In Conversation with Lois P. Jones
Joseph Fasano is the author of three books: Vincent (2015), a book-length poem based on the 2008 killing of Tim McLean; Fugue for Other Hands (2013), winner of the Cider Press Review Book Award and Poets' Prize nominee; and Inheritance (2014), nominee for the James Laughlin Award. A winner of the RATTLE Poetry Prize, he has been a finalist for the Missouri Review Editors' Prize and the Times Literary Supplement Poetry Competition, as well as a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at Manhattanville College and Columbia University. This interview focuses on his latest book, Vincent, which begins with an excerpt from a 2008 Canadian news report: “Authorities say a man was stabbed to death, decapitated and partly cannibalized in what appears to be a random act of violence on board a bus that was en route to Winnipeg late Wednesday.” With these starkly haunting words, Joseph Fasano begins a book-length poem loosely based on Vince Li's killing of Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Using a fictionalized first-person narrative from the perspective of the killer, Fasano explores the inner workings of a disturbed mind unable to comprehend its horrific act.
LPJ: In a world where random violent acts are becoming the norm, Vincent arrives like a modern-day Titus driven to unspeakable horrors. Readers of Vincent will no doubt be curious what motivated Vince Li but there is scant history. You took an impossible chance with this book. Your award-winning work is known for its darkly ecstatic resonance and electric atmosphere but it is a tremendous leap to inhabit the voice of a psychotic killer. Why Vincent? Why now?
JF: The first thing to say is that I started writing the poem only a few months after I’d first read about the incident upon which it is very loosely based, so it’s really been many years in the making. That means I started working on it before I’d published any of my other books, the first of which was also in progress at the time, and in fact I’d published only a handful of poems when the project of Vincent announced itself to me. So there’s a way in which Vincent goes back as far as the beginning of my published work, which means I certainly didn’t think of it as any kind of radical departure or attempt to do something new and controversial. Like anything I write, it had its beginnings in this: a human voice asking that the words be set down in the right order, without agenda, in a way that would get across a wild and troubled world.
LPJ: Mark Wunderlich suggests, “Vincent is an unnerving book that challenges the reader’s assumptions about the role of beauty in poetry.” Knowing that Vincent could cause controversy, do we as artists have the right to exploit a story for the sake of aesthetics or is this a form of sublimation, like Picasso’s Guernica which depicts events in history through artistic means? Are these questions we need to be asking? Further, Vincent is not an account of a murder but an embodiment of delusion. Was it critical that you align the facts of the event to Vince Li's life or was Vincent, more importantly, an attempt at perspective?
JF: Does Nabokov’s Lolita condone abuse? Does Capote’s In Cold Blood condone the mindless slaying of a family in order to rob them of a handful of cash? Of course not. Lolita is a fiction, but it still places us in the uncomfortable position of feeling compelled by the voice of a reprehensible narrator. You see I am using that word again, “voice.” Of course I am not saying we have any sympathy for Humbert Humbert’s actions. That is where the whole tension lies, right? We feel repulsed by his actions and yet compelled by his voice, by the disturbing realization that he may be a fiction but he is certainly not an abstraction. Psychology can ask questions about why, and the law can ask questions about what next, but only art is equipped to get across that tension in our experience of others, of ourselves.
Certainly my book is an entirely different species from Lolita, even though it’s a first-person account of the self as it moves through its transgressions. My speaker is a fiction—I make that very clear—but I also make it clear that my Vincent is based on Vince Li, the man who killed Tim McLean aboard a Greyhound bus during a psychotic episode in 2008. I’ve also mentioned Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is nonfiction, or what Capote called a nonfiction novel. It’s no more rational to ask if Capote was condoning a crime than it would be to ask the same of a journalist, but should we ask if he is exploiting it? Sure, ask away. The answer is no, at least not in the way we use the word “exploit” to condemn some acts that deserve condemnation. If we disallowed works of art that attempt to speak about actual instances of extreme transgression, we would be cutting ourselves off not only from whole realms of expression and inquiry, but also from whole realms of ourselves that need looking into.
Again, the two examples I’ve given—Lolita and In Cold Blood—are of two different species, and mine belongs to a third, which I’ll let someone else taxonomize. All I can say is that it’s a poem, and if it’s begun to make readers ask very pressing questions of it and of themselves, then I’m confirmed in my faith in what poetry can sometimes almost do.
