E Martin Nolan is a poet, essayist and editor. He edits interviews at The Puritan, where he’s also published numerous essays, interviews and blog posts. His essays and poems have appeared in Arc, CNQ and CV2, among others. His long, illustrated poem about Donald Trump, “Great Again,” can be found here. His non-fiction writing focuses on literature, sports and music. His first book of poems, Still Point, was published with Invisible Publishing in Fall, 2017. Learn more at emartinnolan.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Still Point is my first book. I don’t have to write or edit it anymore. I’m still getting used to it being done. I do have some post-book poems already out there, though. They feel different because the story told in Still Point is told now, so I’m free of it. I want to do something fun now.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I began by imitating Bob Dylan and Van Morrison lyrics in high school. But I’ve always enjoyed writing prose, and non-fiction has always been there for me. I have no clue about plot, so fiction is out. I’ve always liked the music I can make out of poetry. I was counting syllables from the beginning (while I should have been counting beats—we get there).
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?
Projects are always constantly emerging, morphing or fermenting, until I decide to, and have the time to, bring them up to the front of my attention and work on them. Poetry originally comes pretty quickly, and comes when it damn well pleases. A sequence can be a steady project, and the editing stages are, like prose, about just putting in the time and hopefully working it out. Poetry can occur in increments as short as one minute. I do like to research to mine for metaphors though. This is an impossible question to answer fully, so I’ll stop now.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
I start with the single unit and that usually gets worked into a larger whole. A poem usually begins with an experience I want to capture, or with an image. Sometimes something I read about can attain an experience or image.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy readings, but generally if I’m reading a poem, then it’s done. I might drop a word or two, but it’s not a part of the process. Reading aloud to myself, of course, is.
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?
I will assume that by “theoretical concerns” you mean poem-theory stuff like formalism, experimentalism, yada-yada. “Schools” is another word for it, right? It’s impossible to not have theoretical concerns behind your writing. I know poetry through poems and their attendant theories (professed by the writers or critics later) as they were taught to me and as I sought them out. But I don’t forefront those concerns. As grist for poetry, they are usually boring. You have to be Anne Carson or something to pull off a poem about theoretical concerns.
I want beyond literature. The state of the world, and of humanity. The question of how we sustain ourselves through the current and coming global crises overshadows all. Within that, I’m most concerned with our spiritual state. Do we have it in us to rise to the occasion? Do we have the collective wisdom and strength to reverse course? Maybe history will say I’m panicking, but still these concerns make it hard to care very much about theoretical concerns. I am, however, quite happy to be proven wrong.
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?
It’s not about “should be” but “can be” (to quote Matthew Tierney). A writer can be anything, and writers need the freedom to be what they become. “Should” is limiting. Most writers are far more important to the larger culture as people, as citizens, than they are as writers. That said, I think that given freedom and a decent platform, a lot of writers, enough writers, will (and should) take on a role of destabilizing received perceptions and truths, and (this is the crucial, more difficult part) of forming a moral consciousness and spiritual life that audiences can share in, and grow by. Maybe it’s romantic, and fine, but art should be a vessel for our shared humanity. What else is going allow us to share the our terribly gigantic current humanity? Consumerism?
On that, I do think to matter at all a writer has to engage the reader like any other artist. The work needs to be bright, needs to be compelling, or it’s nothing and it doesn’t exist “in the larger culture.”
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential, if the editor is engaged (not always the case in Canlit). I’m a collaborator by nature, and the editing process is one of the rare moments when that can happen in writing.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Clarity is more complicated than obscurity.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Poetry and non-fiction are complimentary for me. They balance each other out. Non-fiction gives me certainty, direction, purpose. Poetry lets me roam more freely.
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?
I don’t really have one. I write when I can, and my schedule and workload is ever-changing. Summers I write more, and can get into an everyday thing. But when teaching, it’s whenever you can snatch time.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I try to remember that the world is crushingly terrifying in its immensity and capacity. That the world is also ending before our eyes. But also that we have pictures of Jupiter. Like, actual pictures from our technology, close-ups of fucking Jupiter. Who could be bored or uninspired in this world? What a time to be alive and privileged.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fresh-cut early-summer grass. Burned-out late-summer grass. Olive oil, butter, onions, garlic.
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?
My own experience of the world. I think that is the most important form: the self’s original relationship to the universe. But music, especially in a rhythmic sense, is also incredibly important to my writing. For a while I’ve been steadily getting more into the natural world to gather figures to witness my feelings and theories.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I just quoted Emerson in the answer above, so he’s in there. Dionne Brand was the one who told me the thing about clarity above. The ghost of James Wright works in me. But the rappers, for all their flaws, are also super important, especially, again, for their rhythms. But it’s always gotta be mostly drawn from life outside of the work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a big fat novel that gets me into Oprah’s Book Club when she’s president.
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 guess my day job? Teaching. Writing isn’t an occupation for me. Though I’d probably pursue some career more seriously if writing wasn’t taking up so much time. I’d dig being a religious scholar.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was the thing I could do well and was intriguing to do.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The World of Yesterday. The Shape of Water.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Not totally sure. Maybe essays on sports or music. A book of poems about the bright lights at the end of the world. What I want to do is talk some shit in poems. I want to explore poetry as venting. I also await wonderment, terror and the grotesque. Maybe.