Gregory Lawless speaks with Nate Pritts about his new collection, Sweet Nothings.
Nate Pritts is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Sweet Nothing, which Publishers Weekly describes as “both baroque and irreverent, banal and romantic, his poems . . . . arrive at a place of vulnerability and sincerity.”
His poetry and prose have been published widely, both online and in print and on barns, at places like Forklift, Ohio, Court Green, Gulf Coast, Boston Review & Rain Taxi where he frequently contributes reviews. He is the founder & principal editor of H_NGM_N, an online journal & small press.
Pritts writes of his own work, “what’s at stake for me is POETRY over the POEM; I am . . . . interested now in developing an askesis of living, a process whereby I can live & feel.” He sees poetry as an essential means of exploring/generating both existential and artistic meaning: “I want to write poetry, I want to write my life.” Consequently, his poetry is full of inquiries, quests, and questions that return cyclically and obsessively in his longer poems, and which complicate the meditative tenor of his shorter works. Recently I interviewed Pritts about his latest book, Sweet Nothing, and his work as editor of H_NGM_N.
This is when I say what it is that I do
& I’m telling it to you.
—From the poem “After Seeing Such Thriving”
Gregory Lawless The first poem, “Evoking the Dawn,” in your new collection, Sweet Nothing, begins with awe and inquiry: “We wonder if this matters. Does this / matter?” The word “this” is powerfully ambiguous here (does “this” means life, love, or the poem itself?), and that ambiguity contrasts sharply with the poem’s emotional tone, which is unambiguously urgent and brokenhearted. The speaker closes the poem by declaring that he needs to “keep track” of the “chaotic” and “too random nature” of love, which seems like a noble but doomed errand. Why does your book begin with such a dire and desperate inquiry that, strangely, pairs the regenerative image of the dawn with the difficulty of mapping love and the meaning of life itself? And does the rest of the book seek to answer this poem’s questions?
Nate Pritts That first poem, I hope, sets up a few expectations for the book—but it’s not quite so clear a trajectory as you propose. Which is to say that the questions the poem asks are questions that don’t have proper answers, that maybe asking the right questions—in a specific and necessary way, at exactly the right time—is part of the project of being human. It’s what we can’t forget to do, this asking. I wanted the poem to tonally set up some expectations for the reader as well—that the poems in the book are searching, even when direct questions aren’t being asked. The poems—me, the speaker!—don’t really have things figured out, aren’t concerned with having things figured out. That seems so final! Maybe the book reflects the place I’ve been able to move to in my life—my interior and exterior understandings of the sequence of my life—where our sense of holistic well being comes from patient and diligent understanding, an undertaking, letting go of forcing things to make sense.
There are some solid trajectories in this book that I’m still discovering. I mean, certainly, the ordering of the poems was intentional, but it’s become clear to me that what I thought I was doing was only a small part of what the book is attempting. I’m still learning from these poems—they’re still teaching me quite a bit. I wish I had a good answer for your direct question about the inquiry and the image, that pairing to start the book. Balancing the orderly energies inherent in the desire to map something and the chaotic energy of all this randomness is something I don’t want to rectify (or bring into alignment). I just want to be able to accept it. To see that it is the way that it is and be mindful of that, rather than rail against it or try to solve. This is part of the book’s struggle, the poems as a record of this process.
GL In the poem “After Seeing Such Thriving,” the speaker asks the reader to “Please come / find me; please tell me who I am. / I’ll tell you who I think you are.” Many poems in this book are likewise concerned with charting the relationship between the speaker and the reader; “After Seeing . . . ” suggests the immense insecurity but also the considerable poetic possibility that is entailed by this quest to unite the two. In “Evoking the Dawn” the speaker posits a utopian ideal, “What if we are two people / together instead of just one & one” that “After Seeing . . . ” seems to reject in favor of the model of reading poetry as a quest wherein reader and speaker can identify each other while neither can identify himself. Do you think that readership, or the responses that readers provide, can, to a degree, tell the poet who or what he is, as “After Seeing . . . ” suggests? To what extent do you think the poet can and should look to define himself away from the reader, and to what extent do you think the poet should depend on the reader to tell him what he is and what he is doing?
