The Harvard Advocate is proud to announce the launch of its Fall 2013 issue! Below, listen to Robbie Eginton reading his poem, “Fum,” which is published this edition of the magazine. I was also thrilled to talk to him after making this recording; an abridged transcript of the interview is published here. You can subscribe to The Harvard Advocate here.
– Kevin Hong ’15
Kevin Hong: Your poem has such a distinctive voice. The way you read it is interesting, too, because it’s hard to pin down. Can you talk about what kind of tone this is — eerie, nostalgic?
Robbie Eginton: I’ve never really tried. The story is as it always is, and the giant is in some kind of space where he’s aware to some degree of Jack’s perfidy, and yet he is able to sit down with Jack. He has some kind of power. Beyond that, the giant doesn’t need to physically threaten Jack, he doesn’t need to yell … he’s just putting Jack through this communication. I don’t know if I can piece apart why he feels motivated to say the things he says. But he needs, to some degree, to have this connection with the person who he’s trying to kill, who’s going to kill him or who has killed him. There’s also a power that comes with being in this out-of-time space and being the only one with a voice.
KH: On one hand, the poem is a threat, yet it also becomes a kind of confessional, strangely intimate. The giant doesn’t portray himself in the best light; he admits the grotesqueness of his actions. It’s interesting what you say about needing to connect because the connection is at once a threat — I need to get to you, you better watch out — but also I’m trying to get to you.
RE: In a sense, the thing that I’m threatening you with is connection. I want you to be emotionally connected, not just profiting off me.
I think one thing that’s going on is there’s an emphasis on the giant’s profession and his method. For me, the poem is not so much about the morality of these actions; I’m not terribly interested in that. I’m more interested that he makes his living by taking apart other people’s bodies; these others with bodies and habits become unnamed. This is what I’m interested in: when do the motions and shapes of our bodies have meaning, and when do they not?
KH: Did something about the story prompt you to play with it?
RE: I was interested in the fringe areas of body, where the body isn’t well-defined. Like dismemberment, things like that … Then I thought, isn’t it odd that the giant says, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” but when has an Englishman come up to the land of the clouds before? How does the giant know what the English smell like? That’s one of the deviations of my version from the standard account; he makes a habit out of grinding Englishmen, changing bodies into bread, or meal, at least, unnaming them and giving them another name. This is kind of like Ursula K. Le Guin talking about names. If you read the Earthsea books, they have this focus on the “true name.” The name is sort of the form. You can give something a new name and it’ll change that thing’s essence.
KH: I also love the part where the grinding of the bones turns into bread. There’s the process of obliteration, which is also a transcendent act. Bodies become like a Eucharist, no?
RE: I hadn’t thought of that. If this were a poetry board meeting, I’d be embarrassed. That’s interesting because I hadn’t thought about the giant’s act as being a creative act. I guess one of the flaws of the poem is that we don’t see where that bread goes. What happens to it? Is the giant the cloud-equivalent of a miller? Except he mills people, small people … (laughs)
KH: There’s also church imagery; the poem takes on an even more religious color.
RE: It’s definitely playing with that. I just hadn’t made the connection between the bread coming out of the giant’s workshop and the church. With the church, I was thinking more about his ability to see things in terms of higher concepts; I don’t think he’s very good at it. He’s a little bit like the title character in Borges’s “Funes the Memorious.” It’s about this man who, through an accident, develops perfect memory. He has infinite storage and absolute recall. But he loses the ability to think in generalities. Not only can he not understand that multiple dogs are the same species, but he can’t understand that the dog sitting now was the dog shaking its fur one second ago. The giant is not that, but he has a similar trouble — he’s very caught up in his body and the connection that his body has with other bodies. That’s where I was bringing in the church.
KH: I’m always enraptured by poems that are retellings.
RE: They’re fun!
KH: Is that your main mode of writing poetry?
RE: No, but I don’t want to say if I have one. I’m a young poet. This poem is fairly complete, I feel, but for the most part I’m still trying to maintain a mode where I don’t talk too much about my poetry in general. I can talk about this poem, it’s published, fantastic, but in terms of poetry that I do now I don’t want to say. I don’t want to be thinking about being in interviews and trying to explain things … I don’t want to get in that loop. The point is to write the poems.
The one thing that I think about “Fum” and a lot of my poems is that circumstances when I was writing it are woven into them. A lot of “Fum” was written in a church, which is why there’s so much church in it. I don’t do a lot of retellings, but I might want to try it again. I enjoyed playing with “Fum.”