Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Earworms and Entertainment: An Interview with Nick Thran

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Earworms and Entertainment: An Interview with Nick Thran

In this interview, Nick Thran discusses his highly anticipated 2nd poetry collection Earworm (Nightwood Editions, 2011). We discuss the impetus behind the book's curious title and Thran is gracious in allowing me to discuss two poems (links included) that have had lasting reverberations among poets and poetry enthusiasts in the past several years.

His answers are thoughtful yet unpretentious. Slowly asserting itself in Thran's work and demeanour is an assured moral compass that makes him, above all, feel uniquely genuine. Enjoy.

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JL: Thanks for doing this interview, Nick. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because I think you're doing something very interesting in your work. Like Damian Rogers, your poems seem to have a deep connection to popular music (and popular culture in general). I remember reading EIN for the first time and finding the poem "How Pop Sounds" and thinking -- man, someone's finally doing this! I'm not sure what "this" is exactly, but I know that it kind of cut against everything I learned about poetry in university--mainly, that it held some sort of privileged position over popular songwriting because it didn't need music to complete it. Now, while you weren't writing song lyrics, what the poem implied to me was that popular music could be embraced by poetry--that perhaps one could feel a similar sort of excitement about it that they might feel about an album. And that's exciting to me.

Your new collection is entitled "Earworm" which suggests a further meshing of your work with a sort of populist -- and musical -- aesthetic. But I think here you might want to correct me. I know a lot changes in the years between a first and second book. So maybe you could let me know a bit about the title of your collection: what it means, and how it might be implicated in your new work.

NT: Earworm is a fairly recent hijack from the German language: ohrwurm. It’s a song or particular hook in a song that lodges itself in the brain. I think the CBC had a contest a few years back to come up with a word to describe this phenomenon. There’s a DJ Earworm. Daniel Levitin discusses earworms at some length in his book This is Your Brain on Music. I overheard the word from a customer conversation at Book City in Bloor West Village shortly after finishing EIN. I knew right away it was going to be the title of my next book. I don’t know why. I still don’t. I think the word gave me some permission to crowd the book with a broader cast of characters than just myself and the people in my immediate surroundings. I think it gave me permission to stretch the blanket a little further out as far as my formal experiments. Wherever I went, the word seemed to say, the hook was going to be there. What that hook is as far as content or theme or voice is still sort of vague to me. I like it that way. I know that for me as a reader of other peoples’ work, I like to be able to try to fill in those blanks myself.

Re: “How Pop Sounds,” it came directly out Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.” I love the Levine poem but at the time I felt kind of judged by it. Probably a good thing. Now I feel like I do know what work is, but at the time I wanted to write about something seemingly frivolous and imbue it with the same kind of reverence as Levine had for factory workers. For those readers who know the poem, I actually was at a funeral for a young man at the edge of a candlelit dock. This 13 year-old friend of his was playing acoustic guitar and singing a Blink 182 song, in this cracking voice. The stupidest song in the world, just totally transformed. It broke my fucking heart.

JL: I like how you've described your writing process. I feel sympathetic to it, as I've always looked in envy at people who can think top down, from a larger theme or concept and work back and forth between the single poem or section. That's never really worked for me.

When you say "I like to be able to try fill in those blanks myself" it makes me think of the Barry Bonds poem you had in Grain a few years back called "756*" (which I assume will be in Earworm?) I remember this poem hitting something (pun intended) with myself and many other younger poets. Nothing like it had really been written before in Canada -- or should I say written so well (readers: Thran’s poem is a modern homage to Barry Bonds and his dubious home run streak; here’s a link: http://webcache.googleusercont...).

I remember the line "we had to fill him up" describing what it was like to be a fan of Barry Bonds becoming mantra-like and to me seemed to describe also a way in which the poem could be read, by filling in what was left out, of the text, our lives, etc.

I guess I'm interested in hearing about what you think about a poem being a kind of entertainment or how it might square itself against the idea of entertainment. Here we are at the stadium, in the audience, watching entertainment (here, sports entertainment but in other places as fans of music, let's say). When you're writing a poem, do you think about its entertainment value? Because certainly it is work to fill something in, no? It's work on behalf of the reader. But also, it seems to me that the Bonds poems is also entertaining in its content and its very readable style. Are you perhaps trying to reclaim entertainment in some new way, or is there some other way in which you're attempting to compel the reader?