NP Your reading of those poems is probably right on the money, but I don’t want to let my comments here serve as either confirmation or disputation—basically, I want to answer your question without weighing in on what you said about those poems.
But clearly, there’s a war going on!
I think if a poet were to start writing poems of a certain type solely because their readership demanded it, that would be pretty silly and wrongheaded. I have definitely benefited from having some of my poems reflected back to me via a “readership”—close friends, the response I might get at readings or via a letter, what a review might say about my work—benefited because it helps me to see how successful or unsuccessful I’ve been in bringing about what I was hoping to . . . or maybe it just leads to clarity about the overall broad stroke effects of the types of things I’m writing.
But the danger there is that you start to copy yourself, or you write poems and lines exclusively because you like the response that your audience gives you. It would be like a kid doing something that gets a big appreciative laugh from his family. Then he does it again. So while it’s important to be aware of your audience—whatever that may mean—and the reactions that group is having to your poems, for me it’s vitally important to define myself away from the reader—as you say. My work as a poet is something intensely personal—I struggle against the form itself, creating problems and solutions in method and composition, just as I seek to define / create / understand my content, the material I’m working through. I try to speak directly from my soul—my own understanding of that—while staying aware of the fact that I’m creating something public.
For me, it’s been a valuable balance. It’s been important for me to be aware of any response to my work, simply because it helps focus me to know someone is listening. But I guess if one relies on the voice of the crowd to define their art, all you end up with is a pop song.
GL This book contains roughly 25 pages of “Sky Poems” (presented in two sections), which visit and revisit natural images in the midst of constant change. These natural fluctuations result in a lot of corresponding “perspective shifting” for the speaker. Here and elsewhere in your poems, the speaker enjoys the dynamism of phenomenological transformation even while he longs for something more stable, some fixity in all the flux. But the poem ends with these complicated lines that seem to offer a kind of solution, or at least alternative, to the ambivalence charted above: “our heads [are] . . . . packed / full of this casual distance we’re inventing / while we try to remember” some formative moment from the past, “the dawn of the dawn” or something approximate. I’m particularly interested in how this “casual distance” presents itself to the speaker (and you, Nate) as an artistic possibility in the midst of so much change. Clearly these poems are filled with distances: the speaker wants to find some kind of abiding image of nature but can’t; he wants to inhabit the present moment but also re-inhabit the moment of the world’s origins but can’t; he wants to be one with the reader but can’t. But how does the notion of being casual help alleviate the difficulty of reckoning so many distances in “Sky Poems” or in Sweet Nothings at large?
NP I’ve had occasion to talk about those sky poems a lot—as a series, as an effort—but this idea of casual distance is still something I’m understanding anew and learning from. I think what was at play for me, Nate, the writer of these poems and the person who lives the life that these poems are contingent upon, was the fact that the act of making a poem seemed to be a rush of will, an ACT of creation, a conscious fashioning. Then, at some point, that seemed to me to be doing a reckless disservice to the impulse of the poem, or of poetry—POETRY, which is a pure impulse that exists before words, before line breaks, before a title. So maybe, in some way, my understanding of the CASUAL nature of these has less to do with diction or grammatical mechanics (though that is clearly part of the way the poem presents itself, a certain loosening of normative rules) and more to do with the utterance itself—the shape and heft of it, the meaning in it. The tenor more than the vehicle. A certain degree of standing back and doing my best to let the lines shape themselves, the words choose themselves—shutting off Nate Pritts, the poet with craft and experience at his disposal, and tuning in to Nate Pritts, ME at the most basic and revelated and intrinsic level.
Reading this over, it’s clear I’m not done thinking about all of this. What’s at stake for me is POETRY over the POEM, that I am much more interested now in developing an askesis of living, a process whereby I can live and feel. I don’t think of myself as writing a poem. For me, it’s time to focus on POETRY—the poetry of living, of thinking, of being human. Many people are writing poems, and I’m so glad for that. But I don’t want to write poems. I want to write poetry, I want to write my life, I want to write a place for my soul. Poems result from that, sure, but that’s not the goal, that’s not what I’m aiming for. CASUAL, a word, which wears khaki pants to work on Friday, becomes something closer to CAUSAL for me, a causal system.
