Andy Fitch with Travis Nichols

Travis Nichols
Travis Nichols

Along with Cristiana Baik, Andy Fitch is assembling the Letter Machine Editions Book of Interviews, which also includes interviews conducted by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. This talk will be published in that collection, due for late 2014 release.

Andy Fitch: Somewhere you’ve suggested that Iowa explores the art of memory, using the sentence for its elemental stitchery—as happens in Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Yet while many readers may expect prose syntax to prompt further elucidation and narrative cohesion than poetic lines do, the opposite seems to occur here. So perhaps we could start to explore related rhetorical tensions by tracking the place and progress of time throughout the book. Readers encounter statements such as “I, swirling and flowing past us into every artery and every thing, was the time.” Elsewhere, Iowa’s “I” ponders whether “My Time Hand” has gone pink from gazes. Later, this same passage closes off its episode by declaring “That was the first time I tried it.” Could you put into relation Iowa’s sentence-based thrust, its prose-block framing and its fluid/static conceptions of time?

Travis Nichols: Narrative in its most basic received form is: Born, Lived, Died. This depresses me. I don’t think it’s “true,” or no more “true” than any other form so clichéd as to become invisible. I feel different experiences of my life recurring at different times—my childhood experiences aren’t isolated to the time when they first occurred, because I’m re-coding and re-traumatizing and re-living them through memory, dreams, storytelling and also through my senses, every day. When I hear a song I used to listen to all the time as a kid, but not often since (pick any of the 8-Track of Funny Bone Favorites for examples!), it sends me back through my earlier experiences in ways often so striking and vivid that I’m incapacitated. If I didn’t know better I’d probably crash my car or get picked up by the police for vagrancy. The second, third, fourth or fifth time is just as real as the first, and in some ways is more so, because it’s re-enforcing the cognitive grooves that had been laid by the first experience. Is my first memory of curling up inside my green plastic frog toybox as the sunlight streamed in “real” or just something I’ve been told happened to me and so it has become real in the telling? Yes, which is what makes it so rich and real to me.

All of which is to say: with Iowa, I wanted to write through a certain year of my life (1996), and I wanted to try to create sentences that reflected the experience of writing through, rather than sentences that reflected the experience of writing about. I wanted sentences that conjured rather than told, because, I thought then, I had all the time in the world to write more directly, but my head was only going to be immersed joyously in poetry the way it then was for so long. It turns out I was both right and wrong about that. I could never remember that year the same way again.

I wanted to write a book in the tradition and spirit of My Life, I Remember and The Sonnets—complete works unto themselves, with an internal logic and formal consistency. I wanted to make a book as an experience, one readers could only find between its covers (behind the butts).

AF: Along these lines, your flat references to (never contextualized) proper nouns and names made me think of Gertrude Stein. Yet reading through Iowa felt less like encountering Steinian stanzas in meditation (less “James Death is a nice name”) than like passing through a streamlined temporal trajectory (more “Gretchen and Jen puked out the bedrooms, sat, then led me outside”). Did you presume, and attempt to shape, a particular type of reading experience for your audience? And/or could you discuss a few additional literary precedents for your book? Along with Brainard, Hejinian, Stein and Ted Berrigan’s repetition-friendly cut-ups, Kenneth Koch’s ad-lib-like syntactical structures often came to mind, as did Max Jacob’s grammatical profusion/diffusion, Robert Walser’s micro-rambles or Peter Altenberg’s feuilleton-sized extracts. Also, of course, with U-Mass in mind, James Tate.

TN: I wanted to make art that resembled the art I loved, but I wanted this art to reflect my experience, which I felt hadn’t been done yet. The book I wanted to read didn’t exist, so I tried to write it. Possibly too enamored with indeterminacy, I imagined readers who could create the work with me through their reading: I would provide the prompts, the raw materials for imaginative flights, and then readers could make what they would out of them. I had been reading Jamaica Kincaid’s At The Bottom of the River, which I felt did this, as well as a lot of theoretical work by James E. Young, Robert Smithson and Frances Yates. Young, Smithson and Yates write mostly about architecture, visual art and scientific systems, but I felt like the written work I admired did a lot of the same stuff, and hit the same notes, as something like Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial or Daniel Liebeskind’s Holocaust museum—but for private lives rather than public ones.

