Interview: S. Fey, Author of Decompose

Interview by Binx Perino.

In preparation for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2024 Annual Conference, I organized a poetry reading to benefit Kansas City based mutual aid groups called “Solidarity Forever.” When organizing this reading, I was connected to poet S. Fey. Hearing Fey’s work was a blessing and I needed to expand his reach. Fey has a debut collection out now with Not a Cult Press titled Decompose. Currently the poetry editor of Hooligan Magazine and co-creative director at Rock Pocket Productions, S. Fey is a trans writer living in Los Angeles. Fey’s work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Poet Lore, The Sonora Review, The Offing, and others. His poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net anthology, and his short films have been nominated for Best Screenplay at the Urbana Film Festival, and Best Short Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival. 

Congratulations on your debut collection! How does it feel?

I sort of have an answer now, though, at certain points, I haven’t. For a really long time, it felt like time was moving faster than I was. I hadn’t fully grasped that I even had a book out. It’s been 10 years in the making, so it feels surreal. I did two things to help with this. Two weeks after I received my copies, I was still feeling nothing, like totally numb, so I was like, “What if I read the book?” I did and realized how proud I was. It’s the best work that I could’ve done at the time. I think, no matter how much time goes by, I’ll always have that fact. This was the best I could do at that time and I’m proud of it. Also, I think enough time has passed. It’s a month since it’s been out. I think I’m starting to wrap my head around it. I’m really happy.

What has the reception been like?

I think it's great. I’m not sure. I’m not sure exactly how to gauge that. The book is out there, right? But I don’t really know what happens when someone I don’t know picks it up at a bookstore. I don’t know who is reading a poem and that it’s really touching them. From the people who have reached out to me, they’ve said they love it a lot. They read it in one sitting and everyone has different favorite poems. It’s cool to see who likes which poem. It’s like those two friends that you see at a party and you didn’t think that they would hit it off, but they do and it makes sense, now, in hindsight. I always feel that way when people tell me what their favorite poem was. It usually surprises me and it’s not what I would expect.

You said that this took you 10 years to complete. Could you take me back to when the moment the idea for Decompose came to you?

I was 20 years old and I had been working on poems that ended up in this collection. I was in school in Urbana-Champaign and walking around when the idea for the collection came to me. I knew that the collection was going to be called “Decompose” and I knew that it would come together one day. That was then followed by 10 years of doubt. At times, I thought it would be a chapbook, but then I thought it should be a full-length book. I went back and forth on the title. Two years ago, I decided that it would be a full-length book called Decompose, and it would come out at some point.

Were there different versions of your manuscript when you were planning for a chapbook? Tell me about that process.

I did try to plan for a chapbook twice. What I found was that I had enough material that fit into Decompose that made it long enough to be a full-length. It feels like it was meant to be a full-length collection. It wasn’t until about six months after I was supposed to stop adding poems to the collection that I transitioned into the voice of my second book. There were so many poems that fit. Not all of them made it, of course, but it had to be a full-length.

While you were working on this collection, were you listening to anything, reading or watching anything for inspiration? What was speaking to you at that time?

Decompose, by S. Fey

A lot of music influenced the book. Music is so important to me. I make many playlists that I listen to all day long. That has been a big influence. And it’s a lot of different kinds of music because it’s been 10 years. I do have a playlist of classical music that I made for the Decompose chapbook, which I haven’t deleted. I haven’t listened to see if it fits the full-length, but I think it may be too somber. Mitski influenced this book a lot. Reading wise, I was reading so much. Some of my biggest poetry influences are Dianne Suess, Richard Siken, Khadijah Queen, Anne Carson, Danez Smith, Aimee Nezhukumatatil. I read constantly, every day, one to two hours a day, so there’s definitely been a lot. I read between 20 to 50 books a year. I always think about poems as puzzle pieces in the world. You never know what’s going to become a piece of the poem, so I try to stay open to inspiration wherever it may come from.

Something that I pay attention to is how poetry collections are organized. You didn’t add section breaks between poems, you just went from beginning to end. I’m interested in the thought-process behind that choice. Did you consider sectioning the collection? 

It did originally have three sections and each section had two epigraphs. Including the two at the beginning, I had eight total epigraphs in the collection. My editor was like, “Okay, which two would you pick if you only had two?” The ones at the very beginning were the ones I chose. What’s funny is that I’m working on a Decompose album, which will be released next month and that album is in three parts. The album has more of the shape that the original draft of the collection had. This collection originally didn’t feel like the reader was being guided through each section with a lantern or a hand. Due to the tarot influence in the book, my editor had asked, “If this book was anything, what would it be?” And I said, “A tarot card.” She asked which one, and I said the Death card. She asked if it could be a tarot card that didn’t already exist, and I made up a card called the Footstep card. The Footstep card goes between Death and Temperance. Death being what you have to give up and let die in order to move forward and Temperance being a reconnection to your path, stepping into yourself again. So the Footstep card is right in between where you feel like you’re dying, but you’re not, and you just have to take one more step. One step at a time, you will reach Temperance. With that in mind, I took all the poems in the book and picked them based on whether they would fit with the Death card, the Footstep card, and the Temperance card. The book goes Footstep, Temperance, Death, Footstep, Temperance, Death, etc. There are a few places where we take more than one step because I had the most Footstep card poems, but I think that speaks to how this collection is the Footstep card as a whole.

