Anyone who has read Poetry magazine in the last few years will most likely recognize the name Nate Klug. He’s had numerous poems and book reviews published in the magazine, and he was most recently awarded a Poetry Foundation Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Klug received his BA in English from University of Chicago, and is currently a graduate student at Yale Divinity School. He is twenty-five years old and lives in New Haven with his wife, Kit.
TriQuarterly Online: For someone not even thirty years old, your literary accomplishments are pretty staggering. How did you begin writing poems?
Nate Klug: My mom is a poet. For her, the best birthday or holiday present was always a new piece of writing. So I grew up writing poems and short stories, thanks to her and my dad. Then I studied with the poet and translator Jim Powell for one quarter in college. He made it clear to me what was required, from an intellectual standpoint at least, to be a poet. I was going through a period of change and loss, and writing poems stuck.
TQO: And how would you describe “what is required” of a poet?
NK: Well, for me what was required was—and still is—lots of reading. Jim emphasized the necessity of a deep familiarity with poetry across history in several different languages. It’s an aspiration I continue to work toward.
As for the larger social or political responsibilities of the poet, that’s something I find hard to articulate these days. It would require a longer-term and more imaginative notion of justice than I have now.
TQO: You mentioned that you were going through a time of loss when you started to seriously write poems. This is something one hears often. Is the experience of loss something you feel is central to being a poet?
NK: Loss—but hope after loss . . .
I don’t think there is such a thing as optimistic or pessimistic art. All good art is inherently hopeful in its power. The physical sensation of reading or writing poetry is its own resistance to what happens to us.
But—and this might answer your question more directly—I believe that it is possible to “experience loss” from reading literature, and perhaps just as powerfully from reading as from “real life.” It’s mostly about the inner life either way. You certainly don’t need to wait for something bad to happen to you to write! Then again, that’s a lesson I got from a book—Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle.
TQO: From what I’ve read of your work in Poetry, you seem to be exploring compression and crystallization, leaving some readers with an “I could have done that” response. But in reality, what you are doing is quite difficult. That said, the highly wrought nature of your poems can at times seem juxtaposed to their organic appearance and simple language. Here I am thinking about poems like “Advent” or “The Choice.” What do you see your poetry doing?
NK: Hmmm. I think your question gets at a paradoxical quality that I am hoping to attain in the poems you mention. For me there is a great tension between the poetic and religious vocations. Poems are the sites where I try to work this tension out.
Somewhere Yeats says that George Herbert was “stirred to imaginative intensity” by “some form of propaganda.” By propaganda, Yeats meant Christianity. Well, as a candidate for ordained ministry, I don’t think that Christianity is only propaganda (though some of it always is!). But Yeats gets at something crucial with his perception that religious ideas and sentiments have been productive, helpful, for certain poets. The fear, then, is that poetry is using belief for its own ends. Art making an idol of faith.
Or vice versa—that the intensity I experience when composing a poem becomes confused with my deepest religious feeling. I only believe in God when I am writing. (I think Matisse actually said this about painting.)
TQO: This paradox that you’re articulating brings to mind thinkers like Tillich, who wrote that faith can exist only in light of doubt, or Merton, who wrote that God can be understood only in tension with the abyss— or even that God is the abyss. For a poet this is a good thing, because tension makes for good poetry; however, tension doesn’t always make for the simplest existence. What sort of existential struggles (if any) has this paradox presented to your day-to-day life?
NK: Yes, I struggle to incorporate the lessons that poetry and theology have taught me into my surface decisions. At worst there’s a real dualism, a Jekyll and Hyde jarring, where the courage of the inner life vaporizes in the face of practical business. Being put on hold, buying stuff, switching health care, trying to impress in an interview . . .
TQO: Some poets (Fanny Howe comes to mind) have suggested that the goal of writing poetry is to erase dualism—to exist in or articulate a state of “is-ness,” to move away from either-or catogories. Is this struggle against dualism something that you feel when you write?
NK: Much less than when I’m not writing.
Maybe poetry is real in a way that philosophy isn’t, in that it can move past certain intellectual “problems” by means of sheer presence. Donald Davie writes that Dante’s poetry makes ideas—theology specifically—into sensations.
I feel quite comfortable saying that poetry incarnates. That’s the power Howe may be talking about.
TQO: That’s interesting (specifically the bit about poetry being able to move beyond certain intellectual problems). I remember reading an interview with Robert Creeley—I think in Paris Review—in which he said something like “I write poetry when I have questions, prose when I have answers.” Do you think it is this lack of pragmatism that allows poetry to interact with ideas differently from philosophy?
