N: But, I am doing this interview. There is some engagement with language. I have some engagement with language every day. And there have been times I’ve written every day when I’m more deeply in my process. But I can miss a couple days here and now. But there’s always something. I’ve got a six year old so I was reading books this morning. You read as a writer, you know, just to see what they are doing. I’m reading the original Wizard of Oz books to her; just reading it as a writer to see how it’s put together. He just keeps repeating himself! Every page he just says the same thing again and again. Which seems fine for kids, he names the characters, what they’re doing, and then he says it again. But that’s cool. I guess that’s what you need to do for kids. Repeat yourself.
H: At what point did you decide you were going to be a professional writer?
N: That was pretty late. I’ve been writing since I was ten years old, and didn’t really know it was a thing that you could do. It was the only thing I was ever really good at. I was just so bad at everything else. I had an interest in language, in books. There was energy around them for me. But I took a couple years off after high school. I was an electrician and just worked. When I went to college, I went as an English major, just to study literature and to write. I was twenty, which was old, ancient. A lot of freshmen were like seventeen and here I had been out in the world working. I was this working class electrician. I looked like it. All the clothes I had were my work clothes. My name was on all the front pockets. It wasn’t style. It was all I had. But my twenties were this long apprenticeship and I didn’t go to grad school until I was thirty-two or something.
H: What did you do in between?
N: Drugs. And I worked for the homeless. I was trying to write, but it was mostly the addiction thing. That was my thing I had to get over. Nothing would have happened if I hadn’t quit that. It hadn’t become clear to me but it did at the tail end of my twenties. It was the wrong path to be on.
H: You’ve written memoirs, plays, poetry, and with Blind Huber, historical poetry. How does your process differ across genres?N: That’s interesting to call Blind Huber historical poetry. I don’t know if anyone ever has. I know what you mean by that. But if that’s historical poetry, then everything I write is historical poetry. I had the smallest thread of historical knowledge to write that book. I knew about [François] Huber this historical figure, knew he was blind, knew he had an assistant, knew he studied bees for fifty years, and that’s kind of it. So I sort of went from there. It’s more scientifically based; I did a lot of research on bees.
H: Poets love bees.
N: Yeah, yeah, there is something about them. I became sort of obsessed with them in this way. But, in terms of process— each book has its own form, its own process. I mean, they each definitely have their own form, but the process… The process is that I just engage with language every day. That’s the process. And then eventually energy starts to gather around something; an idea or piece of language or image or some sort of initiating spark. Energy starts to gather around it more. I can write for months and months and no energy gathers to build something bigger. And so that’s kind of the process. To just be open to seeing when energy starts to gather and to follow it. To see that this is the thing right now. Beyond that, I don’t know what to do!
H: People always want the speaker to be set outside the writer. Which is fair, but is it possible to write outside the “I”? Are we asking our readers to do something we’re not capable of doing?N: Sure, people write outside the “I” all the time. There are whole schools of poetry devoted to that impulse. Which I respect. They might not be the thing that rocked me the most because I am quite interested in figuring out, or getting some glimpse into the inner life of human beings around me.
But there are also projects that have nothing to do with it. People who are interested in moving language around, or finding text in the world and collaging it. There are all sorts of loopholes to do poetry. And The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, I don’t know, or Blind Huber, is that all me? The persona poem, which is what Blind Huber is, in that book there are many shifting personas. There are the bees, Huber, his assistant. And some part of that, the liberating part of that, is I got to have these emotions. The problem with the lyric poem, is that you have to present yourself in a certain way. You don’t want to show how gnarly you actually are. You are the one who is creating the narrative and get to decide how things happened and how to remember it.
So I like things that recognize that basic instability of the lyric. That this is only one version of the truth. To me that is very interesting and persona lets you do that. And The Captain is sort of this poly-vocal thing. So do I stand by everything that is said in The Captain? Do I think that’s all an utterance of my heart? I don’t think so. I hope not. There are people who advocate torture in that book. I think it’s gnarly, but it’s also thrilling to think: where the fuck did that come from? Maybe it’s coming from me, or like D.H. Lawrence says, “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.” Is this coming from somewhere else and are you just a channel? What is it that Jack Spicer said? “Poets think they are pitchers, but they are really catchers.” So, you’re just catching stuff and the lyric impulse is still important and I still often go toward it. It’s a beautiful impossible exercise. The “I” like the eyeball can’t see itself. That’s why you need others to see you.
