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Issue 105 |
Spring 2008

About B. H. Fairchild

On a rainy day in Claremont, California, you might find B. H. Fairchild drafting a poem and drinking a double espresso in the second seat of the front window of Some Crust Bakery. Other days, you might find him writing in a little place behind his garage. Officially, "B. H." stands for "Bertram Harry," a family name shared by his father and grandfather, though Fairchild most often answers to "Pete." The story behind his name, like many of Fairchild's stories, involves his father: having lobbied for a simpler name, the elder Bertram returned from World War II to find his wife had caved under her mother-in-law's pressure to uphold family tradition; Fairchild's father insisted they ignore the birth certificate and use "Pete" instead.

In the afterward of his second book, Local Knowledge, Fairchild describes this early memory of his father: "As a child in West Texas, I am standing beside my father as he works a machine lathe at a shop in one of several dusty oilfield towns." For Fairchild, the memory "holds the model for everything I have written, especially poems: lathework." And lathework remains, after five books, the presiding model for his poetic work. "It's lodged so deeply in my subconscious," he says, "that it could hardly be otherwise. If poetry weren't such a demanding craft, requiring steady attention to detail, to what most people regard as small matters, I probably wouldn't have any interest in it. As I've said before, if there's an easy way to write poems, I don't want to know about it."

Born in Houston, and raised in small oil towns in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, Fairchild is the child of parents who were the children of small farmers. His father quit high school to help support his parents and siblings by working as a lathe machinist, and he continued this work while raising his own children, often taking the younger Fairchild with him to the shops. Those machine shops and the communities around them deeply influenced Fairchild. He notes, "Ours was a fairly typical blue-collar family, though my parents worked very hard to pull us up into the middle class, to own their own home, to help send us to college—the story of an entire generation, I think."

Fairchild's poems resonate with the duality of that experience, of years growing up watching his father at work, and, later, of summers spent working alongside him during his years at the University of Kansas. There, Fairchild remembers, "poems of all kinds—from Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Snyder, Ginsberg, William Stafford—were happening to me all at once, so I tended to see less difference among them and more difference between the radical, unique thing called poetry and the rest of the world." Fairchild began to forge a bridge between those worlds, and that sensibility echoes through much of his work. In the title poem of The Art of the Lathe, Fairchild depicts a boy who is surrounded by both machine work and a created beauty infiltrating his environment:

The boy leaves the shop, cringing into the light,
and digs the grime from his fingernails, blue
from bruises. Walking home, he hears a clavier—
Couperin, maybe, a Bach toccata—from a window overhead.
Music, he thinks, the beautiful.
Tavern doors open. Voices. Grab and hustle of the street.
Cart wheels. The room of his life. The darkening sky.

The world of the machinist repeatedly interfaces with experiences of music and art in the poems from this collection, such as in "Beauty," where the narrator stands beside his wife in front of Donatello's David and recalls the men of the machine shop, a connection that brings him to question the experience and naming of beauty. The narrator, in the opening of the poem, confesses "that no male member of my family has ever used / this word in my hearing or anyone else's except / in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or a dead deer." And in "The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano," the final line asserts how it is not only the poet, artist, or musician who inhabits both worlds, but also the working man who is "a master of lathes, a student of music."

Fairchild first began writing poems in high school, but these were, by his own admission, "terrible ones," and as an undergraduate, he wrote mostly fiction. Poetry came later: he began writing poems seriously in his twenties, and the poems of his first book date back to his thirties. After he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Tulsa, Fairchild moved right into teaching, sustaining a demanding load in order to support his family which grew to include two children. After twenty-five years of teaching nine and sometimes ten classes a year at California State University, Fairchild now commutes quite a distance to his position as the Lorraine Sherley Professor of American Literature at Texas Christian University, where he is able to teach, comparatively, much less. Of those earlier years he says, "Looking back, I'm really not sure how I got anything written, but I guess I did. It had a lot to do with writing at night, sometimes until three or four in the morning, and because of that, I still have bad sleep habits. I will say, with deep appreciation, that that university, along with some awards money I had won, helped me to take a year off, which was when I finally completed Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. It's amazing how much you can write when you actually have the time."

