetry and art suffers from being too clever and intellectual. It’s lost that sort of nonverbal touch.

FAGAN: Yeah, the directness of expression. Bukowski is a great example. I mean, he’s very uneven, but when he is on — I mean that’s the great risk when you write poems like he does that are so stripped back, so essential — but when he’s on, I would group Bukowski among the great Chinese poets — you know, with their spareness. Sappho would be another one where it’s so elemental that when it’s on, there’s nothing else like it. But also when it doesn’t work, its ass is showing all over the place.

SIMÓN: There’s also a pressure in contemporary art for everything to be explicitly shown and explained, with nothing left confusing or ambiguous — even though ambiguity is so fundamental to what makes so much of art great and provocative. This relates to something I noted in your work: the recurrence of “nothing” as a word or an idea or a theme, which is essentially the extreme negative — “nothing” is the complete absence of information. It’s refreshing how you leave dots unconnected and preserve the joy of figuring it out or even just intuiting meaning on our own. Having to force everything to be fully transparent or fully revealed kills the eroticism of life, whereas, you know, absence and half-concealment allow for mystery and apprehension and excitement — it’s erotic, at least in the philosophical sense. With this, much of your poetry captures what’s missing in our culture, which is “nothing.”

FAGAN: I think one of the last poems I wrote is called “There Is Simply Nothing,” and it actually uses a quote from Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. The idea of nothingness has a long and dangerous history — you look back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and the French Revolution and the Resistance. The idea of nihilism and all that that implies is a challenging one. I identify a lot with existentialism, but a lot people’s understanding of it begins and ends with nihilism — that everything is meaningless. That’s the conclusion that they draw as the sum total of what existentialism is about. To me, I’m more interested in a kind of cheerful nihilism — like, the idea of there being paradox and contradiction and riddle and ambiguity and profound confusion, and that these confusions, all of this not-knowing, can form a constellation of a kind of knowing, but it’s not one that’s monolithic or permanent. It’s temporal, it’s fleeting, but if you keep renewing this sense of pure possibility, you can momentarily arrive at a sense of something that passes out of being at the same moment it comes into being. So it’s constantly zeroing out, effectively. It’s not positive and it’s not negative. It’s just what’s happening. Like the joke from Pulp Fiction, the alcoholic’s “moment of clarity,” or the whole tradition in psychology about being “in the zone.” It’s the same thing with surfing or even skateboarding: you find yourself in the zone where you’re in this pocket of feeling totally empty of any kind of identity or sense of self while feeling connected to everything. There’s these simultaneities: you feel alive and dead at the same moment, as if time is running both forwards and backwards at the same time, and you’re like shaking your own hand with some other version of yourself.

SIMÓN: Yeah, kind of like Schrödinger’s cat.

FAGAN: That’s why a lot of these political ambitions sound good on paper — even with engineers, they can draw things on paper, but the physical reality of geometry is that, for example, there’re no perfect circles in nature. They only exist as a platonic idea in our imagination, mathematically. That same principle applies to, well, lots of different things. For example, utopias: this projected idea of a utopia. Well, what “utopia” means is “no place.” There’s almost like a joke built into the very idea of utopia, that it’s “no place” in the sense that there’s no physical reality to utopia. That you won’t find utopia in this world, or, in a spiritual sense, that it’s not a place, it’s not a point in space. Utopia is a sort of fluid, fluctuating state of mind that is constantly changing that harmonizes yourself with a way of seeing, and then with that you can, you know, arrive at the Island of Misfit Toys with the other people who sort of see the world that way. Yeah, that’s why “nothing” is interesting to me.


Aaron Fagan’s book A Better Place Is Hard to Find is available at The Song Cave here. You can find all of his books here.

Previous Story

The Adam Lehrer Interview

Next Story

The Matthew DeNicola Interview