LG: One of the things that I love about your work is its immediacy in the naming:
Treno’s, Jay Bennett, Rachel, my old girlfriend Monica…. The use of proper names gives the work an energy that brings up the past in a swift and engaging presence. In your essay, you focus on Elizabeth Bishop, but you have also been compared to James Wright. I also wonder if, perhaps, Charles Wright isn’t lurking here with some slight hint of Frank O’Hara? Can you talk about your influences when it comes to the use of names and the immediacy they bring?
MN: James Wright was definitely a huge early influence—one of the writers who made me love poetry. He was one of the first poets I read who described landscapes that were familiar to me—he made the Midwest come alive (or maybe exposed its haunting deadness) at a time when I had lived in Central Illinois for all of my life and was thinking, What’s interesting about this place? Nothing.
I also liked that he wrote plainly, unpretentiously—in a “flat voice” he might say. But somehow his poems were also magical, fantastic, transformative.
As far as naming goes, here’s the beginning of “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”:
My name is James A. Wright and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave
In Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas glass became my father.
He tried to teach me kindness…
His name in the first line collapses the distance between speaker and poet, and that “tried” in the last line is so great, suggesting the failure inherent in such an endeavor as teaching kindness, especially when one has been beaten down by a life of factory work.
Frank O’Hara gave me permission to loosen up—I probably wouldn’t have written “I jump down from my soapbox” if not for O’Hara. He showed me you can throw the name of a friend in a poem and not necessarily explain who they are—the names mean something in and of themselves.
Of course Jay Bennett’s name is most important here—because the poem as it least partly an elegy for Jay. It was also the simple pun on “jay” that led my characters to the tree they find themselves in at the end of the poem.
LG: You write in your essay that “detailed description can provide a framework for thought, can be a way of both seeing and knowing.” Your poems are attentive to description of place and circumstance—from the imagined tree branch perch with friends and deceased rock stars in 1992 to a drive “between the empty auto plant and cemetery.” Given our cyber lives and the internet’s ability to create a timeless and placeless reality, as you discuss in your essay, can you talk more about how detailed description provides you with “a way of both seeing and knowing”?
MN: Huge question. First, I think description is a way of exploring a question, or suggesting a path through a question, knowing there won’t be an answer. This is the way Bishop operates I think, and even if she does come to an answer, it’s usually jam-packed with qualifiers. In “At the Fishhouses, she doesn’t define knowledge, she doesn’t even say the ocean is like knowledge. She says it is “like what we imagine knowledge to be,” then goes back to description: “dark, salt, moving,…” etc.
Poetry is a way of looking at the world. Not seeing the world. Looking at the world. We never really see. Every time we look at something it changes, so we have to keep looking. This process is different now that so much of what we see comes through the filter of a screen.
Your question about cyberspace makes me realize that when I’m on the Internet, I’m very aware that I am “there” more than I am “here.” Mentally, I’m much more in the world of Facebook, say, than whatever physical space I happen to be sitting in.
Of course this can also happen reading a book.
Because of the Internet, I think poems like Bishop’s, poems of intense concentration on a physical space, seem like relics from the past. There’s too much information flowing around us—its much harder to concentrate on one thing at a time. One of my favorite recent poems is Sandra Simonds, “I Grade Online Humanities Tests.” It perfectly captures both the placelessness of contemporary life (what “place” could be more generic, more placeless, than the inside of a McDonald’s) and the poem’s syntax mimics our culture of interruption. The “timeless, placeless reality” of our current existence.
LG: I am interested in the way you think and use form. I was particularly impressed with how you talk about your chapbook, Four of a Kind, and how you used form as a “window.” Do you start with form or is it something that you discover in the process of the writing? Or something altogether different?
MN: The “window poems” (which appear in my chapbook Four of a Kind and my first full-length book Beasts of the Hill) are really just four-section prose poems with a strict length limitation—the sections have to be pretty much exactly the same length so they “fit” together. I’m one of those writers who enjoys limitations, constraints, etc.—to me they make the process of writing more interesting, give me a framework so I’m not paralyzed by infinite choices, open up new possibilities, and force me to make moves I might not make otherwise. In the case of those poems, each section usually started out about twice as long as it needed to be, so I was forced to be more concise than I wanted to be. With the window poems I wrote to the form, but it’s more typical for me to write somewhat freely, then look back and see if a structure is emerging.
LG: Talk about places that have been important to you. I am always interested in writers’ notions of home, but beyond that, places that have stayed on in their imaginations. Where have those places been for you and why?
MN: I spent the first twenty-one years of my life in Champaign, Illinois, and though at the time I didn’t think there was much worth writing about there, I think (and write) a lot now about how that town shaped my worldview, my personality, etc. Champaign is interesting to me as a farm town, a college town, a small city (all the problems of a big city and almost none of the culture!), and the place I know better than any. It’s also the place where I can most clearly see the changes in society and American culture over the last forty years. When I was a kid there was an old-style department store downtown. Then came the mall. Then Wal-mart and friends began to kill the mall, etc. In the last few years downtown has been revitalized, smaller businesses are starting to get some traction. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.
I’ve also lived in several cities, including Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Chicago, but Chicago is the one that seemed to become part of me—for one thing I used to go there a lot as a kid. It was the first place I had that experience of standing in the street and craning your neck back as far as it would go and getting dizzy looking at the brilliant buildings rocketing into the sky. These cities were also the first places where I saw entire sections of the population almost completely ignored and abandoned by their government—Cabrini-Green in Chicago, the bombed out, desolate neighborhoods just north of where I lived in Philly. I used to walk my dog through that area, horrified that we could let such a thing happen. Knowing about income inequality, racism, injustice, is one thing, seeing it etched on the landscape like that is another.
Living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was also an amazing/ beautiful/ troubling experience, my first time living in the South. It was something like moving to a foreign country—partly because of its sub-tropical climate, partly because of the distinctiveness of its culture. Of course, in a slightly different version of history, it would be part of a foreign country.