In anticipation of Nick Thran’s readings this week at Swirsky’s in Corner Brook (March 31, 8 pm) and at The Ship in St. John’s (April 3, 8 pm), WANL member and poet, Don McKay posed several questions, in various modes, to the Trillium award-winning poet and author of Mayor Snow (2015), Earworm (2011), and Every Inadequate Name (2006).
DM: Is there essential reading for a poet in 2016? Would you like to list some titles? Others to avoid?
NT: It’s hard to remove that word “essential” from its presence in the world of advertising. Even in book advertising it comes across as a bit manipulative. The list of books that are essential to me won’t, or can’t, be exactly the same as anyone else’s list. That said it is great when a book of poems or a particularly lyric book of prose that has snuck into a more public conversation about important aspects of western culture or western society at large reads as “essential” to its historical moment as has been advertised. I’d put very recent books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Karen Solie’s The Road in is Not the Same Road Out, Ta-nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on a list like that. But then I might also recommend a book like Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, without believing that every poet must read it, as much as the book might be a sort of company that I, in my own temperament, need.
DM: You’ve recently inhabited Al Purdy’s A-frame in Ameliasburg, along with your family, —a residency documented (if that’s the word) in your new book. Can you comment on the value of this and other such-like experiences?
NT: These days I’ve become really interested in site-specific triangulations of reportage, literary criticism, and personal commentary. A kind of social, occasional writing, of which that sequence from Mayor Snow might be included, wherein I ideally balance a living subject other than myself with the books I am reading during or in response to my time with the subject, while situating myself somewhere within the environment that those two other elements create. I suppose in some ways this could be an overly-elaborate way of talking about any creative act – but I think, for me, in order to negotiate that slippery space between integration and solipsism, I need to make these three categories as explicit as possible. So an extremely particular experience like travelling with the poet Sue Sinclair and our six-month old baby to live for three months in a cabin once occupied by a poet whose work has both influenced me and repelled me in equal measure – that kind of thing inspires me to write. I took the particularity of the occasion, took Purdy’s ghostly presence, his poems, his letters, my own developing ideas about fatherhood and domesticity, my interactions with my child, and ran (or rather, read) with those things. I also wrote a long essay about the experience that I hope to publish some time in the future.
DM: Supplementary to 2.: is the connection to a poet of an earlier generation an important link, for yourself or for poets generally?
NT: Sure, the present is always bound up with the past. I think that as people and as writers we repeat our themes, our mistakes, even our ideals. All writers, even the ones who appeared to us as Gods when we first got the writing itch, are mortal beings. All written work by previous generations is there to be refuted, to be argued with, to be embraced, to make a crystalline sense one minute and be totally opaque the next.
Because Canada is a sparsely populated country full of curators, professors, and provincial and federal arts council employees who work to foster connections between different generations of writers, many times poets of a younger generation get to meet our heroes in person; go for hikes in the mountains, drink dark beer. That connection is important to me as well. I am a social animal.
DM: Some of the poems in Mayor Snow are written in a relation of some sort to pre-existing texts (e.g. “Elpenor for Yusef,” “Corrupt Cento” or “Severs Talking”). Care to comment on the importance of such practices?
NT: I think I’ve been commenting on this already over the course of my last two answers. In those three particular poems you mention, there was a clear point where my poem broke from its source text and became my own work or my own effort. But the gesture towards the other work remains, I hope. I try to keep the gesture up front because that seems like an honest admission: all of this writing is in relation to other writing. And the poems are always in some way about the struggle of trying to relate, and their aim is the strange ecstasy that happens when a relationship is established. That weird Google translation that is “SEVERs Talking,” for instance, doesn’t happen unless I go to French school for ten months and get to a point where I can foolishly try to write a book report about a book that is without plot.
DM: W.H. Auden: Poetry makes nothing happen. Martin Heidegger: Poets are the shepherds of being. Charles Simic: Poetry attracts me because it makes trouble for thinkers.
Either (A) write a short (no more than 250 pages) but brilliant Ph.D thesis—equivalent juggling these notions, or
(B) add another notion of your own.
NT: I’ve always been attracted to Auden’s notion, insomuch as I understand “nothing” as the most private of private moments, something like an abstract ‘I am,’ free from any utilitarian use or individual motive. That “nothing” is the cloud John Ashbery’s poems ride, or it is Basho at the pond. And I suppose that could possibly be tied together with Heidegger’s notion of a fundamental ontology, too (though the philosophy is admittedly fuzzy to me). Of course there’s a lot of religious freight tied to the occupation of shepherd, and the idea of the poet as some kind of metaphysical or moral hero is one that I instinctively resist. But then there is something to that physical, seemingly fundamental quality a line or two from a poem takes on when it cycles through the body over a number of years: either as a kind of directive or simply as a thing that sometimes pops into your head when you’re on the bus or walking down the street: “We lie / down in the sandwiches. / The world is strange. / Look in our eyes and see.”(William Matthews). “Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.” (Jane Hirshfield). “Cannot account for what you’re about / to do. We should be held and forgiven.” (Ken Babstock). “We sleep side by side with eternity, and never touch.” (Sue Sinclair)— these are a few that come to mind as I type this. When I think about how much these kinds of lines shepherd me some days – I guess I’m willing to bray like a sheep in the fields for a little while. Sure.
As for the Simic quote: poetry or no, aren’t all thinkers already in trouble?
DM: “Of all the sports invented by Homo sapiens basketball is the most poetic”—Anon. T. or F.? Discuss.
LeBron or Steph? Other?
NT: I’m going to answer these two questions together, because the other weekend I watched a basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors that is one of the more “poetic” things that I’ve ever seen. Steph Curry, who hit twelve three-pointers (including a game-winner, casually, from 38 feet out) defied or outright transcended every rule or obstacle in front of him, be it the height and speed of his opponents, be it received notions of the distances one is logically supposed to be able to shoot the ball from with some sort of accuracy, be it the idea that one’s ankle SHOULD NOT remain intact after Russell Westbrook, leaping, lands awkwardly upon it in the third quarter.
Later that evening I watched a Youtube video that condensed all twelve of Curry’s three-pointers in succession. I watched it about a half-dozen times, the same amount of times that I’m likely to first read a poem that has floored me, or listen to a song that has struck a chord.
Anybody wanting a good source of the poetics of basketball should read “The Heresy of Zone Defence,” an essay from art critic Dave Hickey’s collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, as well as Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Slam, Dunk & Hook.” A sample from Hickey’s essay, which basically describes Curry’s performance:
“[It] has always seemed to me that the trick of civilization lies in recognizing the moment when a rule ceases to liberate and begins to govern—and this brings us back to the glory of hoops. Because among all the arts of disputation our culture provides, basketball has been supreme in recognizing this moment of portending government and in deflecting it, by changing the rules when they threaten to make the game less beautiful and less visible, when the game stops liberating and begins to educate.”
So, most “poetic” of all the sports? True. Steph or Lebron? Has to be Steph.
DM: On April 5, 2016, at 7:45 a.m, at the Ches Penney YMCA in St. John’s N.L. a local poet possessed of the best three pointer of any Canadian poet born before 1943, will be ready to challenge you to a rousing game of HORSE. Accept?
NT: At 5:40pm on April 4th I will be boarding a plane from St. John’s Newfoundland to Calgary, Alberta. Keep working on your game.