by Jesse Nathan and H. L. Hix | Contributing Writers
Though the two of us have not known one another in person—we are not the same age, didn’t go to school together, live in different time zones—we have known of one another for years through our work. So when one of us (Hix) read the other’s (Nathan’s) new book, Eggtooth, that Frank Bidart calls a “brilliant rethinking of what making a poem is,” not long before receiving copies of his own new book, Constellation, that Renée Ashley calls his “poem of a lifetime,” he proposed this conversation. A leisurely email exchange followed, exploring convergences and divergences in what we thought poetry helped us hear and see, what we hoped for from poetry, what kind of life poetry might impose or make possible.
H. L. Hix: By coincidence, the same day my copy of Eggtooth arrived, I got a letter from a marvelous poet friend with whom I correspond, Dante Di Stefano, in which he reflects on Carl Phillips’ fascination (in My Trade Is Mystery) “with the role of the first poem in a poet’s first book.” Dante’s reflections were in my mind when I started your book, and Robert Hass begins his foreword with an extensive rumination on the first poem in your book. And it is a poem worth lingering over. For instance, that very first sentence, “Young gray cat puddled under the boxwood, / only the eyes alert,” calls to mind for me Wittgenstein’s “What is the natural expression of an intention? — Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape.”
I don’t assume that you share Phillips’ idea that the first poem in our first book is “how we announce ourselves,” or even with Hass’s sense that the first poem in your book “is offered as a kind of opening note to the book,” but how would you talk about that poem? Is there a sense in which it is how you announce yourself? A way in which it is an opening note? Some altogether different way of describing it and/or its role?
Jesse Nathan: The natural expression of an intention is a very appealing way to put it, actually. It wasn’t the first poem in the book that I wrote, though. It emerged somewhere in the middle of the process—but then it became the way into this book. It seems to me it’s a little song introducing glimpses and rhythms of the world of the poems. A song about a very hot day. And about there being nothing to say, under certain circumstances. Or maybe something to sing, but nothing to say, hardly a mind to cohere. A little phrase or melody or riff. And I think many of the themes turned out to appear—or to glitter somewhere just under the surface—in that poem. And the character of the cat is all over this collection somehow. The poem has a slightly incantatory feeling to me. But an addled quality also. It’s a sensory poem. A poem about frailty. But the birds keep singing. I like the idea that this particular announcement is a kind of denouncement, or renouncement, of the poet’s own mind and capacities and bodily possibility. There is no poem if there is no body. With this poem the book begins with a kind of crumpling into muteness. If not a withdrawing, a kind of melting into submissive silence. At the same time a song is an outward gesture, even a song about failing to sing. But the making of a song—I don’t know—seems to me hopeful. Even if it’s a song of desolation. Unless like Yeats’s “Sad Shepherd” you are expecting some kind of coherent reply from the world commensurate with your song—then your hopes may be dashed. Which is not to say the opening poem in Eggtooth is entirely one of desolation, as far as I can tell. Anyway, I’m veering into philosophical realms. Which reminds me that one of the things I love about your work is its mixing of the sensuous with the philosophical. I love the fifteen-line sonnets that make up “Luminosities.” That title puts me in mind of Seamus Heaney or Czesław Miłosz. I’m wondering about the relationship between philosophy and poetry, for you? Or—maybe—what is the relationship between a line of philosophy and a line of poetry?
HH: Philosophy and poetry often are construed (and practiced, and institutionalized) with emphasis on their distinction from one another and their contrast with one another. That emphasis has strong historical motivation: poetry’s origins are oral, and philosophy begins with writing. The younger always want to differentiate themselves from the older, so I get it why philosophy as an academic discipline likes to put out that it is “rational” but poetry is (merely) “emotive,” and so on.
