Nicholas James Whittington on Finding Time and Space to Visit that Place Called Poetry
An interview with Nicholas James Whittington from The Write Stuff series:
Nicholas James Whittington is a poet, scholar, educator, editor, printer, publisher and father living in Oakland, CA since 2012. Born and raised in San Francisco, he edits the periodical AMERARCANA along with the occasional small book under the auspices of his family shop, Bird & Beckett Books. At Impart Ink, an errant studio, he designs and prints books and adjacent items, both digitally and via letterpress. His first full-length collection of poems is Resolution of the West (2020, Bootstrap Press). Recent chapbooks include Provisions (2017, PUSH Press) and Indefinite Sessions (2016, Gas Meter Books). Even Odds is forthcoming from Two-Way Mirror. While completing his dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on the original incarnation of the Masters in Poetics Program at New College of California, he co-edited Roots and Routes, an anthology of critical writings, notes, talks, and interviews by students and faculty in that sui generis program, published by Vernon Press, 2020.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I’m not asked that question very often. I can’t think of the last time I had to answer it. I suppose that’s because I’ve been something of a recluse the last few years, especially since my son was born. I spend most of my time with him, and he’s only concerned with what I’m doing then and there, not generally “what I do.” Or I’m at one or the other of my jobs—which is usually what people mean when they ask that question, “What do you do…for a living?” as they say—so no need for folks to ask me that there. What little time I have away from home and off the clock is spent with friends, family, and others already more or less familiar with “what I do,” so the question is more often, “What have you been up to?” Basically the same question my son would ask, only with a slightly more expansive sense of time. The answer is whatever has my attention at the time. Lately, besides looking for fulltime remunerative work, which is a lot of work, finishing my dissertation, which is also a lot of work, and parenting, which is, again, a lot of work, that’d be either reading X, teaching/thinking about Y, or designing, printing, publishing Z. I might even say something about a poem, essay, or some such thing I’m writing, I suppose, though I usually find what I’m writing less interesting a thing to talk about.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
As one might surmise from my previous response, after many years of relative leisure and little responsibility, it’s been tough to adjust to this new reality, i.e. being busy all the time. I’m three years into fatherhood now and nearly finished with the doctorate, so things have improved a little, but finding time and space to visit that place called Poetry is a challenge. And it is a place, as Joanne Kyger said: “it’s a location that you start to find the more you go into it, so it’s a place that’s there and the longer you’re away from it the harder it is to get back to it….” (There You Are). I’ve got so much going on these days that when I manage to carve out or just stumble upon a spare hour, afternoon, what have you, I often feel an unreasonable pressure to make use of that time, i.e. be productive, and that kind of pressure is oppressive. So I guess I struggle to allow myself the leisure, the aimlessness I’ve always needed to write, to let writing come when it will, not try to make it happen, not try to force my way into that place, but to find my way in by wandering.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Just do it. Really. Whatever it is, it’ll work itself out as you go along. Or it won’t. Nothing anybody else can say will really matter if you aren’t trying to figure it out for yourself.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
I don’t see these things as separate. Education, both of the formal, institutionally-situated variety and the anarchic, autodidactic type, is very much part of my real world experience, and real world experience is just another kind of education. My writing relies on all of it. The way I see things, and the way I write about them are no doubt inflected by things I’ve read, whether in the classroom or on the couch, and the inverse is also true: that the way I understand things I’ve read is inflected by whatever all I’ve been through. That’s true with everybody. It’s a false dichotomy, and an unfortunate one. The classroom is as real a place as the barroom or the beach. There are different ways of being in each of them and different knowledges gleaned, but for me the poem is a place where that all is permitted to intermingle and interfere, “a place of first permission,” as Duncan has it.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Probably to give other people my age more credit, give more people more of a chance. And I guess, by reflection, myself, too. I never had much faith that any of the folks around me would find what I found interesting, well, interesting. Or if they seemed to, I didn’t have much faith that what they might have to say about our common interests would be of any real value. In retrospect, I suppose that resistance was a way to cover my fear that what I had to say might not be of any real value to anyone else. As a consequence, I really didn’t have many, or really any, poet/artist friends until my early twenties. There were a few elders, but 15-year-old me ought to have had more conversations about poetry with people my age, instead of keeping it all so close to my vest.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Ask me again when I’m dead. I’ve been batting emails back and forth with Jason Morris and Colter Jacobsen about a project we’re working on—I’m publishing Jason’s Low Life, which’ll be graced by an incredible Colter piece—and the subject line for the last few weeks has been “Almost Finished,” as Colter noted in his last missive: “I want that on my dull tombstone,” he said. That about sums it up. I prefer to think of myself as successive, I guess. On to the next one…
Why do you get up every morning?
My son, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, something will make sense today that didn’t previously.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?
I’m told the first Whittington of my line to cross the Atlantic did so as a stowaway, which I dig.
What’s wrong with society today?
I plead the fifth.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
The Sierra, the Lost Coast, any of the many places within a day’s drive where I can wander for long stretches of time without seeing anyone I didn’t come with.
What is your fondest memory?
I can’t recall.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
An improvement in our prospects for survival, our species and others cohabiting this planet. I’d like to die knowing environmental catastrophe had been averted.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
A form of thought, not necessary for bare survival, obviously, but for a fully human life, I’d say. As we can trace human evolution biologically, via bones and whatnot, we can trace it artistically, as well, via artifacts. Art’s a kind of gnostic repository and a vehicle of revelation, of self as such and as part of something one might call tradition, in the broadest sense. And as we keep finding out, that tradition is always older and more widely shared than we think it is.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
I wear clothes, most of the time.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
The sun’s gone down. That’s about it these days…
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Every time I look in the mirror.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?
I never learn. Every mistake I make, I make again, and again.
What are you unable to live without?
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?
I’d drink my morning coffee over a book on a balcony looking out over one of several views: seascape, mountainscape, or city scape, depending on my mood. Breakfast, with the family, talking, a record on in the background. Working in the studio, with a record on. Walking, talking with friends at lunch in some public place, where neighbors and strangers are about, doing much the same. More studio time, reading, writing, or making something, e.g. with some other’s words, or looking at some other’s art. Talking with folks, family, friends, foes(?) about all of the above, over dinner and drinks, well into the night. Going to bed without worrying about the rent, knowing nobody else was worried about it either.