The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show: Nick Lantz

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What’s The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, you ask?

It’s a celebration of poetry. It aims to be inclusive, witty, conversational, sometimes goofy, sometimes profane. At times, circus-like. The love-child of John Milton and Ellen Degeneres. Of Arsenio Hall and Marianne Moore.

Its influences include David Letterman and Paul Shaffer, Iron Chef, Helen Vendler, Flavor Flav, James Lipton and Inside the Actors Studio, Dr. Seuss, Studs Terkel, The View, Louis C.K., Sharknado, Joan Rivers, Survivor, ESPN, Playboy magazine, Paul Muldoon, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Colbert, The Paris Review, and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

But not Rachael Ray or Dick Cheney. Those two don’t have a poetic blood cell between them.

What is The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show?
Hell if I know.
A little bit of verse and a little bit of love.
We’ll figure it out as we go.

“If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem,” said William Carlos Williams.

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Welcome to Late Nite, commercial-free. Thanks for tuning in.

Our first guest, Nick Lantz, became the envy of novice poets everywhere when two poetry manuscripts he’d been circulating, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House, won the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize and Felix Pollak Prize, respectively, in 2009. If there’s still such a thing as making a big splash in literature, Nick’s feat was the equivalent of cannonballing the pool of American verse. Both books were published to wide acclaim in 2010.

Nick is here to chat about his third book, How to Dance as the Roof Caves In, which was published by Graywolf last month.

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The Rumpus: Thanks for joining me on the first episode of Late Nite, Nick.

Nick Lantz: Thanks for having me. This couch still has that New Couch Smell.

Rumpus: I hope it’s not so pungent that it dulls the senses. How do you feel about being our guinea pig, our lab rat, our first guest?

Lantz: I feel like Laika, the dog cosmonaut, hurtling into space.

Rumpus: Well buckle up, my friend. Let’s hop to it. I love the title of your new collection, How to Dance as the Roof Caves In. Before we get to the meat and potatoes of the book, it’s my duty to ask what we’re all wondering: are you a good dancer?

Lantz: I’m hopelessly, tragically bad.

Rumpus: Me too, though I once won a dance contest in the seventh grade. Who knows where those smooth grooves went. Are you worse than Elaine Benes?

Lantz: I think Elaine is actually a good dancer, because she’s enjoying herself. I’m thinking more the clumsy teenager at prom who steps on his date’s toes and is petrified of getting an erection.

Rumpus: Been there, done that.

Lantz: Some dancers have skill, and some have confidence. Some have both. I have neither.

How To Dance as the Roof Caves InRumpus: Back to the title. It’s a great frame for the book, both tragic and funny. Can you tell us something about how you arrived at it?

Lantz: Well, it wasn’t the original title. It started as How to Dance When You Do Not Know How to Dance, the title of one of the poems, which I felt embodied the axis of optimism and futility that the manuscript rotated on. My editor wisely pointed out that it was too similar to the title of my first book, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, and so I went through a series of alternatives, looking for something that evoked the same spirit without rehashing language from a book that was a very different project. I wanted to keep dance in there because that act entails the clumsiness and grace that I felt were intrinsic to love/marriage, which is what a lot of the poems are about.

Rumpus: Early in each Late Nite episode we ask our guest to introduce a poem that represents the book, much like an actor or actress will introduce a representative “clip” from an upcoming film. Care to do that now?

Lantz: Sure. This one is called “How to Travel Alone.”

 

Rumpus: This is the second poem in the book. It really sets the tone for the poems about marriage.

Lantz: That’s the idea. It sets up a lot for the reader: home/place, marriage/love, language…but it is also a fair panorama of the moves I make in my poems, sort of like an overture: you’re going to hear these tunes again, later in the show. Elisions, litanies, found text, weird metaphors, and so on. They’re all tools I employ in later poems. I didn’t write this poem with that function in mind, but it worked out that way, so I kept it at the front of the book. It also contains some humor, or what counts for humor in my poetry, and I strongly believe that giving the reader some comic relief at the outset can be a wonderful thing.

Rumpus: I envy so many things in the poem. The combination of pathos and comedy. Intimate desire openly expressed, but off-kilter. Arresting images. Some of the poem’s “moves” feel like Nick Lantz moves, by which I mean they echo patterns in your first two books, like swervy transitions and the use of repetition: “Some days… Some days,” “Here is… Here is,” “I do, I do.” Strangely, those passionate utterances, because of the heavy repetition, threaten toward monotony. That’s one source of tension, in the poem and in marriage. One difference in How to Dance is that this sequence is directed toward an erotic “you,” which makes the speaker seem more personal and vulnerable. This is another way of saying that you feel more present in this book. Would you agree?