That’s a cool way of thinking about it. I like the connection between tarot and poetry. One poem that I was really drawn to was “Edwin Says I Deserve to Be Loved with Precision.” I’d love to know more about that poem, like its journey and where it came from and how it became what it is.

I love that people love this poem. I think it’s been such an important lesson to me. This one in particular came out of a break up. My friend Edwin, after only telling them that things had ended, texted me saying, “You deserve to be loved with precision.” I don’t think they meant it to be as profound as it ended up being, but it was. It changed my life and the way I think about love. That was the last piece of the puzzle I needed for this poem and I connected it immediately to a time where I was making my best friend Nick a smoothie. He counts all his macros, so I had to measure everything. Nick explained to me how a tablespoon wasn’t a precise measurement.

How a tablespoon of water and a tablespoon of flour weigh different amounts. I thought about how I’d never been loved like that, where there was such precision to know the exact amount down to two decimal points. That was a discovery I made on the page, though. I came to the page with Edwin’s text and that moment with Nick. I discovered on the page that, “When I’m loved with precision, I will know the weight of it.”

I also noticed a form throughout the collection. Multiple poems have this unique form, where there are two stanzas and each one has their own little subtitle. I’m wondering if there’s a name for that form and where it came from? Was this your invention?

It is my form, I call it Both Sides of the Coin. I kept writing two-part prose poems that needed enough space for the reader to have a breath. I kept writing these prose poems and breaking them in half almost with Roman numerals I and II. The form sort of came from the fact that I always flip coins with my friends. People think about both sides of a coin as opposites, but I think about the fact that it’s still one coin. Also, I don’t read reversals in tarot because I don’t think that it means anything different. It’s the same card, it just has a shadow side and a light side and they can both be true and happening at the same time. On top of that, I’ve been in therapy for over 10 years and I’ve learned that underneath anger is usually something like fear or pain. I think that whenever I feel something intensely, I try to get to the root cause. This all plays into the form because it’s the surface and the root, the shadow side and the light side. 

I was also curious about the speaker of the collection. Would you say it’s one autobiographical speaker? 

For the most part, yes. Although, I do like to think of poems as portals. Kimiko Han says that the poem is a portal. These speakers aren’t me necessarily, but some versions of myself that stepped through a portal and into a place. All the poems are from the same speaker except for one. It’s a persona poem, but one could argue that it’s the same speaker taking on a persona. I will say that, as some people like to say in memes, “It’s me, hi, I’m the speaker, it’s me.”

I also noticed that water comes up frequently throughout your collection. I thought that was interesting because you’re from Chicago and now you’re in LA. I’m curious if the role of water is doing something in the collection, like if there’s a relationship with place there.

A lot of these poems were written in Chicago and then some after my move to LA, reflecting on my time in Chicago. I never really thought about water being a theme in the collection. Now that you’ve pointed it out, you’re very right. It shows up a lot because of the idea of decomposing, rotting, dying, so that more fertile soil can exist. The growing seed needs water and it’s a necessary part of life. I’m thinking of it particularly in my poem Unclean, the transformative and cleansing power of water. Thank you for that observation. 

Since the release of Decompose, have you revised any of the work that’s in it? Are you moving onto other work?

That’s a good question. I’ve left it. I think this collection marked a time that I needed to move from. I sat at my altar the day of my first launch with the book in my hands and said, “Okay, this is it. I release you. You don’t belong to me anymore, you belong to the world.” I have released all of these poems. I think it’s important to let go. As creators and as writers, we’re always going to be improving and changing. These poems aren’t even my voice anymore. I will never be that person again. I’ve moved into a new voice and I’m not trying to go back to my old voice. It’s still me, but I’m not going to go back in time to conform old poems into this new lens. I like the lens that this collection is in. From here on, when I grow, it’s towards something else and I can leave this work where it is.

Speaking of moving on to new things, you mentioned a second book earlier. What’s in the works?

I’m working on two books, actually. One is a craft memoir, which is half craft book and half memoir. It brings the two together; ideas on how to write and how I survived. It’s not how to write for everyone, but it brings a connection between my life experiences and my writing life. The other is a second collection of poetry which is going to be called Nuclear. It’s an exploration of the nuclear family and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Those two books are happening, so it’ll be a slow process. I’m still very much still celebrating the release of Decompose

That’s awesome. Yes, you have a book tour! You’re going to a lot of different places, including Chicago. Did you start the tour yet? When will you be here?

I started in Cambridge, Providence, New York City, and Northampton. That was the east-coast leg of the tour. I’m getting ready for the midwest part. I will do some stuff on the west-coast, but it depends on how exhausted I am. In Chicago, I will be at Women and Children First in Andersonville on May 22, and the Chicago Athletic Association on the 25th. That one will also be the Hooligan launch party, so we will have a party following it. The one in Andersonville will be a conversation and I’ll be with some amazing poets and other Chicagoans. I’m so excited. I think that Decompose will feel so much more real when I can celebrate it where I’m from. 

You can order Decompose from Not a Cult Press

You can catch S. Fey at Women and Children First on May 22, and the Chicago Athletic Association on May 25.

Binx River Perino is a poet and activist from Texas. He holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and his work has appeared in Door is a Jar, Beyond Queer Words, Variant Literature, and elsewhere. Based in Chicago, he has been a frequent guest reader for new words {press} and occasional contributor for Third Coast Review. 

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