Interview With D. Nurkse

Dennis Nurkse Reads at the Katonah Poetry Series on November 11th, 2012.

Andy Kuhn Your tenth book of poetry is named A Night in Brooklyn. The title poem brings together sexual love, the brute and unlovely physical realities of the city, and the ceaseless creative and destructive activity of imagination in an off-hand, surreal way.

A Night in Brooklyn

We undid a button,
turned out the light,
and in that narrow bed
we built the great city—
water towers, cisterns,
hot asphalt roofs, parks,
septic tanks, arterial roads,
Canarsie, the intricate channels,
the seacoast, underwater mountains,
bluffs, islands, the next continent,
using only the palms of our hands
and the tips of our tongues, next
we made darkness itself, by then
it was time for dawn
and we closed our eyes
and counted to ourselves
until the sun rose
and we had to take it all to pieces
for there could be only one Brooklyn.

Source: Poetry (January 2008).

AK: The end of the poem has a kind of rueful humor to it, partly because already in this short poem you’ve given us a lot of Brooklyns. But you also seem to suggest that the imaginative fervor of lovers and poets does have to yield at dawn to the enormity of the actual city. Oh well! It’s a kind of creation myth. Can you say a little about the origins of the poem, and how it developed?

Dennis Nurkse: Thanks, Andrew. A theme of A NIGHT IN BROOKLYN is how we make up stories, believe them, and live in them as if they were worlds. But this poem is playful–it’s giving the sexual act the power to transform everything around it; which, of course, it has, but only to the participants. This poem also fools around with the tradition of the aubade and the alba, the troubadour and classical poems of lovers confronting dawn.

AK: Brooklyn means a lot of things to a lot of people by now, and it seems to be always changing. (I’m guessing that at least a third of the audience who will turn out for your reading will be former Brooklyn residents, like me). What are some of the compelling elements of Brooklyn for you as a place to live, and as a place for the imagination to take hold?

DN: Brooklyn throughout my life has been a place of vastness and wildness. I remember immense ruined factories; neighborhoods where diners sold ake ake, saltfish, cowsfoot soup, comfort food from West Africa; neighborhoods where you would hear Malayam, Quechua, Ladino. I once accompanied a great Irish poet who read in Gaelic in Irish Brooklyn. I remember bars where ex-guerrillas spoke of fighting the Bloody Black and Tans. I love the sea and the mountains. Brooklyn really had the same sense of being beyond measure. I remember teaching poetry to Orthodox Jewish children. One young girl came up with the line “red is the color of dying in your sleep.” The parents were startled, halted the workshop, and consulted a rabbi as to whether the exploration of poetry was safe or psychically dangerous. The rabbi felt that confronting the depths was entirely healthy and the parents invited me back.

AK: You write about various trades—some of them long since vanished from Brooklyn, I imagine—with sensuous, even loving specificity. I take it you’ve done some work that wasn’t teaching poetry? You don’t romanticize labor, you include the tedium and the occasional, sudden danger, but there seems to be a way that you’re quietly honoring the act of work, if that’s not too gushy.

Excelsior Fashion Products, Easter

They pay us time and a half
and don’t dare catch us
drinking: we don’t insist,
don’t pass a bottle, but each sips
a private pint, all sitting
in the narrow room with our backs
to the center, each facing
his work—router, stain tray,
buffing wheel, drill press—
and with that sweet taste echoing
in our bones, we watch our hands
make what they always made
—rosewood handles—but now
we smile in delighted surprise
and Marchesi brings envelopes
that record a full day’s work
though it’s still noon,
processions still fill the streets,
choirs, loudspeakers bellowing
Hallelujah: and we change
into our finest clothes in the locker room,
admiring each other’s hat brims, passing bottles
freely until all are empty, and at last
we separate in the brilliant street, each
in the direction of a different tolling bell.

AK: How have your experiences working for a living affected your choice of materials and your approach to the craft of writing?

