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by Debby Jo Blank
When I was asked if I wanted to interview Chris Nelson, I was thrilled. Chris is soft-spoken and doesn’t veer into the limelight easily. He is someone I have been in classes with at the Poetry Center for a few years, but I saw this article as a great chance to get to know him even better. This also seems like the perfect time to write about Chris, as he just won the National Chapbook Fellows contest sponsored by The Poetry Society of America and judged by Mary Jo Bang. His life has just changed dramatically, as well; he shifted his work as a high school English teacher to part-time in order to begin his MFA studies in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. His chapbook will not be published until 2009, but we get a preview – scattered throughout this article are excerpts from his poems.
Debby Jo: Tell us about how your writing fits into your life?
Chris: Writing is quite integrated; it’s not a thing that can be removed from my life. Jorie Graham wrote "the art of the poem is identical to a spiritual questing." That feels right to me. My awareness is most heightened when I’m writing poetry. I write to figure out who I am, what the world is and what I think and feel; those things are always more amorphous before I write about them. Sure, they might remain amorphous, but there will be some insight; though that doesn’t mean the insight will be pretty. Right now I’m foregrounding emotional honesty in my poems, which can be scary because it means I face a version of myself that I don’t always let out of the cellar.
Debby Jo: Why did you decide to get a MFA and how do you see that changing things?
Chris: With the exception of some disenchantment as a high school student, I’ve always had faith in education. And I’ve always valued intrinsic development over extrinsic reward, so a MFA seemed inevitable. Now that I’m in a master’s program, I see it speeding my development as a reader and writer, and I see it challenging my notions of who I am as a writer, which is great because I don’t think we learn when our certainties are intact.
—frozen shoulder, windshield—
from the wrath of having lost
Mother, despite her still being
from "Family of Origin"
Debby Jo: Tell us about the contest for which your manuscript was selected for publication. What is the book about? Any particular style/form?
Chris: The chapbook is called Blue House and was written from 2003 to 2007. It was selected by Mary Jo Bang for publication by the Poetry Society of America. I was drawn to the contest by a small display of PSA chapbooks in the Poetry Center a few years ago—they’re really beautiful little books. Blue House explores a psychic landscape, starting with childhood and moving into adulthood. Its themes center on the relationships between parent and child, notions of divinity, and, of course, love. The poems are pretty sparse. I did a lot of condensing and trimming; for example, "Beauty’s Scars" was once fifteen pages, now it is four. The result of such a process—at least in these poems—is a fragmentary style, which I’m happy with; it seems appropriate for the psychic setting.
Debby Jo: Below is the epigram of Chris’ blogspot. For those who don’t already know, "duende" comes from the Spanish and is a person with a sense of flamenco in their artistic soul who attracts with their magnetism and charm.
"The Duende loves ledges and wounds." —
Frederico GarcÍa Lorca
Chris: One of my favorite poetic concepts is Lorca's Duende, which he writes about beautifully for pages and pages but ultimately lets the reader define; he quotes Goethe: "A mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain." I think of it as death -- sublime death not morbid death. Death as the pressure, the force, the urgency that impels us to be fully alive, that speeds us toward the one boundary. The subtitle, "The Duende loves ledges and wounds," encapsulates the concept for me. However, I'll probably change subtitles now and again. I think the medium's fluidity demands that.
absence on his tongue
absence in his heart
he dreams the bomb maker and learns
the language of quantity:
girls of meadow, girls
of smiles, girls so much more
– from "Beauty’s Scars"
Debby Jo: Tell us about your blog? How is it going? Why did you start it? What are your goals?
Chris: I love the medium—its ability to reach people across the planet, to be nearly whatever you’d like it to be: a solipsistic diary, a virtual community, an inquiry, an experiment. I think blogs may well be the most democratic publishing option ever. The intent of my poetry blog is to create an archive of interviews with poets about their work, with an emphasis on craft choices. As a writer and reader of poetry, I relish such interviews. There are so few barriers now to having access to that information, all it takes is a willingness to have the dialog. The first interview is with Boyer Rickel, a teacher since 1991 in the Creative Writing Program of the University of Arizona, on his new book remanence. Other interviews are in the works. The internet address is nelsonpoetry.blogspot.com
Debby Jo: Please give us some background on your teaching.
Chris: I’ve taught for five years at Catalina Foothills High School, where my colleagues and students are remarkably dedicated, intelligent, and fun. I teach Advanced Placement Literature, so the focus is literary analysis and close reading. Currently we’re practicing different critical approaches to literature: cultural, gender focus, deconstruction, psychological, etc. The reality of the workload is daunting at times. Nearly all of the high school English teachers I know work about fifty hours a week, and, of course, that’s not just "putting in time," it’s difficult and nuanced intellectual work. If you focus on that, though, you won’t last. You have to focus on the amazing interactions and the fun of it. In short, teaching is the most challenging and most rewarding work I’ve done. I’m fortunate to be able to do it part-time as I begin to take graduate courses.
the shoe-boxed heart: photographs
falsified by time, poems wrapped with ribbon:
My lover is a jar of bleach,
and I’m the wish of white.
His body is a wind-whipped sheet,
and I’m the tangled shrike.
– from "The One Mother Calls Little Prince"
Debby Jo: What class have you taken that was important to you? Why?
Chris: Oh there are too many to list. Locally, I’ve had amazing experiences with Barbara Cully, Barbara Henning, Rebecca Seiferle, Richard Siken, and Frances Sjoberg. As an undergraduate at Southern Utah University, I had the privilege to study with Samuel Green (now Poet Laureate of Washington). Within a couple months he did something to me that will never be undone: my interest in poetry then was a tinderbox, and he set it aflame. I remember him reciting Galway Kinnell’s "The Bear" from memory, his eyes closed, enunciating the words as if his life depended on them—because it did. Through him I experienced for the first time poetry as a way of being.
a man reborn in a rainstorm
first carries his umbrella like an umbrella
then a walking stick, then a rifle:
rebirth not enough
– from "The Principle of the Knot"
Debby Jo: Do you have a Poetry Center story to tell?
Chris: First, I would like to say that I owe a great debt to the people at the Poetry Center for my development as a writer—gosh, as a person. The collection of books and journals, the workshops, the readings, the discussions, the friendship and community—it’s such a wonderful place. So, I have many fond memories, I could go on and on. But the reading that Carolyn Forché gave at St. Philip’s Church in 2002 was beyond words. She read from the long poem "On Earth" before it was published—it’s a forty-six page poem that chronicles the dissolution of a dying person’s consciousness. It was as if she were channeling some divine presence. Her haunting imagery in the ambiance of the church was overpowering; it was a spiritual experience for me.