NK: I like that Creeley quote. I think he also talks about writing poetry as being like taking a walk: you don’t take a walk to arrive somewhere, you do it to be on the walk.
To answer your question, definitely—since I think lyric poems begin in sound, and not ideas. Poetry doesn’t promise “answers” or rational investigations; its authority comes from a different source that for me is inextricable from its music. It’s fun to see how an idea like the incarnation shows up in Donne, or how Darwin’s theories appear in Lorine Niedecker, but ultimately poems are after a different kind of sense.
(Not a kind of sense, on its own, that anyone can survive on, I should add.)
TQO: What kind of music do you look for in a poem? Or more specifically, what kind of music do you strive for in your own poems?
NK: In English, good old vowel music is always hard for me to resist: “When you plaited the harvest bow / you implicated the mellowed silence in you . . .” (Heaney)
I also love when there are many different sound clusters or “musical lines” going on at once: “The willows carried a slow sound, / A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead. / I could never remember / That seething, steady leveling of marshes / Till age had brought me to the sea.” (Crane)
It’s amazing how Crane maintains so many streams of sound for so long.
Or just flat-out consonantal gorgeousness: “sora / rails’s sweet / spoon-tapped waterglass- / descending scale- / tear-drop-tittle . . .” (Niedecker)
It’s funny, when I write lines that have good music, I know immediately. Usually it’s the part of the poem that comes first. The sign that I actually might have a poem.
It interests me—as someone who would never dream of doing this!—that we seem to have developed no real system or analytical means to explain how music works in poems.
TQO: Speaking of music, do you have any thoughts on the Neo-Formalist movement?
NK: I’m not sure I know what it is; isn’t that an implicitly pejorative term? I do know a couple good poets who would be aggravated to be called Neo-Formalist.
Somehow this reminds me of Mitch Hedberg’s joke “I don’t have a girlfriend, I just know a girl who would be really mad if she heard me say that.”
TQO: You might be right about the term being pejorative, though I didn’t mean it to be. Either way, I like that Hedberg quote, so I’m glad I asked. How does the line function in your poems?
NK: I hope that the line teaches the reader how to taste the poem. My favorite critic talks about reading poetry as chewing words over, then swallowing them or spitting them out.
Sometimes I use the line to establish some basic metrical pattern, which I can then deviate from or undercut. I like James Schuyler’s “Buried at Springs” for this, and lots of Bunting.
I usually begin a draft of a poem with longer lines and looser prosody, but it doesn’t stay that way. I wish I could write in longer lines and, more generally, sustain a poem’s energy for a longer period of time.
TQO: You received a BA in English from the University of Chicago and have now gone on to pursue an MDiv at Yale. What motivated this decision? How has it affected your writing?
NK: I went to divinity school after a year of working odd jobs, because I had a vague sense that I might want to become a Protestant minister. I had very little background in the church or practiced religion, so I also wanted to experience an intentionally Christian culture of learning and worship.
Along with my practical pastoral classes, I’ve gotten to study writers like Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Luther. I’m amazed at the way the Protestant tradition in particular has articulated the tension between writing and faith I describe above. I think now I’m actually freer to write poems about other things (like baseball games or concrete saws) besides my faith, because I’m more aware of the theological conversation those religious poems are a part of. Which people have already said it better than me!
In terms of time, I’m busier but seem to write the same number of poems per season (a meager two or three).
TQO: It seems that the further one enters into something, the bigger and more inclusive that something becomes. This seems to be especially true with theological thought. Whereas one first believes that to speak of God is to actually speak the word God, that same one will, in time, find that God cannot be contained in a word. Can you relate to this progression? Is this in part why you find yourself able to move away from the language of faith, toward something like “baseball game and concrete saws”?
NK: After I wrote poems like “Advent” and “The Choice,” little poems about my faith, I felt as if I had nowhere else to go. No direction forward for writing. That’s a scary feeling!
So yes, I scrambled for more inclusive subjects. I also started reading people I thought might tip me onto something a little less theological, like Williams and August Kleinzahler.
Perhaps my theology had widened, as you suggest. At the time it just felt like the need to keep writing.
TQO: Did you ever consider enrolling in an MFA program?
NK: Not really, because I wanted to explore the divinity school path.
TQO: Do you have any sort of writing community? Anyone you look to for feedback on your poems?
