Conversation with Nathan McClain

Through a series of letters conducted over email from June 12 to July 20, 2018, Nathan McClain discussed poetic closure and Levis Levis’ “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” with Editors Beth Martinelli and Helena Mesa. While the interview has been edited for clarity and concision, all three writers allowed the exchange to develop naturally, like a conversation would, in the belief that the exchange would illuminate both how one poet shapes a poem’s arrival and how poets read and learn from each other’s work.


Editors: We know that you’ve studied and written about closure and its complicated relationship to a poem as a whole entity. You’ve also contemplated its intricate workings in Larry Levis’ poem “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” extensively—what compels you about Levis’ approach to poetic closure?

Nathan McClain

Nathan McClain: I began reading Larry Levis when I was a graduate student at Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers in Swannanoa, NC. I was about to enter the third semester of my program, in which students largely compose an extensive craft essay on a singular and specific subject, a subject of the student’s choice, though we were strongly encouraged to write about an area in which we’ve experienced difficulty in our work—the idea being you’d walk away from the semester with a far better understanding of your selected subject matter. Levis taught at Warren Wilson long before I’d attended, before I even finished high school, let alone considered a graduate program. During my first couple of semesters, my advisors repeatedly criticized how my poems closed, so it seemed the right opportunity to immerse myself in poetic closure in hopes that it might benefit my own work—this proved, however, a more challenging task than anticipated.

For one, I quickly learned that my essay was most interested in investigating structure, not simply poetic closure. While they’re obviously linked craft tools, I hadn’t, for some reason, previously considered exactly how much the former contributes to the latter. Levis’ work seemed so deliberate, so careful in every sentence, every detail, the manner in which information was released to the reader, how those details and literary images (as opposed to the visual image of the painting) culminated to endings that felt at once surprising and inevitable. Necessary. Levis’ poems were wonderfully methodical and measured. “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” was particularly interesting because it was a poem composed of five short sections. All the sections had to somehow accumulate to some larger sense of meaning for the finished poem, and Levis had to satisfy multiple narrative threads by the time the poem closed. The poem has to manage numerous temporal moments and structural approaches. Multiple characters. Juxtaposition. So much to manage! And he somehow pulls it off! I was so impressed. I had to find out how.

Eds:  The very notion of reaching an end that is both “surprising and inevitable” is a challenge.  Can you explain how you believe Levis manages to achieve this in “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex?” In considering the complicated relationship between his poem’s various structural approaches and its ending moments, what did you discover?

Larry Levis

NM:  These are great questions! Part of the challenge of the “surprising and inevitable” close is that, ultimately, we desire to see the whole poem at once, as one picture; however, one reads a poem sequentially, line by line, moment by moment. How does the poet maintain the proper balance between clarity and mystery that propels the reader through the poem? How can the poem’s details raise questions in the reader that keep them engaged throughout the poem? So, part of what we’re discussing is how the poem creates and manages tension (a key element, to my mind, in any successful poem). In “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex,” Levis continually offers information that requires earlier sections of the poem in order to make sense, and because the poem is in five sections, to a certain extent, the poem continually ends and, at the same time, resists closure. Levis creates and manages tension, in part, through the poem’s various juxtapositions from section to section, which also keep the reader from being able to anticipate what will happen in the poem; that sense of mystery, the desire to resolve the questions the poem raises, keeps us reading.

