Spotlight: Travis Nichols

The Dark Arts, That Is

Interview by Ken L. Walker


A preferential statement is awfully difficult to make because, as Foucault writes, it is only etched into a culturally temporal concrete.  It is, in actuality, systems of discipline that coerce us to believe our statements are eternal. In fact, they’re dead once they reverberate into the ether. Nevertheless, some statements reverberate into an individual’s memory, and there live on, at least until Alzheimer’s sets in. Travis Nichols performed this feat when he wrote one of 2010’s best lines — “Poetry is an ovary with an eyeball in it.” That comes from the poem “March 21, 2003” and the collection See Me Improving (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). That line, seemingly, sums up the methodology with which Nichols consults the page — a constant process of waking up within the possibility of the lack of a true waking state. In his first collection of poems, Iowa (Letter Machine Editions, 2009), Nichols comparably wrote, “All I had to cure was the boredom, but it never moved.”

Both his books of poetry attend to the necessary timeliness of the statement, yet the poems in both extend themselves in different forms. Nichols is a trickster, a narrative breaker, a taunter who may either be smiling or smirking. Whoever can tell is lucky. He lightens the load on everything heavy, drawing attention to its innocent subconsciousness torn down by the not-so-innocent actuality that being smaller isn’t painful but funny, that dying isn’t an end or a sleep but a “new, strange dream.” Nichols, unlike most folks (Foucault would be proud), never seems to be afraid that his statements are representatives of him, aware that behind the statement or the declaration is a life that hides or sleeps or produces boredom. That’s where it’s at. There’s a ubiquitous level of deceptive mockery which poses as though it doesn’t come back around to a mockery of self, a la many of the great latter New York School poets.

Nichols lives in Chicago and is an editor at The Poetry Foundation. He’s also published a novel on Coffee House Press. We exchanged e-mails for about a month and compiled the following conversation.


KW: You have interviewed quite a few hefty hitters, namely John Ashbery, James Franco, and Rachel Zucker. What do you think an interview should do/get at/attempt/succeed at?

TN:  There’s a school of thought that poets (or novelists, or painters, or musicians, or, sure, macramé enthusiasts) shouldn’t be interviewed, that they should say what they have to say in the work itself, and after the work gets “out there,” the poets and macramé enthusiasts should maintain a respectful silence in the face of the ensuing criticism.  Is this true?  Sometimes.  I’ve read my share of Paris Review and Crafts ‘n’ Things interviews that I sure wish I hadn’t.  But other times, it’s nice to read the poet or macramé enthusiast in conversation.  In the same way it can be nice to read blogs, or diaries, or letters, because some people have a gift for conversation and writing-as-thinking-on-the-fly, though, yes, sometimes they have this gift and not so much the poetic/macramé gift.  And charming (or “controversial”) interview subjects often get more attention than good poets (okay, forget macramé for now) who freeze up in the spotlight.  In this interview I could say “Poetry is an ovary with an eyeball in it,” but I’d rather say it in my poems, which I hope are more interesting than anything I might say here. But why do I have to choose?  I don’t, but I think in dichotomies because I went to thinking school.  Anyways, I do think interviews can contribute to the environment of impoverished criticism, because everybody (me included!) wants friends and/or employers.  But all that aside, one thing I think your interviews (in particular) do really well is to get poets to come into your headspace a little bit, to drift from canned classroom/AWP panel answers about poetry into, let’s face it, some pretty funky territory, which I hope we’ll enter in here at some point.

What kind of films were you watching when you were writing/revising See Me Improving?

The earliest poem in the book is from 2001 (when I was 22), and the last is from, I think, 2009 (when I was 23–no, haha, just kidding–30), so I watched a lot of films in those 8 years.

Earlier, when I lived in a flophouse in Northampton, Massachusetts and had a borrowed combination VHS/TV unit propped on a milk crate, I was fascinated with Claire Denis, how in a film like Beau Travail or Chocolat she would let the camera linger well past the human-action of the shot, building atmosphere and a rapport between the viewer and the scenery.  I guess like Antonioni did, but her version has a little less black-and-white angst than he had.  Anyways, poems like “Blue Prince of Breath” float in that area, as well as “First Light at Lascaux,” which actually has a scene from Truffaut’s Small Change nestled into it.

