Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: This book is a beautiful meditation on gender expression as deception, threat, protection, absolution, violence, and condemnation. Please tell us about the process of researching and choosing these specific stories to tell. Why was it important for you to tell these stories?
Fox Frazier-Foley: Thank you so much for your kind words about my work, Sarah. I’m honored to be having a conversation with you—about my work, and about feminism, theology, and myth.
On some level, the poems in Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned had probably been building in me my entire life: I grew up hearing and reading a lot of the Catholic and Christian stories and mythologies, including several different versions of the Bible. And I don’t mean any disrespect by calling them mythologies; I mean that they are stories that try to tell us something about the world, through literary world-building. And then, as I got older, I read the treatises of Church scholars like Aquinas and Augustine. I read the letters of Abelard and Heloise.
Smash cut to a couple decades later: me, sick with the flu, miserably bored, hunting on Netflix and Hulu (etc.) for a documentary about Joan of Arc. I never did find it, but I stumbled upon a documentary about Pope Joan. I had never heard of her before. She was gendered female by the society into which she was born, and—depending on which version of the story you read—either chose to live as a man because she felt it a more accurate reflection of her identity, or simply disguised herself as a man with the specific goal of becoming a Church leader. All versions of the story convey that she did indeed “pass” for a man, and ultimately was elected Pope. And then, different narratives give different stories about her downfall and how her anatomy was revealed. Often, it’s through something like getting her period or having a baby in a public place—which I think, really, reveals the anxiety and fear that certain types of men felt (and continue to feel) with regard to the cis-female body and its power.
I was really irritated and disturbed by the eagerness with which the Church historians in the documentary all scrambled to reassure viewers that Pope Joan never existed. After a point, it stopped irritating me and began to infuriate me. These people believe in all sorts of other narratives that can’t possibly be verified—raising of the dead on multiple occasions, miraculously healing people with serious illnesses and physical afflictions, the parting of the Red Sea—but if we entertain the possibility that someone who was not considered a man did something brave and interesting and ambitious, suddenly the g-ddamn sky is falling? Really? Why is that so far-fetched? Who gains from the dismissal or suppression of these narratives?
So, I began a book of epistolary poetry about Pope Joan, her life, and her mythology. As I originally conceived of the manuscript, it included “lost letters” between Abelard and Heloise, arguing about the meaning and significance of her story. I hope that someday I might have the time and energy to come back to that and really think it through well enough to create a full-length work. I’ve also been working on a separate, but related, chapbook or pamphlet called Hosanna in Excelsis: How to Pray the Rosary Like A Feminist, which I’ve been taking a break from but might be about to come back to. Maybe someday these moving parts will come together into a greater whole, like a full-length book? I’m not sure.
But in the process of trying to further educate myself about Pope Joan—looking for scholarship about her narrative(s)—I came across the mythologies of these Saints. And, of course, just like Pope Joan, many of them have had their stories dismissed by Church historians as “romantic fictions.” I was so disgusted by that. The erasure of these stories, whether they are verifiable or not—whether they are trueor not—is a very specific type of oppression. It spans more centuries than I would care to think about. But I have to think about it because if I don’t think about it, I can’t try to undo all those centuries’ worth of damage and silencing. And that is the origin of Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned.
I do want to say that it was important for me to tell these stories in order to honor the stories themselves, the individuals who lived them, and everyone who ever needed to hear these stories but was denied the opportunity to hear them. And, as I was writing, I had to remind myself a lot that the vitae, folk stories, and cult narratives around each Saint—have already been so heavily edited and manipulated, for hundreds of years. I wanted to undo the damage I perceived, as best I could. So, these are the stories I wish I had been told growing up when I was being told stories from Christian mythology. To me, they fall into the same vein as “Anne with an E” and “Lizzie” and “Ophelia”—they’re the stories that make sense to me, the stories I’ve been waiting my entire life for someone to please tell me.
SM: Most of the Saints in this work meet barbaric endings. These gender-nonconforming people suffered extensively at the hands of men under the guise of protection or purity. What are your thoughts about fate? As I read, I kept coming back to the idea of death as devotion. What purpose does prayer have in these poems? Do you think these women feel God’s love? Is there space for the expression of God’s love in this landscape?
FFF: Well, of course, I can’t really speak for another person’s experience of God or God’s love. If I were to guess, however, my best guess would be that most or all of them did feel God’s love. I feel that most of them died because they insisted on creating a landscape for themselves in which they had a direct connection to God and to God’s perfect love. Because, to me, part of what God’s love does is it removes fear. In many cases, I think God’s love allows us to authentically be ourselves, to step fully into all parts of who we are, and to shuck the parts that do not serve us well spiritually.