Lantz: Well, if by me you mean my poetic signature or m.o., my “voice,” then yes. This poem, and the ones like it, are classic Nick Lantz.

Rumpus: I mean the real Nick Lantz, the guy lounging here on an imaginary couch on the set of my imaginary talk show.

Lantz: That guy is only barely in these poems. Anything autobiographical in here is dialed up, polished, buttressed, injected with drama that didn’t exist for me in real life. As a presence in my poems, I hope my voice is honest, in the sense that any claims or observations it makes resonate with the reader, but I don’t aspire to the same thing for my narrative persona. There’s no detail about my life that I wouldn’t change to make it seem more interesting on the page. Though that has gotten me in some odd situations before.

Rumpus: I’ll bet. You also write plays, and while reading the poems in How to Dance, I feel very much like I’m sitting in a chair in an auditorium, watching an actor speak in front of a staged set. In “How to Travel Alone,” that hotel room with its four “ship at sea” paintings is an absurdity, a theatrical set. The ambitious sequence at the center of the book, “How to Stage a Community,” goes all in on this kind of strategy. It almost reads like Greek drama, with episodes and masks and even a chorus that haunts the sequence’s narrative. It’s a hell of an ambitious poem, and again, funny and tragic. Can you talk about the intersection between your playwriting and poetry?

Lantz: For me, playwriting is a vehicle for real physical action. In a poem, I try to evoke a presence, to call the illusion of something tangible out of the abstract cloud of language and thought. When I write plays, I’m creating a space for the body to inhabit. When I write poems, I’m creating a space for the mind to inhabit. But the staging of many plays is more suggestive than comprehensive, and that is reminiscent of how poetry triggers a scene in a reader’s mind through a few well-chosen images. I describe enough of the hotel room in “How to Travel Alone” that, I hope, it comes to life, but I leave out more than I describe. What color’s the carpet? What does it smell like? Given one or two key objects, the reader’s imagination supplies these details. Both the poem and play allow for great minimalism, letting the writer pare away everything that’s unnecessary to our attention. I’m thinking of Beckett’s “Not I,” which is just a mouth suspended in darkness. A good poetic image is like that.

Rumpus: We live in a self-help culture that loves the whole idea of “How To” manuals, E-mail/Dominoes/Raising Chickens/Minecraft/Lovemaking for Dummies, etc. A quick survey of your titles suggests the self-help phenomenon has influenced your conception of How to Dance as the Roof Caves In. Tell us more about that influence.

Lantz: The “how-to” model is about the belief that, given the right steps, you can exert some kind of control on your life. That idea strikes me as noble or foolish, depending on how my day is going. I’m drawn to that ambivalence.

Rumpus: Do you read self-help manuals? If so, care to tell us which ones, and what you found there?

Lantz: Sort of. I recently read a book of instructions for amateur taxidermy, but that was research for some poems, so I don’t know if that counts. I’m skeptical of social or psychological prescriptions that promise self-improvement. The ones that ring true amount to common sense, and the rest seem dangerously naive.

Rumpus: A found poem you’ve constructed, titled “Help,” pushes the “How To” strategy to an extreme. Some of my favorites include “How to Call Bolivia,” “How to Avoid Marriage and Other Committed Relationships,” “How to Find Cat Urine with a UV Light,” and “How to Survive a Freestyle Rap Battle.” The whole poem is a list of ridiculous self-help resources. Did you compile this list after obsessively employing some kind of tactical Google search? I also wonder if you attempted to write poems for these titles.

Lantz: I found a website full of these self-help articles, the titles of which intrigued me. I often start with a title, use it as a point of departure for a poem. So I compiled a list of titles from the site and starting using them as triggers for poems. At one point, all the poems in the book had how-to titles. I made up a few of them. But as I was nearing the end of the book, I had this huge list of unused how-to titles. So I devised “Help” as a way to use some of these titles. It’s my favorite poem from the book to read aloud. I love found poetry, the possibility of turning something that is most definitely not a poem into a poem.

Rumpus: Now that you’ve successfully imported a self-help mentality into your poems, have you thought about branching into self-help videos? Or maybe you’ve branched out already. I’ve done some sleuthing, and I think you must bear some responsibility for this weird yet informative video.

Lantz: Ha, that’s great. I wish I could take credit for it, but sometimes the universe just delivers. My favorite part is that it’s labeled as a project for an “oral communication” class, but he doesn’t say one word the entire time.

Rumpus: Yeah. You just know that kid is a smart aleck. And now look what we’ve done by posting this link. We’ve made him famous.