GL Your poetry employs many deft metaphors for self. In Sweet Nothing’s final poem, “What Thou Lovest Poorly Remains,” the speaker belts out one such final subjective trope: “I’m out / of proportions, so lonely in fractions, / & baby I’m a fast dwindling.” Could you tell me why you’re drawn to these kinds of playful but often sad and tragic (re)configurations of self through metaphor, and why you use mathematical language, here, toward the end of your book, to define the speaker’s self before riding off into the sunset?
NP For me, the self isn’t some kind of fixed construct. Certainly there are aspects of my identity that have become intrinsic to it—some deeply held beliefs, some traits that last—but in general I think of the process of writing poetry as a way of constructing the self, of bringing it into existence. I’m not notating or describing a set area, the way a map would help you to understand the contours of a continent. The self is mutable, or should be if you’re living full throttle, putting yourself out there, engaging—acting and being acted upon.
So the shifts in diction, from archaic and too, too beautiful, to frenetic or contemporary, inflected with math or purple with longing, these are just meant to indicate the destabilized ground from which this poetry is uttered, to help keep the reader dancing a bit too. Those “(re)configurations,” as you put it are a function of the multivalent and necessary calibrations that a (hopefully) authentic self runs through in perceiving a varied field of existence.
GL When I first interviewed you a couple years ago, you were a few books younger. You’ve gotten a lot off your chest since then. Many poems have been published and many issues of H_NGM_N have hit the Internet. So, given your accomplishments, here is my two-pronged question about what’s changed since then: 1) Is your writing these days somehow continuous with the work you’ve done so far, or is it headed in new directions? Are there any Poundian projects in the offing? Epic poems in the making? 2) And is your work as an editor changing? Are there new projects afoot at H_NGM_N? Do you see the journal as going in a new direction or just becoming a better version of its old self over time?
NP Well, 1) the work is continuous, for sure. But also hopefully headed in new directions. The “Sky Poems” are the newest efforts in this manuscript but even now, as I answer these questions (early 2012), it’s been maybe 18 months since I first wrote most of them. I’ve talked a lot about them in other places but a summary capsule would be that they offered me a new direction on a path I was already taking. I had gotten a bit burnt out on the ways in which I was thinking and composing poems—not the poems themselves, which seemed at the time and still seem to me to be vital and energetic. But I know I was running out of room, for myself and for my poems—that I was moving toward a different type of utterance—one that is looser, more provisional, more gestural while still maintaining a sense of intention. And, separate from the type of utterance, I started thinking about poetry as askesis, as a spiritual process/progression. Not just a poem that made up a manuscript, but a moment that made up a life. Sometimes, this results in something that still looks and operates like a poem, but these days I fill up legal pads with a reflective, almost messianic scrawl that helps me understand / shape / create my life. Maybe it’s all a kind of poetry I can’t recognize yet.
No Poundian epics in the offing, but definitely a reclarified sense of what it is I’m doing, why it’s important that I keep doing it. A better sense of how it all fits together, of the necessity of it all.
For 2) I would say that many things are changing. H_NGM_N is switching to an annual format which will allow me to engage more directly and more fully with all of its aspects—the chapbooks, the full-length books, the business of being a sustainable press. But in terms of aesthetics, something interesting is happening. I started H_NGM_N because I needed to be able to see a place in the world of contemporary poetry for the kinds of writing I thought of as important—the writing I was doing. Slowly, I think this space has been opened up. But as my own writing changes, I am consistently brought to a different sense of what work I want to hold up and draw attention to. There’s consistency and there’s change. But also I started H_NGM_N as a corrective—the landscape of journals was different as I was finishing my grad work and trying to find ways to be part of the contemporary field, late ’90s. The Internet has opened things up, given more people a voice. This is all terrific. But there’s a way in which I think my mission with H_NGM_N is still the same—a kind of corrective to what’s happening in the scene. At one point, it had to do with the fact that poetry was airless—stodgy and stuck on itself, all ornate phrases walking around copying each other’s epiphanies, whole poems in service of one line or phrase at the end of it. Now, I think things have shifted another way. I read a lot of poems in journals that are written loosely and with energy, with obvious excitement, but which have forgotten how to be human, how to have empathy. So I feel like I still have a clear charge—for the journal, for my work as an editor, for my continuing growth as a poet. I feel like I have a clear mission.