The Payback Interview

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Trisha Low Talks to Ben Fama

When I received Ben Fama’s book Fantasy in the mail, it wasn’t like getting anything in the mail, because the mail is usually boring and involves bills or those glossy food menus that are always the wrong shade of green. It was Monday, and I was in a very bad mood. Life was confusing, Mercury was in retrograde and everything was very sore and heavy and I hadn’t washed my hair in at least ten days. But that Monday turned out okay because I read Fantasy in the bath, drinking an iced coffee, just like Ben told me Tom Ford does. I found myself swept into an undercurrent that was both luxe and sweaty, clammy and glamorous. I drank my iced coffee and felt a matte nail polish sheen descend upon me, the kind one might find painted over sordid details in the background of party polaroids circa 2009, pinned to anyone’s fridge.

It was Monday and I was sad about a lover (aren’t I always?), and I had started to think fantasy might actually be a giant steel trap designed specifically to fuck with humans in its misleadingly metallic, terrifyingly hopeful sheen. But then, sitting with Fantasy in the bath, I felt love for Ben Fama because without fantasy, the kind that this book knows—an ambivalent fantasy that would take any pastel orange horizon over utopic determinism—I would not have survived twenty-six years on this dumb earth. 

—Trisha Low

I. SOMEWHERE BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND PERFORMANCE

TRISHA LOW: Fantasy is a collection of poems, but more than anything, it’s a book that creates a kind of diffuse atmosphere or a brittle affect that feels like it enfolds everything you’ve done in it. Do you have stakes in creating an “ambience,” or a "vibe”?

BEN FAMA: I tried to sustain atmosphere and climates over the terrain of these poems. I like how you said brittle. I tried to populate the poems with all of the brittle fictions that may account for psychological weather. But what is the vibe?

TL: See, the thing about a payback interview is that I’m supposed to ask the questions. I think there’s something weirdly claustrophobic about Fantasy, like a closet. It’s very “chill,” comfortable to locate oneself in, familiar and legible but it’s that same languidness that makes it feel as if there’s no escape.  

“I wish you could be alive / so I could be your partner / whether in art or life / I’m not really sure / but mostly life I think / but they say life imitates art / so who knows”

The thing I love most about fantasy is that it’s located somewhere between authenticity and performance. It’s tied to actual desire for something material, a desire you feel in a visceral way, but it can never exist. Do you feel like these atmospheres and climates are related to the real world even if they are fictional? What if I accused you of being escapist?

BF: There is that phenomenon where you are planning a vacation, and in the gestation time before it happens, that is when the pleasure blooms. When it actually comes time to go on the trip, it all crumbles like a cookie.

I think the poem you quoted is festive and flippant, cute maybe. It is certainly embarrassing (I mean, imagine writing lyric poems). I think the subject in my fantasia, he is up against the wall, he is trapped in the closet, sure (though a much different one than MTV’s). He is a studied citizen, hemmed in, a consumer cliché, and I think that is where you are getting the “closet” feeling from, a half-apprehended desire that emerges from habitual clamor.

TL: Speaking of vacations and closets and lyric poems (good heavens) I think it’s really easy to see a neutered Patrick Bateman circa 2000 in your poems, but also a more obedient Evelyn Waugh à la Brideshead Revisited, my favorite Catholic classic. In both, desire is always curtailed by the kind of studied citizenship you’re talking about (class value, heterosexuality, and above all, even at the expense of real love, “a good time”). “The Line of Beauty", your last poem, is so luxurious. It seems to suggest that reveling in this beauty, its saturation is also a way to find the cut, the interstitial mark between fantasy and reality.

The Line of Beauty

I love summer, the luxury of poetry, gin
and tonic, quinine lost in juniper

Beauty is what means you can see the difference between the two, but also because of beauty, it doesn’t have to matter. I like you both as Bateman or Waugh, but if you had to pick one, which one would it be—and why?

BF: The event involving Bret Easton Ellis that’s most interesting to me is a story he tells about drunkenly wandering onto the set of American Psycho while Mary Harron was filming in the West Village. That novel was cancelled by Simon and Schuster and only later published by Vintage. Ellis didn’t tour in support of it because of death threats. There was no advertising campaign, and several social justice groups called for a boycott of the book as well as all titles being brought out by Vintage at the time. So this book where the author and character became elided in the public consciousness was becoming a blockbuster, and the author woozily stumbled into that moment. It’s an event that could only be produced by the same moment he captured in the novel.

I’ll agree you could find Patrick Bateman or even Bret Easton Ellis in my book, but I wouldn’t say our projects are the same. The reason for the apparent overlap may be the instances where surface becomes the only thing. As above in the anecdote about the movie set, I’m interested in finishes, sweet ones or otherwise, that hide the more pernicious things underneath. I talk about the song “Kokomo” this way.

