Nancy Botkin is a poet of quiet simplicity, though her poems are anything but simple. Based largely in the image, her poetics evoke complex interweavings of emotion and intellect. I’ve known her for many years, but it wasn’t until the last several that I became familiar with her work—which is imaginative, psychological, and emotive. There’s an elegance to her poems and a sparseness—both working together to strike deep chords of resonance. One senses a powerful consciousness at work, minutely observing the world—recording, locating, chronicling. But she doesn’t leave it there. Nancy transforms what she sees through the lens of her imagination.
She’s a poet for whom the past and present together are always present. Whether she writes about her father-in-law’s dementia, or a young boy misbehaving in a parking lot in June, or the memory of early days in Catholic school, everything comingles in her poems, giving further testament to her perception that, “Time and timing are the deep elements” (“Summer Solstice”). It is this timing of what to remember, and when, as well as how the imagination connects past and present, that often forms startling perceptions in her work. Even the cosmos, for her, is part of this remembering. As she tells us in “Not to Depart This Earth,” there is no timeline for what gets remembered, or when: “the stars . . . have taken their own / sweet time memorizing earth.”
This ability to see the past and present together allows the poet to journey inward to a generative source, where she finds, “an opening, dark interiors destined to erupt” (“A Bird Lets Loose Its Cry”). Thus, this is not a simple journey for the poet, the path inward toward healing carrying with it the generative yet sometimes frightening complexities of “eruption.”
I hope you enjoy the poems and interview here. I welcome you to the world of Nancy Botkin, where not only birds but the poet lets loose a powerful cry of emotional and psychological transformation. There is courage at the core of her vision, a zone where growth requires the perseverance to split apart all that holds one back. As she tells us in “Location,” “Here I go cleaving my way through the wilderness.”
Nancy Botkin grew up in the Detroit area, lived briefly in Lexington, Kentucky, and moved to South Bend, Indiana, in 1984 where she and her husband raised a daughter. She received her undergraduate degree in English from Michigan State University in 1978, and a Masters in Liberal Studies from Indiana University South Bend in 1990. She has taught composition and creative writing for over twenty years at IU South Bend and currently directs the First-Year Writing Program. She recently won the 2014 IU South Bend Alumni Association Faculty Legacy Award, which recognizes a faculty member’s significant, positive impact on students. She is the author of three books of poetry: Bent Elbow and Distance (Finishing Line Press, 2011), In Waves (March Street Press, 2009), and Parts That Were Once Whole (Mayapple Press, 2007). Her poetry has appeared in such journals as The Chariton Review, Cimarron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Eclipse, The Laurel Review, Poetry East, and Salamander. She is currently seeking a publisher for her full-length manuscript, The Next Infinity. In 2006, she was the first place winner of the Maize Poetry Prize sponsored by the Writers’ Center of Indiana. In addition to poetry, she also creates collage and assemblage art. She has been selected to show her work in January 2015 at The Colfax Campus Art Gallery in South Bend.
