Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: “I Could Do It…” is really a wild ride of a poem which somehow conjured up images of the Gulf of Mexico – is there any particular Gulf, or experience with a Gulf, which inspired this poem and is it speaking to something broader?
Nicholas Molbert: This poem is about the Gulf of Mexico! I guess, though, “gulf” works on a more abstract level as a space or place that separates, but I specifically wrote with the Gulf of Mexico in mind here. I grew up about 45 miles away from it in New Iberia, Louisiana, and during the summers of my teenage years, my father and grandfather and I would spend weekends at the family fishing camp a stone’s throw away from the Gulf in Cocodrie, Louisiana. I wanted this poem, being fundamentally an elegy for my grandfather, to hold artifacts and memories from that place where my grandfather will always be. They had this awesome ability (which I’m just remembering) where they could maneuver the maze-like canals and cuts feeding into the Gulf from memory. I could say, “Remember that time we caught 150 specks (speckled trout) and Pawpaw fell out of the boat?” or “Remember that time a huge red (redfish) came off right by the boat and the hook went through the meat between your thumb and pointer finger?” and both of them would be able to ride to the exact place where these things happened. Without GPS or anything. It’s fascinating. And it’s not really that there are landmarks out there—just high sedge grass and brackish water. I hope from these small anecdotes you’ll see how that body of water is sort of mythic entity to me and deserving of a poem.
RR: As indicated in the note on the poem, “I Could Do It…” takes as reference for its title and first line the poem “I Could Do It. I Could Walk into the Sea!” by Diane Seuss. Can you tell us a little about how you see your poem in conversation with Seuss’s poem? How did the form and reference of the poem come about?
NM: I should say that ever since Four-Legged Girl, I’ve been an admirer of Seuss’s poems, and I’ll explain why a little later here. But I found Seuss’s poem in Court Green because a fellow poet of mine in UIUC’s MFA program mentioned they’d gotten a poem accepted by the magazine. I’d never heard of it, so I checked out their archives. There was a suite of Diane Seuss poems, and they looked very different from the poems I’d read in her books—they were all little 14-line boxes. Sonnets if you will, but much more rangey and unbeholden to rules as Seuss’s poems often are. But the titles! Geez: “I Dreamed a Color, No Plot, a Color, Strange” or “I Want Drugs Again; Whimsy.” I especially identified with “I Could Do It. I Could Walk into the Sea!” initially because it is wildly inventive— two statements in one title, but it struck me as a title that was not merely saying, “Hey this is some vague, lifeless advertisement of what the poem is about…” It had character… voice, you might say. I wanted to borrow that move. The content of our poems are not similar except insomuch as they are describing deaths. As in all of her work, Seuss’s poems show me that tinges of irreverence and gritty detail could illuminate a poem. Her poems gave me permission, in a way, to lean heavily into the dialects, the weird details, the quirks of the Deep South in a way not many other poets have.
RR: The conversation in “Comment on Louisiana Birth” is very angstily funny, and feels almost personally pointed at someone. Was there a conversation which ignited the thought process behind this poem?
NM: Ha, yeah, this poem wasn’t based exactly on one conversation, but an amalgamation of many, I guess you can say. My girlfriend is at the tail end of medical school and she’s had to deal with me asking her constantly about how to best describe things related to medical procedures for a while now. There was a time when I wrote a few poems imagining my own birth and I needed to know the best way to describe how scalpel might pass through skin. This poem in particular is about the process of writing a poem titled Louisiana Birth where I imagine my own birth. Many earlier versions of the poem indulged too much in humor, but, as it appears in Rappahannock Review, I decided to zero in on the fundamental differences between the types of work my girlfriend and I do on a daily basis. If you believe Auden out of context, that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” then that is very, very, very different than what doctors, specifically OB/GYN physicians, do. I zeroed in on this because I was thinking a lot about those differences and, to my knowledge, there’s not many poems that deal with poetry’s difference when compared to other practices.
RR: Recently I visited Ohio and was struck by the landscape. How has the environment of the Midwest shaped your writing? Alternatively, has it pushed you to write about other places?
NM: I can say I haven’t been to Ohio many times, but the times I’ve been I noticed it’s much hillier and not-flat than Illinois. That being said, I don’t think I’ve been in Illinois long enough for its landscape to have a subconscious effect! Other than its lack of water, Illinois’s flatness is similar to South Louisiana’s landscape. What I’ve noticed while being in Illinois is that I’ve grown much fonder of Louisiana’s landscape, and I find myself tapping into my memory of that place the longer I am away from it. This could be because I’ve realized that there’s a richness in South Louisiana that deserves a place in contemporary poetry, so I’ve mined that place accordingly.
RR: In your biography, you shared that you’re currently an assistant poetry editor for Ninth Letter – how has that experience shaped the way you write poetry? Has it changed the way you view the craft as a whole?
NM: Having the privilege to be assistant poetry editor for Ninth Letter made me realize the difference between two ways I digest poetry: (1) appreciation and (2) evaluation. I find myself in the appreciation mode when I’m reading poetry for pleasure and, of course, when you read for a magazine, yes, you might read for appreciation, but your primary task is to find poems worthy of your publication. Poetry workshops should be a little bit of appreciation and a little bit of evaluation, though more appreciation… Having been a part of the editorial team for years, I will say that the conversations we have about the poems that come to meeting have affected my view of craft and practice just as much as any workshop or seminar has. That’s how it affects my reading of poetry, but as far as writing, that’s harder to pin down. I can’t say there’s a definite way editing/reading for Ninth Letter has changed my writing. I will say, though, that you get a magnified view of the state of poetry being written today. Perhaps the biggest way it has changed my view of the craft as a whole is the immense amount of doggedness and work it takes to see a poem through to a satisfying state. Even then, even after publication, poets revise and revise and revise. Working for Ninth Letter, if anything, keeps you honest and never lets you forget that there’s always work to do!
Nicholas Molbert’s work in Issue 6.1: