[Literary] Ecstasy is Necessary | after Ecstasy is Necessary: An Interview/Conversation Between Megan Fernandes and Alexei Perry Cox
Initially, I thought I would ask Megan Fernandes about her ongoing novel ZELIA, a breakup story between a chef and a writer told in two time periods, because I too have a forthcoming parallel perspective novella set in two unending time periods—mine being before and after the Algerian War—a story where a grave digger is trying to unearth their murderer. I thought it could be interesting to have us, poets, discuss our non-traditional takes on novel writing. I thought I would also ask her about her soon-to-be-released poetry collection I Do Everything I’m Told and talk about my recently published collection PLACE as well as the collaborative work I’m doing, tentatively titled SPACE: Lessons in Taking and Making. Instead, I opted to write to a friend. To be candid. I wanted to revive some joy and intimacy in my written work rather than overthink my practice and I knew I could count on Megan to be that friend. Having recently read Ecstasy is Necessary: A practical guide to sex, relationships and oh so much more by Barbara Carrellas, for all sorts of reasons, I suggested to Megan we approach the exercises in the book from a lit world slant and called it [Literary] Ecstasy is Necessary, after Ecstasy is Necessary, playing on the idea that, as poets, we are always writing pieces "after so and so...” I told her it would be fun, like doing a Sassy quiz from our teenage lives or sort of the reverse of the “Fortune” game where you add “in bed” to every prediction, bringing sex instead to our respective—though not necessarily always respectable—literary domains. She indulged me.
Alexei Perry Cox: Let’s start with the good stuff. I always take the sex-before-dinner advice from Dan Savage for special occasions—the “F*ck first” idea. Then have dinner. Claim your pleasure from the outset.
*What are your top ten [Literary] turn-ons?
- Tender, selfish characters who mean well, but keep fucking up.
- A room’s furniture meticulously described (think Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”).
- Declarative lines in poems with no caesuras.
- Bottom insight.
- Polysyllabic slant rhyme.
- Clarity. Like when I know where I am in time and space in a poem.
- Also, ambiguity. When I’m inside the speaker’s fuzziness.
APC: Oh, delusion. I like that. I realized recently that I like cunning. Yup: cunning. I used to think I enjoyed craft, where I could see the spiral staircase and the elaborate folding of structure, the accordion ladder of the tripartite interwoven manuscript that shows its ars poetica if you are a careful enough reader, but right now I appreciate the wool being pulled over my eyes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love all that intricate stuff and I use it (when I’m clever enough)—and I find it hot as hell to be so savvy and brilliant—but right now I take pleasure in being immersed in reading and having no idea at all what’s going on. Like the puzzle is either beyond me or there’s no puzzle to puzzle through. That distinction between craft and cunning may be that craft gives you access to the clues while cunning makes you live with being deceived. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to feel outside of books—like in real-life relationships—but I love it as a reader. It lends well to me being lead and lead astray. And it feels good to get lost. I also like when a character experiences Sinking Feelings. And Speed. Knowing something was written as fast as I’m reading it. I confess, there were a lot of scenes from childhood—in books by George Bataille and Pauline Réage, and even in one by Michelle Tea—that were early turn-ons for me that had milk in them. Milk. Go figure. I don’t want to overthink that one though.
That distinction between craft and cunning may be that craft gives you access to the clues while cunning makes you live with being deceived.
*Why do you do sex poetry—what do you get out of it? What's the delight?
MF: Is it delight? It’s more like that feeling you get when you sublimate your aggressive or unruly drives. When the poem is on the page, I’m more surprised. I think, oh, there you are. You are not what I expected.
APC: So maybe that’s why we do it, then, to generate our own un-expectations. Not to exceed them. But to discover them. Like a gift to surprise yourself. I still joke that writing is not unlike, well, masturbating with your left hand, if you’re right-handed, that is. But I write with my right hand, I’m right-handed, and I still never know what it’s doing until it’s done. I was writing a glosa while facilitating a poetry workshop recently, and I ended up using the quatrain source material from Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property opening epigraphs—Bob Marley, Sam Cooke and Tracy Chapman lyrics. I felt like I was falling in love through myself. Like in the radical lyric selections Walcott had made to reflect on emancipation (Set the captives free. / But I know change gonna come, oh yes it will. / Don’t you know/ They’re talkin’ bout a revolution.), I was suddenly moved from their context on the page to the surprises I needed to sing to myself. I was back in the summers of my childhood in both a small Southern Ontario town and the island wiles of the French West Indies, singing to a little girl about a better future. It was a good experience.
