blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1

Bookmark and Share Share
print version
NICK LANTZ | Levis Remembered

A Reading by Nick Lantz
captured September 29, 2011 at Grace Street Theater in Richmond, Virginia

You need to have Flash Player and Javascript enabled to hear the audio.

Terry Oggel: Good evening. This is a wonderful turnout; I’m glad to see everyone here. I’m Terry Oggel, Chair of the English department here at VCU. Welcome to the Fourteenth Annual Levis [Reading] Prize reading, given by this year’s winner, Nick Lantz, honoring his collection We Don’t Know We Don’t Know—and it needs to be said that way, I think. Publishers Weekly has lauded the book for its “traditional strength” with “narrative surprises.” Acclaimed poet Linda Gregerson proclaimed, “Lantz writes with elegant simplicity. Most poets take a lifetime to learn as much [as he]. . . .  We Don't Know We Don't Know is a brilliant book about the brutal limits of sympathy and imagination. Which is to say, it nurtures, brilliantly, the sympathy and imagination that might restore us.” To make this award to Nick, more than 150 entries were narrowed down to ten finalists by our MFA students, and the final judging was done by the faculty in the MFA program in creative writing in our English department. Many other groups and individuals were also involved in making this evening’s celebration of Nick’s achievement possible, and I want to recognize them now: VCU Libraries, in particular John Ulmschneider, who’s not able to be with us this evening, and Greg Kimbrell, who is with us; the James Branch Cabell Library Associates; VCU Friends of the Library; the College of Humanities and Sciences; the Department of English; the MFA [in] creative writing program; the Honors College; and Barnes & Noble @ VCU. As for my colleagues, for their energy and vision, I am especially pleased to recognize David Wojahn and Kathy Graber, as well as Richmond’s literary matriarch, Mary Flinn. With these, I want to acknowledge both the Levis Fellow, Emilia Phillips, and the English department’s graduate programs advisor, Thom Didato, for their tireless efforts. Please join me in applauding the support and work of all of these. I’d like to take a minute for one friend of Larry’s who has, for four years now, provided a special highlight in our award program: David Freed, whose mixed-media full-size portrait of Larry is represented by the image on the big screen behind me. David is with us this evening; please join me in welcoming him. David worked with Larry on several joint projects, and the English department is most appreciative that David has given the department this richly fascinating depiction of Larry on a long-term loan. This portrait, especially in the head and shoulders, captures Larry just right: the tilt of his head, the hand and fingers as they pull at the neck—that gesture is perfect. We view Larry from the back. We see him, but I think he does not see us— he is not aware of us. He is in thought, that gesture seems to me to say. He’s mentally writing—and his lines, in manuscript, are etched along the side there. He’s lit up a fresh cigarette; the last one is not quite crushed out yet, under his heel. David’s portrait of Larry hangs in our department office suite, where we are reminded of Larry daily. We are extremely grateful, David. Thank you for your generosity.

The Levis [Reading] Prize is awarded to the author of the best first or second book of poetry published in the previous calendar year and is made in the name of our late colleague, Larry Levis. With this award, we remember a distinguished poet, essayist, teacher, scholar, and, above all, mentor for many of us in the department. Larry was our colleague until his untimely death in 1996. Nick Lantz’s collection takes its title from a dodging statement by former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. We Don’t Know We Don’t Know assesses what it means to claim new knowledge within a culture that professes to know everything already. The result is a poetry that upends assumed concepts of such a culture: that new knowledge is always better knowledge, that history is a steady progress upward, that humans are in control of the natural order. Nick Lantz’s poems hurtle through time from ancient theories of physics to CIA training manual for the practice of torture, from the history of the question mark to the would-be masterpieces left incomplete by the deaths of Leonardo da Vinci, Nikolai Gogol, Bruce Lee, and Jimi Hendrix. Before I relinquish the podium, let me say that copies of We Don’t Know We Don’t Know are available for purchase in the foyer, and I know that Nick will be happy to sign copies immediately after his reading. After the reading, you are all invited to the reception and light refreshments in the foyer. Now let me make room for a personal and professional friend of Larry’s, Mary Flinn. Mary?

