"On What Does Art Depend?": 5 Questions on Craft with Poet Nicholas Gulig

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by Alex Zitzner

 I first heard Nick read at the Oxbow in 2017 as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival’s prodigal poets returning read, and then was fortunate enough to work with him at the CVWG’s Winter Writers Retreat in 2018. From those experiences, I became interested with his work and its intricacies. I purchased his book length poem North of Order (YesYes Books), read it all during a lonely week in New York while riding the subway from museum to museum, and it got me stoked. Since Nick will be returning to the Chippewa Valley on Monday, March 11th to read at 5PM at the Local Store/Volume One Gallery as part of Bruce Taylor’s Local Lit: Off the Page series, I reached out with a few questions on crafting his latest book Orient (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) to dive deeper into how he approached this body of work.

 Alex Zitzner: I never really gave Brian Eno’s ambient work a listen until you mentioned in your interview with Speaking of Marvels that you were listening to Music for Airports while writing Orient and this made me think about the spaces where there is no text within the book and how that creates an environment, similarly to how Eno creates an environment without language. For instance, “Some Pornographies” is laid out over 11 pages with each stanza of the poem being 14 lines, instead of it being one long poem taking up the entire pages it would need vertically. With this, I was wondering what your approach was to structuring the poems within your book in relation to how they interact with the “white” space of the pages?

 Nick Gulig: Eno’s idea of music as “ambience” was important to the book in the way that you describe, first because it constituted, quite literally, the physical environment in which so much of the writing of the book took place. But also, and maybe even more so, ambience, as Eno talks about it, de-privileges both the music and the maker in a way that helped me think through what it was that I was trying to do with Orient. As a writer, when I watch/listen to American foreign policy—which the book does, to a large degree—I’m immediately uneasy with the extent to which the notion of genius, the seductive myth that underpins the tradition in which I work, runs parallel to, and is to that extent complicit with, the project of Empire. As an artist, it feels important to understand that the opportunity to make art, to spend the vast majority of a long life painting, writing, making music or whatever, is a real gift, a privilege that most folks in the world don’t have. This fact should matter and be important to you. I don’t mean to sound condescending here, but it really should, like ethically and as a matter of principle and awareness. You shouldn’t take the time it takes to write a poem for granted. I spent four years writing Orient. During that time I did very little else besides read and write and revise and take breaks to think and also not to think. I did the majority of the research for the book at a private school in Denver that I got paid to go to. The tuition there is something like 60 grand a year. Sure, after that I worked, but, like barely. I had a fellowship and scholarships that let me read and write and stare at trees all day. Try explaining that, say, for example, to someone who has to work three jobs because they were thrown into the world on the wrong side of a redline in Milwaukee; it’s do or die in an environment like that. Explain that to the mother of a daughter living in a war zone who has to pack up what’s left of her life and cross the desert, the ocean, in search of something only maybe safer. I wrote that book because I was able to write that book, and when I look too long at what allows me to be able to live the life I do, it’s hard not to notice the extent to which what I have depends upon and is only possible because of what others don’t have. The American middle class, for example, of which I am a part, and which presented me a thousand and one opportunities to pursue a life of letters, exists in large part at the expense of other, intentionally less fortunate communities. We drew lines around those communities, extorted money from them in the form of predatory loans, built taxable white wealth, and then erected a social safety net around the kinds of white communities that I grew up in. This is not a new relationship. And that matters, or, at least, it should matter. It should matter in the same way that the grotesque number of military bases we have around the world should matter to me. The things we do to and in other countries has to matter to me and to my poems if my poems are only possible because of the context I was born in. To what degree does this context depend on the hell that other people have to go through in places I can’t name and that I’ll never see with my own eyes except through the distorting lens of media. That’s the central question behind Orient. On what does art depend? And in the face of the range of answers to that question, the notion of the individual “genius” as its traditionally been championed in the West doesn’t hold up. Individualism, as an ethos, doesn’t hold up, not nationally, and, thus, not artistically. Eno understood this. He understood that we create within the context of our communities, in specific environments, and he let that become his music. Ambience is the antithesis of the Empire because it privileges context, environment, and under-emphasizes I. At the same time, this privileging is also a refusal. It’s a refusal to impose an order upon an other. Said differently, ambience is the attempt to create an opening into which the other might wish to enter, a static softness that is, at the same time, a form of welcoming, a space in which what’s made, or, in my case, as a poet, what’s said, might exist in conversation with the static of the other voices that surround it. That’s what white space is. It’s the static of other voices, other languages, experiences, most of which I can’t understand or make any kind of sense of, but which surround me nonetheless and upon which the privilege of speech depends.