DN: I’m grateful that earning my living in different ways–blue collar work for many years–gave me a bye from the dependencies and politics of academia. I’m equally grateful that academia was there to shelter me later in life. I was given insight into different classes and sets of expectations. Carpentry and construction left me fascinated with processes, with the textures of unfinished work before the final coat which is designed to domesticate labor and make it invisible.

AK: Sometimes the “making” in your poems is very specific and concrete, as in “Making Shelves”. Whatever else they might be, these are real shelves—even though the making of them summons forth a dead man.

Making Shelves

In that lit window in Bushwick
halfway through the hardest winter
I cut plexiglass on a table saw,
coaxing the chalked taped pane
into the absence of the blade,
working to such fine tolerance
the kerf abolished the soft-lead line.
I felt your eyes play over me
but did not turn—dead people
were not allowed in those huge factories.
I bargained: when the bell rang
I would drink with you on Throop
under the El, quick pint of Night Train
but you said no. Blood jumped
from my little finger, power
snapped off, voices summoned me
by name, but I waved them back
and knelt to rule the next line

From A Night in Brooklyn, 2012

AK: But in “Nights on the Peninsula” (as in “A Night in Brooklyn”) the making is profligate and protean, beyond god-like, surreal.

Nights On The Peninsula

We could not separate ourselves from our endless making.
We were always fabricating time, God, paradise,
the bell-shaped lupines, the rough-grained elm
and smooth beech. We made the night sky from a rusty hinge,
the sea from a sigh and a bead of sweat. We made love
long before dawn. We constantly modified each other,
adding a leer to the other’s face, or a smirk, even in sleep.
What kind of a tool-maker invents eternity and exile
and makes them race, like a child with the index and middle finger?
Even in dreams we bore the burden of waking, we called it suffering.
Even in a trance we had maps and blueprints. In the deepest dream
we received the gift of death—it rained on that peninsula.
The wind passed like a sponge over the gambrel roofs.
The leaves showed a blank side, veined like a cresting wave.
We were almost home, we thought. We had never seen this world
but we sensed it, like a cat’s breath against our wrists:
we were married, the bees loved us, the ocean might relent,
the child muttered over a handful of dust and spit

AK: Both Making Shelves and Nights, though, are characterized by a kind of dread. Is there something anxious-making about the making and the makers in these poems?

DN: As you point out, these poems have different agendas. In “Making Shelves” there’s a little elegy to a vanished world of labor; the factory is trespassed on by the a dead precursor. in “Nights on the Peninsula” I’m thinking of the obsessive power of consciousness, the automatism of the mind which reflexively arranges clues into chains of meaning, how the psyche can’t help identifying, projecting, animating.

AK: When people talk about poets in New York, especially since WWII, the names of the New York School come up—John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch in the first wave, for example, then Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman in the Sixties. They seem to have made pretty tight and collaborative groups. A lot of them were also active in or inspired by the visual arts. Has there been any sort of analogous movement or school or gang of poets coming out of Brooklyn more recently? Has there been that sort of cross-pollination between poets and artists, or poets and musicians?

DN: There are really many schools blooming at once. We’re pluralistic. People (though not me) meet on the web instead of the local bar. Though places like Barbes and Sista’s Place and the Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival and any amount of coffeehouses continue to be hubs of culture. I have my own friends in the jazz community. The visual arts are flourishing wildly.

AK: Poets associated with New York didn’t necessarily come from there—the New York School could almost have been the Tulsa School, since Ashbery and Berrigan and Joe Brainerd all came from there originally. (How much of Tulsa shines through their poetry is a subject for somebody’s dissertation maybe). Your parents were European, and what little I know of your upbringing sounds international and peripatetic. Was English your mother tongue? Where do you feel that you are from? How have your travels influenced your experience of Brooklyn, and your writing?

DN: Yes, my family came here from Europe as the Nazis were coming to power, and we moved back to Europe briefly in the early sixties. My family members got by in many languages, but English was my first language. That’s probably an affinity to Brooklyn: living there is like traveling, being everywhere and nowhere.  My current neighborhood is a place of immigrants, and I like their outlook. They take nothing for granted.