H: In terms of your first book, Some Ether, what I love about it is how you construct loss. It’s about the act of losing but also what you discover through loss. There’s not really a question there, but can you speak to that?
N: Constructing loss is a great phrase. That’s the interesting thing when you are putting a book together and there is some sort of elegiac quality to it. I guess you are constructing loss. That was the thing that both propelled me forward and horrified me. It’s sort of like, taking this loss and thinking you can make something out of it; which is this awful task. What is the impulse to do that? Why can’t you just accept the loss? Why can’t you just move on, grieve the loss? Why do you have to make something of it? It’s a horrifying impulse. There’s this Denis Johnson poem, called “Poem,” and the last line is, “and God forgive me, I pulled to the side of the road and wrote this poem.” I read that poem when I was first getting to be a poet, and there was something about that line that really kicked me.
What we are doing is trying to take the stuff of this world and shape it into some kind of aesthetic and what does that do? What is it for? I mean it is elegy. The dead don’t get to write elegies. As far as we know.
H: Or maybe that’s the wind blowing through you.
N: Yeah. Constructing loss. There is always that risk, the falseness of it: that you are going to try to present it in a way that is just a lie that gets you through the next day. And is that true? Is that false? What does that do? It doesn’t link you to that person. That person is dead. We think we do it to honor the dead, but how do you really do that? You try to live, I guess. But I like the phrase, it makes you uncomfortable.
H: When you are writing about your personal life and the people in it, do you feel a responsibility because you are writing someone else’s story?
N: Yeah, yeah. That’s the lyric impulse, there are always others involved.
H: Especially when you are writing about your dad. You are the only one who gets to tell that story. How it happened.
N: Well you could be the Dickmans. You could have two versions of it. But most of us don’t! Which is probably one of the reasons we study them, that’s the interesting phenomenon. Identical twins who are both writing really good poems that are so completely different about the same subject.
But there is always a burden of responsibility writing about anyone. I don’t feel any when writing about myself! It’s the approximation, just trying to get close to some understanding. With other people, I just try to distill down. I don’t try to attribute motives to people but you can attribute actions. They did this on this day. Or they said this thing. Why they said it, I don’t know. I just try to get it down to what I can possibly know on a certain day. That’s all you got—to not go at it from a place of certainty. To me that seems like madness. And it makes for very bad poetry. There has to be a level of wonder in poetry. Wonder in the face of this enormous mystery. And we are just trying to gather a little sliver of light to find some meaning. And the meaning is elusive. That’s a good poem, or a good day! But also you can read a good poem on a bad day and miss it. You can read it ten years later and then be like, holy fuck! I read Rilke a hundred times and didn’t get it! But then, one day, the situation was right, and I got it. That’s the great things about poems, because you can read them rather quickly. You don’t really get that chance with novels. With poems, you can read them again and get a genuinely new experience.
H: In poetry, everyone always says the personal is political. Great. I get it. In your work, you often write about the directly political dispersing it with your own personal narrative. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands and The Ticking is the Bomb are two examples. I’m wondering for you, how often do the politics of governance intersect with the politics of selfhood?
N: I think it’s true, I do write from a political stance almost all the time. My first book of poems has a single-working class mother; a father who’s homeless. These are political issues. I mean I’m writing from my own personal perspective, and it’s completely rare that there aren’t political issues in that. I mean, they are not prescriptive. Sure, when I wrote The Captain and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, those early drafts were very prescriptive. They sort of said what to do about homelessness. And then I took all that stuff out. I realized: this isn’t that kind of book. It doesn’t fit in this book. That was a different book. What we’re doing in this realm is allowing the reader to have an experience. The poem itself is nothing if it’s not an experience, right?
Each one has to be its own experience and not really be about anything, or not to do anything, or change anything. Just to be an experience, to be unique for every reader. If there are one hundred readers there are one hundred different experiences. And it’s an engaged experience, an active rather than passive experience. Not something that is just absorbed, but the level of change is between the synapses, like a really great movie. How after you feel like you’re in the movie all day. It’s like, oh my God, I never saw the world this way before. That’s what I go to art for. I go to dumb movies too, but it’s not for that experience. I go to dumb movies for passive experiences, to kind of shut off and then go take a shower. I don’t feel fully alive. I feel death, the needing to shut off life. But apparently that’s what we want sometimes too.
