“Body as an Instrument”: An Interview with Nathaniel Rosenthalis — curated by Wendy Chen

Nathaniel Rosenthalis lives in New York City. His poems have appeared in Lana TurnerDenver QuarterlyConjunctionsThe Chicago Review and he writes criticism for The Common Reader and Kenyon Review. He’s the author of several chapbooks, including the forthcoming 24 Hour Air (PANK Books, Fall 2021). He teaches at Columbia University, Baruch College, and NYU.

Wendy Chen: Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your ekphrastic chapbook 24 Hour Air with PANK Books this fall! How did this project begin? What first drew you to Jennifer Bartlett’s painting series Air: 24 Hours?

Nathaniel Rosenthalis: A few years ago, I had a habit of going to the Met Museum on Saturday mornings to study art and mine material for poems. On one visit, I stopped in front of the Seven      A.M. painting by Bartlett in the Modern and Contemporary Art gallery; I felt drawn to how large the painting was in relation to me, and the oddness of a tiara floating over a bathroom sink. So I sat on the bench, took out my notebook and pen, and let myself become the person at the sink—what would make that tiara float in my world? Looking back, I can see that probably I latched onto it because of some gender trouble (“The trouble with my own femme side is...”). That first poem came as a wind does through a tunnel: in a rush. “Since there are 24 paintings in the series, why can’t I write 24 poems?” That thought came almost right away. I bought Deborah Eisenberg’s monograph about the series—a large pink hardcover book with large full-color reproductions of each painting. I carried the book around with me for months in my backpack and developed a systematic process to write each poem.

WC: Ekphrasis has such a long and rich history as the intersection of form. What are some of your favorite ekphrastic poems and why? 

NR: The ones that first come to mind are more recent. I’ve felt moved by the work of Mónica de la Torre in her chapbooks Four which have some ekphrastic components; also The Happy End / All Welcome, which contains “View from a Folding Chair.” That whole book is set, more or less, within Martin Kippenberger’s installation after Kafka’s Amerika. It’s an exhilarating work I spent a long time with. (I reviewed it for Boston Review in case anyone’s interested.) Everytime I read it, my heart raced, which in retrospect is probably because it’s so theatrical. Lots of oblique pointed dramatic monologues, about jobs, irritation, language use, and sitting around and daydreaming, having feelings and recalling relationships. The theatrical dimension makes it feel very old and new at once. 

Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing is a favorite, especially the poem “Head of a Dancer,” whose final lines—I struggle to express their long-echoing power in me, but I suspect that, like “View from a Folding Chair,” there’s an extremity of point of view that both Bang and de la Torre make possible via a theatrical element. Put on a mask and everything becomes sayable, is something a lot of poets believe, dramatists too. Count me among them, I guess. Personae and ekphrasis often go hand in hand. Although not always: Jana Prikyrl’s No Matter is a recent book that has recurring ekphrastic poems that I enjoy spending time with, where the speaker isn’t in the photograph that is the inspiration for the poem. Prikryl’s got a fantastic deliberate off-kiltered acumen à la the eye throughout that book but especially in the ekphrastic poems called “Anonymous.”

WC: Time is explicit in the titles of Bartlett’s paintings, with each painting named for an hour in the day (Midnight, One A.M., Five P.M.,etc.).In your collection, you play on the conventions of titling in ekphrastic poems. Instead of titles that explicitly reference the paintings such as “On Midnight,” you have titles like “On Side-a-Longing” or “On the Sound of Water at Noon.” How did you come up with these titles in relation to the paintings? 

NR: I initially did use Bartlett’s titles for my own paintings! But after sharing the poems with      Tejan Waszak and Maria Baker, two friends of mine I work with in one of my writing center jobs, I decided to do something else. I eventually realized I could get ideas for titles from Bartlett’s use of grids in her paintings. Bartlett repeats a grid in paintings that have a set number of hours between them: for example, One A.M. and Six P.M. share a grid structure, Two A.M. and Seven P.M. share a grid structure, etc. So I decided to play with my own system: I realized the titles of my poems could point to each other. “Side-a-longing” is a phrase that occurs in the poem called “On the Mouth that Opens on Oh,” and in the poem “On Side-a-Longing” is the phrase “the mouth on me that opens on oh.” The poems index each other in their titles, just like the paintings do in their underlying grids. 

WC: Time—or rather the awareness of time—is present in your poems, but in a less segmented manner than Bartlett’s titles. In your poems, there is mention of “[m]istaking the past for an hour,” “[a] coldest minute,” “a future,” “[a] blank clock,” etc. How do you view the concept of time in your poems in relation to the concept of time in Bartlett’s paintings?   