As disparate as the sections of the poem may seem, Levis binds the various sections through the poem’s echoes, achieved through his employment of a repetition of diction, those repetitions often adding nuance, import. The poem is primarily structured by those echoes, making it more associative and allusive, as well as by its use of juxtaposition, both of which contribute to the poem’s sense of surprise and inevitability as it closes. The first line in the poem’s third section, for instance, reads: “I had a friend in high school who looked like Caravaggio, or like Goliath”. The mention of “Caravaggio” and “Goliath” echoes much of the poem’s first section, but also offers context to what prompts the poem in the first place—a face which triggered a memory. The repetition of diction functions as more than simply a sonic feature as our minds have been conditioned, by the poem’s opening section, to associate “Caravaggio” (and/or “Goliath”) with the notion or suggestion of death, that foreshadowing reinforced by the third section’s close: “Two years later, thinking he heard someone call his name, he strolled three yards // Off a path & stepped on a land mine.” This particular repetition of diction returns in the poem’s final section as it winds towards its close:

When I think of [my friend, Zamora], I get confused. Someone is calling to him, & then

I’m actually thinking of Caravaggio…in his painting.  (ll. 49-51)

Caravaggio, “David with the Head of Goliath” (1610)

When “Caravaggio” repeats here, the detail gains import and resonance; the detail is transformed not only by the speaker’s psychology but by all that has transpired in the poem—the speaker conflates Caravaggio, Goliath, and Zamora, and while the speaker mentions wanting to close the eyes of Caravaggio in the painting, because “they are still half open & it seems a little obscene // To leave them like that” (ll. 52-53), we understand that it’s really Zamora’s eyes the speaker wants to close. But you cannot close the eyes of a painting. They remain open as long as the painting exists. The poem closes, but the speaker doesn’t experience closure. It’s amazing that Levis accomplishes this depth at the level of diction, and by using a repetition of diction; the repetition of diction functions like rhyme, is a backwards gesture. When a reader encounters a word, phrase, or sound they’ve encountered before, the mind searches to identify that previous instance.  In that way, the poem’s form enacts that which occurs in its content—syntax pushes the reader onward while repetition asks the reader, as well as the poem’s speaker, to continually look back.

That’s a lot, ha ha. I’m definitely rambling. But I discovered so much through Levis’ employment of various craft tools.

Eds:  You’ve presented many keen and useful thoughts about closure, juxtaposition, perspective, and even, discursiveness here. Thus far, in your discussion of “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex,” you speak primarily as a reader, but you are also yourself a writer of poetry. What have you gained as a poet from your contemplation of Levis’s poem? How do you see yourself applying the poem’s tactics of juxtaposition and repetition within your own work?  Can we perhaps specifically consider your poem, “Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot” in the light of your study of “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex?”

 NM:  Levis’ poem has taught me a lot about structure and how structure contributes to how a poem not only manages its materials but also how those materials inform the poem’s close; his poem demonstrates how significant a poem’s shifts in tonal registers can be in terms of establishing the poem’s overall effect. As I may have mentioned before, I’ve also learned how repetition of diction can bind disparate parts of a poem together, establishing a kind of syntactic rhyme as well. Repetition has been particularly important in the poems of Scale. Levis’ poem has taught me how juxtaposition creates opportunities for sharper rhetorical shifts in a poem (which can also be accomplished through repetition of diction) that continually create surprise, subvert a reader’s expectation. I’ve learned how useful juxtaposition can be with regard to creating counterpoise in a poem as well, pulling against the poem’s structure to create tension.

Thanks for wanting to consider “Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot“!

Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot

Small enough
to cradle. Caught
in the act of concentration,

you see it, chiseled there,
his bronze body curled into
a question

mark, not pulling,
rather, about to pull,
the thorn finally out.

Nothing original here.
Nothing new.
Marble, quartz—the old

masters have, for ages now,
sculpted this scene—you’ve seen
it—and here you

are, looking.
Again the little boy.
Again his insistent

grief. So what
some exhibits in the museum
have already gone

dark? So what
others have moved on
to new rooms? Left

you comfortless,
with your notepad
and pen. And what

have you learned from
standing here so long
examining pain? No

matter how ancient.
What good
has it done you?

The thorn, thrumming
still. He almost
has it now. So close.

Step back, the guard
warns, his one job
to enforce the distance

necessary, which might be called
perspective, though
not yet.

