BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Niel Rosenthalis is a poet. If there was ever someone who not only loved poetry with every fiber of his being, but could actually write a goddamn good poem, it's Niel. This is exactly why I say he's a poet; he's earned the title. I was lucky enough to meet Niel while he was studying at Sarah Lawrence College--we met by accident, really. We never took classes together, but happened to volunteer to run a poetry festival.
It turned out to be serendipitous, because ever since, I've admired his work, his humor, and his generosity. He is a voice to watch out for, a voice who will not be tamed, will not be mastered. His chapbook Try Me, very aptly named, was published this year from Deadly Chaps Press.
Below are some questions I asked him about the work; he kindly answered:
JV: Sex comes up a lot. So do bodies. Especially a lack of desire and enjoyment for sex and bodies. Why is this? Do you think this is indicative of our culture now?
NR: If readers identify with the book’s ambivalence toward sex, that says something, I think; identification (“I relate to this”) is one way of thinking about culture. Disidentification is another way, in the broader sense of philosophic detachment and in the narrower (but for me more resonant) sense as investigated by queer philosophers like José Esteban Muñoz. Certainly melancholia is part of this group of poems--stasis, repetition, flatness.
In your poems, nature is always present, whether it's a landscape or a comparison. You begin the collection with the sun rising, which literally allows the reader to awaken into the world you created, then contrasted by poems like "You should move to the city." Does this struggle between the natural and the mechanical interest you as a person and poet?
Good question. I was drawing on the natural and the mechanical in part because at the time of writing I was reading Arthur Koestler’s Ghost in the Machine and Jencks/Silver’s Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. I used these books as material for research, erasure, and so on, so a topical and image bleed-through was bound to occur. Otherwise I don’t see cities, trees, grammar, the mechanical going-ons, etc. as in a struggle with each other--although of course they are in terms of resources. They’re a part of scene-setting that I, as the writer, can manipulate.
Why the dead? What is intriguing to you about dead things?
My father died when I was nine--that kind of absence pours through everything, I think. Other people close to me in life have passed away as well. It’s just part of my world view that the world is full of dead things, but also because of that there’s life too.
Punctuation & structure are clearly crucial parts of your poems--nothing is out of place, whether it's a skinny poem or prosaic in length. How do you determine this in your process?
The artist Albert Oelhaen says that overpainting always interested him, but there were already stupendous works that couldn’t be topped. I feel similarly about poetry--overwritten, over-the-top works do interest me. Idiosyncratic landscapes, rapid concatenations, uneven densities, and round-about shorthands interest me too. But so does the piercing of the mind and evidence of control and precision.
These poems were written, with a few exceptions, in my first semester of my M.F.A. program; in terms of editing, I was putting a lot of conscious pressure on structural integrity as a way to become more direct, and learning how to spot interesting moments buried within lines trying to do too much. It’s funny that you say “skinny poem.” It’s important to me to have skinny poems and fat poems and poems that have wobbly margins. A little punctuation goes a long way.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
I read in Helen Vendler’s introduction to her latest book that she thinks she couldn’t write poetry because she didn’t, as imaginative people do, live on two planes at once. I like that. It reminds me, kind of as a point of contrast, of what Lyn Hejinian said about Gertrude Stein--that Stein was rarely of two minds and was often amused in mood when she wrote. I think my obsessions are people, places, and things. Music and cities especially.
Nathaniel Rosenthalis earned his B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently a candidate in the M.F.A. poetry program at Washington University in St. Louis. His poems have appeared in Yes, Poetry and Tinge. Essays appear or are forthcoming from the Los Angeles Review of Books, Essay Daily, and Jam Tarts Magazine.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on our old site.