Writers on Writing #92: Nate Pritts
Ask any two poets how they became what they are – when they first realized they were going to devote themselves to the writing of poetry – and you’re likely to get two wholly different accounts of how they found themselves cast in the role. Poet origin stories are often full of implausibility, rife with coincidences and fortuitous circumstances spinning out of control. After all, there aren’t many people who calmly and coolly make the logical choice to embark upon a life as a poet! That’s why these true-life accounts are often every bit as bombastic, as sensational and spectacular, as the colorful origin stories you’re likely to find in comic books or the movies. It’s a little ridiculous, and ultimately amazing, that anyone at all ever ends up as a poet.
But the narrative of a person’s history is never quite so tidy as we might like. It’s impossible to trace things cleanly back to a single bolt of lightning that changed the course of our own human drama once we admit all the forces and decisions coalescing around us, “knowing how way leads on to way,” as Frost reminds us. Maybe that’s why I think it’s so important to reflect on our own beginnings as writers, to remember as much as we can of our origin stories, recognize and distill those residual energies so that we can keep learning from them. And I think it is important to share these early annals so that maybe all this collective wisdom can seep in and make things easier for those just starting out in the process of starting out. For me, it began like it did for Superman, with my world coming to an end.
It was already November, 1994 – dangerously close to the end of what I hoped was the penultimate semester of my undergraduate studies – when I found out that a class I needed in order to graduate wasn’t going to be offered in the spring. I’d started at the State University of New York at Brockport in the fall of 1992, convinced I was going to be a writer, of novels preferably, big ones with important themes that were full of important wisdom, that would be generous and humane and all encompassing.
And that was my path as I blasted through the semesters thanks to an accelerated program that helped me jump over general requirements and my own frenetic tendency to double up on classes, as well as the palpable and mounting pressures of my own life. I saw my future, perhaps melodramatically, as a hallway filled with doors slamming shut all around me. My high school girlfriend and I just had a daughter and we were both feeling a frantic drive to get out into the world, to somehow make a living, to be productive, to grow up. I was 20.
The class I needed in order to complete my degree requirements was an Advanced Fiction Workshop but the college was offering the Advanced Poetry Workshop instead. I hadn’t taken any Beginning, or even Intermediate, Poetry Workshop classes; in fact, except for a few rambling but lineated journal entries and a handful of haiku written as public school English class assignments, I had no real experience with poetry at all. My Introduction to Creative Writing class, which had a long unit on poetry, was one of the handful of Cs on my transcript; I had written stories instead of the required poems and got angry at the teacher for trying to smother my prosey ambitions. So I wasn’t expecting much when I petitioned William Heyen, the teacher of that Advanced Poetry Workshop, to let me in. In my memory, Bill looked at me, probably registering the way my body vibrated with the crash of expectation and deeply unsatisfying turmoil, and said “Sure, okay.”
Did I know Bill was a dedicated and prolific poet, a guy who had made it his life to chase and be chased by words? No. I’d learn that later, of course, as we struck up a valuable twenty-year (and counting…) friendship. I only saw him as a professor, a potential roadblock that had been lifted, and he followed his acquiescence with a disclaimer. “These people that’ll be in your class, they’ve been studying poetry for years. Are immersed in it. Have been reading it and writing it.” He paused to consider, then added, ”That might not matter, actually.” Still, he suggested that I devote my time to writing and reading poetry, as a way to catch up and even the playing field before class started in January. Since I haven’t stopped doing that, devoting myself to reading and considering and writing and living through my poetry, it’s tempting to cap the story there.
But this isn’t even close to the end of the story. Like Superman, I had found a way to rocket free of a dying planet, to shake free of a fiction degree that was never to be. I was reborn as a poet, and one who would graduate on time as well! My origin story, however, was just past its prologue and moving me forward to the real crisis. Because this isn’t about my transcript, and not about trying to graduate on time either (which I did, by the way – the first of many debts I owe to poetry). This is the story of how I found my first authentic voice as a poet, my real origin in poetry, which is the same thing as saying my first authentic voice as a human being.
My first poems – those that carried me through that initial poetry workshop and which continued for a few years after – were characterized by insistently stubborn attempts to write a type of poetry that wasn’t authentic to my experience or voice at all, counterfeit poetry manufactured in the basement of my darkened heart with whatever previously sanctioned materials I could lay my hands on. In the beginning, I was struggling to put words on paper, so I searched for models, not to copy outright (though I did some of that) but because it seemed to me that I could learn what a poem was by reading a lot of other poems, could understand what I was or was not allowed to do by assessing what had been done. I came easily under the spell of deep image, the lyric cycle of crisis and revelation, and started writing poems about owls swooping across great snowy fields, mystical recollections of riding horses through the mountains or scrub fields. Things that could never burst into flame or flower were always exploding in my poems. I changed my life in every line.
