Nicholas Friedman

Interviewed by Chloe Cook

Could we begin with location? “Ampersand,” like other poems in your collection Petty Theft, is grounded in the Northeast where you currently live. (For example, “Cozy Cottages…” is set in Cape Cod.) What is your connection to the Northeast, and how does regionality inform your work?

I appreciate the soft pitch to get me started. I was born and raised in Syracuse, NY, a city most people associate with snow and lack of sunlight. In this, they’re not wrong. But Syracuse is where I’ve imprinted, so to speak, and where I’ve returned with my wife to raise a son. That’s the biographical element.

Getting to what I think you’re really asking, I would say regionality informs my work the way it does most other writers: it’s the familiar against which I judge the unfamiliar. The hemlock in my backyard isn’t a palm tree, and that’s partly how I understand it.

Of course, the familiar has a way of becoming invisible over time, and it takes a departure and a return to really see it again. Because of that, I suspect most writers are willfully prodigal in some sense. I certainly have been. We go away and return, sometimes chastened, with a refreshed sense of our origins.

Even though the eponymous peak in “Ampersand” isn’t terribly far from my home, the poem’s trajectory roughly fits the pattern of departure and return. It’s an out-and-back hike, for one. Then there’s “the small town where we’ll spend the night,” a proxy for home that appears changed in light of a distressing moment. I’ll spare you dissection of the frog beyond that.

 “Ampersand” discusses the history of the beloved icon—it doubles as a mountain and a punctuation mark (though was once a letter and a phrase). The final lines (“everything we’ve traveled for / receding, already, to a symbol”) seem to symbolize (forgive me!) memory. It’s as if the speaker is saying, “This moment has already become part of my history.” What do you think is the relationship between memory and poetry—do they form some sort of sticky web? Is the past the only tense of poetry? Can we reconcile poetry with the present?

I love this question. I think what you’re sensing is the way the poem records the moment of its formation. “Ampersand” has clear narrative elements, but it’s basically a lyric poem. Like other lyrics, it feels like a moment elongated, inspected, and somehow suspended in time. A fly in the amber. I hope the poem creates tension between the present and past, experience and recollection.

To read a lyric poem is to see movement in the inert; presence in what’s obviously past; and elegy for the living (or poetically revived). What recedes to symbol in “Ampersand” is the pair’s experience of their environment and of each other-an experience that dulls in some places and brightens in others as it becomes poetry. The moment captured by a lyric poem has passed before it hits the page, but it’s also in a perpetual present. Like a flea circus, it’s much more alive than one might think on first inspection.

There’s another, less self-reflexively literary sense of recession toward symbol in “Ampersand,” but I hope that meaning will come through without more coaxing.

 “Ampersand” is written in unrhymed tetrameter (and many poems in Petty Theft do rhyme). What draws you to more formal styles of poetry? Perhaps tradition[DL1] , or the joy of using your wit to approach tricky commands? Do you think it’s important for aspiring poets to learn about formalism?

I think it’s crucial for aspiring poets to learn about formalism in the sense that the vast majority of poetry written to date, the last hundred years or so notwithstanding, contains elements of traditional form. That said, the idea of “formalism” has about as much appeal to me as a smoking jacket. I’m concerned with execution. As a reader, I’ve simply noticed that a lot of the poems I find most moving and surprising are formal in some way-though not always obviously so. My desire to better understand those poems-and to write similarly moving poems with similar tools-is the only sustained interest I have in form.

Getting back to our discussion of place, I would say that many poems get their evocative and intellectual force by moving away from something. “Verse,” of course, has its etymological roots in “turn.” There are innumerable ways for a poem to turn or return, whether formally (as in a sonnet), emotionally, or narratively. Form is especially useful here in that its regularity offers a baseline for change.

Of course, many bad metrical poems clunk along like a boot in a clothes dryer. Others let the music of natural speech overlay the felt metrical pulse of the poem. “We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.” That’s Frost, a poet much maligned by readers with presumptions of his fustiness. In reality, Frost is a semantically slippery, metrically irregular poet. “The Wood-Pile” is a perfect example, both for its metrical oddity in some lines and soldierly order in others, as well as for its interest in how being “far from home” simultaneously confuses and clarifies.

Do you believe the contemporary poetic landscape is open to formal-leaning poets? Has “craft” become secondary to content (or even sentimentality)?

This question is something of a bear trap, but I’ll step into it. Frankly, I think that a great deal of contemporary poetry is self-obsessed. Now, I want to be careful to distinguish between the impulse to draw on personal experience-no harm there-and the assumption that enumeration of one’s griefs and harms done is a sufficient condition for poetry. In my view, contemporary poetry has become a cult of the individual poet. We’ve turned away from poetry as the primary concern. You might argue there’s more originality to be found in contributor notes than in most contemporary poetry.

I think the elevation of the poet above their work comes with unfortunate consequences for formal poetry in particular. In a good formal poem, the poet is often harder to see. Poets who use form of any variety know just how magically useful it can be in helping to get out of your own way when you’re writing. I suspect this makes formal poetry less interesting to a readership that wants to see the poet suffering through some kind of lived reality. More engagement with form might be the antidote we need for a poetic landscape dominated by poets instead of poetry.

Who are the poets who haunt you? Are there any collections you find yourself reaching for in periods of creative drought?

Larkin. The Whitsun Weddings.

Lastly, give us a sneak peek! What are you working on now?

My second collection, Paradise Is Burning, is slated for publication with Able Muse Press, so mainly I’ve been editing poems in preparation for that. To be honest, though, I haven’t written more than a handful of pages in the last year and a half. Since defecting from academia, I’ve spent most of my free time raising my son, fly fishing small streams, and-much more recently-painting with acrylics. I suspect I’ll find my way home again, but it’s been a great joy getting lost.

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