D. Nurkse is the author of twelve books of poetry, most recently A Country of Strangers (Knopf, April 2022), a “new and selected.” He has received the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Whiting foundations. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review and many other venues, and has been widely translated. He has taught poetry at Rikers Island and served a term on the board of Amnesty International-USA. He currently teaches in the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence College and collaborates with Zephyr, his visionary dog
Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Dennis. A Country of Strangers is wonderful and very moving. I loved these poems in so many ways: in breadth, depth, and height; in subject; in beauty; in richness. This collection, which is a “New and Selected,” brings readers thirty new poems and over 150 poems drawn from eleven of your previous books. How did you choose the poems for such a rich collection, one that spans well over three decades of your work? Did you pick your favorites? Select according to a theme?
D. Nurkse: I’ve worked hard all my life in this poetry labyrinth, and all the prior collections left out a lot. I’ve learned to have a Zen attitude. If a poem has intensity, it’s because a lot of companion poems were left out—it’s representing more than itself. So the selection process was pleasurable for me. My editor Deb Garrison had her own thoughts but was very flexible: it was a good situation, I had a check on my impulses but didn’t feel constrained. My books tend to be thematic, and my first impulse was to preserve each theme and keep each collection distinct. Deb was more granular, thinking about individual poems.
Mary: What changes did you discover in your writing? How have you changed as a poet in the past thirty-five years?
D. Nurkse: Maybe I’ve gotten worse? I was a hardworking kid, for sure. But I have done books recently that are speculative, approached the poem in a way that’s more open to other voices, sui generis structures, themes like marine biology that weren’t always part of the poet’s palette. We’re all struggling with a permanent crisis—the world is imploding, the universe squeezing itself back into a dot of sound byte. How do we deal with that? How do we live with disaster without investing in it or denying it? That’s the background. In the foreground, poems take so much time to write that you’re not always conscious of style, just of endless trial and error. Judgments are for the critics who have detachment.
But there’s another side to your question: what did writing help me discover? Often, I found the poem taking the other person’s point of view in an argument, being tolerant of an adversary, being curious for no motive. Poetry is more generous than I am.
Mary: In the poems in this collection, you seamlessly combine the personal and the political, demonstrating compassion and understanding for those who protest injustice, and the poor and oppressed who cannot speak for themselves. For example the first poem in A Country of Strangers, “Order to Disperse,” is dedicated to your students and takes as its subject protestors facing armed troops. What makes it remarkable is that you simultaneously reflect on the beauty and fragility of life in lines that are lyrical and deeply poetic. In other words, your poetry is often political, but never didactic. How do you accomplish this?
D. Nurkse: Mary, you’re too kind. I really believe all our lives are political. But I deeply believe in the autonomy of the poem. We as a species don’t know ourselves. We’ve been organizing ourselves with the same brain capacity for 30,000 years, and all we’ve come up with is a handful of male narcissists with the ability to destroy every sparrow and butterfly in the world. I really believe in poetry as a thought experiment: a decoy self that channels its own emotions and creates a mirror in which we can see ourselves, maybe, at least for a blink. It’s important that that decoy self doesn’t have to be righteous, anti-bourgeois, and infallible. Otherwise we just intoxicate ourselves with our own convictions and we end up being Communist oligarchs or the kind of Christians who couldn’t forgive a mouse.
Mary: How has your family history influenced the poems in this collection? For example, I understand that your parents immigrated to the United States from Estonia in the 1940s.
D. Nurkse: My family history has been a huge influence. My parents both came through trauma and never visited that on me for a moment: that’s an immense accomplishment, and I will honor them for it as long as I breathe. They met on a boat out of Portugal in 1940, escaping Nazi Europe, and their lives have a sheen of precarity, contingency, that becomes more meaningful to me as I watch America now. There was a lot they wished they hadn’t seen that they didn’t want to talk about. That double negative made me a poet—the sense that there was another story behind people’s everyday words and actions, and it was full of danger.
Mary: How has your more recent, personal history influenced your new poems?
D. Nurkse: I’ve had several moments of deep sickness, those times when life is like a low door you have to duck way down to pass through, and you don’t know what’s on the other side.
Mary: There are mystical elements in your poetry that don’t lend themselves easily to words, yet somehow you find words to express them. Have you been influenced by poets from other eras and other countries? By poetry in other languages? By walks in the forest?
D. Nurkse: Walks in the forest, yes. Poets in other languages—Michaux, Apollinaire, Lorca, Alberti, Jimenez, Cendrars, Gabriela Mistral, Anna Swir. I taught in prison and inner-city schools, and there was a lot I could learn from the kids there. A little African American girl in Topeka, Kansas wrote “I’m just about average/but no two mirrors/show the same me.” That’s mysticism.
Mary: One of my favorites is the title poem “A Country of Strangers.” In it, you write of refugees from the “nation” of “Sheol” with its “limousines and shanties, padlocked granaries and empty fields, live wires strung in the rain,” and “our country” which is “poor too” and where “every inch of the border is sealed.” Could you tell us something about the circumstances that inspired you to write this poem?
D. Nurkse: I think you have ideas and graphic images: two very different sources, for poetry. I had the images in El Salvador—people uprooted, with their possessions sewn in canvas sacks, kids trying to save a pet. And the meditational idea is just the bemusement that we all die, and yet death doesn’t unite us as a species—we each feel it happens to everyone else. It’s a poem about “othering.”
Mary: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection?
D. Nurkse: “Caligula.”
Mary: Here is “Caligula.”
Caligula ordered the night city illuminated.
Every stoop, porch, or balcony was a stage.
He made the senators dress as prostitutes–
tight silk skirts, paste-on eyelashes.
Up to a matron to wriggle into a boy’s shorts.
Marcus Severus, one-armed veteran
of our labyrinthine border wars,
had to hobble into the amphitheater
armed with a plume, and attack a lion.
A plume _ We were fascinated.
We were all players, who was the audience?
The Emperor chose me, me, me, and me,
and slept with us. He was passive
as a bedpost, but listed his demands
in documents we had to sign in advance.
Slaves–who had been stockbrokers
or insurance agents a moment ago–-
carried triremes on their backs to Rome.
Sails billowed above our seven sacred hills.
Would it ever end? We were enthralled.
Every breath was a saga
when you long to skip to the finale.
We no longer washed, brushed our teeth,
or picked a scab–just him, him, him.
It was Cassius Chaerea who killed him–
that silent tribune he called ‘pansy.’
The Emperor lay on his golden bed.
We were mesmerized. All we could do
was compete to reconstruct the portents:
headless chicken racing all morning,
kitten born without eyes, huge cloud,
tiny cloud, cloud like a fist...
For a few hours the Chronicler
listened and scribbled, but soon
he grew bored, we bored ourselves,
so began Caligula’s slow death–
Caligula who so often said of a captive,
‘make him feel he’s really dying.’
Now we’re helpless as always,
faced with twilight, a child crying,
birdsong, the breeze, our seven steep hills.
Mary: Why is it your favorite?
D. Nurkse: I think it speaks to authoritarianism, the temptation of our age, without letting the public off the hook. Why do we allow ourselves to become spectators?
Mary: Thank you, Dennis. It”s been a pleasure to talk to you. Anyone who would like to buy a copy of A Country of Strangers is invited to click here for a direct link to hard cover, Audible, and Kindle editions of this remarkable collection of poetry by D. Nurkse.