Antonioni’s final shot in Blow Up does that so well. What do you think, then, of Ashbery’s “Forties Flick”?

I had to go look it up, and, of course, it’s a great poem.  Fucking Ashbery.  It’s like, what do you do?  You can’t ignore him and not read him or willfully misunderstand him like the hobo train of anti-intellectual jackasses do, but his style is so seductive that any sensitive reader will be drawn to it.  That Grand Guignol lamentation mixed with some everyday doofus thinking it through.  I shake my fist at it and let out a profound sigh, which you won’t have heard or seen but I’m telling you about it anyway.  Maybe the best thing to do is just to embrace the suffocating pillow?  Not a bad way to die. What do you think of “Forties Flick”?

I think it triumphs where many Ashbery poems confuse, contort or fail, in the sense that it is his presentation of a scene (a noir scene, at that) where the triangulation of poet-reader-object/subject is so clearly and crisply provided that he is probably in the scene. The passage of time slows and simultaneously expands the dimensions of space which helps the poet fully succeed in directing his reader, thus making the poet director and poet.

What were you reading while writing and revising this book?

I like that triangulation idea.  It does make me think of playing the triangle in music class.  What a great thing, playing the triangle!  But, yes, books:  Towards the end, I was reading a lot of Philip Whalen.  Living in Seattle, I felt his presence hovering around my daydreamy, freelancing-from-home days since he was a very Pacific Northwest writer and also a great daydreamer.  I’d like to get back into that way of thinking at some point in the future, but I can’t really see it happening anytime soon since I am back in the Midwest where it’s a bit harder to snowboard.  I probably should make more of a point to wander around and do nothing, but there’s always some little fire that needs putting out.

In the flight-of-verbal-fancy stuff (“Gallant Phantoms Through the Pineapple Door”), or at least the more not-everyday imagery, I like to think my reading of people like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe comes through, though probably more like Philip Lamantia and some idea of Meret Oppenheim.  Since I first encountered it (and him), I’ve read and read Eric Baus‘s poetry, letting it lead me into some seriously bonkers cognition territory. And through him I’ve come to love Nathaniel Mackey for his dilation of experience.

There’s a frequent looking back over the shoulder in this book at the uncertainty of childhood — but with a twist. The twist seems to be that a boy is looking back on his boyhood, and both identifications are absurdly yet surrealistically confident. Twisted, though. Can you speak to that?

Emotion recollected in tranquility doesn’t seem quite right, more emotion recollected with an equal if not greater emotion distorting it.  I don’t know.  Wordsworth made up the idea of childhood, so now it’s become a “thing.”  Being a kid was great and sad and true, so why not use it?  It’s as good a myth as we have, and besides we were smaller, which is funny.

I’ve been thinking a lot of this lately, how a concept turns damn near into an object. Marx claimed that ideas are materials. But, even further from that, in a sort of a way that the Antarctic isn’t even there; earth controlling the mind, or at least playing tricks on it. Perception, a prisoner to limits—how the indigenous folks couldn’t see Columbus and his imperial ships but they could see differences in the current of the water.

Wait, the Antarctic isn’t there?

What I am thinking of is something like how the earth as a corridor itself forms its own interior corridors, and allows us a certain level of perception, and we break through those corridors through technological innovation, etc—in the case of landing on the moon, breaking the “sound barrier,” and climbing mountains and especially living in the Antarctic (where clearly human beings are only equipped to live if they have the right technological innovations; if a human being were naked in the Antarctic, he or she would freeze to death in no less than 36 minutes). As well, when European colonists first landed, indigenous folks told similar stories in different parts of the continent that they could not see the ships, but they could tell something insanely big was in the water because the water felt different. Perception is the real border to examine.

I like that.  The hard part is not to become so focused on the nuances of your own perception that you end up in your own private Antarctica, or so in tune with your own personal waters that you go around maniacally cursing the world for not recognizing the secret genius of your morning pee.  I really worry about that for poets, probably from having had so many “normal” (read: actually imaginative and strange but not “arty”) people tell me that they hate poetry.  I should probably embrace the hatred (“Bully for them”) but, fatally, I want to be liked.  That’s the second time I’ve mentioned that in this interview.  Why?  Do you like me, Ken?

