Poet and lyric essayist Kathryn Nuernberger won the 2015 James Laughlin award, joining the company of poets like fellow BOA Editions pressmates, Li-Young Lee, Jillian Weise, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Having been familiar with her 2010 Antivenom Poetry Award–winning Rag & Bone, The End of Pink fascinated me with its deftness of language and unique influences. Nuernberger is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where is also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. We recently discussed over email about the role of research in her poetry, and how her directorship plays a role in her reading and writing.
You and I share a bond in that we both live in the state of Missouri these days. Considering you now teach and live in Missouri after doing your doctoral studies in Ohio, did you make a conscious choice to return to your home state? What do you appreciate about the Show-Me State?
I never really expected I’d wind up back in Missouri—like a lot of nerdy art types in the Midwest, I think I had my eye on the coasts as final destination point. But after living in Louisiana, Montana, Washington, and Ohio, I was fortunate to find a great job at University of Central Missouri. I know MO isn’t as sexy as a lot of other places in our union, but I’ve found that are an awful lot of brilliant, creative, wonderfully eccentric people here. And my goodness we do have some weird, wild geological formations and excellent spelunking made possible by our spectacularly karst topography. I’ve got some relations in the Ozarks who have also helped me appreciate the terroir of fried morrel mushrooms with squirrel meat and blackberry wine. And, bless their hearts, they didn’t even throw me out of the house when I started going like the most insufferable elitist you’ve ever met about how all this good food gathered locally in season reminds me of the French notion of terroir. They just said, “Well, ain’t that something.”
Current Missouri Poet Laureate Aliki Barnstone states that “Writing is not just about your individual selfhood but also being empathic with other people.” What’s your opinion regarding empathy, writing, and artistic expression?
I think Aliki said it beautifully. I also like what Frank O’Hara said, very cheekily, in his “Personism Manifesto” about this subject. He wrote, “I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” I like the idea of the poem providing a space where there can be a profound sort-of psychic intimacy between the author and the reader that isn’t possible in the real world because basic manners and eye contact and itchy noses and stuff like that make it so tricky and weird to really talk to each other. And I also like the idea of that space being a little casual, a little crass, and maybe with a little room for us to fall in love with each other across time and space.
A mentor of mine once told me that it’s not enough to write about what you know, you have to write about what you want to know. I am thinking of one of my favorite poems of yours is “Translations” from your first collection, Rag & Bone, in which the speaker states:
Color is an illusion, a response to the vibrating universe
of electrons. Light strikes a leaf and there’s an explosion
where it lands. When colors change, electromagnetic fields
are colliding. The wind is not the only thing moving the trees.
Can you explain how research plays a role in your writing?
Research is often how my poems begin. I start my writing time every day reading poems by other people. By which I mean I start my writing time every day wallowing in profound feelings of self-doubt and inferiority. This may or may not be the best way to do things, but it’s how I do it. And then I try to get my head back on straight so I start reading in other rhetorical modes that don’t make me so keenly aware of my limitations as a poet. I love Public Domain Review and Cabinet a lot, but also art criticism, Wikipedia stubs, and super-dense literary theory.
Sometimes I’ll get on a jag with a particular subject—I went through a women-in-hot-air-balloons phase a couple years back. Spoiler alert: women in hot air balloons for the first hundred years of ballooning were pretty much all prostitutes or opera singers, because everyone thought it was such a scandal to experiment with the effects of the stratosphere on your lady parts. Second spoiler alert: it was very popular to experiment in all sorts of ways with the rocking baskets and also very popular to just chuck your wine bottles out the side into whatever field you were passing. Which was not super-appreciated by the peasants below.
But to get back to your question—once you know the first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds, how can you not write a poem?
Can you explain how The End of Pink came to be a full-length collection? Did you reach out to BOA Editions or did they reach out to you?
I submitted The End of Pink to BOA during their annual open reading period. And then Peter Connors, the director at BOA, called me up and said he wanted it. I like Peter very much, in part because he calls me up very rarely and every time it’s just to say the thing I most want to hear.
As director of Pleiades Press, I’m curious as to how your experience as an editor informs your poetry and vice versa.
I really love how my work as an editor requires/allows me to read hundreds of poetry manuscripts every year. It’s such a great way to encounter a huge range of new poetry—I don’t think I’d read that many books of poetry if “the job” wasn’t breathing down my neck, but I think I’m a better and happier writer for all that reading. Reading influences our work in ways that are so hard to pin down—mostly I’m inspired by what I read, but sometimes I do encounter the cautionary tale. I find it beneficial to be so constantly steeped in this grand ongoing conversation about poetry and through poetry.
Your poetry involves some interesting characters (Benjamin Franklin, Derrida, Bat Boy), how does their presence influence your poetic psyche? Is there a particular historical or cultural individual that you’d like to write about that you haven’t?
