Interview With John A. Nieves
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love your poem “Ekphrasis on the Cover of Static Prevails” as a response to both the cover art and the music of Jimmy Eat World. How do you see your poem conversing with the album and its music?
John A. Nieves: The cover of this record has spoken to me since it came out—the ninety degree rotation of the image always seemed to increase the desolation of the scene, to amplify all that lonely blue. The album dives deeply into the interpersonal. I found inspiration in every track, but particularly in the refrain of “Seventeen” (“They’ll take you where you won’t come back to me”) and “Claire” (“One last goodbye may last the rest of your life”). In the setting of the cover, this helped me think about the inherent distances and the desires that must resonate along their long empty lines.
RR: The disorientation—the tilted world, the synesthesia of color and sound—invokes a feeling of deep loneliness. How do you approach creating a sense of world and mood in your work?
JAN: I often start with one of the eight main senses: sight, sound, scent, taste, pressure, texture, temperature or proprioception (your sense of where parts of your body are even when devoid of all other sense). I try to attach the emotional landscape I am trying to create to one single piece of sensory data. Then, when that first image forms, it often leads me to more—like a web radiating outward. After I know my sensory data, I work on creating a soundscape that matches the mood I am trying to create. Do I want intimate sounds, harsh sounds, deep round vowels, long clinical words, short immediate ones? Then I begin to fill in the necessary telling around and into the sensory data and sound. I hope to make little gnomic scraps—just enough guidance for the poem to mean for the reader, to type something into memory, but not so much as to not leave them room to explore within its framework. After all of that begins to solidify, I work on the form of the poem. How should it present itself, what does it want of the eye before even the first word is read? Together, these things, if I get the mix right, will hopefully make a lyric worthy of a reader returning to, something that sticks, even if just a little.
RR: There’s so much loss in this poem: “music was lost,” “stools emptied,” “color escaped,” and all that’s left is ice and nostalgia. How does nostalgia influence your writing process?
JAN: We are all only our pasts. The second we have time to react to a question or a glance, it is already gone. We are distance machines, and in those distances, we build self. In this way, I see nostalgia as an important pain: a particular resonant goneness that helps define who we are. Even if we live very long lives, we have already now heard a song we love for the last time, watched a movie we were drawn to for the last time, seen a face we felt warmly toward for the last time. Our stories are rife with endings and we are our stories. So, even if in a small way, nostalgia is always driving my work.
RR: We understand that you’re a poetry editor at The Shore—how has your time there changed the way you read and write poetry?
JAN: It is such an incredible honor to read all the work poets decide to trust us with. It keeps me poetry-young and helps me see how dynamic the poetic landscape is. Also, it has, like teaching, helped me be able to articulate poetic nuance more clearly. With my co-editors, Caroline Chavatel and Emma DePanise, every poem we publish must be agreed upon unanimously and all three of us read every poem. This is a huge time commitment, but I am very proud of the clear aesthetic it has led to. It is not just a Venn diagram of our own, but we help each other see value in things we might have otherwise missed individually. Curating each issue is an adventure as we grow as writers, readers and editors—the journal evolves as well. I feel so lucky to have this education in my life.
RR: What’s your favorite album cover of all time?
JAN: So this is such a fun question. I have written seven album cover ekphrases, but none about my favorite two covers, at least not yet. I love the boldness of the cover of Sunny Day Real Estate’s brooding masterpiece How It Feels to Be Something On. I also really like the monochromatic storybook magic of the cover of Bright Eyes’ Lifted.
John A. Nieves’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here: