Poet Of The Week

Nick Twemlow

     June 2–8, 2014

Nick Twemlow’s first book, Palm Trees, won the 2013 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in A Public Space, Best American Non-Required Reading, Boston Review, Lana Turner and elsewhere. He is a senior editor at the Iowa Review and co-edits Canarium Books. His film and video works have played Athens, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca and many other film festivals. He is a recipient of a Princess Grace Foundation Honorarium in Filmmaking and is an assistant professor of creative writing and film at Coe College.

I Love Karate


I love karate. I love karate so much I sweat karate steak dinners. I love karate so much I eat karate cereal in the morning, karate sandwiches for lunch, and karate haiku for pleasure. But like a good karateka (that’s the technical term for highly skilled karate person) I don’t eat karate dessert. You know why? Because dessert takes the edge off. You might ask, Off what? but if you do, I’ll perform a random karate move on you, as I did my mother when she tried to serve me non-karate cereal one morning. That was the morning when I realized that I was a true karateka. I refused the Empire’s cereal. If you are a true karateka, you are a rogue. Rogues don’t like the Empire. This means that rogues spend a lot of time building dojos in the woods. A dojo is the technical name for a rogue who spends a lot of time building cabins in the woods. There are some karate moves that I can’t show you. Those are secret karate moves. Like all karate moves, they are designed to kill. But these secret strikes kill faster and harder. They are to regular karate moves what hardcore is to softcore pornography. I was sensitive once, but karate got rid of that. Now I am tough on the inside as well as the outside. For example, if I was in the Oval Office partying with the President, smoking some grass (which I’d fake doing because karatekas don’t smoke grass), I’d ask him to repeat what he said about kicking evil’s ass and then I’d ask him to show me how he’d do it. Since I know the President isn’t a karateka, I’d administer a very secret strike on him at the moment he showed me how he’d do it. That’s pretty much how I’d do things. I want karate to be in the Olympics in Beijing because I want to be on the team and travel to Beijing and win a gold medal. Or at least that’s what I’d trick everyone into thinking I was doing. Part of being a good karateka means bolstering the Chinese economy. Sort of like ninjas except a karateka can beat a ninja fourteen out of ten times. So while people would think I wanted to go to Beijing to win a gold medal and hang out in the Olympic Village and have a really good time with all the other athletes and media and officials and tourists, I’d really have a secret agenda. Secret agendas are pretty common for most karatekas. Secret agendas ensure that no matter what you say, you really don’t mean it. So when everyone else was having a good time at the Olympics in Beijing, seeing how Communism is really good on the citizens of China because the government rounded up, the year before, tens of thousands of homeless people and relocated them to work details in provincial labor camps, I’d slip out at night and administer random karate moves on officials of the Empire. This happened a lot in Atlanta, too, when we held the Olympics. The part about the homeless I mean.

–From Palm Trees, Green Lantern Press, 2013.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was a martial artist for most of the first 20 years of my life. Though I haven’t formally practiced in a while, my brother still runs our family dojo, The School of the Martial and Meditative Arts, and karate is sorta everywhere in my head. I still want to write a history of the martial arts in the United States, mostly focusing on the ‘60s and ‘70s. You’ve got Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Elvis, bareknuckle fighting, Hollywood, and lots of bad blood. But this poem is a love and hate letter to karate (There’s a companion poem in Palm Trees, “I Hate Karate,” which is more a warning letter to my son about the world he’s growing up in) and governmental corruption, which obviously go hand in hand.

What are you working on right now?

I am editing my second manuscript, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, which is my attempt at constructing a book not for my son as he is now, a four-year-old with no need to read my poems of gloom and doom, but as a record for him of his father at this point in time and a document of being his father, as many of the poems are addressed to him or probe certain aspects of parenting. It’s a record I hope he will want to read some day, but I won’t hold it against him if he doesn’t. Nearly all of the poems are fairly long, for me, including the 23-page “Burnett’s Mound,” which, like a few of the others in the book, attempts to work out some unfinished adolescent stuff and surfaces some of my problems with poetry and the poetry world.

I am also editing a film, Faster, a possibly feature-length film I shot with a terrific cast and crew a couple of years ago. It’s about a first-time director’s attempt to adapt Hannah Weiner’s The Fast. It’s satire, which means it’s doomed.

What’s a good day for you?