I like that you chose an ekphrastic poem in keeping with our conversation surrounding Levis’ work. I’ve written my fair share of ekphrastic poems, largely positioned within the work as opposed to without, so this poem felt like a more conventional approach to the ekphrastic poem. And I feel the poem opens simply enough, with simple details, though the poem’s establishment of early image, that of the “bronze body curled into / a question // mark,” structurally prepares a reader for the more significant moments of the poem, enacted through use of the interrogative,

And what

have you learned from
standing here so long
examining pain? No

matter how ancient.
What good
has it done you?     (ll. 27-33)

which surprised me as I arrived at the realization! There was something significant in the implication of myself as a poet and artist regarding the commodification of Black pain, which I didn’t realize was on my mind until this trip to the museum, my fascination with this figure. I realize that, because we make Image and use metaphor from our own lives and lived experiences, that this is difficult to avoid, but there was something important about this kind of questioning, this kind of acknowledgment in and of my own work. How have I been complicit? And what now?

Spinario / Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot (1496-1501)

There are several moments where a repetition of diction is employed, such as in “Again the little boy. / Again his insistent // grief.” that allow the poem to pivot and shift rhetorically. This poem went through several different closes before arriving at the current close, which felt so obvious when the poem finally arrived there. The early iterations of the poem equated the security guard as a kind of father figure (even utilized the phrase “his father-voice”) which, considering my earlier work, was simply an easy, reliable choice, but also one shift too many, I think, a move one step away from the poem’s overall conceit. The move toward perspective felt more in keeping with the structure of the poem. I discovered that this poem also acts as a current ars poetica for my work. I say current because I’m aware that my aesthetic will change over the course of my life; in five years, it will be different. But the concerns of this poem are currently quite important for me.

Eds:  We’re compelled by your use of questions, not only how they appear in “Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot” as a metaphor, but also in the way you discuss the act of writing (questions about subject, stance, the poetic mind), and how you draw on questions to both rhetorically pivot in a poem and close a poem. Could you discuss questions-questioning further?

NM: Thank you for asking! The interrogative gesture has been an important aspect to my work in general. With “Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot,” as with many of my poems that utilize the interrogative gesture, I’m thinking about a few different things. One, the interrogative gesture can be a powerful rhetorical device in a poem because it engages the reader in immediate ways. By which I mean it’s difficult for us, as readers, to encounter a question and not look for an answer. That’s partly how I see questions like “And what // have you learned from / standing here so long / examining pain?” and “What good / has it done you?” functioning; the reader certainly must consider the implications of these questions, but they’re also clearly reflexive. I continue to meditate on them.

One of the other functions of the interrogative gesture, as you point out in your question, is to rhetorically pivot, to shift focus and attention in a poem. In so many poems I admire, this device is used masterfully to make shifts in a poem more quickly than expository moments. Employed well, the shifts can be executed almost instantaneously! That’s how I feel moments such as “So what / some exhibits in the museum / have already gone // dark?” function in the poem in question (see what I did there? ha ha). The poem can shift its focus from the sculpture to the notepad relatively quickly, positioning the reader (and speaker) for the poem’s most important interrogative moment. And it can make that shift without needing to resort to exposition, which could prove slow or simply stale and uninteresting.

When I teach my students, I teach about the value of sentence structure variation when considering how a poem might be counterbalanced. I think of Carl Phillips’ “As from a Quiver of Arrows”—from his collection, From The Devotions, among my favorites—a poem built almost entirely of interrogatives. I say “almost” because there’s an odd declarative sentence that begins in the fourth stanza and extends into the fifth before the poem resumes the interrogative mood. It’s one of the ways Phillips is able to announce a particular shift or rhetorical stance in the poem, for after the declarative, the poem introduces new information and movement that complicates what came before. In a poem entirely composed of interrogatives, the declarative will stand out as a shift. The reader has to reevaluate or reconsider their expectation of the poem and its direction. I teach my students that, while poems are often lineated, they are written at the level of the sentence (to include run-ons and fragments), and that the integrity of the sentence, whichever kind of sentence one utilizes, is crucial to the poem’s construction.

