Listening to ‘Fountain’ by Ari Banias & other poems

I’m not convinced that the knee surgery I had just before Christmas to treat a meniscus tear has completely worked. There is still quite a lot of pain (which wakes me up at night) but I think the pain is better than it was before. Anyway, bla bla bla, health issues. I’m alive! And one thing that is helping, because it’s building up my quad muscles which support my knees, is cycling on my static bicycle, which is something I try to do most days. But it’s pretty boring so – alleluia – thank goodness for radio programmes and podcasts.

My trusty static bike. O, the distances we travel, the places we go!

I really like Poetry magazine’s podcasts, when the editors talk about a few of the poems from that month’s issue.  The podcasts include a recording of the poet reading their poem, as well.  There are currently 230 podcasts to listen to so I am truly spoiled for choice.  I listen via my phone and a bluetooth speaker (one of the best Christmas presents from Andrew, my husband, in recent years).

The first one I listened to this week was the editors discussing the poem ‘Fountain’ by Ari Banias which appeared in the October 2018 issue of Poetry magazine.  You can listen to the podcast, which lasts about 13 minutes, here.

I’d never heard of Ari Banias before and never heard of the poem – which you can read here.  I chose it because I like the word ‘Fountain’ and I also like fountains, there’s something cheerful and lively about them although, thinking about it, perhaps they waste a lot of water?  Anyway, without ever having read the poem and knowing nothing about it, I started cycling and listening.

The first thing I noticed and liked about ‘Fountain’ is the breath of the poem, if you understand what I mean.  It seems composed of short lines, or lines of unequal lengths, and short thoughts, as opposed to longer thoughts and sentences.  The poem has a fragmentary, breathless feel.  I found the poem interesting, I wanted to keep listening, to know what was happening and what the poem’s speaker was doing/thinking, although it starts off as simply someone sitting by a fountain in Paris and describing what they see.  In the short preamble before we hear ‘Fountain’ read, the editors and the poet explain that the poem captures some of Banias’ observations while he was living in Paris for a few months.  He aimed to pay close attention to close details, it was explained, but also to notice what was happening next to famous sights and landmarks.

My ears pricked up at these comments because I’m interested in getting better at writing about place.  True to his word, the poet does observe small details about what is happening next to the famous landmark ie: “When the language teacher talks about le capitalisme: / the gesture of three fingers rubbing imaginary fabric” and “Across the courtyard, this T-shirt on a hanger out the window / turns in the light breeze as if trying to look behind itself.” The poet also tells us about himself – “I’m a tourist, vulnerable and stupid, / my legs showing, shoes practical, face red.” and later “I’m consumed with not knowing where to buy paper, safety pins, stamps.”

If the poet was only writing about what he saw, however beautiful that was/is, the poem would struggle not to be boring.  Discussing the poem afterwards, the editors talk about this:

In order to succeed at writing this kind of poem, you have to be as interesting as your surroundings… in other words, it won’t do to simply scribble things down you see in Paris or someplace… in this poem, the poet seems really alive… you have an obligation to be present, to be alive of what you’re part of…

What works beautifully in this poem, I think, is the way the poet blends his external observations with his internal thoughts, cutting back and forth between the two.  I can’t quite make out if he is alone or with someone else (a lover) or if the lover is someone he’s talking to on his phone.  Either way, the interactions he has with his friend/lover at the same time as he observes what he sees by the fountain, make the poem more interesting to me, rather like the poet who is more interested in the human life around the famous surroundings than the places themselves: “The shoulders and elbows of people in the museum evoke more reaction / in me than most of the paintings.”

The poem is laid out in single lines, as if each line is its own stanza.  The ‘breath’ of the poem reminded me of Amy Key’s poem ‘Lousy with unfuckedness, I dream’ which is in the January 2018 issue of Poetry and also, from the same issue, Jennifer Givhan’s poem ‘I am dark, I am forest’.  It also has echoes, in terms of how it sounds, how it is constructed, to another poem I listened to while cycling, ‘Main Na Bhoolunga‘ by Fatimah Asghar.  The poems are all different to each other, and laid out differently, too, but perhaps what they have in common is their inclusion of conflicting threads of thought and ideas going on in the heads of the poems’ speakers.

I’m keeping a twitter thread of what I’m listening to while I cycle if you’re interested.  I’ll also add some more details on this blog in future posts.

Meanwhile, here’s a photo of my family walking in a park during one of our visits to Paris five years ago, a life time away!

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