Really, I had never seen an owl, had never ridden a horse. Still, this was a fine use of my energies at the time. I continued writing these poems for years, learning from the process, but I kept on with them long after I perceived a fraudulent rift opening up. I graduated, then moved back to my hometown of Syracuse, New York, and worked full time at a comic book store. Then left to manage a record store. Then jumped ship again to work at a chain bookstore in a mall. I got married and bought a house. In my poems, I was some kind of wispy bearded savant, immaterial, watching the blossoms from a peach orchard slowly unfurl and then drift away on the breeze. In my life, I was saturated with pop culture, with unadorned and unrefined American feelings. I was a real person living in a corporeal body, not in the clouds or in a cave. A disconnect prevented me from writing poetry that was true to myself, poetry that was an authentic utterance instead of an uncomfortable synthetic amalgamation. Even as my marriage broke up and my life dipped into yet another of its periodic crisis cycles, I held onto the false face I had created, stoically reporting on the seasonal migration of geese, the texture of the bark on the trees which were, truthfully, nowhere to be seen.
It’s possible that I’m being a little harsh on myself. All of this was a crucially important apprentice period for me as a poet. I was learning the language and learning myself. And even my tightly controlled lines about the burning heads of dandelions were noticeable bending under the heft of the real loneliness and isolation I felt in my life.
But even if these early poems were fine as poems – and they weren’t, because no amount of craft and polish can transmute shallow imitations, degraded variations without heart – they weren’t my poems. They were crafted but not truly felt. They were artifacts, but they weren’t art. If they functioned at all, it was too obvious that the gears clicked together; they made only their own sounds instead of some much more luminous music.
Maybe if I’d read more widely, I wouldn’t have been lost in the woods for so long. But I picked up new poets the way I picked up new bands to listen to, by following the trail of influence and associations. So it was a tight little country I was mapping out. I was lucky in this process, though; since I worked in a bookstore, I could order in copies of anything I wanted, ostensibly for the shelf or for a fake customer named Mr. Bookman. The books would stack up in the back room, hidden away until I had a chance to read them on break.
Then, I found something that struck at me directly, though how I came to it, I don’t remember – maybe by following breadcrumb trail of lit journal bios leading me from one poet to another. One day I was sitting outside, at a picnic table set up just off the loading dock, and I read these lines from “Shopping with Bob Berwick,” a poem by Mark Halliday from his book Tasker Street:
We used to hit the mall those winter nights to get away from grading quizzes (“Your work is improving, keep at it!”) and thinking of women. Shoppingtown was big and bright and the salesgirls had legs
hips, convexities; and chewed gum.
I still have tremendous fondness for this poem, and it was certainly a breakthrough moment for me. The discursive effects and narrative wizardry of the poem weren’t revolutionary and maybe I blushed a bit at the brash and uncomfortably honest voice of the speaker.
But the ostensible situation of the poem, walking around Shoppingtown Mall and feeling dissatisfied, resonated with me in a way that no other poem had before for the simple reason that I worked in the same mall – Shoppingtown! Not only did I also spend a lot of time wandering around, dissatisfied and in love with any life other than my own, but I did it in the same mall mentioned in the poem. It was right there, a thing in my own real life taking up space in a poem! No more deep heart’s core, no more crystalline canyons or azure passages.
It’s not really an overstatement to say that things changed from that point. Instead of daydreaming about frozen lakes in the murky wilderness at the top of the world, I looked out the front of my mall bookstore at all the customers and realized the poetry I ached to write was right in front of me, was all around me and always had been. It was the permission I needed, the smack in the face that woke me up to the possibilities of poetry.
And here’s the trick: it could have come from anywhere, from any number of poets or writers or artists who held onto their love of past masters while still situating themselves in the actual and vivid present of their own lives. But I’ve always been a little dense. It took something the approximate size and shape of America’s soft underbelly, all that greed and pampered privilege, a shopping mall air-conditioned for my convenience, to wake me up to the potentials of my own life.
Suddenly, the roads and neighborhoods seemed charged with a kind of transcendent possibility that wasn’t there before. Or, rather, it had been there all along and I was only now allowing myself to recognize it. I was so blinded by what I thought was the proper language and tone for poetry that I was deaf to the resonant lines my own life provided. You can only imagine what happened when I finally read through Hayden Carruth’s Asphalt Georgics, a book of poems that explored and inhabited and name-checked the landmarks of the sleepy suburban village bordering the neighborhood I grew up in!
Probably the first few poems I wrote under this spell were pretty bad, too self-conscious about dropping in street names and familiar locations. Maybe they fell flat under the sway of these new models, their overpowering voices. But I learned something that has proven more valuable to me than any technique I would learn when I finally, eventually, went to gradate school, first for my MFA and then for my PhD.
I flipped the script on the Superman origin story. Instead of winding up on some strange new world where I could flex my powers, writing poems hewn wholly from imagined scenarios and emotional tropes, I had in fact crash landed on my own planet, aware of it and alive to it for the first time.
Poetry restored to me a sensitivity to, and appreciation for, my own actual life, the surroundings and the emotions, the locations and the associations. And it helped me find my first authentic voice, my early true concerns and callings in language, which has been a boon both to my writing and my life. Because, for the first time, I understood how inextricable those things were. I saw the whole shape of what I was doing.
Nate Pritts is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Right Now More Than Ever, as well as several chapbooks including the recent Pattern Exhaustion and the forthcoming Life Event. He is also the Director and Founding Editor of H_NGM_N, an independent publishing house. Find out more at www.natepritts.com.