An Interview with Nicole Walker
By Dan Haney
Nicole Walker's Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the 2011 Zone 3 Award for creative nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloosmbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell, " 7 Rings: An Artist's Game of Telephone" for the Huffington Post. She's nonfiction editor at Diagram and associate professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Dan Haney – First, thank you again for agreeing to be interviewed for West Branch. You have published both a book of poems (This Noisy Egg, 2010) and a book of essays (Quench Your Thirst With Salt, 2013). Beyond that, you have contributed to the craft book Bending Genre and you are the editor for the interdisciplinary project "7 Rings", a feature of the Huffington Post. Could you speak a little about bending genre in your writing? Has your experience in one genre altered your approach to others? What are the benefits and drawbacks of blurring genre?
Nicole Walker - I was just at a poetry reading and I thought, sometimes I love the explanations of the poems as much as the poems themselves. The vacillations between lyric and exposition, between description and narrative are to me what provide the tension in a piece. I find more action in the turns of genre than I do in the sex lives of famous people. And yet, there can be too much vacillation—too little understanding of why you would change mode or genre, for a reader to have any traction in a piece at all. In almost all of my work, I use research but I have to think about how to blend research voice with lyrical voice. Too much register shifting, like too much genre shifting, gives your reader whiplash. One of the things I love about talking about genre is that when someone digs their heels in and says, "this piece is fiction," I come in and say, sure but look how it's using white space and repetition like a poem to create meaning, look how it pulls in exposition and information to create texture. But then I'm a hypocrite and someone says, "oh, genre doesn't matter," I ask, how can we respond to it then? How do we know if it's buttressing or subverting convention? If it's supposed to be a story but doesn't read like a story, how do we know how to talk about it. Genre is my frenemy.
DH - One important element of This Noisy Egg, humor, is sometimes associated more with fiction than poetry. The poem "Forks", for example, describes a battle between a snake and a baby. "Fair is fair in the baby/snake world," you write, as the duo battles at a Kmart with aisles containing "Herp-B-Gone". Is it okay for a poem to be funny? What work does humor do for you?
NW - I love this question because it makes me think poems don't have to be funny. I wish I was always funny. The last few times I've read, I've followed people who are very funny. I then usually read something dark and dire about the end of the world or dead squirrels and the audience stares at me like I am trying to kill them squirrel-hair by squirrel-hair. What I love about funny poems is the way they evaporate at the end. Like the laughter that goes with them, the upshot of the funny piece is definitely upward—toward ephemeral laughter that creates an overall better atmosphere. But I like pieces that are both dark and funny at the same time. If the humor lifts, the darkness twists and it's in the twisting that I feel I can bring the reader back to the piece and have them wrench out new meaning.
DH - I'm always fascinated with titles, and how they can serve as a lens (or prism) of sorts that can either enhance or complicate. Could you speak a little about your title, This Noisy Egg?
NW - Back when this book was my PhD dissertation, before a lot of revision, the title was Comeuppance. I still love that title, but I wasn't sure it fit exactly with the book. There is some sassiness in the book and some sense that yes, things have come to this but more accurately, the book to me is about incipient things—things on the verge—words that are on the verge of hitting home, leaves on the verge of shaking into tree, birds on the edges of cliffs, on the verge of taking flight. My idea for the book is that if you listen hard enough, you can hear the things of the world speak to you. The quiet world is actually very noisy if you put your ear to the ground.
As in the poem "Conservation of Matter," the fragility of egg shells, of birds, of apples, of fertility makes it an imperative to try to do that listening before everything falls apart, before the real comeuppance of not listening, of missing it—this noisy world—comes.
DH - Comparing "Contact Binary", a recent poem featured in West Branch, with those of your collection, This Noisy Egg, I note your frequent use of scientific diction and imagery. Your poetic language often evokes scientific literature—words like 'membrane', 'cornea', and 'Ura 18.' The poem "Mammoth" speaks of the potential wonders of humanity and science, closing on an image of children riding on DNA. "The Unlikely Origin of the Species" makes reference to Darwin, diaphragms, carbon dating, and hydrogenated vegetable oil. "Contact Binary" focuses on the birth of a star.
What is the significance of the scientific in your work? It appears to be a restless muse.
NW - Science and poetry both seek to figure out how things work. By focusing on a small happening, a tiny event, a microorganism, a particle, a squirrel, a woman backing out too fast from her driveway, scientists and poets want to, for a moment, magnify that experience. Sometimes, they extrapolate the micro into the macro, making metaphors of that happening, but often, they just want to bring the happening into specific relief. Understanding is sometimes just looking at something too long.
Science also has its special vocabulary. Like poetry, specific language bring tension and charge. When I write, I like to blend registers (not too many). The colloquial, the scientific, the hyper formal, the invocation, so I can make associations that seem new, at least to me.
In poems like "The Unlikely Origin of the Species" and some new poems about Emmy Noether's mathematical theories, I feel like the poems are in conversation with these scientists—bringing some of the effects of their theories into these new registers to see if they make sense in new ways thanks to new contexts. I feel like I'm talking to the theories themselves, asking, well, what do you think of that—Dolly the cloned sheep? Bioengineering? The fact that no one knows Emmy Noether but her theories help propel our bicycles everywhere we go. Plus, it's a fine puzzle—putting this world together in various languages. Formal poetry is to chemistry stoichiometry and I loved chemistry in high school and college. May my poems one day be as balanced as a fine chemical equation!
DH - A characteristic of a Nicole Walker poem is its unexpected logical progression. Your poems rarely travel from point A to point B; instead, they subvert expectations and take fascinating leaps. I often (pleasantly) find myself on uneven footing: a sister removing her tooth with string and door switches to suicide, canary corpses shift to corn cobs, and a play on words between condoms and condiments progresses to a dying tree and lost youth. How do you approach structuring a poem?
NW - I like to think of words as anchors. I hook into them and then swing around them, use them as footholds, or sometimes pull the wall out from under the word and turning the word inside out—like with condoms and condiments. In the poem "Conservation of Matter," I leap off the word "rough," catch it on the word "thorough," and turn out on the word "orchard." I think of it as a kind of formalism—a way to keep the language in the forefront. I find if I let the language lead me, I end up in new place where I wouldn't have arrived if I moved first by narrative or a regular logic.
DH- Thanks again for the interview, it's been a pleasure. A couple of final questions for you: what's interesting in the literary world right now—any trends, authors, or releases that excite you? Second, what's on tap for you?
NW - I think some of the most interesting work that is coming out is in hybrid forms and cross-genre. Shira Dentz's door of thin skins combines prose, poetry, and diagrams to recount a story. The diagrams and poems serve to point out holes in the story. The reader falls through the story, onto other pages, making associative and metaphorical meaning. Dentz makes it clear that narratives always have holes. In Amy Leach's Things That Are, plants, animals, and stars have thoughts and proclivities. The animals of the world speak for themselves which in strict nonfiction, they cannot possibly do. Lynn Kilpatrick is working on a murder mystery/memoir that uses the devices of "true crime" and pairs them with those of the lyric essay. Ander Monson's next book relies on the structure of library catalog cards to hold very short essays.
To that end, I'm working on a book called Microcosm—a heterogeneous blend of research about microorganisms, micropreemies and microclimates interrupted by short, lyric essays, because an ecology is just that—an array of interruptions and pressure points.