In Conversation with D. Nurkse
Margot Farrington is a Williamsburg-based poet who frequently contributes to the Rail.
The following conversation took place in early February.
Margot Farrington (Rail): The Rules of Paradise contains a number of poems involving father and son that manage to make an amalgam of closeness and distance between parent and child. Was your own relationship with your father close?
D. Nurkse: I think it was extremely close, but he died when I was very young and it’s something that I think of in terms of why I write poety. When I last saw my father I was eight, and he waved at me – he was leaving for work – and I was distracted and didn’t wave back, and it seems to me that, in a way, writing poetry is that conversation with somebody who’s not there; it’s trying to wave at a person who is no longer in the room and in fact no longer in the world. (Laughs) And it speaks to the way poetry works in America too, a little bit – a conversation with someone who was here a moment ago, but not any longer.
Rail: I want to ask you about your poem “Childhood and The Great Cities,” which struck me as a poem about a child who’s both a witness and a border guard for the father. You have a daughter – do you feel children are emotional checkpoints – where situations and decisions are relived, made over? Is that something the poem touches on?
Nurkse: That’s beautifully put: a witness and a border guard. I really don’t know how my daughter would see this, but the book The Rules of Paradise is largely about he experience of the second generation in America, which is people who have a sense of themselves as being what is called an American ethnic, but also a sense of themselves as being American. And I think what really happens with kids – in that second generation – is they feel they’re interpreting or mediating for their parents because they sense – whether they can explain it to themselves or not – that their parents are vulnerable, or feel like strangers in an environment that’s become very familiar to them. So in that poem, the great cities may be very familiar to the child but perhaps not to the father, so there’s a certain reversal happening where the child is protective of the father. Actually, I see a lot of that in ethnic groups. I shop in a bodega where the owner is Dominican. He’s quite young and his English is okay but his kids are maybe three, five, and seven and even the three year old is speaking absolutely flawless English and the kids just very naturally interpret for him. That speaks to a sort of doubleness I’m trying to get at in the book: a kind of intimacy of the same kind as the child taking on a burden like that. I guess it’s an intimacy that’s charged, or doesn’t necessarily feel balanced or stable, that intimacy with the father.
Rail: That fits with a sense of someone who’s escaped from a hostile place and entered another – hostile in a different manner – which you the child then try to negotiate for them.
Nurkse: Yeah, sure. And there may be all kinds of things – survivor guilt of having survived that world that’s now obliterated. In the child’s case, I think there’s a certain loyalty to that past that the parents came from. It makes you feel special and it’s also a burden you would like to put down, so you may really go back and forth between those extremes. And when you feel loyal, you feel more from the old country than anybody from the old country would – but you have the ability to “pass,” so that when you don’t feel loyal, your accent or manner or dress is not going to betray you at all. It’s really almost up to your psyche to define your identity, whereas your parents’ identity may have been defined for them. That first generation had really almost no identity problem because they would never be seen as Americans by Americans whatever they did, but the second generation can be American or can be what is known as “ethnic.”
Rail: Two things that recur in poems spanning your last two books are the book and the fly. I’d like to ask you about them separately. Here’s a sequence taken from a line in that same poem: Marx. The Bible. The Atlas. These are books imposing both as literature and as physical objects. Were those important or pivotal books for you as you were growing up?
Nurkse: Absolutely. I think what they’re doing in the poem is creating physical sensory objects that are hard for a child to lift and to open. Those are the things in that environment that are heavy, where the rest are my father’s clothes on a clasp hangar, and there’s nothing left from that past world except these books which are monumental, indestructible, hard to carry. So that’s – in a way – an image of having completely resolved and escaped from that world. And yet there’s something called the book which is indestructible and that’s backbreaking to lug around and you never get rid of it. And those three books are three different examples of weight [laughs] of the past that can’t be put down – not communism, but the European socialist tradition, the Abrahamic tradition, and then the faith that you can duplicate the world through an image of the world.
Rail: The other that comes to mind is the ledger, which turns up in certain poems in yours, another book of weight and importance, I guess as a record of time and of servitude.
Nurkse: That’s interesting because that’s turned up in a past book and also in books that are under way.
Rail: There’s a lovely one from Leaving Xaia, of a man in a factory longing for a woman who works there, who has a cough.