MF: I like that delight for you here is conceived as something transportive. Like delight as a sort of impulse that sends you somewhere imaginative, maybe not just somewhere you’ve been, but some speculative perch.
APC: *Name and describe one or more [literary] ecstatic experiences you have had.
MF: I don’t know if they are literary, but recently a poet from Chicago came into town. We planned on dinner and the night just kept getting longer and longer: a bar with some 90s hip hop, strolling around Brooklyn, funny encounters with a Sicilian pizza owner. We parted at 3am and, crossing the bridge back into Manhattan, I had that feeling. You know the one. The joy of being in the presence of a real poet. Not someone who just writes poetry, but the poet. The one who understands the “velvet livingness,” to quote my own poem.
APC: The “velvet livingness.” You are good, Megan. Well, that answer takes me back to the very reason I wanted to do this with you specifically. The idea for this whole exercise came about because one of the most romantic [literary] nights I ever had was, well, with you when we were in Lisbon doing an offshoot of the Disquiet International Literary Festival. Eileen Myles was there and Kazim Ali and all these literary giants, as well as some of us newbies getting our footing. And I get transported back there a lot. Basically, you and I had convinced some local Fado players to come to the rental apartment where we threw an impromptu reading and the whole thing, it was incredible, nearly spiritual. Years later, that event turned up in one of your books, Good Boys, but you hadn’t told me and so I was stunned to see my name and that wild, green outfit I’d been wearing that night in one of your poems. Similarly, it showed up in one of my poems in PLACE and you probably didn’t realize it either, that we had both written about it, until these manuscripts were published. When I realized myself, I was like, “Oh wow…. So, it was meaningful for her too?” You know: blushing. And so that made me think about ecstasy being this rare thing—often epiphanic—and about intimacy, connection between real writer friends, and how we rarely have conversations about the things that make us "tick." I wanted us to allow ourselves to “go there,” to take ourselves to these different places.
See, I think that we’ve entered a kind of hyper-professionalization in poetry that is actually killing it.
MF: God, I remember that night so well. One of the best nights of my life. First of all, I just was flipping out that Eileen Myles was sitting there, mere feet away from me in a paisley armchair. They were drinking Pellegrino and I remember them holding the green bottle and being like, I’m going to keep that bottle forever. I’ll never forget that. Kazim was in his usual mystical form. And you could hear the fado down the street, a neighbour told me the next day. See, I think that we’ve entered a kind of hyper-professionalization in poetry that is actually killing it. We’re becoming practiced self-branders. It’s kind of gross and makes us unbearable bores. Nights like that one, like the one with the poet from Chicago, like many nights I spend with poet friends in NYC are messy, fun, a bit ridiculous. I think of O’Hara when he said he acted perfectly disgraceful at some parties. To be disgraced. To be allowed to be given grace in moments of vulnerability? That’s the poetry community I want. If being a successful poet is measured by one’s ability to be perfectly poised on a panel at AWP or perform banal diplomacy on Twitter, poetry is dead.
APC: *If you knew where you were going [in a book], where would that be?
MF: The East Village in NYC, Rue de Faubourg Saint-Denis in Paris, or Ginstora, on the island of Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily.
APC: I think I would go to Saint-Anne in Guadeloupe.
To be allowed to be given grace in moments of vulnerability? That’s the poetry community I want.
*If you knew who you were looking for [in an author], who would that be?
MF: Precision and heart.
APC: I would probably be looking for co-authors.
*If you knew how you wanted to feel [after your next reading experience], what would that feeling be?
APC: Wow. Present. Yes. And the feeling for me would be that I was still in conversation with the older woman who, fresh from her swim in the ocean in Plage St-Anne, asked me about the book I was beach-reading (Just Us by Claudia Rankine), and the conversation would continue until I too was an older woman who had a daily morning swim routine. Speaking of exercise, now we have an exercise adapted from the book.
*Exercise: Change a Habit
Do you have a [writing] habit? Perhaps you [write] the same thing every day. Or maybe you have the same [intention] for every poem? Try something new. How can you have ice cream for breakfast with your next [literary] adventure?
