An Interview with Nicole Terez Dutton ~ David Winter

Nicole Terez Dutton work has appeared in Callaloo, Ploughshares, 32 Poems, Indiana Review, and Salt Hill Journal. Nicole earned an MFA from Brown University and has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Cave Canem and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is the winner of the 2011 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for If One Of Us Should Fall. (
David Winter's writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review, It's Animal But Merciful, For Some Time Now: Performance Poets of New York City, Magma, and The SHOp. His chapbook Safe House will be published by Thrush Press in Fall 2012. He is currently an MFA student in poetry and an English teacher at The Ohio State University. Previously, he taught creative writing to incarcerated youth, public school students, LGBT older adults, and others. (

David Winter: So we are here to talk about your first book of poems, If One Of Us Should Fall, which Patricia Smith selected for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and which was published recently. And I thought we could start by talking about music, because the book is named after a song, and because so many of the poems are informed by the experience of listening to or making music, and living in this sort of between-gigs state.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Well, you know, part of my growing up I had to take piano lessons. And I, very early on, was introduced to the practice of working hard at something, and diligently, pretty regularly. And just in terms of a practice that was very good training and then beyond that, you know, I love music [Laughter]. And I love creating it. In our family music was really important. We always had music on in the house. I grew up in Cleveland, where everything is a half hour or forty-five minutes away from everything else. So you have these big expanses of time where you're listening to the radio or you're listening to, I guess at the time a cassette tape, and then later a CD of something. And so for me, now, a lot of that music is really evocative, and really powerful, and is attached to specific memories of my growing up, so I think it's meaningful in that regard.

And then in college I was in a band. And that was a really important time for me in terms of growing. At the same time I was in that band I was also studying film at Boston University, and the thing that I found I was the most interested in was sound design. And thinking about the way sound influences picture, and can change the whole feeling of a movie, of a film, was something that I really, really enjoyed thinking about and working on. I'm a primarily visual learner, but I love the relationship that the visual has to the aural. And those things would coincide, studying film and also being in the band and having this other kind of very social—both of those are really social kinds of arts, in the sense that you have to work with a bunch of people, and you have to negotiate those personalities and temperaments in order to produce anything.
DW: Was there a point in your life that you transitioned from playing a lot of music and working with film to being a poet in a deliberate sense, or did that happen over time?
NTD: The thing is that I think I was always a poet first, and I was always writing poetry, long before music and long before film. I was always doing that. So I think it was more a matter of both of those practices, film and music—I think that those afforded me an experience that I could explore in poetry.
DW: The longest poem in the book [is titled,] "Things We Know About Places We've Been, A Brief Index of Yes, And." Reading that, I was really struck by the idea of an index as a way of organizing experience, and as a guide to how a reader might make sense of the book. [So] I was curious about how you arrived at that form?
NTD: You know, I had been thinking a lot about dictionaries and alternative dictionaries, and just like you said, ways to categorize experience. I hadn't thought of it specifically . . . as any one poem being a guide to the book, but I did feel like I had a lot of poems that . . . have a structure to them . . . [that] is more like an essay than a poem, in that it's an idea that's spun out and has lots of correspondences and lots of intersections. I was just trying to think of a way that I could present all of those in a larger format where I didn't have to edit out any particular episode, where I could just kind of include them all. And you can be sort of exhaustive in this format [laughter] . . . It just seemed sort of tidy that way.
DW: That makes sense, the idea of not prioritizing certain events, especially because one section is out of order. The whole index is alphabetical, but there's one section, "Other Bodies, The Shores Of," that's not in alphabetical order. And I felt like that was telling me that when there's a deliberate structure, the things that break it are just as important as the structure itself. That was an idea that I was very drawn to.
NTD: Oh, I'm glad. I do like the idea that if there's a rule, then the first thing to do is to break it immediately, and see how that affects everything else. And I thought about that one passage, and I even tried, at certain points, to make it alphabetical . . . And it didn't work. I felt like it needed to be wrong, it needed to be the exception, and it needed to be there, that way, and that needed to be OK.
DW: Another idea in [that poem], and in the book as a whole that I was really drawn to is that the poem is an index of places, and . . . the speaker is always between places. I don't want to go to that cliché of the journey being more important than the destination [NTD laughs], because I feel like as a writer you would never allow yourself that cliché. But I do like this idea that in the index, place can be the way that light falls on somebody's face, or place can be something like notes from the end of a continent. And I think that process, and that creative energy that drives the book, is really striking. I don't think there are a lot of books out there that have that kind of momentum—books of poetry—where we're constantly moving, and where there's not an easy resolution where you arrive somewhere and stay.
NTD: Y'know, it's funny. It's really interesting to me to hear other people's interpretation of the work, because I feel like I really know what each of these pieces refers to specifically in my life. And I don't think it's important that that be made explicit, or that that's the story I tell. I don't need to map everything to my life and present that to people. But my point is that I have a relationship with all of these poems, and I know what they're coming out of and what they're actually considering. I'm not thinking of the poems in the same kind of way that other people are. And so I hear when people respond to it and say things like what you just said—which was really eloquent, I think—about place, and about the velocity of movement between all of these places. And I think on some level I had the notion of a journey, and I wanted to communicate that, but the specifics of the journey as they correspond to specific poems are not as clear to me.

