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"Even After the Boy's Palms Were Empty": An Interview with Nathan McClain

Nathan McClain lives and works in Los Angeles. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Quarterly West, Nimrod, The Journal, Toad, Linebreak, and Best New Poets 2010. A recipient of scholarships from Vermont Studio Center and the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, he is currently an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson College.

His poem, "Love Elegy in the Chinese Garden, with Koi," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer, Darby K. Price, about botanical gardens, hindsight, and Elegance vs. Beauty.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of “Love Elegy in the Chinese Garden, with Koi”?

Well, the cause of the poem (if we’re considering the poem itself as an effect) was an excursion to the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, CA. I’d met an attractive woman, who also seemed attracted to me, and we took this trip together—as friends. As you might imagine, there was good amount of tension and anxiety between us as we moved through the gardens. As a result, my early drafts of this poem, originally a triptych, attempted to explore the sense of anxiety between two people who could potentially become lovers.

A couple things that ultimately helped the poem were time and distance from it. Also, the fact that our break-up (we finally dated) was completely amicable. Months after the whole boy-meets girl-boy-likes-girl-dates-girl-boy-enter-conflict-enter-misunderstanding-girl-waves-goodbye, I wasn’t angry. Normally, hindsight can be a terrifying or terrible thing (because hindsight can often trigger feelings of regret) but, in this instance, hindsight fascinated me as I thought back on the relationship and its burgeoning. It didn’t seem exactly right to look back on the experience with regret, but how should I look back otherwise? Knowing what I already knew? These questions are what the poem sought to explore.

The title gave me some trouble. I wrestled with whether the final iteration was more love poem or elegy (both of which I feel I’m always writing, or attempting to write). But then, why couldn’t it be both?

In reading this poem, one gets the sense that they have been pulled into this very intimate moment where the speaker is both observing the little boy and relaying his observations to the reader. Can you talk a little bit about perspective in this poem?

The best way I can describe perspective in the poem, and you’ve already picked up on this, is liminal; I’m deeply interested in liminal spaces. Temporally, the speaker sits between past and future, going so far as to conjecture at what would happen “again if given the chance.” But furthermore, to my mind, the speaker has actually been to this place, but can’t help returning to this place, alone, literally or through memory.

I think it’s difficult, when feeling an emotion so strongly—sadness, joy, regardless of what that emotion may be—to not see and shape the world through the lens of that emotion. That reshaping is what fascinates me about a poem like “The Glass Essay,” how Carson skillfully uses figuration to show the reader how her speaker is feeling. All of her images are charged with emotion, and teach the reader that her speaker is in a strange emotional space. While I found the details of the Chinese garden striking on their own, to further transform the details into images seemed a more interesting way of getting at the speaker’s emotional state without simply saying “I’m kind of bummed that this thing happened.” Perspective can be incredibly useful as a tracking tool, a way to control the reader’s eye and complicate a speaker’s gaze. I can only hope perspective is doing that kind of work in this poem.

“Love Elegy” has a really interesting mix of lyrical language and imagery (“I like to think they’re pure, / That that’s why even after the boy’s palms were empty, / After he had nothing else to give, they still kissed / His hands.”) and more colloquial language (“But who am I kidding?”, “So dumb.”) What were your goals in balancing the moments of “elevated” language with the more colloquial language?

Good question: my answer is actually two-fold: I’ll start by saying that my goal with language, in any poem I draft, is to create a speaker who sounds real and human, not simply a construct of me the poet. This, of course, is the paradox because the speaker is a construct of me the poet! But that’s the trick of craft and structure, isn’t it—the writer presents something constructed that gives the impression of the genuine?

Secondly, before starting my graduate program, I can say I largely valued Elegance above Beauty in my work; in fact, I’d say I even confused the two! By which I mean my poems lacked a certain sense of counterpoise to give them greater nuance. I think language works to provide such counterpoise in this poem. The instances of lyrical language and imagery, as you point out, could’ve easily allowed the poem to devolve into sentimentality without the instances of colloquial language. I think the colloquial language undercuts that sentiment and, as a result, provides the poem with a sense of counterbalance. Were the poem constructed only of “elevated” language, sure, it may have been wonderfully elegant (And, believe me, I’ve tried writing those poems), but would it be memorable? The colloquial language complicates the tone and causes the emotion to slide more firmly into place within the reader, I think. Elegance, as taught by one of my advisors, resides on the page, but Beauty resides within the reader. I’d like to write beautiful poems.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m steadily drafting and revising poems towards completing my first poetry collection (which is about finished). I’m also working on new poems that seem to be part of another project. Some of those poems are deeply interested in fable and allegory. Also, I recently spent eight hours in a line for tickets to Comic-Con in New York, which I failed to get… and I’m certain there’s a poem forming from that experience, too.

What are you reading right now—and/or what have you just finished reading?

Currently, between reading poetry submissions for Four Way Review, I’m reading Carl Phillips’s Art of Daring, which is wonderful. I recently finished Laura Kasischke’s collection, The Infinitesimals—a beautiful, haunting collection. I relocated to Brooklyn from New Jersey within the last month, and finally got around to setting books up on my shelves. Books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming months? Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Brian Russell’s The Year of What Now, Gregory Pardlo’s Digest, just to name a few. And Elizabeth Bishop, of course. I’m always rereading Bishop’s Geography III.

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