Interview with John Nyman

John Nyman’s verse, conceptual poetry, visual poems, and poetics have appeared in various print and online publications, including including Rampike, (parenthetical), Cordite Poetry Review, and Hamilton Arts and Letters. He is a member of Guelph’s &, experimental poetry collective. Players (Palimpsest, 2016) is his first full-length collection. Sheri Doyle interviewed him in Guelph, Ontario.

 sd: How did Players come to be?

 JN: In a sense it was pretty straightforward: After performing at one of his reading series in Toronto, David Bateman told me I should consider compiling a collection of my poetry to submit to his publisher. That first manuscript didn’t look much at all like Players, and the publisher rejected it, but it was the first step toward approaching my work in a way that would ultimately bring it to publication.

Once I began collecting, sequencing, and editing my poetry in the form of a full-length manuscript, I started seeing things in my writing that I’d never noticed before. I realized that poems I’d once thought were very different actually shared certain broader themes, and that much of my writing was centred (subterraneanly, perhaps) around repeating moods and patterns. Most importantly, I realized that a lot of my poems spoke to each other in ways that had a greater cumulative effect than any one poem could accomplish on its own.

After many drafts (and many more rejections), the manuscript was book-like enough to catch the attention of Jim Johnstone, one of Palimpsest Press’s poetry editors (and an incredible poet in his own right). There were more edits after that—a lot more. But I don’t think the finished product would have been nearly as strong if it hadn’t gone through those months and years of rewriting and, more importantly, reimagining.

sd: Can you share some thoughts about the way Players is organized?

 JN: I don’t think the organization of Players is something I thought about so much as discovered, partly by getting to know the poems better and partly by trying out as many groupings and sequencings as I could. If it’s true that a poem can’t be reduced to a formula, I think that statement is exponentially true of a collection; it’s as if all the singular details and nuances that make the individual poems work were all multiplied by each other to produce the flow and structure of the whole book.

At the same time, there are definitely a few themes that rise to the surface. For example, one thing I tried to do was work against the assumption that a book has a single unifying style or theme: Players opens with a section called “Two False Starts” which frames the collection with two competing and in some senses fraudulent portrayals of the book’s overall poetics. The ending also tries to subvert the idea of absolute order: the poems in the last section of Players are labeled “addenda,” and the book’s final pages (following even the conventional end matter) are taken up by a conceptual poem that functions as a kind of fake index. If it were up to me, there would be no last word of Players (though in actuality the last word is “ZWEIFACHE”—which, by pure chance, translates into English as “double”).

sd: Could we describe some of these poems as “found poems” or having elements of found poetry? What draws you to creating new work from other sources? Could it be argued that all poems are, in some way, found?

 JN: Certainly it could be argued that all poems are in some way “found”—after all, the whole of English literature can be recreated with about 26 letters and a smattering of punctuation. But “found poems” do represent a particular tradition, and I do feel a lot of kinship with that tradition. What most draws me to creating work from other sources, I think, is that it gives poetry the opportunity to reach out and touch the world on the world’s terms, not just according to what I think or believe myself. I hope that my found poems preserve some character or force of something else, some energy that isn’t just attributable to me, the author.

sd: Do you keep certain rules in mind with regards to working with the original lines when writing a found poem?

JN: I think “keeping in mind” is the perfect expression for it, because when I do set rules for myself it’s mostly so I can end up breaking them. There’s really nothing new about this: the possibility and even necessity of ‘breaking the rules’ has been a crucial part of poetic writing for as long as the rules themselves. At the end of the day, writing a found poem isn’t very different from writing any other kind of poem: in either case it’s about discovering the poem’s form as much as inventing it, and working with the content to draw out its most resonant means of expression.

sd: Is it important to you as a poet that a reader grasps an intended meaning in your poems?

JN: For me personally, no, it isn’t important. Especially when it comes to my own work, I’m generally less interested in what a poem “means” or says than what a poem does. This could refer to the images the poem brings to mind, the sounds it brings to the ear, or even the forms and shapes of language it brings to the eye. Often, my experience of a poem (either one of my own or someone else’s) is most memorable as a pattern or rhythm of these different elements—like the way different instruments, motifs, and ideas come together to make a song.

sd: Is meaning relevant in found poems? What do found poems challenge the reader to do, if anything?

JN: Meaning is always relevant, although I definitely don’t think it’s the most important part of many pieces of writing. For example, my poem “Connections,” which is made up of fragments of craigslist missed connections posts, makes use of language with clear and very relevant meanings; it’s just that these meanings aren’t very interesting—they’re a bunch of clichés. For me, found poetry really showcases the way that meaning never comes to us alone: it always has some kind of structure or substance that we don’t consider part of meaning, but which is actually just as (or maybe more) important.