I’d sure as hell have a Bell’s Two Hearted and a neat pour of Basil Hayden’s with you. Tell me your ideas about friendship. What should a friendship be, look like? I’m thinking now of John Berryman, Etheridge Knight, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I had a profound experience when I took LSD for the first time, with five or six people who weren’t really my friends but whom I knew well enough to take LSD with.  Do people still have friends like this?  Probably.  Anyways, up until then, I had (selfishly) considered someone my friend only if I could rely on him or her to save me when I went into one of my frequent depressive swoons.  I was really morose and whiny, very emo, and, well, depressed, and I would do things like try to put a cigarette out on my arm just to see who would think it was a tragic waste. Very boring.  Not fun, and, in fact, I wouldn’t blame you if it made you reconsider wanting to share a drink with me . . . but wait!  I had this really awful experience on acid with these kids, and while it scared the bejeezus out of me (E=T=E=R=N=I=T=Y), it did helpfully throttle me into realizing that no one was going to save me.  No one was going to just go ahead and call off the game on account of pity (or, in the case of this acid experience, rescue me from the Aztecs with swirling eyes who wanted to suck me into the weird psychic vortex of the linoleum).  I was alone with all that emo, and I had to live with it, or not, as the case turned out to be, as I got my shit together after I built my consciousness back up and stopped being such a drama queen about everything.  All of which is to say, I feel the lesson holds true for “poetry friends.”  I love my friends (duh), but I think it’s dangerous to write for them, to hope to please them, or to hope that they will be able to save poems that I know are actually derivative failures.  No one can write the poems for you, in other words, and in the end you have to live with what you’ve put your name to, so maybe those contests that aren’t taking your manuscript are doing you a favor?  (You, in this case (as always?) means the straw-man in my mind, not you personally).   I’m certainly happy that Fence did not publish my 22-year old epic, “Hello, Bee-Thigh Mane,” because goodness knows I wouldn’t have handled it well, and, in fact, it was more fun to join my friends in feeling all superior about the stuff that was getting published at the time.  Perhaps this is really what friends are for.  As far as Berryman, Knight, Emerson, or the New York School, or the San Francisco Renaissance, I think mostly those friendships consisted of alcohol-fueled mansplaining, which I’m a little wary of (despite my prolixity in this here interview), and the good poetry happened incidentally.  Just because Frank O’Hara wrote poems during raucous lunch hours doesn’t mean every poem written during raucous lunch hours will equal Frank O’Hara’s.

Do you feel directly influenced by Surrealism? A reader could certainly take away many notions of early Modernist work from reading SMI (a bit of nonsensical Futurism, some elements of Dada, etc… and of course surrealism).

I’ve spent a lot of time with Motherwell’s Dadaist Poets and Painters, and I when I was writing a lot of these poems I was sorting through translations of Tristan Tzara and Philippe Soupault, experimenting with my own translations which were wonderful private exercises, though terrible. There’s also a thing which I’m sure you’ve noticed which is called UMass Surrealism.  Michael Earl Craig, Heather Christle, Matthew Zapruder, Natalie Lyalin, Dorothea Lasky, Noah Eli Gordon . . . we were all subjected to Surrealism Boot Camp during our first weeks in the Pioneer Valley.  They made us shout “My duck sat on a firecracker!” and to wash our socks in fur with the night nailed to our foreheads like an orange.  That kind of thing.  I have no regrets.

Forgive me for not knowing that group of contemporary poets can be summed up as “UMass Surrealism.” And I like Dorothea’s work a lot. I heard Heather read once, which was great.

