Interview by Nick Sturm
Noah Falck is the author of Snowmen Losing Weight (BatCat Press, 2012). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Forklift Ohio, La Petite, Barn Owl Review, Fact-Simile, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. He works as Education Director at Just Buffalo Literary Center in Buffalo, New York.
Noah and I met when we both lived in Ohio. He came from Dayton to Akron as one of the first readers for The Big Big Mess Reading Series and exuded nothing but positive, supportive energy. Noah, like his poems, is attentive, compassionate, and attune to the well-being of those around him, as ready for raucousness as for a long talk into the night. He might not make a lot of noise, but when he does it’s measured out with heart and a faithful urgency. He is a poet thoroughly in support of poetry.
NS: What are you listening for when you read a poem? What implicates you, grabs hold of you, transforms you?
NF: I go inside a poem best when it is attempting to do something with the language I have never experienced before, emancipating the voice from the poet. Not necessary radical or experimental acts of language, simply language that is insisting me to follow. For me, a good example of this would be Peter Gizzi’s poem Plain Song: “Some say a baby cries for the life to come/some say leaves are green ‘cause it looks good against the/blue.” I am a sucker for the repetition of “some say.” It carries me. I want singing to happen. I want an urgency to engulf me. I want to be moved into an education. Gizzi’s poem does all of this for me.
When I was an elementary school teacher, I would always try to explain to my students that a poem should try it best to act like fresh air in a polluted city, which made sense to them as they were mostly of the urban crowd. Simply stated a poem should never be boring. It should constantly be reinventing the world. I know when a poem grabs me because it makes me feel like I found something that I never lost, like I have discovered an essential originality. Great poems interrupt science, and at times, swallow hangovers.
Your desire “to be moved into an education” by a poem seems related to your dedication to teaching elementary school students, though it seems teaching poetry to young students, especially the way you’re describing it, as an emotive experience, as a continuation of one’s daily experience of a landscape, is pretty rare. I wasn’t exposed to poetry until the 7th grade, but that experience has a lot to do with why I’m here talking to you at all. How did you approach teaching poetry to your students? What poems would you give them? What kind of projects would you assign?
The elementary crowd has always been playful and inventive, and are never tired when it comes to creating new art. It’s kind of awe-inspiring when being surrounded by little people who love exploring language as a natural part of their existence. So it was really a matter of slowly engaging them each day with poems that would help them in acts of self-discovery. Giving them poems that would both give them a jolt and make them question their original definition. Most of the students who came into my room already had poetry pinned in their heads as – “short sentences that rhyme.” And that’s fine. I like that they had that knowledge base, but I wanted them to question that definition. Is that all that poetry is? To answer that question we would explore as a group through a variety of mini-projects.
We would make collages from ancient issues of National Geographic, and then write poems describing our collages. We would come up with fantastic, outlandish lies, write them down, pass them around the room and add to them to create prose poems. We would listen to Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros, and Mozart and then compose poems that could accompany the music or poems that held the same emotions that the music exposed. We would paint and act out poems. Generate exquisite corpses. All in an attempt to widen our classroom definition of poetry. Poetry outside the world of rhyme. Last year we took an old basal reading textbook and a 1984 young adult novel and produced some collaborative erasure poetry books. (SEE ATTACHMENTS FOR STUDENT ERASURES) This was my attempt at fostering my students’ individual delights with language. I wanted each student to arrive at an understanding of what poetry means within his or her own world. A poem could be a daisy flashing us during a fire drill. It could be a bouncy ball the size of the sun. It could be sadness dressed up like grandma. It could be and by the end of the school year -it is.
A few of the poems that we read, questioned, and imitated were: WCW’s The Red Wheelbarrow, David Berman’s Snow, excerpts from Tan Lin’s Blipsoak01, Matthea Harvey’s Poem Including the Seven Wonders of the World, some poems from Beckman & Rohrer’s Nice Hat. Thanks, along with the obvious classics, such as Shakespeare’s sonnets, Langston Hughes, and a number of traditional and non-traditional haiku.
Let’s talk about your first book, recently published by BatCat Press. Snowmen Losing Weight simultaneously revels in and slumps against the ruin and simple, melancholy grandeur of the Midwest. Moments of joy are continually tempered by a kind of metaphysical desolation, a shadowy feeling that effects, and is often transferred between, the people and landscape that populate these poems. As Joshua Ware points out, “Snowmen Losing Weight leaves open to debate whether or not the speaker of these poems can truly escape the region,” and that ultimately, “Perhaps…it is inescapable.” Do you agree with Joshua about escape or the inability to escape being central to these poems? What are these poems excising? What are they embracing?
The poems within Snowmen were written over a 7-year stretch, a time in which I was living in Dayton, Ohio. A city I was raised in and have had a love/hate relationship with throughout my life. That being said, landscape in some form, has always played an elemental part in my process. Sidewalks, rivers, streets, and the people that inhabit them always appear to collage their way onto the page. It never smells like it though.
Ware’s idea about not being able to escape the region is exciting and romantic, in that sense of being trapped. If being trapped can be romantic for a moment. As if we were in some tower overlooking the vacant auto manufacturers, the shopping malls and suburban sprawls, where everyone is attaching and detaching their cell phones from their belts and still completely content with their day-to-day realities. So I guess to answer the question plainly, yes. I do agree with Ware’s assessment. The poems hope to use the Midwest and its history, in some way, as a kind of mood ring that frames and reveals particular moments that will either move the reader or just pass through.
The poems are not trying to excise anything. I want everything to be in my poems. The tensions of the everyday. On the other hand, the poems are attempting to embrace that mythical essence of the Midwest. The stereotyped Midwest with the basketball hoop above the garage and the neighbors bringing over cupcakes. A place where there is always someone cutting a lawn or learning how to ride a bicycle or hotwire a Honda Civic.
