The following interview with Nik De Dominic was conducted in person by Erik Vande Stouwe on 20 June 2012, transcribed from voice-recorder by the latter, and edited by both parties. It serves as a companion piece to the Summer Local Writing Series feature on De Dominic.
Erik Vande Stouwe: I guess the first thing I should ask is: Tell me what you are doing with Orleans Parish Prison.
Nik De Dominic: Currently I teach for the Bard College Early High School New Orleans program, which was an initiative started here after the storm to offer classes initially to RSD (Rebuilding School District) but now it’s through charters, for students that wouldn’t necessarily get an opportunity to be engaged in a traditional seminar environment. Most high-school classes are autocratic, top-down: here is the information, you take the information, you memorize the information and your ability to do well on the test is based on your ability to regurgitate that information. Whereas when you go to a liberal arts institution it’s less about that and more about dynamic thought making. Here’s the information; what do you do with it? How can you synthesize that information to make new?. Orleans Parish Prison has a high school in it, because it is an official state right to have a high school education, so if you get picked up at 17, in fact you have to go to high school. They invited Bard in to do their seminar, and I taught that because I’d taught previously as an Alabama Prison Arts fellow, and so it was an easy transition for me. Additionally I wanted to give the opportunity to local and national scholars and writers to come in and teach a text that they feel sparked their intellectual interests. Every semester I coordinate eight to 10 guest speakers, whether they are writers or medical anthropologists or… I bring them in every other week to teach a text that is valuable to them. You get that college job out of graduate school and you’re teaching blah-blah-blah…composition, intro to anth, whatever it is. So it sort of works on both levels: It’s great for the people that come in because they get to teach texts they wouldn’t normally get to teach, and the guys are incredibly available, interacting with people they wouldn’t necessarily have interacted with in their everyday world.
EV: Has this work at all changed your conception of poetics? On the one hand, technical concerns and on the other hand, the role of poetry…
ND: As a writer I’m interested in talk and sound. One of the biggest criticisms I got in grad school was that I often write in a sort of dramatic monologue; the poems that y’all have aren’t that, but my bread and butter is dramatic monologue, and I always got nailed for jumping register. That is, if I’m writing from this eighteenth century farrier’s point of view, there’s no way that he would be able to see this, make this type of lyric observation.
ND: Does that make sense?
ND: But there’s a construction there and the poet’s hand feels heavy. Whereas my argument against that is that everybody is constantly available to this sort of lyric beauty that happens in speech if you listen to it. I’m doing more recording and transcribing as opposed to…meddling. Working with guys that come from varied backgrounds, from different parts of the city, affects my ear. And hearing what they produce after a reading changes my take on the scene.
EV: So your writing comes from a refinement of this sea of conversation?
ND: I think so, but I hazard against the word ‘refinement.’ It’s so charged… I keep an ear out for the possible beauties that come out of people’s mouths unexpectedly. Does that make sense?
EV: Yes. I think that’s a really interesting way to frame a poetics, and if you want to say more about that…in terms of how that developed, whether it’s been able to function in other cities.
ND: My dad’s a storyteller; I got into poetry by way of fiction, and was working in that. Again, I was just not so much interested in the story in and of itself, but how the story was told, and I think that’s important in poetics. It’s not the poem; it’s the full package. Its delivery; its content; its form. That’s of interest to me. O’Hara’s Lunch Poems were paramount in that development too. Here’s a guy who’s walking through a city, right? And hearing and seeing, and repurposing that on the page, in a way, I think, that works the same way I work.
EV: That transitions to the first question I have written down, which is: What are your influences: influences broadly speaking and influences for the writing you’re doing right now?
ND: Sure. Sure. Frank O’Hara. And Danil Kharms…that absurdity and depressiveness is so weird. Natasha Tretheway. Beth Ann Fennelly. I’m interested in these Southern Writers who are working in this space. It’s just as much about space as it is the poem. There are others – Melville, Bidart, H.D., Levertov. A lot, I guess.
EV: To put this in the context of what you were saying earlier, is the weirdness pre-existing in the place, in the dialogues, or is it an addition, an artifice? To put it differently, is the narrator we find in these poems a magician or a witness?
ND: I think a witness, but of course with any first person speaker of course that witness becomes magician through the lens. The thing shifts and becomes skewed through its view. He has to be handled that way; as dangerous, as all poetic speakers are dangerous. We have to enter suspect, and I also think…Well, my roommate was a doctor, and he came home one night after reading something of mine, and he went through it, and he never could understand its clinicalness. He would ask, why did you make this choice? And I would say, well because of the sound of the language the way this pushes on that. And he would say yeah yeah yeah is there a steady beat? and I would say yeah well I guess there are five beats per line, kind of not really, and he just kind of looked at me and said, you guys are all tricksters. Yeah we are. There’s a magic show going on. Magic results from the way words lean upon each other.
EV: Tell me something about the manuscript Roadsides.
ND: Alright. I spend a lot of time in my car and I like spending time in my car, and often there here in New Orleans men will be frozen staring up at the sky. Have you seen that? You’re going down a street and you see a guy there and he’s just sort of stuck, and I don’t know if it’s drugs or just mental health stuff or heat or exhaustion… Do you actually know what I’m talking about?
EV: Yes, I do.
ND: The first summer living here, I was going through a weird space and drafted that manuscript from that. In it the topography of the road conflates with the interiority of the speaker. Figures become landscapes, and there is a slippage between the speaker and landscape and figure.
Erik Vande Stouwe is content editor for creative writing for NolaVie.