But I am drawn to ways in which philosophy and poetry lean on, “talk to,” even are one another. To judge by the etymologies of their names, the two categories need not be mutually exclusive: to love wisdom and to make can overlap, and that overlap is what holds my interest. So the biggest chunk of another book of mine just out this year, Say It Into My Mouth, is devoted to putting the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein into conversation with the poet Leslie Scalapino by juxtaposing such moments as Wittgenstein’s remark that “philosophy ought really to be written as a poetic composition” and Scalapino’s claim that “Poetry in this time and nation is doing the work of philosophy.”
I want to be able to see the Critique of Pure Reason as no less a making than Paradise Lost, and Lucille Clifton’s “study the masters” as no less a wisdom-love than Philippa Foot’s Virtues and Vices. And I want my own makings to be wisdom-loves, and vice versa.
That’s an impulse I see in Eggtooth (without assuming you would speak of it in the same way). So I certainly read, say, “A Country Funeral” as made (it reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia”), but also as wisdom-loving (its adult speaker’s assimilation of others’ perspectives: his child self’s, his mother’s, his cousins’, …). You used the terms “sensory” and “sensuous” just now, and I’m inclined to say that sensory experience underlies both the made-ness and the wisdom-love of “A Country Funeral” (and of the poems in Eggtooth generally). Is that too contrived, or does it feel in any way consonant with your experience as the writer of the poems?
JN: I was just reading Jorie Graham’s account of sensation as a kind of check on intellect. And also its precursor, its progenitor, and its partner. The idea is that sensation leads to a feeling, an emotion, and thought develops out of—and because of—emotion. Making a poem—and reading a good one—is for me a very creaturely experience. When I’m writing, I move feelingly. It’s physical, composition is. And I’ve had trouble in my life with taking, say, history as an academic subject. I love history, but I want to understand what history feels like. That’s data that I think I need more of. Pure information is not the only kind of information I value, or even the kind I value most. On the other hand, I think one of the things that draws me to someone like John Donne is the way thinking and feeling in his work—and in so much of my favorite poetry—are one. I feel my feelings and I think my thoughts but I also think my feelings and feel my thoughts. The quick action of the mind—and the languor of that same mind—can feel to me a sensuous, sensational experience. There’s a recent book that I think is this, is a great example of what I’m talking about: Rachel James’s Eros Encyclopedia. At some point I realized that I was not a historian. I was not a scientist. But I would do a kind of science, a kind of history by way of poetry. Which is to say what bothered me about those methods in their common forms—what made them difficult for me to inhabit, though thank god for real scientists and real historians—was the way they were interested in knowledge, if that’s the word, that leaves out the body, which is subjective and singular. And the subjective and the singular are just what electrify me.
You use the word wisdom, which is a word I love and also feel uneasy with. Which is to say I am hungry for wise poems—perhaps especially the irreverently wise, the profanely wise—but always a little sheepish about using that word, even though it’s an apt description of one of the things I read for. Flashes of articulated clarity, or deep information, that can go by the name of wisdom. I wish I could break off all the tendentiousness that word conjures up, and just keep the desperately valuable hard-won sweet juice wrung from the briefness that is human life. And as I say this I find myself very curious about how you relate to that word. And how Constellation relates to that word. When humans traveled by way of the knowledge of the stars, constellations were a wisdom you could live off of.
HH: It’s easy to forget (or hard to recognize?) that our terms for mental functions impose divisions: they don’t identify divisions that are “really” already there. We impose boundaries that divide the land into nations, into states, and so on, but the boundaries could have been drawn differently, and have been drawn differently in the past. The 42nd parallel wasn’t “out there” in the world until humans made it up, and it didn’t divide Oregon from California until a bunch of bigwigs said it did. Oregon and California are not what philosophers call “natural kinds,” things that existed prior to human categorization and that human categories identify: they’re contrived, not found; made up, not discovered. Same with our categories for mental functions. There’s no dividing line between “feelings” and “thoughts” until we put one there.
I share your impulse to maintain, even as we use distinctions such as feeling/thought, the recognition that they’re made up. And I share your sense that poetry can be a means of facilitating one’s experience of the continuity that is “underneath” the artificially-imposed partitionings.
