Both Sides of the Coin: A Conversation with Séamus Isaac Fey and Rob Macaisa Colgate

by Jun 10, 2024Interviews

Rob Macaisa Colgate: Before we talk about your wonderful book— what’s up?

Séamus Isaac Fey: I am between legs of my tour, which has been so exciting and so exhausting in a different way than I expected. It’s traveling plus being at 100 all the time. And I’ve been visiting and staying and reading with friends, which has been lovely, but has also meant that I haven’t actually had like one-on-one time with myself. But I’m really so blessed; my friends are the coolest, most talented, kindest, most real people. I’ve gotten to read with Sarah Ghazal Ali, Shelley Wong, Carmen Maria Machado, Chessy Normile, Natasha Oladokun, Patrycja Humienik.


RMC: So many fabulous names! And all supporting this new book. My reading experience of the collection was defined by the singular, sustained voice. Can you talk about how these poems coalesced? 

SIF: Have you seen the meme that says “finaldraft.docx (final) (5)(6)(7)?” That’s very accurate for decompose. The book came together over the past ten years. It has been a beautiful journey. So many moments of doubt, but a lot of friends along the way have helped— Rita Mookerjee and Belinda Munyeza immediately come to mind. I had three incredible editors: Shira Ehrlichman, my main editor, as well as Taylor Byas and Dia Roth. Those three helped me to find the book within the book, to excavate then listen carefully to for a heartbeat.

One thing I’m grateful for is that the speaker’s voice is authentically myself. As long as I stay with the poem listening for its heartbeat, I stay connected to the voice. There is work that I have to do to not get in my own way, to attend to the poem and not the ego, while at the same time being myself on the page.

It did feel particularly difficult to find the book within the book— I’ve written quite a lot of poems in the past 10 years. For a while I thought the title might be wrong. But Belinda had read an early draft of the book four or five years ago. When I asked her about titles on a Zoom call, she said, “it’s still decompose.” 

I think I needed to grow as a person for this book. The book itself asks what must you give up and let die in order to become a new version of yourself? I don’t believe we have any one coming of age. I believe we have so many. I have so many. I needed to go through ten or fifteen more before the book could come out. At the end, it was just a fortunate confluence of events that came together for the book to finally happen. 


RMC: I’m interested in the craft of an individual poem. How does that tend to work for you?

SIF: I was telling the poet Dare Williams that I feel like I encounter poems out in the wild, or even just pieces of them. Then, at some point, I find the last piece. 

While I’m living my life I don’t think that I’m collecting pieces of poems. In the poem “I’m not mad,” there is a piece I collected when I was six years old on the swing set in my backyard. I was just six years old on the swing set— I didn’t think I was collecting a piece of a poem. Then, one day, I was walking through my neighborhood and saw these two black cats I always see, and the last piece clicked into place. I literally ran home so I could write the poem because it was so loud.

Often I’ll get a poem stuck in my throat and won’t know when it will come out. I used to get so afraid and try write down whatever lines I could remember. Now I realize that when the last piece falls into place, I’ll know. It’s unmistakable. I try to get out of my own way. I say to the poem: “I’m here with you. Are you here with me?”

I think each poem has its own form that it’s meant to fall into. The two-sided form that is present throughout the collection I call both sides of the coin. People tend to think about heads and tails as opposites, but it’s the same coin. I don’t read reversals in Tarot, because I think there’s just a light side and a shadow side to each card, and they both exist at once, even in the same scenario.

A lot of poems in decompose were not in that form initially. They were just prose poems, and then I would discover a moment in the middle of the poem that needed a big break. I’d realize, oh, it’s another coin poem. 


RMC: How do the both sides of the coin poems operate in your head?

SIF:  The form started out as a feeling. When I feel angry, I know the anger is a means to another emotion. A lot of the time it’s fear, or disappointment, or sadness, or not wanting to let something go. I am estranged from my biological family. If you can let your own mom go, you can let anything go. That’s the way I approach the world. I’m also a Scorpio Venus— it’s very intense.

In those poems, the first stanza operates as a sort of disbelief, an immediate emotional reaction on the surface. The second stanza, then, is what is at the heart. In the poem “Are you coming home?,” the “death” side pertains to the death card, which suggests giving something up and letting it die. The speaker is ready for the fucking rapture. But the temperance side is when you step back into your own shoes and find your path again. That is the other side of the feeling. Yes, I’m gonna burn everything down if you leave. And— of course I’ll drive you.


RMC: Can I ask what your Big 3 are?

