America Has No Place for Grief: A Conversation with Alexis Rhone Fancher
by Arya F. Jenkins
Arya F. Jenkins: In State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies (KYSO Press, 2015) and The Dead Kid Poems (KYSO Press, 2019), you write unflinchingly about the loss of your son, an only child, who was only 26 when he died from cancer. Your other collections, Junkie Wife (Moon Tide Press, 2018) and How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and other heart-stab poems (Sybaritic Press, 2014) are brash explorations of female sexuality and power. How, if at all, did writing about sex prepare you for writing about death and loss? And where does the theme of female empowerment, a constant in your work, fit into the process of grief?
Alexis Rhone Fancher: I’m not sure writing about sex prepared me to write about grief and loss, so much as it emboldened me. I was raised to believe I could do anything, and that my opinion mattered. I have always owned my personhood and my sexuality. Sadly, in today’s increasingly puritanical America, I am still in the minority. I am often called “brazen” when to me, I’m just being honest.
Much like sex, America has no place for grief; we have a “sweep it under the rug” philosophy. Out of sight, out of mind. Thus all the platitudes, the “he’s in a better place” or “he is at peace.” Instead of embracing our loss and experiencing our grief, we ignore it and soldier on, leaving a hollow place inside that can’t be filled, and we don’t know why.
AFJ: “Death Warrant” in State of Grace is about the callousness of others in the face of your loss. How did you deal with the dismissal of the life of your son by a judge in a court of law? And that of the friend who thought two weeks after the death of your son that you should be “over it,” mentioned in another poem? How does one respond to that?
ARF: “Death Warrant” and “Over It” are two of my most commented upon poems. Readers are horrified by these two women’s thoughtlessness and cruelty. Both poems quote verbatim what was said to me. The judge’s words brought a gasp from the packed courtroom. I was too shocked to do anything except flee. As I left, a woman caught up with me and put her arms around me, sobbing. Her kindness made the moment bearable. But even now, over 13 years later, I can’t relive that day without tears. It’s the unthinking/unthinkable cruelty, tossed off like it’s nothing..
The judge looked over the warrant.
“He’s in the hospital, you say?”
“Yes, your honor.
“Good,” she said. She handed the
paperwork back to the bailiff.
“Then he won’t be driving
without a license,
out there endangering others.”
ARF: When P., the woman in “Over It” who, two weeks after my son’s death, asked me if I was “over it yet,” her sheer heartlessness astonished me. I really did want, for just one moment, to trade places, to pretend it was her only child who died, and ask her if she was “over it yet?” Instead, I wrote the poem.
Two weeks after he died,
a friend asked if I was “over it.”
As if my son’s death was something to get
through, like the flu.
AFJ: In “When I Buried My Son I Became Someone Else” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about coming to terms with mortality. Can you speak more to the final line of a couplet in that poem, “I’ve dumbed down my dreams,” and how grief has dumbed down your dreams?
ARF: Like me, two of my closest friends have lost a child. We call ourselves members of a club that no one wants to belong to. We all agree, once you’ve lost a child, nothing really fazes you. You’ve nothing more to lose. No matter how bad the news, you’ve had worse. And dreams? What dreams? The natural order is forever disturbed. There is no putting it right.
AFJ: One of the things that stands out for me in The Dead Kid Poems is how the death of a loved one, the lesson of mortality, does not appear to be something we can pass on to familiars, try though we may, so grieving has a double edge and the one grieving a double burden—to bear the first unimaginable loss, and along with that, to accept that others close to her cannot deal either with her pain or the awareness of what it means to lose someone you love. Has that realization become easier for you?
ARF: When my son became ill, I noticed a curious thing. Friends and family divided into two camps, those who came closer, and those who pulled away. Some family members deserted me, while friends I barely knew showed up for every hospital stay, every set back. The aha! moment was when I realized that it was nothing personal. That people were reacting not to me and my son’s tragedy, but to Death itself. Some caress it, others can’t face it. Better to turn away, pretend it doesn’t exist. From those who stuck around, and shared the grief, I learned that I share best as a poet. And the more personal my poems became, the more readers “got” what I was saying, and often shared back. It’s almost like my openness gives people permission to share their own truths. And that makes my sadness easier to bear.
AFJ: In “Cruel Choices” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about the need to create a make-believe world—one where your son is married to a “beautiful Iranian model with kind eyes and they live in London with their twin girls who visit every summer”—to coexist alongside the one of terrible realities that, for all the pain they cause, the one grieving must hold onto, as it makes up the true remnants of memory.
ARF: I wrote “Cruel Choices” during a moment of envy–my husband’s two daughters were both in town and he and they were out together every night. I have no relationship with my step-daughters. It’s a mutual decision. That particular night I created a world where life was fair, and each of us had one child. My husband’s “cruel” choice as to which one to keep. I imagined what life might have been like if my son hadn’t died, if his girlfriend had chosen to keep those babies, if they’d moved to London. . . . If if if. A person could drown in them. Writing my truth means to dive into those memories, and remain there as long as possible. I can’t stay down too long; it’s a bad neighborhood. The trick is to open the portal just enough, then remember to shoot back up.
AFJ: The terrible binds placed on you by grief—can you speak more to that?
ARF: Terrible, yes, but necessary if I’m to get to what matters. Grief rips some people apart. I watched my maternal grandmother will herself to die when my mother was dying. “It is unnatural for a mother to outlive her children,” I remember her saying. I was 20, and didn’t understand until my own son was dying and her words came back to me. But unlike my grandmother, grief made me stronger. I chose life. I chose to honor my son and his memory by writing State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, and The Dead Kid Poems. I wanted to hold his place on the earth.
Poet and photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher has work published in over 200 literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Rattle, Hobart, Verse Daily, The MacGuffin, Plume, Tinderbox, Diode, Nashville Review, Rust + Moth, Nasty Women Poets, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, among others. Her photographs have been published worldwide. Her books include: How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen & other heart stab poems, Enter Here, and the autobiographical, Junkie Wife. Her chapbook, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies was released in 2015, and its companion, The Dead Kid Poems, published in May, 2019. EROTIC, a volume of her new and selected erotica, will be published in 2020 by New York Quarterly. A nominee of multiple Pushcart Prizes, Best Small Fictions, Best Micro-fiction, and Best of the Net awards, Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly.
Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American poet and writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and zines, most recently, IO Literary Journal, Rag-Queen Periodical, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Poetry is forthcoming in Poetica Review. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011), Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite Press, 2018) is available here: www.aryafjenkins.com.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.