Mary Flinn: Before I try to evoke Larry, which is what Greg Donovan usually does, we do have a little gift for Nick, which is a copy of a portrait of Larry by David Freed. And we also want to remember that this series has been supported, generally, from its beginning by Larry’s family, particularly his sister Sheila Brady, and his brother, Buck Kent Levis, and we’re grateful to them for their ongoing support of our program and the way they have chosen to remember Larry. So, trying to evoke Larry: Tomorrow would actually be his sixty-fifth birthday, which is hard to take in. He was my good friend and a pal for Sunday night suppers of scotch and pork chops at Joe’s Inn. He told jokes that were kind of metaphysical and really not that funny and absolutely unrepeatable on this occasion. He had an Italian sports jacket of which he was very proud, and he taught my kitten to box. But beyond that, shortly after his death, he appeared to me in a dream, a story that’s much more about me than it is about Larry and probably prompted by the suddenness of his departure. In this dream, I was at a performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and for whatever reason the theatre was fairly well lit, and I was sitting in a row near the back that had no row in front. So, Larry comes in and sits down next to me. I look at him and say, “Larry, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead.” And he says, “I am dead.” And I ask, “What’s dead like?” Larry pauses for a minute  . . .  and then answers, “It’s sort of like Chekhov, a little boring.” I say, “What are you going to do now?” He says, “I think I’ll go see Phil for a while,” and he leaves. Like most of my dreams, not really very interesting, but it presented the gift of the sound of Larry’s voice. Something—when they are silenced, the voices of the dead seem terribly difficult to recover. Having a poet for a friend, however, presents the consolation of the voice that stays present in the work. This presence is one that we have tried to recognize in Blackbird each year in our remembrance of Larry’s poems—I edit Blackbird with Greg Donovan. This fall, we will be reprinting the poem “Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate.” When Amy Tudor and I were sorting through various manuscripts in the summer of 1996 after Larry’s death in May, trying to provide some guiding help for Phil Levine who, with the help of David St. John and Peter Everwine, would be editing what became the book Elegy, “Elegy With an Angel at Its Gate” was probably the most difficult of the poems to organize. It had many versions, and in Blackbird we will be reprinting images of several of Larry’s drafts to show a little of how he worked. The four parts of the poem are titled “Muir in the Wilderness,” “Bunny Mayo in the New World,” “Stevens,” and “Like the Scattered Beads of a Dime Store Rosary.” At least one of the references made by the poem’s title is to Wallace Stevens and his poem “Angel Surrounded by Paysans.” Here are a few lines.

[ “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” Wallace Stevens, 1949]

These lines of Stevens echo in Larry’s poem, as does this statement made by Stevens in his essay collection The Necessary Angel:

[Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, 1951.]

Both bits of Stevens are threads to follow in trying to understand where Larry was headed. Particularly, a grounding in the “real” world seems to give a Levis poem its foundation for generating an effect that continues, that brings a departed voice to an echoing volume. I will conclude with the fourth section of “Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate”: “Like the Scattered Beads of a Dime Store Rosary.” The section is comprised of only four sentences, and the final sentence is one third of the piece.

[“Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate”: “Like the Scattered Beads of a Dime Store Rosary,” Larry Levis, Elegy, 1997.]

And now Gregory Kimbrell will introduce our speaker.

Gregory Kimbrell: We’re almost ready for Nick Lantz. As the coordinator for the Levis Reading Prize contest this past spring, I had the pleasure of following the excitement that grew over Nick Lantz’s first book, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, as it passed from reader to reader, receiving unanimous high praise. That the book deserved to win the prize was abundantly clear, and I’m glad to be here tonight to welcome Mr. Lantz to VCU, at last, to read his work as the culmination of the contest.

Mr. Lantz also had a second book in the contest this past year. Publishing two collections of poems in a single year is an accomplishment in and of itself. For those two books to be the first two that one has ever published is even more impressive, and for those two books to both be outstanding—that is a feat. Although it didn’t win the Levis contest, Mr. Lantz’s second book, The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbor’s House, was selected by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky for the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.

I mention Mr. Lantz’s illustrious debut not to intimidate but to convey the degree to which he has immersed himself in the writing life. His two books are but a fraction of his output. While working on new poems and preparing the manuscript of a third collection, he also writes for the stage. Last year, the University Theatre at the University of Wisconsin–Madison performed his play Across a Distance, which incorporates both operatic singing and American Sign Language. He’s also hammering away at a libretto for the Endstation Theatre Company in Sweet Briar, Virginia. And he utilizes Twitter as a medium for composing and distributing micropoems such as this one: “Last time I saw / the old sawmill I was / milling around / around about midnight / in my night-vision goggles, / ogling the owls and feeling / owlish.”

Mr. Lantz’s diverse and spirited writing gives evidence not simply of a strong work ethic but also the joy of creation. One of the features that I most admire in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is precisely its sense of revelry. Each poem is a kind of experiment, whether involving something as concrete as a repeated phrase or as obtuse as seeking conceptual similarities between an unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci and Bruce Lee’s unfinished film, Game of Death. And where there are experiments, absurdity is not far off. I find it hard not to feel a little silly when reading that “dogs were  . . .  convicted / of witchcraft and burned at the stake” along with “chickens, fish, and a few trees” or that, “during the Cat Festival in Ypres, / effigies of cats are thrown from a belfry tower.”