NT: 756* is in Earworm, yes. I’m happy to hear it struck a note.

As far as entertainment goes: we’re in a golden age. I feel entertained just fine. For me poetry has always felt entertaining insomuch as it has my attention, it moves me through a series of emotional registers; insomuch as I rip out poems from magazines and stick them onto my fridge. Auden’s poems are entertaining. Anonymous ballads from the 15th century are entertaining. James Tate is one of the greatest entertainers around. My own writing isn’t a process of reclamation at all. I’m just trying to adequately account for and engage with my interests. I guess I’m not entirely sure about the differences between engagement and entertainment. Like a lot of people, I spend huge chunks of time in bookstores, in cities, in galleries, on the web. It doesn’t feel radical or even peculiar to me to write a poem about or for Barry Bonds. Grafted onto that dubious record-breaking is a series of myths and tropes that go back to the Greeks.

I do think, after I’ve written a poem, about whether or not it will speak to my friends outside of the sometimes insular and occasionally claustrophobic literary community. I sometimes run drafts by friends who are journalists, social justice lawyers—good people with whom I share a lot of interests and who don’t necessarily write poems. I want to engage them. I don’t have any control over how people respond to the work. But I am a people pleaser to a certain extent. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

JL: I'm interested to hear more about this idea of feeling claustrophobic in the literary community and of writing with another kind of audience in mind. I'm wondering if you might be able to tell us a little more about this process you went through in writing Earworm, of sending your work to people who aren't necessarily inside the claustrophobia of the literary community. As you mentioned, journalists and lawyers -- professionals, I would assume, who don't have time for bullshit.

Did this process originate in the writing of Earworm and what kind of effect did it have on the writing of the book? That is, did knowing that somebody who wasn't a poet necessarily -- but who was a discerning reader -- have an impact as you would write a particular poem or was it afterwards at the editing stage?

I suppose this question could be followed up by a larger question about audience: as you were writing Earworm, how were you thinking about audience? I asked Jake Mooney this in a previous interview and he said that the "I" owned the poems in his first book but not necessarily the second book. I was wondering if your experience had a similar trajectory in moving from first to second book: did your concept of audience change?

NT: Well, that claustrophobia is maybe 5% fact and 95% projection. Any concept I have of an audience probably falls under that same divide. That said, I found myself telling my students the other week (and keep in mind it’s my first class, so I’m feeling stuff out) to write like you already assume someone is going to read it.

Even if it’s a total delusion, I think that it’s one way to skip through a lot of the ad-copy, where-does-this-fall-in-the-trajectory stuff that sometimes goes on in a writer’s brain (well this writer’s brain) and just get down to the task of coming up with interesting sentences and moving words around. A lot of my favourite writers, and I don’t mean just poets, but writers like Sheila Heti, Rebecca Solnit, Eileen Myles (well, she’s a poet primarily), and Dave Hickey seem to embody, in their writing, this all-consuming curiosity, or maybe generosity is a better word, about or towards their subject. Heti staked out one of the giant new (in 2007) garbage cans in Toronto for an entire day, and by looking at it long enough, the varying ways in which passer-bys interacted with it ended up being riveting. And I don’t know that audience even enters the equation. I guess you would have to ask her.

Being a part of some sort of “literary community” doesn’t mean I’m not simultaneously a part of other communities. Keeping this in mind is an important part of my general wellbeing, never mind my writing. The poems I’m most proud of in EIN are the ones in which I think the poem engages with other communities, be it my family in “Azucar,” or my fellow pedestrians in “Bloor Street.” To say that my “I” owned the poems is maybe giving too much credit to my “I.” Maybe it occasionally tried to be louder or dress fancier than necessary. I try not to be too hard on my “I.”

Plus there’s the idea, and maybe I can finally bring this around to talking about Earworm specifically, that all of the poems are “personal” in the sense that their existence is dependant upon a certain amount of work on my part, on my person, even if I’m manipulating found text or collaborating with an image or object already painted or photographed or sculpted or recorded by someone else. Talk about lording!

