Saturday, April 17, 2010

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Travis Nichols

Born in Iowa in 1979, Travis Nichols now lives in Chicago and is an editor at the Poetry Foundation.  His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, Details, Paste, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Stranger, and the Huffington PostIowa, his first book of poems, is out from Letter Machine Editions, and will be shortly followed by his first novel, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder, due out in May from Coffee House Press.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Writing Iowa changed my life because it made me re-think time.  I wanted to write a book that explored the art of memory using sentences.  Normally when I write sentences about my memory I have a very cause-and-effect type of thing going on, and I wanted to push against that because I'm not so sure time actually works in a cause-and-effect way.  So I tried to write lyric sentences like those in Lyn Hejinian's My Life and Joe Brainard's I Remember, but with a little more Midwestern black metal.  So that "changed my life" in the sense that it fucked up my idea of time.  As far as publication goes, I haven't really thought about that changing my life.  My life seems basically the same.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote a poem in fourth grade called "I Cry Behind Closed Doors."  It was amazing and I received a lot of positive feedback from the girls. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It's all a big mess.  In that movie A Mighty Wind there's a scene where Eugene Levy's character is in the mental hospital writing songs.  He stares out into space for a good long while, then an idea comes to him and he attacks the notebook furiously with his pen.  That's what it's like for me.  And all that attacking yields monstrous results I then have to soberly try to edit into something that plays well with others.  That takes a decent amount of work, but not a long time really. 

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The superstructure of my writing is my life, so I just tinker along doing what I do and writing down my little thoughts and then gather them together in some kind of book afterward.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to really like them.  I'd get competitive and try my best to "win" the reading, but somewhere along the way I realized that I often lost by winning, or any victory was Pyrrhic because I just kind of made an ass of myself and people laughed.  Laughter is often a sign that the reading is not going well.  Anyways, now I'm just kind of terrified of doing them.  Why am I up here reading these things aloud to people?  I find I have to resist the urge to apologize for my existence while up on a stage.  But maybe I can just take the time now to offer a blanket apology:  Sorry everybody.  I tried to do better.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Most all of my concerns are theoretical.  That's what makes them concerns.  I'm not concerned about fixing the tire on my bike--that's more something to do-- but I am concerned about how my use of language messes with my sense of time.  But I think the current questions are the same as the previous questions and will be the same as the future questions.  I haven't figured out exactly what these questions are, but I'm sure they don't change.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think writers should offer a different perspective than the dominant one, so I think their roles in the larger culture are by nature limited.  I think a lot of writers don't offer any kind of difference in their perspective, and so they are more widely accepted.  I think there should be resistance.  That's part of the fun.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Oh both for sure.  I love editors.  I've been privileged to work with some really good ones.  I think more people should listen to their editors. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"See that?  That's shit.  And this?  Shinola."

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
None of it is really easy, but I don't completely see a difference between the two.  It's all écriture.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Lately it's all just emails.  I write a lot of (increasingly crappy) emails. I feel like I used to write really lovely emails--long and personal with a lot of really witty turns of phrase.  But now they're all just clipped and efficient.  It's like my frontal lobe just atrophied.   I still do try to attack the notebook everyday, or let it attack me, but a lot of times we just look at each other forlornly. 

And I usually wake up, take a shower, make tea, then read for about half an hour and write a sentence or two if I'm lucky.  Then it's on the train for half an hour to work.  Then emails. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don't really have a go-to writer.  I usually just try to sit and be quiet for about half an hour.  Something usually comes up after that.

13 - What do you really want?
To be at peace with time.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh, everything.  I'm a big fan of the outside world.  I find that staring at a wall can be inspiring, or listening to people on the train, or baking bread.  I mean, I love books but why restrict yourself?  Every time I think I know what I should do, what books I should read, how to be, I find that the outside world surprises me by knowing more about all of these things than I do.  I think burrowing into books is great, but I also like to ride my bicycle around town.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My wife Monica Fambrough is the single most important writer in my life, no question.  Beyond that, it's a day to day inspiration exploration.  I'm really enjoying Dorothea Lasky's new book Black Life and Fred Moten's book B Jenkins right now.  Last week I read Christine Hume's Shot and Bhanu Kapil's Humanimal and thought they were excellent.  I'm also re-reading Ulysses, which makes me very happily nostalgic for my undergraduate years in Athens.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
The list is so long it's not really worth going into.  If you have ideas of things to do, let me know.  I'd probably be up for it.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I've had a little experience working with sustainable agriculture, and I think if I weren't so self-involved and prone to spending long hours indoors I'd like to work with helping people eat real food.  But I really was doomed from the start to be a writer.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The language virus from outer space zapped me early, so like I say I was doomed.  I probably would have been a bitter, frustrated writer (blog commenter?) if I hadn't had great teachers who gave me positive feedback.  So I'm very grateful for that.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I don't know if it's "great," but I really liked reading the tributes to kari edwards in No Gender.  And I've been on a David Gordon Green kick lately, so anything by him.  Both are very inspiring to me in their own way.  

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm thinking a lot about internet commenters and rage-filled middle aged white men, so I've been tinkering around with some writing related to that.  It's kind of spooky stuff and isn't a place I like to be, but I deal with it day to day anyway, so I thought I might as well see if I could get anything ecstatic out of it. 

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