Nietzsche wrote that truths are “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins,” and I believe the same can be said about found language. Although Nietzsche meant this in a disparaging way, I love the idea that the words we use (even when they’re true) are at some level merely things, materials that can be passed around, manipulated, melted down, and transformed. So I guess I do believe that found poetry isn’t really about meaning; it’s about the stuff meaning is made of. And if found poems challenge the reader to do anything, it would be to pay attention to that materiality, to respect it, and to play with it.

sd: What does “When You Need Water” say, or not say, about survival? It seems the need for water is juggled with various distractions here.

JN: I’ve never thought about “When You Need Water” as a poem about survival, but I think you’re absolutely right to interpret it that way. For me, that particular poem has always been a way to recover an experience I see as both incredibly specific (I associate it with a very particular place and time in my life) and almost impossible to put my finger on, although it is definitely related to longing, emptiness, and desperation.

Even if water is what we really need to survive, or what the poem’s speaker needs to survive, it does seem as though he’s never able to express himself in a way that would fulfill that need—as if the word “water” never actually stood for the real thing. It’s always just another distraction, in other words. Maybe survival could also work this way, in that sometimes you don’t know precisely what you need to survive or how to get it, just that you need it.

sd: What can poetry do in this context? Does poetry distract or is it a need like water? What is the role of poetry in a world of distraction?

 JN: I’m not sure what role poetry plays in the world, and (realistically) I suspect that for many people it plays no role at all. But I’m not opposed to distraction; in fact, I don’t think life can be complete without both distraction and necessity, because neither of these things is meaningful without the other. I think poetry is important because it gives us both, and especially because it can get them to speak to each other.

sd: In “Advice from My Exes” stanzas are grouped into four sections, each titled with a number, signifying four distinct exes. What are the pros and/or cons of preserving advice this way?

 JN: None of that advice actually came from any of my exes, or anyone I’ve known in real life. Instead, I tried to write things I could imagine my exes saying or thinking, or that I felt I learned from our relationships.

Even though it all came from me, I think I learned a lot about myself in the process. And not just because some of it is actually good advice; it was fascinating to explore the ideas that could come out of what are essentially failed relationships, or at least relationships that are no longer viable in the present, to get a sense of what I could have been or could have become. I love the idea of looking at these negative versions of myself, or versions of myself seen through others’ eyes.

A final note: I also loved writing this poem because I love writing in the imperative mood. We’re so used to poems that are descriptive or expressive, but how cool is it when a poem actually tells you what to do? (I’m thinking of that line of Rilke’s that seems to stick with everybody: “You must change your life.”

sd: In “Not One” I was taken by the idea of  “the strength of the sum / of all those unique humans, differences swallowed / together.” But I was even more intrigued by the turn, “I’d dissolve if I argued” and wonder what that argument might be. Could you share some thoughts on this?

 JN: Well, when I wrote, “The best numbers are not one,” I meant it. Which is to say I’m much more interested in the seventy million people mentioned earlier in the poem than I am in the single figure you get when you add them all together. But I think I also wanted to convey that this is a bit of an impossible argument to make, because no matter how much you try to emphasize that you’re speaking for a plurality of voices, it’s still just you—your one mind, your one self—who’s saying that. Being able to “dissolve” is kind of one of my fantasies. To me, it means thinking less like a human individual and more like a collective, like the zebra mussels or seagulls I invoke in the poem’s last line.

sd: Are you working on any other poetry projects right now?

JN: Over the last several years I’ve written a great many poems for my houseplants, some of which have been published (including one in Vocamus’s new Rhapsody anthology for 2016) and many of which will hopefully be published soon. I have about enough of them to make a full collection, although I’ve been rewriting and reorganizing the sequence—and the ideas behind it—for quite a while. Overall, the project is a way for me to explore the possibility of dividing my poetic voice between myself and a handful of organisms that are both very close to me and very different from me. Hopefully it’ll also help me learn some broader lessons about opening my mind to perspectives and experiences I don’t personally understand.

sd: Which poets have influenced you most?

 JN: Two of my biggest influences are the Canadian poets Erin Mouré and Christian Bök. Although their work is very different, one theme I find in both of their writing practices is the idea that linguistic and aesthetic “play”—whether it takes the form of found poetry, constraint-based writing, translation, or something less defined—isn’t about taking an ‘anything goes’ approach to art: at their best, even the wildest instances of play convey a sense of political or practical purpose that adds something truly concrete to the world.

sd: Do you remember the first poem (of significance) you wrote?

 JN: In grade four or five, I wrote a poem that my peers and teachers generally thought was fairly prodigious. I even remember the first line of that poem (which also set the pattern of its refrain): “Happiness sounds like a carnival.” I think it still holds up.