October 21–27, 2013
Nick Sturm is the author of How We Light (H_NGM_N BKS, 2013) as well as a number of chapbooks, including WHAT A TREMENDOUS TIME WE’RE HAVING! (iO Books, 2012); I Was Not Even Born, with Wendy Xu, (Coconut, 2013); and Nancy and The Dutch (NAP, 2013), with Carrie Lorig, an erasure of paperback biographies of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Typo, jubilat, PEN, Sixth Finch and elsewhere. He is from Akron, Ohio and lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
A Basic Guide to Decision Making
The town decided to build a bridge but they didn’t
know what to build it over. The town held a meeting
in the forest to discuss the issue over a PowerPoint
but there wasn’t an outlet so the people teamed up
and rubbed their genitals together to generate electricity
and afterwards everyone agreed that the forest was the best
place to rub genitals and they kept rubbing and getting high
until they fell asleep. When the people at the town meeting
woke up they tried to remember the PowerPoint but the past
was like a bleached coral reef and a new town
was established in the forest to celebrate this beginning.
The people from the meeting immediately held a parade.
After a few generations the new town became an old town
and the meaning of the parade became less and less clear, like algebra
or Congress. One year, the parade wandered out of the forest
and discovered an abandoned town that no one had ever seen.
In a pile of rubble, someone found a Diet Coke. It was
night when the parade returned to the forest and the moon
saturated the town in white pixels. The entire town
woke up to hold a meeting to decide what should be done
with the Diet Coke. It was decided that the town would build
a bridge to the place where the Diet Coke had been found.
They did not know why they chose to build a bridge,
only that the idea to build a bridge felt good, just as
rubbing their genitals together felt good. When the bridge
was finished the people from the town would often visit
the other town and hold meetings about different ways to use
Diet Coke and while everyone was talking this one guy
would make origami swans. That guy was the best.
–From How We Light, H_NGM_N Books, 2013
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I don’t remember much about writing this poem. I know I wrote it in one sitting, maybe two and a half years ago. It was spring, maybe early summer, in Ohio–I think it has some of that seasonal transformational frenzy in it. I had been writing a lot of litanies that generated themselves into different sorts of narratives and was really delighting in discovering how many different things I could touch through a poem. Years ago I read an article about bleached coral reefs. That made it in. Congress being idiotic made it in. Diet Coke made it in. My mom drank a lot of Diet Coke when I was a kid. PowerPoints are funny and boring. Orgies are funny and boring. In different ways. But maybe in the same way. That a poem could even suggest that, that a poem could accumulate from so many disparate places and spaces in my memory, consciousness, and experience, a lot of the poems in How We Light are a realization of this. I had a lot of fun writing this poem.
I’m serious about that fun. I studied history in my undergrad, which means I studied a way of thinking that distills and reconfigures discourses. Four years ago I was very close to entering a terminal PhD program in history. My choice to divert from that path, one that my professors were very intent and excited about me pursuing, was frightening. But the thought of six-plus years as a scholarly ascetic turned me off. I had just finished a 75-page thesis on the construction of an alternative American mythology in Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America.” During my research I spent a week in Ginsberg’s archives at Stanford. The result being that I got too close to a primal energy source. It’s not that I became irreverent about history, or tired of negotiating with the past, but the discourses I touched, as much as they invigorated me and tuned me to a more emphatic, critical view of the world, only allowed me to inhabit them in an auxiliary way. I wanted direct access to the source. I was making a choice to value attention more than intention. I was asking a lot of questions about what kind of doing and speaking was important to me. This poem is still modeling that revaluation for me.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve been writing long poems, which somehow means I’ve barely been writing poems. I wrote this essay about broken umbrellas that ushered me into this new kind of writing that involves less writing and more pattern attunement. I’m working on a manuscript called Outside in the Aporia Days that is really challenging me. There’s been an immanent change in/from the poems I’m writing. Which wasn’t an artificial change–it has to do with how much my life has changed in the past year moving to Florida, being in a program here, living by myself, reading differently, traveling a lot, being far away from the people I love. I feel like I’m turning everything inside out rather than actually changing something, which I’m enjoying, but it exacerbates my restlessness. Writing the poems in How We Light I typically felt like I was getting something done, moving through something. I could feel the map over everything. Now that’s not the case. What I said about the process that led to poems like “A Basic Guide to Decision Making,” realizing I could let all of these different things in, that’s happening again, but the acoustics are more ominous, the narratives more saturated.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day the last couple of months has meant the days I teach my Contemporary Literature class, American Postmodernism: The Poetics of Joy. We’re reading books by Ana Božičević, Ben Lerner, Maggie Nelson, Wendy Xu, Padgett Powell and a ton of poems and essays by people like Fanny Howe, Paul Violi, Lyn Hejinian, George Bataille and Audre Lorde. It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to talk to students about the relationships between language and experience, translation and violence, joy and pain. I’m learning so much from them, how they lean into what we’re reading, how visibly they feel it in the classroom. What’s been even more rewarding than the content and experience of the class has been that it’s proved that we don’t have to water down or temper ambitious, difficult readings for our students. I have freshmen in my class who can talk about Derrida and translation wounds in the same sentence. They can also talk about Miley Cyrus and Whitman in the same sentence. I adore them.