I never thought about Evelyn Waugh and Bret Easton Ellis together, but both American Psycho and most of Waugh’s early novels are satiric comedies, I’m thinking of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. Of course there is Brideshead Revisited, a book as indulgent and embarrassing as lyric poetry. Life is long, so there is a need for those types of embarrassments, which I guess may be why I included the poem you mentioned, The Line of Beauty,” which is a tweet I chose to end the book on.

II. THE PRESENT IS ALREADY HARD ENOUGH TO PARSE

TL: Let’s get back to embarrassment then, because I think that embarrassment is a very low level anxiety beneath the polished veneer of your book, Fantasy, that never manages to bubble to the surface. One has to be secretive about sexual fantasy. It’s impossible to express or articulate it  without somehow making it legible or consumable. It has to be pressed into a different form—new earrings, Agent Provocateur heels, fifty shades of pleather whip. Maybe that’s why the lyric keeps coming up—it’s this exact quality of consumability that characterizes it. I once told you you were “too Cape Cod for tattoos.” Do you think your book is consumable?

BF: Consumable, of course, it’s for sale, though to focus on that wouldn’t be very interesting to me as the author. My book continually appropriates language from advertising, mostly very contemporary direct-to-email advertising by luxury lifestyle brands that assume a personal narrative, a type of friendship. Most popular narratives involves fantasies of male desire, and I was able to capture a tone in what glinted back from the clean textures of this type of language. There is no reality without fantasy; it is secretive, potentially traumatic and the realization is always something else in the end. Once the potentialities of fulfillment are mapped across these systems, they can only be experienced in this depersonalized condition, though of course that which doesn’t need you at all becomes the most alluring. Consider Odette in Swann’s Way as a codification of this, a material prop that Swann needs to stage his fantasies, a playground for them, even.  

TL: You’re very unflappable. I’m trying to embarrass you here. You’ve expressed to me interest in Robert Glück’s work—the epigraph of your book, as well as Robert Hass’. Can you tell me more about your investment in what I might call autobiography? Although Fantasy seems to be interested in codification it also seems sincere. It has the kind of earnestness of reblogging everything your crush posts on Tumblr. Tell us a secret while you’re at it. Something embarrassing.

BF: I’m sex-negative, but not embarrassed about that. Umm…I was not invited to any of this year’s Triennial openings and had to see it first on Instagram. I recently asked Wayne Koestenbaum an idiotic question. Most shamefully, I flaked on a group that was getting together privately to talk with someone I truly admire, which she mentioned to an acquaintance the next day. He texted me about it: “Lynne Tillman just CLOCKED your absence.” It is not a good look. Madame Realism Complex had a huge influence on me. Oh this friend just texted me again: “Can you write a poem titled ‘Requiem for a Feel.’” Oh, well that reminds me that my book Mall Witch is totally embarrassing, but I’m gossiping.

TL: How do you feel about gossip? Do you really think it is “better than pornography”? Creating a “vibe” in the way you do in Fantasy makes me feel like part of the work being done happens in the social sphere, in the poetry ‘scene’ that is claustrophobic, or insular, as much as it might be somewhat fashionable. Can you say more about the role of the social in this book?

BF: I truly do love hearing gossip, though I never tell it. Please, if you’re reading this, even if we’ve never met, please message me some gossip on FB right now. Lucy Ives and I have an on-going discussion about Disingenuity, a concept she came up with while blogging for the Poetry Foundation. I want to quote her here because her ideas elide with what I am saying:

“I’m interested in the way in which everyday speech, which is to say, everyday thinking, returns to writing—may even inspire formal innovation. Or perhaps it’s better to say: I’m interested in the way in which everyday speech (my basic functional social thought) is already writing, is already a kind of writing project or a part of writing. This is, anyway, the kind of author I am interested in. I like—and this is merely a way of keeping everything I do in this register—simplicity. The kind of author I am interested in may simply be being a social being (As if that weren’t enough!)”

I know you think there is escapist element to my book, but I don’t think so. I think the book reflects the hallucinatory or schizophrenic mediascape that we live in, and looks for enunciations of futurity in the present. The present is already hard enough to parse, so the daydream vibe is just a lull in more rigorous thought. Regarding “notable relations,” I think I know what you mean but what do you mean?

TL: No, I don’t think there’s an escapist element to your book, actually. I think it’s more like a compulsive embellishment, where different technological ciphers are overlaid and then flattened into a kind of dense object. The question I’m pushing is boring: “where is Ben Fama in this book?” But I think this book acts on/creates you more than vice versa. Would you agree?

BF: If you think you are going to trick me into confessing I believe in some sort of authenticity, it isn’t going to happen! There is no hierarchy of representation in regards to the individual and their work, no “supplemental dimension,” like we can have a separate gchat while talking here and they both may be of equal value. Of course we could publish that one too but you may end up in hot water.

Trisha Low is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013). She karaokes in New York, but lives in Oakland, where she is currently blogging for SF MoMA’s Open Space.