Nathaniel Perry is the author of Nine Acres (American Poetry Review, 2011), which won the 2011 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. He is the editor of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and lives with his family in rural southside Virginia. His poem “Thunder Moon” recently appeared on KRO.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
This poem is a part of a longer poem, or series, I guess, of poems, called “Moons for Jane Bell.” Jane Bell is my middle child, and the poems were written when she was an infant as a means of explaining some things for her (though I think I raised more questions than anything else….). All of the sections of the poem have Algonquin or English moon names for their titles, and this one is the July moon (it is also called the Buck Moon). They are also all written in this same form – six tercets of pentameter with rhymes in lines 3 & 6, 9 & 12, 15 & 18 (so the poem is like three very long couplets). The summer these poems were written was an incredibly dry and hot one in central Virginia where I live. Since I spend most of my summer time worrying about my garden (we grow a sixth of an acre or so of various vegetables), the lack of rain, and the waiting for rain, made its way into a number of the poems. The hardest part about writing it? I suppose it would be the hardest thing about writing any poem – trying to get it right.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Well, in the last five years I’ve had three kids, so I think what I’ve learned about the writing process is that you have to find ways to make up for an amazing lack of time in the day to do anything. I no longer can have a set ‘time’ to write, or even time at all, reliably. But since parenting obviously takes an important precedence in one’s day, you have to find ways to make the writing process a very interior thing – something that happens when I’m with my kids, with my wife, when I’m hoeing in the garden, when I’m teaching, when I’m doing dishes, etc. And, despite the lack of time, I think this more complete merger of life and writing has made, for me, a more complete sense of the art as well. When someone just writes I think we can all tell. It is important to put living first.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
Well I always look forward to reading the poetry journal that I edit, because that means that my work is done for a time…. But more seriously, I really appreciate the efforts of our two leading poetry-only magazines – Poetry and American Poetry Review. They are always good, and have done more together for poetry in this country than almost any other publishing enterprises one can think of. As for other journals – I am a fan of the journal Cave Wall (a newer poetry journal), of the editorial acumen of Gettysburg Review and, I don’t know if this counts as a journal, of the herculean efforts over at Poetry Daily. There are, of course, many others.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
I’m not sure these stages, in this order, necessarily correlate to the way I write. I’m not convinced that every poem is pre-conceived in the primordial goo of the writer’s emotional life. Sometimes, one just sits down to write, and something begins, or something is perhaps dredged up. Is this the same as what Larkin had in mind? Perhaps, though I’m not sure. But I respond more to the latter part of that short essay. I especially like his little joke about Edward Arlington Robinson (holding him up as a mock exemplar of all the things one isn’t ‘supposed’ to do in poems). What Robinson achieves in his strongest (and strangest) poems – “Mr. Flood’s Party,” “A Song at Shannon’s,” “Eros Turannos,” or “The Rat,” for instance – is exactly what I am after, and Larkin too: the setting of feeling and experience in a structure so carefully crafted that it feels like a part of one’s own voice as it is read. For me this means meter and rhyme, the rhythms and melodies of natural speech, and whatever larger thing the individual poem is digging after.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I’ll take your question literally. I took a class on craft with David Ferry when I was in graduate school at Boston University. I can remember one class in particular in which we spent the entire two hours going syllable by syllable through Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.” The kind of commitment to what poetry is, what it has been and what it can be that I saw in David’s teaching (not to mention in his own work) is something that buried itself very deeply inside me. Shortly after my time at BU I began working almost exclusively in meter and rhyme, and I think it was David’s deep embodiment of craft that led to this change in my understanding of my own relationship with poetry. I’m still trying to understand it, by the way…. I’ll finish there, and thanks for these interesting questions.