“If you keep punching at a man’s head / it will mix his mind. So fast. / So pretty.” Travis Nichols talks to Chris Hosea about his dream home, Sam Cooke, and “poetic machinery.”
Travis Nichols visited New York in late January to perform work from his newly published poetry collection See Me Improving (Copper Canyon, 2010) at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg and take in the recent retrospective of fifties painting and poetry at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. On an icy, blustery day, Travis, Noah Eli Gordon, and I met at Tibor de Nagy, and we high-tailed it to the climate-controlled Museum of Modern Art.
After tucking in to vegetable stew and grilled sandwiches in the cafeteria, Travis and I rode escalators to the top floor, where art handlers were taking down the brilliantly themed show On Line. Once we found a bench, I spoke with Travis about, among other things, his dream home, Sam Cooke, and “poetic machinery.”
Chris Hosea Is there a pedagogical aspect to See Me Improving?
Travis Nichols No. Not consciously. I think that you can learn from anything out in the world. But the only pedagogical approach is to try and forget what you know, in a certain way. The way the poems work, there’ll be a line or a phrase that will come to me one way or another. The poem has to figure out a way to encapsulate and house that phrase, that line.
CH I am intrigued by this notion that there is a phrase or a word that is kind of like a seed or kernel. You are trying to create a home, as you say, to “house” that. How would you describe such a house?
TN It has to be the right house for that phrase. The poems can tend toward the goofy or the mawkish. Just as there’ll be things in life that will come up, and it’s like, “That’s not what I meant to say; that’s not what I wanted; that’s not how I meant for things to go.” Then you have to figure out a way to make that okay as well as the decisions that come after it. There is a superstructure to the book. But the superstructure is my life.
CH So you wouldn’t think of your writing process as being highly procedural. . . .
TN Well, sometimes it is. . . . I have, you know, a secret process. I have my notebook, and I’ll do something to it when I go back and look at it. But when I’m writing down the lines, I don’t think: “Oh, this is going to be part of a particular machinery.” I feel like the poem is an area where there’s orchestration that sets up an idea that this will be a poem, this will be a kind of writing. Within that orchestration, there is improvisation. The camera just rolls.
CH If you could design any home for poetic exploration, what kind of house would it be, and where would it be?
TN I think that it would be in the rural southeast somewhere, maybe in the North Carolina-Georgia-Alabama axis. It would be partially built in to the ground, so that it would be heated by the earth. It would be an earth house. The entrances would be very well-thought-out. You would have an integral experience of the interior versus the exterior. I don’t know anything about architecture, so I’m really just fantasizing here. The poem is the doorway where the interior world of the poet and the exterior world of the reader come into contact. Sometimes a bleed occurs, and great poems feel like they’re coming from the interior of the reader.
CH How has working at the Poetry Foundation affected your thinking about poetry or writing of poetry?
TN I haven’t written very much poetry since I started working there in April of 2009. There’s a lot of great people there. It’s really interesting to see how the magazine works and how the poems appear in the magazine: that kind of decision-making process, which I’m totally on the outside of. Just working with poetry online is totally fascinating. You know, it’s professionalizing something that I care deeply about, so it’s confusing sometimes. My job often is to read poems and consider who could talk about the poems in a way that, without jargon, can be accessible to a wide audience. How do we get poetry to a wide audience without selling out the thing that makes poetry poetry, which is inherently mysterious and hidden?
CH So it’s important to have a definition of what a poem is, I would think, if you’re doing that kind of thing.
TN Well it’s important not to have a definition that’s very rigid. It’s a cliché that “you know it when you see it.” But for me you have to find a spirit of exploration and experiment. But then we’re putting poems in these channels that often use very debased and very constricted language. And there are great poems that use that sort of language too.
CH Given what you’ve just said, how would you respond to the statement, “Sam Cooke is a poet?”
TN Well, I love Sam Cooke so I think I’d say, “Sure!” But I think that his way of expressing that poetry is perfectly suited for the medium he chose. He was a pop musician. It wouldn’t make any sense to try to get someone like Sam Cooke to sing a Tom Raworth poem.
CH Yet Sappho was a pop singer.
TN I mean, I guess. . . . I don’t know enough about it to know the context and what the rest of the pop world was like at that time. I think that with lyrics and music they have to be heard. You look at Lou Reed’s lyrics or Bob Dylan’s lyrics. You read them on the page, and they are so corny and terrible.
An enormous burst of applause from the atrium drowns out our voices for quite some time. Eventually the museum’s quiet hubbub returns.
TN Coincidentally I’ve been working with Michael Zapruder—Matthew’s brother. He’s been taking poems he likes and trying to set them to music, to make them into pop songs. In what Michael does there are no line breaks. There are no hooks. Essentially he takes the poems as is and sets them so they just go.
CH With Katie Geha, you curated the 2007 exhibition Poets on Painters at the Ulrich Museum. What kinds of relationships are you aware of between poets and other kinds of artists—visual artists, video artists, dancers, musicians—perhaps just in Chicago?
TN I really don’t know. One of the things that Katie Geha and I talked about was that the poets all knew each other. Some of them were in relationships with each other at the time. The painters, from what we could tell, didn’t know each other. They also had limited contact with the poets. Just today, you and I were at Tibor de Nagy’s Poets and Painters show, and we saw letters from Frank O’Hara to Larry Rivers saying things like, “We were just at the beach. I have a tan now. I think you were right.” You don’t find that as much outside of interdisciplinary studies programs, at Bard for example where Anselm Berrigan and Amy Sillman met. In Chicago right now there are “event” readings where you get a lot of different people together and have parties with artists and poets together. I don’t know what kind of mind-meld is really happening. I love painters and visual art, and I would love to be more involved. I know some artists, and I’ve emailed some. I feel very much outside that world. I think that there’s not an interest in the correspondence between the line in visual art and the line in poetry. Thom Donovan, with his strong interest in critical theory and performance theory, is a good person to talk to. He always tells me about an artist I haven’t heard of. There are certain poets like Christian Hawkey and Anselm Berrigan who are more involved in the art world.
CH One last question: how do you define the distinction between “public” and “private,” “work” and “play?”
TN When I was saying before that the exterior of the poem is my life, that’s not a “content” statement. I mean, I am not saying that the content of these poems is autobiographical. A lot of times what happens is, you take a true story and lie about it, or you take a lie and tell the truth about it. If people have a puerile interest in the poet’s private life, you won’t find it in my work.
CH That’s a big disappointment to me!
TN Yeah, I’m so sorry! I think that the membrane between public and private is the site where poetry happens.