portrait Nancy White

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 159 ~ August, 2010

Nancy White’s most recent poetry collection, Detour, was published by Tamarack Editions (March, 2010).

Her first poetry collection, Sun, Moon, Salt, won the Washington Prize for Poetry in 1992.

White currently teaches English at Adirondack Community College, after previously teaching at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn and at Bennington College.

A graduate with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, White has been awarded fellowships at MacDowell and The Provincetown Arts Work Center. She serves as Associate Editor of Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and also as Editor at Word Works in Washington, D.C.

Nancy White

Photo © Nancy White

Derek Alger: Let me start by congratulating you on the recent publication of your poetry collection, Detour

Nancy White: Well, it was a long wait! That book evolved over almost a decade, collecting more rejections than I can remember. My first book racked up a whopping 50-something before it won the Washington Prize, which got it into print, but I’d say Detour was at least double that. But I’m glad — looking back — that it took so long because I was forced to keep pressing the collection through the sieve of time and my own evolutions, and it really did improve every year it had to wait. It became more experimental, less narrative, and just plain more interesting. Or so I think…

DA: Did you really “write compellingly of love in all its true and skewered forms,” as the blurb from Fred Marchant says?

NW: Skewered is a painful word isn’t it? The poems are about divorce, in one sense, but also the collection is about the mid-life crisis everyone goes through in some form or another — we always find a way — and there’s some painful skewering involved in those deconstructions and re-imaginings. One of the miracles of writing the poems, and of that phase of my life, really was that there was such genuine love that remained, and increased, after all the betrayal and cruelty and starting over. The human heart really is staggering in its goodness.

DA: Looks like you proved you can go home again.

NW: Metaphorically, and literally too! I wrote most of the book after leaving NYC to live near my large extended family upstate, in Cambridge, a small rural town where I run into people I went to high school with or who worked with my grandfather. To many NYC friends, it was shudderingly provincial, but for me it’s an ideal place for writing, teaching, and community that reaches back not just years but many decades. I feel lucky to be reaping the benefits of continuity — living in my grandparents’ old house, making parent complaints to the same school that irked me back in the day.

DA: Were your parents an influence on your desire to become a writer?

NW: Absolutely. My dad was in the Iowa MFA program, and there were always books around and people who loved them. My mom comes from a great storytelling tradition, plus she could get a cat talking, she’s so good in conversation. We lived all over, and while that was traumatic in its way, it also loaded my mind with different places and people: Maine, Colorado, Vermont, Iowa, Wyoming, and we finally settled back in New York when I was a teenager.

DA: What about high school, did you start writing poetry early?

NW: I started out with melodramatic diary-keeping, then wrote bad stories with great seriousness of purpose, and in high school started writing poems. One great teacher is all it takes — and I was lucky to have one. Rumor had it she was an escaped nun, which I thought was gossip but later turned out to be true. She removed the pretense from the teacher-student relationship and cheerfully expected more than anyone ever had; the result was good writing from an astonishing number of students. She began my life-long love of metaphor.

But I got bored, as a lot of high school students do, so I graduated early, worked and traveled, writing most days, then went to Oberlin because it was the only place I hadn’t visited, so it was the only place that hadn’t made me nauseous.

DA: I hope Oberlin was a pleasant experience.

NW: The perfect blend of workaholic seriousness and freedom to explore. I loved it there. Though they really made you sweat to get into the writing classes — I had to wait two years. My advisor kept saying, “You’re not ready to write. Go study history.” The next semester, he’d say, “Go take science classes.” Eventually he snuck me in the back door with the Translation Workshop, which I’m now convinced is the single most brilliant way to begin studying the construction of the poem and the mysteries of poetic voice. I did a shaggy variety of things at Oberlin, including getting up every day to fry eggs in the dining hall, starting a puppetry troupe, and working as an admissions intern.

DA: Your internship actually led to your first teaching job.

NW: I couldn’t help but notice that all my favorite students came from the same school. They’d arrive for these interviews and the top of my head would fly off — so when the head of that school visited,
I asked to be introduced to him, and he ended up saying I should come work for them. Serendipity?

DA: And it was another good experience?

NW: I think it formed me not only as a teacher but as a writer because the entire philosophy rubbed off on me. St. Ann’s students typically studied the art of language more than anything else. Starting in 4th grade, students had two English courses, studio art taught by practicing artists, theater, plus science and history, and language and math taught by people passionate about the subject, with advanced degrees not in “education” but in the area they taught. By the end of high school, everyone had studied a modern and a classical language — sometimes 6 years of each. No grades were given, and you wouldn’t believe how the students flourished. I taught creative writing there for a dozen years, inheriting students who had been reading and writing about and imitating the world’s best writers ever since they could walk. Okay, I’m exaggerating…but only a little bit. The secret to their success was that the school knew, from top to bottom, that one of the teacher’s most important jobs was knowing when to stay out of the way.

DA: You also earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence.

NW: Yes, I sent myself to grad school because I thought I needed structure and deadlines, and after a review of the NYC programs, I picked Sarah Lawrence: great teachers, small classes, also the “don system,” a one-on-one approach to complement the workshop. I have vivid memories of those hours, discussing a poem of mine that was failing, or that was half-hatched, and working it over with three different teachers in conference as well as in workshop. Plus that program demanded a long reading list and intensive study of our forebears every semester, so you came out with a balance of critical and creative skills. You can’t earn a living as a poet in America now — or probably anytime soon — so it is a very pure education. You’re not in it for the money but for its own sake.