I have to say I was also very much under the spell of my friends Eric Baus, Noah Eli Gordon and Nick Moudry. We were in that heady, partical-physicsts-inner-space realm where if we transmitted a progression in a line from one head to the next, we felt like we had done something worthwhile. Eric in particular has a way of making abstruse crazy lyricism seem like the only thing worth writing. We listened to Don Cherry like it was Beyoncé. I can still very much tell when Eric has cast his hoodoo on someone by reading the writing. Epistles to bees are a dead give away. I miss that hoodoo, but I think I did my version of it fairly well with Iowa, and I probably should just leave it to him to discover dark matter through syllabics.

AF: Well could you further describe your working process in shaping this book’s basic units: its prose blocks and sections? For instance, on page two, as the references to crows start piling up, do you wish for a complicated mimetic rendering—for a feeling like that which comes when a bunch of crows start cawing? Or what role does a familial idiom (references to a brother, to a step-dad) play in holding together whole sections of the book? What causes this familial idiom to disperse in the third section? What causes section three’s end to bleed into section four? Does the step-dad enjoy a renaissance in part four (along with the resurgent “Madame”) in order to trace something like a culminating crescendo?

TN: I wanted a rippling and rising forever—sentences that formed a kind of cyclone spinning up into the atmosphere, sucking up the trailer parks in its path and throwing them in graceful arcs into the fields to die. To achieve this, I did all sorts of complex formal machinations, gave myself rules, threw the I Ching, etc. I don’t think it’s super important to know each and every step I took to have an experience with the book as a reader, and I think there are enough writers out there at the moment whose processes are more interesting than their products, so I think if the book isn’t interesting as is, it’s certainly not going to get much more interesting by knowing how and when I stood on my head to make it happen. That said, I love the attention you’ve paid to the structure, and just from how you’ve phrased the question I’m extremely gratified to know that you noticed. I hope that the book rewards such attention because very little in it is there without reason.

AF: We’ve addressed larger structures in Iowa. But could you also describe the localized sonic/idiomatic/grammatical registers that you seek to probe here? I can offer some lines (sentences, actually), form which to start if you wish: “The memories true or not against him seem to be turning to steam, as I turned, all the while thinking of chewing out alone eventually through the ghostly meats”; “She got the bag and said when she awoke the sun was dunking into it”; “She would catch the kids when the campfire without me sat and fell, listening to the creek move into its snow-sewn fields.”

TN: I wanted to write of and from Iowa, where I grew up, but without sounding like I was trying to get an NEA grant. Talking with Eric, I knew that to make the poems in his book The To Sound he would often obsess/meditate on certain words for long durations, and those words would then appear in his sentences no matter what else he was doing. So this year of mine was full of sun, moon, fire, alcohol, cigarettes, snow, dirt, crows, breath and meat. I wanted to conjure a kind of estrangement, so that these fairly familiar things would appear dream-like in the work, in the sense that a crow would appear in a line in which it didn’t belong, and I as a writer and a reader would think, “what does the crow mean?” I liked not knowing, since mostly all of those things can be laid out on a grid of symbolism to mean fairly certain things. In Iowa, nothing means what it seems to mean. I wanted to create a state. When I was 17, I would smoke a cigarette and think, “What does that mean?” And I would have no idea. So it’s a state of doubt, unknowing and confusion, but rendered with the tools I had gained in the decade or so since that time.

AF: In terms of soundscape, something like sampling frequently takes place. In the phrase “too too piece of flesh” I hear Hamlet’s complaints (echoed in later books of yours). Any line starting with “Paul” and ending with “boutique” cannot help but conjure the Beastie Boys. Even seemingly innocuous phrases such as “wild strawberries” pick up cinematic resonance. Could you describe how and/or why such sprinkles of reference, such indices of personal interest, find their way into your work?

