Joseph N. Fasano ’04 can’t shake the conviction that somewhere, someone is ready to read poems.
“My work comes from a place of feeling like I really need to earn the reader,” he says. “And also a place of believing in the person out there who might be ready to discover poetry — but doesn’t come from a place of, ‘My mother is an English professor and my father was always reading me short stories when I was young.’”
Fasano is not your typical poet’s poet. Far from content with keeping poetry ensconced to its narrow readership of academics and literary savants, he has worked in past years to democratize the genre.
Perhaps this impulse to share poetry with those who may be radically unfamiliar with it flows partially from his own journey. Fasano’s family hailed from the “little town” of Goshen, New York. Supportive as his family was, they were “not at all literary.” When Fasano matriculated at Harvard for college, he was interested in literature but had always been good with numbers. Eventually, he settled on philosophy.
One moment “really stands out” for Fasano in his foray into the humanities. It happened to occur at Harvard, though he says it could have happened elsewhere, too. In his first year, when he felt as though his education “wasn’t scratching certain itches that I needed to scratch,” he was heading to the Science Center for a physics exam when he happened to pass a gaggle of students discussing chemistry concepts. What would have seemed to anyone else a few errant seconds of eavesdropping became an opportunity to concretize the ubiquity of language.
“I stopped where I was. It was though all my thinking had sort of crystallized in that moment,” he says. “I thought that, as I stand here on the street walking to my science exam, I cannot step outside of language as most broadly defined, as the conceptual cognitive apparatus.”
The ubiquity of language is a theme that continues to feature in Fasano’s work. His social media presence has been a large part of this democratizing effort. Fasano — who currently teaches at Manhattanville College in Westchester, New York — has more than 73,000 followers on X. He often posts multiple times in one day, with daily poetry threads that tag poems related to a theme he announces in all caps. Recent ones include “GOOD,” “DENIAL,” and “EACH OTHER.”
These posts, which often garner hundreds of likes, are a way to quickly circulate a moment of poetry into an otherwise hectic day. Among them are poetry prompts that allow children and adults alike to experiment with a poetic voice without the challenge of beginning from scratch. In 2024, Fasano will publish with Penguin Random House an extension of these popular prompts titled “The Magic Words: Simple Poetry Prompts that Unlock the Creativity in Everyone.”
One of Fasano’s latest posts is a poem that his eight-year-old niece wrote. He shared the poem, titled “Home,” with a caption that included: “I’m thinking about all the children everywhere.”
Indeed, “all the children everywhere” seems to capture, in a single phrase, the ethos with which Fasano aims to approach poetry.
We inhabit a literary moment in which authors are hesitant to venture into experiences of pain or dispossession that they are far removed from. Many contend this is for good reason: It is unethical, they advance, that someone who is far removed from pain should profit by rendering it on the page. Yet Fasano is not ready to let go of the intuition that there are certain feelings that all people, no matter their identities, can converge on in a fundamental way.
“I am a firm believer that literature’s place is to at least attempt the impossible of imagining yourself in somebody else’s experience,” he says. “We have to analyze the motivations behind why — especially young people — are told that that is always a transgression.”
Fasano believes the answer lies in an attempt to “ reinforce our culture of commodification, where you have your lane, and I have mine, and nobody can come into my lane so that I can sell my product, and nobody can come into your lane — or into your pain — so that nobody can sell your product.”
This culture of commodification, Fasano says, ““separates us so that we can be conquered.”
“‘I dare not imagine the experience of somebody else,’ is what I’m told,” he says. “And I think that is the opposite of literature’s quest.”
Recently, Fasano has attempted to write poems that place himself directly in the shoes of children that have experienced remarkable violence and dispossession through war.
In his poem “Words Whispered to a Child Under Siege,” which he posted on X on Oct. 23, Fasano enters the psyche of a speaker attempting to soothe a child in war.
“No, we are not going to die,” the poem opens. It maintains a tender yet disquieting intimacy until its chilling conclusion: “Close your eyes. Like chess. Like hide-and-seek. / When the game is done you get another life.”
For Fasano, placing himself in the shoes of another — what he calls the “imaginative act” — is a task that must be done with “tremendous ethical awareness.”
What exactly, though, does that awareness look like? Such acts of ambitious imagination involve all the conventional components of writing: research, diligence, inquiry. But there’s a more elusive quality that for Fasano reflects this ethical awareness.
“If you just enter the process with the entirety of yourself and include, for example, a little bit of dialectical energy, that is to say, your question, it’s not a place for pontification,” he said. “It’s not a place to be just one thing.”
For Fasano, writing that inhabits another’s experience is less an imposition of will than a conversation. What particular shape or tenor this conversation assumes is left open-ended. Likely, there is no definitive answer. The question remains open.
—Crimson staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.