A Conversation with Nick Lantz
conducted September 30, 2011, in conjunction with the awarding of the 2011 Levis Reading Prize
Blackbird: Your first two collections of poetry, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and The Lightning that Strikes the Neighbors’ House were both published in the same year. Could you speak to what that process was like? Do you consider either a thesis collection?
Nick Lantz: The Lightning was once upon a time my MFA thesis, though I think only eight poems from the thesis actually made it into the book. It’s a bit like the car that has had every part except the steering wheel and seat covers replaced. Is it still the same car? I don’t know. The thesis was titled The Great Disappointment, and it centered more on the notion of various disappointments (personal, political, religious). Between 2005 and 2008, many poems came and went, the title changed a few times, but I always thought of it as the same book. I started We Don’t Know We Don’t Know around December 2007 and finished it in August 2008. It was a specific project from the beginning, and almost every poem in there I wrote expressly for that manuscript, whereas The Lightning was more ad hoc: I had a lot of poems, and the ones that seemed to work together, I put together. I wish I could say there was some strategy I used to get them published at the same time, but really it was luck.
Blackbird: When you set out to write a poem, do you have any special techniques that you use to propel the process?
NL: I compile odds and ends: facts, phrases, ideas. I collect them on paper in a journal and in files on my computer. When I sit down to write, I usually take one or more of these bits, put it in a blank document file, and free-write until I strike on something that seems promising, then follow it where it goes. My natural tendency is to be very linear, so I’ll often try to throw a few unrelated images or bits of information together in a file to see if I can piece them together somehow. When I was working in an office job and struggling to write on a regular basis, I started composing poems on Twitter (@NickJLantz). The 140-character post limit gave me a nice, low-stakes formal constraint, and I could compose these micropoems on my cell phone while on the bus to and from work. I tried to make them freestanding poems, but often when I did have an opportunity to sit down and do some more substantial writing, I’d trawl through the past week’s or month’s Twitter poems for lines that I could use. A lot of poems in my upcoming third book, How to Dance When You Do Not Know How to Dance, contain lines/phrases/images harvested from the Twitter micropoems. The result is that I often think about assembling a poem as much as writing one.
Blackbird: Given your interests in both poetry and theater, how, when you set out to create something, do you know that that something is going to be a poem or, say, a one-act play?
NL: I struggle with poems that have a lot of narrative ground to cover. If an idea requires a lot of plot, or just a lot of information, I know I probably can’t make it work as a poem. I’m drawn to the anecdotal in poetry, to stories that can be told powerfully but succinctly. The line I struggle with is the one between poetry and prose. Plays are easier to identify from the beginning because they’re driven almost exclusively by dialogue. I rarely include direct dialogue in poetry. In the manuscript I’m working on now, I’m experimenting with what I’m calling “lyric plays,” short pieces that resemble plays formally but aren’t necessarily stageable—sort of a dramaturgical version of the prose poem. I’m interested in that fuzzy line where one genre turns into another.
Blackbird: What is your writing routine like? Do you write at a particular time of day? Do you leave off working on a poem when you know what the next line is going to be when you pick it up again?
NL: I’m inconsistent when it comes to maintaining a set writing routine. I’ve done short stints writing on Saturday mornings, say, or at a certain time in the evenings. But I never stick with it very long. The only discipline I kept up for a significant time was the Twitter poem project. I wrote one micropoem a day for about a year. I’ve since resumed the project, but I’ve been less faithful to it.
I tend to work on a poem until I get stuck, then I move on to something else and come back to the stuck poem later. I don’t have a lot of patience for banging my head against the wall when it comes to writing. Time is scarce, and I’d rather make progress on something, even if it’s at the expense of a poem I’d like to see finished. I really wanted to write a poem titled “We Don’t Know We Don’t Know” for that book, but it never happened. I had maybe a dozen false starts and dead ends, but many of those aborted attempts fed into other poems that did get finished. When I have a dozen poems underway, I can work on one to put off doing work on another, and turn procrastination into productivity. Moving between poems in moments of frustration often opens up unforeseen possibilities. One poem may tell me how to fix another.
If I’m on a hot streak with a poem, I don’t stop for anything short of house fire. The thought of knowing the next line but not getting it on the page is nightmarish. I have a bad memory. I’d forget the line, no matter how good it was. So if I know it, I’ve got to write it down.
Blackbird: Is your process entirely electronic or is the physical act of writing involved? If electronic, do you save each revision or overwrite a single document as you go?
NL: I do start a lot of poems on paper, but usually only when a computer isn’t handy, and I never finish them on paper. A notebook is a lot easier to carry around than a laptop. But I do most of my drafting on the computer, and I do minor revisions as I write (write a line, decide it stinks, delete it, write a different line, etc.), so I often type over earlier drafts—which is a bad habit, I know. The exception is when I start with a finished draft and set out to rework the poem in a major way—say, take a page-long poem down something sonnet-sized. Then I start from a fresh copy and save the old version. I’ve hung on to lots of old notebooks and files, and I go back to them periodically, skimming for those odds and ends that never found a home in a poem but that I’ve forgotten about.
Blackbird: Many of the poems in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know take on interesting or unusual physical shapes. In your experience, how does the physical arrangement of a poem occur? What is your relationship in general with shape and poetic form?
