I’m very interested in completely losing a sense of time and scale with my images.
In part two of a two part interview, Howard Altmann talks to poet D. Nurkse about his ruthless youth, the astonishing nature of snails, and teaching at Riker’s Island.
New York Live Arts presents
Howard Altmann Let’s go to “The Granite Coast”—a poem in the voice of a snail, a poem that ends your eighth book, Burnt Island. “We are like you/because we scrape/these boulders with sharp/coiled tongues/which we roll progressively/as our mouths wear out/when you open us/you find the cliff inside us/though we are tiny/as an eyelash.” Snails. What are you up to here?
D. Nurkse Well, I think it was amazing, post 9/11, to live in a world of fundamentalism and consumerism. They both seem so joyless yet nature is so utterly unbelievable. When I was writing Burnt Island I was reading all these books on nature and science, about all these amazing creatures like sentient slime molds, little snails that live in bubbles, spiders that orbit the earth, five miles above the earth, driven by the wind and never to return. Astonishing.
HA I must be candid: some of my very favorite poems of yours are contained in the last suite of Burnt Island. Which is edifying, to me, as I remember not taking to them when the book first came out.
DN Half the critics liked it and half of them didn’t. Which is instructive if you’re ever a poet tempted to please everybody. There were a lot of critics, I am definitely not going to name them, they still might be right, who said: (ominous voice) “If you are tempted to read a poem in the voice of a snail get this book.”
HA To me it’s all part of a larger theme of yours about the fragility of life, whether it’s the Estonian couple in Voices Over Water, your decades long work in human rights, the snails in Burnt Island. May we explore this? Yes, your father died when you were eight, and that makes life very fragile for a child, but what else was going on for D. Nurkse?
DN Some of this I’m probably not going to know. My father wasn’t a poor man, he was an intellectual, but he grew up in desperate poverty. My father used to go to the store and put food on the tab without authorization. He might be beaten because people found out he had been charging bread to their family and eating it on the way home.
HA And these stories were communicated to you by your father?
DN I guess, they’re sort of stories that happen in a lot of silence, but when you’re a kid you hear them and then you latch onto them, but I mean it’s an interesting thought. I was at a poetry reading, and there was somebody in the audience, had no idea who it was, struck me as sort of a passerby, who said, You write a lot about elm trees. Do you write about elm trees because they are in danger? Is it the fragility that attracts you? I thought, Yes! You’re absolutely right. It is the fragility that attracts me.
HA When did you decide, I want be a poet.
DN Long before my father died. When I was four or five.
HA Were you writing then?
DN I was.
HA Most people aren’t reading until age six.
DN Well, I don’t mean to exaggerate.
HA Exaggerate, Dennis!
DN Well, in my head I was writing novels.
HA What was brewing in your head predating the death of your father? You say you were already inventing stories.
DN When my father died it was a loss I felt responsible for. I thought I had precipitated it by thinking, When my father dies, I’ll have a lot of material to write about. (laughter)
HA It reminds me of that incredibly stirring poem by Natasha Tretheway, Elegy, where she talks about fly fishing with her father, and while she’s fishing thinking how she is going to write about the experience one day in a poem, confessing, I was that ruthless.
DN Yeah, I love Natasha Tretheway, that’s an amazing poem.
HA Yeah, but she was an adult! You were eight, and you were already thinking that! (laughter)
DN Yeah, but she was just looking at it from a different vantage point in time.
HA An eight-year old and you’re already thinking, I have a rich story to tell: my father’s passed away.
DN I didn’t think it after he died, I thought it before he died: that it would make a good story. After he died I felt guilty about that. It was a combination of feeling loss and feeling like I was the cause of it a little bit, which gave me a sense of poetry being both powerful and dangerous. It was perhaps why I wanted to stay away from the Academy and work in the factory rather than get an MFA.
HA When did you write your first poem?
DN I don’t know, but when I was a kid I was published in something called Shankar’s Indian Weekly which was a magazine of international children’s poems in India, and it is probably still my largest circulation publication. (laughter) I was probably six or seven.
HA Did your parents read poetry?
DN My parents certainly did. My parents were very empathetic people, and I remember how important poetry was to them. My father was also a musician, he would come home and practice all day, and I would hide under the piano and listen to him practicing.
HA You’ve talked about poetry as being a conversation, a conversation with the mysterious. In your book The Fall I’d like to read the beginning of the poem, Cat’s Eye.
My father waved good-bye.
I didn’t wave back,
scared I might drop
my new cold smoky marble.
You end with:
Even in sleep
my hands had not opened.
A chilling poem, the reader fixed on a specific image, and it all feels very true, very organic. As you continue to write how does the conversation between you as the writer and the mysterious other, the reader—does it change over time? If yes, how?
DN There isn’t a teleology to it, at least there isn’t as I can see. There isn’t a purposeful development. The trial and error of being a writer: following something down the path and thinking it’s a conversation then you realize you’re just listening to yourself. I’m sort of fascinated by the poet George Herbert, the British metaphysical poet. What he was sort of doing in his devotional life was speaking to God, but then always thinking that he was fooling himself, that it was just himself answering, not God, which is a very modern frame of mind. You know you can have the conversation and just, I can fool myself that it’s the other but it’s really just my own projection or my own need, so it could seem like it’s working, but it’ll be something that I have to abandon. I mean not to be so pedantic about it, but where we are in history, where we kind of know ourselves as two brains, we have two brains in our mind, they’re kind of identical except one is animal and reptilian and the other is observing the animal brain saying, Wow that’s totally uncontrollable, but I’ll make it into some sort of narrative so it seems to make sense. And it seems to me knowing ourselves now, as just out of control bundles of history, it just makes poetry so important—that way of accessing this subconscious so at least next time we make a catastrophic decision at least we have some idea of why we’re doing it. I think back to the The Bacchae, that Greek myth where the woman beheads her son and parades through the village saying, “I’ve killed the monster!” When I look at our political life, and in some ways our cultural life, it’s all like that. We’re obeying these instinctive drives and then creating these narratives that seem half way plausible, but we don’t quite believe in them. We all know that the sea is rising.
HA Which brings me back to that third suite in Burnt Island, the nature of man personified by a snail, a worm, the Earth seen from a molecular level, an allegory for the universe, a lens for the reader to take a fresh look at how man thinks of himself, how man continues to self-destruct.
DN The first suite in Burnt Island is Manhattan after 9/11, the second suite is an actual burnt island—well maybe not, but it’s an actual island in Maine—and the third suite would be the Earth itself and global warming.
HA Dennis, you have a tenth book?
DN There’s another book called A Night In Brooklyn. It has a lot of poems about work and work in Brooklyn. A book kind of wants to have a foreground and a background so that it has a lot of poems which will be about the old country in relationship to Brooklyn. Maybe kind of a love poem motif, a little bit of preoccupation with global warming. I think in some ways I am thinking about Eros and death, referencing that Only the dead know Brooklyn, so a night in Brooklyn would be a kind of everlasting death.
HA Which poets do you find yourself returning to?
DN I’m so grateful for growing old with many poets.
HA Contemporary poets? Would you care to name a few?
DN Natasha Tretheway. Some younger poets like Cathy Park Hong, I think she is doing some very interesting work. Rachel Eliza Griffiths has a very lyrical voice. Suzanne Gardinier is also doing important lyrical work. Sometimes you feel a little constrained by the sort of American anecdotal realism. There are poets who can write things that are experimental or opaque that are interesting and not sort of conceptually experimental but emotionally experimental. Matthea Harvey’s book Modern Life.
HA Sarah Lawrence is your home now. Does teaching affect your writing?
DN I think it does, and it’s something I’m very grateful for. Teaching was sort of a windfall when I thought it would be a stopgap. I taught for many years at Riker’s Island. I taught at inner-city programs. I’ve taught at Sarah Lawrence and at the Rutgers MFA and Brooklyn MFA programs, and I always felt very privileged by the integrity of the students, the candor of the students. I would see an America that was very different from any America I would see in the streets or the media. I remember on Riker’s Island some of my students said, Promise me, Dennis that you won’t go to jail because you couldn’t handle it here. So I had to promise a bunch of gang members that I wasn’t going to do something stupid and end up in jail, but they were concerned for me. But they were also, very, very interested in poetry, not all of them by any means, but there were some of them, certainly, who would say, The purpose of my life was to come to Riker’s Island. The purpose of Riker’s Island was to discover poetry. That’s a heavy thing.
HA When I taught at a woman’s prison in Manhattan, it struck me that the prisoners, the poets, had no incentive to be anything other than truthful and blunt, pleasing no one but themselves, a kind of irreverence I felt harked back to childhood.
DN I might argue with that, as there’s macho peer group pressure. The macho thing that says I am not going to write a poem. Richard The Lionhearted was imprisoned for a while, and he wrote a poem and I would share it with the prisoners, the poem starts: “Never trust a poem written by a prisoner,” as a paraphrase, they are writing for a reason, and they might take up the persona of a victim because they want something from you. Those kids were very interesting. I remember we had a liberal talking to us about Nelson Mandela, and a poetry student said, But Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner, we’re just petty thieves! (laughter) I met a lot of brilliant, brilliant poets.
HA And they met you.
DN I remember a Black inner-city kid from Topeka, Kansas who once said, I’ve written a poem. I said, Can I see it? She says, It’s a really good poem, but it’s not going to be a famous poem.
HA Do you remember it?
DN “Just about average/but no two mirrors/show the same me.”
Howard Altmann ’s second collection of poems, In This House, was published by Turtle Point Press in the spring of 2010. His poems have appeared in assorted journals, including Poetry and Ploughshares. He is also the author of the play The Johnsons & The Thompsons (Playscripts, 2008). A native Montrealer, he lives in New York City.
I’m very interested in completely losing a sense of time and scale with my images.