Nurkse: Yes – “entered in a book too heavy to close.” Again, that speaks to the combination of an activity that’s both liberating and burdensome. Part of that is writing the poem itself, where you’re not you anymore, you’re a voice: you’ve totally escaped from the contingencies. The other part of it is you’re creating more description that you’re going to convince somebody to publish, [laughs] and have to peddle around like a sack of potatoes, and you’re creating this legend. I remember teaching at Riker’s Island and I have this in some recent poems including a poem in The American Poetry Review published in December. Riker’s Island was such a medieval place, like a medieval universe – there are about eighty different buildings on that island, and in many ways they’re just pre-technology. You see these huge ledgers in which activities of the prison are entered, and perhaps a set of keys lying on the book, propping it open at one page and that page can be all the activities of the day, and it’s that slightly manic idea of controlling everything through knowledge and through language. Of course, that’s what the poet tries to get away from and yet ends up doing.
Rail: Okay, let’s talk about the fly.
Nurkse: I’m glad you asked about the fly because in a way the fly and the book are opposites: they might be the mind and the soul. The fly is the part of the self we don’t really value, that we don’t keep track of and keep trying to kill, yet it keeps turning up. [Laughs] I remember being in upstate New York in winter, and very sick – and it was freezing outside – I felt trapped by snowdrifts and I was just lying in bed looking up at the ceiling. Sure enough there was a fly crawling across the ceiling and it’s as if there’s always a fly: the one companion that’s faithful to a prisoner or someone in a hospital so that the Marx and the bible and the atlas are the world filled with meaning – but intimidatingly meaningful – and the fly is almost something spiritual to me; it’s a part of the self we just let go, yet it’s indestructible.
Rail: So you don’t make that association of the fly with death and decay.
Nurkse: No, more as immortality – the hundred eyes. In work since this book, I’ve started to obsess about the sparrow, and I’m thinking that my work is getting bigger since my fly days. [Laughs] Next it’s going to be the pigeon motif!
Rail: I’ve been thinking about the way your poems are configured and I came to this conclusion that their touch of strangeness draws us inward to a deeper truth. Is there anything valid in that for you?
Nurkse: Oh, I hope so! I’m very moved by that. One of these Russian critics, maybe it was Bakhtin, said literature is the process of taking the world and making it strange.
Rail: Let me mention the example of the last poem in your book: The Bond. The speaker is at a party, negotiating his way through people, intent upon reaching and speaking with someone who’s dead. You’ve made it a situation we accept as utterly possible, yet still completely strange.
Nurkse: Thanks. I think that has to do with the way the book works. The first poem is the father perhaps looking for the child who has not yet been born, and being in a very deserted setting. In the last poem, the world has become very populated, full of people, and the child is looking for the father who is no longer there.
Rail: I sense a very strong arc between Leaving Xaia and this book. Was there overlap? Was there some dovetailing of the poems or were they separate endeavors entirely?
Nurkse: There was definitely dovetailing. All of this work is sort of organized by obsession. Then I have to pry it out of these obsessions and fit it into narratives which are then obsessive too!
Rail: You’re Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. How does that nomination take place and does it carry certain duties with it?
Nurkse: Well, that happened with a nominating committee of Brooklyn poets and Brooklyn writers, people including Jacqueline Woodson and L.S. Asekoff. I was nominated by someone else but they had my resume and they asked me. There was an audition process, but one of the things I didn’t want to do was to write any occasional poetry; I said I wouldn’t write any odes to the Gowanus Canal; there were nothing going to be any odes to the BQE. But I did want to do work that affected the crisis in arts funding as it affects people in inner cities and also the crisis in education, which is very serious. I received two NEA grants that really, really helped me materially to be a writer. I also see the debate being framed in a way that’s a little unreal because the public will see the debate for the arts as a much more cerebral thing than it is. I mean, the NEA has supported things like inner city gospel quartets in downtown Newark, and inner city arts ventured not supported by academia. So much of the arts money that goes into cities goes into neighborhoods that are having difficulties originally, before it goes into neighborhoods that are upscale. The arts are extremely important to urban economies, especially the economy of New York – it’s really the thing we produce – yet all the profits go to huge institutions or major players because of our star system. We no longer educate our kids who live here in the arts. I’m interested in music, and I can remember the days when Brooklyn was awash in Board of Ed clarinets. Your average public school student would sit around desperately bored, practicing scales and have a music teacher who probably hated popular music. Nevertheless, out of that process you got this wonderful jazz scene that happened in Brooklyn for so many years, you got these amazing artists like Kenny Durham and Cecil Payne based in Brooklyn, known throughout the world and educated in the Brooklyn school system, and I just see the complete destruction of that. It’s been physically taken away; the schools have been physically shrunken.
Rail: Are you given any power towards making input as poet laureate, or is it more of a figurehead position?
