Dispatches | April 16, 2012
Nick Courtright, author of Punchline – a Q and A at the Talkin' Shack
Nick Courtright’s book of poems, Punchline, was published recently by Gold Wake Press. Nick’s poem “Goddess” was our Poem of the Week at one time, and so given our history I visited Nick at the Talkin’ Shack, which is what I call my e-mail address, and asked him some questions. This is what he had to say:
1. I’m always interested in how poets choose to shape their collections. Could you describe how you’ve arranged yours?
Luckily for me, this book in many ways arranged itself—the logic of its conceptual argument is largely organic, since it mirrors the progress (or regress) of my thought on topics of existence and reality and scale and fate and these sorts of issues over the course of a discrete period of time. In one of the best decisions I’ve made as a writer, and editor, I didn’t engage the foolish practice of trying to outsmart myself into imagining that I could find a better order for the works of the book than the order the book was born into, as a portrait of the evolution of inquiries.
In other words, I didn’t mess with it much, even though there are parts where I added in poems from other projects (the first poem in each of the four sections is one of these “added” works), and other little areas where I mildly adjusted the order of poems. My biggest editorial move in construction was not one of arrangement, but one of merciless deletion: the original content of this manuscript was six times as long as Punchline ended up being. The remainder wallows in Word documents, though some nice pieces of it have been published, in journals like Contrary, Permafrost, and Forklift, Ohio.
But, to answer the real issue, which is what order actually exists in the book, here it is: the beginning, long poem, “The Despot,” is the preface, and is called such; after this, the book is broken into four parts. The first is “He does not roll dice,” after an Einstein quote, the second is “Invent the universe,” after a Carl Sagan quote, the third is “Worry to die,” after a Lorca quote, and the fourth is “Nothing special,” after a quote by Shunryu Suzuki. Vaguely, they mark a development of philosophical inquiry from questioning to understanding to consolation to acceptance, though I just made that up right now and could be wrong.
2. How would this book be different if we were not living on the brink of a global environmental collapse?
The crazy answer is that I don’t think it’d be too much different. A big part of the work, its philosophical angle, if you will, is its “call for acceptance,” a kind of plea that amidst the uncertainty—shaking us in all our doings and all our travails and searchings for meaning—we must buckle down and brace for, and hopefully enjoy, the reckoning that is our lives. With that sort of view, all miseries must be tolerated, all disasters placated, all good things enjoyed but only while recognizing their inherent transitoriness and, ironically, permanence.
I’m Interviews Editor for the Austinist, and I recently got to interview Nick Offerman, the actor who plays libertarian and stoic Ron Swanson on the show Parks & Rec. He had this to say about the stoical attitude: “when it’s raining and the wind blows over your picnic table, you need simply remind yourself that the sun will shine again.” I think this is a healthy way of looking at things, and while I’m not a stoic—I like to think more positively than that sort of Buddhist indifference in the face of the universe’s wheel of fortune, I do feel a camaraderie with the stoic’s imperturbability.
This circuity may seem a strange answer to the question, but it’s the way it seemed to want to be answered. Especially since I’m not so sure we’re living “on the brink of a global environmental collapse”—if I were a betting man, I’d say the earth will allow us to be here for yet a while longer, if only we are smart enough to accept its generosity.
3. There are two drawings in the book, at its start and at its finish. I am reminded, happily, of Jean Toomer’s not dissimilarly subtle use of not entirely dissimilar illustrations in Cane. How did they find their way into the book?
The drawings are funny when called drawings: a picture of the moon and a picture of the sun, both represented simply by a nondescript circle, marking the beginning and the end of the book. I don’t want to say too much about this since I don’t wish to imply that they are more serious than they are, or less funny than they are—basically, there is, like in Toomer (though I blush at the comparison), a cyclic sameness of reality in the before-book and after-book, in that we have learned something, surely, but that this learning hasn’t shown us a light sufficient to enduringly brighten being’s endless forest.
As for how they found their way into the book, they were a very late edition —I felt like something else was needed to unite profundity and absurdity, and the circularity of these distant, phenomenal heavenly bodies, as represented by their simple two-dimensional shape, could do the trick. For me, the biggest decision was which to put last, to be the final thought of the book: the sun, or the moon? I must say I’m happy with the decision I made.
4. Many of your poems feel like pieces torn out of much bigger thoughts, or conversations, or lives; it’s as if, in some cases, material pertinent to the poem, but not necessary to it, is somewhere off the page, so that as much as the poems are complete wholes in themselves, they are suggestive of things they don’t necessarily include. This might, I admit, be an effect of reading your book quickly, or it might be something I’ve gathered merely from the way you end some poems with ellipses. Is there anything you can say about this? Does it sound like I’m describing the book you wrote?
I think this is apt. I’ve considered before the relationship between the “lyric poem as complete entity” and the “lyric poem as in service of the greater series of poems,” and this book is definitely indebted to the latter notion. I think there’s often something “faux conclusive” about the poem that is “whole unto itself,” and, as the story of human understanding remains a moving target ever receding from the completeness it with boundless energy chases, so must the poems lack the epiphany that can only come with an embrace of dogma. If that makes sense.
I watched this film recently, The Examined Life, and in it Cornel West had some harsh words for Romanticism, saying that it was crazy for us to expect to have the whole thing (“Truth”), and that we shouldn’t be disappointed when what we get is only a bundle of discordant pieces, rather than a perfectly composed iconic harmony. I still hold out a perhaps naïve hope for the Romantic whole, but I also get a lot of enjoyment out of discordant pieces. I love Emerson, but I can dig Coltrane, too.
So there is absence in these poems, the parts that are somewhere off the page. Because, in any tale, in any one person’s understanding of another’s life, or of his or her own life, there’s always something that cannot be seen, the backstory to which we sitting in the audience are not privy. Even the thousand page realist novel necessarily leaves something out; even the epic film forgets to show you the face of the cinematographer, or the cigarette smoke of the screenwriter. The pretense of completeness may be, to me, just that: pretense. So it’s in the interstices that we make truth, in the fragments we in our finite vision have been permitted to see. And what of what we can see? It’s beautiful.
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