To return to my first question, and to turn it on myself, I’m often thinking that what I’m looking for in a poem is an acknowledgement of the seamlessness between art and experience. That doesn’t mean anything about liking a certain kind of poem, only that the poem, in whatever way, knows that it isn’t just a poem, but that it is part of the world, is the world. Whitman makes this seamlessness explicit and I hear Whitman in the poems in Snowmen Losing Weight. But there’s more than a yawping echo here, there’s this huge tenderness and intellect that allows us to see “faces beautifully obscene in the sun,” a party’s worth of strangeness and play, and a lingering darkness. What poets brought you to Snowmen Losing Weight? And what about this idea of seamlessness, which seems related to your desire with your students to expand their conception of what a poem is?
There are shelves of poets who’ve helped me build Snowmen. There are too many really, but if I had to generate a mixtape of them for a reunion, the list of the influential would be: Simic, Tate, Koch, Stevens, WCW, Peter Gizzi, Donald Justice, Matthea Harvey, Dean Young, Bob Hicok, Kevin Young, Cate Marvin, Graham Foust, Bob Dylan, David Berman, Kim Deal, and Bob Pollard.
This idea of seamlessness is so relevant. I agree with you in the way that a poem is always something more. It is an opportunity to connect more fully with life experiences you’ve already had, no matter how restricted or fragmented the memory. And so too, poetry as a whole contributes to this magnification of your experience with the world. When teaching little people to write poems, I very much wanted them to experiment with the physical and intellectual act of writing. And in this experimentation, I wanted them to create a collision between the physical and intellectual. It’s in this collision, in those sparks, when poems share the abstract and concrete, that they have the ability to become part of the world.
And I’ve always wanted my poems to project the world. To show up at bus stops, in the lost & found, and in the purses of grandmothers. I try to compose poems that connect in a collected experience, and at the same time be something brand new. Isn’t it the goal of the poet to try to recreate these experiences for the reader? Poetry acting as a sort of discovery machine that allows us to project ourselves and expand our natural understanding of the world. It gets us drunk with images and surprise. I mean isn’t surprise what it’s all about? Like shaving your head and noticing a faded tattoo of a family portrait. Did you ever see it coming? Poetics as collisions of constant surprise.
My friend Wendy is a student of Gizzi’s, and she was telling me about their first day of class once and how Peter said that the two most important things about poetry are joy and discovery. Nothing but joy and discovery. This feels more true than any other statement one could make about poems. It’s all wrapped up in ideas about resilience and the willingness to not let our selves and our bodies be the end of us and what we know and feel. This sounds like what love is about, too. I sat in your living room late one night with you, Matt Hart, and Mike Krutel and we talked about this and I remember eating grapes. So what is more important: love or poetry?
I am not sure how to go about answering such a question. I have been falling in love all my life, and when I think about poems and people, I think Gizzi’s statement could apply to both. I mean can’t they be the same. When you fall in love with a person there is this sudden aura of joy in the everything. You tend to feel like a child in a field of toys or better. On the other hand, when you come across a poem that moves you, you have that same feeling. It pulls you alive and your heart starts to beat a little faster. So I feel that this could be a trick question. Is this a trick question? I remember that night with the grapes, the air was wild with joy.
“We sing into each other’s ears, lighthouses and churches.” Are we the snowmen slowly disappearing?
I would hope the readers could constitute what the snowmen represent. I have always been part of the school of individual interpretation. Everyone will come to snowmen from their own particular history, inspired or saddened or nostalgic.
Snowmen Losing Weight is a beautiful book-object presented in a unique accordion binding so that the book opens up multiple times, has to be turned over, and can completely unfold like a kind of map. It’s really a great testament to the work of BatCat Press and not something to be left on the shelf, but held, carried around, danced with. It’s like the heightened aesthetic feeling I get from the physical dimensions of vinyl. Let’s say this book comes with a vinyl soundtrack, what would it be?
I love this question. I was never much into vinyl – I was much more of a cassette tape guy. A soundtrack is difficult when thinking in terms of Snowmen. Here’s a sample of what a Snowmen soundtrack might sound like:
Ass Ponys – Last Night It Snowed
Bob Dylan – If Not For You
Jens Lekman – Black Cab
My Morning Jacket – I’ll Be There When You Die
Tears For Fears – Everybody Wants To Rule The World
Silver Jews – The Wild Kindness
The Replacements – Can’t Hardly Wait (live SNL version)
(smog) – Dress Sexy At My Funeral
Tim Easton – I Would Have Married You
Yo La Tengo – Drug Test
The Raveonettes – Forget That You’re Young
Talking Heads – This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)
Wussy – Little Miami
This is fantastic. Tell me about the work you’re doing now. What’s the imagined soundtrack for your next book?
Well, I’ve been sending around a chapbook length manuscript called Celebrity Dream Poems, inspired by a survey I conducted during the summer of 2011. The project is an attempt to bring non-poetry readers to poetry, using celebrity figures as the gateway. I’ve also been writing a fair amount of prose poems and even more recently some lunch break poems observing Buffalo, New York, my new home.
I am attempting to write poems that do what these songs do:
Lucinda Williams – 2 Kool 2 Be 4gotten
The Hiders – Everything I Wanted
The National – Mr. November
The Tallest Man On Earth – Graceland (cover)
Pavement – In The Mouth A Desert
Spoon – Anything You Want
Tobin Sprout – Last Man Well Known To Kingpin
The Cars – Since Your Gone
Wilco – Too Far Apart
Big Country – In A Big Country