A John Ashbery Remembrance Day
A call came into the shop from someone looking for your Girls on the Run.
We didn’t have the book.
Could not have been expected to have the book.
But I offered to order the hardcover edition, which was still in print,
also suggested Notes from the Air,
and one of the Library of America collected volumes
which would include Girls on the Run in its entirety,
providing the customer with more of the work for a small mark-up in
The t-shirt I was wearing had a crude drawing of your face—a gift that my
wife had ordered online.
The poppy on my sweater looked pinned to your hair.
I didn’t tell the customer I was wearing the shirt.
Instead I write it here,
just a little bit high on the feeling of being of use.
from If It Gets Quiet Later On, I Will Make a Display
(Nightwood Editions, 2023).
Reprinted with permission
Nick Thran is the author of three acclaimed collections of poems, including Earworm, which won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. After stops in Toronto, Victoria, New York, Calgary, Madrid and Montreal, Thran now lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Wolastoqiyik, where, in addition to writing, he works as an editor and bookseller. His new collection of essays, stories, and poems, If It Gets Quiet Later On, I Will Make a Display, was published in Spring 2023 by Nightwood Editions.
Rob Taylor: The back jacket copy of If It Gets Quiet Later On, I Will Make a Display bills it as “a volume of essays, stories and poems… on a life of reading, writing and bookselling.” And yet, smack in the middle we find “Collected Trout,” a 24-page essay on Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Like in a wide-ranging display at a bookstore, your reader is left to make the connections between this disparate part and the others. A few other pieces, too, seem only loosely tethered to the book’s central concerns.
“I love making the themed / (albeit only broadly associative) tabletop / displays,” you write in an early poem in the book. Later, you refer to this type of curation as “a form of poetry.” Could you talk about your approach to the curation of this book, which ranges so widely in both form and content?
After Mayor Snow, I wanted to write a book that didn’t rely too heavily on well-paved neural pathways towards anxiety and fear. Those things could be there in the new work, would be there, because that’s a part of my makeup. But the central mode of the new book, whatever it looked like, would be that E.M. Forster quote from Howards End “Only connect!” I also wanted to stay with things longer than I was in a lot of my poems. I liked the challenge of extending looks, in prose, while also accommodating diversions, digressions, associative thought.
But I’d hit a wall in a book of essays I was working on. The essays I’d already written were interesting to me. A lot of them, “Collected Trout” included, are in this book. But I’d developed an impossible set of constraints for myself. I was also running into that difficulty most every non-fiction writer, writing about the work of others, runs into: am I really the person to be speaking on behalf of some of the artists I’m writing about? Especially if I’m trying to make these essays, in some way, personal? Fiction gave me some freedom from those constraints, to remove the names, to veer off in wildly imaginative or speculative directions, but keep the essence.
RT: What inspired you to pursue fiction as a way to keep the essence of a true story?
NT: Fiction has, since I moved to Fredericton seven years ago, become a real companion. I especially like a lot of the sometimes sprawling, sometimes granular, lyric, multi-book series loosely termed “autofiction”– Knausgaard, Ferrante, Alexis, Bolaño, Cusk. The value of novels and story collections is more apparent to me now than at any point in my life, especially living a bit further away from the urban centres, especially navigating through middle age, especially staying engaged with the world throughout the pandemic. I think as public spaces shrink, and culture sometimes feels more clipped, visual, or algorithm-generated, it makes sense that a lot of readers are drawn to works where people get a chance to go on and on about the full scope their lives and the lives of those around them, whether fictionalized or not.
One day I was reading this slim novel by Dionne Brand, Theory, when it clicked: fiction, that thin film over reality that gives us room to play with the ways that people relate. Then I spent a glorious three months just writing and editing story after story. All six that are in the book.
In addition to relieving some of the self-made pressure of the essays, including short fiction added another element to the still-flowering idea that I could write a book that is also a display. Imaginary bookstores. Play with gender. Other points of view.
RT: Did you have any similar influences that inspired the essays-that-stayed-essays in the book?
NT: As soon as I decided I wanted the new collection to embody the pleasures and practice of book display-making, I started to think about writing an autobiographical essay about bookselling. I stumbled upon a book of essays by Vivian Gornick called Approaching Eye Level. WOW. I read five more of her books. Three of them, Approaching Eye Level, The Odd Woman and the City and Fierce Attachments, I’ve read at least three times each (they’re short). She reminded me, by the insightful hinges or explosions that seemed to occur from some of the briefest encounters, that there was no such thing as a “boring” subject. That the most niche or particular interest—decorating a window with books, for example—could be interesting if I was writing directly at what made it interesting to me.
About Vivian Gornick I began to understand what my guitar teacher, Sebastian (who happens to be the teenage son of two friends of mine), means when he talks about his love of Bruce Cockburn: “He plays everything I want to play, exactly the way I want to play it.” Her work taught me how I might transfer some of what I knew worked in a poem into prose, at the sentence, paragraph, and overall structural levels. Many other writers of prose have influenced this book. But I hadn’t felt this mix of affinity for a voice along with a MAJOR CRAFT LESSON since the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa first showed me how to write a poem.