But in Mr. Lantz’s poems, the space between hilarity and horror can be very small. The poems teeter between the two as though the two were codependent, or were even the same thing. And what is the essential difference between burning animals as witches and, in the name of science, placing monkeys in isolation chambers until they either kill themselves or become psychotic? Mr. Lantz’s poems raise many such questions, perhaps unanswerable ones. So at the same time that the poems delight, they fascinate. One is almost afraid to look away, as though the things on the page might happen again, exactly as they were described.

And on that note, let’s welcome Nick Lantz.

Nick Lantz: Well thanks for that introduction; that was fantastic. Of all the Twitter poems that you would read, it would be the one that I wrote out of sort of desperation at midnight, like, “Okay, I have to come up with something, so  . . . ” I feel like there are ones that are much more heady and intellectual than the bad wordplay, but I’m glad that one jumped out at you. So this is a great audience—this is a great room. I’ve never read in a venue quite this big, so that’s exciting for me. And thank you all for coming out and filling out the space so it’s not everyone, like, bunched together in one spot. I want to thank a few people: obviously VCU and all the sort of various departments that were already mentioned that support the Levis [Reading] Prize, along with Larry Levis’s family. Prizes like this are rare and amazing for poets. We don’t get a lot of financial or social reward for what we do, and so moments like this are very, very important for us. So, a big thank you for that—a thank you for all those introductions—and Emilia’s been shuttling me around Richmond since I’ve been here, so thank you for that. I wanted to also start by reading something that Larry Levis wrote. It’s pertinent to something I was working on. My new manuscript that’s under way is all about animals—human-animal relationships—and so I was drawn in particular back to poems about lions and donkeys. And so I had been sort of scouring my brain for some of these poems and, in preparation for coming here, I’d been thinking some about Levis and I’d looked at some of his work that I hadn’t looked at in a while and I found a poem titled “Sleeping Lioness” that I just wanted to read one section from, because for me it really captures, in a lot of ways, the things I like about his work. So, this is the third section of a multi-sectioned poem.

[“Sleeping Lioness,” Larry Levis, first published in The Gettysburg Review, Summer 1989.]

I just thought that was a terrific poem. So, I’ll read a little bit from my book We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and, then, from some of my other books and manuscripts, and I’ll see you all out at the reception afterwards. So, I’ll start with my book We Don’t Know We Don’t Know; as Terry said, the title comes from a statement by Donald Rumsfeld that’s famous or infamous, but I’ll read it very quickly, just in case anyone isn’t familiar with it. “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.” After hearing that quote, I was immediately struck by its similarity to poetry—by the skill used in deploying that language, but of course it’s not like poetry in some very significant ways. Or, as I think of myself as a poet, I often lie a lot to get at the truth—you know the big, sort of capital-T Truth. And, in this instance, Donald Rumsfeld is saying something that’s true, and even nuanced and interesting about the nature of knowledge, but it’s not really an answer to the question that he was asked, so it’s a way of using language to sort of trap the truth—to get away from the truth. And so I thought of that as sort of being the inverse of what a poet does. I was very interested with the idea of using Rumsfeld’s language and repurposing it sort of back for poetry, not to write sort of political responses, but to find something in his language that was in fact beautiful or interesting, and sort of steal that from him, and sort of steal back language in the process. So, that makes up several of the poems in the book. And the other sort of muse for the book is Pliny the Elder, particularly a translation by Philemon Holland, which is full of all this great sort of Elizabethan English, which, again, the language is really what attracted me to it. And, so, the two sort of main threads in the book have either epigraphs from Pliny or from Rumsfeld. And so I’ll start with three that are from Pliny; this one is titled: “Of the Parrat, and other birds that can speake.”

[Nick Lantz. “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake,” We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Graywolf Press, 2010.]

This one is titled: “Whether the World be finite, and but one.”

[ “Whether the World be finite, and but one,” Nick Lantz, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Graywolf Press, 2010.]

So, I’ll read one more of these Pliny-inspired poems. This one is titled “Of the last peeces of Painters,” and it’s about unfinished works of art.

[ “Of the last peeces of Painters,” Nick Lantz, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Graywolf Press, 2010.]

