Fred Schmalz is the author of Action in the Orchards (Nightboat Books, 2019). He is an artist and poet whose recent writing focuses on textual response to encounters with dance, music, and visual art. He was recently commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as poet-in-residence for the FluxConcert in its year-long Fluxus Festival. His field guide Claes Oldenburg's Festival of Living Objects was published in conjunction with a series of gallery walks by the Walker Art Center in 2013. He makes art with Susy Bielak in the collective Balas & Wax.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Action in the Orchards came out in April 2019, so it’s more that the idea of the book or the process of the book has changed my life. But there are some small examples of how it has started to resonate out. A friend called and told me that their daughter’s friend was having an emotionally difficult evening at a slumber party. They read poems from the book and the kid felt better, at least temporarily. I hadn’t expected that. The next day, my friend Gregg Wagner sent a video of himself from Montana setting one of the book’s poems to music, singing to the chord changes. It was beautiful! And it gets to the intention of the book, which is that using art to make more art is such a lovely, generative act. It’s like Gary Snyder’s poem, “Axe Handles.”
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I just saw the world in episodes and in fragments and in inconclusive instances. I saw it less as world-building or reportage. I liked that as a poet I could just point at something and then point at something else and dig into the way sound operated through all of it. That has always felt like more than enough to occupy me for this life and several subsequent lives.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I write slowly, in part because I don’t write from a particular conceit. Instead, I try to use the pen as a flashlight to feel my way around in the dark, so to speak. I free write and gather notes from a lot of different sittings, settings, occasions, events. Then I mine them to find the concerns and questions and images they present in sound.
My drafts often look very different in their earlier and later stages. Because I tend to work inward from the sonics of the poem toward the sense of the poem, my early drafts can be strange and frustrating and abstract, even for me. But I have found it harder to inject the kinds of leaps and strange turns that result from that kind of “condensery” (hat tip to Niedecker) than to start by trying to make everything as crystal clear as possible and then either hope for or try to layer in the music. I don’t feel dogmatic about what I want to say with the poem, but rather want to give the poem a lot of room to run and teach me something. I want it to be about experimentation more than control. Which is not to say that I am out there shooting for chaos. Far from it (see: “lots of drafts” below).
Lately I have been trying to answer some of the questions the drafts raise about clarity earlier in the process. I think it is how a lot of other people write. I am interested to see how this works for me. So far it has been encouraging. I am open to the idea that I may have been doing it wrong all along.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I view myself as solidly process-oriented, in that I don’t start with a conceit. I write, hoping to achieve a bit of a trance state where I am uninhibited and even to an extent unaware of what’s coming out. And then I go back and see what’s there, often working from various sets of notes to see what surfaces, and writing into those elements. This is more or less collaging lines or sequences of lines that have a similar register, or complimentary imagery. Then I chop away and rework and go through lots and lots of drafts before I feel like something is ready (this is after showing it to people for notes/thoughts/ideas).
From a project perspective, I have long been on the “write a bunch of poems and see how they gravitate together” end of this continuum, but recently stumbled into a larger project (see question 20 below), and it has enough breadth and openness that I feel like it has the potential to become a book. I’m excited to try it differently this time.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love to read in public. Yes, it’s fun. Ask me to read. I will read.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My biggest theoretical concern is how we can translate encounters into language. I am interested in how we experience the world collectively, how we experience loneliness, how we face mortality, and how our encounters (with art, with friends and family, with the quotidian) are infused with the sensory and the ineffable.
A long time ago, a friend questioned the very core of what I was doing, asking some variation of Why are you even doing this? It was a kind of shocking question, but I replied simply: “I want to sing.” That still feels like the best answer I could come up with.
I am more interested in posing questions with my work than in answering them.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the poet is something I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this spring, in conversation with a great group of writers at Northwestern. I am still figuring out how to articulate this.
Writers definitely have a role in society—as thinkers and historians and objectors and bullshit-callers and experimenters with the possibilities of language. I mean, have you ever heard how a room full of corporate marketers communicate? No offense to them, but I don’t feel entirely safe entrusting them with the future of any language. And they’re astoundingly powerful in a capitalist society. Capitalism exists to consume everything in its path, including language, and bend it to the goal of generating capital for a certain group of people. End rant, but poets have some heavy lifting to do to in order to not cede the space for language.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I absolutely love working with editors, and I think the more voices I got on my work, the better it got. For Action in the Orchards, I shared the manuscript with a handful of friends who gave advice and feedback and input, which was generous of them and eye-opening for me.
The poems are not so straightforward a read, and so it took several years for it to come together and for it to find a home at Nightboat. I think I was fortunate in that I kept sending versions of the manuscript to Stephen Motika and Kazim Ali, so by the time they accepted the manuscript for publication, they had been reading it in some form or another for several years. That familiarity helped my case because they watched it grow into itself.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There is too much of this, from too many people, to even pull one thing. Whatever I say will sound trite.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between poetry and collaborative art? What do you see as the appeal?
Collaborative artmaking is appealing to me in that I can think beyond the poem—and beyond the limitations of myself as the solitary artist—to find other means to engage with the ideas and inspirations around me. I find the amount of compromise and concession to be appealing in dismissing a degree ownership and shedding ego. Even more compelling to me is how, in this process, you end up making something collaboratively that you could never have made alone, no matter how hard you might have tried. Which is not a value judgement so much as a fundamental condition of shared authorship.