Not being woken up before 7:30 by my son, who always wakes me up before 7:30. After that, hanging out with him and my wife, driving the Iowa countryside in search of a field or park we’ve never visited. I like watching my son construct things, using objects in ways they aren’t intended. When he creates a makeshift hoist out of ten different things and he’s fastened it around his waist and through his legs, then rigged it to the top of the cabinet in our living room, I am happy. Unless the cabinet falls down on him!

So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?

I live in Iowa City. It’s a college town in the Midwest, which is the large expanse of flatland to the west of Brooklyn. Being a poet here is easy or difficult, depending on whether you like being surrounded by poets. Outside of a few major cities in this country, and Northampton, Mass. and its surrounding environs, I’d guess Iowa City has the highest concentration of poets anywhere. That’s largely, though not completely, due to the presence of the Writers’ Workshop, which admits 20 or so a year, and many of these poets stick around a year, sometimes two, after they graduate. Some stick forever, so there’s pretty much a poet everywhere you look. This is almost always a good thing.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I lived there with my wife, Robyn Schiff, for three years what seems another lifetime ago. We lived in Greenpoint, a short walk to the Pulaski Bridge, which I’d walk over some days to take the 7 train to work. We left in August of 2002, when NYC was still deeply grieving and there was still smoke rising out of the open wound where the Twin Towers had been. I had deep ambivalence about leaving, but a job led us to Oregon, and we weren’t in much of a position to say no to it. I miss New York, very much, but I visit once or twice a year and that seems to be enough these days.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Prairie Lights. It’s in Iowa City, but Iowa City, largely thanks to the annual relocation of large numbers of Brooklynites to the Writers’ Workshop, can feel at times like a distant Brooklyn neighborhood.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn?

I wrote little when I lived in Brooklyn. When I did, it was a short biography of the baseball player Josh Gibson (best power hitter ever), for a middle school–audience library book series on famous players of the Negro Leagues. The book was dark and intense, as Gibson was and as was the room I wrote in in our apartment. I did make my first short film in Brooklyn, based on a poem by Denis Johnson. We shot around Greenpoint—in my apartment, at a local coffee shop—as well as a studio space in Williamsburg and a gnarly unfinished basement in Carroll Gardens. Best place was a bar after hours a few blocks from that basement, which we rented out from 2am-10am. Three hammered patrons were still drinking when the bar closed and we told the bartender we were happy to have them stick around. I even managed to get a shot of them in the film. That was a long but absolutely great shoot.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

I used to walk along the riverfront on the street that connects Greenpoint and Williamsburg, sometimes with my wife or a friend, often alone. At that time, a decade or more ago, it was mostly empty industrial spaces, lots of loose trash, and incredible views of Manhattan. At night, you might hear a band practicing a few blocks ahead, then come upon an open garage door with a view of the band hammering away, light pouring out of the space like a vision of heaven or hell, depending on how tight the band was. I thought of these walks as meditative and worked hard not to think, at least when I was alone.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Marianne Moore.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

The last awesome book I read was Chris Kraus’ Summer of Hate, which I read a year ago. That’s a book that I’ve continued to think about. Maybe also Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, which I find delightfully problematic. In between, some great poems/essays/blog posts/status updates, all of which mix into a mess of forgotten attributions.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate __________,
And what I __________ you should __________,
For every _______________ me as good _______________ you.

Two days ago, Walt Whitman would’ve turned 195. As the sun rose on that day, I was behind the wheel on I-80, nearly done with a seven-hour drive, beyond tired and restless to get home in time to get back into bed with my wife and son, who undoubtedly would’ve woken earlier in the night and himself hopped into bed. Sitting passenger was a Whitman scholar. Neither of us remembered, as we talked throughout the night, that it was Whitman’s birthday. But I did take the opportunity to pitch my idea for a Whitman biopic, which he appeared to love, though I imagine it was his lack of sleep allowing him to do so. But, in lieu of filling in the poem above, I figured it’d make more sense to relay my pitch, which makes me laugh every time I consider it. It’s simple: Instead of actually dying, Walt Whitman, during a hike, falls into a crevasse and is frozen in a slab of ice. One hundred and ninety-five years later, the slab melts. He’s alive, perfectly preserved, and travels by foot from New York to San Francisco during our present day. The key is, he has to be played by Will Ferrell or Kristen Wiig. The movie would write itself.

Why Brooklyn?

Pierogis in Greenpoint.