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Volume 3 Number 2 • Fall 2011

The Sound of It: A Conversation with Tim Nolan

by Christopher Title

Tim Nolan was born in Minneapolis in 1954. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1978 with a B.A. in English. He and his wife Kate moved to New York City in 1978 where he obtained an M.F.A in writing from Columbia University, worked as an archivist at the Whitney Museum, and read the poetry slush pile for The Paris Review.

Nolan returned to Minnesota in 1985 and received his law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in 1989. Tim is an attorney with the McGrann Shea law firm in Minneapolis. He and his wife Kate live in South Minneapolis with their children—Elizabeth, Maeve, and Frank.

Tim's poems have appeared in many periodicals, including The Gettysburg Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, and Water~Stone Review. Garrison Keillor has read Tim's poems on The Writer's Almanac on National Public Radio. Tim's first book of poems, The Sound of It published by New Rivers Press, was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award.

I talked to Tim on June 16, 2011, a sunny Thursday, at about 4:30 in the afternoon at Mackenzie's bar on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. A Minnesota Twins baseball game had just concluded and the streets were filled with people. The Twins beat the Chicago White Sox 1-0. The bar was packed. We found a table outside on the deck.

SLEET: The first question I have for you is biographical because it seems such a part of your book, The Sound of It. I'm interested in what kind of a child you were and especially things that may have had an impact on you as a writer, or thinker.

TIM NOLAN: I had a pretty normal childhood, a typical sort of baby boomer experience. I don't think you can diminish the impact of the Cold War on any of us and the Kennedy assassination, when I was nine years old. I don't think I've ever been the same. I don't think the people of my generation have ever been the same since that event, which we all remember, and one thing I asked my parents about a few years ago when they were both able to answer was—what about the Cuban missile crisis?—which was October of 1962. I said, "Do you remember that?" Because I was eight years old and I didn't remember it as an event that put everybody on the tipping point of mass destruction, although I think for adults it was like that, and what my mother said was, "Well, what I was most worried about was whether I would be able to get a hold of your dad and everybody wouldn't be in the same place if anything happened." And, I remember thinking—Wow!—I never even thought about that as an adult with my kids, I mean those kinds of concerns.

Sleet: Not even during the recent terror stuff?

TN: It seems so remote, the possibility seems so remote. Of course, as in the Cold War, the possibilities were not at all remote. We knew where the Soviets were targeting their missiles, which was Honeywell in South Minneapolis right off 35W. Everybody knew that was ground zero for any attack on the Twin Cities. And so we knew stuff like that, but it was still kind of remote. But that makes it sound like there was this over-riding kind of, there was this over-riding sense of dread, not personally, but a bigger sense of possible dread, which I think was the worst thing that could possibly happen.

Sleet: So generally you didn't notice impacts of this zeitgeist on you, but is it was certainly there?

TN: Yeah. What I'm saying is I didn't personally have a sense of dread, like within my family because we had a very stable, ordinary, loving, family life, but there was this sense of dread that things could really go bad, really go bad, which sort of undermines your perception of things, you know?

Sleet: Seems like certain people, and I wonder if this is true of many poets, tend to be sort of mavens, that they bridge various eclectic groups. They move through barriers easily. They avoid categorization.

TN: Yeah, I think I did because I realized when I was pretty young that I didn't want to be categorized, and within my little family, I had an older brother and an older sister, I was the one who would make the joke, and I tended to, sort of, lighten the mood and I was always trying to amuse people, if I could—until I got older, in my twenties, and I realized I'm not doing this anymore in my family, and I remember very consciously withdrawing from that role which, I think, presented some level of disappointment for my parents and my brother and sister because they had kind of come to depend on me for that. But I still love that. I still love to make people laugh. I do love that.

Sleet: So I'm going to use the term clown, you know, because I was a sort of class clown, frenetic and zany, because I had learned it from my family who revered humor, and sarcasm was our method of communication. That's how you made yourself known.

TN: There was sarcasm in my family too but it was more kind of a level of goofiness that my family came to rely on from me, or exuberance or something, which I learned over time.