The time between the 1st and 2nd book has been five years. I’ve learned a lot. I hope it’s a drop in the bucket, though. I want to keep reading and living and writing more things.

JL: I wanted to point to these two poems that are available online at the Nightwood website (http://www.nightwoodeditions.c...) entitled "Power" and "In the Victorian Sublets of Failed Actors."

Another thing I've always admired about your work is your use of tonal registers. That is, how you incorporate conversational phrasing into tight metrical constructions. This is a lot harder to do than it seems. The line that showcases it in "Power" (i.e. "The wind turbine is not your real dad") seems to me to be put in a disarmingly simple way.

I'm also thinking of "Seriously, it was the Biggest Cricket" in EIN, where it seemed that there was this very noticeable push to put things as they were in your mind, not as a poet would or should write them.

How do you think about style? Is there a kind of style you feel you gravitate towards in Earworm? Can it be put into words, or does putting it into words diminish it? Is there a sense in which you want to, like Frost, include conversational rhythms in your work? Would this be a way of trying to find bridges between one's own work and a hypothetical, general reader?

NT: Well, regarding “Power,” it’s just a question of how you’re going to convey the idea or information in an arresting way. Were I to say: “this single wind turbine is a token gesture towards energy alternatives whose commuter visibility attempts to undercut the enormous and often corrupt and patriarchal infrastructure of money, energy and politics further down the highway,” that would get taxing. But “the wind turbine is not your real dad,” I mean, weird, right? And it gives me the space to move into some more abstract ideas about god, and to bring in that last image, which, speaking of sports, I think I got from a halftime show of a basketball game where someone is put in a glass chamber for 30 seconds, then something called “Keg bucks” are blown upwards from the ground and they have to grab as many as possible. Or maybe I got it from a P-Diddy video. Diddy, daddy—you get the idea.

I'm talking about the specifics of this poem as a gesture towards your question about style. I would hope not to be so precious as to say that Earworm has a style that my explaining would only diminish. But, in general, I’m way more interested in what other people have to say about that than coming up with any of my own formulas. The first responder after the manuscript was finished was the cover designer Carleton Wilson. And I had no input on it, gave him no ideas about how I wanted it to look, and he interprets it in this exciting, thoughtful, original way. Why would I want to get in the way of that by over-explaining my own concept of my style (which is I hope is something fluid and evolving based my continued immersion in life and culture)?

I think one of the fallouts of web culture is that writers have way too many opportunities to over-explain or interpret themselves and their projects. It's great that there is a more democratic distribution of different voices, great that I can read Milosz in between checking my email and facebook—but I can’t help thinking that if Lorca was blogging, or Virginia Woolf was lurking in chatrooms, a little bit of the mystery and charge of their work would have dissipated. Not all of it, but a little. If they were blogging primarily about themselves, that is. I suspect Lorca might be.

JL: So, as a final question, how is life in Brooklyn? You've been doing NYU's creative writing program for roughly a year now by my calculation. How is it going? Are you working on any new material?

NT: Two and a half months and I’m back in Canada. It has been an amazing couple of years. Great to come down here and immerse myself, not just in the university community, but in places like 826NYC where I did some tutoring, the Goldwater Hospital where I help teach a workshop for long-term care patients with some other graduate students—and in the general bustle of the city. My library, to some extent, has come alive, and it’s interesting be around some of these incredible writers, to hear them continue to puzzle over the big questions that have always puzzled them. My fellow classmates are amazing. My undergraduate students are inspiring. I’m really going to miss the bagels.

I’m working on a poetry thesis, but I suspect it will be a long time before it’s an actual manuscript. I’m doing a bit of translation. I’m writing more nonfiction prose—book reviews, profiles, essays. I’m taking a class called “The Fiction of Nonfiction” with Lawrence Weschler. It has my head spinning off in a lot of new directions. A stint last year with Lemon Hound and a semi-regular opportunity to review books for Event has also really challenged and inspired me in this regard.

JL: Thanks again Nick and I'm glad to hear you're enjoying yourself in NY. Greatly looking forward to the new collection.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Jeff Latosik

Jeff Latosik’s first book, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac Press), was published in Spring 2010.

Go to Jeff Latosik’s Author Page