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Philip Nikolayev Interview 

Philip Nikolayev lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, the poet Katia Kapovich, and their daughter Sophia. His collection of poems, Monkey Time, won the 2001 Verse Prize and was published by Verse Press in 2003. He co-edits Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. His poems have also appeared in such journals as The Paris Review, Grand Street, Harvard Review, The Boston Globe, Verse, Stand, overland, Jacket, and many others across the English-speaking world.



Jack Alun was born in Cardiff, and now lives and works in South West France as a writer, translator and photographer. His poems have been published in magazines and anthologies in the U.K. and the U.S. He has written two travel books, with a third on its way. Under the name of John Couth, he regularly writes poetry reviews for Shearsman online magazine. His review of Nikolayev's Monkey Time can be found here.




JA: Philip, your work’s full of examples of formal and linguistic experimentation, you reveal the ridiculousness and limitations of rational structures, in many ways present yourself as very much a postmodern poet, so how do you equate all this with a notion of being a poet of the soul?


PN: Jack, I like to think that I am not entirely devoid of rationality, and I don’t bear any especial allegiance to postmodernism, which to me is merely one of the strands of modern culture and perhaps of my own work. I write inspirationally, hence I suppose the connection to the soul.


JA: What I’m seeking to understand here is your position as a poet. I don’t think anyone could accuse you of lack of rationality, indeed, the reverse. But focussing again on your formal and linguistic experimentation, it seems to me you construct these devices to disrupt the reader’s expectations. What is it precisely you’re looking for from this process?


PN: I don’t try to be condescending toward the reader—I guess I disrupt my own expectations in the first place and in the last. Writing is largely spontaneous for me and improvisation and self-surprise are important parts of it: otherwise I just couldn’t make it through a poem. But I write in hopes that what moves or interests or surprises me may also cause a similar response in someone else—the providential reader, in Mandelstam’s phrase, if you will. Often I don’t know exactly where a poem—a certain kind of poem—leads me until the very end, where with some luck everything just happens to click sharply into focus.


JA: It seems very unfashionable to be an inspirational poet in an age when most writers attribute their success to perspiration. So, to what extent is your poetry indebted to inspiration?


PN: A real poem comes from a deep place. If poetry has workouts then “perspiration”—reading, concentrated thought, grappling with technique, lengthy meditation on poetic merit and demerit, meticulous verbal chiseling, overcoming self-doubt, dealing with self-negation and with day-to-day life—is to a poet like lifting to an athlete. You have to be in shape, know the issues and the extent of the art. But as with boxers and dancers so with a certain kind of poet, at show time perspiration merely flows from inspiration, and in the best cases you don’t notice that you have perspired until the show is over and fatigue sets in. Nothing worth talking about ever gets done without a sustained effort of the will, but to rely on perspiration alone is to believe that art is hackable by the seat of one’s pants, and for me it just doesn’t work that way. Inspiration, to me, is a biologically rooted thing rather than an ideological construct. I was obsessed with verse and experienced inspiration extremely early in life. The cards just fell that way or something. It’s an innate craving, and filling it is what makes this mess worth living for me—I would have long dried up otherwise.


JA: In your prize-winning collection Monkey Time, you take that sacred cow of poetry, the sonnet, and put it through all sorts of rigours and reconsiderations. What’s the fascination that the sonnet form holds for you? Do you think a form as restrictive as this can ever truly accommodate or be given a contemporary voice?


PN: There are no impossibilities in poetry, only challenges among which one must pick one’s own. I have never seen a restrictive poetic form. Perhaps the notion of restrictiveness that became so firmly attached to the classical forms in the 20th century resulted from attempts to theorize away and discredit the forms that many poets no longer found interesting or stimulating. Alleged impossibilities are merely personal or generational apathies or reluctances that gel into theory. They come and go. What was once considered enabling is later proclaimed limiting and pompously tossed overboard, not without some ritualistic gesturing, but it remains forever available to the curious and may at any time be fished out of the flotsam and jetsam dragged along by our literary history.


Many poets today feel that any verse form that involves meter and a rhyme pattern rules out spontaneity and improvisation and requires advance planning, counting syllables, poring over rhymes, whatnot. But this opinion reveals personal rather than absolute limitations. It’s all in the ear, as it were. Keats wrote a good many of his greatest sonnets out of the blue, in ten or fifteen minutes apiece, often to the astonishment of his friends. Spiritual exertion was all it took: he didn’t need to count his syllables.