TN: You know, certain things just stick in my head. I’m a person who for years woke up with the same Public Enemy lyric in my head, and nearly every time I take a shower I sing the Zest commercial jingle that has some sad Joe Cocker straining, “It’s hard to get clean in hard water…” Also, like many 22-year-olds, I was pretty caught up in how terrific my taste was at the time I started writing, and so I liked leaving those little Easter eggs in the text for people to find—thinking that they would feel I was a kindred sensibility. Now of course the fact that I liked Paul’s Boutique, Hamlet and Bergman does not strike me as being super duper avant-garde, but what are you going to do? I’m from Iowa.

AF: See Me Improving contains its own familiar idiom. When “Elegy” opens by announcing “Last night I dreamt I danced with James Schuyler,” then gets to “But I breathed once, shook and cried,” Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” seems to lurk close by, with its concluding lines “I put my fingers against the glass / And bowed my head and cried.” More generally, this book provides (starting from the first poem, “Florida”—from its fantastical confrontation/engagement with the father) a fusion of testimonial idiom and surreal scene or sequence. So here again, did hollowing out (rather than simply dismissing) the lyric “I” appeal to you?

TN: Goddamn if I haven’t tried to hollow that fucker out. But I remain interested in myself, despite knowing how tedious and uninteresting I am to other people. I usually have a lot of big plans to never use the “I” again, to write poems only about discarded objects, as in William Eggleston photos, but I guess I like the challenge of making my mundane stupid feelings relevant to other people. I suggest you ask Copper Canyon for sales figures to find out just how successful I’ve been at this (hint: not very). I know we have to move on from the New York School, however great it was, because clearly the aesthetic has become incredibly degraded, but I also think that there is a way to do the “I” right. And damn it if I’m not going to keep trying. What’s the worst that can happen?

I want to work within a tradition of individual consciousness navigating the multiverse. I like strummy strummy songs with a lot of noise, like Olivia Tremor Control and the Velvet Underground. I like poems with signal and noise—with equal attention paid to both.

AF: Other gestures familiar from neo-Romantic lyric poetry (for instance: a performative self-deflation, a potentially self-aggrandizing advocacy for the meek and/or modest) seem to get taken to extremes in See Me Improving. “Don’t Worry Me’s” religious revelations take place in a Bruegger’s Bagels. “The Hand” foregrounds both a “sad plop in my soul” and a “sad plop opus.” “Disappearing Song of the Distracted Mind” seeks to evoke the response that “Quiet / dude in the corner’s not so bad.” Yet the cumulative force of this ostensibly plain and ordinary book pushes at further-reaching reflections. By the time I reach “Smile” (with its steely description of a human seeing itself “unexpectedly reflected, / brushing the teeth, suddenly ordinary, ugly, ready to die”) such studies or still-lifes begin to take the shape of a memento mori, and then you yourself use this phrase on the book’s final page. Could you characterize the engagement/concern with mortality here—mortality pointing not only to death, but to human constraint, plainness, ordinariness, perpetual frailty?

TN: Once again, your attention to the nuances of my work flatters the hell out of me. Thank you. I’m sitting here typing these answers with my twin daughters on top of me (one on my chest, one sort of rolled onto my leg near the computer—which might not actually be all that safe come to think of it), so again the distance between the “I” who wrote a lot of these maudlin self-involved poems and the “I” you’re asking about them feels pretty great. To be a writer you have to be in love with your sensitivity and sensibility. I sort of wish it weren’t true, because there’s something truly monstrous in it, a kind of horrible self-interest at the expense of everyone else that is hard to sustain if you want both to be of and in the world. I often wonder if I’d be a better writer if I could sustain my self-interest, but I feel like I always chicken out. Smashcut to me acting selfish all the time and/or the people close to me recoiling in horror at the idea that I’m holding back. I mean, I look at my friends and contemporaries, and I think a lot of the ones who act egregiously in their self interest(s) make shitty art, but there are a few that I really admire. I wish I could do that, to make the sacrifices they make. Some of what I consider my best work has come from shutting the world out and overfocusing on a line break I end up cutting anyway, but a lot of it has also come from being pushed into doing something I don’t want to do. If I had my way I would sleep in every day and read poems until the sun went down and then drink to oblivion. And you know how many poems I’d write then? Probably five. And they’d all sound the fucking same. What was the question?