But the political, with The Captain, that was a little bit more and with The Ticking, that is where I went a little more prescriptive. Usually, I start with some thought and usually by the end of a book, or poem even, that thought’s been changed, even within me. The Ticking starts with a thought: it’s wrong to torture people for some political expedience, and I ended with that thought too. So it’s not as though all of a sudden, I was like, oh, I see their point. That isn’t what happened, but what changed was my going deeper into my subconscious. Going deeper into why I was writing this book. What it was that was so hard to let go of. That seemed to be a journey, which I think is a journey for anyone: to ask themselves why they are writing. There are a lot of other things you could be doing with your time. It’s not as simple as saying you are a writer. There are a lot of things to write about. Why do you keep going back to writing about this incident, writing about mom or dad? What is it you are searching for?
H: In Some Ether, your third poem is called “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands,” so was that the plan?
N: You caught me. Yeah, way back then, I was like ten! I think I started noticing that this captain was making appearances, speaking as an authority figure. Not like a general, or an admiral, but sort of a mid-level functionary in the military. He was just doing what he was supposed to do.
H: Yeah, in Some Ether, he’s like the Coast Guard captain.
N: Yeah, captain of a ship! This character started reappearing. And I had sort of forgotten. I mean I have this whole other life. I am a captain. I have a captain’s license. In my twenties I drove boats. I grew up near water, so it’s the continual theme. It’s my landscape. It’s my source. I grew up quite poor, but somehow we managed to get this crappy house near the water. You could walk to the beach. It was cold in the winter. The windows weren’t good and the pipes always froze, but we were near the water so we were privileged!
So the sea has always been a theme. So I sort of looked at that poem. It became an epigraph for a little bit. I think there is still a line from the poem that is an epigraph for the book: “…A spokesman can only / state his surprise / that it doesn’t happen more often.” It’s from that poem, and I just sort of realized that that might be the title for the whole book.
H: Have you figured out who the captain is yet?
N: Well that moves around too. I have a captain’s license. It’s a mid-level functionary position. This unidentifiable cog in a machine that can and cannot do many things. Whitman’s captain. The Galway Kinnell poem [“The Dead Shall be Raised Incorruptible”] from The Book of Nightmares, and his is a Lieutenant, so I just sort of shifted it to captain. You have to have someone doing it right? Someone with a uniform doing something.
H: In some poems in The Captain, the reader can’t tell the difference between the political or your personal life.
N: It’s like a chorus of voices at that point. It’s not really lyric because it’s not an utterance of a soul. It is the utterance of a million souls. I sort of borrow from the culture—testimonies, interviews I did. It was sort of a weave. For a political thing, that’s what it felt like it needed. The Ticking is much more direct. You can trace the “why.” It goes back to the source. It goes back to mom and dad eventually. Which surprised me actually. I was very surprised, but it was also, like: oh, yeah, this ties right in to what I’ve been trying to figure out about my mother and father. There are doors. Everyone has a thousand doors in them. You open as many as you can. There is always going to be something that you don’t dare or get to cross, but in that book I feel like I crossed a couple more. I got into a couple more rooms. I’m sure there are other ones, but that book allowed me to do that. Or it forced me to.
H: Following Some Ether and your memoir Another Bullshit Night, your writing, or at least my reading of it, seemed to evolve from addressing personal crisis to cultural crises. Do you think it is necessary to tackle the intimately personal before one can address the body politic?
N: A lot of people’s first books are introducing themselves to the world in some way. As Stanley Kunitz described, creating the myth of yourself. This is my shit. This is what I am going to deal with for the rest of my life. And then everything gets read in that light. So you know when you read Blind Huber, the queen takes on a very different role. Even though it’s never mentioned, there’s the shadow. You know certain things about certain points. I think some critics would say you just want to read the poems themselves, but the information is in the poems already. So you are reading the poem closely. I mean, we know Denis Johnson was a drug addict. That’s just part of who he is. So when he goes into the hallucinatory revelries, you’re like okay, I believe you. I think we’re always doing that. Changing who we are and becoming. I think the writing has to keep up with that.
H: We are now so much more hyper aware of inclusivity in poetry, whether that be through, race, gender, sexuality, etc. What is that like for you as well… a white guy?
N: A straight white guy.
H: Yes. We are so hyper aware of your presence!
N: Huh, the white guy presence… that our time is done? I think it’s great that the castle is being stormed. It’s dissolving before us. Poetry is this huge tree. There’s room for a lot of people in it. There doesn’t need to be this dominant mode. We need to read different poetry by different people—races, class backgrounds, countries, genders, sexual orientations.
I don’t necessarily feel like I am a representative of all straight white culture. I mean, in one respect, obviously, I am. But if I walk into a room and I’m on a panel and there are three other straight white guys, I think, “Who thought this was a good idea?” It’s just not that interesting.
I don’t have long conversations about poetry with the monolithic straight white culture. It’s just not interesting to me. I find other poetry is more interesting right now. The poets I read mainly are women or queer. That’s the perspective that’s interesting to me right now.
H: Who are you reading now?
N: I’ve done some recent editing of things lately: Guernica, Provincetown Arts—that had Jean Valentine in it. Claudia Rankine is in thePloughshares I edited. I also enjoy Cynthia Cruz, Michael Klein. Michael is such an interesting story. He went away from poetry for about twenty years, and he seems to have found his voice and he’s just killing it. Everyone has their own time and his is now. Natalie Diaz kills it. Jamaal May. Carolyn Forché, Marie Howe. My first teachers were women. There’s something about them that is closer to the intuitive and not constructed that is interesting to me.
H: There are distinct moments in my life where I’ve felt my poetry shift. Have there been moments that stand out to you where you’ve felt your poetry shift, either stylistically, linguistically or topically?
N: Totally, I call them my watershed poems. When you suddenly do something in a poem that you couldn’t do before. Some Ether had three or four of these watershed poems. I entered this mode of writing and was like…whoa, that’s surprising, that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last three years. And there it is: trying to make a weave, a successful collage. It’s like trying to have a pure associative energy flowing. Finding these different modes, but then when you get them you can’t really repeat them because it’s opened other doors. However, you can bring that energy into other work. You’ve done this thing that you didn’t think you could do. Often with me it’s the feeling that I am doing the wrong thing. Like, who cares? For seven-eighths of the time writing my books, I think, what am I doing? This is such the wrong path.
Some Ether I wrote in the nineties which was the height of postmodernism and this ironic arch in poetry, and here I am writing a deeply sincere, lyric meditation. I was like, this is so wrong on so many levels, but I just thought: this is all I can do. It did force me to make the poems really fucking work. I knew these poems were going to get attacked. So I spent ten years working on that book, wrestling with those questions. I mean I was interested in postmodernism too, recognizing that language can dissolve syntactically.
H: How many watershed poems do you think you’ve had in your lifetime?
N: Not a lot, maybe a dozen. But that’s the problem: once you do it, you can’t do it again, though you get some kind of growth as an artist. Other possibilities are now open to you. They come in flashes. I’ve worked on poems for years and then have had to abandon them; still, all that work helps the other poems.
H: Can you tell me about your forthcoming book, My Feelings from Graywolf Press?
N: It’s probably closer to Some Ether which isn’t thematically based. It’s basically mom, dad, and me. Mom’s suicide, dad’s homelessness introducing themselves. And Blind Huber is certainly thematically based.
My Feelings is much more just a collection of poems. What happened during the writing of it is that my father died so people will probably look at it and see that as a unifying theme. There are probably four poems spread out over the book that talk about his death. So once you introduce the father then every poem that has a “he” in it is going to be about the father. And I’m reading it now, and I think, oh this or that poem could be about my father too. But it wasn’t consciously written with that in mind. It’s not that light a book.
H: Have you written a light book yet?
N: Ha, I was hoping too. But no, it’s not really a knee slapper. Maybe the next one.
H: Maybe that will be your next watershed poem.
N: Ha, it’ll be a hoot. The poet Adam Zagajewski came up to me once and said, “Very strange, America is in the midst of two wars and all the poets are writing funny poems.”