His award-winning poems, essays, and stories have been published in literary journals across the United States and Canada, including The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 & 2010.
He has recently published his third collection of poetry Narcissus Unfolding and a collection of short stories, The Girl on the Escalator.
In August, 2011, he participated as part of a discussion panel on Canadian poetry at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
BCP: Why poetry?
JN: Through poetry I feel connected to the natural world. Poetry forces me to slow down and pay attention to plants, animals, the changing seasons … but also my relationship with the city where I live and the places I visit. I cherish the opportunity to sit with language and appreciate what is revealed through the disciple of the poetic process.
BCP: What is your process?
JN: My process for writing poems has never been the same twice. Having said that, there are rituals that I respect – I write every morning. I write when the world is quiet. I have a bag full of tricks to get me ‘unstuck’ (on the rare occasions when that happens) – I write about art (I do this a lot), write about a scent, write about memory or, random words I place my finger on in the dictionary.
BCP: Who, or what, are your influences?
JN: There are many poets who I respect and draw from. Henri Cole once asked me what kind of poet [I] want to be? And I think about his question often. I want to have the voice of Federico Garcia Lorca; the discipline of Elizabeth Bishop; the audacity of Frank O’Hara and spirituality of Charles Wright, Mary Oliver and W. S. Merwin. I want to have these qualities, but in answer to your question and Cole’s challenge – I am most influenced by social activists like Allen Ginsberg and Nikky Finney and I want to be the kind of poet who is brave enough to tell the truth, no matter what.
BCP: Two of your poems are dedicated to John Ashbery. What is it about Ashbery that you like?
JN: I love Ashbery’s uninhibited language. I love his humour and his wisdom. He lives poetry, and it is evident to me that his entire life aesthetic is poetry. I appreciate that he doesn’t try to make linear connections between what he writes about, and the fact that he utterly trusts what is revealed through the flow of seemingly disconnected objects. As I say in my poem “John Ashbery”, It looks random/ but there are no mistakes.
BCP: You teach creative writing. How does teaching add to your writing? Does teaching take away from your writing?
JN: All teachers play a mentor role. Teaching asks that I stay very conscious about what I write and publish. Knowing it will be scrutinized, and perhaps studied by my students, helps me to push myself harder.
Teaching is a time commitment, and as such, it requires a certain amount of energy. So, I’m careful about how much I take on. If I’m teaching too much and I begin to resent that, I pull back.
BCP: Wayson Choy says the first thing he teaches his students is “everything about the semicolon”. What is the first thing you teach?
JN: I teach students everything about the blank page. I teach them to savor it, drool over it, look at the empties as possibility… with its clothes off.
BCP: In 2011 you published a collection of poems, Narcissus Unfolding, and a collection of short stories, The Girl on the Escalator. Can you talk of the relationship between poetry and short story?
JN: All writing is a celebration of life. I love life and love feeling connected to the world; both poetry and fiction keep me connected to what I see, touch, feel and hear. I smell the room that I’m in when I’m working on a poem about oranges; I smell the same poem in a story where a woman licks the juice off her lover’s arm; only in the story they get to talk about it more.
BCP: Can you provide a short recommended reading list for writers?
JN: I’m always tempted to pull every book off my shelf with this question, but in short, the following are books I return to often:
1. CV2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing
2. bell hooks: Remembered Rapture: the writer at work
3. Diane Ackerman: A Natural History of the Senses
4. Jane Hirschfield: Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
5. Lewis Hyde: Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art
6. Theodore Roethke: On Poetry and Craft
7. Robert Bly: A Little Book on the Human Shadow
8. Richard Hugo: The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
BCP: What are you reading now?
JN: I’m often reading several books at once, especially when I’m researching for a novel (as I am now)
1. Charles Wright: Little Foot (for the 3rd time)
2. Tomas Transtromer: The Half-Finished Heaven
3. Maureen Hynes: Marrow Willow
4. Henri Cole: Middle Earth (for the 4th time)
5. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy: When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals
6. Ted Andrews: Animal Speak
7. Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann: Animal Inside
BCP: Your poetry is very much about your life. What do you try to convey to your readers?
JN: I don’t consciously work to convey a specific message to my readers. I try to live a life that is honest, reflective and respectful. I try to live life to the fullest, and spend time every day in solitude – it’s important to practice solitude and gratitude. I hope that readers will understand the importance of compassion.
BCP: How long were you working on the poems featured in Narcissus Unfolding?
JN: There was an organic process to Narcissus Unfolding. It came to me in sections over a two year period. The first poem in the book, Huron, was the last to come. The title poem was inspired by the myth of Narcissus, only I wanted to put a contemporary spin on it, one that includes images from city and nature – an airplane, a squirrel – I wanted to make room for the possibility of transformation through observation (internal and external). The book is essentially about looking for and finding love.
BCP: The cover to Narcissus Unfolding is beautiful. Can you explain it a little?
JN: The cover comes from an image by Toronto artist, Kelley Aitken, Leaning Over Water. Kelley works at the AGO and I met her when I was there as part of a group of poets writing about the permanent collection. We had a conversation about art and she had just completed the title piece. I thought it was perfect – the images from mythology, nature … erotic beauty, warm colours… I was in heaven, and was thrilled that the folks at Frontenac gladly supported the decision to use the image as the cover.
BCP: You are part of a longstanding writing group that includes writers who are widely published. What is the secret to a good writing group?
JN: I’ve given workshops on writing groups: it’s not an easy topic. But, to keep it simple pick a group with writers who you trust and respect. The poets have to be excellent poets, and be willing to challenge you to grow; and you must be prepared to be humble and to dish back equal amounts of love and whatever insights or wisdom you possess.
BCP: What advice do you have for young writers?
JN: There are no short cuts. A writer has to write every day and be open to surprise. The best part of writing for me, by far, is the sense of surprise I get when I have truly surrendered to the process, and the words take me to a place I had no idea existed.
Timothy Findley told me once: “Know your craft” – a wonderful truth and I thank him for it. Push yourself. Learn from others and trust yourself. Be the best poet you can be every time.
Tune into Black Coffee Poet January 27, 2012 for a video of Jim Nason reading his poetry.