The sonnet is a simple and intuitive form, inviting and easy to internalize in one’s juvenile years. But I don’t see my sporadic sonneteering as a courtship of classical diction. When I turn to this form I mostly try to bend and stretch it, to break out of the automatic versificatory reflex, to do something that will surprise me.


JA: One of the most interesting ways you "bend and stretch" form, use it to surprise the reader, is in your use of the "immured sonnet". By placing a poem (the rhyming sonnet) within a piece of continuous prose, you force a juxtaposition which alters the meanings in and of each of the forms, and yet you offer a single form as meaning and as aesthetic experience. Surely, this is a much more preplanned exercise on your part, going beyond ear, spontaneity and inspiration, encompassing a greater element of calculation on your part. Otherwise, aren’t we left with a kind of poetry of accident where one text, so to speak, is placed at random beside another?


PN: Thank you for your kind remarks. I agree that perhaps poems aren’t truly accidental, but there’s often this strange illusion that one walks or falls into them. Surely inclination (even “compulsion”) and thinking (even “meditation”) both drive the churning out of lines—there’s a balance of the rational and the elemental here without which any creativity would be inexplicable—but “preplanned” is really too big a participle for what I do: most of the time when I’m lucky I just write a poem (I go through brief intense writing spurts in between dry spells). The idea of sonnet immurement occurred to me in a flash—it had something to do with musings about Malevich’s Black Square—I didn’t apply it right away, but the idea would recur and urge me, so eventually I went and made the first immured sonnet. I mean I not infrequently have ideas and some sense of direction when I write, so one thing leads to the next as it always used to. Sometimes I think that it would be interesting to write this or that kind of poem, dream up an idea for a text, which may or may not materialize eventually—but what’s there to preplan? This is merely what we call “the imagination at work”.


JA: OK, we see you working seriously and contentedly within existing forms, albeit refurbishing them as you go. Robert Kelly quotes you as saying: 'I subvert by suggesting alternative forms', so your project goes beyond refurbishment to challenge, and I get the impression from reading your work that it’s more than just form you are confronting, it’s ideas and the language which expresses them.  How central is the idea of subversion to you as a poet?


PN: Yes, there is a sort of self-subversion that I guess has proven central—it isn’t strictly an idea but perhaps an organic necessity, a reaction to changes within and without—but an instinctive reluctance to be a poet of few notes probably also has something to do with it. My writing has gone through a couple of severe transformations over the years—I imagine it’s quite a usual thing and may happen to everybody, but I wasn’t quite ready for it at one point because the changes encroached upon me independently of any conscious willing on my part. By the way, the line that Kelly quotes comes from a poem of mine, 'A Polemic,'—where it has a specialized sense: it’s a text about how facile and self-congratulatory uncontrolled “subversion” can be—so this is a double subversion, a self-parody, more or less.


It strikes me how often we tend to find ourselves bound up in a very 20th-century way of talking about poetry: formalism vs. innovation, craft vs. subversion, lyricism vs. experimentalism, modernism vs. postmodernism, etc. The wires are still there, but the charge is gone. It seems to me, for example, that the issue of formal choices, choices of platform, of  “poetics,” is proving to be a triviality in the long haul. A wise man once said that what matters in art is not what or how, but who. Poetry seems to me to be evolving toward a formal anarchy. Poetics are interesting only as personal expressions. Form and content are extensions of the poet’s personality, and it’s only in a personal context that poetics can hope to make sense. Wholesale poetics, bulk poetics are dead on arrival, and it is a good thing too, otherwise we’d soon have TMs [Trademarks] and patented methods in poetry and whoever registered “sublime,” “breath unit,” and “disordering of the senses” would be mini-millionaires by now.


