If language is the jellyfish that sleeps in your mouth, open up and let it breathe its name. And you open. Nothing happens. No rebirth of self, nothing to hear, nothing to own. That’s the asymptote of words, of language. We’re used to this by now, yes? Speaking to the open void with a voice rooted in questions, knowing no one is listening.
But then it happens.
Somehow our voice turns skiff like in the harbor of absence and heads straight back to us from angles unaware of deflection. Like living missiles, words come hurling toward us however muted. We call this poetry. Or we call it nothing. Either way we recognize the experience as the failure of words. Still, we press on. Opening and closing to let the skinless and venomous blob breathe. Try swallowing. Try puking. It’s not going anywhere. The harder we push, the more tentacles they grow. Welcome to the poetry of Nick Lantz.
Lantz, the author of two books, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and The Lightning that Strikes the Neighbors’ House is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison MFA program, whose work We Don’t Know We Don’t Know received the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, while The Lightning that Strikes the Neighbors’ House received the Felix Pollack Prize. Both book were published in 2010. While Lantz’s work seems to have gone undiscovered as the veritable poetic goldmine it is, to read his work is to receive a hefty left hook from language and imagery that only a precisely placed punch is capable of delivering.
We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is an exploration into the depths of language and how malleable words are in a given context. Lantz employs the language and thought of an odd pairing in the book. He turns epigraphically to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and first century naturalist-philosopher Pliny the Elder. It’s a match made in the far reaches of a poetic mind that is as intellectually stunning as it is creative. But the poems don’t live in the poet’s mind alone. Taken as a whole, each collection resembles a commemorative moment beyond satire, which resonates with mirrored accuracy the lens through which humans use language to create meaning.
The poems, largely lacking in a true poetic “I” are rather imagined observations written to an audience who is expected to experience the limitations of ourselves as proponents of speech. Lantz juxtaposes his rollercoaster of word-images with facts that are seemingly believable yet horrifying if they are to be taken as truth. In the poem “As you know,” appearing in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, the speaker, in an almost militaristic debriefing tone steps up and shoves in our collective the raw and terrible images of human action. The poems begins:
As you know, the human head is the most
commonly stolen body part.
As you now, honey does not spoil, and for this
reason it was used to embalm
the bodies of kings.
As you know, dogs were also convicted
of witchcraft and burned at the stake.
So were chickens, fish and trees.
The voice carries a sense of authority, and it’s highly plausible these are absolute facts Lantz uncovered in his pursuit for poetic fodder. Read more of the poem and discover facts about a cat festival in Ypres, how the word gift means poison in German, how at 300 years old, the Endicott Pear tree in Danvers, Massachusetts is the oldest fruit bearing tree in North America. Fact checkers beware. The propositions check out. But even if Lantz were to skew facts intentionally for some poetic or artistic reason, the emotive aspects of the language would come through, leaving the reader scratching their head. Here is where Lantz destroys the idea that there are truths beyond challenge. Turn to another poem in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and find an example of how just because someone says something is true doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. But then again.
The poem “Thinking Makes It So” begins with an epigraph from Rumsfeld. “Well, um, you know something’s neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said.” In the poem we find a speaker recounting the story of another who claims to have a brother whose excessive dog problem didn’t conform to county regulations. The brother had one dog too many. As a result, he received a phone call from a county clerk. The poem’s final stanza finds the brother on the phone.
What, your brother asked, is the limit?
Seven, said the clerk, and your brother
called over his favorite hound, pulled
out his pistol, and shot the dog between
the eyes. He did this while the poor
clerk was still hanging on the line.
There, he said, now I’ve got six.
Lantz shocks the reader here with the non-sequitur final line. Throughout each book, many poems end with a punch in the mouth rather than a silent departure, leaving the reader wondering if, why and how. Lantz’s poetry is not meant to convey a beautiful emotion, it’s meant to destroy. What’s most fascinating about Lantz’s poetry is he sells the reader on the idea that the demolition of mind is welcomed, that you the reader have not read poems like his before and suddenly you’ve been gifted with something different.
I conducted an interview with Lantz recently and while my intention was not to discover the magician’s secrets, I did walk away from the interview with a new perspective of how he uses poetry in a way I just did not consider. Lantz intentionally subverts reality in his work. He uses actual situations and morphs them to create a demand that cannot be ignored. Certainly Lantz is one of the up and coming poets who will be one to continue to expect great things from.
What most often comes first for you, the title or the poem? What’s the relationship between the two?
The title comes first, most of the time. I think of titles as generative, as points of departure. I often deliberately write away from the title. I’m most intrigued by titles that connect to the text of the poem in a tenuous way. I don’t like titles that summarize or close off the poem, which is why I like starting from a title: because I don’t know where the poem will go, I can’t give it a title that tries to contain the poem.
In the introduction of We Don’t Know, We Don’t Know, Linda Gregerson comments on the use of Donald Rumsfeld and Pliny the Elder, saying the meeting is “long overdue.” What about the rhetoric of Pliny and Rumsfeld inspired your poetic process?
Rumsfeld came first, in my process of writing the book. I more or less stumbled onto Pliny after some research I’d been conducting led me to his Natural History. What had struck me about Rumsfeld is that he could be verbally effusive but simultaneously reticent. He’d say a lot as a way of saying nothing. He evaded, equivocated. He wrapped his statements in qualifications and tautologies. Rumsfeld is the sort of person who, if you asked him what time it was, would say that it was sometime between yesterday and tomorrow. Pliny was different in that he wasn’t afraid to assert, with great credulity, everything he thought he knew. So he says that seal skin protects you from lightning, and that we weigh more when asleep than when we’re awake, and so on. So Rumsfeld would say things that were technically true as a way of avoiding a more significant truth, but Pliny, in the pursuit of increasing knowledge, would assert things that were complete baloney. Those seemed like two complementary extremes, to me, and those big ideas (about truth and knowledge) underpin the manuscript. As a matter of process, it was their language—Rumsfeld’s and Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny—that served as seeds for many poems in the book. I often started with some bit of syntax or turn of phrase from one of them, and spun that off into a poem.
