Poet Nick Courtright Takes Readers to “The Forgotten World” [INTERVIEW]

Nick Courtright is author of The Forgotten World, Let There Be Light, and Punchline, and he serves as the Executive Editor of Atmosphere Press. His poetry has appeared in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review, AGNI, Gulf Coast, and Southern Review, among dozens of others. His essays and other prose have been published in Huffington Post, Best American Poetry, Gothamist, and SPIN Magazine. With a Doctorate in Literature from the University of Texas, Nick lives in Austin with the poet Lisa Mottolo and their children. Nick shares his story on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, including reading excerpts from The Forgotten World. An edited version of the interview is included below.

James Morehead: What was the moment where poetry clicked as an art form that you wanted to create?

Nick Courtright: “I was always a writer since high school, but I was writing mainly stories then. In high school, I was writing these big, sprawling, Tom Clancy-style international intrigue books. One of them is called ‘The Princess Disappearance’, just to give you an idea of the type of work I was doing. Then slowly, but surely, I found myself wandering away from characters and toward ideas. I think that shift away from plot-driven stuff to idea-driven stuff happened in college.

“One really interesting thing that I always think back on was when I discovered I needed to actually work hard at this if I wanted to be good. I had this one friend who I always traded poems with and I remember this one time he showed me his poem that was so good it scared the crap out of me. I thought, if my friend is going to write this good poem, I need to get my act together. At that point I was all in for writing poetry. I wrote a poem every single day for about two years at one point when I was young and they’re all rough to read now. Those poems were all about my aching post-adolescent heart. But, that was when poetry became my mode and I’ve been stuck with it ever since.”

James: Coming up with a title for a collection is a challenge in itself. What does the title “The Forgotten World” mean to you (beyond being the opening line of the final poem in the collection)?

Nick: “Titling a book is an enormous pain and this book was no different. My first two books were grueling enterprises in terms of titling. Writing the poems is easy for me, but it’s really hard to figure out what to call the book. I never had a title in mind for this book. It’s a travel book and takes place all around the world. Because of that, this book took me a long time to write as I was pretty much only writing it when I was outside of the United States. Since I have kids, I can’t leave for too terribly long at any given stretch. I eventually came to the title ‘The Forgotten World’. This title actually came about during the early stages of the pandemic because I had all these poems that were about traveling and about the outside world. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this book because it felt so irrelevant to me – all of these poems are about the rest of the world, but we were all trapped in our houses and it was like the rest of the world was completely forgotten to us. The concept that the outside world had been forgotten presented the idea of the title to me. It was only after thinking of this that the final poem of the collection got that line put into it because I needed something to bring the whole book together.”

James: The poems in this collection take the reader around the world. Does using place as a source of inspiration change how you appreciate travel? What role has travel played in your life?

Nick: “I didn’t do much traveling when I was younger. About seven years ago, I got divorced and was dealing with a custody battle which really shook up my life. It was really brutal and I found myself wanting to reinvent my reality. A way that seemed good to do that was to put myself out there in the world in places where I was going to be very isolated. I wanted to travel by myself to places where there was nobody else who looked like me. I think it really helped me develop a sense of identity and in the book itself, develop what it means to be an American or what it means to be a white male in a world in which people like that have caused a lot of destruction. I still often look to travel and rack up as many credit card points as I can to get free plane tickets as a way to destabilize my life and keep myself challenged.”

James: Were these poems written, in part at least, in the moment as you experienced these places? Or were most written later? 

Nick: ”They’re actually almost entirely written ‘in medias res’ (in the midst of things). I was writing as I was there in the place or while an event was either happening at that moment and I was looking up and seeing it, or was in very close proximity. I wasn’t writing about a place after I’d already left that place, so it’s pretty immediate. Then of course the revision and editing process that takes place for months and months and months afterwards helps form the poems.”

James: Your poems are wonderful descriptions of experiencing places, but go further with interesting turns. For example in your poem “The Italians Have it Right” you wrote:

‘I thought you’d be someone
	but I guess instead you are a colosseum of despair
Let me hold you just one more time
	let me feed you to the lions’

What is your approach to finding or crafting the turn into a poem?

