I’ll start this with an ending, or something
like an ending, at least there’s tension and fading
light. In the back field, our neighbor
Lee’s long field behind us, we were sliding
along the muddy pasture road
—the dogs, the boy and I all out
for a walk at dusk— when a coyote,
bright as tomorrow, opened and shut
and opened again the woods’ dark doors
then stilled to stand and look at us.
The dogs trembled and communicated
with a quickening of every muscle
while I tried just to read the animal’s
face. But all I got was the starkness
of form: that which hunts before me,
that which is not dark in the darkness.
Tried and True Ways to Fail
Cut the tree with a bent bow saw.
When the blade bucks and sticks in the heart
of the fallen pine, try to free
it with your gloveless hand. Seek art
in the wind’s wrestling the trees. Decide
what your children will think about something,
like difficult art up in the pines.
Or imagine them always happy and running.
Brace your strength with a foot on the trunk
to the left of the buried blade; pull
with everything in you. When you fall,
unbalanced, notice the maples are full
of color —or filling up, like a glass
of water. Everything you can see
is filling or full. The boy is starting
to crawl. The saw is still in the tree.
Plants for Sale
Moon in the clear-cut, the neighbor’s acres;
I’m trespassing to explore the light.
Night birds call and call and I get
to where I can’t split out what’s right
beside me and what’s in the still-standing
trees, what sort of spirit’s come
to visit me, or at least to visit
this place. And if the dead do run
among us, it’d be in a dark like this—
one not really dark at all,
the just full moon so ripe you’d keep
it in a jar if you could. The small
growth, shy in this wasted place
(cut for little money and pulp wood),
clutches the bright ground; nothing
reborn is really understood.
-from Nine Acres, selected by Guest Editor Mark Jay Brewin
BIO: Nathaniel Perry is the author of Nine Acres (American Poetry Review, 2011), which won the 2011 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. His poems and translations have appeared recently in American Poetry Review, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Reviews, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. He is the editor of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and lives with his family in rural southside Virginia.
An Interview with Nathaniel Perry by Matthew Huff & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Matthew Huff & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Each of these poems shares a strikingly similar setting as well as a strong continuity from the speaker(s) of each poem: rural farmland, forestry, and a young and rather apprehensive voice. I'm curious how much of the inspiration for these poems is derived from autobiographical experience and how much is imagined?
Nathaniel Perry: The poems borrow quite a bit from "real" life. I suppose everything is fictional to a degree once it is put on the page, but the poems were written during the first year or two of my oldest child's life, when we had just moved to the nine acres in rural Virginia where we live now. So much of that time, as is presumably clear in the poems, was spent learning how to be parents, preparing new ground for growing vegetables (we grow about a sixth of an acre of food for the family every year - everything from squash to sesame). So I suppose reality does provide an element of continuity in the poems - but doesn't it always in a way? The speaker in these poems is the part of me that was and is still interested in finding sustainable ways to be - whether that means not using chemicals in the ground, remembering to be kind, learning the names of local plants or what have you.
MH & AMK: "Introduction" feels like a "thesis poem" for your collection, Nine Acres. I think that, aside from the title, this sentiment is drawn from the opening lines: "I'll start this with an ending, or something / like an ending. At least there's tension and fading / light." This creates a really interesting paradox. It also feels like a "thesis poem" in that you do a great deal of work with light-or the absence of light-in these poems. Can you talk to us about how these elements play into this poem and how this poem interacts on a broader scale with the rest of Nine Acres?
NP: The poems borrow all their titles from another book - Five Acres and Independence by M.G. Kains. That book is a small-farm handbook/manual from the 1930s that I became entranced by (it is a marvelous book - both for growing things and just for reading). But, anyway, I borrowed each of that book's chapter titles as the titles of my poems. So it only made sense that the poem called "Introduction" would be one and would come first. Also, it is meant to suggest an introduction to the coyote in the poem, and as you suggest, to the world the poems occur in - the world of changing light, of dirt paths that wash out and reform, of the wild things within us and around us. As it happens, the woods where I saw that coyote were cleared just a few weeks later...Also, as a side note, the poem "introduces" the idea of form as a concept - that poetic form and the "forms" through which we view and understand the world are not that far removed.
MH & AMK: "Introduction" is filled with these really beautiful but eerie images and language such as, "a coyote, /bright as tomorrow, opened and shut /and opened again the woods' dark doors /then stilled to stand and look at us." I really like these lines because of their starkness of language and strong visual representations but also because of the mythical qualities presented in these poems. Can you talk to us a bit about intertwining the literal qualities with the mythic in your poems?
NP: I'm writing here about the doubleness of any interaction with another creature - we have this bizarre human impulse to either elevate an animal to some sort of supreme nobility, or to dismiss it (or even worse, hate it and want to kill it). And then on the other hand, it is just another being, no different than us. We say -"Hey, one of those animals..." and the coyote thinks "hey, one of those animals..." Elizabeth Bishop, I think, understands this most profoundly - she and Frost and his friend Edward Thomas as well. But Bishop's "The Moose" gets to the crux of this problem. The animal is indeed "mythic" but we still don't get it. We're stuck in our own animal skin, and they in theirs, but they maybe understand how to be inside that skin more completely.
MH & AMK: I really like "Tried and True Ways to Fail" and "Plants for Sale," but I struggle a bit with how the titles work with the poems that follow. I understand you borrowed the titles from Five Acres and Independence, but how do you see them playing into your reader's understanding of these poems and how did you settle on each title.
NP: Once I got deep into this project, I had to find ways to use the various chapter titles that remained. So "Plants for Sale,: for instance is a reference to the logging that has occurred prior to the nocturnal rambling of the poem (the "clear-cut" in the first line). "Tried and True Ways to Fail," then, is just that - a list of ways to fail at growing things, at parenting, at managing one's days, etc.