Nurkse: Well, whether or not I’m given power, there’s some power to be taken. What we’ve done is a good deal of work with the Brooklyn library system and we set up programs in many inner city schools. This was a program that didn’t want to have its flagship program happening in Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights. This program was looking at East Flatbush, Bed Stuy, communities like that, and we did a couple of years of workshops with young adults. The first one I did was on Cortelyou Road, in May, and I remember teaching this workshop, for kids who were from, say twelve to eighteen and came to the library after being in school all day, and during the most beautiful time of the year. I think I had six kids in the first class, twelve in the next, then eighteen, and it capped at around twenty-four kids. These were inner city kids who were simply coming to write poetry and be recognized as poets. There was no reward, they got no school credit, we didn’t even serve Coke and cookies and they came and wrote poetry and they were very avid for that. Out of those programs the Brooklyn Public Library system published a book called This Beautiful Name is Mine. I thought it was a very moving book.
Rail: Do you feel Brooklyn has a healthy literary scene?
Nurkse: I think there’s a terrific poetry scene. Whenever I go away from Brooklyn to a writing colony or arts festival, everybody I meet is from Brooklyn! Really the only problem is what we’ve just touched on – that the Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights writers tend to get recognized more than those from Bed Stuy, Brownsville, Coney Island, and other neighborhoods, but yes, I think there’s a tremendous writing scene in Brooklyn…In a way, people used to come to the Lower East Side to be writers, but now the rent’s too high.
Rail: It’s common for readers to associate the “I” in poetry they read as the autobiographical “I” of the poet writing. But you’re particularly good at what Stephen Berg calls the “non-I,” that double who is the stranger. Often when readers encounter a poem of yours they can’t easily pin the poem to the poet. D. Nurkse isn’t there, and that’s unsettling and exciting. So I want to ask you: is that something that’s primarily unconscious or do you make up your mind when you write to see how far away you can get?
Nurkse: I’m often amazed at what this thing we call “I” is. [Laughs] Each of us has it but nobody else has it, at least, each of us has it to the exclusion of everyone else. Again, let’s say a fly has it but a book doesn’t. That thing called consciousness as mediated by individual identity. If it comes across as strange – it’s because it strikes me that way – I’ve never gotten used to it.
Rail: A number of poets feel your poems read as though they were translations, also that your work reminds them more of European and Latin American contemporaries than American ones. Would you care to comment on that?
Nurkse: I’m not sure. In that question, I’m commenting on how they see my work, so that’s hard for me to answer. What leads them to that conclusion I can’t really say. I did translate a lot of French, Spanish, and Latin American poetry and that could have something to do with it.
Rail: You’ve found a way to make certain poems straddle America and other countries simultaneously, so the reader is free to be in more than one place at once. And to suggest – with simplicity but a lot of subliminal power – a kind of compression of two or three wars into one. Is some of that the result of your work in human rights?
Nurkse: I would hope so. Three wars?
Rail: Yes. One has a sense, in various poems, of the Vietnam War, yet also one can feel a resonance of World War II, and the more recent covert wars. I know that in some sense all wars are the same, but they have their distinct differences. Yet one feels in your poems that oh, it’s this war, and then, no it’s that one, and there’s a duality there that fascinates. And then you think: which one is it?
Nurkse: Yeah, well that’s a very frightening thing. In my life there always has been a war going on, like a radio playing in another room – it’s always there if you listen for it.
Rail: And that has haunted you.
Nurkse: Yes, yet it hardly seems to impinge on us, and other times it seems we’re more vulnerable than we thought. It may haunt me partly through that human rights work, it’s true.
Rail: I don’t consider that you’ve finished your work in human rights because of the poems you’re writing and your work in prisons, but when did you begin to work in human rights and did you work in some other countries besides the States?
Nurkse: I went to Latin America in ’72-’73, and when I came back I was an expert on Latin America. I knew there would be no coup in Chile and reassured everybody it was impossible, that the military would never overthrow Alliende. Then when the coup happened, I was completely traumatized, and joined some other people who formed what was then the 9th group of Amnesty International. Now they have hundreds in the U.S., but that was the 9th, in Lower Manhattan, in September of ’73, and that was sort of my introduction and I did do a lot of work – mostly as a volunteer – in the 70’s. Between ’88 and ’93 I worked professionally in children’s rights for an organization called Defense for Children International, now based in Geneva since the New York or US branch became de-funded. I also worked briefly as a consultant to UNICEF and did a report on political violence on children in Haiti for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service in the US Catholic Conference. Those are the basic organizations that I worked with, but I still work with Amnesty International as the northeast representative on children’s rights steering committee.
