Catherine Theis with Nathan Hoks

Nathan Hoks
Nathan Hoks

This interview focuses on Nathan Hoks’s book, The Narrow Circle.

Catherine Theis: The Narrow Circle is a book of poems, but there are photographs and pictures included as well. Can you talk about the relationship between the poems and the images, perhaps in relation to the Blake epigraph?

Nathan Hoks: When I was writing these poems oriented toward either the interior or the exterior, I tried to think about these directions as contraries in the Blakean sense—“Without Contraries there is no progression”—and the division of the book into an interior section and an exterior section reminded me of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. So I wondered in a partly whimsical way if my book should have a visual component the way Blake’s books do. Unlike Blake, I’m no visual artist, so I gathered most of the images from public domain resources on the Wiki-commons.

The poems were written first. I feel like it’s important to stress that I went from language to image. No ekphrasis here. It wasn’t until the book felt finished that I thought of adding the images. After I added the visual stream, I enjoyed the interaction between the text and image. The images became a visual index of the book, and so many motifs became more apparent to me through this index. I was also interested in the way a picture implies a kind of super-referential power of the word. Now when the poem says “worms,” we all have the same image in our heads. Or even better, a tension occurs between a reader’s initial idea of the “worms” and the picture.

CT: Sorry, but what do you mean by “interior” and “exterior” poems?

NH: These two words took on an enchanted meaning for me as I was writing the book, so I didn’t try to pin them down too specifically. I love the word “interior” so much. It’s one of those words that I respond to magnetically. In the context of the book, it is both a physical space, usually the domestic interior, and a psychological space. It is a bit of a vortex, a force pulling inward, and the more time you spend there, the more the pressure builds up. It usually seems intimate, comfortable, and safe on the interior, but it’s not healthy to spend too much time there. It has poor ventilation and lousy lighting. The exterior is exciting, adventurous, bright and airy, but it is also death — it’s where the body decays. Threats come from every angle. There are animals and vegetation and fast machines, and it is where language detonates because we encounter others who want to decipher us.

CT: Perfect conditions for explosions.

NH: Right. And generally the body works as a transitional space or a conduit between the inside and the outside, so I’ve tried to think of the poems as little bodies. The body can heighten the sense of mortality experienced on the exterior, or it can feel like a cozy barrier to the interior. But ultimately, I think these two spaces are fluid. In moments of intensity, one flows into the other. One can experience the exterior in the interior and vice-versa. They’re like Yeats’s interlocking gyres.

CT: Yikes, it’s the Second Coming, or just a mathematical diagram charting energy flow. If one can chart such a thing….

NH: Yes! But minus the apocalypse. It’s the structure I’m attracted to. In A Vision, he has these great diagrams of the double gyres, which voices dictated to him via his wife. Yeats’s system actually doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I find it lovely and exciting.

CT: That’s interesting because later I want to ask you about your images, which function as dynamic diagrams. So what order did you write the poems in? Did you go from interior to exterior, or vice versa?

NH: Some of the interior poems came first. I tend to be diplomatic, so after I had a cluster of interior poems, I started to feel bad about leaving out the exterior. I went in that direction and then over a couple years, I basically just worked on the two parts simultaneously, back and forth.

CT: The images are in small groupings, or suites, and they have captions or tags with language stolen from your poems. They’re not complete lines, are they?

NH: No. Most of the captions are just a word or phrase sliced out of the poems.

CT: Your visual index is poetic-scientific.

NH: In the sense that many of the pictures tend to come from scientific sources but follow a poetic logic, yes. But maybe I don’t know what you mean by this term – what do you mean?

CT: Yes, I think you’re understanding my shorthand quite perfectly. For me, the images are presented in a scientific construct (cross-sectional, natural, microscopic) but since we’re reading a book of poetry, we must approach them with Poetry’s own eyes and ears—half Pegasus, half Scientist maybe. I’m very much taken with this idea of doubt that both the Poet and Scientist must have in order to do great work. All the great work needs to start in uncertainty, I think, otherwise it’s not open to any curious finds along the way, and there’s no room for marveling. How can we live in world without marveling? That kills me! But does each image correspond to a particular poem? Are they tagged as discrete, or can we read them across the whole book?