 AZ: As you note, many of the poems in Orient began with, “transcription, (mis)translation, erasure, and collage.” This is very fitting for what the themes of the book are (noise, language, religion, war, politics, the desert, among others), so could you explain what your process were or how those processes affected the poems and their subjects?

 NG: In part because I had grown sick of my own voice and in part because I wanted to begin with the voices of/noises made by others, I began Orient through a process of transcription, translation, erasure, and collage. After speaking with a professor of middle eastern studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School, I made a binary list of “energies” or “forces” he helped me understand as coming into contact/conflict in the desert regions on which American foreign policy has focused since I was old enough to know so. For example, my first memory of war, which I try to bring into the book, happened when I was nine or ten years old. Thus, the vast majority of the life that I am able to recollect exists in direct, violent relation to this region and its people, both of which I have little to no understanding. Orient was my attempt to “understand” and I used this list as a conceptual window into a world I didn’t know but to which so much of what I do know, and thus, who I am, is tethered. Using this list, I spent a year transcribing media that I intuitively linked to one side of the list or the other. For example, one of the binary oppositions on my list of was “the sacred and profane.” This meant that I listened to and transcribed Pentecostal sermons, on the one hand, and hardcore pornography on the other. I read the Bible a lot, listened to black metal, studied the Qur’an, etc. It was fun, surreal disturbing. At the end of a year, I had this discombobulated document of language gleaned from discordant sources tethered to my binary concepts, and from that shitshow soup of language I started writing poems in the hope that the poem might become a place where these things might finally work together, make a kind of world together, by which I mean, of course, make meaning.

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AZ: When considering negative capability in Keats terms of creating work with a level of uncertainty (which I think once again follows the themes of Orient), most poems appear to be documenting shifts in thought, whether in the present or past, and working through them with that uncertainty. I may be off with that observation, but how has negative capability affected your poems? When did you first become interested with the idea and either implementing it in your work or noticing it was there?

NG: I’ve been wrestling with Keats and negative capability since 2009 when I took a class on Keats’ letters with the poet Dan Beachy-Quick at the University of Iowa. My most recent version of this wrestling is to think of negative capability as a kind of haunting, a possessing that is also a possession. In either case, I experience it as an emptying of self. When one possesses, one becomes an other (an Imogen or Iago), when one becomes possessed, the self submits to the possessor. Again, I’m drawn to it because its relational, but it has to move both ways, reciprocally, consensually, like a dance. If it doesn’t, if one privileges one reading of negative capability over the other, it becomes colonial, authoritarian, American. In Orient, the ghost flits from one thought to the next, from one perspective to another, dragging a kind of residue behind it in the way a spider might leave a half-transparent trail behind herself as she moves from one mooring to the next. The web, of course, was also one of the ways that Keat’s tried to think through negative capability. The thing (a glittering circuiting) that’s there but also not there, the absent-presence between the cold hard facts of the world that maps the depth of their connections. It is from these depths, at least for Keats, the poem arises.

AZ: One name that I recognized from your second note was Maggie Nelson and I thought of her poetic essay book Bluets and how you both work in that style. Once again, I may be off, but who were you reading while writing or editing these poems, and how did they influence you?

NG: For me, Nelson’s Bluets is the most important book that’s been written in the last two decades, maybe three. I’m teaching it for the first time this semester and I’m super nervous because if my students don’t love it, I’ll hate them and they’ll fail. Most of what I love about that book is the way it moves. Bluets moves like a George Oppen poem, for example, a discrete series of illuminations that exist in the space between the essay and the poem, the certain and the uncertain. Its interstitial. There are these long pauses between the sections in which you find yourself suspended in mid-air before you land again on solid ground, but only for a moment. It’s an imitation of life, in that sense. As such, Nelson intelligently refuses to last too long in any

single clarifying claim before her speaking picks you up a second, third, fourth time etc. and carries you off into the absence of not-knowing. She says that it’s a book about the color blue, but really, it’s a book about negative capability, of the struggle to feel at home in uncertainty and mystery and doubt

AZ: I’m guessing you get this question a lot, so my apologies if I am not furthering anything, but what advice do you have for poets, whether unpublished or already having a multitude of books?

 NG: This is a boring answer, but it’s the only one I have: Read. Buy books, support artists, and read. More specifically, read the things you don’t already like, that make no sense to the you that you are now. If the meager life I’ve lived thus far has taught me anything, it’s that most of what we think we like aesthetically eventually becomes something we no longer like aesthetically. This is a good thing. If your tastes aren’t changing it means that you aren’t changing, which means you’re dying the only death there is to be afraid of, the one that happens slowly over time, in increments, a little bit each day. Art should help us live.

Once again, Nick will be reading at the Local Store/Volume One Gallery for Local Lit: Off the Page on Monday, March 11th at 5PM. You can purchase Orient here, and North of Order here.