AK: How did you get to be the poet laureate of Brooklyn, what were your duties, and what should an aspiring future poet laureate of Brooklyn be doing to enhance his or her chances of ascending to that post?

DN: I was nominated for the position and appointed by a panel. I had no fixed duties. I did a lot of workshops in inner-city neighborhoods, schools, literacy centers, and libraries—in Bed Stuy, East Flatbush, Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach; places other than the traditional cultural meccas in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope. An aspiring poet laureate is probably in the wrong field; poetry is a lovely thing but you can’t do it for political gain. That has to be at best an afterthought.

AK: You write love poetry, unapologetically, un-ironically even, and it’s sexy and moving and sometimes even romantic. But even in a love poem you can brutalize the reader with a sudden turn.

A Marriage in the Dolomites

We communicated by cheeses,
unwrapping them gingerly,
parting the crust with a fork,
tasting dew, must, salt,
raising an eyebrow,

or we let chianti talk for us,
rolling it in the glass,
staring—it was dark and shiny
as the pupil, and stared back—
or we undressed each other;

we took long walks hand in hand
in the vineyards, the pastures,
resenting each other bitterly
for our happiness that excluded us
as surely as the world did,
mountain after mountain.

Source: Poetry (June 2009).

AK: That “resenting each other bitterly” comes as a shock; the perversity of “for our happiness that excluded us” is so opaque and complete that it seems to exclude even the possibility of sustained connection or love or even contentment. The couple in the poem never speak a word. Is that the problem, or a failed attempt at a solution?

DN: I don’t know–your interpretation is valid, but I read this poem more lightly. I think it’s a little tongue in cheek: two people overwhelmed by the happiness they’ve brought each other. I think happiness is much more dangerous than suffering; that’s why people work so hard to make themselves and others unhappy. These two may be speechless in front of each other, but they tell their story in “couple” pronouns, and the happiness that they feel excluding them (does the world really?) remains “ours.”

AK: “Searchers” is a terrifically haunting poem that evokes 9/11, very obliquely at first, then in a devastating way.


We gave our dogs a button to sniff,
or a tissue, and they bounded off
confident in their training,
in the power of their senses
to re-create the body,but after eighteen hours in rubble
where even steel was pulverized
they curled on themselves
and stared up at us
and in their soft huge eyes
we saw mirrored the longing for death:then we had to beg a stranger
to be a victim and crouch
behind a girder, and let the dogs
discover him and tug him
proudly, with suppressed yaps,
back to Command and the rows
of empty triage tables.But who will hide from us?
Who will keep digging for us
here in the cloud of ashes”

AK: The searchers seem to dematerialize and become the vanished ones they’ve been vainly searching for. Were you living in New York in September 2001? What sort of impact did it have on your life and work?

DN: Thanks, Andrew. I was not just in New York in September 2001 but downtown. I saw more than I wanted to. The event was horrible in itself; its transformation into an iconic spectacle was profoundly chilling. The reactions of regular citizens, as opposed to ideologues, were very moving. People helped each other for a few days as never before or since. I lived in a fireman’s neighborhood and knew people who could name a hundred people they lost on that day. It’s deeply offensive to something bedrock in human nature that there were no dead bodies to bury, as there were no wounded to tend to. And I’ll never forgive the City for saying the air was fine and not requiring masks for rescue workers. They breathed titanium, PCBs, and asbestos.

AK: The Katonah Poetry Series has brought leading poets to read at the Katonah Village Library since 1967. Looking over our list of readers, are there any who have had an influence on your development as a poet?

DN: There are friends and quite a few colleagues in that list. Poets as different as Stephen Dunn and Muriel Rukeyser were kind to me when I was isolated, as I was for much of my life–I didn’t take the MFA train. If this interview were spoken and not written, I’d propose concluding with a moment of silence for Paul Violi, a superb poet who died last year.

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