NH: I like your word “tag”—it’s as if the picture has been graffitied by the poem, which makes sense because these are all “found” images. I guess actually the picture is defacing the poem. I looked for pictures that echo specific lines or ideas from certain poems, but sometimes in an oblique way. They’re kind of smudged referents, a step or two away, hopefully enacting those inevitable swerves that occur between language and object. I put the images in little groupings so that they wouldn’t be too overbearing on the poems. I already mentioned Blake’s influence, but I was also influenced by Surrealist word-image games. Breton’s Nadja is arranged similarly, and Magritte has many wonderful paintings where he replaces images with words or blatantly mislabels images.

CT: Oh yeah! There’s that one on the cover of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, what’s it called?

NH: Yes, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which is appropriately titled “The Treachery of Images.” Also, I’m thinking of paintings like “Words and Images,” “The Empty Mask” and “Key to Dreams,” where Magritte mislabels images, or replaces images with words.  I’ve always been enchanted by captions and labels and the lovely contact made by these two systems of reference. Of course, all systems of reference are flawed, but the flaws are where the sparks come from. To me, these two systems seem to swirl around each other in a dance, touching, then swerving off in different directions, sort of like the double vortex. Obviously they’re lovers, so there’s intimacy and madness and explosiveness in this dance.

CT: Right, how to really represent representation. A lot of what we’ve talked about includes this idea of turning—gyres, flip-books, explosions. I like how you call it swerving. What’s equally fascinating is that your choice of images includes the mundane, or inartistic. I hope that’s not offensive to you…

NH: Not at all—it’s just what I wanted. For all their weirdness, I try to ground my poems in the everyday.

CT: Several references to proper nouns, or names of friends, in the book—are they real?

NH: Not really. I’m usually thinking of particular people, but they have different names and don’t totally resemble the figures in the book. I find writing toward a figure, another entity, to be a helpful trick for me.

CT: Yes, you mentioned earlier about “encountering others who want to decipher us,” and it struck me as such a rich way to think about language and relationships, about what kinds of invitations we extend (in poems/in person) to one another when we ask to be read. How do you think the apostrophe (another turning away!) works within your imagination?

NH: The apostrophe is usually just an excuse to talk about one’s self, and doesn’t the self as a construct begin to take shape when our language takes this turn toward a “second person,” toward a “you,” toward an “other”? I guess this structure is one reason I get so obsessed with directionality, with the exterior and interior as orientations. Quite a few years ago, I started using figures like persons, entities, or ghosts as centering points for poems. Sometimes they work like scaffolding and they will disappear as I rework the poem. Other times, they take on a fundamental role in the poem. So you can see the residue of that process in some of the poems with proper names.

CT: Besides friends, there’s a family at the center of this book, and a speaker whose heart is more like a vestibule he cannot keep closed. The speaker talks about fatherhood in especially tender and frightening ways. Do you feel comfortable talking about your own relationship to fatherhood?

NH: Some of this book is a response to my discomfort about fatherhood. Part of me thinks that my discomfort is silly and I’m ashamed that I should make such a big deal about it—I mean, there are literally billions of fathers, right? But having a child —and spending the majority of my time at home with him—these events have fundamentally changed the way I view myself. And I don’t mean it’s made me reform or turned me into a better, more moral person, or any of that nonsense. On the contrary, fatherhood really exaggerates my defects. I mean, it’s given me something like a mirror, a little person that reflects not genetics, but day-to-day or even minute-to-minute moods and feelings. All your anxieties manifest themselves in a child. It’s inescapable. Children are living barometers of the interior. If I am stressed out about something, I know because my son will act out in uncharacteristic ways.

CT: Billions of fathers but only one Nate Hoks, right? But not everyone is sensitive to the “living barometers” of themselves or their children. Are you planning on having another child?

NH: As per usual, there are no plans.

CT: Okay, I’ll follow up with you later. In the second half of the book, the mouth of the “exterior” becomes a monster who says, “I am an interruption and an imposture.” This obsession with mouths (holes & ears) speaks to me about the potential of poetic language to destroy the tyrannies of everyday life. In “Edge of the Exterior,” the speaker says, “I am so afraid/Of this mouth/I keep it as far/From me as possible./Here it is—/I hold it towards you.” Did you get this rush, too, when writing? Why do you write besides to be “fully washed of your self?”

