Danielle Sellers: Your first book, The Soft Blare, selected by Andrew Hudgins for the River City Publishing Poetry Series, debuted in 2003. Your second book, A Palace for the Heart, came out from Mellen Press in 2004. In addition to those, you’ve published a fine press edition of a book called Wrestle in conjunction with the artist and master printer Erika Adams. Since then, you’ve accumulated many prizes and fellowships, some of which being a fellowship at The Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the visiting fellowship at Greyfriar’s Hall at Oxford University. How important is it to you to have communion with other writers?
NN: It is important for me to have communion with other writers, though I’ll have to admit that the writers’ conference is not my favorite place to do it. I never learned the skill of working the room. In fact, I’ve tried to go the opposite direction as much as possible, which, it turns out, is not really conducive to a successful poetry career—in some ways, at least. What I get the most out of is one-on-one conversation with other writers, and my way of engaging in that is often through my experience with the Georgia Poetry Circuit. As a representative of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, I’m responsible for getting poets to and from Columbus, which usually involves several hours of driving through the Georgia countryside in the company of another poet. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour-drive from here to Valdosta, but it seems to go by in minutes when I’m in the company of a Jill Rosser or Arthur Sze, an Albert Goldbarth or Kelly Cherry. Three hours of “communion” that is at once both relaxed and intense. Relaxed because we’re in the enclosed capsule of an automobile, cruise control set on sixty-five, watching fields and woods glide past. Intense because the conversation is all about poetry and the writing life, and there is no one else to distract us. There’s no worry about seeing or being seen. The conversations I’ve had with poets in that situation have been meaningful, the relationships I’ve formed with those poets, ongoing.
DS: Does travel play an important part in your inspiration or is it more of an impediment?
NN: I do like to travel and it is an inspiration to me, but usually in indirect ways. I seldom write about what I’m seeing, though if affects how I write about where I’m from. Jill Rosser has a great poem about an experience she had in China and in fact she’s got other great poems based on travel. Elizabeth Bishop, of course, has written some terrific travel poems. As far as travel being an impediment to writing, yes, it is in my case. Usually I use travel to recharge the batteries. I write at home.
DS: You grew up in Texas, a state we’re fond of at the CDR. What smells trigger memories of your childhood?
NN: The smell of pesticides, petrochemicals, gasoline, and engine oil. And, yes, the various smells associated with livestock, including the smell of hay.
DS: You’re skilled at writing the rural landscape poem. What do you love about this sub-genre?
NN: I like that it focuses on the landscape where we get the raw materials for our food, clothing, and fuel. I like being in and thinking about the landscape where the environmental costs of our manner of living are made visible, not because I’m a masochist but because it just feels right to me to be reminded. The acres we’re devoting to corn these days is a reminder of how we make the landscape respond to our cultural whims. The derricks and pump jacks I pass in the Red River Valley on my way home to Texarkana are reminders of this blip in human history in which petroleum rules. The lignite coal mine at Monticello, Texas, is a reminder of what an insatiable monster human culture has become. I also like that it focuses on landscapes where a person might not be able to get cell phone service if his car breaks down. The idea of remoteness. I lived in Abilene for four years, and driving there, east to west, from Dallas/Ft. Worth you feel like you surely must be nearing the end of the earth. But drive a little farther and you’ll see a road sign just beyond Abilene’s western city limit: El Paso 455. This brings me joy.
Arthur Sze put the idea in my head that one of the most important factors affecting the success or failure of a poem is how much pressure is behind it, how central the poem’s subject or theme is to the poet himself or herself. Landscape itself is central to who I am in that it’s one of the things that most interests me, most compels me. I was powerfully affected by the landscape of central Arizona, for instance, the Sonoran Desert, when I lived there in the ‘90s. But the landscape of North Central and rural East Texas is the one I grew up in and my family has kept me returning to. Flat. Mesquite-choked. Chewed-up and overworked. The transitional zone between Southeast and Southwest. The look of it, the weather of it, and the culture of it produce a good deal of the pressure behind my poems, and I’m happy with that situation.
DS: With which poets do you feel you are conversing when you work with this subject?