The novel finishes there, so the poem finishes there, too. So I’ll read a longish poem from this book. I was very conscious of not writing a lot of overtly political poems, or at least I tried to, for what that’s worth. But this is one that I sort of let myself go on. The title of this poem is “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?”—and you need to know one thing: that questioner throughout appears in quotation marks. The title is from the CIA’s Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual–1983, which is just a nice euphemism for interrogation or torture. So, I found it instantly horrifying and fascinating that they would put quotation marks around questioning whenever that appears, like “After you begin the ‘questioning.’” You know, it’s like, who do you think you’re fooling, right? This is an internal document for, you know, your own agents. But I became very interested in this idea of sort of questions to ask yourself before you begin a “questioning,” so this poem is made up entirely of questions. And also, in following the source material, which is a declassified document, there are still parts of it that are redacted, that are blacked out or whited out, or that have been obviously edited, so there are parts of this poem that are blacked out, so I’ll just pause when I get to those.

[“Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?,”Nick Lantz, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Graywolf Press, 2010.]

I’ll take a drink of water after that one. So, I’ll read, quickly, three of the short poems that take Donald Rumsfeld’s statements as epigraphs and inspiration. And, the first of these is titled “Too Many, Too Few,” and the quote from Rumsfeld is this: “There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way.”

[“Too Many, Too Few,” Nick Lantz, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Graywolf Press, 2010.]

This next one is titled, “Things Will Not.”

[“Things Will Not,” Nick Lantz, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Graywolf Press, 2010.]

I’ll read one more of these Rumsfeld poems. This book has sort of become notorious among my friends and family for the awful things that happen to animals in the book, especially dogs, and this is probably the “exhibit A” in that regard. I have nothing against dogs; I like dogs. I think the reason that bad things happen to dogs in my poetry is that I like dogs. I find it a very, sort of, emotionally compelling, empathy-inducing thing, when a dog gets hurt. That’s where this comes out of, it’s not out of some sort of latent sociopathic tendency or something like that. Also, the story in this poem is true. It’s about someone in my family who I never met in person but heard a lot about. And it’s a story I always wanted to get into a poem, and struggled and struggled and struggled to, and almost sort of by luck stumbled onto putting it into this one. And, the title is “Thinking Makes It So.”

[“Thinking Makes It So,” Nick Lantz, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Graywolf Press, 2010.]

So, there you go. I’ll conclude the Rumsfeld ones on that happy note; I’ll read one that’s maybe a little more fun. I’ll just read one from my second book, The Lightning that Strikes the Neighbor’s House. This is one I like to read out loud a lot because it has massive possibilities for me screwing it up. Garrison Keillor read it on The Writer’s Almanac, which, I’ve got to say, was really a trip—I mean, if you know what Garrison Keillor sounds like. And, then, I’m going to read this poem, and you have to imagine him reading this poem, and there’s some dissonance in that, I think. The title of the poem is “Portmanterrorism”; the poem comes out of an exercise I actually gave my students once, which was to write a poem using as many neologisms as they could. And so, I did this, a certain version of this, myself with portmanteaus, which are blend words, like smog, which is a portmanteau of smoke and fog, right? So, these are kinds of words you’ve all heard, and these run the gamut from fairly normal ones to fairly weird ones. And, so, other than the title, these are all real words that I found out somewhere in the world. These are not things I made up, but the title is, of course, a portmanteau of portmanteau and terrorism. So, “Portmanterrorism”:

[“Portmanterrorism,” Nick Lantz, The Lightning that Strikes the Neighbors’ House, University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.]

So, I’ll read just two more poems, and the first one of these is from my third book, which is happily on its road to publication now; it’s going to be a long road: it’s going to be published in 2014, so mark your calendars! I know you will be waiting breathlessly outside your local bookstore for it, if bookstores still exist in 2014. The title of the book is How to Dance When You Do Not Know How to Dance. Many of the poems are “how to” kinds of poems. Being aware of my tendency for morbid things like dogs getting shot, I tried very hard in this book to write poems that were a little funnier, and I usually fail; this poem is not funny at all, so, sorry. I don’t think I’m quite capable of more than brief, sustained moments of humor. So this poem is titled, “The Chisel.”

[“The Chisel,” Nick Lantz, How to Dance When You Do Not Know How to Dance, to be published by Graywolf Press in 2014.]

So, I’ll close with one short poem, and this is from my manuscript that I’m currently writing, which, as I said, is a lot about animals—particularly lions and donkeys, in the first section. There are other sections, but that’s the one I’ve been most obsessed with and that was what drew me back to that particular Levis poem. So, this is one that had to do with donkeys, and I quote from Genesis, from the story of Abraham when he takes his son Isaac up to cut his throat. And so the quote is: “And Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey. The lad and I will go yonder and worship and we will come back to you.’” So this poem is titled, “Waiting with the Donkey.”

[“Waiting with the Donkey,” Nick Lantz, unpublished 2011.]

Thank you.  end

return to top