To say that Megan Fernandes writes funny—often devastatingly funny—teeming, jittery, compassionate, impatient lyrics is still to miss the deeper point. In her third collection of poems, I Do Everything I’m Told, there is something else flowing under the dazzling surfaces, the ribald talk, the dancing in and out of narrative: there is a profound engagement with the question of history. Personal, political, global. The question of history might seem a dry one, but as Fernandes demonstrates, it is perhaps the question—as alive and twisted and full of lust and disaster as any human life or community. And so the question of what to do with history is the question of its weight and muchness. The book includes a crown of “wandering” sonnets—“Lisbon Sonnet,” “Palermo Sonnet,” “Philadelphia Sonnet”—as wide-ranging as the poet’s own international background, but the book takes forms of all sorts and bends them in gloriously obscene ways. There is, for instance, a “Fuckboy Villanelle.” Another called “Too Much Eliot.” But you can get a sense of her—very welcome, to this reader—subtle and complicated approach to history, in this case the history of poetry, in a poem like “Pound and Brodsky in Venice”:
I don’t even dig Pound. But in a sunk cemetery in a sinking city
poets stick together. Brodsky is buried two feet away and for him
I leave an MTA card and a wild daisy, mutter about metaphors
of transit, tell him how last night, with my feet dangling off the shoreline,
I watched a boat bob an emerald wave. I’m less afraid. Less of a coward
than I was a year ago. Now, I am a checklist of risk …
As the poet muses, she notices “Ezra’s flat grave, covered in leaves,” long unvisited and overgrown, and so she sprays “poison mist” to drive away midges and mosquitos. And then, mid-spray, admonishes herself:
‘Stop spraying shit all over the poets.’ Even this fascist one.
The truth is I’d clear any grave. I want to redeem. To save.
That’s my thing. My uselessness. A grim reaper too late. A retired priest.
The next poem, aptly called “Debt,” picks up where this one left off: “There are graves / I owe visits to: / Alice and Teddy / and of course, Lindsey.” The book is so full of vibrant writing—the kind that’s funny without trying to be—that you might miss at first how haunted it is. How its largesse and humanity seek to “save,” to include, to find a voice even for the troubling dead. Or, in another poem, the path—the child—not chosen. “Orlando” is stunning, and starts like this:
The few weeks I was pregnant, whenever people asked
how are you meg? I’d answer, oh ya know … with child
which I thought was dead funny. I don’t think about it now
except sometimes in a fitness class surrounded by women
trying to shed baby weight and I make the calculations
(he’d be about fourteen by now) …
Make no mistake: this is not a poem whose primary wellspring is guilt or regret.
I don’t believe in kin by blood,
but I believe poems can give form to the formless,
that one can resurrect roads not taken in a line
and give it a name. It’s a novel by Virginia Woolf, I’d say
and rattle on and he’d wave me off but maybe read it
one day in college and think about his young mother
who wanted to be a writer and what she might have had
to give up in order to raise him at twenty-three.
The poems vary in shape, some in longer lines, some in inherited forms, some in a scattering of words across the page—and the subjects are as varied as the world: there is sex—“I fuck like a last request”—and wisdom and earnest old-fashioned irony—“One winter, I became very quiet / and saw my life”—and, above all, music:
Morning clocks in and the ancient white of Venice
dresses into day. I put on the Fugees in a damp church …
JESSE NATHAN: You’ve said before that you like to read poems aloud. That you believe your poems live on the page and out loud, spoken. Would you say a little more about that, about why that is, and what you like about speaking your poems? What is the relationship between breathing and poetry, for you?
MEGAN FERNANDES: Poetry should be energizing. I mean that even if the language annihilates you, one must feel the blow of that annihilation. There is a kind of elegant, delicate, declarative poem that can live cozily and civilly on the page, but when read aloud, has no flow or blood. That’s not for me. There’s something so dainty about it. And it’s not about control and restraint, which the poems need, it’s about the appearance of control and restraint. Like someone who is being performatively coy.
I know if a poem is working if I feel swept along when I read it. There are poems in the book such as “Do You Sell Dignity Here?” or “May to December” that get to a point where, when I read it aloud, I surrender to its music, it’s almost like the poem is playing with my lungs, voice, cadence, like my body is being played and instrumentalized and the rhymes are where they need to be and the pauses are where they need to be and the epiphanies are crashing. I like my epiphanies big and loud.
I record all my poems as voice memos and walk around the city listening to them. When I trip up, I know something isn’t right in terms of syntax. If I get bored, I know something isn’t right in terms of stanza organization. What did Stein say? Poetry is the right words in the right order.
In terms of breathing, I think about lung capacity as a kind of self-knowledge, a self-sovereignty, which is something I’ve been learning about while reading Pacific Island poetry. I have asthma so my lung capacity isn’t great. I can say about thirty-nine monosyllables in one breath. But knowing that also gives me a sense of what my range can be in a line or a stanza. And as I wrote in an essay about the “elemental,” breathing is as literal as it is metaphoric, and yes, this, too, has politics. The Black Arts movement often used a kind of sermonic voice and non-signifying utterances when reading their poems aloud because the goal was to move people, to reorient people, to persuade people there was another world possible. Some folks can’t afford to be quiet and delicate or just on the page. Word of mouth is political. Call and response is political. The poem must sound good aloud, must be memorable, must cause the reader to shift, move, reorient. It must disquiet them. I think of that great tweet from Angel Nafis: “anyway you can call me spoken word or hip hop or whatever makes you feel better about the fact that no one falls asleep when I read my poems” …