Interview with Nancy K. Pearson, author of The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone

The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone, winner of the 2015-16 Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize, uses beautiful language and imagery to explore human pain and struggle. In this interview with poet Nancy K. Pearson, we discuss writing poetry vs. memoir, readers’ subjectivity, and what makes a landscape feel like home.

Erin Coughlin: First of all, congratulations on winning the Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. That’s a great accomplishment.

Nancy K. Pearson: Thanks. I was very excited when I heard the news.

EC: How long did it take you to write this collection?

NP: I started writing a lot of the poems for this collection in 2010 because I took a little break after my first book—so, 2009 or 2010. And then I took a few writing breaks because I had a couple surgeries and it was really hard to me to write and exist.  

EC: Did you set out with the idea to write a book, or did you write several poems and start noticing themes and motifs that you wanted to come back to and eventually a book grew out of that?

NP: What I usually do is write poems—just whatever I’m inspired to write. And as I continue to write more and more poems, I start to think of a theme or connect the poems. A lot of times, I’ll take a poem that I’ve written and think, “How does this fit into something larger?” and I’ll completely revise the poem. When I begin writing a poem thinking, “How is this going to work as a whole book?” that really stifles my imagination. I’ve tried that several times, thinking, “Okay, I’m going to write poems that reflect discrimination and the law, or I’m going to write a book about pain,” and I can’t think of anything. What happens is, it comes more organically from connecting and making leaps between ideas in different poems, and then really extensive revision to make those poems into a book-like project. My initial scribblings have little to do with what I might write a book about.

EC: Throughout this collection, your poems touch heavily on nature and memory, and their impact on suffering and recovery. What made you interested in these particular themes? Would you describe this, as you said, as a book about pain?

NP: I would definitely say that the speaker feels disconnected because nature doesn’t feel our pain or connect to us. It’s just there. The speaker in moments of pain and isolation can feel very lonely in nature. However, I think more so the speaker looks to nature as a way to identify, looks to the woods and the trees and the pasture as a kind of redemption, or a way of identifying what’s going on. I do write using pathetic fallacy, quite often. A lot of people say you shouldn’t give nature human characteristics, but nature’s just there. It’s the speaker who finds something of the self in nature. As a kid, I loved camping and being in the woods and hiking, so I’m very drawn to it. That’s where I fill myself up, and get my energy. For me to write a poem without nature would feel very hollow.

EC: I don’t believe in any hard and fast rules when it comes to writing because I think as long as it’s done well, anything can work. And nature itself doesn’t have any human qualities, but it’s a very human thing to ascribe human qualities to nature, so I think that feels right.

NP: I do, too. It’s interesting in classes or books that I read about the problem with ascribing human traits to nature, how we’re “claiming” nature by doing that. I understand it, but I don’t think of it as a problem in my work, or in anybody’s work. It’s just something I like to think about.

EC: You grew up in Tennessee, correct?

NP: Yes, I grew up in Chattanooga, but I spent a lot of time in the Smoky Mountains. That was home, too.

EC: I felt a tremendous sense of place throughout—but there’s a stark contrast between the Southern countryside landscape early on and the Cape Cod, Massachusetts seaside landscape. I thought they were such powerful contrasts. You’ve lived in both Tennessee and Cape Cod?

NP: That’s right. A fellowship to The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown brought me to Cape Cod, where I also met my wife.

EC: That feeling of home and place comes through vividly. I don’t like to ever assume that the speaker in a poem is the poet, because so often, it’s not, but even if you’re not writing about yourself, parts of yourself go in.

NP: Always.

EC: Could you discuss how even when not writing something autobiographical, autobiographical aspects still go in?

NP: In respect to place and home, I lived on Cape Cod and I loved it there. I loved the ocean and there was this isolation that was really conducive to thinking and reflecting and writing poetry, but it wasn’t home. I grew up spending time in the woods, in the mountains. Some of these poems take place on the ocean. Some of them are in Houston. I was there for a short period of time, and that was not home at all. As much as I love the people there, I felt really out of my element in that landscape. The poems that feel most like home are the ones that are in the mountains. There are several places, too, in the Southeast that I write about. One of them is in North Carolina, this area called Sandy Mush, which is very near the Smoky Mountains where I spent my childhood with my father and his wife. I would definitely say it is autobiographical in the sense that it’s where I grew up and where I feel most at home.

