Writers on Writing #53: Nate Pritts
Undelivered Letters / Questions Without Answers –
I figure, if you’re going to do something – no matter what it is – go all out. Push the limits. I have this image of Walt Whitman on the rooftops of New York, singing into a microphone while dinosaur-sized speakers blare sunflower shaped blessings into the heads and hearts of everyone around
I have an image of Allen Ginsberg dancing at center field during a Super Bowl halftime, playing his accordion and talking about love and talking about fucking.
I’m sitting at my favorite coffee shop in the world today, looking out at the traffic and the snow, trying to answer a question an interviewer posed to me. I wanted to tell you about it, because I’ve got some questions of my own. For you. The interviewer says she counted 70 exclamation points spread throughout the poems of one of my books. The interviewer notes that most poets don’t use exclamation points at all.
The interviewer asks me if I’m for real.
I’m for real. Exclamation exclamation! So now I’d like to ask you: are you for real?
But first, thanks for sending me your poems! Of course, there are lines I would cut. There are probably lines I would add. I’ve got some questions for you and I’ll drop them throughout this letter. These are meant to get you thinking – I don’t particularly need to know your answers because mine are probably a little bit different from yours. William Carlos Williams provides his own exclamation, from his poem “The Dance,” “Only the dance is sure! / make it your own.”
In your poem, “The Washed Gibbet,” there’s an incredible improvisational rush – enacted in the poem to the point where the reader can feel the mental kick from one line to the next, the way an image transitions through a kind of hyper-phase stun gun blast to the next. A poem like this feels like it arrived, whole and already breathing. I think a lot of writers compose like that INITIALLY. Meaning, after they write the mass of the thing, they go back and attentively carve away. I feel like the difference here is best exemplified by Rodin – the sculptor who saw hulking, impassive shapes inside hunks of unrefined material – or Jackson Pollock – the ACTION painter, maestro of the in-process moment, where nothing is planned except the spirit of the artist who is ready, ready.
To unearth my question – what is Poetry, for you?
Is it something honed and developed, torqued and tweaked? Are you Rodin?
Or is it what you say when you are a revelation unto yourself, every utterance you speak one that has been kissed by the angels? Are you Pollock?
Are you both?
What’s on my mind is form, patterns, the ways we develop things, what we do once we’ve developed those things, and Poetry with a capital P.
I’m going to talk about me a little bit too. I always do!
Different lines in your poem “This Cosmos, This Void” seem like they could kick off their own little improvisational masterpieces. What’s your sense of going back into a piece like this after you’ve written it? Can you imagine 5 – or 300? – separate poems from this one source? Does that idea make you crazy – or get you charged up?
I’m writing this letter as the sun moves in the sky. I think I started this letter at about 11:30 and it’s 12:45 now. The big bright sun is casting a sheen on my laptop screen. It is heavenly or it is annoying. It might be both.
Because isn’t bliss, by its very nature, a little inconvenient? It asks a lot of us – wants us to wake up when we’d rather sleep, wants us to sing when we feel like grunting. It wants us to live even if we feel like keeling over.
I love to READ poems, with the book in my hand or out loud to the birds in the tree that shadows most of my front porch. Even now, in the snow! We always need this music. However, I’m not the best listener in the world. I hear some specific lines and, occasionally, their echoes; I can follow things through if they string themselves along in a way that allows me to. Training wheels? I get struck by openings and closings. Charles Olson says, famously, obviously, “Limits are what we are inside of.” These are some of my limits.
A word is a word – a line is a line. But what matters more than a turn of phrase are the lines that lead up to it, or that fall away from it. The context. It’s those riffs and apperceptions. It’s the way it falls or the way it falls flat.
What I love most about poetry is the way words can transmute the environment – create a transcendental fire out of the tinder and timber of the world we live in. How do we do this? Image, word choice, line break. Yes, yes, yes. But it’s something else as well. It’s the way we interconnect / interchange objective data with subjective perception.
I know you WRITE some of your poems into existence and I know you TALK some of your poems into being. What’s the difference for you INSIDE your head and heart between these two methods? What’s the difference OUTSIDE, in the world, on the page – between a written poem and a transcribed one? Is there a difference…or is this solely a compositional discipline that effects the birth of the poem but not its teenage years?
I want to think about bigger issues. All of us could tweak some of our lines, we could tighten – whatever. We could tweak our lives away! But I think the thing to do is answer the questions the poem raises. And then engage again in the practice, to zealously plunge into the act of the activity. Meditation and labor.
Write more poems and send word from where you are.
Nate Pritts is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Right Now More Than Ever. He founded H_NGM_N, an online journal & small press, in 2001 & continues to serve as Director & Prime Architect for its various endeavors.