NR: The concept of time in Bartlett’s paintings is everywhere: there are little cartoonish clocks throughout the paintings, and the grid in each painting is always in tiny boxes that are multiples of 60, since there are 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour, etc.: when you look you can see the grid’s lines are present, faint and at odds with the semi-normative picture they restrain and make possible: a sink with the water running and a tiara floating above it; an aerial shot of a lake in which koi fish dim and flare in several pictorial planes, with the lily pads coming at you without due process of scale. In every painting the proportions buzz. Each of these paintings is somewhat one impossible moment, or hour I guess, seen in one frame. So her concept of time seems elastic, even as the titles do segment the day into the usual blocks: 1 P.M., 2 P.M., 3 P.M., etc. 

I guess in my poems there are images that point, as you say, to time; this must have occurred not only because I think about time a lot but also because the process I underwent to write the poems involved creating a kind of impossible frame for myself. The process I developed to write the poems ended up enacting a semi-self-defeating simultaneity: for each painting I wrote a page-long quick prose draft where I became a character in the painting; I repeated that drafting process for each painting several times over a week or a month. Eventually: three or four pages of prose for one painting. Three or four different attempts at living in the one world of the painting. To make a single poem out of them, I underlined fragments that caught my eye for whatever reason. 

Once I copied these fragments out onto a separate page, I took a deep mental breath in, and then exhaled through the fragments to let them seize up into a shape. The fact these are prose poems happened because the line break didn’t become important as a way of creating rhythm or shaping perception. I also suspect this is because so much of my mental energy fell into improvising in the moment, out of a moment that I’d lived through in several iterations before. For whatever reason lineation didn’t seem necessary, since there was so much internal fragmentation. My concept of time as acted out by process matches a lot of Bartlett’s concept and process. 

WC: When I write, the process of composition for me is very much a visual experience. Similarly, when I order poems in a collection, I often think of them as paintings in a gallery in how they respond to pieces around them. Do you approach the process of composition or ordering poems from a visual space? Do you approach the process of composing or ordering ekphrastic poems differently than other work you write? 

NR: Part of me does approach the writing process in a visual way: I let my hand and my eye do most of the work. I study an object or situation for a bit of time then start to create it by participating. When it came to writing out these poems, it was very visual. Ripping the pages out of the notebook, underlining with a purple or green pen the eye-catching fragments, copying out the fragments from the multiple drafts onto a new page, numbering the fragments, and ordering the fragments in different arrangements, sometimes beginning with the last fragment and going all the way back to the first (16-1, 15-2, 14-3, etc) or the opposite. I often had to tap my pen to the page and move pieces of paper around. That’s all visual. 

But the musical is perhaps slightly more what I lean on—and you hint at it when you say “compose,” which I think of as a musical term primarily. I explained the process before in terms of inhaling and exhaling. Breath is a big part of how I feel. And a part of how I do. I’m a singer and was a stage performer before I started making poems. In the last few years I’ve been realizing how singing and making a poem share similar techniques, at least in my experience. I was definitely thinking and feeling through these ideas when I was writing 24 Hour Air: how the larynx works, how the diaphragm’s engaged, how I navigate the breaks built into my voice—the passaggio—everyone’s got one—inform my sense of how, as a writer, I can channel the sensation of free-flowing air, use my entire body as an instrument, give into the sensation of least resistance in order to let a continuity happen between what people call head voice and chest voice, which is a binary that is similar to the binary of the register you use to speak in everyday and the register that is rarified, higher, poetic, etc. 

But that binary is false in terms of how the larynx works (you can create a single note by mixing your air in different ways—that’s the idea of the mezzi di voce technique, where you sing one note from loud to soft, with different degrees of heaviness or lightness) and the binary is false in terms of how the voice on the page can work (a blended, sliding scale of diction). I can go on and on about singing and poetry’s strange connections in terms of technique because I’ve been developing a nonfiction book about it—I actually started to write it at the same time that I was writing 24 Hour Air. So, yes, the visual is in my process. But music is too.

To your other question, I don’t think I do approach ekphrastic work differently from other work that I write. In terms of process, so much of what I write has to do with sustained looking, low-pressure responding, following my breath, etc, and layering. (Layering is the technique that applies only to painting, but layering, as in vocals, is a part of music production; Hi Enya, Brandy, etc.) My process has become very excessive—I write a lot of material very quickly, knee-jerkily, reacting and flexing in response to anything I encounter. That excessiveness in the writing process, me facing the page and my own materials, is satisfying; when I’m around other people, as I often am in my life off the page, I can’t be very excessive without being afraid, afraid that I’m overwhelming other people. On the page, I restrain the mess I make, which is satisfying. I have to exercise my choicefulness, and almost be vengeful in exactitude, which is harder, more emotional. I trust my hand and my eye to be quick, at first, and then, later, slow. I rewrite each poem over and over until I stop wanting to make changes. That was the method for these poems, at least. 

As for order, I haven’t the faintest idea—the order for these poems is simply the order of the paintings they respond to, starting with Midnight and concluding with Eleven P.M. While my titles and the poems themselves may not always explicitly refer to the paintings, at least the order does.