Lantz: There’s also a Nick Lantz who is a paranormal investigator. And apparently he’s an author too. (Here he is discussing his upcoming book.) And yes, I know about him because I google myself. In all seriousness, though, I do want to teach myself to make videos for some of my poems. The poem videos that Organic Weapon Arts have been doing are phenomenal. I’ve got to teach myself some basic video editing first, though.

Rumpus: A shout-out to Organic Weapon Arts! The people behind it, Jamaal May and Tarfia Faizullah, have a lot of passion. Poets and visionaries—both of them.

Lantz: They’re both doing great work for the rep of poetry.

The Lightning That Strikes The Neighbors' HouseRumpus: Okay, Nick, complete the simile: the journey of writing one of my poems is like…

Lantz: The journey of writing one of my poems is like searching all my pockets for a dollar, realizing I already spent that dollar, then finding another dollar on the street.

Rumpus: My knee-jerk response is to ask if you always find that replenishing dollar on the street. Or to ask how long it takes to find that dollar. There must be a good deal of faith involved in your process…faith that you’ll stumble upon the poem’s next development or “move,” so to speak. Am I on the right track?

Lantz: I believe you have to undertake a lot of honest failure in order to write something decent. Most of the poems I’ve written that I’d call successful came about through what feels like serendipity. I make plans: I will write this poem, I will write that poem. Intention, though, often produces a poem that feels predetermined. I write the poems I intend to, and they’re often unsurprising, dull. But in the process I stumble onto something good—a line, a phrase, an idea—that I didn’t plan. And that becomes the real poem. But you have to write the failed poems—lots of them—to stumble on the good stuff.

Rumpus: I’ve recently taken up the challenge of writing funnier poems. Or rather I’m trying to write them. Failing mostly. Your method of composing found poems catalyzes some of the humor I find in How to Dance, but sometimes you’re able to launch a whole poem with a funny line. “Symptomatic” begins: “Doctor, my heart is a crumpled/beer can.” 

Can you talk a bit about this skill? I guess I’m asking you to be my own self-help guide: How to Write a Funny Poem. Pray tell.

Lantz: I don’t think of myself as a funny poet. My natural inclination is 100% morbid. If I tried writing a poem about a happy memory—say, fishing with my grandfather—I can guarantee the poem would end with me gutting the fish and throwing their carcasses in a ditch for the coyotes. That morbidity has a pull, a gravity—it constantly bends my poems in its direction. Humor eludes me most of the time. Most of the things I find funny I would describe as a judiciously mean surprise.

Rumpus: C’mon, man. In addition to being morbid, you don’t think “Doctor, my heart is a crumpled/beer can” is funny?

Lantz: Sure, sure—I’m just saying that funny moments in my poems are the exception that proves the rule. The joke in the poem that I’m really proud of is when the speaker says his father was “an abandoned/oil derrick. That was his name, Derrick.”

Rumpus: When I first read it, that line made me chuckle.

Lantz: That whole poem is jokey metaphor after jokey metaphor. But then it ends with the speaker witnessing his neighbor cut a dog’s ear off with a pair of scissors. Nothing figurative there, and nothing funny. That poem is, ultimately, pretty cruel. I’m a morbid, pessimistic misanthrope. The jokes are just evasions, diversions, stalling.

Rumpus: Do you consider yourself a satirist?

Lantz: I believe sometimes when people think I’m being satirical, I’m just trying to describe the world accurately. It’s not my fault the world is ridiculous. Yes, okay, the real hotel room only had the same ship painting on three walls, not four. Does adding the fourth painting make it a satire? Maybe.

Rumpus: Which satirists have influenced your work? When I read “How to Stage a Community,” it put me in mind of George Saunders’s stories. Disaster looms over the characters. I know it’s going to end badly for them, and yet I find myself laughing at some of the things they do and say.

Lantz: Saunders came late in the game for me…I probably didn’t read any of his stories until after grad school. But Flannery O’Connor, yes. Talk about someone who jokes her way right up to a morbid conclusion. In stories like “Everything That Rises Must Converge” or “Good Country People,” she manages to craft characters who I laugh at but also sympathize with deeply. I was reading her in high school. She’s in my bones.

Rumpus: Speaking of satire, do you ever watch talk shows? Anything here I ought to be doing more or less of? Come to think of it, I wish I’d started off with this question.