LPJ: In Vincent the voice begins in media res as if the reader is set alone in a field to face the accused. Author Mary Gaitskill says that writing is “being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment.” I don’t know if there are wrong readers for Vincent but I suspect that there are readers who will absorb your lines like smoke and others who will need to understand the literal meaning of each line. Is there a particular way in which a reader might enter this spellbinding work or did you as a writer remove all expectation of how it would be understood?
JF: It’s funny you ask, because even though I have to write my poems and get out of my readers’ way, the character speaking this particular poem is absolutely concerned with how he will be understood. He’s trying, albeit disastrously, to prove something, isn’t he? More than that, he’s trying to prove something that’s impossible to prove, something about the innocence of all of us, something about our ability to connect with each other, to cross the infinite gap between each other, to live our lives without harming each other catastrophically. So, yes, the speaker demands the reader “get it”, and maybe that’s where the pathos lies.
As for me, I can’t say. There’s a funny “Author’s Note” at the beginning of an English-language edition of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, in which he tries to dispel a few misunderstandings about his book. “Of course,” he writes, “I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. Let everyone find in it what strikes a chord and is of some use to him. But I would be happy if many of them were to realize…” He goes on to name his points, but I always smile when I come across that “but,” and maybe it gives me permission to say I would be happy if a reader were to approach this poem as he would a wild river, and not try to answer questions about jurisprudence or exploitation as he’s crashing along with it. And maybe if he gives the book that chance he’ll find himself changed and awake enough at the end to climb out of that river and ask whatever questions he wants, without fear. That’s why I wrote it.
LPJ: From the moment I read [e]very event stands in the room with me, I felt myself at the center of a mad man’s diorama where all persons are minor characters in a play set within the protagonist's dystopian atmosphere. In Vincent's world, time seems to collapse on itself. This is what great writing can do. Not only do you create a particular tone throughout the book you also maintain the vein of psychosis as it builds into a controlled pitch. There is also this chilling sense of detachment as in:
I took her monstrance of a face in my arms
like shallow water
I don't know if it was I
or the wind that lifted her forelocks but
what a mess her face was what a
In the recent Charleston massacre after the shootings had taken place Dylann Roof asks one of the elderly church members the startling question, did I shoot you? I am also reminded of a friend's question to me, am I standing? at the height of one of her psychotic breaks. There is this sense of detachment you have captured which displaces the action from the self. How were you able to so accurately personify the perceptions of the narrator and was this a disturbing process for you?
JF: This question makes me extremely uncomfortable, and I almost asked you to remove the reference to the Charleston shooter, because I’m just so repulsed by his hate-filled actions that I don’t want even his name anywhere near our conversation right now. But what would be accomplished if I asked you to take it away, even if you agreed to do it? What about that whole business I’ve just said about asking whatever questions we must, without fear? What would we be doing if we turned away?
There’s nothing I’m ready to say about that right now, but what I can say is that you’re asking about “detachment,” and my character is someone experiencing a psychotic break from “reality.” I gather that was the case with Vince Li, but I can only say with authority that that is certainly the case with Vincent, my character. The Charleston incident is a hate crime and if you were to ask me if anyone could or should ever write a work of literature from the imagined perspective of its perpetrator, I could only say that that feels categorically different from Vincent. What enabled me to write in the voice of my character was my decision that he had been suffering from a psychotic break and would immediately experience remorse and extreme cognitive dissonance once he’d emerged from it. I can only say I was not interested in writing from the imagined perspective of someone who planned a crime and committed it based on his malicious convictions.
You are aware, though, that things like that have been done. I’d recommend that people who really want to address those questions read something like W. D. Snodgrass’ The Fuhrer Bunker, dramatic monologues in the voices of the as-bad-as-it-gets. I have serious issues with those poems, but I’m not writing a review here. But think of it: poems in the voices of Himmler, Goebbels, etc. Remember that this is the author of Heart’s Needle. It’s something to wrestle with.
