Photo credit: Deborah Denker | Interview by Zoë Brigley
“Sometimes a short poem or phrase feels a little like a gift: it arrives almost fully formed and I get the sense that adding too much deflates the impact of the image and sound of the poem.“
BUS STOP, GWYNEDD
two boys kissing in the shelter of a bus stop in the shadow of a cemetery along the A5 towards Penrhyn and the Afon Cegin Kitchen River one lad clutches the other’s jaw cupped in both hands his hips flexed forward the other’s leant back as if to say how far will you go? how far will you follow?
I was immediately intrigued by this poem because I am very interested in the possibilities for freedom in expressing intimacy for queer people in public spaces. I feel like this is a poem that claims space in a way that I admire. Could you say a bit about this poem’s attitude to space?
This is a great question, and very central to my PhD work on Queer Ecopoetics and what I’m calling “The Queer Pastoral”, which is a way of thinking about pastoral, rural or even so-called “wild” spaces and how they interact with queerness, queer people, and urban environments and vice-versa. In a large sense, I’m thinking a lot about the lines that we set down between subject and object, say human and nature, but in a more located sense I’m just observing and reporting happenings and experiences I’ve witnessed and/or participated in during the past several months I’ve been living in North Wales. In this instance, I literally saw this scene during one of my daily very long walks, and tapped it into the notes app on my phone as soon as I was sat somewhere. But of course, recalling this passionate scene in tranquility some days later, it occurred to me that perhaps this public (and yet also private— I had the sense that the two lads in the poem were wildly occupying both spaces) display really belonged in the landscape of North Wales, as much as the usual suspects like sheep, snow capped mountains, jackdaws, rooks, etc. This is one sense of what I mean by “queer pastoral”: that queerness belongs in pastoral settings (and indeed has a rich history of being depicted in pastoral poetry, as far back as there are poems).
I enjoy short poems when they have tension and power in their brevity – like this one! How do you approach short poems and whose short poems do you admire?
I, too like short poems very much and I suppose I actually view them in a few different ways. Sometimes a short poem or phrase feels a little like a gift: it arrives almost fully formed and I get the sense that adding too much deflates the impact of the image and sound of the poem. This is very rare, but it’s happened to me more than once where a line just sort of surfaces and becomes the entire poem. The other way I think about short poems is through radical acts of compression, sort of like Lorraine Neidecker. She seems to shave away layers of words until she gets to the very hard, gem-like essence of the poem… like these really dense but tiny atoms of poems that contain such heavy feelings it seems almost ridiculous that so much meaning and force can be contained in such a tiny vessel. And of course, I think a lot about Basho and the poetic forms that have sprung from that tradition. And more recently, during my time in Wales, I’ve become very interested in cynghanedd, and the possibilities that arise from that tradition which might make poets writing in english think a bit more critically about sound and syllables within a short line.
The questions at the end of the poem work well as a kind of dare. What are your favourite kinds of endings for poems? What does a good conclusion need do you think?
Like a lot of poets, I struggle with endings. How do we know when a poem is done? I am often in the position where the best course of action seems to be to simply get rid of the last line or two. I have a bad habit of overwriting, which I sometimes am able to overcome by much of what I was discussing above in the short poems question. But in terms of what should the ending of a poem do, I really think the last line is a lot like the last paragraph of an essay, and I tell my first-year writing students in the US that that last paragraph should be a pathos-centric message or really a feeling that they want their readers to walk away with. I think the same is true of a poem. What taste do you want to leave in a readers’ mouth? Is it sweet, or salty, or does it leave you wanting more? Do you want it to linger bitterly? Why? For this poem, I wanted to find a way to get at the essence of what I was seeing— and a set of open, almost dialectic questions (decidedly erotic!) seemed to be a suitable ending for this small pastoral vignette.
Caleb Nichols is a queer poet and musician from California. His poems and prose have been published widely in places like 14 Poems, Queerlings, Redivider, 45th Parallel, Talkhouse, and Truthout. His Kelp Books chapbook Teems/Recedes was called “a gorgeous abundance” by Chen Chen and his pamphlet of prose Don’t Panic was published by Broken Sleep in 2022. Caleb has poetry pamphlets forthcoming from Bottlecap Press and Broken Sleep. A Best of the Net nominee, and a recipient of an Academy of American Poets University prize, Caleb is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Bangor University in North Wales, where he currently lives.
You can follow him on Twitter @seanickels, on Instagram also @seanickels, and find him on his website www.calebnicholsis.gay
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