So I love your elegant formulation: I do want Constellation to open onto “a wisdom you could live off of,” and I feel the same urge at work in Eggtooth. I do want the unity of thinking and feeling you say you seek, and see in John Donne. Could you talk more about Donne in relation to Eggtooth? I feel his presence throughout: in the form(s) of the poems, in their spirit. If “A Country Funeral” has a very John Donne stanza form, the poem on the facing page, “Boy With Thorn,” has a very John Donne “metaphysical” air. And so it goes throughout the book. I guess this is “the influence question” and “the form question” all rolled up in one!
JN: More than a decade ago, I wrote a poem in the Donne stanza, which he uses in just a few poems, most famously in “The Good Morrow.” I don’t remember why I reached for that particular poet or that particular stanza. It was an instinctual and groping gesture. Felt right, I imagine, and so I felt my way forward. But for whatever reason, that’s what I landed on. And I wrote what would become “Song on the Distance.” That was a time when I was imitating willy-nilly, reading across various traditions and trying things out, all kinds of different modes and forms. Anyway, the shape of that particular stanza—my version of Donne’s idea—allowed me to articulate the feeling of coming from here and there, of having one foot there and one foot here, to feel somehow the frisson and simultaneity of there-ness with here-ness. It allowed me to articulate the rhyming and unrhyming, the balancing and teetering, that manifest in my experience of connection between the two different languages, call them blue and red or here and there or prairie and coast. And that poem got published in the American Poetry Review in 2010 or so, and I moved on. And then sometime later, maybe around 2017 or so, it came back to mind, that poem and that shape, and I felt moved (by the feeling that it had succeeded in getting at something important) to try another in the form, and another, and another, and suddenly I realized I was training upon the prairie of my boyhood an instrument from Renaissance England designed not so much for storytelling as for cogitation, for thinking-through. So I was between narrative and meditation, with this device, and still not sure why I was using it, but I kept using it, or maybe it kept using me. A friend described it to me recently as a “stylization of felt alienation.” I was, when I arrived in Kansas as a boy, an alien in a beautiful but dangerous land, and here I was years later trying with an alien device to see myself and my world and my condition in it. Not so much to explain myself to the world, but to explain the world to myself. And something about the oddity—the misfitness of the stanza, the fact that it was designed in a faraway time and place—makes it for me a perfect device for registering what my friend called “felt alienation.” Or, rather, the mixture of exuberance, freedom, joy, and alienation that I have wanted to represent, which is to say my experience of being both of that place and a stranger to it. I have often felt that my only homeland is language.
I’m moved by the idea of locating the self, and I wonder if that’s what were all trying to do—not just writers—a lot of the time, all of our days. That, or trying to hide the self from the self, which is another kind of locating, or dislocating. I wanted to ask you about the second section of Constellation, “Candescences.” More light. The candescences that help us locate ourselves—that’s what I guess I was getting at in “Yardlight,” by the way. But in your sequence of—paragraphs? chunks of text? stanzas?—you use boldface to highlight one line in each segment. How did that come about? It feels like a brilliant way of repurposing the idiom of, say, press releases, which I’ve seen using boldface to draw our eyes to certain text. On the other hand, I remember that Basquiat said he crossed words out because then people would look at what he crossed out all the more closely. I’m curious to hear how you arrived at this form, in this section, and how the boldface lines live with the rest of the text. And what is “interiority”? And why keep it “interior”?
HH: I share your sense that we are all of us all the time trying to locate the self, whatever else we are also doing, and however we might describe a given decision or undertaking. Trying to locate the self is not something we do apart from or in contrast to our other projects, but something we do as and through all our thoughts and actions. “Somebody Blew Up America” may not be trying to locate the self in the same way that “Lady Lazarus” is, or “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” but it is no less at work locating the self than they are. Locating the self doesn’t have to be what Baraka would identify as the poem’s primary purpose, or what a reader would identify as the poem’s primary effect, to be happening in the poem and through the poem.
