Nick Twemlow is a poet who seems to feel slightly uncomfortable, even apologetic, about his whole as such. Like a collections officer who doesn’t really want to be confronting you about your missed payments, one gathers he feels a little sheepish about splaying his words out in front of you like this, making you read them. His staccato, stream-of-consciousness long form poems in Attributed to the Harrow Painter squirm on the page, their discomfort broken by a chippy defiance, the self-conscious remnants of adolescent angst popping up as they will. Underneath the surface hides a sharp critique of what it means to be an artist in a media-obsessed gig economy and what it means to be a parent when you haven’t yet fully come to terms with your own. Nick and I conversed recently through a string of emails as he navigated a challenging teaching semester at Coe College in Iowa.
David Nilsen: In Attributed to the Harrow Painter you employ this long form, seemingly stream-of-consciousness style, rather than the shorter, digestible poems we’re used to in most collections. What is your process for crafting longer poetry in this format? How do you feel that differs from writing in shorter forms?
Nick Twemlow: Writing at length seems ridiculous to me. I mean, writing poems that stretch for pages on end, with no stanza breaks. It’s almost decadent to write this way; this kind of poem offers no break for the reader to consider, recollect, think through what has come just before. But maybe it’s decadent because I wrote these poems not really thinking I’d have an audience, save my family and a few friends. Or maybe I had James Schuyler in mind, which I did, and his poem “Hymn to Life.”
In the opening lines of this pretty long poem, Schuyler writes: “The world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence / And varying the silence all sorts of sounds, natural and man-made.” The word “made” at the end of the second line actually is followed by a colon: Schuyler then lists manmade and natural sounds: a plane, a car (that presumably honks), geese that do honk, and a scream (not far off) that is so “rending” that “to hear it is to be / never again the same.” He follows this list with this standalone sentence, bracketed by quotation marks, marks that isolate and feature the line even as it appears as a sort of caesura in a three part line, a sentence that has haunted me for some time: “Why, this is hell.”
I invoke this particular part of Schuyler’s poem to point to why I guess I wrote at length, mostly, in this book. I’m not sure I had a specific process in mind when writing, nor a benchmark length to write toward. I just wrote to try and channel some of this music that Schuyler insists the world is filled with, to redirect it into a few poems. I feel very overwhelmed by the noise of the world, and am constantly in search of its silences, which are fleeting and conquered by the sounds Schuyler indicates. I think saying “Why, this is hell,” is a perfectly natural response to the general din of the world, though the contemporary din is something far quieter than I think Schuyler would’ve imagined.
So much noise today, to me, is internalized. It’s subvocalized, maybe capable of being picked up by an EEG. I’m thinking of how we process the sound of the Internet. Before I left Facebook, I spent some time listening to how I read my feed. I started to hear multiple registers in my inner voice, the voice I have used to read to myself since I can remember reading. I don’t know how this inner voice deployed tone when I was a kid reading in bed, but I found the range and volume overwhelming this time around. And so I suppose I wrote at length in this book partly to lower the volume a bit.
That last thought is curious, because in some ways it could seem like writing at length does the opposite—it prolongs the noise, provides no reprieve. Especially given the way you string your thoughts together in these pages, at times scattered and seemingly stream-of-consciousness, at other times hyper-focused. And of course, that very format feels pointed in some spots, as when you write, “So you / Tell me / How your / Radical formalism / Saves lives / Exactly?” Do you feel like there’s something different you’re able to say, or a different tone you can employ in saying it, by refusing yourself (and, by extension, your reader) the mental and sonic resting points provided by a more conventional collection of shorter poems?