As for Vincent, which, again, does something entirely different, I wasn’t trying to be entirely faithful to the actual story upon which the poem is based, but I was trying to get across these feelings of disassociation and mental disintegration that we’ve been discussing. To answer your question, yes, it was disturbing. I had to let go of everything. But I was writing a poem, not a diary or a piece of asylum art, and I had certain structural things I was trying to accomplish. In the end, my own impression is that the poem has deep structures in the way that, say, a Pollock painting has deep structures. You know I’m not making a claim about its merit, just its essence. I can’t look at a Pollock painting without feeling that the man was trying to get in touch with some deep structures that might redeem the chaos. But there I am bringing in my language to the silence of a canvas. Well, “let everyone find in it what strikes a chord,” I suppose. I hope there’s enough in the poem that it can speak to people who never would have imagined entering a psychic landscape like the one it describes. Because I never would have imagined it before I started writing it.
LPJ: As I read Vincent I feel myself in a tension which propels the reader through the entire work. It’s as if each line is its own foreshadow. It brings to mind a deep fear - the unpredictability of an unstable mind. How easy was it for you to sustain this precipitous note? Where you able to pick it up and put it down or did you write this work in one long sweep and then return for many drafts over years of its development. If the latter, how did you sustain the mood of the piece? This is one of the most difficult trajectories to maintain and you have managed this with great acuity.
JF: Thank you for saying that, Lois. Yes, I was consciously after an effect like that; I wanted each line to have an urgency informed by the reader’s awareness of where it is going. I wanted the reader to feel these pieces slowly but almost inevitably adding up to the disastrous thing, and I wanted the reader to feel that a certain trajectory has been set in motion, because of the laws of one man’s psyche, which can have only one end, if nothing intervenes. I can’t tell you how much I had to keep myself from intervening.
One of the tremendous challenges in writing it was getting the stitching right, sewing up lines and phrases in such a way that it made one tapestry. To say it another way, everything would have fallen apart if I’d broken the spell, that sense of foreshadowing you’re talking about.
I remember how the poem began. In December of 2008 I was teaching at the local community college near my hometown of Goshen, NY. I’d just finished my MFA at Columbia and was trying to write well, teach well, and just get by. My family had moved a few towns over, but they hadn’t yet sold the house in Goshen where I’d grown up, so I decided to try to save up some money by moving back into that house and teaching at the local community college. I think I was teaching English 101, and one night when we were done I was walking across the parking lot of the campus and I just—this sounds so hopelessly literary—stopped in my tracks. I must have read about the Vince Li case when it happened months earlier, but for some reason I’ll probably never understand I just stopped there in that parking lot, with no one around, and started thinking up, without pause, the first few dozen lines of the poem. I drove home and wrote them down, even though I had no idea what I was in for. I slept and when I found the lines were still there in the morning, started working. I must have had a draft in a few weeks, but I had no idea how far I was from a finished piece, and I certainly had no idea if anything was going to come of this work. I just kept on.
At some point in the spring of 2009 a good friend passed through and took a look at what I was doing. It was early in the process, and the poem had only a beginning and a very scattered middle, but my friend sat at the kitchen table, read it through, then found me where I was lying in the grass after a long winter. “You have to finish this,” he said. I knew he was right, though I didn’t know how long it would take. I didn’t find an ending I was satisfied with until more than five years later, and the whole poem underwent hundreds of revisions along the way. There were also those structural things I mentioned earlier, the most important of which was when and how to allude to the plot, thin as it is, and to ground the reader in the external circumstances of the action, while descending into the internal. I don’t want to say too much about it here, but the poem operates under the central conceit that the speaker conflates his actual journey on that bus with a remembered or perhaps imagined journey in his past, in his psyche. That structure was something I discovered very early in the process, but I had to build on it.
I’d say the hardest part was removing lines and whole passages. I knew I didn’t want to write a very long poem. At some point, the poem was at least three times as long as it is now (it’s quite manageable in a single sitting, really, at just over 1400 lines). After about four years of work I was ready to take a good cold look at what I’d done and begin the difficult winnowing. I removed everything I saw as indulgent, redundant, or me. I tried to leave nothing but what I thought the speaker would say, and after two years of that, with continuous revising and occasional addition, the poem was done. I only knew what it was like to finish a short poem: it kicks you out. I felt the same about Vincent, but it was a much larger banishment.