I was very close to one of my grandmothers in particular, really close to her. As I got older, we became closer. She was a wonderful storyteller, sort of in the Irish tradition of storytelling. Finding that really perfect detail in a story that would tell it all, and she also was a, this was my grandmother Ruth, she was also a wonderful listener, too. I learned a whole lot from her about listening, listening to language, and listening to patterns of speech. She always reminded me of, both physically and in personality, of Jack Benny [laughs]. She had this wonderful dead pan, and timing, great timing. And so I remember learning a lot from her about telling the story.

Sleet: That's interesting.

TN: Yeah. In a way this all goes to voice. The voice is, you know, the words that land and stick and kind of matter, it's what gets murmured to you in one way or another in childhood. Those things land. I remember saying something as a kid that I've always remembered. I'd gone to a doctor's appointment or something, I was just a little kid, and I was at home having something to eat, and I said, I can't remember what it was I was eating, it was a piece of toast with jelly or something, and I said, "This tastes just like the doctor's office smells." And my mother said, "Oh, that's kind of interesting." And I remember thinking that you can combine senses and you make this kind of analogy. And that was when I was really little, probably three or four years old.

We lived out in Richfield right near a Jewish seminary on Penn Avenue and 72nd. The cemetery chapel looks sort of like the Pearl Harbor monument, this kind of weird building, and we used to go to the cemetery and play, fly kites and stuff, and I remember, again I was only four or five years old, looking at the headstones, which had photographs of the deceased, really weird and kind of haunting, those images.

One moment I remember, which was after dinner. I went out in the front yard and laid down in the grass and looked up at the night sky. And that was kind of my first awareness that I was somebody, that I was a separate somebody, you know, that I was me. Nothing happened. I was just looking up as the sky, but I always remember that as being this big moment.

Sleet: I want to ask how that upbringing became the qualities you have as a poet? A related question is what then constitutes voice, for you, and how would you describe your own voice?

TN: I remember having, and this is partly my dad, my grandfather, my dad's father, having a sort of clipped way of saying things, that almost might be considered abrupt, and if misunderstood, might be considered rude, but the context of it for me was not that, it was as if each word was separate. It wasn't even that their words were chosen carefully it was more a kind of… I mean, I identify it with men of my dad's generation, my grandfather's generation. My grandfather was in WW I. My dad was in WW II, and it's a kind of G.I. attitude that each generation there, the men, developed in response to their experience in those two wars. And so it's a kind of a don't-expect-much, words are—I mean it's funny because in a way it's counter to what I really believe—that words are sort of cheap, and what you really want to get at is the story. You want to get to the story. You want to say it plainly. My dad was actually very reticent, in comparison to me. I mean he was silent much of the time. He also was very hesitant in his speech, which would drive me nuts. My grandpa was less reticent, but he also had this kind of clipped manner of speaking. So, I think I learned that's a possibility in poetry. I mean that you can say things very quickly and have a lot of resonance and meaning.

When I was older, in my twenties, I remember being really under the sway of Robert Creeley. I still am, in a way, under the sway of Robert Creeley. I love his matter-of-factness, sort of turning everything over to the word, the syllable, and the line, and his very short lines are attractive to me.

There's something American about all of this, too, I think, identifiably American. If you think of the wit of the G.I.—the humor of young men is really something amazing, so irreverent, and pointed and funny and direct, like a punch line. I just love that.

It seems to me that's the big thing with the poem that works and the poem that doesn't work; it's largely a matter of voice. I'll go anywhere with you if I believe in your voice. If there is something compelling about the way you say things and see things, I'll go anywhere.

So I guess, what I'm getting at is we are all made to be receivers of images, sounds, thoughts, memories; this is kind of our highest and best function. I mean we can also make things, think about things, and do all that, but we are designed or have evolved to have pretty good eyesight, pretty good hearing, pretty good perspective on the world, and I think it turns out we each have our own way of being receivers of everything we see and feel and think about. So for me, voice is a translation of, a-putting-into-words of, the unique way in which each of us receives the world and the events of our lives. And it turns out the thing about poetry that's so magical and impossible to believe is that if I have that attitude as I'm writing, chances are you will enter into it as well. If my voice is authentic, and my perceptions are received authentically, you will re-experience those very perceptions through your own way of receiving the world. It's a kind of communication at a very high level, at the most important one, I think. It's like music. It goes directly into your brain and your heart. It just directly enters you.

