a conversation with D. Nurkse      


Bold Type: I'd like to ask you about your background, when you began writing, what first brought you to it.

DN: My parents were refugees from Nazi Europe. Each had an artistic vocation—art was home. Without fussing about it, they encouraged me consistently. When I teach, I try to remember what a gift that was.

BT: Your book, The Fall, is divided into three sections, each dealing, roughly, with a different stage of life. To simplify, poems of childhood fall into the first section; marriage, which could be seen as a new beginning, into the second; and a potentially fatal illness, perhaps premature death, into the third. Likewise, the poems in the first section could be described as straightforward meditations, with accessible themes and syntax. By the final section, however, the poems become more bizarre and adventurous. This could be viewed as a descent into delirium at the moment of crisis, or simply the effects of medication. Can you comment on this progression?

DN: That's absolutely insightful. In the first section, the child narrator practices marriages and funerals, sex and baseball, confident that, if he plays his roles wholeheartedly, the secrets of belonging-in-the-world will be revealed. That starts to break down in the poem 'The Fall'. By the last section, the "I" has seen too much. It's fraying. But there's liberation in that failure to cohere.

BT: Do you have a favorite poem in the collection?

DN: 'Cat's Eye', 'A Couple in Garden City', and 'How We Are Made Light'.

BT: Issues of masculinity surface in the book, in a way not commonly seen elsewhere today, particularly in poems like 'Left Field' and 'The Wilson Avenue Kings'. Can you talk about that a bit?

DN: The book definitely ducks down that avenue. Judith Butler remarks somewhere that if we were really comfortable with our bodies, we wouldn't have to invent such a seamless panoply of gender signs and symbols. (I'm paraphrasing grossly). Adolescence—perhaps kids are freer now—seemed a time when sexual identity was constructed as crudely as a Lego fortress.

BT: This is a strange question, one that has nothing at all to do with your poetry. If I were to speak of Edward Morgan Forster or Wystan Hugh Auden, I might be greeted with confused stares by most English majors. Why did you choose to use an initial rather than your given name?

DN: There's less to this choice than meets the eye. I once wrote human rights materials as "Dennis Nurkse" and wanted to keep that separate.

BT: You are known for your work with human rights causes. Can you talk a bit about that?

DN: I believe that what will be remembered of us is the disparities in the material conditions of our lives. I've worked in human rights for thirty years, at one time for a living. Currently I do a little work with Amnesty International and teach poetry in prison. But I also know that an artist who tries to impose his notion of responsibility on others is a walking straitjacket.

BT: You live in New York City, and you are associated with the city. Do you feel that there is still a divide between poets in New York and elsewhere, for instance, New Orleans or California?

DN: Unfortunately, there is. In an excellent bookstore in California, I couldn't find Robert Lowell. Here in New York, you won't see enough Jane Miller.

BT: What poets do you admire?

DN: I admire and have been influenced by almost everybody. Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Yehuda Amichai . . . I wouldn't know where to stop.

BT: How about classic writers, say, writers who published at least fifty years ago?

DN: I love poems by dead people. [W.B.] Yeats, [Federico García] Lorca, and Paul Celan in the last century. George Herbert, [John] Donne, [Thomas] Wyatt, [Geoffrey] Chaucer, Basho, Sappho.

BT: Are there any younger poets, say, under 35, whose work you enjoy?

DN: It's a staggeringly talented younger generation. They get it and take it where they please. Names off the top of my head: Noelle Kocot, Joanna Fuhrman, Henry Israeli. Again, where to stop?

BT: What do you think of Poetry magazine recently being given a $100 million dollar donation, with no strings attached?

DN: Possibly the only good news of this creepy century.

BT: If you were given the same amount, how would you spend it?

DN: Rapidly. Gleefully. Unwisely.

Interview by Ernest Hilbert

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    Photo credit: Elena Seibert