AF: How about this: the ten-part “See Me Improving” sequence seems to fuse a surge of kidhood memories (I’m here taking a step away from the sentimental rhetoric often associated with childhood) to a micro-season of thaw and emergent spring. Much of this book appears to derive from a particular time and location. What external pressures shaped its coming together as a coherent collection?

TN: You know, one of my big regrets with that book is that those poems were actually all discreet pieces, but in the editing process it was suggested that I group them all under the title, and I’ve never felt comfortable with it. As so often happens, I caved to peer pressure. The title actually came out of an experience on the Wave Books Poetry Bus. Joshua Beckman had a series of ink pads and stamps, like the ones school teachers use for elementary school kids, and one was “See Me” and another was “Improving!” They fell out of the canvas bag that way during a sharp turn, and I thought that together they made something great. Along the way the combo lost the exclamation point, which may be fatal. Right before publication of the book I wanted to change the title to “Tomorrow Morning,” but Michael Weigers probably rightfully argued that I was turning into a bore. I guess the titles do document a kind of regression of sensibility—originally the manuscript was called “Hello, Bee Thigh Mane,” which I still like quite a bit, but no one ever knew what the fuck I was talking about. Anyways, I tried for a few years to sequence the thing like the world’s most ardent mixed tape, but I always ended up enraged and frustrated, thinking that I was a terrible poet and that I always wrote the same poem over and over again. I tried just playing 52-Card Pick Up and arranging the poems randomly, but that was even worse. Each time, I usually realized I just needed a few more good poems. A lot of the poems in the book were actually parts of much longer sequences, or series, but I found myself falling into the “Three-Part Poetry Book” rut when I tried to include all of them. At the time, I was fairly prodigious, and there were hundreds of pages of poems, two or three full manuscripts I totally thought could win all the prizes and monies. But a good friend and editor I trusted was always very adamant that I shouldn’t be one of those people with a million books at once, and that I should cut anything I wouldn’t feel could stand the test of time. Of course now I think that half that book shouldn’t be in there, though which half changes day to day. To be fair, I read from it in Boulder a few months ago, for the first time in a few years, and I found myself traveling back through the work again, and finding resonances I don’t find when I’m being a callous smart ass. And the audience really seemed to be there with me, which was gratifying. I’d love to write more poems from that same sense of excitement and wonder, but I have no idea if I can ever get back there again for any proper length of time.

AF: My displacement of the sentimental in the preceding question probably should be corrected a bit. See Me Improving references the “heart” more than most contemporary texts I read. “Blue Prince of Breath” and the close of “On the 730th Day God Made Me Happy” resurrect the love song and the love poem. “Something Touched My Heart” makes me think of rewatching Don’t Look Back and wanting to cry. But, at the same time, such affect-heavy utterances seem to prompt endless self-questioning in the book’s lyric “I.” Lines such as “I will wake next to you / naked in the snow and breathing” get preceded by more absurdist reflections, such as “In an avalanche getting naked only helps / if there is another body next to yours.” Could you describe your (sometimes contorted) approaches to the sweet, the sentimental, the loving in this book?

TN: You know what that critic said about Anselm Berrigan—that he was a Language poet in a confessional poet’s body? Well, Anselm hated it enough to put in a poem, but I think about it often enough to think there might be something to it. The poetry I love communicates something to me that up until that moment of reading I hadn’t been able to articulate. For me that’s often a feeling, but it can also be a way of thinking or a way of seeing. I want to create work that does that for readers.