NN: I have approached poetry with the assumption that if writing poems is going to be worth doing it’s because the poems themselves try to tap into themes applicable to people anywhere at any time, and in this regard I try to place myself in conversation with poets like Frost and Whitman, Vergil, Hopkins, Heaney, Ted Hughes, Keats, Wordsworth, Bishop, and Dickinson. I’m also interested in contemporary poets of the rural landscape like Mary Oliver, Robert Morgan, C.D. Wright, Claudia Emerson, the 2008 T.S. Eliot Prizewinner Jen Hadfield who has written about life on the Shetland Islands and in rural Canada. But I don’t think you can be seriously engaging yourself in the writing of poems these days without recognizing you are also in conversation with Stevens and Ashbery, Howard and Strand, Plath and Olds, Gwendolyn Brooks and Zbigniew Herbert. The list is partial, but the idea is that conversation involves both agreement and disagreement. It involves sometimes disagreeing with people whose opinions you mostly share, and sometimes agreeing with people whose opinions you mostly don’t share.
DS: If you had to choose, what’s your ideal landscape for living? For dying?
NN: My ideal landscape for living: planet earth. My ideal landscape for dying: ditto.
DS: Of your poems, Richard Howard said, "I must not fail to commend his wonderful mastery of the strictly lyric mode, so rare among his contemporaries. Norwood's poems in this register can actually be sung, indeed they seem to have the music in them already." What is it about the lyric mode that draws you to it? Are you anti the autobiographical narrative, or just not attracted to it as much?
NN: Actually, the autobiographical narrative is a mode I’ve been engaging in a good deal more in the past few years. Richard Howard made that comment about the poems in The Soft Blare, which, although it was my first published book, was my second manuscript. The first manuscript, the poems based on Ludwig II of Bavaria, was published later. I got started on the Ludwig poems because I thought it was an interesting subject, and to focus on it was, in a way, to return to my own childhood, because I had visited the castles then and had become interested in the story of Ludwig. Once I got started on the idea of writing about him I couldn’t stop, and dramatic monologues turned out to be the best way I could find to approach the material. Afterwards, after all that history and allusion, I wanted to devote myself to the short, simple lyric. The little song. That’s what was driving the poems in The Soft Blare. I was stumbling hopefully forward—that is, full of hope—when I wrote those two books, and I still am.
DS: A lot of your poems are realistic in detail and don’t hold anything back. For example, one of your poems published in the Fall issue of the CDR, “Underpass,” describes an armadillo’s deteriorating carcass in great detail:
His carapace a cave-in, the dead
armadillo lies beside the curb
like a piece of broken pottery.
The smell hovered here a week. Twice each
day on my bike I passed through his cloud,
the vapor of him that leaked out, out,
until now, he’s hollow…
Are you familiar with Neruda’s short, short essay “Toward an Impure Poetry”? In it, he writes:
It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have cross long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets…from them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others…all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.
Would you agree with his statement?
NN: Yes, absolutely, and I think that Neruda puts it very well. In fact, it’s become part of my poetic creed, that the “used surfaces of things . . . lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.” I have to say I’m troubled by what I perceive to be the current generation of college students’ general lack of interest in concrete, physical reality. My theory is that, due to their absorption in electronic reality, the current generation has been distanced from concrete reality to such an extent they’ve never been able to develop an appreciation for it. When my kids were younger—I have a son and a daughter, both teenagers now—they used to “play movies,” that is, rather than pretending they were cops and robbers they pretended they were in movies about cops and robbers. And when I’d say, “Hey, why don’t you just play cops and robbers?” they’d look at me like I was an imbecile. I use an analogy with my students to try to make them see the difference between a poem that has strong, vivid concrete detail, a poem that concerns itself with as direct a representation of the physical world as possible, and one that doesn’t: when at a restaurant I’m given a choice between desserts with chocolate and ones without chocolate, I could choose the latter and it might not be too bad, but just look at what I’d be giving up.
DS: The great American landscape painter, Andrew Wyeth, once said, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show.” Care to respond to this quote? Since this interview will debut in winter, what are your best memories of the season?