WC: The use of color in your collection is so striking and evocative. “[P]ink sand,” a “purple eel,” and “red bricks”—among others—dot the landscape of your poems. Oftentimes, there is a thoughtful sparingness to the appearance of color, making each instance feel like a spark within the text. How do you think color functions differently or similarly in writing on the page versus in a painting in a gallery space?

NR: I have two thoughts about this. First, what comes to mind is that neuroscientist experiment in which scientists discovered that reading the phrase “a green suede glove” makes the part of your brain light up as if you’d actually touched the object itself. So something about color—and texture—has that ability to do something to your brain. Something mimetic perhaps? Second, the gallery space probably invites slightly different neurological activity. In terms of neuroscience, I don’t know enough about the difference between reading a page vs. looking at a painting, but both involve the eye and the brain and speed. Just because you can enter a room and see a huge Kerry James Marshall painting and recognize all the bright colors doesn’t mean that you have the same experience as the one where you stand there and sustain your own looking, which is a different experience than if you try to name the colors for yourself (“So that’s a blue, a robin’s egg blue? Or no, it shades off until that kind of yellow that reminds me of my dad’s Volvo”). 

There’s a large great Marshall painting in the same room as the Bartlett time paintings in the Modern and Contemporary Art gallery, which is perhaps why it’s coming to mind. Standing there, letting your eyes repeat their movement across the surface, sometimes pausing, almost having to work backwards, something deepens in you. And if I were to try to name the different shades and pigments of a Kerry James Marshall painting, I think the process of trying to name them—sorting through my own vocabulary and silences—would make the color function differently. My instinct tells me that color functions on the page vs. in a room according to the speed with which a person can experience their experience.

WC: There are so many wonderful layers and screens in your poems—a “dark glass door,”[t]he blare of a camera,” a “[t]ransparent” “ghostfish.” Are there similarities between the ways that poetry and paintings create texture, shape, and depth? 

NR: Oh I’d never noticed that before actually. Thank you for noticing that! I think poetry and paintings both use repetition and sequencing to sustain an illusion.

WC: Do you think there are experiential aspects poetry can evoke that painting or other visual art cannot—or vice versa? Are there works of art for which you think it would be extremely difficult or impossible to write an ekphrastic poem? 

NR: There isn’t any artwork that can’t—literally—be written about, since words, no matter how vexed, do exist. Paul Celan, Cathy Park Hong, even e.e. cummings: they all show how words can be suspended between languages or put together in new ways. And writing about the failure to respond adequately to an art piece is still a way of writing about that art. And that’s enough. There is a difference between a word and an object or a brush stroke or paint, but that’s all I know. I think each writer learns, on the spot, and over time, what that difference is when they write. For people who like to look at art, read texts, watch films, and so on, the knowledge of that difference creates energy that goes into the act of writing the poem, rebounding the line. I’ve tried to answer this question a few times in my writing these responses, but I always come back to a blank wall about it.

WC: Are you hoping to build on this ekphrasis project? What are you working on next?

NR: This 24 Hour Air series is in my rearview mirror. I’m really happy that PANK has decided to publish these poems, since it’s important to me that they get to live together forever as the total series that they are. Right now, I’m working off and on on several different manuscripts—one’s a collaborative essay sequence about supermarkets and Covid-19 and poetry, with my friend the poet and critic Eileen G’Sell; another’s a group of book reviews, including a review of Poupeh Missaghi’s trans(re)lating house one which always does something amazing in the simple haunting form. I’m still at work—slowly—on that book about singing and poetry that I mentioned. 

The most demanding work I’m developing I started in April of 2020, in the pandemic. The manuscript is kind of epic—it features a protagonist and several recurring characters, and has something in common with a novel, although each poem does stand on its own, or that’s a goal. To make the poems, I’ve come up with a repeatable process that involves drawing three notecards from a big box of notecards I’ve created; on the notecards are 1) quotations I’ve copied out from pre-modern poetry like Dante and Homer; 2) quotations from nonfiction sources, from NYTimes articles to environmental writing to literary criticism; 3) quotations from interviews with artists like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Cecily Brown, and writers like Claudia Rankine and Deborah Eisenberg. Each time I want to write a poem, I pull out the big box of cards, draw three cards randomly, one of each type of source, and then I allow a verbal situation to happen. All the poems, as first drafts, share the same form—tercets with a final monostich (Hi Dante). All these small parts make an easy process to re-enter at any moment. The process is energizing and easy and dizzying—like when you lose your breath because of a long phrase that you sing. I started this manuscript in April and already have a first draft of a manuscript that’s 275 pages. It’s a lot. Once I learned to follow my breath, which is thought-instinct-life-force, almost anything seems possible.      

An Excerpt from 24 Hour Air