Rail: I think of you as a specialist of the close call, and some of your poems offer reprieves that then open up into greater dangers. I’m thinking of a poem like “The Guards,” where a man nearly loses his passport at a checkpoint, and therefore almost loses his identity. And that would seem to be the worst, but it isn’t – because the reader knows the speaker will now be entering Xaia, and is afraid for him. I know that Xaia is not one place: but what would the closest place be?
Nurkse: El Salvador. I just couldn’t write realistically about El Salvador because the way we think about the Third World automatically made it exotic in my mind, yet when I was there it was more like our world that it’s possible for me to state. So that whole quality of making something exotic, which is the way we deal with other cultures immemorially, is a bizarre process, but to us it seems natural and it’s the way we make ourselves normal and them exotic. It’s hard to write about El Salvador without that issue of exoticism, so I really wrote about a place that was, by definition, imaginary.
Rail: Still, the way you write about it seems breathtakingly real; my instinct as a reader was: Oh, don’t take your passport which as just almost gone up in flames and go there!
Nurkse: That came from something that happened to me in Franco’s Spain in 1968 when I was a teenager. I was talking to some people who were dissidents and was arrested, though I was not playing any appreciable part. Some plain-clothes police picked me up and put me in one of those cars – maybe a Ford Falcon with no inner door handles in the back seat: a very ordinary looking car, and very ordinary looking people, but when I got in, there was the absence of the door handles and somebody beside me who was absolutely terrified. I explained I was an American citizen and showed them my passport. And then they took the passport and said: “Well now you’re nobody.”
Rail: This will sound perverse, but do you feel that writing festivals forward the appreciation of literature?
Nurkse: I think festivals like the Dodge Foundation’s festival do a terrific job, but they are probably more democratic – there are other literary events that can create a cult following: they seem designed to create a class of gurus and a class of disciples, which I think is unfortunate. Here in Brooklyn, we start with Walt Whitman and I don’t think we should be in the world of gurus and disciples.
Rail: I do sometimes feel there’s a myopic view working. Here’s another example. Recently there’s been a move around the country – you may have read about this – to have populations in cities around the country all read one book simultaneously. There’s one aspect of that that’s beautiful, but there’s also the push towards being the same. Do you feel a danger in that?
Nurkse: I do. The thing that’s wonderful to me is how rebellious kids are writing to free themselves from homophobia and gender stereotypes that we suffered under when I was a teenager. At least some of these kids have really gone beyond that to something very real psychically, so that now they see poetry as a resource, a weapon in their hands. But the more we shunt things into the middle ground the more these rebellious kids are going to be doing anything but writing poetry. I do worry about that homogenization because when I began writing, poetry was considered a safe and decorative art form and basically, it was the Beats who changed that. I’m not really based in Ginsburg and Kerouac – I love them but they weren’t in my emotional basis – but they made a huge difference in this country in terms of how people saw poetry and people seeing radical possibilities in poetry. And I hope we don’t lose that by institutionalizing it.
Rail: Who were you grounded in? I know that’s an awful question because there are so many.
Nurkse: There are. If I stopped being influenced by people that would be the kiss of death but – many great American poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine, Randall Jarrell was a very strong early influence. There were people like Edward Field when I was a kid, then the Beats, then a lot of European poets like Henri Michaux and Apollinaire, who seemed to have these very free colloquial voices. And from Latin America, Neruda and Vallejo – Vallejo being an amazing poet – very surreal and inventing his own language, but doing it from the perspective of, basically, a Native American from this continent so there’s a kind of American surrealism as opposed to a surrealism that had the stamp of approval of Dada or French theoretical schools. It’s so much of this continent, the continent of maize.
Rail: Some cultures originally felt that the camera stole the soul. Have you ever felt that way about writers’ conferences?
Nurkse: Yes! It’s complicated, and obviously there are moments when it’s just me being defensive, but clearly there’s a plus and a minus in that we’ve created this industry akin to the production of break fluid or hat bands around creative writing. We’ve created funding and outlets for it, and I’m not always sure we’re not also creating limitations by creating groups of people for whom it’s designed and groups for whom it’s not. So that becomes a problem: whether we don’t manage to smuggle in an homogenizing agenda even when we’re talking about diversity. Many events transcend that, so that’s not a fatality, just something that worries me at times. Certainly, I can’t see my grandmother, who raised chickens in Edmonton and was a very literate person, at a literary conference. I could write about her but I can’t see her showing up for the conference – she just would not be sitting in the front row, [Laughs] with a loaf of rye bread and a sausage; I would not see her there. That means I could go there to get away from her, but I couldn’t go to such a place to be reconciled with her.