RT: What did Komunyakaa show you? (He asks, as a poet who still has no clue how to write a poem.)
NT: In 1999, the year I got my mitts on his Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems, I was immediately moved by how the variety of settings in the poems—Louisiana, Vietnam, Harlem, etc.—felt joined in the music of the lines, and in the kinds of details that he brought to the fore (often brief, tender details, like the woman “brushing a boy’s hair” in the black glass of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial).
I drew from how he experimented with different masks, different voices. I liked his then-burgeoning insistence on drawing lines between the contemporary and the mythical, even when those lines went through inhospitable places, or traumatic experiences. I admired how he wrote, musically, about his love of music.
At the beginning of my writing life, I thought that poetry was elevated thought, or feelings distilled to inarguable truths. But in Komunyakaa’s poems, such as “The Dog Act,” it seemed like “Contradiction, the old barker / drunk again on these lights / & camaraderie” was the mode. The speakers in his poems seemed to strive for meaning and self-loathe in equal measure (something I could identify with at the time).
And in terms of a craft lesson, just look, in those quoted lines, at the way “& camaraderie” takes on the properties of the “these lights,” all those “a”s blinking, rhythmically, visually, between the consonants. It’s the kind of intricate wiring that one could work towards learning. You didn’t just have to magically BE some precocious (and probably insufferable) Rimbaudian character.
RT: I love the thought of Brand, Gornick and Komunyakaa all nudging you forward in their various ways, perhaps arguing a bit between one another but ultimately collaborating. When did you decide to bring it all together—stories, essays, poems—in one book?
NT: I had been reading a lot of what you might call “unclassifiable books.” I was interested in work that swerved away from expected narratives, that used collage techniques, mixed fiction with non-fiction, that were hard to catalogue. And I’d always had it in my mind that I’d like to try a book of lyric prose.
So, finally, I had the drive and the tools. I was writing a book of poems at the time, too. But to be honest, most of the poems I’d been writing—not all, but most—were boring me to tears. Now, poems that I thought were worthwhile began to bubble up from the sludge of my poetry files, and seemed fresher when set next to the prose pieces. The poems had context; they did some things the prose couldn’t do. Putting the book together started to feel like my Sunday afternoon display-making at the store. Metaphors of the forest and the city started to flirt with one another. I was in that good, creative place again, saying the things that I wanted to say, in the ways I wanted to say them.
RT: Thinking of Brand, Gornick and Komunyakaa encouraging you along brings me back to your puppet workshop essay. The associative connection the essay sparked for me was a writer’s longing for the intimacy and intensity of being part of a creative team. Writers sometimes near such relationships—while taking workshop courses, working with editors, haranguing fellow writers with interview questions, etc.—but we largely live solitary lives. Does “Collected Trout” offer us a window into your desire for an alternate creative life you wish you could access? In the book’s titular essay, you describe Book City Bloor West Village as “A bookstore, but a kind of workshop too.” Have you been able to find that alternate life, in some way, in bookstores?
NT: I think there are two general locations in If It Gets Quiet…, the bookstore and the workshop. The tabletop or window display is a theatrical display, too. Also, a kind of pond. It made sense to have a theatre company at work in the middle of the book, to set up a stage where a reader could learn about these puppeteers and watch them build their imaginary worlds. I wanted to write about people who took play, and their plays, seriously. When I arrived in Calgary for ten months of work in 2015, the primary thing that I wanted to do was to visit the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and talk with the puppeteers. I had a hunch I had something to learn from them.
And yes, in hindsight, watching the Old Trouts work reminded me of the kind of magic I used to feel when me, Sue Sinclair, Kalpna Patel, Paul Vermeersch and others were all selling books together at the same store in Toronto. But the Trouts are entirely their own thing, and I wanted to honour that in the work. “Collected Trout” provides journalistic counterweight to the autobiographical elements of other essays and poems. I didn’t want to strain to connect that piece to the profile of the book, or to the sales pitch on the back cover.
RT: Near the end of the puppet workshop essay you write, of living and creating beside the Rocky Mountains, “One may see the enormity and potential of oneself, but also the poverty of one’s own material, one’s absolute smallness.” Do you feel some equivalent to this when working in a bookstore, surrounded by towers of words? To what extent does it daunt you? Inspire you?
NT: Bookstores only inspire me. They are my safe, happy place. I feel energized by the impossibility of being able to read everything; it calms me down. And it makes sense to me, both as a reader and as a writer, that someone would buy, say, a copy of Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Life of Trees, or Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, instead of the book we’re talking about now.
Watching people make their book choices is something that helps me, at a fundamental level, see other people. It’s the place where reality, fantasy, commerce, etc. don’t always feel at odds with one another. I mean, we can talk about who owns these bookstores, what is or isn’t on the shelves, and who can afford to buy books. These conversations are important and ongoing, and I hope I gesture towards some of them in this collection. But ongoing, too, is the small talk, the idle browsing, the unexpected conversations that happen in bookstores. That’s where my jam jar is.
