Friday, January 15, 2010

Patricia Fargnoli

Patricia Fargnoli, the New Hampshire Poet Laureate from December 2006 to March 2009, is the author of four books and two chapbooks of poetry. Her newest book is Then, Something (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her fifth collection, Duties of the Spirit ( Tupelo Press, 2005) won the New Hampshire Jane Kenyon Literary Book Award for an Outstanding Book of Poetry and was a semifinalist for the Glasgow Prize. Her first book, Necessary Light (Utah State University Press, 1999) was awarded the 1999 May Swenson Poetry Award judged by Mary Oliver. “Pat”, a retired social worker, has been the recipient of a Macdowell Colony fellowship. She’s been on the residence faculty of The Frost Place Poetry Festival, and has taught at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and in the Lifelong Learning program of Keene State College. She was the recipient of an honorary BFA from The NH Institute of Arts, has won the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award and five Pushcart nominations. Twice a semifinalist for the Discovery, The Nation Awards, she has published widely in literary journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, North American Review, Mid-American Review, Connecticut Review, Margie, Massachusetts Review, etc. She currently resides in Walpole, NH.


One’s arms around the other’s middle,
delicate bones of the toes, the feet,
heads with their outsized eye sockets
in which I glimpse only shadow.

It must have been terrible, those last hours
in that darkest of places,
thirst setting in. Then hunger.
Only each other for companion.

Small inhabitants of this earth,
I don’t know what I believe
or don’t believe, but I wish for you
what I’d wish my own:

may you have found whatever solace
you needed from each other,
may you have found whatever heaven
is possible and awaits your kind.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem had its genesis in a weekly writing workshop several years ago. Once a month, someone would bring in a prompt, and that week, a woman brought in those gnarled together skeletons of two kittens that had been found when a local barn was torn down. My initial reaction was horror and repulsion. But then, also, a strange fascination as I began to explore the ideas that came to me.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I don’t remember exactly how many revisions. Usually I revise a draft several times after it’s first written, then put it away or ask friends for feedback…and revise several more times. Up to sixty or more total, although the later revisions are apt to be of single words, changes in line breaks or the form on the page, punctuation, things like that. I think this poem, the idea for it, came together within a few weeks…but then I kept revising until it was finally nearly “finished” when I put the book manuscript together.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

It’s always a combination. The skeletons made me ask myself “why does this thing move you so? What is it you want for them?” And I had been writing many poems about the boundaries between things (in this case between the human and animal world). So that was the initial inspiration. But it took many drafts for me to discover that I wanted them to have had solace in each other’s company, and that I wished them a heaven (I guess as I’ve wished all my own pets a heaven and wish one for myself…though my doubt is great).

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I think of the first draft of a poem as a block of marble and, I am the sculptor carving away at it until the poem itself emerges from that bulk of stone. It was so with this poem: It needed its beginning and end chopped off and some of the middle rearranged. And I went back and forth with whether or not to say that these were kittens…or to leave it a bit mysterious. I also cut out a bunch of unneeded stuff about the barn where they were found….that, after all, wasn’t important. And I had to work hard to avoid toppling over the line into sentimentality….simply because the subject lends itself to that. I was walking a tightrope between honest emotion and too much sweetness.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

It was about five years from start to finish and it first appeared in print in Then, Something (my latest book). As I’ve said, it changed slightly even after the manuscript was accepted.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It varies with every poem. If a poem feels send-worthy to me, and I’m in the process of sending out submissions (which I do a couple of times a year), then I may send it. If it feels like a dud, it goes into my “working poem” file, and I keep pulling it up for more revision…..or simply abandon it.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

Unlike many poets, most of my poems are based on fact….and so was this one. The “fiction” is only one of omission; I mean that I don’t say that a woman brought these to a workshop as a prompt. Instead, I tell the story as if I’ve found them myself (perhaps), as if I were speaking directly to them.

Is this a narrative poem?

No. I think of it as a lyric.

At the center of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?

A tough and interesting question. I think that all good poetry presents some part of the poet’s world view, his/her reality, some piece of the world really. Hopefully, most often, that aims for being ethical and just…..though I don’t think that’s a necessary condition.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I read a great deal of poetry and read it constantly so I don’t remember who I was reading back then. But my major influences (there are many) are: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, Charles Wright, Louise Gluck, Linda Gregg, and Robert Hass.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I am very conscious of communicating with an audience when I write…and thus want to be transparent, but also deep and crafted. My ideal readers are “townspeople” in the sense that they are ordinary people who will see themselves and their own worlds in what I write. I want my poems to be a bridge between us. But, to be ruthlessly honest, I also yearn for those who know craft and skill to see the value in my work. In fact, it would be fun to be famous!

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Yes, I ran the poem by the workshop where it was first generated. I often show my poems to trusted others (by “trusted” I mean skilled poets whose suggestions I value).

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s more similar than different. I often write, in Then, Something about interstices between worlds, the meeting places, the yearning for connection, primarily spiritual connection. Animals are common in the poems in this book, as is the natural world.

On the other hand, this poem seems slighter to me somehow than many of the poems. It’s shorter than most and focused around a small single event (rather than a longer meditation).

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Finally.

[Note: "Two Skeletons Found in a Barn Wall" is from Then, Something published by Tupelo Press, copyright 2009 Patricia Fargnoli. Used with permission.]


  1. Thank you for this interview. I am surprised and delighted that the skeletons are kittens - I inserted human skeletons into the poem. Pat's work is gorgeous anda lyric - although I would have loved her words on how she discerns the difference.

  2. Hey, Susan! Fancy meeting you here... : )

    Brian, thanks for posting this interview with Patricia. Although I have never met her, I'm inspired by her poems and her person. And her featured poem is gorgeous, heartbreaking and gorgeous...

  3. Terrifying, compassionate, well done!

  4. Two Skeletons Found in a Barn Wall achieves something wonderful. Poetic truth. Different from other forms of truth. The poet, confronted with the bare bones of mortatlity, so to speak, can do nothing but address the fundamental hope for anything, for something that might be certain in this life or the next. The briliant third quatrain turned round and round in my heart.