Sleet: I really admire this idea because I hadn't really thought about how voice isn't necessarily what comes out of a writer but rather how the writer receives.

TN: I think that's true. I remember when I was young and starting to write things, I remember I had almost a fetish for the words I had written, and if I am actually honest with myself, I still do. It's a kind of a self-mesmerizing and narcissistic attitude—Wow, did I make this? These are my words—like paying attention to everything about the words I put down. Stuff that didn't matter, stuff that did, but that I made it, that I thought to put down.

I remember writing a poem that was dreadful, a poem during the Vietnam War and I was probably about twelve, and I put it in this little cigarette humidor and it was shaped like a house and you lifted the roof and you had your cigarettes in there. And so I wrote this poem, it was hand written—I didn't even type it—I folded it up and put it in that little house, and then I, in a kind of fetishistic way, I came back the next day and I thought maybe something would have changed with it, or it would have gotten better, or it would have grown, or it would have still surprised me and pleased me, or maybe not-and I still have that attitude. You know I write something down and I really like it—the last thing I wrote is the best thing I've ever written!—and then I kind of forget about it, and then I come back to it and it sucks. You know how that is, but the weird thing is, you come back to it and it's changed, it does change. It's not that the object, the words on the page have changed, it's that you've changed, you, the receiver. The perception is different. You have changed. It could be a couple days later, it could be a year later, it could be twenty years later, and you realize you have changed, that there is all this—less tread on the tires, so to speak. So, I think part of what I try to keep track of through regular writing is how I am changing. It's not how are things changing, it's how I am changing.

Sleet: So in that golden hour that you seem to have when you write, you've spoken about this, underneath the pine tree in the yard. There you are waiting for what's changed, right? And the answer to the question is that I've changed, right?

TN: The place sometimes changes too, from season to season, but it is basically stable because I have been sitting in the same chair, looking at the same trees and house and looking at the same clouds and sun. This is not the subject matter. Sometimes it is. Sometimes I just notice what's around, but it's more the attitude of being receptive, of course, being receptive to what's changed here [points to self]. It's hard to identify because you know Czeslaw Milosz says in one of his poems, and I'm not going to be able to quote him because I can't remember anything, but something like, "the most amazing thing is how many people you can be." You know, he has, he is very much, as a writer, very much available to being himself but also open to the possibility of being all these other people, which is part of what comes from being attentive to how you are changing. You know, you realize you could be any number of people. The imagination can take you there.

Sleet: I see that manifested in your book. There are perspective changes or shifts in some poems. You get, I think personally, that you get a real solid sense of the author as speaker in some poems. The "I" in those poems is you, you know, it's Tim Nolan. In other poems it still comes through but suddenly the speaker in the poem is talking about a "he," as though we're going to talk about this young boy, who was "me" a long time ago and "I" am going to get some psychic distance. In other cases there's a direct second person approach, a "you." Is that a conscious thing you are doing, beyond just a poetic device; is that you trying to be all those different people?

TN: Yeah, you know I remember when I was in graduate school taking a class from Philip Levine, and he came in, and I liked him. I love his poems, and he was a good teacher, and funny, fun to be in his class, and I remember him saying, '"I got my first chapbook published when I was twenty-five years old, and all of a sudden in the middle of the afternoon I get this call from the printer at the press, and the printer says, "I've run out of capital 'I's!'"' Everybody laughed. I remember very consciously trying to suppress the personal pronoun "I" to see how close you could get without using the capital "I," and it turns out you can get pretty close. In fact, you can write a very close intimate poem without using the capital "I"—kind of an interesting exercise. So the second and third person is another way of giving yourself a little distance, but it's also another way of connecting to the reader. It's openly inviting the reader, especially if you say "you," that would be "me" [points to self], you know, to the reader. It's kind of a gesture towards closeness. It also can be overwrought and result in many, many generalizations.

But I don't think consciously about what "person" the poem is going to be in. I have recently used, in the same poem, first person, second person, and third person, which is probably kind of disturbing to the reader, but in some ways it seemed appropriate, as if you are sending out the various gradations of yourself, this is really me; here I am; I'm the guy writing the poem, but now he is, and now you are, really.

Sleet: It sort of broad-bands the voice, right? Look how receptive, how many doors this poem sees through, walks through.

TN: Right.

Sleet: Your first book is organized into four sections, and I think that first section really does reach back into memory for the most part and in some ways introduces us to you, to you as an early person essentially in the milieu that this voice comes out of. The second section is centered on a kind of redemptive thing that's going on. There's a real parochial sense there. There are lots of direct references to biblical matters and interesting…

TN: Catholic shit.

Sleet: Catholic shit. And there are a lot of prose poems in there, pretty dense. We sort of slow down and get steeped in a kind of reverence for, I guess I'll use the term morality. So, talking about that particular section, and maybe broader, what role does morality play for you as a poet?

TN: Let me tell you about how that section came to be. It's one poem. It's one sequence. It was written all at the same time.

I was at Columbia and I was taking a one week long workshop with Robert Hass, and Robert Hass, at the time was translating Czelsaw Milosz, who was working in the combination of prose—short little, lyrical poems, and these prose sequences—and that's what Robert Hass wanted us to work on in that week that we were with him. So that second section was actually longer that what appeared in my book. There were three or four other poems that I took out. It was essentially, recognizably written in that one week period when I was taking that class, and it was a lot about my Catholic background and childhood and then time traveling to right now. There's one section that's very much right now, the one with the squirrel and tree and faces on the glass of wine. And Hass had these cues for us, which were kind of amazingly brilliant and liberating. I tell you what the cues were. He said the first poem will be in lines, like a poem, but it'll be in the voice of your favorite poet. So the first poem in that section is my attempt at the voice of Walt Whitman. The second section, I think this is what he said, write it as a prose piece in the voice of your favorite prose writer. So, I wrote it in the voice of James Joyce. Then, he said, you should do two little short poems that are sort of salt and pepper, side-by-side, or companions, about the same size, so companions. And one of those companion poems is there and the other one isn't. "Bullhead" is one of them, and the other one "Sunfish" ended up dropping out when I published the book.

I can't remember the rest of his instructions, but once he said, "this is what you should do in this sequence." I mean, I just wrote the whole thing in a manner of a few days. And then, at the end of the week, on a Friday, we met and he asked people to read their work and I read the whole thing. He was really complimentary.and amazed, I think and I was kind of amazed, too, that you would just have to prompt somebody by saying, "why don't you do this?" And it would just come out. How amazing is that?

What I learned from that, these prompts you use, it doesn't matter what it is that causes you to go to the notebook. It doesn't matter what it is. It doesn't matter what the subject is, really. What matters is you already have within you what you want to say. You just have to have a way to get at that. It just takes a little nudge. So that made me think, "I'll never run out of material." You know? How could I ever run out of material? Unless I stop breathing or become an Alzheimer's case, or something. So, it's very inspiring to me.

A few years after that, I sent that whole poem, that whole sequence into Ploughshares, when Rita Dove was the guest editor of Ploughshares. She took the whole thing! I said, "Whatever you might want to use from this would be fine." She took the whole thing! That was a real boost for me. That was twenty five years ago, probably. That kept me going for a long time. I have seen her and told her this in person, a few years ago when she was here, and she was very nice, and I said, "You know, you took that long poem of mine? That made a big difference to me" And she was very nice and appreciative.

Sleet: I can see being sustained by something like that for a long period of time. The third section seems to bring us into life as a parent, a new world with children and it's in contrast to some of the heavier issues that we experience in the second section, and the final section is a little more enigmatic to me, there's a little bit of everything in there. That's my reading, but it seems to evoke a kind of wonder at the way the world works. But the choice to organize the book, to sequence the book as you have, well, this is one of the great issues of people putting poetry books together. And I know a lot of recent books have thematic arcs or they are constructed in ways that hold together as whole, kind of pseudo-narrative, or chronological order, and your book manages to avoid the pretentiousness of a long, forced theme, and yet there is a kind of structure to it that makes sense, and I guess it's a tonal thing. Describe how that works.