Pause: it’s difficult to be honest answering questions about aesthetic and intent. I know how to answer in the tradition of poets and writers who have answered these questions for publications before, but to say what I mean, not what I hope to mean, feels impossible. But I can say I probably do need to break myself of the habit of thinking of poems as songs, or of poems performing some of the functions of the songs I have loved (which is usually a sort of emotional labor). I don’t know what’s going on most of the time, but I narrow my focus appropriately and I hear a clear voice in my head saying words that I write down, or I begin writing and the script takes over. Jack Spicer would probably say I have sentimental furniture, so all my stanzas look alike.

AF: It surprised me that this warmer ambience suffuses parts of The More You Ignore Me as well. In interviews you have described your novel’s engagement with paranoid aggrieved masculinity, and while that perspective does get delivered, the book often contains a lighter touch—more reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man ironies, or Baudelaire’s cajoling of mon frère the reader. Of course a broader history of the rant, from Diogenes to Caliban to Thoreau to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man to Nietzsche (proto comment-troll extraordinaire) to Thomas Bernhard to Jamaica Kincaid to Claudia Rankine, all came to mind. So could we first discuss some of your own preferred precedents for this propulsive/disembodied voice you have constructed?

TN: You’ve hit on the big ones. I love the way the episodes unfold in Ellison’s Invisible Man, and of course the Underground Man was there telling me it was OK to keep going. One of the first books of poetry I read when it was published (so not just contemporary but truly of the moment) was Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth. I remember rhapsodizing about it to one of my music friends in Athens, and he said (dismissively) that it reminded him of Father Guido Sarducci. So not groundbreaking for everybody, but it had an impact on me in the sense that there were territories to explore that I hadn’t felt I had permission to explore. I kept that in my back pocket for a while, biding my time to figure out which dysfunctional white guy asshole I was going to try to conjure. And speaking of The More You Ignore Me, I was also hoping to satirize some of the writing that’s come in the wake of David Foster Wallace from young white dudes. When I started writing I was reading a lot of that early stuff on HTMLGIANT, the propulsive erudite everydude riffing, and I thought, Clearly it’s time to burst this bubble. That prolix brio worked for the first wave of Daves, but in the hands of lesser minds…it’s like watching six-year-old pageant girls vamping.

AF: In terms of the protagonist’s more ingratiating side: I know that several people have asked you about how this tale of an online-comment bully relates to your own experience editing the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. But I’m also curious about the violence (if that’s not too strong a word) of the calculating, sycophantic hanger-on that your protagonist becomes in the novel’s second half. Does this also derive to some extent from your experience working for the Poetry Foundation?

TN: The closest thing to violence at the Poetry Foundation was when people would get disoriented and walk into the front door of the new building and break their glasses.

What arises in The More You Ignore Me is the kind of violence I feel can erupt as a consequence of bullying. I grew up with a pretty normal amount of violence, but an abnormal amount of anger—not hitting, but dark oppressive silences punctuated by yelling and screaming and throwing stuff. There was a stretch at my high school where five kids committed suicide, and it was treated as sad but not out of the ordinary. I was held against a locker with a knife to my throat, and I had a gun waved in my face (as a joke), and there were some punches thrown here and there. All of which I think is fairly normal, but the potential for violence hung pretty heavy in the air. I mention all of this because we’re looking at everything through the lens of Iowa, and I feel like that self-violence is there in that book, and then that same force is directed outward in The More You Ignore Me. It’s there in me, a kind of rage sickness that overcomes my better nature.