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’m from Ohio, which will always be home, “The Heart of It All” as the Ohio Tourism Board once called it. I grew up in Akron, the former Rubber Capital of the World, a city in northwest Ohio whose name comes from the Greek akros, “high place.” My family moved there from West Virginia in the 1920s to work in the rubber factories (see Hart Crane’s “Porphyro in Akron”: “Greeting the dawn, / A shift of rubber workers presses down / South Main.”). The city sits on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the only national park in Ohio, and I spent a lot of time growing up in those woods and along the Cuyahoga (Iroquois word for “crooked”) River, finding small, beautiful things under the leaves and in creek beds. But the human mark on that area, native, colonial and industrial, is violent and rich. That post-pastoral landscape bound me to an emotional-metaphysical spectrum from James Wright to A.R. Ammons to John Ashbery. Later, Jack Spicer to Alice Notley to Dara Wier. I got my MFA in Ohio around a lot of good friends like Mike Krutel, Alexis Pope and Joshua Kleinberg. Have you heard of the Ohio School?
But now I live in Tallahassee, Florida, where I go to school at Florida State. There are palm trees and armadillos. The grocery store I go to is called Winn Dixie. The Jay Z lyric that makes more sense here isn’t “Can I live?”, it’s “This can’t be life.”
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I’ve visited a few times. In Brooklyn in 2007 my friend Hannah drew this portrait of me drinking a Ballantine 40.
I didn’t get back to Brooklyn until a couple months ago when I was in New York for readings for the Finally Be Friends tour. I read at Unnameable with Danniel Schoonebeek, Nate Pritts and Jen Fortin, and at Russell Dillon’s place in the West Village with Ben Kopel, Adam Fell and Matt Hart. It was an intense, dramatic, ridiculous two days. Highlights, in and out of Brooklyn: Mark Cugini’s mom buying hummus in Staten Island, coffee on Alexis Pope’s fire escape in Prospect Heights, a bike running into our stopped cab at 4:30 AM, papaya juice in the West Village, Kleinberg doing hungover push-ups at brunch. I love being in the city.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
I’ve only been to Unnameable, but can’t wait to visit Mellow Pages and the brand new Berl’s Poetry Shop this time around.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn?
I’ve never written a poem in Brooklyn. But the first time I heard Katy Perry (“I Kissed a Girl”) was in a bagel shop in Bushwick in 2007.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Skating the Brooklyn Banks (under the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge) in 2006.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Only people who are not dead: Alexis Pope, Joshua Kleinberg, Danniel Schoonebeek, Tim Donnelly, Dorothea Lasky, Matthew Rohrer, Paige Taggart, Amy Lawless, Sasha Fletcher, Jared White, Farrah Field, Sampson Starkweather, Justin Marks, Dan Magers. Jess Grover lives in Northampton, MA now but was in Brooklyn. His poems are incredible.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
I just read and wrote about Frances Richard’s amazing book Anarch from Futurepoem. Right now I’m reading Farnoosh Fathi’s Great Guns from Canarium. She says, “This is not a book. Otherwise, by now / We would love each other.” Andy Fitch’s book about Joe Brainard, Pop Poetics, is excellent.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Kenneth Patchen,
And what I Kenneth Patchen you should Kenneth Patchen,
For every Kenneth Patchen me as good Kenneth Patchen you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
I’m Prob Gonna Lose My Shit // for Alexis Pope
Alexis, I didn’t lose my shit, but I cried writing you, about poems,
I saw him in Akron last month at the coffee shop. He was using a blue
to write a speech, I don’t know, for someone’s retirement. His love
for loving people is always so obvious. Brittle as we are. Alexis, a jack
is also a small flag on a ship. Like when Mark and I drove into
in August (we were on our way to your apartment) playing Nas and
his deep song. Understood and misunderstood. Do you worry, Alexis,
that you’ll be robbed
in Prospect Heights? We didn’t Instragram the balloon in the
trashcan. Whatever a sin
is, a small flag. Even your father, I suppose. Beyond the walls of
intelligence. The Dodgers
lost last night. Brittle as we are. Alexis, that bullshit, there’s no end
to it, we on it.
Shouts to the ruins of a 17th-century Dutch settlement in late capitalism.