LPJ: In another excerpt Vincent says:
I knew there were men in the cabin
drunker than that guitar player
who slept by the reservoir
because they had known my sister
and their bucks were hanging from oak beams
in their attic
the blood pocking in tin pans
like words spoken in a confessional
As happens frequently while reading your work, I am stunned by the surprising leaps your writing accomplishes which are as wild and unpredictable as the best of Lorca. You use association as a particular tool with the ease of a master carpenter bridging the gap between conscious and unconscious thought. I wouldn’t want to examine how you are able to accomplish this, but perhaps you might allow others into the means by which these leaps are made possible. What writers do you admire for their leaping ability?
JF: Lorca’s the great wild thing itself, and if there were hellfire there would be a special place in it for the men who murdered him. “Leaping” is Bly’s word, too, and he’s done right by bringing writers like Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Transtromer, and Trakl to larger American audiences, though of course he hasn’t been alone. All of those poets are astronomical in their metaphorical abilities, and their presence in the American lineage has definitely helped our poetry find the body, though of course Whitman was already there. How about some gems: In Daniel Simko’s translation, Trakl writes, “Your body is a hyacinth / Into which a monk dips his waxy fingers. / Our silence is a black cave / From which at times a gentle animal emerges / And slowly closes its heavy eyelids.” In Bly’s translation, this is Transtromer, after he’s seen the shadow of a plane on the ground: “I have seen the cross hanging in the cool church vaults. / At times it resembles a split-second snapshot of something / moving at tremendous speed.”
LPJ: Math plays a figurative part in Vincent’s calculations as well as an abstract inversion to that infinite zero, as here: if you are constantly destroyed you are everywhere. This is a perfect example of the tensions created by the narrator which move both toward and away from the idea of omnipotence and the concept of a supreme being. There are also undercurrents of religious archetypes playing off Vincent’s misshapen sense of morality. Do these tensions come naturally to you? Can you offer any advice to the reader on how to develop these types of dialectics within their own narratives?
JF: Vincent is heavy with Christian imagery—gospels, wine, communion suits, you name it. Why was this important to my speaker? Because he is trying both to get infinitely close to something and to spare himself and others by being infinitely far. The language of religious ritual helped me get this across.
Take, for example, the actual practice of Roman Catholicism, which has at its root a central tension: While it demands that the body and the physical world are evil, it fetishizes them and makes of them idols. Carl Jung says somewhere that the ritual has two purposes: to bring the practitioner closer to the divine and to protect him from it. Religious rituals very often do exactly that, initiating us into a presence of the divine through a series of repetitive actions and/or words, while also keeping the great mystery at bay through the intermediary of a repetitive, and therefore comforting, matrix. In this way we can confront the immensity without confronting it.
Now, what happens when the practitioner loses his faith in the divine thing to which the ritual points and from which it protects him? The ritual becomes empty, but it nonetheless maintains its potency, especially if the practitioner continues to carry with him a sense that it needs to be done, and that not doing it would result in disaster. Perhaps it becomes even more potent because the practitioner no longer has even a name for the mystery the ritual is honoring or appeasing. This is not at all a definition of poetry, but it is a definition of a certain state of mind that poetry is particularly equipped to convey. I have been interested in that tension, in all my work.
LPJ: So I’ll bring in the curious and profound nature of Albert Schweitzer who said “The thinking (person) must oppose all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another.” The narrative of Vincent’s psychosis implies that he did not have a choice. Do you suppose the reader might be led to the conclusion that each of us derive our truths from the information we have, even if that information is skewed and if this is so, at what point is a person culpable for their actions? In the case of the real Vince Li we know that he has been under treatment and has since come to some awareness of his actions. Whether or not you intended it, perhaps Vincent is a way to the door of compassion open for everyone no matter how heinous the crime or am I putting an altruistic spin on this?
JF: Of course Schweitzer is right, but we don’t need him to tell us not to do harm. As I mentioned earlier, I do think that Vincent is interested in conveying what happens when the seemingly unbreakable laws of our psyches lead us to act disastrously. Does this necessarily mean we have no choice? Of course not. A person suffering from a mental illness, for example, may not feel he has a choice about how to act, given the laws of his perception and apperception, but to what larger systems of “choice” do we belong? If someone were to give that person treatment, even by temporarily depriving him of certain liberties, and at some later point the recovering person were to say, “Yes, I would have willed that, so as to avoid doing something the ‘real’ me would not have wanted to do,” then we see we have a very complicated discussion. As you say, we do “derive our truths” from the limited information we have, and from the material we inherit, but our lives become meaningless and morally bankrupt if we truly feel we have no choice in what we do. I believe in responsibility and agency. I also understand that there are circumstances that deprive us of our ability to accurately assess a situation and act in such a way that minimalizes harm to others. I’m not a moral philosopher, and I’m not a psychologist, but I am interested in how to use language to get across these predicaments. And we don’t have to be the speaker of Vincent to feel them.