SIF: Oh, yeah. Libra sun, Virgo moon, Sagittarius rising.


RMC: Wow! What a spread. I also have a Virgo moon and it runs my whole life.

SIF: I was about to ask! I always say the Virgo moon is scruffing two cats, and the cats are the Libra sun and the Scorpio Venus. And maybe sometimes the Sag’ rising. I do like my Sagittarius placements.


RMC: That’s good for you.

SIF: The shade! 


RMC: I mean, it’s ok. I also have a Taurus sun and Cancer rising.

SIF: How do you think your Cancer rising manifests?


RMC: Well, I’m still a poet. If I were just a Taurus sun and Virgo moon I’d probably be an sickening administrative assistant. Or I would still be working as a fitness instructor. But the Cancer rising makes sure I cry and write poems.

SIF: Good. I actually have a very contentious relationship with Earth signs, Tauruses in particular. But I do have some that I’m very close to. Y’all have a very rich inner life, but it’s very deep inside. People have to earn closeness. I think it’s good to have that protectiveness.


RMC:  Absolutely. Why would I bring my inner life out? It’s cozy in there. But then the Cancer makes me spill everything. Ok, anyway! I want to come back to your poems. 

As I was reading these both sides of the coin poems, I was thinking about the queer and trans experience: how there can be a distinct before and after with regards to coming out or transitioning, yet how there is inherently only one experience because you were always yourself, always queer. As queer people, we experience two definitive sides to a deeply singular experience. That is how I began to read trans poetics into your work— I’m interested in your thoughts on the matter, and whether or not “trans poetics” is something you think about explicitly.

SIF: As queer and trans people, we are constantly told in our youth what is right and wrong, but there is this internal knowledge that there’s a secret third thing, another side of you that people can’t always see. I think similarly, with queer poetics, you must follow your gut. The both sides of the coin form didn’t exist before, and I actually had people be very resistant to it. But I thought, well, I know this is the way. If it serves the poem, then it serves me.

I do think that there is a queerness to form. I think about bell hooks’ definition: “Queer not as being about who you’re having sex with— that can be a dimension of it— but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it, and it has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” In craft, I think, here’s what works for me, and if it gets broken open, well, great. Queer poetics is a cracking open of what we thought we knew. And then all of this space to play pours out.


RMC: Can you say more about your relationships with your poems as bodies, as entities, as living things?

SIF: I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them, and they’ve spent a lot of time listening to me. And they’ve become something outside of me. I love hearing about their relationships with other people. It’s like those two friends at a party who you never thought would hit it off, but now that it’s happening it makes so much sense. Before my first launch event, I sat with my book at my altar, and I said, I release you. You don’t belong to me anymore. You belong to everyone now. Listen, this guy is an Aries, and so I know that he’s in charge. I respect him. I really do.


RMC: One of the poems I’m compelled to ask about is “Dangerous.” The first line is hilarious, and the final gesture across the last few lines is so delicately rendered and breaks the register I had become used to up until that point in the book.

SIF: I think that there can be this moment in a relationship— and I’m speaking in both the royal you and about myself— when, no matter how bad it is, you convince yourself that you’re happy and want to be here. And sometimes that is what keeps a relationship going. But other times you wake up and realize that you’re in hell, that you’ve just been calling it something else. In that particular poem, there is a loud wake up call. The speaker looks in the fucking mirror. And the poem keeps cracking itself open. Here’s the truth. Here’s more truth. Here’s more truth. Here’s more truth. Some people don’t like that poem. They say it’s too humorous. But I can’t really help that that’s my response to pain.


RMC: I want to ask about the thread of the “you” across the collection. Especially with these poems so viscerally in the same voice, a few pages in I felt like it must be the same “you” appearing each time. 

SIF: I think that the “you” is different people, but really just the same few. There were originally some love poems in this book, but they ended up all being about relationships that were decaying. Very fitting for decompose. I do think that they are all the same “you” in the sense that the poems are all the same speaker navigating their relationships. This is about the speaker. This is not about the other person.


RMC: That is the magic of the sustained lyric, this creation of contiguity that isn’t present when the poems aren’t collected. 

Ok— is there anything like you’ve been dying for people to ask you about this book that you haven’t gotten to say yet?

SIF: I think a lot has already been asked. I will say— even though it’s called decompose, the book carries this notion that when something decomposes, it means something new can grow. I think the only thing that I would want to say is that I hope that the book is encouraging people to grow, to let go of things that don’t suit them anymore.


Get your copy of Decompose by Séamus Isaac Fey here.

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