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On Shape, Repetition, and Strangeness: Tao Lin interviews Jesse Nathan photo

Eggtooth, Jesse Nathan's first poetry book, has a meditative, nature-aware quality that I found calming and attractive. You can read more of my thoughts on Eggtooth throughout this interview, which Jesse and I did over time, typing in a shared document. Jesse was a founding editor of the McSweeney's Poetry Series, and he teaches in the English Department at UC Berkeley. Eggtooth can be preordered here.

Tao Lin: Eggtooth moves from rural Kansas—“Streaks of jets / stack and fade”—to an unstated urban area—“The city proceeds for several miles and finally shivers / and slides into ocean empty-handed.” It does this in a subtle way, with the moving, vivid first/last poems showing the shift specifically. What was your process in ordering the poems in the book?

Jesse Nathan: There were several versions of the order. I ended up working with a brilliant friend who helped me see the sequence. She is particularly good at figuring out the way poems speak and lead to one another in a book-length context. But the sense that the move, from country to city, would be the central hinge of the book—this was a feeling I had very early on, very early in the writing process. One revelation that emerged when we were ordering the poems is that the movement in these poems between country and city is not linear. It doesn’t happen once and then that’s it. It’s circular. It’s an ongoing back and forth, because the voice in the poems seems to me, in some ways, to not be choosing country or city, but to be choosing both. And so there are poems late in Eggtooth that are set—in actuality or in memory—back in the countryside, well after the speaker seems to have moved away. I heard someone define country as any place where the raw resources come from–grain, livestock, oil–and city as any place these things get consumed. I like that definition partly because it reminds me they are part of the same system. My book claims both red-state and blue-state America. Partly because of my experience of the world I suppose it can’t help but bind them together. And the sequencing of the poems expressed that to me. It would be very different, for instance, if all the country poems were only in the first part of the book and all the city poems were only in the second. I found I needed to represent a messier, more complicated relationship because that’s the relationship I know.


TL: I like that. Yes, it would’ve been very different—clunky and unlike your book—to separate the country/city poems dichotically. The “back and forth”ness of it was satisfying and relatable. So, when did you first start writing poems? And when in your process of writing poems did you begin to conceive of your book?

JN: I started writing when I was young and now I think I’m almost old. Before I made poetry I made other kinds of art, but I’d always even as a child found words especially appealing, as far as a medium goes. I started writing poetry seriously in my early twenties when I was living around a group of artist-friends, creative types. Eventually we got a great big house together in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. A couple of those people were amazing poets who went on to do other interesting things with their lives, but had they wanted to they could have done profound things in the art. Over the years I moved back to California, and all the while I wrote so many different versions of a first book of poems that I no longer know whether to think of them as drafts of the same book or many different books. A few traces, a few lines or phrases here and there, survive in Eggtooth from those earliest days. Somewhere along the way, though, I wrote a poem in an odd stanza shape–it had loose but still somewhat strict–for me anyway–rules. I liked the poem but I didn’t really know what to do with it, or where it pointed, and I more or less forgot about it for a decade. And then I got a fellowship that gave me months in a row of concentrated time, and I thought I would take another go at revising a manuscript of poems. Something in the poem made with that stricter stanza, from all those years ago, called out to me, came back to me, and before I knew it I found myself writing more poems in that shape. For fun. And then that shape obsessed me, for more than a year. And it became clear I wasn’t revising so much as writing something new, a new sequence of poems. That became the core of this book. And the title came only at the end. When I realized that my stanza had been a kind of eggtooth for my soul. Something like that.


TL: Your parents, as Robert Hass writes in his introduction to Eggtooth, are Jewish (father) and Mennonite (mother), and when you were a kid your parents began farming organically in Kansas and eventually set up a mediation practice. At first I read that as “meditation,” and I started thinking about how farming and meditation inform your poetry deeply in a way I found very satisfying. Can you talk about this a bit?

