Nick Lantz is the author of two books of poetry:We Don’t Know We Don’t Know (Graywolf Press), which won the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize; and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House (University of Wisconsin Press), which won the Felix Pollak Prize. He was the 2007–2008 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and he is the 2010–2011 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. His work has appeared in journals such as Mid-American Review, Southern Review, Locuspoint, Prairie Schooner, and Gulf Coast. He posts daily micropoems on Twitter @NickJLantz.
THE YEAR WE BLEW UP THE WHALE—FLORENCE, OREGON
In that same year, after Lefty Watson missed
his third straight placekick against Salem High,
we rushed the field. Lefty’s father, in a black
and orange track suit, shimmied up the goal posts
and, beating the air with his fists, incited
what the Umpqua Register would later call
a riot. But the Salem team walked off the field
unharmed, if a bit confused, as we stayed behind
to rip out every inch of turf. In that same year,
when the single-vessel fleet of the Devil Ray
Fishing Company returned with an empty hold,
the owner took a five-pound sledge to the keel
and let the ship sink. In that same year, when
Pamela Reese learned she would never have
children, she stopped throwing anything away,
and slowly her house filled up with garbage,
distended bags of it clotting the hallways, bags
sagging the attic beams, bags overflowing
through the windows onto the reeking lawn.
In that same year, when Ambrose Hecklin’s only
son was run over by a pickup truck, Ambrose drove
all the way to Lincoln City, walked up to the first
car salesman he could find, and shot him
in the face. In that same year, when Nell Barrett,
last speaker of the Siuslaw language, died alone
in her two-room bungalow, her estranged son
showed up at the county clinic the next morning
with a mouth full of blood, and though outsiders
would later claim he’d accidentally bitten off
his own tongue in a drunken fit, we knew
the truth before the doctor found the filet knife
in his coat pocket. So when the dead whale
washed up on our beach, of course we tried
to blow it up. The newscasters, who’d come
from as far as Portland when they heard our plan,
were shocked when the blast only carved out
a U-shaped hole in the animal’s stomach.
The out-of-towners, who had come to gawk
and jeer, ran for cover as basketball-sized chunks
of whale rained on the parking lot a hundred yards
away. But we were not in the least bit shaken.
If we have learned anything from this, said
our city engineers, standing on the beach in their
gory parkas, it is that we need more dynamite.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The part about a beached whale in Florence being blown up with dynamite is true. I don’t remember exactly when I heard about this incident, but I completed an initial draft of the poem in October of 2006. The incident made me think of the saying that when the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. That was the sort of psychology I wanted to explore in the poem, the kind of culture that would think using dynamite on a dead whale was a sensible solution. Because, the truth is, I can sympathize with that kind of thinking, even though its pitfalls are pretty evident.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Well, I revise as I write, so my “first” drafts already have a lot of back-and-forth revisions behind them. After the poem was initially completed, though, there was one major revision, where I scaled back some of the crazier things the town did. Then I made a few superficial changes later, like breaking the poem into couplets. Unfortunately, I’m not always good about saving old drafts, so I don’t remember exactly what I cut out and changed. From starting the poem to arriving at the version that was published took about two or three years, though I certainly wasn’t working on it all that frequently during that time.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I think I’m supposed to say here that inspiration is a myth, but I don’t think it would be honest if I said that. I’ve certainly written poems (or parts of poems) that felt received, that mystified me—as in, where the hell did that come from? The last three lines of this poem were certainly like that; they just sort of popped into my head and stuck there. And even if the initial idea/line/phrase feels inspired, I’m consciously tinkering with it right away. Still, that first spark does often feel like it comes from somewhere else. Not outside of me, maybe, but maybe from some part of me I’m not aware of. What I will say is that I have to put myself into a position to be inspired. I have to have the conversations, read the books, experience the moments that can provide that inspiration. And then there’s the matter of being able to do something with inspiration when it arrives. I think that when I first started writing, I was often inspired but unable to turn that inspiration into a poem that captured that experience in any meaningful way.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Well, from very early on in the writing process, I settled on the anaphora of “That same year...” as an organizing principle of the poem. The title gives away the final anecdote, and the anaphora reminds the reader of what’s coming, what the poem is building up to. So that repeated phrase aligns all the other incidents in relation to that one, final incident.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It appeared online about a year after it was written, then it appeared in my second book a couple years or so after that.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
Not very long, usually. When I send a group of poems off to a journal, if one of those poems is accepted, it’s often not the one I would have expected. I’ve written poems I thought were very strong and polished that were never published, and then there have been poems that I was unsatisfied with that were snapped up almost instantly. So I don’t try to pre-judge whether a poem is “ready” or not if I can help it, and once I have what feels like a complete draft, I send it out. I remind myself that sending it out today doesn’t prohibit me from revising it six months from now, especially if it isn’t picked up.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well, a dead whale was dynamited on a beach near Florence in 1970, and the resulting destruction in the poem is fairly faithful to what actually happened—a nearby parking lot was showered with chunks of rotten whale, crushing at least one car. However, the real people decided to dynamite the whale, wiser than the characters in the poem, resolved never to try it again, so that’s different. And the rest of the poem is entirely fictional. I just imagined various extensions of that one act, imagined what it would be like if a whole town approached all of its problems in that way. When it comes to writing poems, I’m not very loyal to the facts, if they get in the way of a good story, and in this case, because I was writing about a real incident in which real people were involved, I wanted to fictionalize it as much as possible, to make a clean break from the real history of the event so that I was free to explore the idea on a more surreal level. And that’s typical of how I approach true events in my writing.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, I think so.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
I suppose you could call it morality. I think that writing toward a particular moral/ethical position is poisonous. It rarely results in good poetry. That said, most (maybe all) great poetry does have something valuable to say about our ethical/moral lives, if only obliquely. And I think the same poem can give conflicting moral lessons and still be a great poem. I think that good poetry is created out of a conviction that what’s being written about matters, that the act of writing about it and reading about it matters, even (or maybe especially) if the poet can’t articulate exactly why that particular thing matters. The act of blowing up a whale just resonated with me. It wasn’t that I saw that act as falling on some spectrum of right to wrong. I think you can read that act as folly, but I think you can just as easily sympathize with those people. I certainly do. In the penultimate incident in the poem, an estranged son cuts out his own tongue after his mother (who was the last speaker of his tribe’s language) dies. Earlier, a woman who discovers she’s infertile starts hoarding garbage. Like blowing up the whale, those may not be rational responses to trauma, but they’re responses I can empathize with. So I think that while the poem shows how these kinds of acts can be self-defeating, I also hope that it redeems these acts emotionally, that it helps us understand them. That’s the kind of poetry I aspire to write, anyway.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
The question I continually ask myself is: “Would I keep reading this? Would this interest or excite me?” I think it’s dangerous to try to project too far out, to speculate about what some hypothetical reader or critic will respond to. The danger of this philosophy, I suppose, is that you can become your own echo chamber, reinforcing your own bad habits. The antidote, I think, it to push your tastes by reading more, reading outside your typical comfort zone, which I try to do.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, I have a poetry group (three other writers) who read this poem and who have read most of what I’ve written for the past few years. They’ve been incredibly good to me. Unfortunately, two of us are moving to different states this year, and I think we’re breaking up. I think the chemistry we have as a group is something we built over time, and I hate to lose that. The thought of having to build it again somewhere else, with other people, is a little terrifying.
What is American about this poem?
I love that question. The poem is American in superficial ways—it takes place in an American city, for example. But I think, more broadly, that the closing phrase “we need more dynamite” evokes a certain American cultural and political philosophy. It’s about the worship of more, of excess, even when the excess is of destruction itself. The deployments of that philosophy venture into surreal territory in the poem, but they do reflect the way Americans actually approach the anxieties of life, from people who believe that concealed carry laws are the solution to gun violence or that our most important civic duty after a national disaster like 9/11 is to go to the mall and spend lots of money. I don’t mean to condemn this kind of thinking, because I’m a part of that same culture and I think that way too sometimes. But I do think that it’s a particularly American way of thinking. And many of the anxieties that come up in the poem—from quotidian conflicts, like athletic rivalries, to more alarming problems, like the way that unique cultures and histories can be eroded and disappear—are also very American concerns. So I think the poem is particularly American, though I didn’t have that in mind when I wrote it.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?