An Interview with Nathaniel Perry, by Grant Clauser
Nathaniel Perry’s first book of poems, Nine Acres, won the 2011 APR/Honickman First Book prize, judged by Marie Howe. Nine Acres is written in meter and rhyme. Each poem is constructed of four stanzas in tetrameter—an approach not found in abundance in today’s poetry journals. Second, the poems are all from the point of view of a single speaker and take their titles from the chapters of a 1935 farming handbook by M.G. Kains called Five Acres and Independence. That book came to Perry as a gift from a friend who was encouraging him in his own gardening endeavors.
Perry was born in Georgia and now teaches at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia where he also edits the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. This interview was conducted via telephone.
Grant Clauser: Did the concept for this book develop after you’d already written a few of the poems, or did you envision the collection and then write to fit within the mode?
Nathaniel Perry: I did write a few of the poems first and then the concept came to me pretty quickly. I think the first poem I wrote was the one with the seed catalog (“Vegetable crops to Avoid and to Choose”), and it happened to be in that form of simple rhymed quatrains in tetrameter, and I had maybe thought of doing a group of 10 or so with the titles from the M.G. Kains book, but the form felt fun, and was engaging for me, and I soon decided I was going to do all of the chapters. I guess I didn’t initially even realize it was going to be book-length.
GC: I find this book to be very much like a journal—recounting the events of a year. Like a journal it tells a story, without relying on narrative. How fully formed in your head was this narrative when you were writing it?
NP: Strangely, not really at all as I was writing it. I assumed that I would put the poems in the order that they appeared in the original book, but then somebody pointed out to me very late in the process after I had already written all of the poems that there were 52 poems which was equal to the weeks in a year and it dawned on me that they could fit into the cycle of a single year. I remember taking all the poems and just sorting them out by spring, summer, fall, winter and seeing what that looked like and being pretty happy with that. I’m still happy with it.
GC: I noticed shifts and waves in the relationship between the husband and wife throughout the book.
NP: Well, you’re married. There are always shifts and waves. I won’t hide behind the fact that many of these poems are sentimental and sweet, but I like to think that’s still possible without being necessarily bad, and so the way to do that is to be true to the way relationships are. They can be hard and frustrating and full of doubt while simultaneously being joyful and intimate and full of starlight, so I wanted to show what an actual relationship looks like.
GC: In the poem, “Green Manures and Cover Crops,” which strikes me as a most unusual title for a love poem, you open with “Is there a center in all of this,” which is a good example of how you use agricultural subject matter to launch into deeper ontological questions. For you, how does the surface subject interact with the core subject? How do you balance that?
NP: That poem was written specifically for either Valentine’s Day or my wife’s birthday, and the first draft was typed up and put into a card for her. So it was, and is, a love poem, and I did think about the fact that it has manure in it and that maybe that’s not the best word to have in the title of a love poem for your wife… Green manure is a cover crop—grasses or clover—so it is something alive and meant for nourishing the ground beneath it. I found the image to be telling in the way we try to love and nourish each other.
As far as natural or ‘agricultural’ description vs. ontology, as you put it so nicely, for me the surface subject matter is the natural world and me working in it. It’s not really separate from the core subject matter. I don’t go in for a romantic view of the natural world. It is the world. It’s not a Band-Aid for problems and our troubles. It’s beautiful, and it’s also ugly and terrifying, and all those things are great subjects of any art. So when I’m working outside I’m actually thinking about those things. When I’m thinking about the way the natural world works in my life those are generally the things that come up consciously or subconsciously. So I guess in writing, the two come and go together.
If you’ve ever met somebody who’s truly bilingual and listened to them when they are sitting around chatting with other people who are bilingual they’ll often move in and out of the two languages with a special kind of double fluency. When a phrase is more salubrious in Spanish they’ll switch to Spanish and when it’s better in English they’ll switch to English. So when I’m working with natural images and larger, as you say, ontological ideas, it’s kind of like that, one emerges when the other is not quite sufficient, and then vice versa. I guess my model for that would probably be somebody like Frost and also Geoffrey Hill.
GC: In many of these poems, the central pivot is a decision—to plant this or that, to prune now or later… is that a conscious structural method for you, something that just happens, or intrinsic to what you’d consider an effective poem?