Those poets win who do the hardest thing, regardless of theoretical underpinnings. It’s easy, all too easy to master the forms, to disrupt the forms, to be traditional or innovative, original on one or more levels, to affirm, to subvert, to mine or undermine, to be sincere or tongue-in-cheek, to re-deconstruct this or that, to confess or refuse confession, to nurture or rebel against the ("tyranny of the") lyric self, to explore the idea of multiple selves with no one/fixed point of view, to cast oneself as an inanimate object in a poem, to be a reliable or an unreliable narrator, to defamiliarise or "make strange" verticality of discourse, to call into question the very idea of narrative, to value skill above a stream of consciousness, to invent unheard-of sound structures, to expand our notion of what a poem can be, to turn out a euphonious or juddered line, to cause into being alternate or alternative realities, to coexist in parallel impossible worlds, to parody reactionary ideas and support ideas that are politically admirable, to present vivid or elusive imagery, to lay bare the nature of language itself in its day-to-day encroachments, to communicate directly or else firmly to oppose simplistic “communication”, to yield to discipline yet espouse non-normative speaking as a systematic praxis not only in syntax but in daily life, to offer a compact, well-executed story, to delight in ambiguity, to dwell in clarity, to stand up honest-to-God like with a straight face without winkage and to tell [them] the whole truth as is (even if only to explode or reverse it in the final stanza), to not rhyme or to not not rhyme (whether in meter or not), to revitalize and render relevant in performance marginalized genres such as gibberish and code, to breed or feed trash talking as newsprint, to be attuned to nuances of class and social positioning, to be aware or oblivious of one’s poetic lineage, to write in a dialect, to cultivate macaronicity, to charm or infuriate the general reader, to interpret the ghazal as homophonic translation, to take or not take oneself seriously, to wax preplanned or off-the-cuff, mechanistic or visceral, to mount open-endedness as its own device of closure, to compose off the Ouija board, to loom completely and entirely modern, whether mega-serious or meta-ironic or macro-staunchly-anti-nostalgic, to span schools of poetry, or to boldly go where no poem has gone before.


It’s not that these things never have any worth: the point is that they are—in general, in and of themselves—just too darn easy. They are small beer. They may help one feel better about oneself when one is young, enhance a youthful sense of accomplishment, but anybody can pull them off (even non-poets!), and it’s for undergraduates to “engage with” and argue about them. Principles and anti-principles (of course) of composition, traditional or progressive thinking, vintage poetics and fresh poetics are all for undergraduates. Structure is merely the peg that the poem hangs on—there is nothing deep in the structure itself except that it permits the poem to hang, to unfurl. Content is the form that personality takes in the poem. We don’t often command our personality though we have some choice in the subject matter. What is hard is to do the hardest thing—to find it through experience, by long trial and error, and just do it. It should be one’s own and frustrating, near impossible to accomplish. Self-subversion, outgrowing oneself, appears to be a vital part of the process.


JA: You raise several issues here. For me, the nuance of what is written is indissoluble from the way it is written ... but perhaps we can come back to that later, I’d like for the moment to keep the focus on the idea of "self-subversion". If I’ve understood correctly, for you it’s crucial that a poet is constantly refreshing, renewing ideas, style, even Weltanshauung in order to self-challenge and to focus as a poet. But as you describe in your own case this process is unconscious and independent of will and seems to allow no room for rationality to play a part, indeed, you seem to disparage an intellectual or "undergraduate" route to change. You underline the limitations of Western dualistic thinking but I’m not getting any hints you’re seeking a solution through an Eastern philosophical approach. Can you point me more acutely in the direction of change by giving me some specific examples of the nature and way "self-subversion" has enabled you and your poetry to evolve?


PN: No, I don’t advocate constant change for its own sake: poets vary temperamentally and one must do things at one’s own pace, find one’s own tempo. Nor have I any wish to disparage the intellectual route: I’ve been a teacher and fully respect undergraduates. I simply mean that it’s hard for us sometimes to extricate ourselves from dated issues and discourses that are no longer relevant to life. A good way to interpret poetic history is to see it as a succession (and mingling) of forms of preciousness commonly known as aesthetic ideals. The historical instances include chivalric love, pastoral harmony, moral didacticism, verbal ornamentation, prophetic insight, emotional sincerity, timeless universality, local specificity, symbolic allegory, social realism, pervasive irony, formal experimentation, and so on. Every age requires a method of feeling good about itself that is centered on a particular mode of poetic preciousness, and hence certain techniques and visions become fetishized into literary trends. Some of us took the Romantic cult of nature and replaced nature with language. What often escapes notice is the fact that poetic devices are simple, almost trivial things—they should simply be assumed, internalized, taken for granted or exploded as appropriate, but in and of themselves they are not much to write home about.