The poems in We Don’t Know, We Don’t Know and The Lightning that Strikes the Neighbor’s House seem to be written from an objective standpoint. One is left to question many of the situations as either being rooted in fact or simply the creation of the poet. I’m thinking specifically of “Thinking makes it so,” “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake,” and “The Year we Blew up the Whale.” I don’t think it’s necessary to reveal the truth behind your poetic situation, but can you discuss what other poets, or writers’ work led you to take this seemingly objective approach to your subjects?
It never occurred to me to frame it that way. But maybe sharing the balance of truth/fiction in those poems will get at what you’re asking. The story in “Thinking Makes It So,” about a man shooting one of his dogs to bring his total number of dogs under some arbitrary limit imposed by the local government, is true—or, rather, like Pliny, I was told the story, and I believe it to be true. “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake,” in which the main character watches his mother succumb to dementia and die, is fictional, though like a lot of fiction, it is based on a composite of true details (in this case, I had been copyediting some books and journals about elder care and dementia, and those details had been percolating in my head for a while). In “The Year We Blew Up the Whale,” the actual whale explosion depicts a real incident, but all of the other details about the town come from my imagination. If these poems have something in common, it’s that they all involve events that are, for one reason or another, far-fetched. (Incidentally, though the parrot poem is the only one of those three that doesn’t contain any factual truth, it’s the one people most often assume is true.) So if my standpoint in all of these poems seems objective, it’s probably because I was concerned with selling the reader on the provisional reality of the narrative.
I can’t say I had any conscious model in this regard. When I was working on these manuscripts, I was reading Robert Bly, Cole Swensen, Kate Northrop, C.D. Wright, and some others pretty heavily. I was also in a writing group at the time, and was no doubt influenced and inspired by the poems of my fellow writers.
Auden said “Poetry makes nothing happen.” When asked to comment on this notion, Philip Levine said, “You won’t make anarchists out of the Republican Ladies Club with poetry — and if you need that change, do something else.” I think we’re getting to the idea that poetry (the process and the product) has certain expectations. What do you expect of your own poetry?
I’ll add my own favorite quote to the mix. Cynthia Ozick wrote that “Poetry is not a pot.” Poetry’s utility can’t be measured in such a practical, utilitarian way. Certainly not in terms of political utility. In We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, many of the poems derive from quotations by Donald Rumsfeld, but they don’t aspire to be political speech—if they do anything political, it is that they try to wrest language from politics, to reclaim that speech for lyric-narrative ends. For me, the value of a successful poem has always been the way that it transforms from words on a page to reality in the mind. When I read a great poem, I feel the world of that poem as if it were real. It makes me imagine with a near perfect lucidity that is deeper than normal physical perception. For me as a reader, the function of a poem has therefore always been private—my mind, and the poem, working together to create something. If it’s social, it’s social on a piecemeal scale (my mind to your mind, via the poem, one reader at a time). What matters to me is that I feel transformed by a poem I read, and that when I write, I write in such a way that I may move someone who is open to the same sort of experience. I don’t waste much anxiety on poetry’s supposed failure to move people who are unsympathetic to its aims to begin with. Or, put another way, as a poet, I don’t write poems to convert people who don’t like poetry. I can hope that someone unfamiliar with poetry, if he stumbled across something I wrote, might be pleasantly surprised by it, as I was by the first poems that hooked me when I was a teenager. But I’m continually reminded when I teach that reading is a skill that requires practice too. Though I’m not an athlete, I do like sports metaphors, so: my job as a poet is to be precise, to get the ball over the plate at 90 miles per hour. The reader’s job is to catch it. I want the reader to catch it, but I’m not going to throw the ball at half speed to make that happen. It’s an interaction that requires great attention and mutual trust from reader and poet. So I have high expectations of myself, but I have high expectations of the reader too.
What trends do you see occurring in contemporary poetry?
Maybe I’m just sensitive to this because I work in academia, but I see a resurgence of hostility towards poetry’s relationship with the academy. This hostility is nothing new, but it resurfaces every few years. There’s nothing wrong with asking serious questions about the state of poetry, but much of the commentary strikes me as disingenuous: elitism wearing a mask of populism. One of the main arguments these critics make is that the academy has homogenized and sterilized poetry. My answer to that claim is also my answer to your question: I see profound, near-overwhelming variety in contemporary poetry. Poets today are writing genuinely political poems, and hermetic, meditative lyrics, and experiments with language, and a thousand other varietals and hybrids. I see poems that are modest (but profound) in scope, and those that are wild and ambitious. Some poets are still deeply (and productively) skeptical of narrative and subject, and their poems are evasive in pleasing ways. Other poets still want to tell stories, and they do so marvelously. I’m perhaps most attuned to poets who, like me, are trying to be stylistically omnivorous, building their own style out of bits and pieces of the aesthetic movements of the last 100 years, as well as sources outside of poetry. So there’s huge variety, and while some of these poets are better than others, in my opinion, my point is that poetry is a big tent, and it can accommodate all of us, and it does.
Bio: Ryan Ragan holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His poetry is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, Penwood Review, Clapboard House, South Dakota Reviewand has appeared in CutBank, Apple Valley Review, Spillway and Booth. His work poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and for inclusion in Best New Poets 2011 and 2012, and Best of the Net 2011.