I should clarify a bit here. I think the experience of reading a long poem—especially one that offers no respite in the form of section breaks or even stanzas—might prolong the noise of the poem itself, and certainly, if read straight through, be tiring, even physically so. But my memory of writing the longer poems in the book—especially “Burnett’s Mound,” which I wrote in long bursts of four-five hours at a time over the course of a few months, including time rewriting and editing—my memory of the experience of writing these poems is one in which I was hyper-focused for long stretches, which was a very different experience than I’ve had writing shorter poems. I think the exhaustion I felt at times took me to places in the poems I hadn’t expected. The process was painstaking, as I also was working in such short lines, so I had little room in each to get somewhere before I found I was already having to make a decision about the line break and where to go next. This is normal procedure for me when writing short poems, but doing this over and over for hundreds of lines I found exhilarating and tiring, and also pushed me toward great surprises.
I do think there are landing spots in these poems which can act as breathers, such as the refrain “I don’t know why I stood for him so many times,” which recurs in “Attributed to the Harrow Painter,” though maybe there aren’t enough of them! What I found I could do differently in these longer poems, in contrast with shorter ones, is take an idea or image set or perception and walk it down a long road, only to become distracted by another image or thought and veer off to follow that one for as long as necessary, but to think of these two movements as interconnected more deeply than if they had been separated into two poems (and in “Burnett’s Mound,” I count at least 30 or so movements like this). Part of what was happening, too, was that I simply couldn’t, for the longest time, see an ending. I would come to a place that felt like a stopping point, only to be distracted again by an argument or some surprise in tone (such as you noted), and felt like I wasn’t there yet. Another poem that lingers underneath “Burnett’s Mound” is Keats’ “Hyperion: A Fragment,” which I didn’t read while writing this, but its memory lingered from a close reading of it in a Romantic literature course from my undergraduate days. I remember wondering back then what it meant that it was a fragment, a poem Keats left behind, only to sort of rewrite it later in the form of “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream,” which I think he also left in fragmented form. I could see myself rewriting “Burnett’s Mound” someday, as it still feels incomplete.
You employ an impish, wry sense of humor throughout this collection, and at times it feels almost self-conscious in its referential irony. It feels like you’re a bit sheepish about what you’re doing here. You seem to be in dialog with a projected, expected critique, whether from your young son to whom much of the book is addressed, or your readership, or your peers, or yourself. There’s this split between being taken seriously as an academic and a poet and also being the parent of a small child, and all the necessary lack of dignity and seriousness that can entail, and you seem to be putting those into an arm wrestling match you’re not entirely comfortable watching. Am I getting near to the heart of that tone, or am I missing it entirely?
I think your question is right on, in its implication that I am uneasy in these poems. I wrestled with an answer to your question for some time, hoping to smartly engage it and somehow pin down the anxieties that skitter under and through the poems in this book, and I finally figured out that I couldn’t do it. You do get directly to the heart of that tone. That tone is who I am, if I am my poems, which I sometimes am and often have doubts I am not. I realized that if I tried to explain this tone, I would be replicating, crudely, what I wrote these poems to try and do.
My wife read aloud to me the following from Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” after we had discussed your question for a bit, as she suggested it might do a lot of work to explain the tonal underpinnings of the book, and I agree. It comes in the form of a footnote, wherein Freud quotes Ernst Mach:
“I was sitting alone in my sleeping compartment when the train lurched violently. The door of the adjacent toilet swung open and an elderly gentleman in a dressing gown and travelling cap entered my compartment. I assumed that on leaving the toilet, which was located between the two compartments, he had turned the wrong way and entered into mine by mistake. I jumped up to put him right, but soon realized to my astonishment that the intruder was my own image, reflected in the mirror on the connecting door. I can still recall that I found his appearance thoroughly unpleasant.”
I just read back through the sequence titled “Responding to my father’s question,” and there is so much going on here. I too have a complicated (a generous euphemism) relationship with my father, and yet in preparing to bring it up here, I realized there might not be a bigger cliché than two white male writers “reckoning” with our fathers. We might as well talk about The Smiths and the first girl who broke our hearts. And yet there’s nothing to be done for it: fathers are monoliths of whatever shape our adult damage takes. It was the single biggest obstacle for me in wanting to become a parent—I couldn’t face the prospect of becoming just a huge rock in the central current of their art someday down the road, the keystone species that cluelessly shapes and disrupts their eventual habitat. I have a child now. I was told this would make me more merciful of my own childhood. It has not.