MF: Not sure about habits, but I have rules:
- Write at night. My nocturnal brain is more dynamic.
- If it’s not working, don’t force it. It’ll reek of its own process. Step away.
- Find some balance of external stimulation and discipline.
- Read all the time. When sick of reading, listen to the radio. When sick of radio, watch old movies. When sick of old movies, go look at a painting. When sick of looking at paintings, take a long walk along the river. When sick of walking, chat up a stranger at a bar. When sick of strangers, write a letter to someone you know, sort of. When sick of correspondence, identify the trees in a nearby park. Find a horse and speak to it. Take a train to a seaside town in Connecticut. Follow a difficult recipe with obscure ingredients and run to the Korean spice shop on 28th to get the exact thing you need. Feed yourself. Do all these things, but not necessarily in this order.
APC: So, I recently changed a habit and broke a rule. I had become lazy and was writing only after my kids went to sleep because I couldn’t bear to lose more of my own sleep hours, but now I set my alarm to wake up before them to write. I write for a really short time—ten minutes—but it is so important to me. I also broke a rule: I had been told by my very first, very impressive, Unnameable writing mentor, to never use the word “soul” in a poem, that it was sickly and saccharine and all things wrong would happen to me, and no one would take me seriously as a writer if I did. And now with this new habit, this morning practice I have recently developed, I write quite directly to “My Soul.” In fact, I wrote this on the cover of my bedside notebook. It felt freeing but it also still makes me sick to admit it.
We live in a world which over-prioritizes the kid over their mother (or primary caregiver).
MF: Can I be honest? I have a lot of writer friends who have kids. It looks hard. My job with those friends, I think, is to be like, “listen, I don’t really care about kids, I care about you and your writing. Do what you need to do, but make sure you keep writing.” I don’t think they’re getting that messaging enough. We live in a world which over-prioritizes the kid over their mother (or primary caregiver). Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. It becomes taboo for those caregivers to stick up for themselves, for their brains, for their humanity to which writing is cosmically linked. No. Kids are not special, and no one is radical for having them. They are part of society and so are you. But a lot of people get tricked by heteronormative logic into thinking that doing so much unpaid labor (again, majority women and femmes) is “natural” or “normal.” It isn’t. It’s structural. Who benefits from women and femmes' exhaustion, labor, and time crunch? We know who. What I’m saying is take those ten minutes and more. Take up room. I want my friends who also happen to be parents, well, I want their writing in the world. I’m greedy for their words, talents, and brains.
Who benefits from women and femmes' exhaustion, labor, and time crunch? We know who.
APC: Speaking of working against the norm, here’s our next challenge.
Write down something that you have done or imagined doing (with your written work) that you think are "not normal," "deviant" or "sick."
MF: Not writing poems about identity. Wanting to just be able to write love poems where I don’t have to respond to the zeitgeist. Where I don’t have to bleed on the page for people to think the poem is profound.
APC: I already confessed that writing to my soul makes me feel like a degenerate. But maybe it is the shameful bit that makes me feel this way. I should have been doing this all along—less footnotes and marginalia, less social conscience and political or professional or ideological ambition. Less needing to have public value or something. Wishing I could bring flowers—like I do “in real life.” Show up with a bottle of wine. Seriously, why can’t I just bring flowers to every poem and tell you that I love you? Why can’t I write all my poems on pink paper with an old Reed typewriter and give them to people I actually have poetry crushes on? I guess both of us being burdened by reception and zeitgeist leads well to my next question.
Seriously, why can’t I just bring flowers to every poem and tell you that I love you?
*How do you feel about public vs. private sex writing?
MF: All writing is both public and interior.
APC: Yes. Next, we have an exercise about boundaries.
*Exercise: Boundaries and Radical Acceptance
Name a situation [in your writing] that requires you to set a boundary. Perhaps you are hesitant to set this limit, or wishy-washy about its enforcement. Imagine engaging in a creative conversation where your boundary becomes the starting point for a [literary] ecstatic solution.
MF: I try to be fair to my beloveds. I try to be fairer to them than to me, but also, the poem is not a jury.
