Since he last appeared in this space, Nick DePascal has been moving up in the world. Just a year and a half ago he held the post of Blue Mesa Review Associate Editor while finishing up his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico. Fast-forward 18 months and he’s now a published poet—his dissertation, a collection of poems titled Before You Become Improbable, won the inaugural West End Poetry Prize and was released earlier this year by West End Press—and an instructor of upper-level poetry workshops and technical writing courses here at UNM. In short, he makes all the rest of us look bad. Always funny and insightful, Nick recently sat down with BMR to catch up on all that he’s accomplished since his last confirmed sighting here on the blog.
Blue Mesa Review: Here’s a pressing question from a prose writer: what exactly is poetry, anyway? What is a poem?
Nick DePascal: A poem is an act of reception, or interpretation, set to music.
BMR: What do you mean by “music”?
ND: Part of what makes poetry beautiful and special to me is the way it can be manipulated to sound good. That is, through attention to all the elements that make the poem run—diction, syntax, line breaks, meter, alliteration, etc.—you can give the poem rhythm, you can make it sing.
BMR: Okay, then, obvious follow-up: what makes for good poetry, poetry that sings? Can you tell us what makes a poem good without resorting to Potter Stewart’s know-it-when-I-see-it standard? Most readers of the BMR blog have read a poem that made chills run up and down their spine—where does that feeling come from, and why is it so hard to recreate?
ND: The best poems for me have the right combination of fresh, surprising imagery, and an attention to music. To quote Frederick Seidel, “I like poems that are daggers that sing.” That is, good poems challenge rather than reaffirm me. They push me around and make me uncomfortable. And they do so while still being well made.
BMR: What can poetry do that other art forms and other literary genres can’t do?
ND: Distill and compress language to a bare minimum while still communicating something meaningful to the reader.
BMR: David Morrell has argued that in trying to communicate something meaningful to the reader, every writer has at the heart of his or her work a core emotional preoccupation. What emotion would you say lies at the heart of Before You Become Improbable?
ND: Love and loss.
BMR: Why those sentiments in particular? What made them important enough that you found yourself coming back to them again and again, and what were you hoping to say about them?
ND: I think for me that’s just where I naturally need and want to go. Perhaps it’s because of the universality of those sentiments that I feel like they guide or infuse my work. It seems as though almost every subject can be tied to those two emotions, and I think that each of them can be blended well with one another and with humor.
BMR: How close does Improbable come to achieving the goals you set out for it? How far away is it from what you imagined when you first conceived of the collection?
ND: I don’t know that I had many goals for the first collection other than to write some good poems that worked well together. I think I did that, but there are always things I would change, poems I would add or exchange, etc. I don’t think I really saw it as much of a collection until I wrote the “Old House” poems, at which point most of the other poems had already been written. The “Old House” poems gave me a way to see or organize the collection and have it feel like it made some sort of cohesive sense.
BMR: Speaking of the “Old House” poems, here’s another question I have to ask: how does your wife feel about being described as “heavy, round,” etc.? When you write about real people, do you show them the poem before you publish it? Has your poetry ever landed you in the doghouse?
ND: Well, the “heavy, round” descriptors specifically refer to pregnancy. Once a person enters the poem I think they cease to be real, and it’s certainly important not to mistake the speaker of a poem, or poems, for the poet him- or herself. For me poems do offer a way to filter reality through a surreal lens, to engage with the world metaphorically, but if “real” people, people I know, are in my poems—and they are—anything I have to say about them or my relationship with them is stretched and twisted in a way to fit the needs of the individual poem, not the truth. To paraphrase Richard Hugo, truth should conform to music, and not the other way around. So, no, I don’t feel the need to show anyone a poem that they may have played a part in influencing. That holds for most of the characters who appear in the book. The situation is a bit more complex with the “my wife” of some of the poems. Those are written to my wife, and the energy and the emotions that drive the poems are accurate, and that is what’s most important to me about them.
BMR: How has being a husband and a father changed your poetry?
ND: Every “role” I play as a person in the world is another lens through which I see and experience the world. Being a husband and raising a son with my wife has often made me “re-see” the world, and the beauty and weirdness of the seemingly mundane therein.
BMR: How about teaching? How has being a teacher changed your poetry?
ND: Teaching and reading poetry with students always reminds me that poems are full of blood and guts and bones, that they are ugly-beautiful things, and that they can’t be wholly intellectual things.
BMR: What do you do when a poem is not working, when it’s more ugly than beautiful? What’s the first tool you reach for in revising?
ND: I find that most of my poems, when they’re not working, don’t work because they are too busy. There’s usually too much going on, too many images, etc. I’ve found that taking an unruly poem and putting it into form can be very helpful for finding what’s most essential in the poem. Sometimes I’ll then remove it from the form once I’ve found what’s working and reshape it. Other times I’ll stay with the form. One of the poems in the book, “Awards Committee,” was one of those wild, unruly poems that I tamed with the form of a pantoum, and it just happened to work better that way, and get published that way, so of course I kept it that way.
BMR: How much do you worry about accessibility in your writing? If I don’t “get” your poem, does that matter to you? Why or why not?
