Justin Bigos: Let’s begin with the title of your first book of poems, Punchline. A punchline, in its abrupt pith, kills the joke; but your lines, even your last lines, never make me feel like the gig is over – rather, I still feel the poem moving, singing. Can you talk a bit more about the title of the book, as well as the title poem, whose “punchline . . . is all our being and all our seeking”?
Nick Courtright: Well, what book of severe philosophical and spiritual questioning wouldn’t be hilarious? All the great religious poetries are full of jokes: look no further than all the crap that happened to Job. As for this book, I kind of see the whole thing as a happy commentary on the punchline that is our own lives, i.e.: we are the punchline of our own joke. Knock knock. Who’s there? Human beings. Human beings who? HUMAN BEINGS.
But more seriously, you mention how the poems themselves don’t feel cut off at the end, but seem to sing along, perhaps to the next poem. This likely has to do with my approach to constructing the book: this isn’t a collection of a bunch of lyrics I had lying around. Rather, it was all written in order as one compressed evolution of a thought process, but then with a lot of harsh editing decisions thrown in. I wrote 30,000 words, then whittled it down to these 6,000 or so. But I didn’t muck about too much with the order—I wanted to record the songs live, not with a lot of superficial studio magic.
I also like the idea of a book of poetry that moves more like a narrative should, even if there are no characters—the idea that something should be developing, that an idea should be moving forward. That’s what I went for, and via that, I wanted, by asking the most deadly serious questions possible, to see if I could come to any conclusions regarding the existence of the universe.
JB: Your poems often play with physical scale, whether contemplating the “miniature terror of ants” (“The Despot”), or our own proximity to the moon “if we were eighty trillion times the size we are, just like Florida/ is far from Cuba for the man who swims there” (“Consolation Prize”). The poem “He Does Not Throw Dice” begins, “Imagine the lawlessness of the subatomic world, but larger.” This kind of imagination seems, in the best sense, childlike – it reminds me a bit of the “I’m Crushing Your Head” Kids in the Hall skit. Can you talk a bit abut this recurring theme of flexible proportion?
NC: I love that skit, and there is a childlike nature to those sorts of manipulations of scale. But I do love considering that idea—have you seen the websitescaleoftheuniverse.com? You can interactively scroll through magnitudes of ten both larger and smaller than human beings, from the theoretical strings of string theory all the way up to the theoretical size of our theoretical universe. And there, just a bit to the larger side of the middle of this frightfully large spectrum, are we people. So I’m always fascinated by the idea that we have a “scalar bias,” in that we see the universe through the eyes of someone who just so happens to be this size. We think ants are small, but they are fucking huge. We think the sun is big, but it’s actually pretty tiny.
But it’s this bias that gets me: we have the hubris to say we can understand the universe, why we are here, what happens after we die, what the truth is of evolution or religion or, jeez, even nutrition or the weather or why we like sports, but we’re coming to these conclusions from a very limited perspective. So yeah, I’d say it’s a thing to think about. And it’s not nearly as head-spinning as the notion of our “time bias” (the rock lives a lot longer than us, does it not?).
JB: No, I hadn’t seen the web site Scale of the Universe. It is frightening. But alternately soothing. It’s also nice to see that America is bigger than the moon. Suck it, moon! Go USA! Seriously, though, thanks for sharing that site. I wish there was the option to change the music from Radiohead-lite to maybe Neil Diamond or Brian Eno. What would your music preference(s) be?
NC: I was also struck that it shows the largest particle that could squeeze through a surgical mask, and then shows that the world’s largest virus is actually smaller. Good to know.
But music! You know I have a background in music journalism, so I’m going to have to fight my love for obscurity here. But, having been inspired by what I’m listening to at this exact moment, I’m going to have to say the new Animal Collective album. It’s completely insane, full of unexpected turns that somehow, in their unexpectedness, tend to follow a certain logic. And I think that’s much how this fine sick mad beautiful universe of ours is, a bunch of things that have no business being together—(hydrogen and oxygen, together?!?! Who would’ve thunk??!)—being together.
JB: Your poem “What Is” begins, “Apocrypha is no less than actual, if it is believed.” Your poems themselves sometimes have an apocryphal feel. Quick confession: your book survived a car wreck I was in a month ago, and it is still damp and distended from the water jug that exploded in the back of the car. And the pages are dirty with who knows what. Even s