EC: Your speaker is a male veteran, I believe. Or, are there multiple speakers? I got the sense there might be multiple speakers.

NP: Interesting!  I consider my speaker a woman. With some of them, it might be harder to tell.

EC: Oh, I see. I guess that’s my own bias showing, but as soon as they started talking about the Wounded Warrior Project, my immediate thought was male, and of course, that’s not appropriate. It could just as easily be a female veteran.

NP: Well, that poem is an address to a veteran. The speaker is female in my head. That was my intention.

EC: I feel bad now that I immediately assumed the speaker was male.

NP: No, we all get something different out of poetry. That’s why poetry’s so great. We can go anywhere with our imagination. Gender is fluid, of course.

EC: In "Prairies," I imagined a woman reminiscing about when she was a little girl reading the Little House books, probably because it's something I can relate to, but in "Bird in Space," I imagined a male speaker. 

NP: In "Bird in Space," the speaker addresses a wounded soldier, a woman who is in a military hospital missing her leg. And then there's a child being addressed, trying to make sense of it by writing on the sidewalk. 

EC: To go back to your use of language, in your poem, "Starling," you created this dreamlike sense by repeating the word dream. And similarly, "Lullaby" creates a sense of a song being sung. There's this hypnotic quality. You can feel yourself getting drowsy, as you would listening to a lullaby. I read that one out loud, after reading it in my head. It's just beautiful, with your use of repetition. 

NP: I like to read those poems out loud. In fact, I usually do read these poems at events! There are others I have a more difficult time reading out loud, and I don't really know how that happened. I wish it would happen more, but I purposely wanted them to be lyrical and rhythmic. Both are songs, especially "Lullaby." So, don't ask me how it happened, but I was meditating on song there. It's an anti-lullaby in some ways. I do wish I wrote more like that. 

EC: You vary in structure. Some poems are in more traditional verse style. Others read like prose, particularly in some of the early nature poems when you’re just listing names of plants and names of birds. I thought that was beautiful, as well, because it’s almost like you’re saying the names of things in nature—not quite that you claim nature, as you said earlier—but you get the sense of somebody trying to reorient themselves in the world by naming familiar things.

NP – The prose poems are the poems I wrote last. They’re the newest poems in this book, so I had a handful of older poems—some of those are “Selene’s Horse” or “Lullaby,”—and I was in Sandy Mush, North Carolina, in this little cove. There were no people, just my partner and I. It was an hour to the nearest city, and I really immersed myself in the history there, and in the landscape, because that’s all there was. I was just in the middle of these woods, in a cabin. There was something very depressing about this rural poor area, and also something very beautiful. So, there was this mix of beauty and poverty. I think it mirrored a sort of emotional landscape, in which the speaker was feeling lonely, and struggling with coming off medications after surgery, and pain. It was a difficult time for the speaker, and for some reason, the prose poem with the short sentences that are clipped, that aren’t so lyrical, fit the psychological landscape of the speaker. The poems feel stark or abbreviated, not musical. I feel like I wrote those prose poems combining all kinds of disparate ideas and images. It’s sort of chaotic. During this time—not the autobiographical time, but the time in the poems--the speaker is grappling with withdrawal and pain and loneliness and depression. The prose poems form fit that somehow. Place is really important in the prose poems, especially.

EC: I had to look up the names of some of the plants and flowers that you mention.

NP: Me, too!

EC: One theme that I noticed, to go back to “Prairies,” is how in touch you are with children’s literature. You use it as common reference point, as in, “Margalo,” a poem about Stuart Little that wonders if Stuart is a mouse or just a small boy. And the title poem has a reference to The Velveteen Rabbit, one of the best books ever, and has beautiful things to say about suffering and what makes a thing real. And that’s especially intriguing because that’s the title poem. The collection was originally titled, North Star. Is that correct?

