Nerd of the Week
Meet Brianna, a Poetry Nerd
Interview by Terra Olsen
You’re a self-proclaimed ‘poetry nerd.’ How did poetry spark the ‘nerd’ in you?
Poetry made me a nerd for language. It made me want to learn more words and how to use them. It made me passionate about things like diction, syntax, metaphor, punctuation, and line breaks. What I love most are the small things—the way a colon makes a sentence mean differently than if a dash or a period were used. I point out the use of colons in poems all the time when I’m teaching, and though my students roll their eyes as though this were a stupid thing to talk about, I find that they start noticing these small details on their own.
This past Sunday, there was an Opinion piece in the New York Times called “Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination” that really succinctly summarizes my interest in language: “language lets us learn the answers to practical questions, but it also opens us up to novel insights and perspectives. Simply put, language straddles the chasm between science and art.” Language is somewhat paradoxical in this way—it is precise, answering our questions, but it is also capacious, opening us up to more questions. This is why I find the notion of language “straddling” science and art so productive. Both thematically and formally, the poems I’m writing now are interested in this very “straddling.”
Hm… that’s a tough one. I feel like I’ve always been reading poetry, but that’s obviously not true. I think I first discovered poetry when I was eleven or twelve. We were cleaning out my grandmother’s attic, and my father, knowing I was an avid reader, passed me an old book. It was a Complete Works of William Shakespeare (with notes) published in 1911 by Grosset and Dunlap. An identical book is listed on ebay here. I loved this book because it was old and “vintage,” because it had once been my grandfather’s, and because it was jam-packed with words. The plays were wonderful, but the sonnets, tucked away in the back, were my favorites. I remember I memorized Sonnet XXXV (“No more be grieved at that which thou hast done”) and recited it in front of my English class in seventh grade. (What I don’t remember is why. I probably asked to do it, not realizing this wasn’t a “cool” thing to do).
How has poetry impacted your life?
I’ve learned so much about the world, about people’s perceptions of the world and society, about history and tradition, and all sorts of other things from poetry. But I guess most significantly, poetry has made me go to graduate school twice—once for my MFA in creative writing, and once again for my PhD in literature and creative writing—so in a way, you might say poetry is my life. But that’s a little hyperbolic. It might be better to say poetry has affected the course of my life. Though I often find myself reluctant to say “I’m a poet” when someone asks what I do—mostly because this calls to mind stereotypes of poets characterized by mental illness, drug abuse, nihilism, a general detachment from reality, and overly-affected dramatic readings, among other things—it is, really, what I do.
Where do you want to take your passion for poetry?
Ideally, I would like to teach. Once I finish my degree, I plan to go on the academic job market and hopefully find myself a teaching gig at a university somewhere. But I’m also realistic—the academic job market is pretty bleak in terms of prospects, so if I don’t find this ideal career, I’d be perfectly happy reading and writing poems while doing something else full-time.
What advice would you give to others interested in exploring poetry?
Read! I tell my students this all the time. The only problem may be the problem of choice: Where do I start? What do I choose? If you know you like a particular poet or literary period, start there. Librarians are invaluable resources if you’re not sure what you’d like best. Or, you could always try a poetry anthology or two. I always encourage people to try new things when it comes to poetry, and anthologies are a good introduction to different writers and styles.
I’ll mention a few of my favorite poets, in case anyone’s interested in recommendations:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Tate, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, David Kirby, Robert Hass, and Kay Ryan.
Favorite moment or memory involving poetry?
I have a lot of personal moments or memories I could name, but I think I’d rather mention my favorite moment in poetry—or, at least, one of my favorite moments. This is a poem by the imagist poet H.D.:
Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
What I love more, even, than the precision and vividness of the image is the perspective—what’s being commanded to “whirl up” is not just the sea, but specifically the sea as a reflection of the earth. By asking this sea-based reflection to “whirl up,” the poem is commanding the image of the pines to shift into its “proper” location, “over us,” rather than below. The world has been turned upside-down; it’s being asked to turn right-side up.
Everything here is somewhat fantastic or overblown—it essentially creates a pine-tree typhoon—but that’s just a result of the language. The image and the perspective are both rather logical. (And this doesn’t even begin to discuss the title’s allusion to Greek mythology and its effect on the poem’s meaning). Such a little poem, but so complex!
Brianna Noll is a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Recent poetry and prose can be found here. Her interests include poetry (of course), magical realism, the fantastic, Japanese language and art, anime, Harry Potter, and puppies. Brianna has also been a guest contributor to HYN (see her article here).