Lantz: I used to stumble onto talk shows back in the day. I get all my TV shows streaming/on-demand now, so I would have to seek out a talk show, which I don’t do. I watch The Daily Show, but I think Stewart’s interviews are terrible, so I usually skip that part. A lot of talk show hosts, particularly late-night hosts, have a confederate—not quite a co-host, but a bandleader or emcee. I’m thinking Andy Richter, Questlove, Paul Shaffer, etc.—someone they can riff with. Maybe you need a real or “fictional” sidekick.

Rumpus: You’re right. I need a Questlove! Or maybe a kangaroo bouncing on the end of the couch. I wonder if Tony Hoagland is available.

Lantz: Now he’s a good satirist.

Rumpus: We digress! Is it true you’re a comic book fan? I hear you like comics. 

Lantz: Yeah, I read a lot of comic books in middle school. I didn’t go in for the DC cape-and-tights crowd, though. I was a Marvel kid, mainly X-Men. I was reading most of their titles up until the Age of Apocalypse arc started in the mid-’90s. Thanks to my dad’s influence, I was also reading more adult graphic novels, too: SandmanHellblazer, Books of Magic.

By the end of high school, I was trying my hardest to only read really hip or weird comics. I was way into Evan Dorkins’s Milk & Cheese. In college, my comic reading fell off. I didn’t start up again until after grad school, and I went right back to X-Men—Joss Whedon’s run of Astonishing X-Men got me hooked. Saga is my new favorite grownup comic. But I won’t read anything issue-by-issue anymore. Trade paperbacks all the way.

Rumpus: Does your love for that genre influence your poetry at all? Your vision of contemporary America is often dark. It looks like a place that could use a superhero.

Lantz: Honestly, no. I have intuitive but strong opinions about what is and isn’t interesting fodder for poetry. I’ve told a number of students that just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Comics just never ping as something I want to write about. That said, Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis is the book to read if you want poetry about comics. The opening poem of that collection weaves together the origin story of Captain America and Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It’s a really smart book, and I think I enjoyed it partly because he found poetic potential that I hadn’t seen in comics.

Rumpus: Cool. Have other art or pop culture genres helped shape your work? Songs? Films or television shows, maybe?

Lantz: I’m really fascinated by the intersection of pop culture and poetry. The high water mark for that has got to be Denise Duhamel’s Kinky.

Rumpus: Haven’t read it. I’ll have to check it out.

Nick Lantz 2 (Vicky Lantz)Lantz: What she does with Barbie in that book is nothing short of amazing. David Trinidad’s Plasticville and Albert Goldbarth’s Popular Culture are also excellent if you want to see poets using that sort of source material. Anyway, pop culture figures and objects tend to make cameos in my poems rather than being the central focus. I do, however, have a poem coming out soon in the voice of Natasha Fatale, from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

For my current manuscript project, which is all about human-animal relationships, I’m working on some poems about toys or video games that contain animals—Duck Hunt, Teddy Ruxpin, Tomagotchi, etc. As with most of my projects, though, only about thirty percent of the ideas make it to a completed poem, and maybe thirty percent of those are worth keeping. So we’ll see.

Rumpus: Are you serious? Keats’s muse was Fanny Brawne. Plath’s was Death. Lantz’s is…Teddy Ruxpin?

Lantz: I knew a kid who had a Teddy Ruxpin, and his older brother replaced the cassette in Teddy’s back with a Metallica tape, so Teddy would move his mouth in time to “Master of Puppets.” It was sweet. So yeah, Teddy’s my muse.

Rumpus: Have you seen the documentary The Five Obstructions, by Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth?

Lantz: You’re not going to ask me to get naked, are you?

Rumpus: We here at Rumpus Late Nite have devised a knockoff, called The Three Obstructions. Unlike the documentary, this is purely for the purpose of entertainment. One might even say that the goal is to write the worst poem you can. Ready to take a shot at this in front of a live audience?

Lantz: I make my intro poetry students write a deliberately terrible poem at the beginning of the semester, so I guess I deserve this.

Rumpus: You do. Okay. Here are your three rules. Write a poem about this YouTube clip. That’s rule number one. Rule two: give a name to the dancing figure. Rule three: it’s got to be a limerick.

Lantz: You asked for it…

Roger was a freak with no face,
body sexless and smooth as a vase.
But far from a bore,
on the disco dance floor,
he moved with ineluctable grace.

Rumpus: Wow, you aced it, man. Bravo! You’ve been a great guinea pig. Thanks for joining us for our first show.

Lantz: Thanks for having me on. Good luck with the show.

Rumpus: Thanks. We need it!

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Stay tuned for Episode #2 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Matthew Zapruder.

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Featured image and second image of Nick Lantz © by Vicky Lantz.


David Roderick’s latest book of poems is The Americans. He also has a website and can be followed on Twitter. More from this author →