NP: (laughs) This collection has been titled about fifty different things. North Star was one. There, There was another, as in the comforting expression, but then it seemed like that could mean anything, so that didn’t work. At one point, it was Waiver. The title came after the book was accepted and I really had a hard time figuring it out. The title poem was one of the last poems I wrote before submitting. In terms of the poems I wrote about children’s stories, some of these, I’m sure I read as a child, but I don’t remember reading them. My wife reads to me nightly. She reads me children’s stories until I fall asleep. I heard all of these stories read out loud to me, as if I were re-experiencing childhood. I have them in there because they were on my mind a lot.

EC: There’s a unique pleasure in being read to. I learned to read by being read to, and there’s still nothing that captures that.

NP: I think there’s a desire in the speaker to be heard, and to be read to. To give voice to something, and to be comforted. And so, some of these poems are about the speaker’s loved one comforting her through reading.

EC: And The Velveteen Rabbit especially because the moral is love makes you real, but the way love is described makes it seem synonymous with pain and suffering. The more you suffer, the closer you are to being Real. The speaker is reading this while she’s recovering from a painful procedure, and when she has people in her life who love her. It has a double meaning.

NP: That was a hard poem for me to write. When you’re writing about children’s stories, it’s easy for everything to sound so cliché. So, I threw a lot of pain in it. (laughs) The title, The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone, is a quote from a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Five Orange Pips.” Holmes is quoting this scientist Georges Cuvier, who said by contemplating one thing, you can understand the whole. That was in reference to evolution. Cuvier went on to do all sorts of horrible things with science. The title is really a reference to Sherlock Holmes and that idea of seeing a whole through one thing, which can be a metaphor for poetry in general. I’m not at all referring to Cuvier. He’s not someone I would ever want to associate with. It’s meant to be Sherlock Holmes. So, the title has a lot of history.

EC: Well, “North Star” is the last poem in the book, so the book closes on a hopeful note because it’s a hopeful poem, but in “The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone,” you’re still in the middle of the suffering.

NP: Everyone has always told me my poems are so depressing at readings, especially if they’re at bars or similar venues, I’ll follow a poet who’s very funny. I always feel like apologizing to the audience. “Sorry, I know these are really depressing.” So, looking at “North Star” and thinking it’s hopeful is funny because one might read it and think, “There’s not a whole lot of hope in there,” but compared to my other poems, it’s very hopeful. The ditches are burning, but there’s a luminous star.

EC: When did you start writing poetry?

NP: I started writing when I was really young, maybe second grade. I would write rhyming poems, little stories, and comic books. I was a good creative writer in high school. I did a creative non-fiction column on sports because I was a long-distance runner. Then when I started undergrad at the University of Virginia, I completely quit all of that, which is ironic because they have such an amazing program there. I didn’t think about creative writing at all, until my last year. I took a class with Lisa Russ Spaar. It was the only creative writing class I took, and I fell in love with it. It saved my life, not to be dramatic, but she was an amazing professor and I was really struggling emotionally. I was hooked after that, but I couldn’t imagine being a poet. I thought, “Well, I have to be a lawyer who writes poetry.” But the lawyer thing didn’t happen. Nothing else ever happened. Here I am still trying to piece things together, in order to write my poetry. I wrote poetry and worked as a landscaper or adjunct or waitress. I took some time off before I got my MFA in non-fiction. I wanted to write a memoir. People ask why I didn’t get a PhD in poetry. Maybe I didn’t want to be in school for that long, though a PhD would help me get a job! Out of it all, I ended up with this book and this wonderful, wonderful press.

EC: How do you think writing non-fiction compares to writing poetry?

NP: Unfortunately, I hate writing non-fiction. I hate writing narrative. There’s the fine line between creative non-fiction and poetry. I want to create something beautiful or compelling with language. I look at every word. I look at line break, even when I’m trying to write this memoir. Who knows what’s going to happen with it? I get bogged down on paragraph level, and what some image is reflecting or illustrating in this character, who would be myself. Writing ten pages for me is excruciating. I’m always going back to the word. I wrote a couple hundred-page draft, maybe longer, and that was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Not to mention it’s a memoir. It’s about personal things. Some of the people in my workshop were fiction writers, and they would say, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” My wonderful thesis advisor said, “This is beautiful, but what’s really happening? Where’s the story?” I just wanted writing to be associative. I had hundreds of pages of tiny little segments that were supposed to connect to each other through the idea of a Robert Bly leap, but no one understood anything except for me! I do want to finish this memoir, so we’ll see what happens.