My undergrad British Lit survey professor, Miss Wilson (may she rest in peace), used to trot out often the formulation that there are only three conflicts in literature: with oneself, with society, and with God. It’s one of those elegant oversimplifications that, as long as one doesn’t lean on it too heavily or too exclusively, can usefully highlight interesting aspects of a work. And we could concoct a correlative here: one can (one must? one in fact always does?) locate oneself in relation to oneself, to society, and to God (or Nature, or whatever name one applies to the all-encompassing). It makes for tidy classification: the Plath poem foregrounds the self in relation to itself, the Baraka in relation to society, the Donne in relation to God. It doesn’t have to be the only thing, or even the primary thing, the poem is doing, to be a thing the poem is doing. Baraka’s poem critiques society, but in doing so it also locates the self (Baraka’s, the reader’s, …) in relation to society.
It’s similarly oversimplifying to say I wanted “Luminosities” to feel formal, and “Candescences” by contrast to feel informal, but it’s not untrue, and the bolded passages (I hope) play into that, by inviting the kinds of questions you’re raising. Are those paragraphs? chunks of text? stanzas? Are the bolded sentences titles? “thesis sentences”? And so on.
It would be oversimplifying, too, to focus exclusively on the structuring of “Yardlight” by/as a conceit, but I take it as — forgive me! — illuminating. “Yardlight” reminds me of William Meredith’s “The Illiterate”: announce the comparison quickly at the start, and then run with it. But also, of course, in the context of this conversation, with Donne. We noted earlier the formal affinity between the poems in Eggtooth and Donne’s poems. Is a structural affinity one source of the “satisfying hitch / and hum” that I experience in the poems in Eggtooth, and that I take as one of your ideals or ambitions in the poems?
JN: I see how it can be read that way, and I like that. I hadn’t consciously considered that before, but it seems accurate. The poem itself was a gift. It arrived in that sort of flash of language you’re only rarely lucky enough to receive. I heard a voice. This one came later in the process of writing the book. I had gotten hooked on the whole business of these farmyard lights. Across the open prairie you can see them miles away. Solitary lights, signaling a farm here or there, separated by tundras of darkness. They have a greenish-yellow glow that’s a little bit eerie but for me quite familiar at this point. A lonely steadiness. Almost neon, an unblinking steadfast bushel of light hanging over the yards. They’re often in automatic mode, coming on gradually as the dusk deepens. But if you want to see the stars—an incredible sight in rural Kansas, with far less city light to diffuse them—you might keep the light on manual, in which case you’d turn it on when you were ready to walk back to the house. It can be very dark out there, especially if there’s no moon. And I used to love turning it on, there was a huge switch, it almost didn’t seem to want to budge, it resisted a little the push you’d give it, and then it would suddenly slip, with a small thud, into place, and the whole light-making apparatus would hum to life up over your head. That figure—that experience—came to mind, of its own accord, when I was given a great gift of inspiration by a beloved friend. He said a few words that clarified—triggered, even—my sense of the shape of the entire manuscript. Where I wanted to go with it, that sort of thing. And I’ve always admired the idea of a conceit. Donne was brilliant with them. An extended metaphor can be thrilling. The capacity for making metaphor, it seems to me, is profoundly and particularly human, and the conceit is a particularly exhilarating instance of that, when it works.
