You certainly don't have to be a child of the 80s to appreciate poet nathan dueck's newest collection, A Very Special Episode (Wolsak & Wynn), but it doesn't hurt.
Inspired by the Saturday morning cartoons and back-to-school specials that defined the decade, dueck harnesses childhood influences from Mr. T to Care Bears, ripping them out of the past to freshly examine how they shaped and formed the way we engage with media and the world around us. Playfully constructed and brimming with insight, the poems in this collection re-contextualize beloved television icons in a fuzzy, sugar-frosted fever dream that inspires as much laughter as it does genuine nostalgia.
We're very excited to have nathan at Open Book today to discuss the influence of television on his subconscious, how growing up Mennonite and discovering the work of e.e. cummings led to a great awakening, and why he prefers to treat his collections like prog-rock concept albums.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
The true, but embarrassing, answer is memorizing TV themes. The truer, but embarrassing-er, answer is memorizing commercial jingles. And when I say memorize, I truly mean obsessing over. Much of my childhood involved watching Saturday morning cartoons. I’d watch one network’s offerings while I’d tape another’s, which let me obsess over the taped shows all week. So, ditties that set up the premise for a program or the promise of a product wormed through my ears and deep into my subconscious. And those rhymes are still there: “neighbourhood” and “neighbour would”; “ready and you’re willing” and “we’ll catch that villain”; “in trouble you” and “D.W.”
The less embarrassing, but no less true, answer is memorizing hymns. I was a child who combined his obsession with, uh, The Passion, and replaced the rhymes in choruses on Sunday mornings. My family sat in church at least twice a week, so I had some time to learn a thing or two about parody. The trick was to find rhymes so close to the originals that my parents wouldn’t notice when I sang, e.g., “Almond Joy, how sweet the Mounds” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
I didn’t know what to make of the line “a conscientious object-or” when I first read it at fourteen. I wasn’t even sure where to begin with “i sing of Olaf.’ It was the first time I’d ever come across those words in print. See, I’m Mennonite, and I was raised in a small Mennonite town, so I’d often hear of grandpas who’d served as “C.O.s” during WWII due to pacifist religious convictions. When I saw that someone from the outside wrote about the very thing my family spoke of, I was floored. I imagined Olaf, blonde and blue-eyed much like my grandpa, chain-smoking while cutting logs somewhere in the interior of B.C. Then I read the poem a second time and saw that cummings implied Olaf is an object, a thing, which really got to me. A little later, when I read the poem to my grandpa for his reaction, I watched him get quiet, take a deep breath, and ask me never to say “f-ing” again.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
I’m likely alone here, but I like to think of a poetry collection as an album. And, I like to think of my poetry collections as “concept” rather than a “best-of” albums. I guess this means that I usually come up with some big idea – sometimes conceptual, sometimes not – and see where it takes me. I tell myself that I’m exploring or even experimenting, but I’m probably just indulging myself, which is, if we’re being honest, a trait common to concept albums. (I almost took a swipe at Steely Dan there, but the thought of comparing myself to those prog rock maestros, whoa . . .) After drafting of a manuscript, I spend time on editing and sequencing. Next comes the endless, relentless noodling.
That’s not to say the best-of approach doesn’t work for many, if not most, poetry collections. It just doesn’t work for me. In truth, I’m never quite sure that any of my poems are the “best” anyway.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
Panic hits me like a button. When I see that a poem isn’t working, the anxiety that perpetually lurks in the back of mind lopes to the top. When the structure of a poem breaks down, or its sentiment falls apart, it seems as though I’m done. I mean, who do I think I am, anyway?
That’s where I’ve found the famous (infamous?) “oblique strategies” work miracles. I think Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt were really onto something with those glorious (inglorious?) cards. For me, reading lines like “Be less critical more often” or “You don’t have to be ashamed of using your own ideas” is therapeutic when it feels like my ribs are constricting. Although I feel obliged to say something like “aleatory” here – mostly because I’m always afraid somebody’s going to revoke my academic credentials – those little sayings help me smile, or at least grin, and get out of my head for awhile. It’s almost as though my solo improv show is bombing, so I need a suggestion to go on. Or not, really.
What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?
You know, if you’d asked a few years ago, I would’ve said something like “the best thing about being a poet is that it makes me attend to language – how letters look, how words sound, how punctuation feels, etc.” But now, that aesthete approach is beginning to feel, well, hollow. Maybe my answer is changing to better account for the nuances of semantics. That’s not to say a “language for language’s sake” approach isn’t concerned with how meaning is generated – of course it does. Instead, I’m starting to think that the best thing about being a poet is that it’s making me sensitive to language – how words spread, how phrases turn, how sentences pass, etc. But that sensitivity isn’t exclusive to poets. It’s the stuff of all belletristic writing, right?
My answer to what’s the worst thing about being a poet hasn’t changed: there’s never enough time. It’s hard to find the time to read, or write, or to wait for something to write about.
nathan dueck's middle name is russel, which means his initials spell "nrd." His folks tell him that nobody used that word when he was born, but dictionaries say otherwise. He is the author of king's(mère) (Turnstone Press) and he'll (Pedlar Press). Born in Winnipeg, he completed his PhD at the University of Calgary and now lives in Cranbrook, BC, where he is a creative writing and English instructor at the College of the Rockies.