APC: I like that. The boundary being that, if you include your real-life people in your work, you have to be fair to them, give them their due, their complexity, even more so than you do for yourself. But also give yourself permission—the poem is “not a jury.” This idea would probably materialize in the ecstatic solution I discovered in the wake of watching Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer” on the case of Kabou. The solution was for me to cry in the alley in the near-blizzard conditions of Montréal, thinking about radical maternities and matricide and how we are our own executioners, of course, as writers and how harrowing that all is in so-called “truth-telling.” It floored me. I’m likely going to cry again just thinking about it.
I try to be fair to my beloveds. I try to be fairer to them than to me, but also, the poem is not a jury.
*Exercise: Finding your [Literary] values
And I’m going to suggest that everyone, all you readers, do this. On your own. And then share your notes with someone you value, too. Someone you value as much as I do Megan.
Step One: Open your notebook to a blank page. Answer the following question: Who are / what is really important to me [in a book]? Don’t think too hard. Look around – what’s on your bookshelves, recent google searches, on your syllabi. Write down 6 answers. (One-word answers, preferably.)
Comic relief but amidst some ruin
Slow to shame
Books that have multiple temporal dimensions
Someone who doesn’t know why they do what they do
Step Two: Let's say that “Comic relief but amidst some ruin” came as one of your values. Ask yourself (or have a friend ask you):
APC: What does “Comic relief but amidst some ruin” mean to you?
MF: The end of the world but make it funny.
APC: And What does “Slow to shame” mean to you?
MF: Our first instinct should not be evaluation.
APC: And What does “Cities” mean to you?
MF: I love people.
APC: What does “Books that have multiple temporal dimensions” mean to you?
MF: I wish I could live multiple lives.
APC: What does “Japan” mean to you?
MF: There are many ways to live. Many ways to be disappointed. Or broken. Or in love.
APC: What does “Someone who doesn’t know why they do what they do” mean to you?
MF: Redemption is possible.
Step Three: How closely are you [writing] according to your core [literary] values?
MF: Actually, pretty well. My poems are both funny and hard, withhold judgment and apologize for making them, full of city-hopping and time travel and wishes of other ways to be alive and believe, I hope, that we, as a species, are redeemable against all signs that say we are not.
APC: I agree. We are definitely redeemable. “My soul” tells me this every day, during my ten-minute morning writing practice, despite how unforgivable I find myself and, generally, our collective selves to be. Okay so we are going to end on a cliffhanger. We started with turn-ons; we’ll end with page turners.
*Your Erotic Movie Page Turner
Imagine yourself as the character in an erotic scene. You get to define "erotic" any way you like—sexually explicit, intensely romantic or cast with beautiful, leather-clad creatures cracking whips. Please do not judge yourself for your choices.
If I were the lead character in my erotic page turner....
What would the view be? My forearm.
If I could choose anyone, living or dead, who would my lovers be? Meh, too easy.
What sexual activity would I excel at? Any kind of roleplay where I can make you laugh while trying to keep up the parameters of sexiness. The weirder the narrative the better. Like, you’re a geophysical mining engineer and I’m asking you really specific mining questions that I looked up on google before the roleplay started.
What new sexual activity would I try? Would love to be better at tying knots.
What three places would I go that I have never been? Japan, Egypt, Argentina
If I were the lead character in my erotic page turner....
What would the view be? Hot, wet concrete, pool side, siesta vibes. I won’t say exactly where but pretty near Salerno.
If I could choose anyone, living or dead, who would my lovers be? I definitely do not want any dead lovers. Live ones please. Really alive.
What sexual activity would I excel at? I feel like I should be better at talking erotically. Not withhold anything. I would be open and generous and present—things I feel skilled at in life. I like to feel skilled at these things in bed and in writing: good with word choice and timing, what to say, how to say it and when not to. Sharing, being an “open book.”
What new sexual activity would I try? You tell me.
What three places would I go that I have never been? Colombia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka or Mauritius, Kenya, Iran... So many places to go, so many people to see….
*Write down how this exercise made you feel to write. Was it easy or challenging?
MF: It made me feel like some things are too literal and other things, not enough.
APC: That’s very well worded.
*All questions have been inspired/drawn from Ecstasy is Necessary: A practical guide to sex, relationships and oh so much more by Barbara Carrellas.
 Carrellas, Barbara. Ecstasy is Necessary: A Practical Guide. Hay House Inc., 2012.
 Carrellas, Barbara. Ecstasy is Necessary: A Practical Guide. Hay House Inc., 2012.