The other thing I would say is that “Yardlight” may also be a poem about the force—the luminescent flash—of feeling. I walk around a lot of the time feeling like I’m brimming with feeling and have no words or physical expression for it, no way to represent it. Sometimes it feels like I might explode. An inner trembling—sometimes joy, sometimes despair, anger, fear, anxiety, longing, general excitement, concern of various sorts, all the usual suspects, sometimes my mind is racing with felt thoughts and thought feelings, the voices in there talking over one another—but the point is that I usually have a sense of almost-too-much feeling thrumming through me, and meanwhile I seem to appear placid on the surface. That’s what people tell me. That I seem to be in repose. Some old defense mechanism, some fear of showing my feeling, keeps me looking taciturn or easygoing. So when, for instance, I shared with my family the recent news of our new baby coming, they commented on how casual I seemed. Which I felt a little sad about, because I felt anything but casual inside, I felt full of momentousness and high sentence. And I got to wondering if this situation is one of the reasons poetry is part of my survival. That is to say, poetry promises a form for transcribing some of that intensity. And form, or rich thick language, or sonic layering—poetry itself—becomes, in part, a sign of the intense feeling I experience a lot of the time. I’m so curious, do you have this experience?
And I wanted, at the same time, to ask you a little bit about process. And the experience of process. How did Constellation come to be? And to what extent do you aim for readers to get to experience the process of thought, the feel of thinking, the coming-into-being of the poetry as they read?
HH: Yes, yes: intense feeling, to which given tags (“joy,” “despair,” and so on) and received modes of expression (institutional religion, social media, and so on) seem inadequate. Against that inadequacy of the given and received (epitomized by emojis), making (that originary sense of poesis) has been my recourse. Listening for language enlushed with such qualities as you mention — form, richness, thickness, layering — has been for me a way to try to experience my experience.
Constellation comes from that urge to pay attention, so in terms of process it siblings Eggtooth, as you’re reporting its origins. There must be millions of farmyard lights of the sort you describe, and countless millions of related yard lights and porch lights, which means there are millions of us driving past farmyard lights without noticing them, and turning urban/suburban porch lights on and off without experiencing the experience the way you have experienced your experience of the yardlight.
To indicate affinity of origin, a representative anecdote for me would be that there was a period a few years ago when I was taking my weekly long run along a railroad bed outside of town. (It’s a lot safer than running on any of the highways into and out of the small town in which I live, but at some point I heard it was illegal to run along the tracks, so I do my running elsewhere now.) The railroad bed is gravel, but as I ran I started to see lots of other things in the gravel: discarded railroad spikes and so on. Which prompted such moments as the “Glory be to God for scattered things” riff early (p. 12) in “Luminosities.” (As Donne for you, so Hopkins for me.) And the preoccupation with fossils, by connection with memories of looking for tiny fossils in the gravel of driveways of the rental houses my family lived in when I was a kid.
It’s a way of taking seriously the premise that gets scientific formulation as fractal self-similarity at all scales, and poetic formulation in Blake’s will to see the world in a grain of sand: the sense that to really inhabit any one moment of my life is to more fully dwell in the whole. And that to savor what I can perceive is to praise what I can’t.
Again, I don’t think this impulse behind Constellation is unique to me. I’m guessing that you would respond in a way that has points of similarity, if I redirected your question back at you: how did Eggtooth come to be? The paying-attention that informs “Yardlight” is not anomalous: it’s throughout the book. I’m looking, for example, at “Pastoral” and the precision of stepping in rather than stepping on the dead bird …
JN: The bird had really become an open, involved thing. No longer a closed object, but a little city of activity. Flies and ants and every manner of bug and beetle. It was a little festival. And it had all happened so fast. The evening before I had been on that swing as the breeze picked up, and that baby bird had been up in the branches in its nest. And here it was being ravaged, returned to constituent parts. There’s something cruel in the summary of it. But the farm is full of those more direct encounters with the facts of life, for me anyway, than the city is, although the city has its own set of facts, which can be quite stark and bracingly fresh. I always laugh when I see someone pick up their dog’s shit in a park around here—around the Bay Area—because no farmer in the entire state would get that close to their dog’s doings. If they had to pick it up they’d pick it up with a long pole.