I see the forms we work in (installation, book arts, video, performance) as extensions of each other, so I don’t view the transitions among them so much on the scale of easy-to-hard. It feels natural, and it has felt especially seamless to work with Susy Bielak in Balas & Wax.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t tend to write every day, which is not to say that the way I write isn’t routine. I like to grab pockets of time to write at home, and then to write in public as well, because I work pretty well from stimulation and distraction. I always carry a notebook and only occasionally take it out. I use a particular type of pen. So maybe I have rituals more than routines. I used to free write more often, but over the last few years, I have shifted slightly, so that my writing sessions are more intentional, as in: I am going to this lecture being given by a scholar of film, and I will write through it.
For me, a typical day begins at or before dawn. I might write a little. I usually get out of the house for a run before that, where I will think of things or turn over things I am already thinking about, or where I will encounter things that will jog my memory.
Running is also a way of studying light and color and wind and weather. Really, what if I put myself on the shore of Lake Michigan for an hour almost every morning for six years? What will that tell me about nature, cycles, my own body, resilience, the calm or tumult of an enormous inland sea? There’s no answer to these questions. No key. The response accumulates.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to music. And to poetry books. And to visual art. But mostly I have just found that I have to write, however badly, just to get to what’s next. So, I turn to the act of writing to overcome the results of the writing act, which are only uninspired in retrospect. At the time, they’re just writing. I think a certain amount of amnesia about how “well” I am writing is a good thing. It also helps me to remember that even when I’m clicking, the first notes of anything are kinda lousy, so really, what is more likely to stall for me is confidence in my editorial process.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Anyone who has lived in Chicago knows that there are certain variations of early 20th Century Chicago building foyer smells. I recall my brother visiting me in Chicago in 1994 and walking into the building I was living in at the time and stopping in his tracks and saying, “Wow, this smells like grandma’s place in Logan Square.” Every once in a while, our apartment building offers that fragrance, which leads me to reveries.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My work operates directly in conversation with visual and performing arts, in that I use encounters with art as material for the composition of poems. I also mine social interactions, friendships, conversations, and the wealth of language flying around us for sparks in the poems. From a process standpoint, my practice as a distance runner has been hugely influential to the way I make poems, while it doesn’t often surface in the texts themselves.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This feels like an infinite answer, in that answering “why” they might be important would be both impossible and beside the point. There are the writers I have never met, whose writing has been important to me, like Lorine Niedecker and Inger Christensen and George Oppen and Etel Adnan and John Cage. That’s a fun game of spot-the-influence, but not as fun an answer for me as the writers who are important to me for who they are and how they make art and live.
I have the great fortune to be surrounded by dear friends who are writers, which is not surprising. They are the most important writers to me because, no matter how different their work is from my own, the examples they set and the wisdom they share help guide me. I think about Sarah Fox, Elizabeth Zuba, Paula Cisewski, Daniel Borzutzky, Rachel Galvin, G.E. Patterson, of course Susy Bielak, Jenny Browne, Lynn Xu, Josh Edwards, and Frances Richard, who are each brilliant and generous and so unique and warm.
And there are people spread all over who I carry with me in my heart and who help shape how I see the world, like Jen Bervin and Joel Craig and Jose-Luis Moctezuma, like Steve Healey and Chris Hosea. And I keep meeting people who blow my mind. In March at AWP I got to spend time with Edgar Garcia and Marwa Helal and meet Gracie Leavitt and Aldrin Valdez and reconnect with Brian Blanchfield and wander around with Erica Hughes and Isaac Miller and I live for standing still and walking with smart people so it was great. And poetry has made all of those relationships happen. And that’s just the writers. The artists around me are just as important, but I’ll spare you further name dropping.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Being an artist has led me to a lot of places I did not expect to go, and through a lot of experiences that I had not anticipated. I intend to keep making and keep being surprised by the unexpected nature of the places and happenings I am fortunate enough to encounter. I have no bucket list.
17 - What do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
This is a “yes, and” question to me. I am a writer so I ended up doing a lot of other things, from bartender to teacher to human resources assistant to arts administrator. I work as an editor now. I do all these things because I am a writer, not instead of it.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I like it and I feel like it is the best way for me to be in the world and to communicate, and to approach the strangeness of feeling through language. I like the game of language, the contract, the malleability of it. My friend Jonathan, who is a painter, says, “I like to move paint around.” I feel that way about the clang and hustle of words.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Good question, because it has me reaching back into the stack of books I am currently plowing through and asking me to pause and revisit. I think Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death is great. And I have really, really loved diving into Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings of Dick Higgins. The book I’m most excited to dig into now that I have a bit more reading time Frances Richard’s tome Gordon Matta-Clark: Physical Poetics.
Great films? Sorry to Bother You was on another level from everything else last year. Marxist Mayhem. I have been sleeping on new films since then.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Poetry-wise, since last summer, I have been at work on poems for my role as the poet laureate of the imaginary country of Zoltavia, which was founded as a conceptual art project by the photographer Alex Yudzon. This has led me to explore, in poetry, the role of the poet in society. The project also has me asking very fundamental questions about the tensions between place and no-place, between the concrete and the abstract, and between the intentional and the arbitrary in poems.
Artwork wise, I/we just finished a handful of projects, one with the LA Philharmonic, another at Cantos Comunes in Havana in conjunction with the Havana Biennial, another at Hyde Park Art Center. Susy and I just started an ongoing, intermittent residency at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California, which will result in a community focused work there sometime in the future. But our first task there is learning a lot about the context of the city, which is fascinating and complex.