Oh yes.  Umass Surrealism.  Someone should do an anthology and include Zach Schomburg as an honorary degree-holder, have the Secret Sisters do the intro in a series of two-panel cartoons, maroon boards, a CD of field recordings from old riverboat journeys along the Vistula, only barter for old copies of Lucky Darryl . . .   Anyways, yes. Dottie is a beacon for me.  I gather courage from reading her work, and from hearing her belt out her poems.  She was always great to have in MFA classes because she would read her wild poems and everyone would look around blankly, then some timid soul would say something like, “I don’t know about this ‘morning wood with its pool of sad nurses,’ . . .” This would usually lead to some guy clearing his throat to lecture us all about how you can or can’t say certain things in poems, how ‘morning wood’ is not a suitable subject for a poem unless handled with a certain delicacy and awe, advice Dottie would then gleefully ignore.  James Tate always seemed to like her, which is a boon.  It seemed easy to please Jim if you put animals in your poems, but then, for me, I would try and dump a menagerie into some ten-line piffle, and he would just look at me with those google-eyes like I was a world-class dullard he couldn’t quite believe had made it out of my baby-crib without inadvertently choking on my own tongue.

If you had to, what animal would you find best to enter into a poem?

Patrick Culliton.

When I think of James Tate, I think of that poem “Rescue” from his first book, The Lost Pilot. Love is dangerous; what is dangerous can rescue us if we’re not afraid of it. Great stuff. But, I never think of him or his followers as essentially surrealist.

I’m sure he’d appreciate that, since he has been badgered about “American Surrealism” for years, and his work, at its best, is much weirder and richer than whatever that is.

All the soluble fish dry off. I’ve always enjoyed the anthology The Dada Market; though it is not surrealism, it’s nice to look at a large open field so full of unique differences but slapped with the same grass. Basically, the label is a bit gray.

I remember interviewing Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields (total disaster, by the way) and he said to me, “Smashing genre is what I do.”  Oh really?!  I would love to be the type of person who could say that sort of thing, or something like “labels are useless,” but I actually find them to be kind of useful.  I may be a shallow and evil person.  What’s The Dada Market?  Never read it.

The Dada Market is a great anthology that SIU Press put out in the nineties. It features Tzara, Man Ray, Huelsenbeck, etc…but it also displays some unusual, lesser heard of Dadaist/Ultraist poets. And that kind of poetry presented as mixtape-reading, anthologized patterns, can really help a poet struggling to alter their metaphorical capabilities. At least I find the exercises in both Dadaism and Surrealism are very helpful with pushing the envelope of an individual poet’s analogic qualities. I give it to students who need to drain cliches out of their minds and figure something new out.

I just put it on hold at the library.  I look forward to reading it.

The most intriguing poem in SMI, to me, is “Recess,” because of the abrupt turn that occurs at the end of the poem. The fable all of a sudden becomes very real and vivid and feels panoptical. Did you intend to construct it that way?

I think that one was the product of a bit too much caffeine (which I’ve recently gone back to after six whole months away.  Turns out I was even duller and more wooly-headed without it, and so now I suffer giddily in its clutches).  I got carried away by a fit of scribbles and once I was back to myself I found that I had written a poem.  It was “Recess” of the mind.  I’m glad you like it.  I wasn’t really sure if it was any good, and I still have my reservations.  But I’ve found that what I think is good during the writing process and what turns out to actually be good in other people’s eyes are radically different.  So I’m perpetually confused and disappointed by the arts.

What could “the Arts” do to un-disappoint you, to erase the jadedness they create?

Stop sucking?  No, haha, “the Arts” are great!  The dark arts, that is.

I guess I mean I’m disappointed and confused about why I persist in trying to create my version of “art” when it never quite turns out the way I had hoped.  And I’m not good at just throwing up my hands and saying, “It’s the MUSE moving THROUGH me!  I take no responsibility for what APPEARS!” (fingery majesty and then the laying of some terrible sprayed language on the world).  Monica Fambrough (great poet, also my wife) recently joked to me about how she’d like to present her most recent “project” at a reading, and then unveil a dinosaur diorama. But I think struggle is generative, anxiety productive, and so that’s why I try to also exercise and watch TV so as not to really lose my mind.  I might have tipped the balance in the wrong direction with this year’s NBA playoffs, where the radical insistence of the self happens.  I have been having some very deep thoughts about the pick and roll and FLOW, but my guess is that expressing them out loud would make me sound like someone Kenneth Koch would like to have strangled in “Fresh Air.”