Eds:  Your study of perspective in “Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot” is especially fascinating. The sense, as the poem closes, is that we too are dangling in “almosts,” “abouts,” and “agains.” We have nearly reached our end; the thorn is almost out, there is almost the sense of where to stand, how to step back, but again, “not yet.” Some of your other poems like “Love Elegy Busboy,” “To Have Light,” and “Ukulele” use similar tactics to leave the reader feeling comparably suspended by their respective closing points. What, if any, other kinds of connections can you make between some of these poems and their varied strategies of progression and suspension? We’re thinking of your ghazal, “To Have Light,” in particular, because of its added formal complications, its use of interrogatives, and the way repeating images seem juxtaposed and also transformed.

NM:  That’s wonderful, what you say about progression and suspension in my work; part of my response, I think, would take us back to what I experienced reading the Levis poem, that sense of a poem that felt as though it was constantly approaching its close yet resisting it at once, continually clicking shut and not clicking shut. I think I’ve tried to replicate that experience in my own work because I enjoy that kind of tension in poems—that tension that sends me back into the poem to try to make sense of its details, what may have escaped me before; I want to believe all of these elements can be seen, and more importantly, experienced, in some of the poems you mention. “Love Elegy with Busboy,” in particular, literally closes with the notion of “start[ing] over, / if we want,” though the details leading up to that admission I intended to function both to provide clarity and mystery at once, a tension. I wanted the details to raise questions in the reader (Why focus our gaze on these chopsticks or the fortune cookie?) that would lead them through the poem, to gain more nuance once the reader can see the entirety of the poem. I feel a similar sense about “Ukulele,” the object becoming much more of a challenge when placed within the context of the absent father (that poem actually uses the word “progression,” ha!), or at least that was the hope.

With “To Have Light,” there was certainly a difference in that the poem mostly adheres to the ghazal form (I cheat with many of the rhymes preceding the refrain, some of those rhymes more visual than sonic) which presented limitations, restriction and constraint (which I love).

To Have Light

Somewhere on I-5, in the flash of hazard lights,
I was broken-down. But it seemed enough to have light.

The piano playing itself in the hall needs
tuning, its notes ghostly and bent in the half-light.

Tennis shoes and tin cans tied to the car the couple
rushed out toward, struck by rice and the sun’s grave light.

Before sorrow was the garden, the man and woman,
the tree—forbidden. Before sorrow, God gave light.

Orpheus repeats his great sin of looking back…
Is it memory—regret—calling from the cave’s poor light?

She walked with the brilliance of a sequined dress. How
could I ignore such shimmer, such provocative light?

Then, the birds attended her: seagulls circled and wailed.
And on the telephone line, the mourning doves alight.

When the one they were expecting came into the room…” Then,
there—Nathan, a flame in their eyes: they were slaves to his light.

I love the ghazal form, but you could easily fall into a bit of a wormhole once you get going because the connections tend to be looser, are encouraged to be so, the poem’s juxtapositions contributing to its accumulative sense and meaning. There is loneliness and exasperation. There is love and togetherness. There is loss, regret, seduction, and grief. And more! It’s difficult to get all those subjects into a single poem, especially one of this length (only 16 lines)! The use of the interrogative helped to signal shifts in the poem, causing the reader, as I’ve mentioned, to recalibrate expectation, and to subvert the pattern that had been established, at least syntactically. It was a poem that was also able to reach in every direction across Scale in a way that informed and gave meaning back to the poems that preceded or followed it. The poem was a real gift in that way.

Eds:  Thank you, Nathan, for taking the time to answer all our questions with such thoughtfulness! How do you see your new work continuing to develop your understanding of structure and poetic closure? Is there one particular aspect of structure and poetic closure that you find yourself pushing, exploring, questioning, struggling with, and/or reinventing as you write and revise newer poems?

NM:  Well, thank you for all your thoughtful and engaging questions! It’s been such a delight, and I’m always so grateful for such attentive consideration of my work.