I don’t know quite how Eggtooth came to be. It feels both inevitable and chosen. It feels like it happened to me as much or—more—than something I created. Or at the least that creation is coeval with my life itself, just a part of what I seem to have to do to live. Or at least feel myself. I think in some ways I’ve spent years looking for a groove, or a vein, to sink into and stay with for as long as I could. And in Eggtooth I found that, by way of various almost occult forms of inducement and searching. By going repeatedly out into the middle of the field in, so to speak, the height of the lightning storm, hoping to get struck. And now I’m looking for another groove, another vein. And it’s painful not to be in one, even though in my life they are very rare—those streaks of fluency.
Do you write steadily? Every day? Or are periods of fallowness part of your rhythm? I find that some of my best work is done in serial, even if I break it up later. The Donne stanza, for instance. Though I still dream of the stand-alone lyric.
HH: I do write every day, a practice made possible by my present good fortune of many “favoring winds”: a “room of one’s own” in which to write, supportive domestic circumstances that do not include childcare responsibilities but do feature a generous and understanding partner, employment into which the work of writing can be integrated, and so on. What works for me in sustaining the daily practice is writing in the very early morning. I once took lessons in classical guitar, and even though the music instruction itself didn’t stick (I can no more play “Canarios” than I can jump over the moon), I took to heart a piece of advice my teacher once offered: whatever you value most, do it first. Work early enough in the morning, and no one will ever interrupt you with a phone call or schedule a committee meeting that conflicts with your writing time!
As your framing of the question indicates, how one writes is connected to what one writes. Like you, I tend to work in serial, and (for all my love of stand-alone lyrics by others) I conceive of the book rather than the individual poem as, for me, the basic unit of poetry, a valuation for which my origin story has to do with music. Maybe my first real assertion of spiritual/cultural/intellectual autonomy, my first choice of “oblique culture” over “vertical culture” (doing what parents and teachers said to do) and “horizontal culture” (doing what my peers were doing), was an affinity for the “concept album.” (Not an impressive achievement, I know, but I was not a precocious kid: I was a late bloomer, not a prodigy at anything!) It only got expressed then as preference (playing Dark Side of the Moon over and over) and as a feeling of individuation (an exaggerated sense that I was doing what I wanted to do, rather than what I was told to do or what others around me were doing). I couldn’t have articulated then what I take now as the value judgment I was leaning into: appreciation of work in which the organizing principle of the whole affects the content, too, not only the sequencing, of the parts. I wouldn’t have predicted that what I was playing air guitar to at 15 would influence what through my whole adulthood I would understand as my life work.
You must have analogous origin stories: past experiences that at the time had nothing to with poetry, but that now you see as having influenced your poetry. Or are you one of those who “always knew” you were a poet, who read and wrote poetry from a young age?
JN: No, I had no conception of what a poet was—was only dimly aware of the distinct art form of poetry, though I’m sure I encountered and loved poems here and there, or at least loved words. I drew a lot. I studied piano and clarinet. I tried so many different things. I’m curious, sometimes too curious for my own good. I suppose the constant was that I was making things, aesthetic things, images and stories and bobs of lyric, in one form or another. But it wasn’t until I was almost thirty that I could call myself a poet. I thought the word was so pretentious and even a little embarrassing. But at thirty, living in Paris, I accepted my fate.
I guess because it’s a first book, I’m tempted to say that Eggtooth came about because I came about. To say that it stands for everything—encompasses everything—I’ve lived so far. But then I also think that’s not true, or an oversimplification, and that it in fact came out of specific obsessions and evolutions in my being. When I first started writing poetry with any seriousness I was drawn to mysterious leaps, disruption, wordplay, disjunction, and other traditions of the so-called avant-garde. I don’t know if I thought the things I was writing then were cool, or if they really did something interesting for me, or both. Probably both. Anyway at some point I realized that what really electrified me was poetry—art of any sort—that seemed rooted in representing tangible experiences, realistic settings. Not, hopefully, without some of the mystery of leaping poetry, the electricity of association—but more grounded in what I had earlier thought was boring: the real. The coherent. The ordinary. I came to see my everyday life—and, for instance, my life on the farm in Kansas—not to mention the work of representing it in, I hope, vivifying ways—as a kind of gold. And I came to see a fair amount of my earlier messing around—like whole swathes of contemporary poetry—as a form of vanity. Being weird as a way of rejecting conventional life, or one’s parents, or middle class existence. A form of cliquish provocation, really. Which is fine, in some cases, but a pretty limited kind of art, I think.
