Ragan Fox on "Heterophobia"

by Josh Aterovis

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 26, 2005

I don't pretend to be an expert on poetry. Like most art, it's more a case of "I can tell what I like." Well I really liked Heterophobia, Ragan Fox's first collection of his uniquely funny and moving poems.

Fox's poetry is meant to be performed, a fact that is quickly evidenced by his clever manipulation of the English language. Some practically beg to be read aloud, just so you can fully appreciate the rhythm and wit of his art. His subjects range widely, from a scathingly hilarious attack on an ex-boyfriend's manhood (David Cart-wrong), to a wickedly sharp condemnation of the suburbs (Suburbia), to the tear-jerking title piece that flips homophobia on its ear. Fox is unafraid to tackle any subject. He writes with equal brilliance about violence, sex, and family.

Ragan Fox is an accomplished performance artist, winning awards for his solo productions, yet his poetry does not suffer in translation. The power and impact of his words shine through clearly from the page.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ragan a little about his art, politics, and getting revenge.

Josh Aterovis: A bit of background first, tell us where you live, where you grew up, and any other background that might help readers know you a little better.

Ragan Fox: I grew up in Houston, Texas, where I attended an ultra-conservative high school. My adolescence was exciting. It was all about power and resistance; Madonna was telling me to screw my brains out and the Christian Right was telling me to blow my brains out. After high school, I did seven years at UT-Austin. I like how I put that, as if I had been ?doing time.? Isn?t Doing Time a gay porno? Anyway, Austin was a great place to explore my gender and sexuality. It?s such a liberal oasis. I spent the better part of my years there with painted toenails, if that tells you anything. After I got my MA, I moved to San Francisco with the guy I was calling my ?boyfriend.? We moved there two weeks before 9/11, a hard time to relocate to San Francisco. The tech. industry had gone bust and then the terrorist attacks in New York and D.C. crippled the tourist industry. When I saw that people with an MA were applying for entry level jobs at Target, I thought, ?It?s time to apply to Ph.D. programs.? Currently, I?m a year away from obtaining my Ph.D. at Arizona State.

JA: How did you get started writing poetry? When did you realize you had a talent for performance poetry?

RF: Throughout high school and college, I competed in speech and debate competitions. In my senior year of college, I performed a poetry program on spoken word poetry. One of the professors at UT asked me to perform the program for his graduate course in poetry interpretation. As luck would have it, Phil West and Susan B. Anthony Sommers-Willet, two rather big names in the national slam poetry scene, were students in the class. After the performance, I sat outside with them, smoking, smoking, smoking. Poets smoke?a lot. While we were smoking, Phil and Susan asked if I?d be interested in coming to the local poetry slam to perform my program on spoken word. As luck would have it, my debut occurred at the Electric Lounge, which will go down as one of the coolest venues to house spoken word poetry. After I did my feature, I sat back and watched the poets do their thing, thinking, ?Hey, I can do that.? The next week, I showed up at the Electric Lounge and took second at the slam. God, I think I got second at every slam I went to the first year I did it. It was affirming and disheartening at the same time. I?d walk out of the event and say to myself, ?I?ve got to write a brilliant poem! I need to win! Next week is my week.? Luckily, the scene was very responsive to my work. The following year I attended the National Poetry Slam as a member of the Austin team. I don?t know exactly how it happened but, for whatever reason, the national community immediately took to me. That happens; each year at the National Poetry Slam, there?s one person or a team that gets a lot of attention. Typically, that person or team brings something different to the table, like beat boxing. I think I was one of the first people to be really loud and out there about being gay. Don?t get me wrong; other gays and lesbians came before me, but my approach was different. I was young and cute, loud and gay, and just brash, brash, brash. The timing was just spot on; in Greek philosophy, they would call it kairos, which roughly translates to ?good timing.?

JA: Your bio on the book cover says you?re a doctoral student and instructor at Arizona State University. What will your doctorate be in?

RF: Communication. My emphases are in rhetoric and performance studies. After my Ph.D., I?ll teach and continue to write and perform. I went into academia because I knew it would give me time to write and act. It?s funny, there are all these spoken word poets on the national scene who talk about being a ?professional? poet?as opposed to an ?unprofessional? poet. Hell, I?d rather be the latter. Frankly, I think it?s best to balance out poetry with a job that gives you things to write about. The broad range of things I cover in academia provides a lot of fodder for my writing. ?The Magician?s Assistant,? the poem about the missing women of Juarez, for example, was inspired by things I learned about through my career choice. So, yeah, every time I hear somebody wax optimistic about being a ?professional? poet, I roll my eyes.

JA: You're best known as a performance poet, so what made you decide to publish Heterophobia?

RF: This is a good story. Okay, so, last May-ish, I get an email from Steve Berman, one of the publishers, asking me if I?ve considered coming out with a book; evidently, he ran across some of my poetry on the internet. At any rate, my response to Steve was, ?Well, YEAH, but my work is odd in form and content and frightens publishers. I?m a risk!? Then he asked if I had a manuscript. Hell, I had a ton of poems, so he told me to submit my manuscript and we?d see what happened. Months go by and I don?t hear anything. It was a difficult time because my father, who was also a writer, was dying, so I really didn?t have a lot of time to be upset about a book deal not going through. In the performance poetry world, it?s become a clich? to have a book deal one week and, poof, it?s gone the following month. Where was I? Oh yeah, my dad died at the end of June; I went to Houston for the funeral, which, for me, was a trip. We?re Jewish, so they buried him a small, pine casket. It was heartbreaking. Anyway, the day I got back to Phoenix, Steve emailed me to say that they were interested in publishing the manuscript.