Nick: “I think it’s really interesting trying to figure out how to end poems, For example, I’m always in some sort of debate with my fiancé because she’s very image-heavy and loves the parts of my poems that have strong images. I have this nasty habit of always trying to mean something in my poems. I always want to make a statement or have an argument. I always think back to some old William Blake poems where the first poem in the book would be called argument. I always feel the need to have that sort of argument in my work and make some kind of claim. I think having that big picture and dovetailing that in some way with images is a good way to round the bend in a poem and get it heading home.” 

James: Rarely, at least in my experience, does a poem arrive fully formed. Multiple revisions and edits and sometimes complete rewrites are needed. What is your method of finding the poem?

Nick: “I think the way I do it is by being kind of brutal. I’m not actually a big fan of doing vast rewrites on work. If the bones aren’t there from the beginning, then the bones aren’t going to be there. If a poem isn’t working, I’m inclined to just say this is not a winner than try to bang it into reality. I edit a lot by playing with line lengths and by making little adjustments here and there. A lot of times I edit by chopping the end of a poem off. I used to be a college professor, and when I was, I would advise students not to overwrite their poems and write past their ending. So, that’s a big part of my revision process. I wrote probably around 400 pages worth of poetry for this book and edited it down to 72 pages. For individual poems, there’s only so much revision that goes into them. But for an entire book, it’s all about survival of the fittest.”

James: Your poems make clever use of white space. “Airplane to Bangkok” and “Clear Blue Sky”, for example, are double-spaced, whereas many of the poems are single-spaced. I ask that question knowing that if I were asked it would come down the the feel and pacing of the poem – how I believe it sounds on the page. What is your approach to visualizing your poems on the page?

Nick: “I’ve always been somebody who didn’t want to overfit lineation. For example, I don’t want to play with line breaks to such an overt sense that it actually betrays the spoken version of the poem. So I do feel like I try to make the poem on the page something that replicates the actual experience of reading it aloud. I do feel like there’s a connection in my work that I like to hold between those two things so that you have a good roadmap. For example, I may have poems that have more white space because the individual lines are meant to resonate on their own. In those ones, maybe I’m using less punctuation or trying to indicate the matter of speed in some way. I find it fun to use a variety of styles. I think one unifying theme is the connection to the actual oral performance of what it sounds like.”

James: Did you end up traveling to places because you knew a poem was waiting there for you to discover? I ask because last year I took a twelve hour round trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to Bodie, California to spark an idea for a poem – and it worked.

Nick: ”For me, I didn’t go to places specifically to write poems, but I would always pack the proper equipment in my bag. I packed the right size notebook that I could carry around wherever I was and I’d always make sure to bring a book that I was going to be using explicitly for style inspiration. This would help get me in some sort of voice depending on whether I wanted to write stuff that was more abstract, or perhaps heavier on metaphor or narrative, or whatever sort of angle I was hoping to achieve. I would always make sure that once I was there, I kept in mind writing was part of why I was there, and I would get something out of the experience.”

James: It sounds like you prefer a handwritten approach. How important is that to your process? 

Nick: “Yes, when I’m traveling, I’m primarily handwriting. Cell battery is always at a premium when you’re wandering through a different country and you don’t want to be typing on your phone too much. But when I’m writing in the United States, a lot of times I’m using a notes function on my phone. I don’t type on a computer very much, I used to religiously, but now I just use whatever makes sense at that particular time.”

James: What role does research play? I ask because I don’t think people realize how much research poets do behind the scenes to pull in things that they’re not familiar with. 

Nick: “There’s a lot of research in my work. I’m not trying to be Wikipedia heavy or be necessarily educational in my work. But, just by virtue of being in different places, it required me to learn a lot just to know where I was. I think there’s five different continents represented in the books. Research required by the circumstance tends to find its way into the poems and sometimes very explicitly. For example, if I’m in South America talking about colonialism and the eradication of indigenous cultures, I definitely want to know what I’m talking about. I was definitely always doing research, if not specifically for a poem, then for the place and allowing it to manifest in a poem.

James: Are there places you hope to visit because of the poetic potential?

Nick: “I still haven’t been to Australia or Antarctica – those are my missing continents. I’m definitely going to have to get to those places at some point.” 

Hear Nick recite excerpts from “The Forgotten World” in the full interview available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast,

Poet Nick Courtright with “The Forgotten World”

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