EC: You have to rearrange your brain.

NP: You do! I think a lot of people can do it really easily, but I cannot. I get bogged down with two words, and then I realize, “Oh no, I have another 150 pages to write. I better get out of these words.”

EC: Language is so insufficient, but it’s all we have.

NP: Exactly.

EC: How do you balance writing with your teaching?

NP: Right now, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had fellowships or fellowship money or been in an MFA program where I can teach and write and be paid to do it all. Now I live in Maryland; I’m adjuncting and teaching on-line workshops for the Fine Arts Work Center. I also do poetry manuscript consultations. I probably work more than a full-time job with everything I’m doing. It allows me to work at home some of the time. On breaks, on weekends, I try to write, but I’m trying to get on a better schedule because I’m seeking a full-time job. I am getting up early for the first time in my life to write, putting in time in the morning before things get busy. My cats love it; they get fed earlier.

EC: I’m increasingly finding schedules necessary for writing.

NP: I teach a class at the Fine Arts Works Center called Fifteen Works. This spring I had fifteen students and they all had to write four poems a week. Students produce a lot of work so they have raw material to revise. So, they’re learning to carve out time to write and I’m learning to carve out time to read 60 poems a week.

EC: Can you describe the Fine Arts Work Center?

NP: I was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center twice—two seven-month fellowships—in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I basically had two years to work on my first book, which was amazing. The Work Center pays you every month and gives you a place to live. They have summer writing workshops like 24 Pearl Street, taught by amazing poets and fiction writers. I’ve been teaching with 24 Pearl Street for over three years. Every season I offer a class or two. Anyway, the Fine Arts Work Center changed my life.

EC: To go back to the autobiographical aspect of the book, you mention you’ve had some experience with surgery and personal pain, but the speaker isn’t supposed to be you and you’re not as depressed as your poems can sometimes sound. Did you have a sense while writing this that you were creating a character, or that you were taking your own experience and putting it in a different venue?

NP: I think both. While I’m revising poems, I am not that depressed person like the speaker, who’s looking in the mirror with pills everywhere. I’m creating that character, but that character is based on some experiences that I’ve had. I’ve had severe depression in my life, been hospitalized for depression, and some surgeries that were very difficult to get through, both mentally and physically. So I am creating a character in a specific place, but that character, surely, is based on a lot of my own feelings. The sentiment is sincere. Some of the details, or exactly what’s going on in the speaker’s mind at that given time, might not be factual, but I would say everything that the speaker experiences comes from how I am manipulating my own experience. To say they’re autobiographical would not be true because they’re not factual that way. To say that they come from my own experiences and feelings would be true.

EC: Which is what writers do.

NP: I think that especially now there are a lot of things being written about depression. There’s a lot out there about not being ashamed to admit that you’ve been depressed or suicidal. When somebody asks me, "have you ever felt this way?" I want to be able to say, "Yes, I have. And I’m still here." It’s always a struggle, but it’s important to me that people know that [the speaker] is not just a fictional character. I’m sure most people who read poetry assume it’s me, and I also want people to know that no, it’s not necessarily me now. But who is “you now?" The poems are sincere, but not necessarily factual. It’s hard to make up characters. When I write a book, there’s a speaker, who is a character, but I would have a hard time making a bunch of different characters. I don’t know how fiction writers do it. My wife Elizabeth, is a fiction writer and I am so impressed. When I sit down to write a poem, I don’t sit down thinking, “I’m going to write a poem about this now." I start with words and thoughts and ideas and connect them together. When I sit down to write prose, I try to figure out what I’m going write before I write it and I have such a hard time. That’s not how my brain works. I like to connect things that don’t connect, and that’s what is so fun about poetry.      

                                            - The interview has been edited and condensed