JN: So interesting. I want to say something silly like mediation leads to meditation. (And poetry is a mediation of reality.) My mother gave us intermittent meditation lessons when we were young. And I meditate sometimes, though not diligently enough. It’s always been a genre of poetry that interests me. I think of a meditative poem as one that makes visible the thinking-through of something. And that’s always been deeply attractive to me—poem as a kind of sensual essay, assay—and also a little confusing or alien, because I also sometimes go to poetry to be taken away from thought, at least prosaic or logical thought. Which is maybe a different kind of meditative poem, a poem that creates a space for silence or stillness or nonattachment or a kind of emptied-out clarity. And I love, sometimes, a delirious wild poem like Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!” But I think more often I’m after poetry that’s trying to be a momentary stay against the confusion, a concentrated verbal device that evokes a feeling of pause or a fleeting, electric clarity discovered in that certain arrangement of certain words. An electric silence just after I finish reading the poem—that’s what I’m searching for. And I associate that power with lyric poetry. I am unable, most of the time, to distinguish thoughts from feelings. I think my thoughts and feel my feelings, but I also think my feelings and feel my thoughts. The other thing I should say is that I love the land in Kansas. I love the smell of the air, the open skies. And I often feel it’s easier to find a moment of peace—to gather mind and body—walking through some obscure pasture surrounded by dirt roads, the nearest neighbor a mile away. ButI’m curious, how would you answer this question about meditation?

TL: I didn’t start meditating until 2020, but the idea of meditation has always appealed to me. I’ve longed for calm states of mind since childhood, and much of my writing, and the writing I enjoy, has produced this effect for me—the endings of stories by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Joy Williams; lines in Matthew Rohrer’s poetry, lines in your book. Some of my favorite lines in your book had the same effect on me as deep, effective meditation, blanking my mind in a calming, restorative way—“On days like this, / my mind, you hardly / seem to be.” What are some lines from other people’s poetry that does this, or something like this, to you?

JN: So many. Buson: “A field of mustard, / no whale in sight, / the sea darkening.” Issa: “The old dog– / listening for the songs / of earthworms?” Coleridge: “The frost performs its secret ministry / unhelped by any wind.”


TL: In the poem “Scouts,” you write that “There was a boy even stranger than I was / who’d call me in the evening / to see if I’d come to Scouts.” Can you give some insight on this? What is “Scouts”? In what ways were you strange as a child?

JN: Boy Scouts of America. There were local troops in all the little country towns. In the fiction of the poem, I think the child felt strange at least in part because he was attracted to other boys, as well as girls, and in part because he was attracted to books and, whether he realized it or not, poetry. In the reality of my life, well, the list of ways I feel strange has gotten very long and it was already long in childhood. I’ve almost always felt like I’m on the edge of things, socially, even when occasionally it turns out I’m not. Probably comes from early experiences of being excluded. So I watch from the edges. Daniel Alarcón told me years ago that’s a good place for a writer to be. In any case it doesn’t seem like something I choose. I like to be with other people but I also like to be alone with my thoughts and books and the smell of the breeze. I think strangeness, for me, is a word that evokes the painful collision of the interior world we each carry and the external world we move through. I am a very strange person, I’m sure, but I don’t feel that except when I imagine the differences I think I see between me and the world. When I first arrived in rural Kansas from Berkeley, I had shaggy hair in a town full of boys with very short hair. I liked to hold hands. I wore a mishmash of colorful Berkeley hand-me-downs. My dad and brothers and I were the only Jews in a sea of Gentiles. And I wasn’t aware of these differences until other kids on the playground pointed them out, sometimes cruelly.


TL: I like your use of repetition of phrases in slight variations. Where did you get this from? What were your poetry—or other inspirations—for Eggtooth?

JN: Repetition has felt more and more important to me the older I get, but in a way it seems the originary engine of poetry, the chant or the refrain. The fixation, the exaltation. So I imagine I got it from older poetry, from the troubadours, from Latin American poetry, from Homer and Ecclesiastes. It’s also a way of weaving things together. I like the way Ben Lerner uses repetition and slight variation to make meaning, and to reveal shades of profound difference embedded within recurrence. I once heard a professor say that repetition is interesting because it can figure both paralysis and ecstasy, both despair and liberation. To repeat something can be a form of stuckness. But it can also be an ecstatic cry. The appeal of repetition in a poem must have something to do with a sense of the sounds that poems make, especially when they’re read aloud. Poetry began life as a spoken art. If you’re repeating things, you may be losing your mind. So, when is repetition clumsy, versus elegant? When is it revelatory, liberating? I’m trying to answer those questions, sometimes, with my poems. Sometimes you need to say something a second time in order to say it for the first time. It matters that a thing has already traveled once, or more, through the mind and maybe the mouth.