At the same time I started to understand the ways that inherited forms can, if they feel urgent, unlock mysteries, or paths to mysteries—can make it possible to say things I never could’ve said, or known that I had in me. I had become obsessed with the Donne stanza, and at the same time had spent some time back on my parent’s farm. And so I had a whole bunch of notes, and I had a formal preoccupation, and when I got the gift of time by way of a major fellowship, I was suddenly—it was almost unconscious—writing the poems that became Eggtooth. I like to think they are as ancient as they are contemporary. I still love Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. And I still often write in some form of what’s commonly called free verse. But I realized that coolness, for the most part, disgusts me. I think it’s a disease of conformity. Or a sort of armor designed to keep the world at bay, an armor that interferes with curiosity, with the discovery of new things, and with the opening of the kind of vulnerability out of which I think the greatest art springs. So when I let go of my need to be cool—at a spiritual level as much as at a social level—which is to say I let go of the need to fit in, something that has plagued me all through my misfit childhood—that’s also when I started to write poems that I really loved.
I’m curious how any of this strikes you. Do you know what I mean when I say “coolness”? Does it have any use to you, for you?
HH: The pull of the cool is strong on us all, but I share your sense that one does well to resist it. Coolness (in poetry as anywhere else) is a kind of currency, and like other currencies it has only instrumental value, no intrinsic value, so it is susceptible to corruption. Its being a currency means I wish my poetry were cooler like I wish my job paid more. Not being cool means my books don’t sell well or get reviewed, and not being rich means my house doesn’t have an ocean view and my car is twenty years old.
Both currencies, coolness and money, have a strong appeal, and both do have instrumental value. I wish the New York Times Book Review reviewed my books, and I wish my house had a garage. But in both cases I believe it would be a mistake to treat the means as an end: to decide on a job only, or even primarily, because it paid more, or to write in a certain way only or primarily because it’s cooler. Sara Ahmed is especially wise about the high moral and spiritual stakes of fitting in or not fitting in. Her “feminist killjoy” and “affect alien” are misfits, and she is very lucid about the implications of whether and how and why and with whom one does not fit in.
This concern arises in Eggtooth explicitly. I’m thinking, for instance, of the incident of tacks-in-a-chair narrated in “Scouts” and later alluded to in “Between States,” the speaker’s younger self doing something cruel to distance himself from an uncool schoolmate. That incident’s place in Eggtooth makes me think of the place of the pear theft in Augustine’s Confessions. It’s a life project for Augustine: how to metamorphose from one who did steal a pear into one who would not. Is there some sense in which it is a kind of life project for Jesse Nathan, how to metamorphose from one who did put tacks in a fellow student’s chair into one who would not? To put this in terms of Frank Bidart’s observation that poems make “gestures of ritual injunction — curse; exorcism; prayer,” is this one ritual injunction in Eggtooth? Or, yet again (choose your form of the question!), by analogy with Lucille Clifton’s “apology,” in which, referring to her past, she says, “i grieve my whiteful ways,” is Eggtooth grieving your past coolful ways?