RT: One of the most moving pieces in the book is “Notes on a Version of The Waste Land,” a “fictionalized essay” about poet and TS Eliot translator Fernando Vargas, who you worked with as a Creative Writing instructor while he was a patient at Coler-Goldwater Hospital in New York City. In the story, Vargas’ living quarters, a shared hospital room with little space for his books and writing, is a constant source of anxiety in his writing life. What did that experience teach you about the importance of the physical spaces in which you read, acquire, and write literature?
NT: I hadn’t thought about that essay so much in terms of the anxiety over physical space, it being so concerned with mental health or interior spaces. You’re right, that physicality is central. And to be in a space where you can’t keep more than a few books, that’d be anxiety-producing for anyone who loves to read.
“Notes on a Version…” is the oldest piece in the book. I think that the experience of working with Fernando drove home the rather obvious point that creativity, and creative people, exist everywhere, and that the degree to which we can engage in our creativity is contingent upon a variety of factors, many of which need to change and should change, and some of which are beyond our control. He and I managed to make a space; we were two people at a table talking about books and poems with one another. We made a connection, too. I didn’t want to let that connection just slip into memory. I also wanted people to know a bit of his brilliance, even if his circumstances were not great.
More generally: any book with its nose too deep into places which are, let’s face it, often white-owned, and in neighbourhoods that have pushed low-income families out to make room for what can sometimes feel like a bourgeois or boutique experience, is not going to succeed as being a book for more than a certain kind of reader. I wanted to set pieces in hospitals, in industrial areas, on the clearcut sides of the mountain, to articulate that the experience of working in a small bookstore can be grafted onto other kinds of experiences, jobs and practices.
RT: The range of people, places and subjects in this book is one of its great delights. While the book centres the worlds of booksellers and writers, you also explore the lives and works of many other types of artists, including painters, architects and, of course, puppeteers.
Poems about, and in response to, music and paintings have appeared in all your poetry collections. Could you talk about this interest of yours? Does a consideration of these other arts allow you to get at something—about art, about life—that is more difficult to access if you focus on writing alone?
NT: A previous book of mine once received what I think was a criticism, something about not being sure where the influence of a particular writer ended, and my own voice began. I think about this a lot. In some respects, I want my work to have a shape distinct from the other shapes. But as is probably evident at this point of the interview, I am easily influenced by the work of others. And many times, this ease I have in relating to the work of other people, in a variety of genres or practices, feels like a strength, a way in which I am comfortable being social, with sharing ideas, seeing similarities in structures, and giving praise where praise is due. I know this capacity helps me as an editor and as a bookseller. As a writer, I’m usually less sure.
RT: Your ease with influence is a strength, Nick! Very much so. Another strength of yours is your endings: one of my favourite things about reading short fiction written by poets is how, and where, they wrap things up. Writing poems feel like the ultimate training ground for honing beginnings and endings—poems, especially short ones, being largely composed of these two elements. How did your years of writing poems inform your approach to writing endings in fiction?
NT: We seem to talk a lot in our culture about a poet’s first poems and about a poet’s last poems. I do think poetry is fertile ground for beginnings and endings, as you say.
It has been harder for me to write poems in the middle of my life. When they do come, I am grateful. And I admire poets who seem to find the clearest articulations of their life-long projects somewhere in their middle poems. What an important thing, for a reader who also writes, to see others finding their ways through the middle. It’s not easy. Finding one’s way through the middle is, I think, another theme to this book.
How this beginning and ending relates to writing short fiction, I’m not sure. I don’t know that I’ve written enough fiction to have a sense. In terms of the stories that are in this collection: maybe as a poet I have a trained willingness to end abruptly, to not fill in too much or to over-explain. I think it’s Deborah Eisenberg who talks somewhere about short fiction being like having just a couple of holes in the fence between you and your neighbour. I like that sense of the short story as a fragment gesturing towards the unseen whole of another person’s life. That’s textbook poetry stuff too, is it not? “Petals on a wet black bough,” etc.
RT: Before we wrap up, the big question: If It Gets Quiet Later On, I Will Make a Display arrives at your book store. Where do you shelve it? Where would you hope to spot it if you entered another bookstore?
NT: Right now, there’s one in the window, a stack on the new release table, a couple copies in poetry and a couple in biography. When the launch is over, I’ll probably let my colleagues decide. Maybe we’ll crunch the numbers and see, if it moves at all, from which section it more readily moves.
As for other bookstores: my sister recently sent me a picture of my two nieces in Munro’s Books in Victoria. They were excited to see their uncle’s book in the store, and on display. It was in essays, face out on a wall of plastic brackets, underneath a new edition of Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. First I grilled my sister over text, you guys didn’t put it there? You just found it like that, near the Carson? Nope, she said. That’s just where it was. And so that’s where it will remain on display in my mind—with my smiling nieces, near one of the early books by one of my favourite authors, in the first bookstore that made the mystery of literature feel accessible to me.