TL: My mom says that there’s a new saying in Taiwan, something like “This is important, so I need to say it three times.” Repetition seems very natural to me, but repetition with variation, whether in direct variation or variation via a different context, as you do it.

JN: My mind is going back to how I was describing the stanza I use in Eggtooth. As a kind of loose but strict form, at least for me. The same shape repeated, but varying in use and detail and length. And I’m thinking about how I love bad rhyme, rhyme that barely qualifies, rhyme that stretches the idea of rhyme. The kind Dickinson favored. Who was it that said history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes? It’s a way of saying that every moment is singular, that nothing in fact comes again, nothing repeats, repetition is actually impossible. But there are, all the time, so many cascades of recursions that have more than a chance relationship. Rhyme is relationship, and it’s a relationship based on repetition within variation, or variation within repetition. And my stanza repeats across the book, but never quite the same–every riff on Donne’s original stanza that I made seems to have slightly different rules within the generally consistent set of rules. Each is an interpretation of an interpretation. To me that strictness infused with sprezzatura is a kind of order I can believe in. It feels like order, without too much delusion of control. Order that can, I hope, accommodate change, motion, unpredictability, and emergence. Or the other way around. Emergence that can accommodate order.


TL: Besides farming and meditation, nature also informs your poetry. A large variety of flora and fauna appear in your book. How has your relationship to nature evolved throughout your life?

JN: I think there’s nothing that’s not nature. Human culture is nature. And nature is as cruelly indifferent, in some ways, as it is beautiful. But what I love especially about the natural world–the natural processes and laws and ecological systems that we are a part of–is how complicated it is and yet also how orderly. I think my animal self has always sensed this, but at some point I began consciously working to know the names of flowers and plants and living things in whatever corner of the world I lived in. I think you have a better and deeper relationship with someone when you know their name. I’ve spent a lot of my life in northern California and rural Kansas, and so those are the places I’ve studied most deeply. It’s almost like the emergence of poems that represent the natural world are, for me anyway, just a side effect of that larger practice.


TL: I’m interested in your thoughts on the connection between nature and poetry, or nature and your poetry.

JN: There’s so much of our planet that simply has never been described in writing. So many trails and streams and gullies and forests and prairies and peaks that no poetry or prose has come close to representing. Most of Kansas is undescribed in English. I want to see the natural world–or any aspect of the world more clearly, in its beauty and its agony, and I think one of the jobs of poetry or poets is to try to describe. Not possess, but describe. To say what you see and see what you say. To describe is to project, but to know that is to make art. I like to think of Marianne Moore as a poet of nature. So many of her figures and metaphors are drawn from other kinds of life, or features of the natural world, like the poem about Mount Rainier comparing it to an octopus of ice. But she’s also an urban poet, a Brooklyn poet, and she reminds me that it’s important to understand the city as nature, too. The city as a form of life, and of wildlife. Teeming, at its best, with trees, flowers, grasses, networks of countless living things. I want to find the pastoral in the urban, just as much as I want to see and describe the culture of the rural.


TL: What’s an example of a rural value?

JN: The front door of the farmhouse in which I spent a lot of my childhood has a big square pane of glass in the upper half. I’ve seen that in other farmhouses around there, too. It gives the door a different feel than, say, the front doors I’ve had in my city apartments, with their peepholes. The nearest neighbors on the farm are half a mile away, so there’s this desire for–or at least tolerance of–a kind of salutary isolation, a desire to be given some space–space to keep one’s own counsel, to work, to daydream even–but at the same time, an openness, exemplified in that big pane of glass in the front door. Or maybe it’s just that people in rural Kansas find it good for the nerves if you can see someone coming from a ways off.


image: Irena Yamboliev