DA: Eventually, it was time to move to upstate New York.

NW: I think I realized we had to go when my 9-month-old son crawled to the door and started banging on it with his fist. Since we’d been warned not to let him touch the ground in the park, or crawl on the restaurant floor, or touch the books at the library, we had to find a place that wasn’t poisonous and where we all had more room to move. But also I could see the rest of my career stretching out ahead of me in a predictable manner, and I guess I prefer a little mystery, so I — I can’t quite believe it now that I look back — turned away from Saint Ann’s and after a couple of years at Bennington College moved into public higher education. A new set of frustrations, but a wonderful community of poets!

DA: Tell us a bit about Women of Mass Dispersion.

NW: Over the early years upstate, I kept meeting these very skilled women writers who were struggling to get published, who felt insecure or hampered when it came to getting their work into print. I was coming off a writing and publishing hiatus of my own, and I started tossing around the idea of meeting not so much as a writing group but as a publishing support group. We agreed to meet monthly to discuss writing projects, and to pool research and discuss strategy. One of the most important things we do is help each other meet our own personal deadlines and handle the many stings and arrows of rejection. Since we started, we’ve seen one member earn her MFA, several have received grants, numerous journal publications have resulted, several chapbooks and one book have come out, and with the mutual support, I think we’ve helped each other break some bad habits. And all this before Facebook!

DA: You’re also involved with The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review.

NW: Actually, I’m involved there because of a clerical error. I usually send out multiple submissions, and I accidentally sent poems to Sow’s Ear, which was not accepting simultaneous submissions at that time, and another publication. The other publication accepted a poem, and then Sow’s Ear wanted it too — and I didn’t even have a record of sending it to them! I hadn’t done it on purpose, apologized profusely, asked what I could do to make amends, suggesting I could help sort through any backlog if they had one. They auditioned me to read the slush pile, and I ended up as Associate Editor. Now, that includes writing the book review column, which I love, love, love. It’s an amazing way to keep up (or try to keep up) with new titles, meet new writers, and keep yourself thinking about the work that is coming out today.

DA: You’re also Editor at Word Works.

NW: Yes. I won their Washington Prize years ago, and in 2008 I started working there, managing the prize process, moved on to editing and book production, then this January was elected president. My roles there are changing as fast as I can learn them — faster! Managing the prize process and then seeing the winner all the way through production is another way to see what’s being written “out there,” and then to get to know one excellent poet who has survived the grueling journey from slushpile to finalist to PRIZE. The president role really highlights the challenges that poetry is up against these days: so few readers, so little money, so little understanding of the mission of poetry — and yet so much potential, so many writers working to produce good books. It’s both humbling and inspiring.

DA: Tell us about teaching at Adirondack Community College.

NW: I admire the mission of community college; it’s vital to make quality education available to everyone, equally. We have a superb transfer program — really top-notch instruction — so that yeah, you can use it as a trade school, but you can also use it to explore the power of the intellect, to explore creativity, to move beyond life-as-paycheck. A lot of our students are what we call “underprepared” for college, which is just the state of affairs in the U.S. right now, but I’ve seen amazing change in students in those two years. You can’t help but feel you’ve struck a blow for civilization when a student enters as a future accountant, but ends up enrolled in a PhD program to study literature or psychology.

I do get to teach creative writing, but we all teach a mountain of college composition too. I love my department; they value the individual mind, the unique voice, not just the thesis statement and the ability to arrange yourself into paragraphs. This will sound inflated, but I really do think we restore our students’ love of language, and their faith that it’s a beautiful, powerful tool that belongs to each one of them inalienably.

DA: Whose poetry are you following these days?

NW: I like so many styles, kinds of voices. The irreverence and playfulness of someone like Daniel Nester, the rock-solid beauty of Deborah Digges, the always-forging-ahead Denise Duhamel, young poets like Judy Halebski…

In terms of “schools,” I think “experimental” is the new cliché — every week I read another wandering volume by a writer whose publisher or blurber praises the work as “experimental.” But the unintelligibility seems to me to be an enormous problem we need to address. Poetry already has a small enough audience these days!

I love the questing, austere bleakness of Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence, which is one of the many so effusively dubbed experimental, but … I think we need to be tougher about when it’s important to share these experiments (“Look at me! Look at me!”) and when it really is not. Maybe that’s too esthetically pragmatic, my long-buried Puritanical roots showing, or something. But not everybody’s uniquely textured inner playground is valuable as art.

A generation ago, the whining was about “too many confessional poets.” And I know folks who are frustrated at the dominatrix presence of the lyric in recent years. Here’s what one of last year’s Washington Prize judges, Barbara Ungar, said when we were debating our final selection: “Which book would you return to in a time of need?” It became our definition of “important,” and I think it transcends trends. I’ll put it out there for comparison with other definitions of what makes poetry “good.” Interestingly, while more of last year’s finalists were lyric or narrative in nature (or some mixture therein), I’d say there is more experimental work in this year’s finalist pile — using pretty much the same readers. Stay tuned for which book will be the 2010 volume.