Ars Poetica When the unleavened bread was placed on your tongue, you opened your mouth, you didn’t touch it, you let it dissolve, you bowed your head, you kneeled, you silently prayed, you kept your back straight. You looked out at your vista, the one you were given. You kept the light, you kept the thorns. You swallowed and swallowed. My Father-in-Law’s Dementia —For Dave In his dream he is walking a dirt road in his hometown. His father, young and strong, is tending the field. God and the devil are there too. His father has massive hands, which he holds up to the breaking sun. When God reaches into his breast pocket, he turns and wills himself to run. He wakes alarmed, and the nurse wheels him down the corridor to the bird room. She faces him toward the plexiglass where a dozen or so bright, quick birds live among the greenery. They chirp and flit from floor to ceiling. After a short time, his head tilts to the side and he’s dreaming again. He’s giving his own son a bath. First you say Up Boy his son writes on his first-grade essay which he finds among some papers in his father’s basement fifty years later. The son has no field, just a yard where some of the birds are in motion, some have fallen. The son’s memories stir— one is fixed, one is passed over. He extinguishes the match’s flare with the flick of his wrist. Not to Depart This Earth In another city, just over the hill, the adults set up chairs on the driveway and talk until the moon silvers and the lawn darkens. They talk about America and what went wrong. Their children just want to cartwheel across the country and fall back against the grass. The adults lean in and collude with raised eyebrows, or the forget-you gesture, stroke each other like they would animals in a petting zoo. The fireflies are background, along with crickets and sputtering sprinklers. They shush their children who want answers to questions and tell them to stay close. In the moment, they have it figured out. They‘re quiet suddenly, talked out. They remain calm and still as the stars that have taken their own sweet time memorizing earth. Summer Solstice In unison the children count one two three go Late afternoon and they’re clustered together standing in the cold lake. They dunk themselves and pop back up. When I adjust my chair, their heads fall below the horizon. Time and timing are the deep elements. In the jewelry box, a ballerina tucked away in the dark, her feet attached to a spring— open and close the lid ever so slowly resist the first chord of The Blue Danube Waltz keep her neither here nor there. The Sky is Where I Left It I see the reflection of birds in my computer screen, and they move like floaters. The nurse says, “Do you ever experience floaters?” Sometimes you have to get real close to a thing to see it for what it is. In every face there is a shared inheritance. The claw is barely visible. I say this life is hard, but we can’t set up a trading post for grief. The west is being ravaged by fire. Ash is drifting hallucinatory the eye following it upward. Location In the car, the faceless woman—the voice of the GPS— is apologizing for not being able to understand me. (I’m sorry. Is that right? Say yes or no.) I admit to having trouble getting my own location. I’m forever purchasing the same one-way ticket to the land of Sacrifice All For Art. I understand. I’m misunderstood. I’m like a dog on a choke collar. I’m overwrought. I’m anxious to get anywhere. The little boy at the fair is begging to go on a rocket ride. That kind of travel produces an adrenaline surge. When I enter the time machine, I mix up a darker palette. My mother in the courtyard, naked, one hand hiding her missing breast. Here I go cleaving my way through the wilderness. A Bird Lets Loose Its Cry After the storm, the chain saws go on buzzing for days, and I go around busting up the cat’s fun, swiping the dead chipmunks from under his nose, cartoonish with their front legs curled and both eyes open to the ringing universe. The cat rips fresh meat, and all along the street rawwood exposed, maybe fifty years’ growth toppled onto a garage roof. I stroll beyond the curb, lingering near the evidence. Maple trees sprout everywhere, dividing, and I mow them down. I wince as I trample over their little graves. The ice cream truck rolls along with its cheerful song, and it keeps insisting. As a student of the shadows, I say their long fingers signal something of an opening, dark interiors destined to erupt. Misbehavior, June The very young boy in the parking lot looked up to where a bird had made a nest in the second “a” in Pharmacy, and with clenched fists screamed, You get out of there right now! You’re not supposed to be there! A little Stanley Kowalski, I thought. He folded his arms across his chest and refused his mother’s hand. He zig- zagged around her, leaning into his anger. Inside, he carried the heavy jug of milk, slinging it over one shoulder and then the other. Perhaps it was her instinct to be calm. I recognized that measured speech in the face of chaos. He barreled through the door back out to the car. The days, now, long and slow, the sky unstoppable, the river forcing the sticks.
Capturing the “Blur” of a Memory: An Interview with Nancy Botkin
By George Kalamaras
George Kalamaras: Thanks for doing this interview, Nancy. I’m curious if you could begin by describing some of your sources of inspiration. What motivates you to write? What compels you, or what propels you into writing a poem?
Nancy Botkin: I would say my primary source of inspiration is reading other poets, or just reading in general. And since I rarely let a day go by without reading poetry, it seems I’m always thinking about images, topics, or just simply words that I would like to get into poems. Sometimes the poems spring from an actual event that I participate in or witness, such as “Misbehavior, June,” which is included here. It might simply be the shape of a poem, the way it looks on the page, that I want to try. I also work quite a bit in memory, and there’s something very satisfying in recasting past events—not just recapping the facts, but capturing the “blur” of a memory, or the mood, or seeing through the events and envisioning something larger. What does it mean to be a human being in this particular time in history? Of course the big themes still hold, but the examination of selfhood is an ongoing project for the poet, and it’s exhilarating to participate in this project and to also observe the way other poets work and write.