JA: Some of your poems just beg to be read aloud. They almost need it to be fully appreciated. Do you think your poems translated well to the page?

RF: I think so. I love playing with words on the page. I?m sure you?ve noticed that I try to make the poems visually provocative. ?David Cart-wrong,? for example, is in the shape of a penis; ?Suburbia? is all over the place on the page, but in a good way, meaning the page captures things that the stage wouldn?t fully take hold of. Form-wise, it?s anti-poetry, so it?s not going to be for everyone. I think that one of my strengths as a writer is that I don?t try to be anything that I?m not. There are more than enough poets who jerk off the traditional canon. It?s nice to be one of a few who is a part of academia but doesn?t subscribe to the stuffy rules. To answer your question, I think that certain poems work better on the page and others work better on the stage. ?Sitting Shiva,? for example?that poem is meant to be on the page. Overall, I think they all translated well.

JA: Many of your poems come from a very personal place. Do you ever find it difficult to perform them or share them with strangers, or is it therapeutic in a way?

RF: It depends on the piece. I don?t like performing my more dramatic poems. ?Heterophobia,? for example, is a really difficult piece for me to stage. It?s a double-edged sword. A spot-on performance of ?Heterophobia? will move you to tears when I?m feeling it, but when I can?t connect with the words, it comes off as inauthentic. I hate coming off as a phony, so I try to avoid the dramatic work.

Now, many of the funny poems are dramatic at the root. ?Suburbia? is a good example of a hysterical piece that is dark. I mean, spousal abuse isn?t funny; taking pills to get through the day isn?t a belly laugh-inducer. I think I?m at my best when I use humor to get to the pain or work through it. You?ll notice that a lot of the poems in the collection start as funny and then turn on you. I love emotional turns. I love crafting pieces that crash in on themselves, poems that make the audience feel guilty for laughing.

JA: Several of your poems deal with HIV/AIDS. Do you think the younger generation today is taking this disease seriously enough?

RF: No, but I?m not just going to put blame on one generation. I put off getting tested for almost ten years. That?s just crazy! Now, I get tested every six months. Almost two years ago, a good friend of mine tested positive and, because of his result, HIV became a major theme in my work. When it comes to HIV activism, there?s so much to be done. Unfortunately, we have a horrible president backed by an even scarier administration that thinks ?Abstinence works!? programs are the answer to the pandemic. It?s disgusting.

Also, we need to do more within the gay community. I used to identify as ?queer,? but I recently threw that label in the trash. See, in the 90s, ?queer? was re-appropriated by activists in an effort to celebrate sexuality and challenge a culture of sexual shame. It was very AIDS-focused, though. Today, the community has lost a lot of its AIDS/HIV-consciousness. You still have people embracing sex and challenging shame, but they aren?t doing it in safe ways. Obviously, I have a lot to say about the state of HIV activism today. It?s my dissertation topic, so you?ll have to forgive me and the soapbox I?m standing on.

JA: You also address the current political/religious climate in the US. What do you think we (as the LGBT community) can do to fight the rising tide of homophobia?

RF: This is a really good question and one that I don?t have the answer to. Remember when I was talking about ?kairos?? Well, I think our time is due. Despite efforts to halt gay marriage, it?s legal in Massachusetts. That?s crazy and awesome! Don?t get me wrong, I know that Bush won the last election because of so called ?moral issues,? but I think things are rapidly improving. We all have to continue to be out at work, to our families, etc.

JA: I have to admit that "David Cart-wrong" is one of my favorites in the book. What a dubious honor! Is it really addressed to an ex? Does he know your tribute to his shortcomings made its way into your first collection of poems?

RF: It?s actually addressed to an ex-friend who pissed me off. Before our split, he made me promise that I?d never write a poem about him should we get into an argument. I don?t know if he knows about the poem but I have a sneaking suspicion that he does. His ex-boyfriend wrote me about three years ago to tell me that he heard an MP3 of the poem. Evidently, David does have a small penis.

JA: Do you plan to publish more volumes of poetry?

RF: Yes, I?m actually halfway done with a new manuscript. The new book is called Exile in Gayville, which is a play on Liz Phair?s Exile in Guyville. On Liz?s CD, she responds song for song to the Rolling Stone?s Exile on Mainstreet. The first section of my book, in turn, responds poem for song to Liz?s ridiculously amazing CD. I guess you could say it?s a play in play in a play; it?s a pun orgy!

JA: What poets inspire you? Who do you recommend for readers who enjoyed Heterophobia?

RF: Justin Chin?s Bite Hard was one of the books that taught me to love poetry. HBis work is very raw and real. He has a finger on the San Francisco gay scene and it comes across in his work. Genevieve Van Cleve is my favorite spoken word poet. She inspired many of the pieces in the book, including ?The Accidental Marxist? and ?TD391M.? She is very, very, VERY Texan, but liberal Texan, which is the best type of Texan to be. Other poets I admire include Morris Stegosaurus, Diane Fleming, Buddy Wakefield, Jeremy Richards, and Patricia Smith. I also love Jeff McDaniel, but who doesn?t love Jeff McDaniel? ?While the Boy Took a Bone? demonstrates my love for Gertrude Stein and her word portraits. If I had to recommend one book to read, it would be Verses that Hurt, the book that got me to think poetry was cool.

JA: What would you like to say to all your fans out there?

RF: Pass the word and thank you for the love.

Josh Aterovis is the author of the Killian Kendall Mystery Series as well as numerous columns and articles. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://www.steliko.com/bleedinghearts

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