Feature Poet:
Richard Fox

Richard H. Fox was born and bred in Worcester MA. He attended the progressive Webster University in the early 1970's. These diverse cultures shaped his world view and love of words. John Hodgen, winner of the AWP Donald Hall Poetry Prize, writes of him: "Rich Fox calls himself a small poet at large, but there is nothing small about his poems . . . They are large-themed and large-hearted, framed by a world at war with itself and a world all the more lovely when it is almost taken from us, when we see how filled to overflowing it is with light and joy and longing and loss. These are well crafted, poignant, clever and ultimately wise poems which leave the reader wanting to believe one can throw one's arms around this hard won world, and, better yet, that the world will hold us in its arms as well." Richard’s book of poetry, Time Bomb, was published in 2013. Soul-Lit’s co-founding editor, Wayne-Daniel Berard, interviewed Richard Fox for this feature:

W-D: So, the great thing about interviewing a friend you've known for 20+ years is a genial familiarity with his background! And I think of you as a real product of the '60's and early '70's.  Am I right in this? And can you talk about how that era might have formed you as a person and poet?

RF: My cultural base was fused in the late 1960s/early 1970s. I was fortunate to have teachers in high school who exposed me to a wide variety of literature. The beat poets - Levertov, Ferlinghetti, et al - as well as Theater of the Absurd/Existentialism gave me some footholds as I tried to figure out who I was. The counter-culture offered the opportunity for social and cultural experimentation. Vonnegut, Robbins, Wolfe, Brautigan expanded my notion of art, as the Dead, Airplane, Beatles segued into Coltrane, Monk, and Miles. The anti-war and civil rights movements ignited my activism.

WD: Contemporarily, who are some of the poets writing today whom you see as particularly noteworthy and whose work speaks to you?

RF: This could be a long list. Will limit it to eight: Julie Marie Wade, Matthew Dickman, Stacey Waite, Charles Coe, Bianca Stone, Tony Hoagland, Jane Ellen Ibur, and always my mentor John Hodgen. I encourage everyone to subscribe to poets.org’s Poem-A-Day. An email every morning featuring a “new” poet broadens my view.

WD: You've had some very interesting and unique educational experiences. How have these contributed to your growth as a poet?

RF: I am a member of Clan Webster - high school outcasts who attended Webster College (now University) in the 1970s. Webster was as much artist colony as college. No matter what one’s passion (other institutions refer these as “majors”), we were all involved in the arts. Wherever one roamed, music, poetry, dance, theatre, pottery, painting etc. were happening. There were songwriters’ circles nightly. One player would start with a verse and each person would add another. It was spontaneous composition and helped us not only develop improvisational skills but also the willingness to stretch our boundaries.

Webster had recently converted from a woman’s Catholic college under the direction of The Sisters of Loretto. It was a wild and wooly change but the SOL are a brave bunch who had faith in us. Two nuns had a major influence on this Jewish boy. The collateral lesson was never to assume but rather grow. I still correspond with one sister and seek her wisdom.

WD: I am on record describing you as "The finest poet to ever come out of Worcester, MA  -- and that includes Bishop, O'Hara, and Kunitz." And I stick by that statement! I know you as a true "Worcester boy," through and through! The city seems to inform so much of your work. Would you tell us about the relationship between your city and your poetry?

RF: <blush> <blush> <blush> Worcester has a dynamic but hidden (or perhaps ignored) cultural scene. We’ve always had a diverse and visible music community, but the writers are under the hood. Poetry is a vocation of love and necessity. It doesn’t earn its keep, so your waiter, dentist, grocer, or auto mechanic is likely a poet thinking about poems while the hands are on autopilot. There is a blue collar ethic to this old mill town and a history of activism that is the city’s soul. Stanley Kunitz, while poet laureate, was asked why there are so many poets in Worcester. Mr. Kunitz paused a moment and replied “people in Worcester are provoked to poetry.”

WD: Your use of space on the page, the arrangement of your lines, etc., is often quite distinctive, and, I feel, very effective. Can you speak a bit about this form?

RF: When I was 14, I was given a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind. His use of space and the shape of his poems fascinated me. As an adult, I was fortunate to be part of a writers group with Gertrude Halstead. She was a master at white space and being spare but clear. John Hodgen urges me to explore the boundaries of the page which often transforms verses . A poem can suggest a shape to me that ties in with its theme. A good example of that is the Rosh Hashanah poem in this feature. The shape echoes Tashlich - the Jewish custom of casting off sins in a body of moving water.

WD: Richard, you've survived a devastating illness, and much of your poetry deals with that process. If it's not too difficult, could you speak about this?

RF: It’s not difficult at all to speak about cancer. I’m happy to talk to current patients and their caregivers. I seek those opportunities. While I was going through treatment and recovery, people who were surviving cancer shared their experiences to help me through the dark days. Attitude is vital but no matter how positive one is, there are harsh periods. My cousin Arlene always told me to be gentle with myself, to not push too hard in my fight. I want to carry that message and to give to others what was given to me. Cancer is a club that no one wants to join but we are a tight bunch. Unless you’ve been through treatment, understanding what comfort and support to offer is a foreign tongue. My hope is that my cancer poems provide comfort, humor, and companionship.

W-D: Your Jewishness is a major, if not deciding, element in so much of your work, yet your poetry retains a true universality. Please give us your take on "spiritual poetry,' and how your own manages to be so . . . "Jewniversal!"

RF: I write most about myself when I’m trying not to write about myself. That is, I project pieces of my life onto characters and images. Growing up with “frum” grandparents and an intensive Hebrew education, my symbol sets are wholly Judaic. I look to Noah, Rebecca, Abraham, Deborah for inspiration and to shape content. Many of my poems have lines that require knowledge of Jewish ethnic culture and theology to fully understand. There are some poems with lines that I can leave out if reading to a Jewish house. As far as spirituality, it’s not an aspect with which I try to imbue my poems. It’s who I am. That said, I have a current goal to write about the nature of prayer. It’s more of a challenge than I thought it would be. The poems are coming but are not what I set out to write. That’s good. Writing a poem should be a journey, the subconscious taking the poet for a ride.