Not too long ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop given by poet, photographer, musician and incredibly nice guy, Nathan Brown. As the 2013 -2014 Oklahoma Poet Laureate, Nathan has made it his mission to rescue poetry from the inaccessibility and elitism that renders so much poetry irrelevant to us "regular" folks. And, he's the perfect poet for the job. Nathan's work is beautiful in its brevity, textured enough to touch, and completely authentic. This piece (from Two Tables Over, winner of the 2009 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry) is on my list of poems I would cheerfully engage in felonious behavior to have written.
Hunched down over a rectangle table
back in the poetry section,
I heard, over the tops of bookshelves,
the clerk tell a customer
If you get to Religion,
you've gone too far.
Like a deer reacting to gunfire,
I shot back—without considering
what an appropriate volume might be—
a rather vociferous I agree!
A suburban soccer-mom in the “A’s”
of the self-help section moved away
nervously and as quickly as she could
without making it painfully obvious.
Despite my stalking (or, perhaps, because of it), Nathan generously agreed to be interviewed here at the Garden. As I said, he's a really nice guy.
Nathan Brown: “Accessible” is a bad word for many of the elite in the field of poetry. They believe that making our artistic selves understood lowers the bar somehow. Though they might say something more like “it denigrates the discursive ideals of poetics and the sublime aspirations, as well as erudition, of the true esthete and, therefore, kowtows to the hegemonic forces of pop culture,” or some such nonsense. Which 98% of the population knows is bullshit when they step in it.
For me, it comes down to this: I want to connect with readers and audiences. And I don't know why in the hell I should apologize for that. I want to have some kind of effect on someone other than myself. Otherwise, it’s masturbation. Something I believe should be done in private. And carefully articulated federal laws agree with me on that.
How we accomplish this as poets is tricky at best. But for starters, we might imagine a reader in Yellowknife on the Great Slave Lake of the Northern Territories in Canada. If you are cruising by regional landmarks and cultural details in your writing that she would have no earthly idea what you're talking about, maybe you should pause and think about what she might need to know in order to enjoy your poem. There’s a lot more, but we'd need a weeklong workshop for all of it.
Where we have failed is in allowing ourselves to believe that open mic night is the perfect venue for revisiting our most recent sessions with psychotherapists, and that our long roads to healing are somehow interesting to audiences. All of us are screwed up. Some more than others. But no one is special. And I've said this many times before: Look… people are already depressed. And so don't subject them to anything that’s going to make them want to increase their medication.
MZ: As poets, do we have a responsibility to speak to issues of great social and political import (sorry, channeling Janis Joplin)? Or, is it perfectly okay to stick with Hallmark cards if that's our thing?
Nathan Brown: The problem isn't “whether or not” we do it… but instead the lackluster, unimaginative—or even worse… righteously indignant—way in which we do it. Intelligent audiences do not like to be preached at by someone standing atop his Prius and pointing downward, and all around his feet, at the idiots of the world. We've got to dig deeper than that when it comes to making a political point. And we need to remember that humor has been one of the best tools for this, historically. Not triteness… nor silliness… but well-crafted satire. Mark Twain reminds us that tragedy is the real source of most humor. And what is politics, if not tragic.
If I might separate the two, I believe issues of great social import need better “stories” to carry them. A good story will heal more cultural and societal damage than any academic treatise or polemical sermon on the problem.
MZ: (Selfish personal question) You’re not only a poet, you are an extremely talented singer / songwriter. When you're writing a poem, does it “read” to you or “sing” to you? Is songwriting a part of your poetry, or do you treat it as a separate discipline?
NB: A poem has to sing to work. At the same time, songwriters should pay more attention to the laws of poetry, imagery, plot, and good storytelling than many of them do these days.
Poetry and songwriting are two very different “swings” to me. Like racquetball and tennis. One is in the elbow and the wrist, while the other is in the shoulder. And I don't know why songs are harder for me to write. But I write much fewer of them because of it.
One clear difference is that a sung melody allows for a held-out duration—a lengthening—of syllables that is very difficult to achieve on the page, and especially in live readings. You can do it, I suppose. But if you're not gifted at it, you'll look pretty stupid.
MZ: Gotta ask . . . favorite poets?
NB: William Stafford (here in the year that would've been his 100th birthday).
Stephen Dunn. Maybe my favorite. Period.
Billy Collins because he’s fun to read and brings people back to poetry.
Tony Hoagland because he’s so wonderfully “out there.”
Sharon Olds because she makes me uncomfortable.
Adam Zagajewski and his Eastern European unease.
Charles Bukowski because I can't help it.
Matthew Dickman. At least that first book of his kicked my butt.
Among others I'm forgetting
Nathan's latest book, Less is More, More or Less, is available on Amazon. I highly recommend that you pick it up. You won't be disappointed.
So, do you feel like writing? Since I haven't had a decent night's sleep in forever, I've got insomnia on the brain. Give me your take on insomnia . . . or, bless your heart, a cure . . . in 60 words or less.