Poetry Reading: Nick Lantz

On October 8th, Nick Lantz read in the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State University. It was a very good and enjoyable reading.

I’d never been to the Ulrich Museum before; it’s an interesting building. The reading was held in a room on the second floor that currently houses photographs from India. Albert Goldbarth, who’s part of the MFA program at WSU, introduced Lantz. He’s a very effective, personable, and quite funny presenter.

I wasn’t familiar with Lantz’s poetry beforehand, though I did read his bio and a couple poems online before going to the reading. I was impressed from the beginning. He started with “Portmanterrorism,” which I’m pleased to see is online. It’s a poem filled with portmanteaus, or two words combined to make a new word. Seeing it written down only after hearing it read aloud really makes me appreciate the quality of Lantz’s reading. When I talk or read out loud, if I’m not very careful, I tend to go too fast trying to keep up with my thoughts or reproduce silent-reading speed. The easy, inviting pace of Lantz’s reading, as well as his warm voice, clear speech, and thoughtful diction, really made “Portmanterrorism” come alive in a way it wouldn’t have for me on the page–at least not nearly as easily.

I’m always a fan of wordplay, so I enjoyed the technique of that poem, and similarly his poem based on “contranyms,” or words that can have two opposite meanings depending on context: such as where “cleave” can mean to bring and hold together, or to break apart. I believe he said that one was from a manuscript in progress. (I was taking notes, to aid my ever-leaky memory, but I also had my almost four-month old, and she was being wriggly and distracting. Adorable and sweet, but also wriggly and distracting.)

Lantz introduced each poem with a few remarks about its origins or his process, often including a few explanations of things the reader may not know or catch during the reading (such as what a portmanteau or contranym is, who the people and places referenced are, and so on.) I was surprised how many of the poems seemed to come from exercises. In several cases, it sounds as if he found an interesting idea, such as a particular wordplay or coincidence or image, and sat down deliberately to explore it and all its connections. Such as the “found poems,” like the one written entirely from collected subject lines from spam emails, or poems where he addressed the concept of the persona, the artist in his art but not totally faithfully. (As he said, when I put myself in a poem, it’s me but not me; it’s a version of me.) The two poems that stood out in that regard were the poem in response to the photograph of a reflection of a bowl of plastic fruit, and the poem about the photograph of the painting of the painter painting himself. (Both of those were part of a manuscript in progress, not published work, if my notes are correct.)

I admire that kind of process: its deliberateness, and the discipline it takes to arrive on the other side of it with a successful, living poem. Most of the times I have written poems from prompts or exercises, rather than a spark of intuition or inspiration, have not turned out so well. (The single noteworthy exception being “The Dunes,” in Heartland, which began with my frustration in trying to fulfill an assignment in grad school to write a ballad. Perhaps I’ll write more on that another time; it was an interesting process, and resulted in one of my favorite poems I’ve ever written.)

One of my favorite things about Lantz’s reading, and the poems themselves, was how he takes so many disparate things–events, places, people, thoughts and feelings–and combines them into something that’s more than the sum of their parts. My impression of the poems just from listening to them was that they would fall loose, light, and fast down the page. Journeying through them is a bit like a classic roller coaster: starts off slow over a few little hills, and before you know it, you’ve been swept up and down and all around, and are left back where you started–but not quite. They are, in a phrase, quite a ride. And, like a coaster, sometimes the end wasn’t always obviously coming, in content or reading, until it had arrived; you felt the chain of connection and revelation might simply keep going, on and on, until suddenly it didn’t, and the abrupt stop took a moment to process.

All of that to say, Lantz’s poetry embodies one of the things I love best about these conversational, “every-day,” piercing poems: connections made, meanings braided together, and taking the reader/listener through the journey of putting them together. You feel, in experiencing the poem, as if you were part of building something. One of the reviews Goldbarth quoted in his introduction (I can’t remember which one) remarked–and I’m definitely paraphrasing here–that one of Lantz’s great strengths is taking ordinary things and assembling them in such a way that their deeper significance and reach is made clear; they no longer are “just” ordinary things. That’s part of what I mean.

There were two disappointments of the evening: there was no Q&A afterwards, and then the bookseller sold out before I could buy a book and have him autograph it. I was looking forward to asking him about his revision process, and what he had learned while building his successful career (awards earned, prestigious publications, teaching at an MFA program) that he might share with a poet just starting that journey. But, perhaps there will be another opportunity some day.

All in all, it was a great reading, and I’m glad to have discovered Lantz’s poetry; and glad that my first real exposure to his unique and engaging voice was in person. I will definitely be checking out more of his work, and encouraging other poetry lovers to do the same.

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