I remember one of the first things I wrote that I got a lot of attention for was in eighth grade, when I wrote a story called “The Death of Andrew Yee,” about one of my classmates. In the story, I caricatured this socially awkward kid, and then had one of the mousy girls in class beat him to death. Clearly, I was a bully to this kid in a really terrible way, and I wish I hadn’t used whatever skill I had then for evil, but I did. Without that frontal lobe fully developed, I turned into one of those chickens who pecks the injured chicken to death. I thought I was terribly clever and funny, and I showed the story to a couple of friends in my Science class, who then passed it around the school. And then my hateful, stupid bullying went proto-viral at Ames Middle School. One other kid, a big hulking guy with premature facial hair, wrote a copycat story called “The Death of Andrew Yee’s Family,” in which, you know, the guy’s family gets blown up by a pipe bomb or something. It became a thing at my school to taunt this kid with language from my story, something that lasted for a few weeks and then blew over. I felt deeply ashamed and also of course thrilled at the attention. I wrote a few more stories about people I knew, though tempered the bloodshed, which was probably a big reason for the sun setting on my early fame. I don’t remember any teachers getting involved, and if they would have I’m sure it would have been a perfunctory “tsk tsk.” Andrew and I ended up on the school paper in high school, and something like friends, even though I can’t imagine what he really thought of me. All of which is to say I was a terrible adolescent, and after trying to write a novel with a sympathetic main character (Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder), in which I tried to explore a willful naïveté and Neutral Milk Hotel-y wonder, I wanted to explore some of the darker aspects of my character. So as much as I’d like to lay the blame for that narrator’s terribleness on the trolls, it’s all in me.

AF: Likewise, the self-important tone of proliferating digital discourse (here parodied in the protagonist’s frequent reference to other postings of his that we presumably have read) seems in some ways not so different from insular/exclusionary poetic conversations that one frequently encounters. His obviously absurd (within the events of this narrative, at least) assertion that “language deployed is an action!” overlaps uncomfortably with the basic presuppositions of many a poetics community. It’s easy to pathologize this protagonist, and/or to track his relation to a broader quasi-leftist sensibility that we perhaps embrace, but could you discuss more specifically how he, again echoing Ellison, might, on the lower frequencies, speak for us (with “us” being poets)? I can’t help noting, amid the “Travis Nichols” digital signature stamped on alternating pages of the book, how this particular protagonist, with his paranoid fantasies of protecting vulnerable young women, parallels another famous “Travis” (Travis Bickle, no less!), and I’m wondering if you could speak to your character’s reflective/refractive powers more generally.

TN: Like Iowa, The More You Ignore Me was written with the sentence as its basic unit. In the original manuscript, each sentence was set off as its own paragraph, but in the editing process we found that formal distinction was fairly arbitrary and so some paragraphs have two or three sentences, but very few. For both books, I liked the idea of starting out a sentence in a fairly normative way and then slowly turning the thought in on itself or out into further, weirder territory. In Iowa, it was as if I was working in watercolor, letting the materials blend and bleed, but in the novel I was trying to do something more like Ed Ruscha’s clean text paintings. I wanted precision—to really pin down ideas and feelings that would be difficult to claim or sympathize with, as a kind of challenge to the reader. I was trying to be difficult, and it appears I succeeded! I didn’t want it to be an easy joke, even though the premise is obviously absurd. I wanted the challenge of taking the absurd seriously, and making the serious absurd.

AF: We haven’t fully addressed yet what the idiom and the pacing of the comment box (with everything implicitly enframed, as if by quotation marks in some Alice Notley epic) allows for in terms of new forms of thinking (for you as an author, for your protagonist, for the audience). And then, later in this anthological compendium of comments, transcripts and stories, parallel narrative tracks begin to converge. Characters get conflated. The arcs of their experience repeat. It’s hard to say what (if anything) comes from outside the protagonist’s schizoid psyche—as if he’s a latter-day Holden Caulfield. Finally the book ends with the lines “It is inside. / And so it is endless.” Are there further plasticities of digitized consciousness that you wish to explore? Alternately: does our millennium-spanning fascination with spectacles of personal pain and confusion (here specifically with a protagonist who implores “Stop reading, why don’t you?”) point toward more timeless pursuits likely to be perpetuated in whatever new media we might encounter?

