SARA TRIANA MITCHELL INTERVIEWS DAVID NOLLER, AUTHOR OF MASTER POETRY FORMS
Sara: How did you set out to write Master Poetry Forms?
David N.: I never set out to write Master Poetry Forms.
Sara: But it exists!
David N.: It was an unfortunate accident.
Sara: What do you mean, "unfortunate accident?"
David N.: It was unfortunate in the sense that it took me 21 years; if I had known it would take that much of my life, I doubt I ever would have started. And it was an accident in that I never intended to write a book in the first place: All I wanted was a map!
Sara: But how did you get started?
David N.: I had just wrenched myself away from a pretty sweet gig at the university in an attempt to claim my identity as a writer. As a screenwriter in particular. My friends Rudy & Shirley Nelson offered me a key to their downtown house with unlimited access to their third floor library and writer's garret. That was my daily office. I sat down to write and thought, "Uh-oh: it could probably take a long time to learn to write a very good screenplay [spoiler alert: yes, it does], and it would be nice to produce some shorter creative work in the meantime." That's when I settled on poetry forms. What could be simpler? (Ha!) So I began with Ron Padgett's Handbook of Poetic Forms, working through them alphabetically, one-by-one. I wrote a lot of very bad poems, but I found it satisfying. So I picked up another book of forms. And another. And another. And that's when the problems started...
Sara: What kind of problems?
David N.: Every book was helpful in its own way, but only for certain specific forms. None of them showed the big picture. None of them pulled it all together. None of them told me what was essential to know versus what was optional, or esoteric. And frankly, they all contradicted one another quite a bit and sometimes contradictions even happened within the same book. So I started making diagrams.
Sara: Tell me about the diagrams.
David N: My grad school colleagues called me "Diagram Boy." It was vaguely affectionate, but in that word-driven world, I don't think they meant it entirely as a compliment! I think maybe they saw it as a kind of quirky affectation, but I have always understood ideas best when put in visual relation with one another. So I started placing one form against another: Which of these is not like the other ones? Which of these is most like the other ones? What terms do different people use for the exact same idea? How could this form fall into multiple categories at once, and if it does, then where should it be placed? I guess you could say I was building my own poetry toolbox, though I wasn't quite conscious of that in the moment. It was more of a reaction to working through my own frustration. I did this for book after book after book. It became kind of obsessive, to be frank. After a while, I had a notebook full of an entire world, though it felt more like having pictures of a lot of different continents without understanding how they all fit together. And then one day – click – the whole planet came into view.
Sara: When was that?
David N. About six or seven years after I began. In a Burger King in Burbank, California. That's when I knew I was in trouble.
SARA: You discovered you were in trouble in a Burger King?
DAVID N.: Yes. I was working away at my regular "corporate office" in a Burger King.
DAVID N: Why are you laughing?
SARA: Because what sort of person thinks about poetry in a Burger King?
DAVID N: I always work in Burger Kings. Or McDonalds. Or other fast food places.
SARA: (more laughter) Why? Why not a coffee shop?
DAVID N: Well, I'm not a coffee guy. And they're much cheaper. Have you seen how much poets make?
SARA: (laughter) I know!
DAVID N.: If you choose the right corporate office, it turns out that you can get free refills on iced tea and they won't kick you out. And the people you meet in fast food places are much more interesting than those in coffee shops. Much.
SARA: I believe you. But... okay: how did you know you were in trouble?
DAVID N: I reached a point where the proverbial light bulb went off and the big picture of the map fell into place. The "A-ha" moment. I saw how all the different continents connected.
SARA: How did that happen?
DAVID N: I give immense credit to Timothy Steele and his book Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter. He gave everything I had learned a historical context, and a way of framing the broader Central Poetic Duality of Construction & Contents. I'll spare you that right now – but it's in our book!
SARA: But how was this a problem?
DAVID N: Because once I finally saw the big picture, I realized "Hey, this could probably be helpful to a lot of poets. Someone should do something with this!"
SARA: (laughter) And the finger in the mirror was pointing at...
DAVID N: Me. I didn't want to do it.
SARA: Why not?
DAVID N: Because all I wanted was the map. I was happy with my notebook full of drawings and shorthand. That was enough for me to understand the larger world. But I knew that for someone else, they would need a book to explain all the details. I don't like details. I didn't want to be the detail guy.
SARA: But you got over this?
DAVID N.: Well, I got over it enough to at least write a crappy first draft. It was bad. But the big picture was all there. Or at least 90% of what you now see on the map was already in place. But explaining it in a way that would make sense to others? It was horribly over-written in some places and then it also had giant gaps where there were still relationships between things that I didn't understand.
SARA: How long did the rough draft take you?
DAVID N: Maybe two or three years?
SARA: And then?
DAVID N: And then I stopped. I probably would have remained stopped if I hadn't met Joseph Thompson.
Next: Meet Joseph Thompson!