NH: I should note that the last two lines of “Edge of the Exterior” are cribbed from Keats, from his unfinished poem “This Living Hand.” In the poem, he’s holding that hand out to the reader, or some vague “you.” It’s pretty chilling. To be washed of myself is a major reason to write, yes! What happens? I don’t know, and I mean that. That’s what I love about writing. Something is happening, and I’m a channel for it, but it seems timeless and it breaks all routine — the routine of daily life, but also routine perceptions and routine language. A lot of times I feel like I’m in a trance. And there’s a huge rush. It’s a drug. That’s why we’ll never stop writing. We’re addicts. Not coincidentally, I’m also addicted to exercise, which is kind of the same thing. During a good long cardiovascular workout, I feel washed of myself, I feel transported, I loose track of time — and it’s clinically proven that endurance activities release a drug-like chemical. Runner’s high!

CT: Do you have to get high every day? How much does intuition enter into your writing?

NH: I exercise almost every day, but I don’t have a regular writing routine. I work in bursts, and when it’s on, it’s on. I’ll be writing nonstop for a weeks or however long I can ride out the wave. Then life butts in and it all comes crashing down and a week or two will go by and I haven’t even looked at a poem and I feel lousy, really depressed like I’ll never be able to write or even read a poem again. Of course I’m always tinkering and reworking drafts, here and there haphazardly, but that doesn’t usually give me the same rush. Then, usually because I’m reading something exciting, I’ll be released from the cold spell and get moving again. I go through this maddening, manic rhythm every few months or so. I guess it is a routine. It’s a terrible routine, though. Highs and lows! Does that mean I’m intuitive? I think so…

CT: You’ve now mentioned Blake and Keats, what other poets do you consider part of your heritage?

NH: Yeah, Blake’s one of those poets who just won’t go away for me. I read Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I was 14. It was the first book of poems I had ever read. I still remember sitting in my high school cafeteria with my flimsy old Dover Thrift Edition, just being kind of mystified by Blake’s little ditties. Blake is one of those poets I can go back to over and over and live in their domain for weeks or months at a time. Keats too. Other poets that I feel are part of my DNA: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Whitman, Ashbery, Michaux, Tate, O’Hara, Notley.

CT: When I read this work, I feel like all my senses heighten into One Sense? Do you rely on one sense over another? What’s your preoccupation with (non)sense? Are you a synesthete?

NH: I am not a synesthete. In these poems, I try to test the centrality of the senses to experience. I mean, I celebrate the senses. I often feel I am nothing but sense. But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the implications of this. Writing itself should be sensuous, but I resist the urge to represent sense perception in poetry, as if language could approach the thing itself or the experience of the thing. Language is such a different system. The poem is an organ of sense that transcends sense. The beyond dwells within the immanent.

I also think sensation is another component of what happens when I’m writing — as much as I feel not entirely present, I also feel more in tune with the senses. They open up, they communicate with each other. I guess I’ll never escape Baudelaire’s influence, his correspondences where the senses and “sense” (i.e. meaning) co-mingle in such enchanted ways.

CT: What I admire about your poems is how they try to catalog the uncomfortable human feelings we all share. I mean, the poems are not interested in some arbitrary project about the history of cinema or the evolution of farming techniques. There’s a poem in your book that enacts the removal and close inspection of self. Do you know which poem I’m talking about?

NH: Hah! That’s every poem in the book. Are you talking about “Spiral of the Interior”?

CT: No, but what made you think of “Spiral”?

NH: Well, I wrote “Spiral of the Interior” during a winter when I had chronic ear infections. My sinuses were a mess and I suffered some hearing loss in both ears so I literally felt wrapped up in this interior of my head. The ear to me was a spiral boring into my-too-head-centered-self and all I wanted was a way out of this dreadful position. So the task was to write my way through it, both in space and time. I felt like writing through this spiral was a kind of “removal” of the self. The vortex of the interior was dislodging the self.

There’s a point in that poem when the speaker says, “‘Spiral, believe me,’” and “‘spin me/into the eggshell of oblivion…’” and I start to get real nervous, I realize I’m counting how many spirals in I am (since this is a long poem with 7 parts).

CT: I had no idea you were suffering that winter. It’s striking how illness can carry-color its own narrative where the first story breaks off.

One more question, what are you working on right now?

NH: I’m working a bunch of poems all having something to do with affinity. Right now my favorite one is about a narcoleptic elephant. But I’ve also been pretty occupied by Convulsive Editions, the small press that Nikki Flores and I started a couple years ago. Nikki taught me how to letterpress print, and that’s been an exciting and time-consuming way to make books. Thankfully none of them are my own!

Nathan Hoks is the author of two books of poetry, Reveilles and The Narrow Circle, which was a winner of the 2012 National Poetry Series and published by Penguin. He works as an editor and letterpress printer for the micro-press Convulsive Editions and is currently a lecturer at the University of Chicago.