In one of these poems, you reference your young son, and say to your father, “His name is the verb / We both swab our cankers / With.” I read those perfect lines over and over, and you seem to be getting at all sides of the above tension—the father’s muddled regret, the son’s terror of someday taking over that regret, both of them fielding wildly divergent schemes for how to avoid that outcome. All while the grandson plays, oblivious.
I feel like you’re aware of the inevitable thematic cliché in these poems and egg it on cheekily, which gets back to the apologetic discomfort we discussed earlier that wends its way throughout this whole collection. You reference in one of these poems “The mild embarrassment / Of being alive,” and that feels like it could be the subhead of Attributed to the Harrow Painter. You revert, self-consciously, to the teenage son, both in the bits of narrative you relate and in your tone, as when you quite amusing allow yourself the satisfaction of telling your father, “You think you’re going / To hell. I look forward / To your review of the place.”
I want to ask a bit here about your use of homophones, which pepper these poems, as when you write, “How’s the whether / We care knot.” I have tried to zero in on the reason for that choice, and I think I am missing it. If that’s too granular and you’d rather not address it, that’s fine, but I want to ask.
So much to consider! Regarding the homophones, I’d become hyper-aware of them around the time I was writing that suite, because my son had suddenly become aware of their existence! He knew about pairings like “wear” and “where” or “whether” and “weather,” but he didn’t know what they were called. And so at some point we just started talking about these strange categories of expression, and we continue to note them when they come up. He takes real pleasure in spotting them, which I take to be instances of him coming up against the intricacies of language, how it can be bewildering and confusing.
I find that, as my son’s grasp of language strengthens as he grows older, my own grasp weakens. He’s interested in slippages in meaning, as am I, but he still wants to know why the English language can have two different spellings and meanings for a word that is pronounced the same way. So, homophones and homonyms were in play, as it were, at that time, and I found they helped me interrogate my own constant sense of the failures of words to mean anything, at least at times. I wanted the sound to matter more in certain cases. Maybe in all cases?
To consider your larger questions, I think the phrase “apologetic discomfort” sums up what I am up to in this book, at least to some degree. Whose discomfort is in play in this particular suite of poems? Mine? My father’s? I still don’t know, and I’m not sure if it matters if I do. I wrote this book in part to write myself out of writing about my childhood, which continues to haunt and presumably will do so until I am dead. I grew up in a sort of chaos, but so did my friends. Some who weren’t certain if there would be a meal on the table when we broke off from our kickball game as the sun started to go down. Some whose fathers were dead. Some who faced a brutal homecoming if they had neglected their chores before said kickball game. I didn’t have to deal with those realities. My mum worked hard to provide a home and meals and a smile when she wasn’t worn out from work and mothering and trying to keep her imagination intact, for which she often turned to British novels and Masterpiece Theater (our Sunday night ritual).
Reading over those poems again while writing this response, I land on those same lines you quote, and agree that I retreat into adolescence at times when I can’t find a route back to an answer to my father’s question. The question I am referring to, if it was ever posed, was from when I grew out of my adolescent misery, after I had developed a more meaningful relationship with my father, with whom at one point during high school I didn’t speak with for over a year.
He told me years later that he would hear snippets from colleagues or my siblings about how I was doing, but that was about all he knew. An incomplete portrait, to be sure. He wanted to know what I did with my time when I was cutting class, which was often. I couldn’t really explain to him what I was doing, at least not then and not in any straightforward way that made any sense to me. I mean, I would often sit in a friend’s car in the school parking lot, no heat, 10 degrees outside, snow falling, no music, just a pack of smokes if I had any money that day and a lot of staring out the windshield, beyond the slashes of snow glazed across it. How does this translate into meaning? I have no idea. I wrote the book, this suite, to try to arrive at an answer.