NP: I did notice as I was writing them that these poems have the sort of pitch and rise of a sonnet. They’re 16 lines instead of 14 and four feet instead of five, so you kind of have the same amount of room that a sonnet has, and a sonnet has what you’re talking about in the volta, so maybe just by its nature a poem of this length breaks somewhere in the middle and has to move at some point. So as I composed them maybe I felt like there was always a time when the poem had to move along and aim back down toward the ending.
It makes me think of something a teacher of mine said that all lines of tetrameter break in the middle, so you always hear two and two. I resist, a bit, such a draconian hearing of my now dear four-beat line, but there is a grain of truth to it for sure. So maybe poems like this, four even stanzas, always break somehow into two parts—an opening and closing, an introduction and resolution, a question and answer, an introduction and an exit—and then there’s some hinge between the two.
GC: Molly Peacock remarked in at least one interview that she regarded form as the skeleton, rather than the frame of the poem, by dictating the shape from the inside, rather than from the outside. Can you describe your own experience of writing toward a particular structure?
NP: I think that’s a great way of thinking about it. I can’t remember the last time I wrote something in free verse. I always remember an essay that Glyn Maxwell wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review back when somebody had discovered a new Frost poem that had been scribbled into the side of a book. When they published the poem for the first time Maxwell wrote a piece to accompany it, and he said something like that in free verse everyone’s watching you move because you’re the only thing moving. That’s struck me as one of the reasons why I avoid free verse because I don’t like to be the only thing moving. Meter provides me a kind of background music to play with, like I’m soloing over somebody’s basic beat, and that’s always been for me essential. Like a body without a skeleton, it’d be kind of floppy. Meter for me is intrinsic to the meaning.
GC: In addition to the more obvious devices –such as end rhymes, you use devices like repetition, question/answer formats, and rephrasing. Do their uses relate to the poem thematically?
NP: We’re always trying to get stuff right, and we do it by repeating or rephrasing things. The speaker in these poems is never sure if he’s getting things right so he tries and tries again. And a lot of that probably comes from Frost. He was always questioning himself and taking things back and going out and coming back—in “Birches” there’s the boy who’s going out and in to fetch the cows. Rarely does one go for a walk in Frost and not also walk back. I think I see that as a kind of truth, the idea that everything is a perfect arrow from A to B isn’t really true. Usually we go from A to B and then halfway back to A and than a little bit toward B and then maybe overshoot A on our way back and we can sort of see B from the trees, and if you do that enough then maybe you actually got somewhere.
GC: Traditionally, metered and rhymed poetry is not the prevailing standard today, particularly among younger poets. Do you see yourself as a bit of a maverick here? What attracts you to this approach?
NP: There’s not a lot of poetry being written in meter and certainly not in rhyme among younger American poets. There are people though. I just got a Timothy Donnelly book The Cloud Corporation and a lot of that is in occasional pentameter. Lisa Jarnot does wonderful things with rhyme. A new poet, Regan Good, manages form in what seems an utterly necessary way. There are fantastic established writers who are writing the best books of their careers, like Gjertrud Schnackenberg, who should have won every prize in the world for Heavenly Questions. It’s an incredible book. She has more ambition in ten pages than most poets have in a lifetime of work, and she’s writing in blank verse in that book. But she won’t win those prizes, I think. It’s the same way we treat Geoffrey Hill here. He’s a fabulous, uncompromised writer who is an absolute master of the craft, but nobody reads him here, and people mostly just fuss at him in England. But his Collected Poems comes out next year, and it should be on everyone’s wish list.
But I don’t know if it’s something uniquely American to be skeptical of meter and rhyme, or if we’re all just so steeped in the way free verse sounds we have trouble letting ourselves away from it. So I guess not too many books look like mine, which I take a little un-hip pride in. I’m not hip. But, I like the way rhyming sounds. A good poem in meter and rhyme has another kind of music to it that a poem in free verse just can’t quite achieve as far as I’m concerned. I can’t imagine what percentage of poets in MFA programs are working in meter and rhyme, but it’s got to be incredibly small. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know. But I’ll end by saying, there’s certainly a lot of great poetry out there in all forms. I’ll have faith that the best writers, young or otherwise, will write in the way that is best for them.
(Nine Acres is available for purchase here: https://www.aprweb.org/book-prize-winner/nine-acres)
Grant Clauser makes his living as a home technology writer. His poems have appeared in The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Cortland Review, Wisconsin Review, Blueline and others. In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. His book The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing) was published in 2012. He runs the Montco Wordshop and teaches poetry writing at Philadelphia’s Musehouse. He lives in Hatfield, PA and runs the blog www.poetcore.com .