NK: I am fortunate to have two or three older poet-friends, whose work I admire deeply, with whom I am able to share my poems. But my mom and my partner are always my first readers.
At Yale Divinity School now, there are a number of good writers who are pursuing several vocations at once, which is exciting and inspiring.
TQO: I sense some of Creeley’s influence in your poems—maybe some Samuel Menashe, some Rae Armantrout? Which writers have most influenced you?
NK: I like all three poets you mention, especially Creeley. I love the contemporary poet Pam Rehm. And Bunting and Niedecker, going back a little. And then Crane, Dickinson, Hopkins, Herbert, Milton. That’s another answer to your community question.
TQO: Who are you reading right now?
NK: Last night I read The Groom’s Guide to Getting Married (my wedding is on June 5). It was terrible.
I am trying to get back into Thomas Hardy. I love his experimental forms, his sense of shape. My favorite right now is “Your Last Drive.” The last line contains so much (ambiguous) feeling.
I am working on a review of a new book called Poetic Theology by William Dyrness, which is aesthetic theory from a Reformed Protestant perspective. Filling all sorts of holes in my learning. But I can’t figure out why he doesn’t talk about contemporary poets more. People like Rehm, or even Emily Dickinson, would be wonderful for his argument.
The distance between the contemporary poetry world and the contemporary religious (at least Christian) scholarly world is gaping. They gesture to each other, and to some extent rely on each other for authority, but there is no real commerce between them.
TQO: Could this be because poetry relies so heavily on iconoclasm, and religion often sees iconoclasm as a threat to sacramentalism? Sure, this sort of dissent should be right in line with grassroots Protestantism—but that’s assuming there is still such a thing . . .
NK: I think you’re definitely right. But Herbert and Hopkins and Eliot are dear to the church. They have been assimilated, in a way. The few contemporary poems I hear quoted often in church seem to me very different, often used to conclude or sum up a point, proffering a cheap hushed transcendence. That’s what I mean when I say that contemporary Christianity, in sermons and articles, to some extent relies on poetry for authority.
On the flipside, I think lots of poets could learn a ton from reading Luther’s experiences of translating the Bible, or Karl Barth’s theology of language. Revelation in the Bible is wildly verbal. Ezekiel and Jeremiah eat words!
TQO: It seems that what you’re talking about is a poetic consciousness. The church will use individual poems to help lend authority to a given idea or moment, but will not enter into the consciousness behind the poem, or of the poem. The opposite is also true. Poetry will often use religion as a wellspring of image and history and paradox without truly entering into a religious consciousness. It seems that the issue here, on both sides, is one of commitment.
NK: Yes. But at certain points in history, poetry and the church have entered each other’s consciousness, as you put it, and really informed each other. And each has been better off for it.
I think this is happening now with Fanny Howe’s and Donald Revell’s work. Whether the church is listening is another question.
TQO: Do you find any relationship between poetry and prayer?
NK: This tracks back to the tension between vocations we were talking about earlier. I do believe that a good poem demands some human act of will or instinct beyond what prayer requires. But I also believe prayer takes us far beyond poetry.
Maybe the two find common ground in John Donne’s sermon advice: “So whosoever thou be, that canst not readily pray, at least pray, that thou mayst pray.” I could see some of my poems as prayers . . . that I might pray.
TQO: Well said. It also seems to me that both prayer and poetry share an a-pragmatism. That is to say that neither relies on results. In many ways this is counterintuitive. Do you feel that as a poet and Christian you are going against the grain of a societal milieu that is obsessed with results— “a man born out of his time,” as Nietzsche described himself?
NK: That’s always a tempting thing to think about oneself, isn’t it? I don’t know, I find myself obsessing about “results”—in the act of sending out poems, say, or especially in evaluating my spiritual life—just as much as the next American.
It has been fun to relay my passions and “career plans” at reunion events and the like.
TQO: Where do you see your poetic aspirations leading you? Is there a book in your near future?
NK: I know I hope to keep writing. I have about thirty poems I can live with. Maybe a chapbook soon? I’m honestly not sure.
TQO: Where can readers find more of your work?
NK: Some translations (of a 16th century French theologian) in the June Poetry and poems in the latest Common Knowledge. Other stuff coming out soonish in Zoland Poetry Annual and Threepenny Review.
"The Harvest Bow," by Seamus Heaney
"Repose of Rivers," by Hart Crane
"Paean to Place," by Lorine Niedecker