TN: One of the helpful tips comp teachers give students is to think about audience. Once you’ve been thinking about audience for a while, though, it can become paralyzing, and, especially if you’re a poet, if you think about any audience outside of a few people you usually become boring or crazy. My first novel took the form of letters to one person who may or may not have been alive, but the address was intimate and pitched forward in time. The narrator didn’t expect an immediate response, and so, as with most letters we write, the tone and style are looser and more meditative. The narrator in The More You Ignore Me expects a response almost as soon as he finishes typing—something anyone who’s used Twitter or Gchat or Skype or whatever has experienced. Such spaces are much friendlier to the quip and the burn than to the big idea. I remember once telling a writers’ room meeting at Flagpole Magazine about a dream I had, going into a lot of impressionistic detail and feeling pretty poetic in general about my storytelling. At one point in the dream I was shaking an endless stream of kittens out of my pant leg, and I felt them all scrambling up and down, hair by hair. One of the writers started chuckling and said, “Travis, you dreamt you have pussy in your pants!” The room erupted and that was that. The quip won then, and will now and forever. This narrator believes himself to be the Oscar Wilde of the comment box. Many writers similarly feel they are clearly the Catullus of the Twitter feed, and some of it is really enjoyable. But I wouldn’t mind a little more wisdom and a little less sass. Alas, defilement exists within.

AF: Personal-comment sections of course now often get overrun by corporate marketing teams. You yourself have migrated from editing the Harriet blog to working full-time with Greenpeace—on its own attempts at proactive messaging. In closing, could you discuss some ways in which this more recent job experience has reshaped your approach to politics, prose and poetry, and the relationships among them?

TN: Well, whether or not Kenny Goldsmith is a genius or a huckster seems like an awfully silly argument to have in the face of catastrophic climate change. So it feels good to be working every day to in some ways stave off what scientists agree is a pretty grim future. I’m not a utopian progressive. I don’t believe we can stop greed, hunger, murder, rape and every other evil through big-data fueled infrastructure fixes, but I think we can mitigate the effects of our terribleness with better governance and less corporate oligarchy. Better public transportation leads to fewer cars, which leads to less CO2 in the atmosphere, which leads to fewer climate-fueled super storms. Disenfranchised people being able to vote to protect themselves from corporate pollution won’t turn Louisiana into Sweden, but it will help. I’m happy to be working with accessible language to try to communicate these ideas to a wide audience. I’m also thrilled to be able to work with people like Mike and Andy of the Yes Men to bend reality in a way that feels more “poetic” than tracking the most-read love poems for Valentine’s Day. I do worry all the time that by leaving the full-immersion poetry world I’m losing a big part of what made me interesting to me, and I think about what Don Share told me when I left Poetry: “It’s sad when a poet takes a job that could be done by anyone else.” When I go to Denver and see all the great stuff happening there, and I’m around people who are living and breathing poetry seemingly every day, I get extremely jealous, but, you know, I applied for a bunch of teaching jobs for years and never got anywhere that felt like it would be actually conducive to writing, so I had to re-route. Turns out there’s a whole big world out here that rewards and loves poetry as long as it isn’t called poetry. I’m now secretly training the world of environmental activists to think poetically!

Actually, in some ways I feel like ever since I took the job at the Poetry Foundation I’ve been living in some alternate universe where I get to do everything I dreamed I’d do (write books, engage in anti-corporate art projects, be a dad and a husband), but it doesn’t feel like I dreamed it would. I mean, it feels great but I’m not erudite dazzling slim contemplating my new books. I’m changing diapers and on a conference call with the Alaska Wilderness League, trying to find a polar bear costume.


Travis Nichols is the author of two collections of poetry, Iowa and See Me Improving, as well as two novels, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder and The More You Ignore Me. From 2008-2012 he was associate editor of the Poetry Foundation’s website and editor of its blog, Harriet. He now works at Greenpeace in Washington, DC.

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