TN: I have really struggled with this, actually. The book I'm working on now, in the last year or two, I have really struggled with organizing it, and its organized very similarly to The Sound of It in that it's not thematic, or if it is, there's a light hand in terms of theme. See, I write individual poems, and I don't write them with the notion that they are going to be part of a bigger collection of poems. I tend to gather them, if I like them or they've gotten some attention or if they've been published, and so I think that somebody else liked them so they should be in the manuscript. Then you get to the point, where, okay, what should the first poem be, what should the last poem be? There are certain important places, like the last poem in a section, first poem in a section, first poem of the book, last poem of the book. You know, those have to be really good. Okay, that's one way of doing it. I'll do that. Then, what have I been writing about for the last three or four years? Well, I've written a lot of poems about historical things in my past, so maybe I should put those in a section. And then I've got stuff that just happened today. Where shall I put that?

All these are beyond me, these questions. I actually think I'm not the person to decide. I've relied on a lot of other people to help me with that because I can't see it. I'll say, "Oh, I like this poem. I should put it someplace, here."

Sleet: So, given the chance to do it over, it would come out differently?

TN: Probably, but, be honest about this: do you read a book of poems from beginning to end?

Sleet: Generally, yes.

TN: Then you'd be unusual.

Sleet: Here's the thing. In choosing a book to read, I don't. I tend to sort of sample. I'll look in. I definitely go to the first poem. I know that that's a place that is chosen carefully. And I think, well, let's see this. And then I'll look through, at some point, and I tend to ignore the last poem because I need that to be a surprise if I do read it. But then I buy the book. You know, I'm one of those people that buys the book because I believe in buying them.

TN: All right!

Sleet: Then I sit down and read them in sequence, and I don't skip ahead because I want to discover something, if it's there to be discovered, in the organization of the book.

TN: I have read books of poems that way. You have to with somebody like Louise Gl├╝ck. My understanding is that she's, I don't know what you call it. She gets into a vein of ore, of some kind, and she works it. You know, for two, three, four, five years, however long it takes, and then she's done with that. She's very much thematic. Her books are not scattered perceptions, ever. They're all kind of a piece, and on a mission, and the books are different from one another because she's working a different vein, somehow. And I realize, I mean I can admire that, but I realize I don't work that way at all. I mean, I don't think that way. I don't think thematically. I'm put off by it a little bit. I'm also kind of put out off by the fact that that seems to appeal to editors and…

Sleet: Marketers of books?

TN: And contest judges, which you can understand, sort of, because if you can latch onto something—whereas if you're reading this random guy, you know sitting around in his front yard, whatever-comes-comes, I mean, it's not as easy to latch on to that. I mean, I can see that as a possibility.

You know who Katrina Vandenberg is?

Sleet: Sure.

TN: She wrote a really good essay in Poets & Writers that was really, really…

Sleet: The "Mixed Tape?"

TN: Yes! I love that. I love that concept. As if you were making a tape for somebody you loved, a friend and you want it to be really good and personal, and in the right sequence. I love that idea. I just think that's great. You see, I think of individual poems as individual songs. In my generation it would be more like an album, an LP. I used to know exactly which song came next, you know on the Beatles' album Rubber Soul. You know I think I still do, I just can't tell you [laughs]. You know, after listening to it long enough, there's some kind of "found order" to the way in which the record was put together, but they're individual songs on very different topics and in very different styles. We used to listen to albums and think about albums in terms of the whole, entire thing. I think that idea is almost, pretty much, completely lost now so that it's the individual song that gets attention. The album is secondary. But you wanted to listen to the new album by Bob Dylan because you wanted to listen to the whole thing, not just a song.

Sleet: What's your relationship with technology, your poetry's relationship with technology, the inter-webs?

TN: One of the nice things about technology, the Internet—if there's a poet I hear about that I haven't read…I can just Google "Chris Title poetry" and I'm almost certain to find a poem of yours, you know, or whoever. That's pretty amazing because you wouldn't have been able to do that in the past, and, you know, The Writer's Almanac, and Poetry Daily, and The Academy of American Poets. Now you can subscribe to these things. I read four or five poems a day that come into my email account. Usually, I look at them and read them. Sometimes I don't. So that's very different.

I put a bunch of poems up on Facebook. I put almost everything I write up on Facebook. The interesting thing is to find a photograph to go with it, and I sometimes can't. That's a whole different process. Which photograph would be good to go with this? Google things. I wrote a poem recently called "Fever" about when I was a kid and I used to get these terrible fevers. So I Googled "kid in bathtub" and I couldn't find anything [laughs].

I don't have any fussiness about word processing. I almost always start out by hand, write by hand in a notebook, or whatever's at hand, and then I type it up, and then I print it out and look at it. Then I re-do it. You know, put it away, or send it out.

Sleet: It seems to me, I've heard a lot people complaining about the "contraction" of the world of poetry, that the print-world is dying, lamenting all that, but I think I'm seeing an explosion.

TN: I am, too.

Sleet: It's more ubiquitous than ever, more people are interested in it, sharing it, it's a direct path to audience. You can avoid the machinations of traditional publishing, online, in a blog, or something, and be sustained by that.

TN: Yeah.

Sleet: I want to read something to you, from Walt Whitman's Specimen Days.

TN: I love that book.

Sleet: Yeah, he wrote this in the 1870's, I think:

Will the day ever come-no matter how long deferr'd-when those models and lay-figures from the British islands—and even the precious traditions of the classics—will be reminiscences, studies only? The pure breath, primitiveness, boundless prodigality and amplitude, strange mixture of delicacy and power, of continence, of real and ideal, and of all original and first-class elements, of these prairies, the Rocky mountains, and of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers—will they ever appear in, and in some sort form as standard for out poetry and art? (New York: Dover, 1995. p. 152).

TN: Wouldn't that be great?

Sleet: He seems to be asking for an American poetry. It sort of calls for, what seems to me what William Carlos Williams attempted, right? Maybe the answer is there, but do you think that has been achieved? Do you think we have a boundless kind of art, American art, informed and infused by the prairies and rivers and the language of this culture? Do we have an American poetry?

TN: We have lots of American poetries, lots of different poetries. I sometimes get a sense of a kind of ghetto-ization, or you know, gay poets, experimental poets, women poets. There is that. Hispanic poets, Black poets, spoken word poets. I'm a little dismayed that we can't collectively decide who's really good. How many spoken word poets would say, "I really admire W.S. Merwin." I happen to really admire W.S. Merwin, and lots of establishment-type, literary people would agree with that, but there's a big divide between W.S. Merwin and a kid who's showing up at a bar and reading a hip-hop poem. I wish there wasn't that big divide, but that's there.

You get the sense that if Whitman was around, he would be quite amazed and pleased with the state of American poetry, but I think he would also be somewhat troubled by, maybe not, the academic influence. I think we should be troubled.

Sleet: The academics are in control of what's good and that's the problem?

TN: Right. Often, what the academics think is good is not necessarily, it's acceptable to a committee. And I think some voices aren't acceptable to a committee, indisputably acceptable.

Sleet: Do you think that serves to reinforce the boundaries between these different poetries, as you mentioned?

TN: I think it makes poetry more remote to ordinary people. I don't want the stuff I write to be obscure. I'm not particularly interested in experimental stuff, but mainly I don't want it to be obscure. I want it to be understood by anyone in my family, and by my kids. I want it to be accessible. There are some people who take pride in poetry that isn't accessible, and I don't buy that.

If you think of Shakespeare, if you can imaginatively project yourself, make yourself a groundling, not a nobleman. Those plays were accessible. They were understood, different levels of understanding, but they were the popular art of the time, and as the years have passed, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets and everything have become more the subject for experts. And I don't think that's good. He was aiming for the dead center of his culture. He was like Neil Simon. I think that's what he aspired to, among lots of other things, but he aspired to scare the hell out of people, make them weep, make them think about their lives, make them think about the wonder of this language, which he was largely responsible for developing.

Sleet: What does he say about the players in Hamlet? "…they are the abstract and brief chroniclers of the time: after your death you are better to have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live."

TN: Yeah, exactly. He, very consciously, was pushing around, you know, the Hollinshead Chronicles, to come up with storylines and stealing whatever crappy plot he could steal from whatever source he could and remaking it in his own way, a lot like Bob Dylan.

Sleet: Like the Greeks?

TN: Yeah. Dylan just takes from whatever source. The difference is he's not a plagiarist because he runs it through himself. That kind of amazing vibrancy, and sense of life and possibility… I really admire that. I just have tremendous admiration for that ability. I'd like to be able to do it myself, but I often can't, but I sort of aspire to that. Take whatever you can from wherever you can get it. Have it come through you, and change it as it comes through you, refine it and redirect it and send it somewhere else. This is a sea turning over or any number of natural things that happen out there that we're hardly aware of, but if you're alive and thinking and feeling things, hearing things, being influenced by stuff, you can't get enough of it.

Sleet: That's the perfect place to segue into a discussion of "stupidity." You recently, in a presentation at The Works: A Writer's Salon (produced by Lightsey Darst), discussed the many virtues of being stupid. You mentioned empathy, humility, courage, strength, faith, persistence, and hope, and I don't think many people have thought about, at least recently in this culture, the value and virtues of stupidity, and it kind of opened a door for me, personally. It calls to mind, in a way, the idea of an enlightened fool, and so I thought if the fool is the embodiment of this virtuous stupidity, what does that mean? And I guess it reaches back to Shakespeare and the character of the jester. I found this Wikipedia entry about the symbolism of the fool in a deck of Tarot cards, and it struck me:

The Fool is the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool's wisdom and exuberance, holy madness or 'crazy wisdom'. On his back are all the possessions he might need. In his hand there is a flower, showing his appreciation of beauty. He is frequently accompanied by a dog, sometimes seen as his animal desires, sometimes as the call of the "real world," nipping at his heels and distracting him. He is seemingly unconcerned that he is standing on a precipice, apparently about to step off … The Fool is both the beginning and the end, neither and otherwise, betwixt and between, liminal.

TN: I wish I had come up with that. That's perfect. That's kind of what I was trying to get at with that talk, and I didn't say it the way I wanted to. What I really wanted to say was, you know, if you write, you're usually typically well read and bright and articulate. In most cases, that's true. You've probably been a good student; you know how to do certain things. You might come to believe those talents that you have help your writing, and what I wanted to say was, wait a second, those talents that you admire so much in yourself might actually hurt your writing and you should try to, consciously, if you can, suppress those impulses. That can be good for your writing.

You know how you can say too much in a poem, especially at the end? You know, provide some sort of satisfactory conclusion, when you should really light a firecracker or do something contrary to that impulse to wrap things up. You should explode things out. These, "by indirections find directions out." I love that.

So the various virtues I identified as part of the stupidity thing don't exactly fit my topic, but it doesn't really matter. The idea for example, of courage, is saying the thing that is not expected, that is not expected to be said, or should not be said because it it's so stupid, or people would think it's stupid. I just think that if you can cultivate a kind of child-like innocence, naiveté, or "unassumingness," I mean, Connie Wanek up in Duluth has this. Louis Jenkins up in Duluth has this, completely, what I'm talking about. That is, he writes these wonderful funny prose poems that are, you don't even know where they come from or how he could—he's had to burrow down into his own stupidity to write these things, in a way that turns out to be really smart. So just on the other side of something very stupid is something very smart, insightful. There's this transparent wall. You could go this way or you could go this way.

I think I said to the audience that, "nobody likes a smarty pants," and I think that's really true. When I'm not really writing well, it's when I want to be a smarty pants, it's when I want to be wise or insightful or logical or brilliant…

Sleet: So the ego is the enemy of this innocent jester within, crazy wisdom?

TN: Yeah, I think it is. You know, the jester, or the fool, is really—you know the fool can say things the king can't say, that Lear can't even see, doesn't even understand. He [the jester] has no real allegiance to the king, in a way. He's sort of a traitor. He insults the king. He has these very sharp pointed comments about the decisions Lear has made about his daughters, and he conveys them in a joke. This is like treason in another context, and yet it's a…

Sleet: It's a conscience?