And, frankly, I can’t imagine another motivation for these Saints to defy social norms the way they did, knowing what was coming to them. I can’t imagine what else would spark that kind of courage and devotion unless it was a wild and holy love. I suppose you could argue that it was simply love for themselves and determination to live on their own terms—to me, though, that is bound up with God’s love for us and with our love for God.
I do think that death can certainly be a form of devotion. I am grateful that it is not the only form of devotion open to me to express my love for God (or for myself), of course. But for the Saints that I’m writing about—I think death is a form of devotion to God and a form of devotion to themselves, to their true identities. There’s certainly an admirable purity to that. I don’t think that I necessarily would make the same choices. But, at the same time, before I had my daughter, I didn’t always feel very attached to this world. Once, years ago—I don’t remember what precipitated it—I said to my husband, “I think this world is one of the worst places I’ve ever been. I don’t think I’m coming back here again.” I didn’t really realize what I had said until the words were out of my mouth. And then I thought, Well, that’s probably true. So I can understand why someone could feel more attached to their own identity, their own spirit, and their own relationship with God than they do to this world.
I’m not sure how to explain my ideas about fate. I think partly that we construct our own fates, and I think we do it both consciously and subconsciously. But there are also elements to this world such as chance and circumstance. And, I do think that there are other forces at work—for example, sometimes, no matter how hard you try to do or to not do something, and circumstances and chance seem to line up the way you’d want them to—sometimes, despite all that, certain events seem bound and determined to happen or not happen, despite your best efforts. That’s my experience. I think my idea of fate is sort of a confluence of all those forces. I was actually thinking the other morning of trying to write a novel about it. I was imagining a plot-line that would span multiple lifetimes, and the same small group of souls, mostly in human bodies, would think during each lifetime that they were overcoming fate or creating their own destinies. But, in actuality, from the bird’s-eye view of the reader, we’d understand that not only are they creating their own fates in total harmony with the universe, but they’re also further entrenching certain desires and expectations within themselves—conditioning themselves to pursue similar “fates” in their next lives. And then, by the end, they’ve all sort of outgrown each other, and they remain bound in certain dynamics that aren’t necessarily serving them anymore. And, one or two of them actually think, “Well, this is our fate—we’re powerless to resist it,” and of course that’s the moment at which we realize that now they’re actually sort of going against the fabric of the universe, that this really isn’t their fate but a trap that they’re creating for themselves. [laughs] A romantic fiction, if you will.
Anyway, I don’t know how helpful an answer this part really is, but I do think it’s interesting to think about. And I do like the idea of writing that novel, someday.
SM: There are only a few women in Like Ash who escape brutally violent ends. I’m thinking specifically about Saint Matrona, who was rejected as a man and founded a new community of monastic women, and of Saint Athanasia, who after the loss of her children silently shared an identity with her husband. These Saints have accessed an agency within themselves that was unprecedented and certainly unexpected among their contemporaries. What can you tell us about the conventions of agency and responsibility?
FFF: I do think that when you are dealing with systemic oppression of any kind, then, yes, having a certain amount of agency does also provide you with a sense of responsibility. You have to use your agency responsibly if you can. I think St. Matrona might be an example of this because when her agency as a leader was recognized by the institution of the Church, she was able to use that agency to help other women realize their own power, their own ability to be and do and make and build things. St. Athanasia wasn’t recognized on this scale, or in this way. She was allowed to be sort of invisible, which is agency but also erasure. Even her husband didn’t recognize her, after so many years, until after she died, and some of her writings revealed her identity. I think for her, maybe the sense of companionship and closeness she was able to achieve with her partner was something important. I don’t know that it afforded her more personal agency than someone like St. Pelagia, who eventually died alone by choice. Of course, she had more agency in some ways that someone like St. Uncumber, who was murdered, but—also, maybe not really. She didn’t defy the patriarchy in quite the same ways that someone like St. Uncumber did. She was a wife and a mother first before she became other things. So—I think in some ways she’s more of a grey area. Even in her independence, there is still a sense of a union with her spouse, too. I don’t know. I do love her story, though. I love that their connection and their friendship was so deep and steady, more so than their marriage or courtship. With gender dynamics being what they are, maybe that represents a kind of agency, too, sometimes, because we are conditioned to expect certain types of inequity in marriage that we are not conditioned to expect in a friendship or spiritual partnership.
SM: I was continuously drawn to the cadence of your spacing. The ample and appropriately timed blank spaces provided vital relief and pause to be able to inhabit the narrative of Saints like Saint Pelagia, whose story is revisited and returned to as an anchor throughout the work. How do you want your readers to be impacted by these choices?