GK: I love what you say about “the ‘blur’ of a memory.” It’s akin, I think, to what Emily Dickinson is getting at when she advises to “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” In other words, there’s an emotional truth that lies within and sometimes away from the actual details of an occurrence. I’d actually been wondering about the event in “Misbehavior, June.” How close to actual circumstances did this, or do other poems of yours, adhere to? How do you negotiate “reality” and that “blur” of where the poem itself wants to take you?
NB: For that particular poem, it’s very close to the actual events. Perhaps that is so because I wrote it so soon after it happened. There’s a lot more “telling it slant,” as Dickinson advises, when I reach further back in time; there’s more invention that occurs. What was it really like to be eight years old, sitting in church, fearing the nuns’ wrath, or my father’s wrath? I think it was Richard Hugo who advised that we must be true to the imagination rather than reality so that, as you say, we can focus on the emotional truth of a poem. In art, there’s very little satisfaction in telling something as it happened. We’ve all had a family member tell a favorite story and then tell it again, removing things and embellishing things. We love it! We love a good “shaping.” There’s a wonderful book, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, and in it Stephen Dunn talks about the difference between the good and bad “family poems.” Finally, he says, aesthetic matters must be driving the poem rather than content. If you’re paying attention to those aesthetic matters, you will follow the poem where it wants to take you.
GK: That’s my process as well. And, yes, Hugo advises precisely that in The Triggering Town. If I remember correctly, it’s in either of the first two essays in that book, where he says “truth” should conform to “music.” He doesn’t just mean this rhythmically, of course, but he’s speaking about the wider “rhythms,” say, of the poem—which includes discerning where the poem wants to take you, the writer. Speaking of family (I love what you say about family stories!), what do you see as the role of family in your writing—theme-wise and/or in terms of your process?
NB: It seems to me many poets visit and revisit “the family drama,” and the material is handled in various ways, of course. My own difficult childhood had a tremendous impact on me. My early poems dealt with the theme of family in a more direct way (probably from the influence of Sharon Olds!), and those poems remained in the drawer. Over the years I have experimented with other ways to approach the material in an effort, mostly, not to bore myself. I find subtler ways to explore the subject as I progress as a writer. But, I don’t believe this primordial drama will ever disappear from my work completely. Greg Orr, as we know, constantly turns over the major event of his childhood—the accidental shooting of his brother—and its aftermath, in many poems. Most of us don’t have something that dramatic, but as writers we hold an experience, or a set of experiences, up to the light like a crystal and see all of its refractions. Louise Glück has done this for many many years. In a conversation once with Gerald Stern, he told me most poets, in his experience, have some event in their past that propels them toward poetry in the first place. I tend to agree.
GK: You mention some poets, such as Sharon Olds, Gregory Orr, Louise Glück, and Gerald Stern. In addition to these voices, can you talk a bit about some of your favorite poets and what, specifically, some of them have offered your poems and your process?
NB: I believe that my poems are, for the most part, image-driven. So, Williams was one of the first poets I encountered, and I decided I liked poems in which images did a lot of work. I was drawn early to Charles Simic and Mark Strand who both have a kind of spare aesthetic, which I also liked. The university introduced me to poetry, but I didn’t write a single poem until after I was married. As an undergrad I learned to read poetry and appreciate it, but I didn’t try my hand at writing until I took a night course at the University of Kentucky with the poet Barry Spacks. He gave me some encouragement.
I had many secretarial jobs when I lived there and used my work time to stare through my poems, to type and retype them. Some of the poets who have influenced me aside from the ones I have mentioned are Walt Whitman, Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert, Larry Levis, Linda Gregg, Frank Bidart, Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Jane Hirshfield, and Laura Kasischke, to name just a few. I was just recently rereading Linda Gregg’s All Of It Singing, and I’m knocked out by the way she’s so in love with the world even as she observes and experiences so much suffering. I love the intensity of vision and emotion in her spare language. Laura Kasischke writes quirky family poems, and I like how she tips back and forth between linear narratives and more elliptical sequences in the same poem! I adore Gerald Stern’s meandering poems in which he rants and curses and loves wildly; he reminds us always that joy and sorrow exist simultaneously. He is one of our country’s treasures.