TN: Yeah, it's whatever's in the background of Lear's damaged mind that may be his salvation, if it can happen, if he listens to this voice. And, so that's perfect Chris, your thought on the jester or fool. That's a better way of thinking about it. It's one thing to identify this, and then, okay, "I will cultivate my stupid side. Oh, let me be perfectly stupid before I write anything." It's not that on-off, it's more like an attitude that elderly people have, or can have, of getting right to the point, like the pressure of not much time gets them right to the point. There's a kind of joyful attitude about that. I think poems ought to be written out of this kind of urgency, like I want to tell you this before it's too late—of course it's always too late—and I want to get this out. How do you create those kinds of conditions for yourself? I don't really know. It's not an intellectual thing.

Sleet: In those kinds of poems, it's hard to be stupid. It's hard to be the fool because we tend to think we know enough, or know more.

TN: Right. We get more credit for being smart, or seeming to be smart.

Sleet: It's easy to create something that everyone goes, "aha, that's important insight!" But the hard thing is, like you said, to choose a different route, the surprising route.

TN: In practicing law, I use this on occasion. If I'm doing a deposition of somebody, I'm just the dumbest shit you've ever met, I mean, I don't know anything about anything, which disarms people, and they tend to open up more in ways that could be helpful if they think I'm dumb. You know, like Columbo. I don't really mean stupid, I mean unassuming.

I think there's a place for this kind of attitude—kind of sensing out what works and what doesn't—in poetry. I think you can find that what seems to work and remain fresh is something that has this attitude about it, and if it's a smarty pants, it's dead. It won't live long. You know the kind of poem I'm talking about. It starts out with a quote from Wittgenstein, goes off someplace else we don't understand, makes you feel, makes the reader, feel stupid. That's the bad poem.

Sleet: I got that from "The Waste Land."

TN: "The Waste Land" is a good example. There are beautiful things in "The Waste Land," beautiful turns and moves and stuff, but it turns out once you read the notes, it's a very simple poem, a strangely stupid poem, adorned with false significance. It's an important poem, I'm not saying it isn't, but it's not the kind of poem that matters to anybody anymore. It retains very little freshness.

Sleet: Tell me about your new manuscript.

TN: Well, I'm tired of it. It's mostly about the last year. My dad died a year ago. My mom crashed. She's actually kind of coming back after a year. Our middle daughter goes away to college and our youngest kid is about to be a senior in high school and all these things happen.

Sleet: Is it dealing with this "Diaspora" of people going away?

TN: Yeah, it's pretty personal, a lot of death. The challenge for me has been to write about some of this stuff without it being depressing. I think that I have sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, depending on the poem. It's probably darker than the other book.

Sleet: The last word in your first book is dark.

TN: Oh yeah, "Morning Glories." I mean, I'm Irish so I can't be too depressed about anything really, and I'm apparently optimistic even when I shouldn't be, you know, so there is that [laughs].

Sleet: What needs to happen to the manuscript?

TN: Well, I think I have a publisher. I just sent off the latest version.

The challenge for me has been—I'm always writing—sometimes I like recent things too much, and I want them to put them in the manuscript, and so the manuscript is always changing, shifting around, and I'm trying to get individual poems published. I just have this thing that if a poem gets published somewhere good then I should put it in the manuscript. If one editor likes something, then I ought to put it in the book. I ought to find a way to put it in the book.

One thing I found out with the first book was that—I hope this happens with this one—is once I can send stuff away and say, "this book is coming out, here are three poems in this book that's coming out…"

Sleet: They snap it up?

TN: Yeah. I mean it was amazing. I think I got a bunch of poems published partly because I was just able to say that. So I hope in the next couple months they'll say, "Yeah, we want to do this." I hope they can do it next year because meanwhile I want to be on to other things.

Sleet: Like what?

TN: Like another one.

Sleet: Good answer.

Postscript: Tim Nolan's next book, And Then, will be published by New Rivers Press in October 2012.
Some of the poems in this book are showcased in this edition of Sleet.

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