NN: I will confess a general appreciation for Andrew Wyeth’s work—with what I think of as his best work, anyway—which appalls many of my friends who are artists. They’re into Dada and conceptual art and all sorts of abstraction. But there’s something about Wyeth’s muted palette and stark landscapes that, when combined with his more interesting experiments with perspective and spatial composition, resonate in ways that the passage you quote also speaks to. We may aspire to the elegiac; we try to avoid the nostalgic. When Wyeth misses the mark and seems nostalgic it’s because he risked as much when trying to be elegiac. When he hits the mark it can affect you like he’s driven a railroad spike into your gut, and you realize—if you’re like me, at least—that it was worth the risk. But the muted palette and barebones “dead feeling” of winter clearly is an effective way to evoke the elegiac in ways it is otherwise hard to articulate. Notice how the film Capote employs those same components to such brilliant effect: the palette is mostly black, brown, amber, honey, cream, and white. Reds, blues, purples, greens, etc, are all avoided. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show takes it all the way to black and white, and in that case it’s not just winter, it’s winter in West Texas in the early 1950s with a soundtrack heavy on the Hank Williams. Wow! Never mind the story, I’ve got a lump in my throat from just those elements. Crime fiction and film noir have night and the city. We who are engaged with the pain and sorrow inherent in the rural landscape have fall and winter.
One of my best memories of the season: once, when I was eight or nine, my family went with friends to look at some farm property outside of Henrietta, a little town northwest of Ft. Worth, in an area of Texas settled by German immigrants. It was a sunny Sunday in midwinter. The old two-story farmhouse sat atop a low hill in the middle of the vast acreage. We had to walk across the dormant grass of a large pasture to get to it, and when we went inside it was completely empty. Swept out, walls barren. But otherwise sound. All the windows intact. Ready to be lived in by anybody who cared to. There were wallowed-out places in the wooden stairs made by the passing feet of the Deutsche family that had built the house, lived in it for almost a century, then abandoned it when subsequent generations chose life in the city. I remember standing in an upstairs bedroom and looking out the windows at the tawny, low-rolling, empty landscape; remember feeling the particular richness of being in that middle of nowhere. There was a ‘40s-era Dodge parked inside the barn all the kids piled into and took turns sitting behind the wheel of. When we started back across the pasture to leave we kept turning around to look at the house as it slowly receded: an image of loneliness. An image of something haunted, I recognized even then. Also, I realize now, an image representing a significant chapter in the American story. And, of course, an image right out of Andrew Wyeth.
DS: In case you didn’t know, there are several Nick Norwoods on Twitter. One describes himself as the following: i am a man of 24 years. i work at starbucks. i live in Louisiana. i am an alligator. Another: Location Arkansas; Bio I Love Weather and I'm a trained storm spotter.
What’s fascinating about these short self-descriptions, or any self-description really, is the whimsical certainty, the self-assuredness these Nick Norwoods have. If you had to describe yourself in under 15 words, what would you say?
NN: It’s funny you should mention that. About ten years ago someone prompted me to Google my name—ego surfing, I believe it’s called—and I was astonished to see the result. There were Nick Norwoods running around everywhere. One of them lived blocks from where I had once lived in Arizona. Freaky. Not a particularly pleasant feeling. About a month later I was contacted via e-mail by one of my, er, doppelgangers. He had been ego surfing himself and ran across me. He said he was eighteen and couldn’t decide whether he should go to college or skip it and go straight to work. Seeing that I was a college professor and published writer, he decided to ask me for advice. After I stopped laughing, the teacher/blowhard in me decided to answer in as sincere and conscientious a fashion as I could muster. And so I began: “Dear Nick, as a fellow Nick Norwood. . . .”
Norwood, Nick: mere human, neither stone nor wood; namesake of the devil.
DS: What’s inspiring you to write these days? Are there any new projects on the horizon?
NN: In addition to the poems I’ve been working on for my next book, which I intend to call Gravel and Hawk, I have also been writing criticism. An essay on the plain style in Southern poetry will be appearing shortly in The Southern Literary Review, I’m currently circulating an essay on the figure of the moon and moonlight in the poetry of Mark Strand, and I’m in the early stages of an essay on the stylistic influence of Hopkins.