LPJ: There is a passage deep in the forest of Vincent which begins,
Sam have you smelled the rose oil
in the shoes of the dead
the night like the unscuffed passages
in their bootsoles
have you sucked the dusks
from the two wounds in your forearms
where the viper touched you
and it feels like a wild fugue as it were spiraling higher and higher into the nave of the poem until we are caught in a frenzied wave of exaltation. The math and spatial qualities of the poem also contribute to the architecture of the whole – did you choose to include math because of Vince Li’s vocation as a computer scientist?
JF: No. The poem has mathematics in it because its speaker is willing to use any language he can to try to prove something to himself that cannot be proven. Those math passages are pretty wild, but I can say that they quite intentionally contain mistakes, because neither Vincent nor the author who invented him is a mathematician, and I think the speaker is already doomed when he appeals to this logic to try to “prove” the human and make sense of it all.
Perhaps I should mention that my first love was mathematics, and I was convinced that was what I was going to do with my life, until I abandoned mathematics and physics when I was an undergraduate. When I read the poem aloud, it’s quite wild to hear the mathematical passages pronounced, with Vincent saying things like “Newton’s gravitational constant over the speed of light,” and I do want that to be a part of the poem, but I think the spell would have been broken if I’d added a pronunciation guide or something like that at the end. But the reader might be interested to know that, among other things, there are ideas from quantum mechanics and Einstein’s General Relativity, two areas of inquiry that seek to explain the infinitesimally small and the nearly infinitely massive, respectively. There are also appeals to fractals, which look ever more complex the “closer” we look. This is just to say that each mathematical object—and, again, there are only a few—emerges from Vincent’s mind at a moment of particular crisis, when he’s coming perhaps too close to something, or when he’s frustrated that he can’t get close enough, or when his other languages break down.
LPJ: In Wildebeast, Robert Bly says: Arithmetic has failed to bring order to our sorrow. / Newton is not guilty, because the man who / Invents the knife is not responsible for the murder. Does the artist play a role in the dissemination of morality? If we carry the bloodied knife to the reader and deem it beautiful does it diminish the cruel act or is Vincent as a character in a Shakespearian play? At the end of Vincent I am left with a profound touch of sorrow and yet a sense of the holy that inhabits each of us and the fated trajectories our lives sometimes take. We cannot change events but perhaps we can carry some part of our authentic selves into the future. What does Joseph Fasano wish for the reader to take away or do his own wishes enter in?
JF: Certainly the artist is not a legislator of morals, but he is also not someone who merely destroys. It’s important to note that Vincent never shows the horrific thing, and not for reasons of propriety. My remarks above about ritual in part preserving us from the immensity might explain this further, but the poem also refuses to show the horrific act itself for a very simple reason: the speaker cannot see it. It would have been untrue if I’d written about a character returning from a psychotic break who understood and saw all he had done. His not being able to see it is an actual predicament for people in such a situation, and I think it allows for an exploration of deeper questions about our agency and sense of self, which we’ve been discussing here.
As I’ve said, I do have certain intentions with this project, but it’s not my work to tell the reader how to approach it, other than to say that yes, it asks us to remember that we are diminishing ourselves if we fail to see the voice of someone who has done harm as a human voice. This does not mean that it asks us to sympathize with an action that did harm, nor does it mean that it makes any statement at all about the justice system, in America or in Canada or anywhere else. Questions about justice should be asked and are asked, but this poem is not the place for them. It is a work of literature that aims to explore what happens to us when we allow ourselves to be compelled by a human voice while condemning the actions of its speaker. It asks us if we can feel both things without being torn apart. It asks if we can allow ourselves to be torn apart while trusting that we’ll be put back together again as moral actors in a troubled world, with our goodness based on nothing other than the deepest natures of ourselves as fully realized individuals. We’ll never get there, I know, but art can be a record of the stumbling journey.