ND: This is probably one of the stickiest questions in all of poetry. Ultimately, when I write, it’s a personal thing between me and the poem, and I don’t think about whether what I’m writing will be accessible to anyone else. When I go back to a poem with fresh eyes after I’ve put it aside for a while, or I have a friend read it, then I get that feedback as to whether what I’m trying to communicate in the poem is being communicated successfully. If the emotion driving the poem is reflected in its music and its images in a way that feels and sounds right to me, then I’m happy. I think poems can strike readers in a variety of ways, sometimes just with a single image or line that communicates the guiding emotion of the poem. And maybe the rest isn’t intellectually or experientially available to the reader, but for that moment there’s that “whoa” feeling. And that’s it right there. That’s what I feel in great poems, and what I hope can come across in some of mine.
BMR: If you could claim as your own any single poem from someone else’s oeuvre, what poem would it be?
ND: “Dream Song 29” by John Berryman, but really The Dream Songs in their entirety.
BMR: Why The Dream Songs? What is Berryman doing there that you so admire?
ND: The Dream Songs are so complete, so exhaustive, in every way, that I can read and reread them and never be tired of them. Berryman’s command of meter and rhyme, his willingness to experiment and to bloody the page, and his tonal variety in those poems have been incredibly influential for me. I return to them again and again.
BMR: Who are the three best poets I ought to be reading?
ND: Arthur Sze, Harryette Mullen, and Laura Jensen.
BMR: Why those three? What do you admire in their work?
ND: Arthur Sze’s lines, his ability to digress in a poem and still have it feel cohesive, is amazing. Harryette Mullen’s command of sound and the wordplay in her poems have been very important to me, especially with some of the newer poems I’ve been working on. And Laura Jensen, her use of space and place and sometimes the domestic in poems is really fantastic. I read her a lot when I was putting this manuscript together and thinking about the space of the “Old House.”
BMR: So if they’re really so good, then why have I, a graduate student in a creative-writing program, only heard of one of the three?
ND: I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a failure of priorities and/or publicity. Unfortunately, we don’t make movies based on books of poetry—though we should! I would love to see The Dream Songs, or Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, committed to film somehow. I think for a lot of people, poetry seems insular and unapproachable. As poets we need to keep pushing to engage with the public more. I don’t know—these are sort of half-formed thoughts floating around.
BMR: Off-the-wall question for you: who had the best poet name of all time? Poe? Wright? Wordsworth?
ND: Sappho. Hands down.
BMR: Now that you’ve started teaching upper-level poetry workshops at UNM, what’s the most common misconception about poetry you see in your students?
ND: That it has to be super-serious and totally autobiographical and that you have to have a PhD to write and read it.
BMR: Flip side of the same coin: what’s the most common misconception about poetry you see in the general public?
ND: I don’t know that I’ve heard poetry spoken about by the general public enough to diagnose misconceptions, but probably the same as above. Poetry has gotten such a reputation as being difficult and frustrating that I think a lot of people don’t really want to bother.
BMR: So if that reputation for difficulty, insularity, unapproachability is why poets like Sze and Jensen fly under the radar, why poetry doesn’t enjoy a more prominent place in contemporary culture, what could be done to change that?
ND: Not sure I can say, but a reality contest show, like Project Runway for poetry, would be a great start.
BMR: I love that idea. I would totally watch—and if we start adding double dares or immunity challenges, so much the better. Obviously every contestant on the show would describe him- or herself as a “poet at heart,” but it seems like more and more often these days we hear people described as “a poet at heart” when neither the descriptor nor the descriptee has read all that much poetry in the first place. What does it mean to be a “poet at heart”? Why is that regarded as a compliment even by people who don’t like poetry?
ND: Lately I feel like I’ve heard that expression being used sarcastically when someone is especially blunt, or profane, or truthful. Which I really like. It brings me back to what I like about poems, that they are those daggers that sing. Hopefully being called a “poet at heart” means you have a penchant for truth-telling even when it’s not comfortable.
BMR: Sing it, sis—er, brother. One last question: now that you’ve become improbable, what’s next for Nick DePascal?
ND: Well, certainly trying to get the book and poems out there into the world. I’m trying to set up readings here and there. And I’ve got about sixty pages or so of the next manuscript in various stages of undress, so writing, revising, and sending those new poems out into the world.
BMR: Thanks so much for telling us the naked truth. You always did get right to the heart of the matter. How many more of these puns can I make before you start looking for a dagger to stick in my non-poetic heart? Oh, exactly that many? Okay then. Well, thanks, as always, for your time and your insight. Next time I promise I’ll try to leave the humor to you
ND: Thanks for having me! But when you say you’ll try to leave the humor to me…?
BMR: Can’t make any promises about becoming, improbably, any less pun-ishing.
ND: (Shakes head and sighs.)
Nick DePascal lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, son, and an assortment of dogs and chickens. His first collection of poetry, Before You Become Improbable, was published in August 2014 by West End Press. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative, The Academy of American Poets, interrupture, Small Po[r]tions, The Laurel Review, TAB, The Los Angeles Review, RHINO, and more.
Michael Noltemeyer is a third-year MFA candidate at the University of New Mexico. He is the Nonfiction Editor for Blue Mesa Review.