GK: That’s quite an intriguing journey, Nancy. Thank goodness for seemingly boring jobs, right? It goes to show you that poetry can sometimes flourish in the most unlikely places! I love what you say about the image as central (it’s that way for me as well). What is it about the image doing “a lot of work” that’s so enticing to you? In other words, what would you say is the true power of the image?
NB: Poetry has a reputation for being more demanding than prose, and perhaps that is because its power lies in compression. Images aid compression because they stand alone adding to a poem’s density. A poet strives for multiple meanings, but they are not always evident to the reader or the poet, nor should they be. There’s a mysterious quality to images, and aren’t we always happy when we don’t quite know what the poet meant, but the language resonates, leaving us to reread, ponder, and perhaps recite a line or two! George, when you’re reading poems on your blog, you often shake your head in awe and wonder when you are in the presence of the mysterious. Images contribute to the visceral reaction we have to poetry.
GK: I like what you say about the power of being, as you put it, “in the presence of the mysterious.” One of the great powers of a poem is that it can defamiliarize that which is familiar, making the common seem strange or unique or wondrous. I’d like to shift gears a moment and ask about your current writing projects. What are you involved in, now, as a poet? I imagine you’re working on a new collection of poems? What, if anything, can you say about it?
NB: Well, I’m writing some poems, but they really haven’t taken shape in terms of a project. My full-length collection, The Next Infinity, is complete, and I’ve been sending it around for a couple of years now, but no luck yet. I pull it out and tinker with it here and there. The poems deal with existential terror, the difficulty of life, trying to love the world in spite of its flawed design, and the seduction of the physical world. There are many references to light, many meanings in “illumination.” I’m trying to find more time to write, which can be difficult because it’s easy to let the job take over.
GK: Well, you certainly have some beautiful new poems, which appear in this feature, and I’m sure they will eventually coalesce into a manuscript with which you’re pleased. Best of luck, as well, on landing The Next Infinity, which I hope finds a good and welcome home. If the gorgeous title is any indication, I’d say the book is destined for great things. To shift gears, a moment, I wonder what other art forms, if any, inspire you and shape your poetry, and if so, how and in what ways? In other words, can you talk a bit about the connection of your poetry—directly or indirectly—to other forms of artistic expression you encounter?
NB: My daughter, who is a graphic artist, inspired me to try my hand at visual art several years ago, and I began with mostly abstract expressionist-type paintings, but recently I’ve been making collages and assemblages. I like the fragmentary nature of collage, the juxtaposition of images, which mirrors poetry and the process of writing poems. I titled my first collection of poems, Parts That Were Once Whole, because there are a lot of references to the broken and the fragmented. To me, what’s broken has great beauty and significance. When I go to garage sales and thrift shops, I look at an object and imagine it out of its original context, which is akin to the way we make metaphors as poets. I’m a collector of things—odd things—and I wonder about an object’s past history, and I’m happy to give it a new life and a new meaning by placing it in an assemblage. So, it seems, I’m always in the pursuit of an image, whether I’m making a poem or a piece of art.
GK: Collage as a form of poetics is core to my practice as well, so I love hearing about your trust in that. You’ve already said so many valuable things during our conversation, Nancy, but I wonder if there is anything else—any other words about the importance of poetry and its practice—that you’d like to share before we close, particularly for those who may be contemplating a life of poetry.
NB: I would say there’s no sense in wringing your hands over poetry’s small audience. Poetry is up against stiff competition; there are many cultural distractions, and I certainly watch my share of TV. People can have perfectly meaningful lives without reading poetry. I can’t, but most can, and let’s face it—the audience for poetry consists of other poets, primarily. I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t try to reach out to a wider audience, or that we should stop promoting poetry in our communities. With enough publicity you can pack a room, a bar, or a coffee house with listeners. But books are usually a harder sell. When a person takes the book home and sits silently with the poems, it’s a different experience and one that requires some investment on the part of a reader. It’s perhaps a bigger commitment than most are willing to make. You’ll have some readers, though, and hopefully a community of like-minded people you can turn to for support. If you’re a true artist, your love of poetry will sustain you, and that will be enough.