I’ve been writing a series of poems about plants historically used for birth control and my research led me to Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first woman ecologist who traveled to South America in the 1700s to research the plants there. She wrote about the Bird of Paradise, which was a plant that could be used to induce a miscarriage, and while I am fascinated by her, I’m also troubled and disappointed in her, because she did her research in a slave colony and used slave labor to gather her specimens. And though she expressed ambivalence about slavery in her journals, it would be a pathetic stretch to suggest she was any sort of ally. But I keep reading about her because I want to try to find a way to see through the unwritten parts of her story and history more generally to the lives of the women who told her about the uses of this plant.
Those women said that they used the plant for birth control in part to prevent their children from being born into the horrors of slavery and in part to resist their own bodies being used as a commodity by the masters. I’d really like to be able to hear the story of their lives, their struggle, and their resistance in their words. But one of the cruel things about history is the way the voices we most need to hear are the ones that so often are the most aggressively erased.
Can you talk about the role of the Saint Girl persona?
I was raised in a Catholic community that placed a lot of emphasis on morality and social justice. This is a training I appreciated, but there was also a celebration of self-abnegation and insistence on nurturing feelings of guilt and shame that made me feel really messed up.
The Saint Girl persona was born of that tension between feeling a strong desire to do and be good and the contrary notion that happiness might be a necessary part of goodness. Or, to put it more bluntly, I wrote these poems during the years when I was turning away from my work as an activist (among other things, I taught high school in under-resourced schools for a while, and then had a job in the foster care system) and turning towards poetry.
Poetry made me really happy, but I also felt a lot of guilt and uncertainty about the ethics of that choice. So I guess the Saint Girl recipe is something like: (Guilt+Shame) × (Conscience) ÷ Happiness to the power of Poetry = Saint Girl.
One thing I noticed is that you received research grants at the American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.
These two awesome libraries are kind enough to open their collections to creative writers and artists as well as to historians and other more conventional researchers. I love libraries and I also love auctions and abandoned cabins and oddball museums. These sorts of research libraries are the perfect combination of such wonderful places. The collections at these libraries include rare books, but they can also bring you collections of stereo cards from the 1904 World’s Fair, so you can see the Pike in 3-D by using this rickety old mahogany contraption. Or broadsides used to advertise P. T. Barnum’s huckster operations. Or pamphlets advertising Dr. Kilger’s quack elixirs and tonics.
At the Bakken you can actually crank a felt wheel until static makes your hair stand on end as Benjamin Franklin used to do as a party trick. (Although he’d have ladies of ill repute there so you could kiss them and get a little blue spark between your lips amongst all that frizziness.) These research libraries are wonderful because you get to interact with physical objects and have physical experiences, which all have the potential to become settings and images in poems about historical material.
You also have a collection of lyric essays coming out (Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, Ohio State University Press 2017), how does the fluidity of genres (poetry/lyric essay) play a role in your writing? What draws you to the lyric essay?
I love the way genre-blur writing breaks the rules or just forges ahead, as if there are no rules to even contend with. Sometimes, when I’m rambling about history or science or other experiences, I feel the need to provide a fair amount of context so readers can appreciate the landscape where the facts are unfolding. In these cases an essay is born. Other times when I’m rambling I realize that what readers need are moments of silence so they can really process the images or the factoids as they spring forth. In those cases, line breaks prove very useful. I always think some silence is necessary to create the sense of a phone call across the void, so that’s why I haven’t written prose that doesn’t have the adjective “lyric” attached to it.
Stephen King often states that a writer who writes more than he or she reads is not a writer. So, who and what are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading (copy editing and laying out, to be precise) EJ Koh’s forthcoming book of poems, A Lesser Love, for Pleiades Press. It’s going to blow all your minds when it comes out next fall. And I keep rereading Nance Van Winckel’s Book of No Ledge, which contains collage and erasure poems made out of an old Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has been keeping me feeling sane and hopeful about human goodness and the beauty of supportive communities in these grim times; while Adrian C. Louis’s poems have been keeping me as pissed off and riled up as I think we also all need to be.
Last question: What is the greatest piece of advice you received from an instructor or mentor?
Maya Jewell Zeller always tells me to try writing it backwards and with more plants in it. Ellen Welcker tells me to quit giving those dead white guys the benefit of the doubt. Laura Read says to start with a song and a great longing. And Jaswinder Bolina once told me to quit whining, in a less blunt and more gentle way. That might be the best advice I ever got.
Stephen Furlong is a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, MO. His poetry, reviews, and/or interviews have previously appeared in or are forthcoming from Chariton Review, Big Muddy, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Additionally, he has a poem in the forthcoming anthology A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault, edited by Joanna C. Valente.