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 so, even so – holding your book in my hands and reading one poem to the next, well, has felt like I found something secret, something excavated. Have you ever felt that you discovered a similar book of poems?
NC: I love that my book has been traumatized by what was surely your reckless vehicular acrobatics! As surface-level unpleasant as it may be to imagine my book being abused and crushed up, there is no truer sign on my bookshelf of a loved book than one that has been dog-eared, marked up, and battered. If it is too crisp and clean, it must have done something wrong, or is a sign of my laziness. As for whether I have ever discovered a similar book of poems, an excavated piece, I can actually plumb into a recent event to find an instance.
When I was visiting my family in Ohio recently, I was rifling through a box of books that had survived flooding and atrophy and all those other pleasures, and I found a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a famous book I had never spent much time with previously. I had had no idea that it was at my parents’ house, or how it got there—the copy was old, the cover torn off. I was an archaeologist dusting away at the sarcophagus. And so many great lines!: “And shall my desires flow like a fountain that I may fill their cups?” and “If this is my day of harvest, in what fields have I sowed the seed, and in what unremembered seasons?” And those are just from the first poem of prose. Like Poggio must have felt when in 1417 he rediscovered Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things after a thousand years disregarded or unknown, I felt as if I had stumbled onto a secret.
JB: I’m interested in your use of chapter in Punchline. Some books of poems forgo sections altogether; some simply number sections; and some, such as yours, are even more purposeful in their divisions. Can you describe your choice to open each of your four chapter with an epigraph that is the latter half of a quotation, such as “ . . . Invent the universe” – which finishes Carl Sagan’s statement “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first . . .”?
NC: It was quite the happy accident, really—I needed an organizing principle, and the “punchlines” of those quotes (get it?) I’d had hanging around for a while, wanting to do something cool with them. I had a whole pile of quotes, and I narrowed it down to those four, which I think really do encapsulate well the idea of movement through the book: part one is “He does not play dice,” after Einstein, and it deals with (at least in my mind) the issue of fate and order and chance; part two, after the Sagan quote, deals with the universe and uncertainty; part three, led by Lorca’s quote about not worrying about death, said about a year before he was killed, deals with mortality and impermanence; and part four, after Zen master Shunryu Suzuki’s quote that enlightenment is nothing special, is about acceptance, even in the face of the unanswerable. And I’m glad I did it that way, because to me each of the sections has its own personality, though they also seem to make perfect sense with one following the next—I can’t really imagine them being in any other order.
JB: Another organizing principle I noticed is that the book opens with a drawing of the sun, and ends with a drawing of the moon. Does lyric poetry come from the sun or the moon? Mary Ruefle says the moon; Apollo says – well, we know what Apollo says.
NC: Ahh, I got you: you have it all mixed up! It opens with the moon, and ends with the sun—to do otherwise would be depressing, right? I did debate heartily which would come first and which would come last, but I decided I liked the almost-counterintuitive approach of ending with the sun; not “the sun and the moon,” but “the moon and the sun.” It also gives the feeling that the whole book is taking place during the night (I’m just making this up now, but I like it), kind of like an analog to St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul,” in that after surviving this bay of unknowing we can find ourselves alive with a new day. But, like I said, I’m just making this up now.
BUT, to answer your question: I’ll disagree with Ruefle just for the sake of discussion, although she’s very likely the righter of us two. I’d say the epic poem is the moon, because all “story” must have sorrow. The lyric, though, comes to us from the sun, a glimmer of light on what otherwise would be darkness. Like within every epic is a lyric, the moon cannot shine without the sun. As for Apollo, it was a shame when he got killed by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.
JB: Your short poem “No Children” stands out for both its starkness and its poignancy. The poem seems to release any desire for a heaven without children, even while a children-less life is “blissfully lonely.” I remember a friend told me years ago that I should have kids because it would make me a better poet. I have no kids, and I sometimes find myself thinking of my friend’s odd statement. What do you make of it? As a father, do you feel your writing has somehow gotten better, or changed in any way?
NC: I definitely feel like having a child improved my work. Because now my work is no longer so much just about me and my stupid existential problems or ideas of prettiness—now it’s about that, but filtered through the fact that all of my ontological inquiry is enriched by the presence of the very real life that exists and that my wife and I are responsible for. In Hinduism there’s that big karmic idea that you should do things for the sake of the thing itself, and not for the outcome—that you shouldn’t be concerned with the fruit of the action, but just the action—and I feel like before I became a parent I like many was very ravaged with the importance of my desires and selfishnesses, and this manifested itself in my work; now I do the things I do less for myself and more as a means of figuring out what he my son “means” and how I can serve that meaning.
I have no idea if any of this makes sense, but I can say for certain that having a kid made me less “anxious” about my writing and how it would be received, and more confident that I just had to do the writing I needed to do, for better or for worse, and that somewhere out there maybe some similarly afflicted human of too many questions would enjoy it.
JB: Thanks for the conversation, Nick.
NC: Thank you for the awesome questions!