It’s funny that you should mention “an Eastern philosophical approach”—as far as metaphors go it occurs to me that poetry, like any serious work, is indeed a sort of yoga: you get into it deeply, you learn to breathe in a certain way, you develop a Shiva eye.


As regards examples of my “self-subversion,” we’re getting into a fairly personal zone here and it’s a doubtful matter to footnote one’s own verse, but I have already referred to one example—my poem 'A Polemic'. I have various others that are essentially parodies and/or self-parodies. One reasonable thing still available in the face of the fat absurd is to have a good laugh at oneself. We are metaphysically comical. It’s not that I am especially at loggerheads with “Western dualistic thinking”, but it has long seemed to me that pompous self-assurance is a reliable sign of stupidity—an observation I’ve been privileged to confirm time and again—yet I have myself been guilty of various self-assurances and so I understand the psycho-mechanics involved: I can look at my own self-inflations and those of others with a bit of a clinical vision and diagnose the itch to feel good about oneself that is prone to lead to narcissistic dogmatism, the point being to immunize oneself against it where possible.


JA: Returning to the idea of form as a component of meaning ... Besides English and Russian you’re conversant with a number of other languages and as such I’m sure you’re acutely aware that language doesn’t just describe a world but structures it as well. This is not dissimilar to form in poetry and has to be more significant than you described as merely a peg to hang a poem on. Indeed, as you’ve demonstrated with the immured sonnet, its form has a peculiar dynamic of its own, which directly impacts upon meaning; just as I’m sure your Indian poems would have been different if you’d not learned Hindi. You can’t take form that lightly?


PN: Do we ever perceive anything but forms of structured reality?


We have so far have been using the word “form” in its basic sense of “verse form”, such as the sonnet and even the immured sonnet. I don’t feel that the verse forms completely predetermine the dynamics of what actually gets written, though they extend various possibilities. Style, taste, thought and “the moment” decide the dynamics, which cannot be known in advance of the writing. But all the deciding elements always tend to play off or over this or that form.


Perhaps I take various poetic forms too blatantly for granted, but I hardly take them lightly. For example, I would encourage all beginners to explore and intimately internalize as many poetic forms as possible, even if the end result will in some cases be their abandonment. What could possibly be the point of not knowing all the available forms? They are easy and inviting. Pushkin remarks, ' Thought exits the head naturally plumed with four rhymes'. The trick is to say what you need to say, but formal fluency adds a certain quality to a writer’s sense of verbal pitch that is hard to come by otherwise.


JA: Another thing I’ve noticed is that you’re not afraid to use humour seriously in your work to highlight the limitations of language and reasoning, even evoking at times the nonsense worlds of Lear and Lewis Carroll. Although reason and language often fail for you amid the universal babble of a commercially orientated culture, are there ways in which you believe poetry can transcend the Absurd and the incoherent and offer a way out or way through all the chatter, or does it exist solely as a shoulder to cry on?


PN: For me poetry presupposes a kind of love, which has its fragile ways of dealing with the absurd. Love turns pain and laughter into music.


JA: If I remember correctly, in a recent interview with the Boston Globe, you said that poets essentially wrote poetry for themselves, the primary audience. Do you think that meaning is only possible through such intra-communication? And what of the secondary audience, the readers, where does meaning reside for them, relegated as they are to the role of eavesdroppers?


PN: Not sure what I said in the Boston Globe, but readers are a poet’s friends. We write as we live—mostly for ourselves, but also for our friends.


JA: Philip, thanks for the scope, depth and freshness of the insights you’ve offered into the way you approach your poetry. Just two questions remain: when can we expect a new collection from you; and what chance is there of you visiting the UK soon?


JA: Salt, which is based in England, commissioned a book of poems from me some time ago. It’s coming along at its natural pace, which is not fast, but I have made good progress and hope to finish the manuscript this year. I have only been to the UK once, and then only to London, but it so happens that I grew up as a keen British-Isle-phile and have much affection for UK cultures and poetry and always dream of visiting your shores. Before too long without a doubt!



  copyright © Philip Nikolayev & Jack Alun