I think the organization in the book reflects my impulse to create a tone . . . I thought about it the way you would make a good mixtape. Like, you don't want there to be all these sad ballads in a row. You want to have this variety, and this texture, and this nuance, and this feeling . . . You get all the highs and the lows, and there's this different experience that particular combination creates by the end. So, that was more my way of thinking about how to put the poems together, how to order them, and which poems would be included. Mixtape! [laughter] Like, high school never ends for me . . .
DW: I don't think people make mixtapes anymore, which makes me kind of sad. I remember being a teenager and putting together mix CDs, and giving them to my friends, and [saying], "You're not gonna believe this!" And I don't know if people do that for each other anymore. Do you still make mixtapes?
NTD: I do, I totally do! And I love it when people ask me. Maybe it's because I want to be a DJ. Maybe that's my secret ambition, just to be a DJ. You know, I have terrible stage fright, and so the idea of being in front of people is really stressful to me. But if you're a DJ, you get to be in charge of the sound. You get to create the whole atmosphere for the room. And you can be in the corner, y'know? It's perfect!
DW: That's wild! I would never—you always seem so composed.
NTD: Yeah, well, I don't know. I'm getting more practice at it lately. But I have pretty bad stage fright [laughter]. It's pretty stressful. I think that explains a lot of the whiskey in the book, too, because when I was making music, that was something that was pretty necessary in order for me to be able to get up on stage at all.
DW: How does it feel to you to present your work on stage, speaking it rather than giving someone a page where it's written down? I mean, aside from having stage fright, do you think about that?
NTD: I do; I think a lot about it. I think a lot about how I'm going to vocally render the poems. I try to perform the poems. Which is not to say that I try to be stagey about it, and act out the poems in any kind of way, but I hope to give people a sense of how they live on the page when they hear them, and I think that's hard to do.

To me, it matters a lot how a poem looks on the page. And I'm mostly interested, on the page, in terms of possibility, in the way the lines are arranged—and I like when you get to the end of the line and you don't quite know what's going to happen next. And there's that moment where you have to continue on, or there's a break where you have to consider that phrase or that last word, and why there's this weight behind it, why it's allowed to be the end, or why it should be before this huge white space that happens next.

And then, just in terms of performance I think it's important for you to be able to have a new experience with the work as you're reading it as well. You really don't want to be up there reading it the same way every single time. Because I think that we're all pretty good judges of that. When something's played and tired we can immediately hear it, and it rings false. And it doesn't matter how good the writing is. It just feels tired. It feels played out, and so I think it is important when you get up there to be honest and available to the poem in a new way, every single time.
DW: What does your actual practice of writing look like these days? Where do you find yourself sitting down? What gets you going?
NTD: I am taking notes. And then, when I can, I go back . . . and try to put the notes together in a way where the words themselves are interesting to me, or the phrases are interesting to me, or give themselves to me, or give themselves to more free writing or exploration. I often don't know what I'm writing about, or what I'm writing toward. And I feel like that's important, not to make those decisions . . . I start with the language first, language as a building block. And I kick it around, and I think a lot about it, and I take a lot of notes, and free write. And then, at a certain point it occurs to me that the ideas are coalescing around a theme, around a certain image, a certain movement. And then I try to do what I can to bring that out, and to shape that into a poem . . .
DW: Do you have a project that you're working on? Another book?
NTD: No. I don't really have a project and I kind of feel like I should [Laughter]. And I wrestled with that for a long time. I've been working on prose, which I guess I'm always working on, and I feel like it just takes me so long that it's a comfortable thing to go back to. It's like how I stall with poetry is writing prose. So I guess I have those projects that I'm working on. But, no, I don't have a specific project for the poems. Do you?
DW: I do have this chapbook manuscript that's getting published, and I have to figure out what the final form of that is going to be, because it keeps shifting. And the editor is cool about that. It's not like I have a date that it has to be done. But at some point I have to decide that it's done.
NTD: [Laughter] It's hard. It's hard. I know—for me, this book—I have ninety-eight different versions of this manuscript.
DW: Oh my god!
NTD: Yeah, that's what the editor said, too.
DW: Literally? You're not—you're not making that up?
NTD: No, that's literal, ninety-eight different versions. And I think it was really difficult for me to decide how to stop, when to stop, and how to modify. I think you saw this—you saw this manuscript years ago, and it was pretty different then.
DW: It was. It was thicker. I think it was a little bit longer, and the finished version feels leaner and more focused in what it's trying to do. But I went back and looked through the version that you gave me three or four years ago. And the choices that you made really made sense to me. But there are still a couple of poems in there that I just want to be everywhere, out in the world. I want people to be reading these poems.
NTD: Well, I don't know. I do feel like there were some poems that weren't quite strong enough. And I like them, because they're scrappy and they're young and they represent—they're true to that experience. But I didn't feel like they were adding enough that they needed to be part of the manuscript.
DW: How did you know—or did you know—when you'd gotten it right? What made the ninety-eighth version the one that stuck, as opposed to the other ninety-seven?
NTD: Well, I think, and I think you can appreciate this, too, when something is actually going to appear in print you go through the poems and you have a different eye for each of them. And it's not necessarily a self-conscious eye, but you have a different awareness of how the poems may be received and what actually is good enough. I feel like in a lot of the earlier versions I had a lot of poems and a lot of moments in the poems that felt sort of like placeholders for things I still hadn't quite figured out how to do. You know, I just hadn't quite done the work in all of the poems.

