The Hilarity of Being: An Interview with Nick Courtright
nick courtright is a poet, philosopher, journalist, and teacher. His first full-length volume of poetry, Punchline, is a National Poetry Series finalist and is available now from Gold Wake Press. His poetry has also appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Southern Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Boston Review, as well as in a chapbook, Elegy for the Builder's Wife.
Front Porch: Why is poetry important?
Nick Courtright: Oh my. I’d say poetry is important— and this is a long, circuitous answer—but a lot of recent neurological studies are arguing that there’s something to be said for intuition and that rationality isn’t the only thing out there. So I think that poetry is an avenue for considering our experience in certainly a more ‘gut’ fashion than straight prose does, where everything is spelled out for you.
The other thing that I always like to consider is the fact that all of the major religious texts—the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Qur’an, the Tao Te Ching—are rooted in verse. I think that over the last hundred years, poetry has been the subject of a smear campaign that has led people away from [poetry’s history] and has led them to consider poetry as something other than what it always was. There’s a big place for poetry in the world as long as people are able to get over any preconceived notions that they have about it. But of course that’s a tall order.
FP: Many of the poems in Punchline make references to astronomy and quantum mechanics, and you quote from Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein in the book. What is it about theoretical physics and contemporary cosmology that inspires you?
NC: I just have a huge, crazy sense of wonder about everything. I teach a little bit of philosophy on the side, and all these different ways of trying to understand the world I just find to be really amusing. And amazing. On one hand, you have the spiritual, the ethereal—these immaterial elements of existence that we really struggle with. Then, on the other hand, there’s all this material junk, too. You know, suns and stars and string theory and quantum entanglement. I think as a means of trying to understand why I’m here, why we’re all here, why trees are here, all of this—we need to dig beneath it. They say to understand biology, you need to understand some chemistry, and to understand chemistry, you need to understand physics. And of course there’s math underneath all of that, but I don’t know too much about math so I can’t speak to that quite yet.
FP: Still, there is a simplicity and elegance to your work. The way you arrange words and use line breaks gives your poetry an elegance that reads like a mathematical proof. There’s also a lot of subtle humor, as though the whole ‘mystery of being’ amuses you.
NC: (Chuckles) Yeah.
FP: What’s so funny about it?
NC: I don’t know. Every damn bit of it, I guess. I find the whole human endeavor of trying to know the unknowable to be hilarious. We use religion, we use science, we use all of these other things to give our lives meaning. But we’re just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. At least, that’s my take on it. I find it to be funny.
In the past, I never thought of myself much as an absurdist writer; but I think, despite that, there is an absurdity or craziness to this whole endeavor and what we’re doing with this universe here. I think if you take it too seriously, like certain religious folks or science types, you can end up sapping all the goodness out of it. You know, the Existentialists say that we create our own meaning, make our own purpose; and, even though I’m not an Existentialist, I think we have to do that a little bit.
FP: If you could put any book of poetry into a kind of time capsule and blast it into outer space as an example of the art form to the rest of the galaxy, whose/which book would it be?
NC: I’m just going to throw this out there: Rumi?
FP: Mm. Good answer.
NC: I think he does a lot of what’s best about poetry because he’s having a good time with it, you know? He plays around. He has these flights of lyricism and image and metaphor; and, at the same time, he’s dealing with incredibly cosmic issues. I think this is one of those things about poetry that has sometimes been lost in the twentieth century or the MFA product where the big picture can fly out the window in favor of wordplay. But Rumi’s pretty good. There are others, but I’ll keep it to him.
FP: In another interview, you credit lousy teaching with the “widespread impression of poetry being lame-o,” and earlier in our conversation you mentioned a “smear campaign” against poetry. I’m wondering, as a teacher yourself, what do you try to tell your students or expose them to in order to cultivate their appreciation for poetry?
NC: First off, I just try to get all of their baggage about poetry out there. A lot of these kids have been traumatized by poetry. You know, like, “Okay, now we’re going to read Shakespeare, and you’re not going to understand a damn bit of it, but we’re going to shove this down your throat because that’s what you’re supposed to learn.” Shakespeare’s totally awesome, but he’s not really for high school students. Not only are the concepts rich, which is difficult for them, but then the language itself is a barrier. I can see tackling one or the other of these things—language or concept—but trying to take them on at the same time is very off-putting. That, and a lot of older stuff, like iambic pentameter and various rhyme schemes, and all this Greek terminology—it’s obscure. And then there’s the other side, where you end up thinking poetry is just where you cry about your boyfriend leaving you or something. So I just try and get [students] to say whatever crimes poetry has committed against their person. Once we do that, then I back it up and introduce the longstanding legacy of it and try to give a little context to it, including the pre-literate poetic and the oral tradition.
Also, I give a strange definition of poetry in class. I define it as “the attempt to find truth in language in as efficient a manner as possible.” That includes elements of prose as well, but that fundamental seeking of greater knowledge is a big part of it. Some of them still might be mildly traumatized, but I can usually redeem a couple of them.
FP: What, in your opinion, makes a poem ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
NC: Authenticity, I guess. Some degree of sincerity, some sense that the person who wrote it was actually trying to figure something out, as opposed to just creating a product. I’m not a big fan of saying poems are “bad.” If I see a poem, it’s either something I like, or something that needs some work, like in a workshop context.
But what makes a poem good, for me, is something that I can learn from. After the whole Eliot/Pound debacle, people ran screaming from the idea of didacticism in poetry. They didn’t want to seek learning from it; they wanted entertainment. But for me, if I’m not learning from it, I don’t have any use for it. The type of poem that really works for me is one that screws with my mind.
FP: How important is accessibility in poetry?
NC: I like to think that most of my work is pretty accessible. A few years ago, I would have shrugged that question off. In the wake of grad school, I probably would have said, “Screw accessibility, I need to create art.” But the thing is, I want to be understood by real people. I think that’s important. I think that maybe part of the issue is that poetry has become more about tinkering than about helping people. Accessibility is important. Even when I’m trying to deal with difficult concepts in my work, I try to make some attempt to make them at least a little bit clear. And even if they aren’t terribly clear, people can always ask me what I was talking about. But I think poetry should be understood by a decent amount of people. You can’t make everybody happy, but I don’t think you should throw thirteen different languages into your work and twenty allusions, forcing people to grab a dictionary every time they want to read something. It’s a really artificial narrowing of the audience. But, if that’s the poem you’ve got to write, by all means, go and write it.
FP: You’re a busy guy—a father, a teacher, a poet, and the Interviews Editor for The Austinist. So, how often do you write poetry?
NC: It comes in waves. I was insanely prolific for quite a few years. I wrote a couple dozen poems a month; I wrote poetry every day, all the time. But now, with all the aforementioned busyness, I have to work on more discrete projects. I set myself a goal, like, “This month I’m going to write a gigantic amount,” rather than writing a little bit here and there.
I used to want to chip away at things by writing all the time, but I now need to let things brew for a while and then purge it all. That’s how Punchline was written, by writing thirty thousand words in a month, and then just working on that material. I suppose I’d much rather work with material I’ve already written than write new material.
—E. D. Watson