JN: The question reminds me of the way in which, for me, poetry—or the poems that I write—seem as much a side effect of a life lived, or an afterglow, or maybe the metaphor is something more mineral: a trace. A trace of a living. The footsteps in the snow. I think of George Oppen, or Lorine Niedecker, or in a more twisted way, Gerard Hopkins—the poems not as the focal point of a career, but as the offspring of an existence. I find myself wanting to revise my life, year after year, hour by hour, in all kinds of ways. I’m hungry for it, even as I want to hold onto what doesn’t need revision. I’m grateful for the insight, the chance to change. If I can become a different person—a person I can better live with—I think that person will emerge not only in my day-to-day life, not only in encounters with strangers and friends and beloveds, but by way of the poems, too. That changed person will have something to say. It’s about the quarrel, as Yeats says, with the self, within the self, which is where poetry—and ethics—spring from. So, yes, it is a life project, it’s the work of shaping a soul, my soul, the active making and remaking of a self toward a moral end—and poems are part of the record of that process for me. Records wrenched from the fires and catastrophes and triumphs of that process.
That process includes holding up a mirror, and not looking away. The question for me is not so much what do I see when I look in the mirror, but what do I do with that sight. How do I respond to it. What rituals—I love Frank’s word here—does it draw up out of me? What curses, prayers, exorcisms, or embraces? Do I try to deny its existence? Do I try to distort it? I hope not. I hope at the least I have the strength to not look away, to describe and study it, try to understand it—even when the moral or existential face I see there seems deeply ugly or marred in one way or another.
All of this is to say, poetry—artmaking—is indeed mixed up for me with the question of morals. The question of right living. The question of what kind of human culture we want to construct. Is it to be a culture in which children—and adults—learn empathy, sympathy, compassion, grace, and so forth? Or one in which violence continues to play a dominant role in how we solve our problems? “Scouts” was very painful to write. And I will say that I think it was precisely the desperate desire to be liked—to be perceived as cool by the cool people—that partly drove the behavior in that poem. So it’s not that that boy who laid tacks on the outcast’s chair was already cool and being a bully, it’s that he wanted to be cool, and he resorted, as kids do, to whatever cutthroat tactic seemed like it might lead there—and, for the record, it didn’t get him anywhere, because the cool kids just move on to the next spectacle. But it did leave him as demeaned, in his soul, as his victim. Or more so. After I wrote “Scouts,” my impulse was to bury it—I wrote it almost to get it out of myself. I showed it to someone dear, and the response was: this is worth sharing, and I trust that response and so put it in the book. It was one of the last things to slip in under the wire. It’s written in four-line stanzas, in a plain language, almost as if the form itself were trying to resist anything but the directness of confession. I think of quatrains as tending toward the sturdy, the reliable, the steady.
“Between States” was a different kind of experience—ecstatic and overflowing, and inclusive of so much, reaching back to touch so many of the poems in the book. It’s funny to think, though, that I wrote “Between States” before I wrote “Scouts.” So, the reference preceded the poem that referenced it—perhaps it conjured it forth, or maybe it was like the wick that got lit and lead to the dynamite. I want to say also that I will defend art for art’s sake not because I’m trying to free it of moral or ethical responsibilities, but precisely because beauty is such a powerful path directly into the moral questions. Language, especially beautiful language, can sometimes wake us up, and put us in the place of alertness whereby we are dilated, opened to an understanding. It’s not as simple as beauty being truth, sometimes it’s quite the opposite it seems to me, but there is a relationship there, and part of the work is in sorting it out.
So if I’m going to write another book of poems, which I’m hopeful for, I imagine I’ll have to become another person, which is to say imagine myself a new person, in various ways. New person, new poems. If for example I’m able to deepen my study of botany, partly out of a sense that the natural world is urgently calling out for a different human response to it, that changes me—it changes me to know more of the names and ways of the plants in my community—and I’m certain it changes my poetry, too.
Jesse Nathan was raised in northern California and rural Kansas. His poems appear in the New York Review of Books, the Paris Review, and other magazines. He teaches poetry at UC Berkeley.
H. L. Hix’s other recent books include an edition and translation of The Gospel that merges canonical with noncanonical sources in a single narrative, and refers to God and Jesus without assigning them gender, and a hybrid work, Say It Into My Mouth, composed almost exclusively of quoted material. He teaches philosophy and creative writing at a state university in the Mountain West.