On The Tip of The Tongue Like Good Morning: an Interview with Poet Nick Thran
Nick Thran is the author of two collections of poetry Every Inadequate Name (Insomniac Press, 2006) and, most recently, Earworm (Nightwood Editions, 2011). His poems have appeared in numerous publications across Canada including Geist, Maisonneuve, and The Walrus and he is a frequent contributor and reviewer for EVENT magazine. Guest blogger Sheryda Warrener had the chance to connect with him to talk about the publication of Earworm, his adventures on the Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour and what it’s like to have been called one of the coolest poets writing in Canada today by the National Post. Enjoy!
SW: Before we get to Earworm, I’d like to start outside your book. You and your wife poet Sue Sinclair recently moved to Fredericton New Brunswick after living in New York for two years. What have you brought back from the time you spent in the U.S.? What follows you?
NT: I’m still processing the time. I find living and writing in another country a liberating thing, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to do so. Plus, I wasn’t just new to the city—I was also new to being a teacher, a husband, a graduate student; this made it a broader and more mysterious kind of newness for me than, say, moving from Victoria to Toronto as a younger man. New York is a great place to confirm the suspicion of one’s own smallness in relation to other things, and to acquire the capacity to revel in it. Mountains and jungles are good for this too, of course, but it’s harder to get a good bagel and a cup of coffee during that type of experience. Everything we brought back from our time in New York fit snugly into a rented Nissan Altima—and most of that we brought there with us. To see strangers outside our apartment rifle excitedly through the last batch of poetry and philosophy books we culled before the trip back to Canada, that was special.
SW: What I admire about the poems in Earworm is how you build a kind of lyric immediacy with the reader—there’s a well-crafted tension in what you give away and what you keep to yourself. In David Orr‘s collection of essays Beautiful & Pointless, the poetry critic ruminates on the concept of “the personal” in poetry. And Orr’s friend and colleague Joshua Weiner responds to his line of thinking about the lyric mode as the most common vehicle for this personalism when he says, “It’s not a flavour that draws readers…it’s a sound, an intimate sound memorably figured. It is a mystery but not…a muddle. The sound of a single voice singing to each of us is a primal experience of reception, connection and transmission. The experience is part of our cognitive growth; we’re probably hardwired by it.” In a recent review of Earworm, your poems were credited as being “Genuinely, impossibly cool.” I’m intrigued by this idea. What elements combine to make a poem cool for you as a reader? Do you think Weiner’s notion might have something to do with it?
NT: Every time the word cool pops up I think of this stanza from Berman’s “Self Portrait at 28”,
If you were cool in high school
you didn’t ask too many questions.
You could tell who’d been to last night’s
big metal concert by the new t-shirts in the hallways.
You didn’t have to ask
and that’s what cool was:
the ability to deduce,
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don’t know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.
“Cool” is one of those words that one can throw over a lot of more specific, helpful ones; a burlap sack kind of word. I guess maybe a more positive way for me to see the word cool would be as a kind of neon sticky-note on a page; a Whoa, this is something interesting and appealing in a way that I can’t quite articulate on first pass, but I’m going to come back to it soon with some more questions. Cool should be a precursor to a more rigorous engagement. It’s not, to my mind, a sustainable quality in and of itself.
I haven’t read David Orr’s book, or any of Joshua Weiner’s work, yet—but yeah, that description of intimacy on the level of sound, the memorable phrase seems apt to me. Nobody but William Matthews has, to my knowledge, ever written the lines “We lie down among the sandwiches./ The world is strange./ Look into our eyes and see.” But there they are, up on the tip of the tongue like PIN numbers or the phrase “Good morning.” Primal stuff. And, with a nod to Weiner’s employment of the word “flavour,” I’ve never thought about whether those are roast beef sandwiches or hummus and pita. When a word like “sandwiches” can nestle into the syntax of a line like that, when it feels like the right word, more so in this instance than “lovers” or “corpses” or “ragweed” would, the world does become a more mysterious, varied and exciting place. And that mystery is—to borrow part of a phrase from Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air — a “stay against the tyranny” of the language of tax returns, punditry, consumer reports, etc. It is one of poetry’s powers.