As far as new work, I’m generally working one poem at a time. At the moment, I’m working on a sequence of poems that explore my experience serving on jury duty as an alternate. So, I have to think differently about how closure and structure function. There are well over 10 individual poems (my goal is 15, but we’ll see what the poems say), but my hope is that each poem, while self-contained, also speaks to and complicates other poems in the sequence—in many ways, I’m only realizing this now that I’m describing it to you, working the way individual couplets work in a ghazal (to bring our conversation full circle). It’s been exciting to write new poems, to experiment with new possibilities of language. The poems have enlivened and often surprised me.

If there’s a particular aspect of structure and poetic closure I’m struggling with, or challenged by, of late, it is the impulse to overpopulate my poems with detail or image. What I mean by that is I have to continually learn, from poem to poem, to trust each poem’s form, to allow the poem to exist as itself, in the shape and form it may have taken, and not force familiar subject matter, like fatherhood or parental regret, or approaches onto a poem because it’s easy, or because I can do it well, and not because that is what the poem requires, why the utterance exists. I have to continually trust that other poems I write will fill in the gaps of my knowing, what I have yet to find out. To still allow poems to teach me, to guide me. The problem with having published a book is exactly that—having published a book, knowing what that’s like, how it worked that time, how to duplicate that, how to do it again, that was cool, that was successful, how everyone loved that… You trust the formula that works and don’t challenge your own growth. So, I’m questioning everything, trying every approach, embracing uncertainty, and trusting craft when I get lost.

Eds:  We would love to end on a writing prompt (or revision prompt!) that has been inspired by our conversation. Does anything come to mind?

NM:  After our wonderful conversation, I definitely have a prompt to suggest, a prompt I believe incorporates many aspects of our conversation around tension, counterbalance, the interrogative gesture, and so forth: Draft a prose poem of at least 10 lines, perhaps that inhabits a moment from childhood (real or imagined) or a self-portrait as, say, a favorite film; I say “lines,” but the right margin of the page should obviously be the only determinate as to where each line ends. Because the prose poem forfeits enjambment as a tool for infusing or managing tension (or creating a form of counterbalance), the employment of a wide variety of sentences and sentence structures should enact the function of that turning we experience in a lineated poem. The prose poem should utilize at least one declarative sentence, one interrogative, one conditional sentence, one sentence fragment, and one imperative sentence (the rest of the poem’s structure may be at your own discretion). One of the sentences should run for at least four “lines,” and the sentence that follows should be less than a line long. One of the sentences, or a clause from the longer sentence, should repeat elsewhere in the poem verbatim (the hope being that the tone of the language is altered by what occurs between repetitions). Think also on how you might utilize tense shifts in the poem, and what that might offer the poem contextually.

Love Elegy with Busboy

The whole mess—
pair of chopsticks pulled apart,
tarnished pot of tea,

even my fortune
(which was no good)—
we left for the busboy to clear.

I’d probably feel more
guilty if he didn’t
so beautifully sweep our soiled plates

into his plastic black tub
and the strewn rice into his palm.
The salt and pepper shakers

were set next to each other again.
A new candle was lit.
You’d never know

how reckless we’d been,
how much we ruined.
With the table now so spotless,

who’s to say we couldn’t just go
back? Who says we can’t
start over, if we want?


“Love Elegy with Busboy” and “To Have Light” from Scale © 2017 by Nathan McClain. Appears with the permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.

Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot” by Nathan McClain first appeared in The Rumpus. Reprinted with permission from Nathan McClain.

Photo credit for Nathan McClain: Moe Nazemi Photography.

Nathan McClain

Nathan McClain is the author of Scale (Four Way Books, 2017), a recipient of fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Frost Place, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers. A Cave Canem fellow, his poems and prose have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Poem-a-Day, West Branch Wired, The Common, upstreet, and Foundry, among others. He teaches at Hampshire College.