FFF: Thank you so much for saying that! I do think of my use of white space as rhythmic, and as a kind of visual meter—but I also often think of it as a form of emotional punctuation. One you experience on a physical level as much as a mental level.
As for St. Pelagia, I wanted to give the process of her conversion and transformation, and the struggles contained therein, some parallels with the Stations of the Cross. That’s why it’s structured the way it is. Because her journey, ultimately, was also to her death. And, she had to discard a lot of herself along the way. I thought the sensory details of that would probably be important to her and for her. She was a performer and a courtesan—someone who initially experienced the world through a lens of physical comfort and indulgence. Later, she begins to consider all of that unnecessary artifice a hindrance to her spiritual growth—she eventually even discards her body. I just felt it would be an intensely physical experience with physical challenges and physical thrills just as much as spiritual ones.
SM: In the first poem about Saint Pelagia you write, “who will speak of our scars?” What role does inclusive feminism play in your work as a writer and an editor?
FFF: I think a foundational role—my values aren’t really something I try to write about, per se, but they’re part of the mind, body, and spirit from which my work originates. And I mean all of my work—my writing, my editing and curating, my other forms of labor in my other communities that are not related to writing.
SM: What are you working on now? What can we hope to see from you in the future?
FFF: I’ve been working on an essay about the mass shooting that happened in my hometown in 2009. I vacillate between thinking that I will finish it (it’s about half-done) and thinking that it’s just too hard and I should throw it away and spend my rare moments of free time doing something more pleasant, taking better care of myself. That may sound negative to some people, but the truth is that the first year of motherhood has been both joyous and challenging for me, especially since I had Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) during my entire pregnancy and then a C-section delivery. My body had already been through a lot and was trying to repair a lot of damage when I was launched into the first six months without any sleep. You know? So, now, I’m exhausted all the time. And when I finally do get an hour or two to myself—which is rare—the truth is that it’s often difficult to spend it sorting through really horrifying subject matter. At the end of that rare free time, when I’ve been trying to write about this, I feel even more drained, rather than rejuvenated. So, I’ve been thinking of stopping. But I haven’t stopped yet; I have been writing this essay in hopes of contributing a voice and a perspective to the public conversation about American violence that I think are both lacking and necessary. But in some ways, it’s also a thankless task to try to contribute to a conversation like that, especially when you know that no one who publishes your work is going to compensate you for it in any way. And sometimes I think I might do better to use my rare moments of free time to take a nap, or have a drink with a friend, or get my nails done, or something. I guess we’ll see! It is halfway done. I do think I have things I’d like to say. I don’t know. We’ll see. You know? We’ll see.
I’m also working, pretty sporadically, on two poetry manuscripts: Let Me Wring Your Heart: Love/Hate Poems for the Vulnerable Troubled Genius Boy, that interrogates that American literary/cinematic/cultural trope from the 1990s that was, like, Ethan Hawke on a motorcycle quoting Shakespeare and making women cryswoon while he smoked a cigarette. I think of the VTGB as the counterpart to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and, probably, the author of the MPDG, too). I keep joking with friends that I intend for it to be the best-beach-read-bar-none of 2020. But I think it may also offer some insights. I’d like it to do that thing Horace said all poetry should do—both delight and instruct. Anyway, I’d have to finish it first.
The other book of poetry I’m slowly writing is called Alive in Every Version of the Story, and it’s about sentient aquatic creatures who are shape-shifters, and essentially mermaids, but who find our mythologies about "sirens" to be reductive, inaccurate, and wildly offensive. And the polar ice caps are melting, and there's plastic piling up in whale and bird bellies, and there's oil constantly leaking into the ocean, and mangroves and coral reefs and bioluminescent bays are disappearing because humans just keep inflicting all this damage, relentlessly. We really are relentless in all that we destroy. Anyway, these aquatic beings get to the point where they decide humans are an invasive species and they decide to rid planet Earth of this scourge before it's too late. They call their ensuing battles against humans the Water Wars. I think it's eco-poetry, really, but deeply mythological in its presentation. I had a dream right before I got pregnant with my daughter about the end of the world—that dream is probably going to be the ending of this book. If I finish it!
I’m also working on a long-form journalism project about violent crime in upstate New York, titled Carousel. I started writing that a few months ago, and in some ways, it’s probably the project to which I feel most committed. It contains a lot of reportage, but on a more conceptual level, it's about how trauma can infect a place and its energies—and then, in turn, infect the identities, mindsets, and actions of the people who live there. What do you do with a place so damaged that you can't cleanse it effectively? What do you do when you encounter a group of people who can't be saved from themselves and their own worst impulses? And, in that situation, how do you save yourself?