SW: You recently ventured up the Grand River by canoe with a handful of other great poets as part of the Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour. I heard Linda Besner on the radio talking about her experience reading in rural communities along the way – she said the response was amazing, and that she felt “People’s connection to poetry is underestimated.” How was your experience, and how what was it like for you to read from Earworm in this context?
NT: The Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour was something I signed on to do at the very last minute, as a fill-in for a poet who couldn’t make it. I was living in a dark basement sublet in Toronto that I was starting to have trouble leaving during the day. The poets—Linda Besner, Helen Guri, Leigh Kotsilidis, Asa Boxer, Gabe Foreman and Daniel Renton—and the musician—Abigail Lapell—were all terrific, and there was something special about hearing nearly an entire collection read to you in increments by the author each evening, after a long day on the water. There were a lot of unique experiences with audience members; I think Linda mentioned the security guard in the radio interview. He stopped his car in front of the ice cream parlour where we were reading, ran towards the few of us milling around out front and recited the poem he’d written for his wife who passed away 17 years earlier. Then he very sincerely apologized for having to work that night and miss the reading, wished us well, and ran back to his car. He had tears in his eyes. It was amazing.
Admittedly, there were a few self-conscious moments when I was less sure that there would be very much connective tissue between the poems from Earworm and the ears of some of the audiences; more than I might have had had the readings taken place in urban environments. But, mostly, I just felt a lot of peace. Every night someone had something good to say about our event, and every night someone walked out of the venue with a book of poetry. And even if we had only read to the organizers and a couple of empty lawn chairs every night—the sheer fact that eight people in their thirties would jump into canoes for ten days to go read poems in ice cream parlours and beneath covered bridges would have made me feel just fine about people’s connection to contemporary poetry. They’re all fine writers and musicians, but I’m rooting for that gang as people too.
SW: Earworm, the thing that’s stuck in your head that you can’t name, is (for this reader) an engaging theme, and the poems here keep their promise – there’s a willingness on the poet’s part to guess, and guess again. In the first poem, the speaker inhabits a painting by Edward Hopper. In other poems, Aerosmith & Springsteen make appearances. Caravaggio, Mark Strand. Cartier-Bresson. What is it about other artist’s work that draws your attention? Does this kind of reverberation tie back in with your theme?
NT: Earworm is a loan translation from the German ohrwurm. I overheard someone talking about it while I was working at the Bloor West Village location of Book City in Toronto and knew right away that it was going to be the title of a poem, and then the title of my book. It never really presented itself as a theme for the other poems. Even as I was finishing the last few poems at NYU last winter, it often felt like, thematically, I was wrenching some of them into the manuscript with a crowbar. But “earworm” did present itself as a kind of invitation. I was going to try on different voices, personas, different forms. I was going to throw the whole kitchen sink in there as far as whose work I was reading or looking at. I thought that as long as I wasn’t trying to be showy or irreverent, there might be something between them that stuck.
I’m a magpie. I’m online. I’m attention deficit. I have selective memory. I don’t think in a linear way. I work hard anyway. Attention is multivalent. It isn’t just memory-recall, or knowing how the thing got moved from point A to point B. Other people write about this more eloquently: Jan Zwicky, John Berger…I have to trust that other people, readers, can relate. I used to be hard on myself for not remembering the plots of novels, the names of characters. Now I read accepting the fact that those things will leave me, sometimes the very next day. So when I’m digging up subjects for poems, when I’m entering a relationship with another artist’s work, whatever the genre, I’m never really digging up the whole whale: just an eyeball, or a piece of the jaw. Sometimes I don’t even get down to the carcass. I mistakenly hook into a boot, or a photo by Cartier-Bresson I remember seeing. Bingo. Reverb. Off we go.
SW: One final question for you, Nick. What’s it like in Fredericton today?
NT: It’s Labour Day. Overcast. I can hear wind in trees. I want to mow the lawn, but the downstairs neighbour has the dog he shares with his ex out back, and it’ll probably nip at my heels the whole time. I’ll wait a while. Sue made homemade bread. Three loaves. It’s her mom’s recipe, one she came up with by herself. The whole house smells delicious. I want to eat bread all day.
Sheryda Warrener is the author of Hard Feelings (Snare Books, 2010). Her poetry appeared in EVENT magazine most recently in issue 40:1. She Lives in Vancouver, B.C.