NL: Form has two main roles in my writing. When I’m drafting and revising poems, I often use received forms like sonnets and sestinas as a sort of scaffolding, a framework that I can use to build the poem up. Used that way, forms provide a kind of resistance. They’re demanding, and they force me to make tough choices. They force me to be more expansive when I don’t have much to say or to be concise when I need to prioritize what I want to say. But I don’t know that I’ve ever published something I would call a sonnet, for example. The process of trying to write into a particular form helps me establish the main images, the main structure, and so on, but once I feel like the poem is working, I discard the scaffolding and move away from that form. For example, the poem “Of Dogges” in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know started out as a sestina, and some of the repetitions of the form are still visible in the poem. The initial form gave me a structure in which to figure out what the poem would be about, but I eventually discarded the sestina form and reworked the poem into something a bit more free. The way I arrive at the forms my poems end up in is more intuitive, more influenced by the contents of the poem itself. In We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, for example, I used various kinds of blank spaces, elisions, and redactions, and these became significant parts of many of the poems.
Blackbird: Do you worry about the Google culture phenomenon contributing to sampling knowledge in a superficial way or the dangers of knowing just a little of everything?
NL: Sure, as I said, I’m drawn to the anecdotal, so I do worry sometimes that I’m just skimming the surface of a topic. What I remind myself, though, is that I’m writing poems, not research papers or dissertations—my primary mode is artistic, not scholarly. I’m committed to research only insofar as it helps me finish a poem. I read for ideas, for words, for images. Those are my starting points, and the work and effort of writing is in making something out of them. In We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, the poem “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake” started out as a retelling of a Scandinavian myth about Odin and his two ravens, Thought and Memory. In my original poem, every time the ravens left Odin to survey the world, he lost his mind. The poem was really bogged down in research, actually. Too much information that I wanted to fit in, too much exposition I needed to do to make the plot coherent. I eventually scrapped the original and went back to just the title (which I’d had from the beginning). From the title I just imagined the plot and details of the current poem in a series of two or three free-writing sessions. I was working as a copyeditor at the time, and I’d been copyediting some medical journals dealing with elder care and dementia, so I’m sure that influenced the course of the poem, but dementia wasn’t something I’d researched in a formal or in-depth way. I knew enough to fuel the writing process, and that was just what I needed to get the poem written. In general, I value imagination over research.
Blackbird: Even though Harry Harlow appears only once by name in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, that appearance is one of the most memorable and disturbing moments. What drew you to Harry Harlow as a subject for your poem “Harry Harlow in the Pit of Despair”?
NL: Harlow’s lab in Madison, Wisconsin, was at 600 N. Park St., which is now, incidentally, the address of the MFA program I attended. At the time, I was infatuated with provocative psychological experiments, particularly Stanley Milgram’s obedience/authority experiments, and I think I came across Harlow’s affection and depression experiments tangentially, in a list or bibliography. I read Deborah Blum’s book about Harlow (Love at Goon Park, which is terrific, by the way). A few years later, when I was looking for poem ideas for We Don’t Know We Don’t Know I was reading a lot of political language that was deeply euphemistic, such as the CIA’s Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, which the poem “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” is based on, and I started thinking again about Harlow, who obstinately refused euphemism. If anything, he was openly provocative about the experiments he conducted. The “Pit of Despair” is his name for the isolation chamber he built to induce crippling depression in monkeys. Animals, scientific knowledge, and language were a big part of my source material for We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, so it made sense for me to include Harlow. His experiments make another appearance in the poem “The resemblance that Apes have to men” as well. I’m deeply, deeply conflicted about Harlow and his experiments. Part of me sees his work as ghoulish, horror-movie stuff. But another part of me is fascinated by him as a person and by what he learned from those experiments. I find him repulsive and riveting at the same time. Material about which I feel ambivalent is usually more productive fodder for poems for me. My attraction to Donald Rumsfeld’s use of language (which gave rise to the whole book) comes from a similar place of ambivalence.
Blackbird: We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is populated with horrors, but much of the time, you approach horrors not head on, but from an angle. We don’t see Josef Mengele in the concentration camp. We see him at the end of his life, in South America. We don’t see Harry Harlow putting a monkey into the pit of despair. We see only a couple of monkeys and hear his name mentioned. Do you approach horrors in this way deliberately, and if so, why this approach?
NL: In a horror movie, the monster is scariest when you only see it on the periphery or in the shadows. When it jumps out into broad daylight, it looks like a big rubber suit with plastic fangs. As a kid, I read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft (another figure who I find personally odious but whose work nonetheless fascinates me). Lovecraft’s favored style was to only half describe the horrible monsters that his characters encountered. Often, a character who looked directly at them would simply go mad with terror. The reader only gets glimpses and fragments that suggest the whole monster. Suggestion is powerful. Restraint is powerful. Imagining Josef Mengele living free, swimming on a beach in Brazil, is more terrifying to me. Looking directly, or for too long, at his crimes, counterintuitively, does the opposite. Looking directly at the horrific can have a deadening effect. The reader feels abused at the hands of the author and holds the work at arm’s length. But with suggestion, the reader terrifies himself with his own imagination.
Blackbird: A number of the poems in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know are ekphrastic in nature. How do you approach these types of poems? Do they present any unique challenges?
I do a lot of ekphrastic writing because, bottom line, I need ideas. I like working from some other source, imagining my way into it (or out of it), but I’m very loose with the rules of ekphrasis as a genre. The poems “Snapshot from Turkey” and “Whether the World be finite, and but one” refer to nonexistent images; “Lacuna, Triptych of the Battle” and “The Collapse of a Twenty-Story Bamboo Construction Scaffold . . . ” are based on images I actually saw, but have been re-imagined for the sake of the poems. “Of the last peeces of Painters” is loyal to the original details of the artworks it describes, but each section diverges sharply from the initial subject. “Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window” is probably the most traditional ekphrastic poem in the book, but even there I’m also throwing in a quote from Donald Rumsfeld and a narrative about a husband and wife arguing. For me, the temptation of ekphrastic poetry is to merely describe the original work, so I try to push myself to move beyond that point whenever possible.