And so as you get to the ninety-seventh and the ninety-eighth version, those moments that are a little lazier, or a little more juvenile in their thinking . . . that's the kind of stuff that I went back and I addressed . . . It's not that they don't meet a certain standard, or that they don't fail in still kind of interesting ways [laughter]. It's that maybe other poems are doing that same work. And you don't need to have two poems that fail in interesting ways about the same thing. I opted to try to have a stronger showing with less—fewer.
DW: You said something, and I don't remember exactly what it was, about artistic community, or being part of a community of writers. And I was wondering if we could talk about that. Because you were one of the first people who reached out to me and made me feel invited into a community of poets, but also because throughout this whole book, you (or the speaker) are running around in the company of musicians and writers and making things constantly. So I was wondering if you could say a little bit about community as part of the creative process, and what role that plays for you?
NTD: I feel like it's enormously important to be surrounded by people who are smarter than you [laughter], and motivated, and really interested and passionate in what they do. And it's funny because at the moment I'm not as involved with that as I used to be. Maybe it's just the fact that I'm a little bit removed from having such a strong and vibrant immediate community that I really recognize how wonderful and essential that is to creating good work. I do feel like there was a point where I really was surrounded by lots of musicians and lots of poets and painters and people who were very engaged in whatever practice or discipline they were part of, and it was enormously inspiring to me.

Do you remember that moment when you realized you could just go and meet the writer of this book that you loved? You could go and meet them and interact with them? You can be a part of that! You can actually participate! I remember that sort of blew my mind, that you could just go talk to these people, that you could be in Boston and meet Junot Diaz. It was just absurd and wonderful.
DW: That's still something that I'm realizing, and that is still blowing my mind pretty regularly.
NTD: You need to go to Breadloaf [Writers' Conference], by the way. Have you gone there?
DW: I applied for a scholarship. I'm going to apply again. Have you been?
NTD: I just went for the first time this past summer. And that's one of those places that you're just like, am I sitting at a table with Percival Everett? It doesn't make any sense! It's crazy. And everybody's relaxed and, like, eating chicken, and hangin' out. I was in Natasha Tretheway's workshop—astonishing! And she's incredibly generous, and nice, and keen.

It's a different opportunity, a different kind of setting to be in with these people, where they're sort of approachable. And I know that Boston, coming up in this scene was pretty amazing. Because immediately there was someone like Tom Daley.
DW: Tom is wonderful.
NTD: Tom Daley! He's a great teacher. But also, his exuberance is just such a fantastic thing! He's so excited about the work, and he's actually really listening. You know, you get up on the open mic, and a lot of times you get up on the open mic for you. But then it's not always clear that people are absorbing or responding to anything you're saying. You get applause, but Tom Daley is someone who was right there, and he was like, "Wow! I was listening to everything you were saying. This is my feedback, and this is—" He had the positive thing, but he also had the critical thing, which is very, very helpful. He's such a discerning—
DW: [Laughter] He does have both of those things on lock.
NTD: Exactly. Exactly. So, y'know, you have someone like Tom Daley in the scene. You have someone like Simone Beaubien [who runs a weekly reading in Cambridge], who's going to give you an opportunity to get up and do your work. You have someone like Jeff Robinson [whose jazz trio accompanies poets at another reading], who's going to have that immediate response of music paired with your work.
DW: It's amazing how he listens as well.
NTD: Yeah! And plays at the same time. That's a whole different kind of conversation he's willing to have with you as a poet. And that's in real-time, and that's pretty risky. And he does it, and it's just amazing! And then also you've got someone like Regie Gibson, so you have these other people who are sort of more established, who are able to be a part of your development. And they're just really generous. And I don't have anything to compare it to, so I don't know where Boston stands in terms of other cities or other poetry scenes, but I feel pretty lucky to have been a part of the one in Boston. Because I know that it meant a lot to me to have people give me those opportunities, and also to be really honest and rigorous in their assessment of my work.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761