While somehow, even in those early days, Fairchild always found time for poems, the short life of a poetry press meant it took a while for those poems to be given rightful notice. Fairchild's first book, The Arrival of the Future, was originally published by Swallow's Tale Press, not long before they dissolved in 1985, leaving the collection essentially without a publisher. The second book was published in 1991 as part of the renowned Quarterly Review of Literature series, in which multiple poets were collected in one volume. It was an important publication, but easily overlooked as an individual work. So, in 1997, Fairchild's third book, The Art of the Lathe, entered the world in some ways like a debut. A very successful debut. As the winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Press, the collection garnered universal praise, winning the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, the PEN West Poetry Award, the California Book Award, the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, and was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

The enthusiastic reception to The Art of the Lathe led to a revival of Fairchild's earlier work. Alice James opted to republish The Arrival of the Future, and, other than some proofreading and the addition of a preface and a few notes, Fairchild let his first book stand as such. "I thought it was important," he says, "that the poems in the first book appear unchanged (and I think this about all first books) as an accurate record of the poet's beginnings." Later, after publishing Fairchild's fourth book, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (2003), W. W. Norton reprinted Local Knowledge. This time around, Fairchild did make structural changes. "I was likewise very happy when Norton offered to republish my second book," he says, "but for quite a different reason. I had begun to see that the structure of the book was all wrong and wanted to reshape it." Ever modest, Fairchild is quick to note his gratitude for all the support he has been given, and particularly for the door opened for him by Alice James Press.

The praise keeps coming for Fairchild. Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the poem "Mrs. Hill" was included by Rita Dove in the Best American Poems of 2000 . Numerous organizations have honored his work, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. His latest collection ventures into new territory, as Fairchild includes prose pieces written under a heteronym he describes as "one Roy Eldridge Garcia, a character in 'The Blue Buick' who is based upon about three different men I knew when I was working in the machine shop. Roy was in Paris during the fifties, so they are more or less typical of the sort of thing being written there then." In this scene from "The Blue Buick," it is evident that the men of the machine shops remain a powerful influence on Fairchild's life and work:

and it was there full-volume when Roy came home
from work and they began to dance, martinis in hand,
and soon you were there in the Hot Club in Paris
rather than a tiny Airstream trailer parked
along the southern outskirts of Liberal, Kansas,
where a boy, amazed, sat at a yellow formica
breakfast table watching something that might be,
he wondered, some form, some rare, lucky version,
of human happiness.

More poems written in the guise of Roy Garcia will appear in Fairchild's fifth book, Usher, which is forthcoming from Norton. Fairchild reveals that the collection will include "a section of philosophical poems, or poems that arise from ideas or problems in philosophy, and a section dealing with the death of small towns in the Midwest." Another section, entitled "Trilogy," which Fairchild labels the "heart of the new book," will be published as a limited edition by PennyRoyal Press with illustrations by Barry Moser. For now, readers are left with the open ended closing passage of "The Memory Palace," the final poem in Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. Ending, as it does, with a simple colon implies a kind of promise, that endings are also beginnings for a poet like Fairchild, or a simple pact that there is more to come from this talented voice:

But there's no more time, it's morning, time to go to work, and they are opening the huge shop door, the slow rumble that you will never forget, and the light leaking in, widening—light like a quilt of gold foil flung out so it will drape all of this, will keep it and keep it well—and it is so bright now, you can hardly bear it as it fills the door, this immense glacier of light coming on, and still you do not know who you are, but here it is, try to remember, it is all beginning:

Rebecca Morgan Frank is the editor and cofounder of Memorious: a journal of new verse and fiction.