Interview by Elinor Nauen
Cliff Fyman has been around the Poetry Project for close to four decades, a quiet, athletic presence who has been known to juggle while reciting his work. Which was excellent, but somehow he was quietly overlooked.
Not any more. Cliff has produced one of the most exciting books I’ve read in ages. It’s shocking to discover that Taxi Night is his first full-length book. It consists of transcriptions of conversations, (seemingly) without artifice or flourish, with some of the people who rode in his taxi when he was driving, from 2012 to 2017.
What’s remarkable is that he doesn’t exactly star in his own book. For example, a young man who wants to make Cliff over to appeal to the ladies says, “I’m going to get you a good haircut/ and then/ off with those grandpa glasses/ for the photo shoot./ Put them back on now because you’re driving.” I’m not surprised that Barbara Henning resurrected Long News Books in order to publish Taxi Night.
Cliff and I spoke on the phone, him sitting at his kitchen table, on a hot July day.
Boog City: This is your first book! How is that possible?
Cliff Fyman: I shied away from publishing for a long time. I was happy writing and submitting the poems to magazines, but found it hard to commit to a volume. I kept trying to put books together but couldn’t come up with one that represented my work as I wanted to see it.
Also, I felt very private in my writing growing up. It was very intimate to write, which I did as a young teen then with total commitment starting at age 20. I would have an inspiration from a word or experience, I’d go into myself, and a poem would start happening. It was white heat, almost mystical, to focus on a poem that was happening. Once every three or four months I’d have that intense experience. When I came to the Poetry Project in the fall of 1978, I soon met Michael Scholnick, and in 1981 his Misty Terrace Press published a chapbook, Stormy Heaven. It got a nice reaction, but once everyone had read it, I felt like my private cave had been exposed, and I had a hard time writing for a while.
It seems that you’re an “overnight success” at 60-something. What’s that feel like?
I don’t mind that phrase. I’ve gotten some wonderful responses from people I love and admire. I’m glad I didn’t publish the book too soon, and people are glad that I’ve taken this step. I didn’t feel neglected or overlooked. It was my choice, it’s how I felt comfortable. I just knew that if I wanted recognition, it comes by way of a book. Now I have a book to represent myself.
You do describe it in the afterword, but could you talk about the editing process?
I didn’t have a 150-page manuscript that I whittled down to 106 pages. It didn’t happen like that. I started writing the poems down. I had a lot more than I needed and would pick out the best for a reading, and I didn’t know if I’d use the rest. I didn’t know how many would be useful to me. Sometimes a whole poem wasn’t interesting, but I realized I could pull out two or three lines and they made a rhythm that was interesting and that I could use. One line out of a stack made the whole thing useful to me.
You mention Joe Brainard, Gary Snyder, and Bernadette Mayer. I hear William Carlos Williams. Without sounding like Williams, I feel like you’ve absorbed his ability to be compelling yet unadorned. Is he an influence? Who else?
I didn’t think about Williams at this point, but I thought about him a lot in my early 20s. I read him and went through a door he opened. The vernacular, the colloquial, was very important and natural to me, even as a teenager. He gave me the strength to do it that way. Kerouac similarly, his voice was very familiar. As I went along, I felt freer with line breaks, shapes on the page; that comes from Williams probably
Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Whitman, the Beats. Something Ted Berrigan once said to me, that a long and dense autobiographical prose piece I had published was, more or less, “hard driving and didn’t have enough air in it.” You know, he said, when Bob Dylan writes a song, he has drums going on over here, guitar, tambourine over there. He has all these different sounds when he makes a song. That was all he said but I got the message about having a variety, to approach from lots of different directions.
In this book, all the voices and different people, it rang a bell to what Ted was pointing at. I realized it was working out because it was different sounds that were bouncing off each other, different people, with this problem or that happiness, and they started to grow together. Everyone had a different music that was blending together.
The cover is gorgeous—your own artwork.
I wanted to do the cover myself because I didn’t want taxi imagery. A designer would probably make it a little humorous. I wanted to shift it from taxi to oral poetry. Passengers were saying serious things and I didn’t want it too zany.
I suspect you have no intention to do a sequel. Or do you? What would that look like?
Now that I’ve broken the ice, I look forward to another book, not a sequel. I’m editing, in no particular order, unfinished manuscripts from the past.
I also draw and sometimes paint. The 9th Street Café, down the block from where I live, is planning to show my new drawings from October 21–December 2, 2021. It will be my first-ever art exhibit.
I want to be involved in the community, see my poet friends, feel creative, work, absorb, learn, read. Be active as a poet.
ELINOR NAUEN (ElinorNauen.com), who once threw out the first pitch at a St. Paul Saints game, is an honorary lifetime member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.