MH & AMK: Returning to "Tried and True Ways to Fail," this poem takes a bit of a risk by employing and 2nd person directive, a move some readers have a strong aversion to. Why take the risk of throwing off readers by drawing them into the narrative and/or the impending "failure" with this technique? Talk to us about taking risks, in general, in poetry. Why take them? Why not take them?
NP: That chapter in Kains' book is hilarious - it is full of the reasons these newly minted depression-era back-to-the-landers will find their idealist visions poorly met. It warns against buying a place with shallow soil, about bad varieties of seed, about mineral deficiencies, about the almost sure material poverty of the farming life, about the unwillingness to truly work, about the coldness of winter. So my poem with that title was meant as a metaphorical riff on these kinds of failures - sort of: here's how to fail at the rest of your life. All of the imperatives, until you get into the middle of the third stanza or so, are sort of bad ideas.... As for "risks" in poetry. I guess I don't think about that much. The goal of art, as Geoffrey Hill recently put it in an interview (and he was paraphrasing, appropriately, someone else), is expressiveness, not self-expression. So with that as a sort of recent motto, I just do what seems fit craft-wise.
MH & AMK: This poem also has a rather circular pattern. Toward the middle of the poem the reader is told to imagine what their children would do or think. Then, toward the very end, there is the image of the boy crawling. What is going on here and who is this child?
NP: The child is my child, our first. We now have three. So this feeling of newness seems long ago to me at this point, but the image of the crawling child was meant to summon up the shock of that moment when you realize that the child you have caused to exist is actually something apart from you - something independent and wild, like a tickseed sunflower in September, or a groundhog on the run.
MH & AMK: "Plants for Sale" revisits this prominent use of light used in "Introduction." This time, however, the light is referred to in rather grey terms where nothing is particularly distinguishable aside from the moon (that line is brilliant by the way). Tell us a bit about how you use light here in contrast with how it's used in "Introduction."
NP: This is a nice observation. I suppose I just always turn to light when I need some help in a poem. Sometimes it is illuminating, and sometimes it makes things strangely darker.
MH & AMK: You use a very specific form in each of these poems: four stanzas per poem, each composed as a quatrain where the 2nd and 4th verses are rhymed. How did you arrive at this form and why choose to write an entire book in this manner?
NP: This stanza form is certainly not new, of course. It is a Sicilian stanza in the wrong meter and with one blank pair (so XAXA). And basically, I wrote one poem using a chapter title from the Kains book in this form (four quatrains of XAXA) and then it just sort of stuck. As it dawned on me what the sequence would be about, it seemed that a regular form - like garden rows, like the row-work of tilling and hoeing, would be appropriate. The form, in my mind, is like a sonnet (sixteen lines of four feet, as opposed to fourteen lines of five), but with a little more loose dirt between its toes.
All of the poems are in iambic tetrameter. I follow Frosts' and Keats' playbook with iambic meter and allow myself whatever substitutions I need, but for most part the lines will scan. As for the naturalness of the cadence and rhythm - I actually would argue that meter is what allows poetry to sound most natural. A lot of the free verse I read quickly descends into the plodding morass of syntactical melodrama. Not all of it - there are some really accomplished poets working in free verse out there, but I can almost guarantee you they could all write a line of regular verse if you made them...But for me, meter is what cracked open my understanding of English and the way it can sound. As for the tetrameter specifically, the underlying simplicity of the endeavor here - sustainable growing, sustainable being - seemed more appropriate in the four foot line, with its references to hymn and song, than in, say, the weightier climes of pentameter.
MH & AMK: What sparked this interest in form for you and would you consider yourself a formalist poet?
NP: Those school names and groups have always disturbed me a bit. What does it matter, I always want to know? Lisa Jarnot, for instance, who is lumped into the "experimental" crowd, has a marvelous sense of meter and rhyme. A.E. Stallings, who is often called a "formalist," (as if it were some kind of fish you were only supposed to catch at certain times of year), is just plainly a good poet and often pretty experimental. The same is true for Gjertrud Schnackenberg or Maurice Manning - both of whom work almost exclusively in regular meter and often in rhyme as well. So, I guess, no, I'm not interested in being part of a movement or school or trend. I'm interested in writing poems, and I'm still in my apprenticeship, figuring out where English-language poetry has been and what it can do, and what small thing I might be able to do with it.
MH & AMK: Any recollection of what you were reading when you composed Nine Acres? How did they influence this body of work? Which writers would you say have played a particularly influential role in your development as a poet?
NP: Apart from the Kains book, I had been deeply influenced by Eliot Coleman's landmark book The New Organic Grower, another book on growing vegetables by Dick Raymond, and seed catalogs from Johnny's and Baker's Creek. On the poetry side of things, I was probably, when I wrote the book, reading most deeply in Frost, as I've already mentioned, and George Scarbrough. Scarbrough is an Appalachian poet that few have heard of, but more should seek out. His first three books Tellico Blue, The Course Is Upward, and Summer So-Called are classics of American poetry, no joke. Also, I've always been deeply driven by Geoffrey Hill - driven to think about poetry, driven to think about the world, driven to think. There are few better books of poetry in English that I know of than his Tenebrae. Also, I already mentioned Bishop - there's a wit and a leavening in her spirit that is unlike others. I think I must turn to her as a corrective against my melodramatic impulses more often than not. And, though she is often lauded these days for her wise and careful free verse, her formal work - "Sandpiper" for instance - is among the best we've had.
Thanks for these thoughtful questions, and for the interest in my work.