“From counting syllables religiously to letting the page’s white space speak”: A Conversation with Poet, Editor, & Entrepreneur Nick Courtright — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Nick Courtright is the author of The Forgotten WorldLet There Be Light,and Punchline, and is the Executive Editor of Atmosphere Press. His poetry has appeared in The Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Iowa Review, AGNI, Gulf Coast, and The Southern Review, among dozens of others, and essays and other prose have been published by such places as The Huffington Post, The Best American Poetry, Gothamist, and SPIN Magazine. With a Doctorate in Literature from the University of Texas, Nick lives in Austin with the poet Lisa Mottolo and their children, William and Samuel. 

Find him at atmospherepress.comnickcourtright.com, and watching birds on his porch.

Kristina Marie Darling:  It’s our honor and pleasure to feature this excerpt from The Forgotten World.  Can you tell us about the larger project these poems are culled from?

Nick Courtright: The Forgotten World is my attempt to understand the place of the American in the wider world, and the book’s setting travels from places like Morocco and Kenya to Peru and Ecuador to Cambodia and Japan to Hungary and Italy…and then returns to the United States for the final part.  America has had a star-crossed last one hundred years, from the world’s savior to the world’s babysitter, from an empire to the fool who speaks too loudly at the dinner table, and the book is my using my experience as proxy for a nation bumbling around. 
I’d been working on these poems for years…and then COVID hit and it made a poetry book about the wider world seem crazy, almost garish, but it actually consolidated the importance of remembering the world outside of our own insular experience. Even though the pandemic made us “forget” the outside world, it was still there, vibrant and different and not needing us, and I see this book as my attempt to reconcile that.

KMD:  You are an avid traveler, and that spirit of adventure really comes through in The Forgotten World.  What has travel opened up within your creative practice? 

NC: In my first two books, Punchline and Let There Be Light, I was busy trying to understand spiritual and philosophical and cosmological questions, but it started to feel like I was Kant, making vast judgments about the universe while rarely leaving my own neighborhood. The poems lacked a sense of place, and also a central character. They were statements sans setting. Travel, though, forced me to really confront the world directly—not as a philosophical problem, but as a real, pulsing existence. Travel—especially when done alone—really drives up the anxiety of being alive, that sense of aloneness, displacement, the sense of not belonging, of being a voyeur, an invader, a colonist…basically, everything that can make one feel adrift in the world, solo travel can amplify that. It’s a beautiful and terrifying thing, and when you have no one to talk to, that’s when the poems really pour out.

KMD:  The Forgotten World is fascinating in its marriage of inherited and postmodern forms.  What are some of the artistic advantages of cultivating dialogue between distinct literary traditions? 

NC: I’ve always tried to be omnivorous in as many aspects of my life as possible, taking it all in.  My doctoral work in literature is about using everything to interpret a poem—the words, the history, other poems, your own personal prejudice, bad interpretations, nonsense, what you’re eating when you’re reading, whether you’re in the bathtub, on and on—and I’m a big fan of the idea that you can have no truth without having everything. That includes the untruths. And in poetry, that means casting a wide net, from the spare Dickensonian lyric to the sprawling Whitmanian trainwreck, from counting syllables religiously to letting the page’s white space speak, from the esoteric to the #basic. 

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are a successful entrepreneur and the C.E.O. of Atmosphere Press.  What advice do you have for writers and scholars who struggle to monetize their skills? 

NC: Beware being so focused on your goals that you miss opportunities that exist outside of your goals.  I was very focused myself on the traditional academic track, trying to be a professor and all, and I pursued that 1000% for more than a dozen years.  During that time I had opportunities to do different things, but I often was closed off to them because they didn’t align with what I thought I wanted. I had to be whacked upside the head for three years before I really saw what I had in Atmosphere Press, which I founded in 2015 but only put myself fully into in 2018.  I was pretty dense.  And now it’s changed my life, and the team of editors, designers, book promoters, etc. that I’ve pulled together for this endeavor is changing the lives of hundreds of authors, and in a professional, ethical, and upbeat way.  So my biggest advice is to keep your eyes peeled, because the best opportunity may not be where you’re looking.

KMD:  Relatedly, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about life after a creative writing degree? 

NC: That you have to pursue academia.  I spent a lot of time teaching freshman comp and the stray lit or creative writing class, scratching my head, saying “what else would I even do??”  Well, it turns out that there are lots of people out there who love to write, and who have never even seriously thought of getting an MFA.  These people, though, can benefit from the skills of someone with a creative writing degree.  And don’t even get me started on the benefits to businesses of having someone creative on staff, whether in a writing position or not.  Because, after all, “writing” is just a kind of thinking, so you don’t have to limit yourself only to writing careers.  I don’t actually write creatively at all as part of my job.  Except emails, of course!

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can readers look forward to? 

NC: My main pursuit is just building Atmosphere into a really awesome and respected force in publishing, and we’ve done a lot of critically acclaimed books lately.  That’s my main passion.  But I’m also starting to slowly but surely think of the next poetry project, one that will have nothing at all to do with travel—I’m trying to ban that, haha, to force myself to explore something new—and I also am planning to publish what was once my doctoral dissertation, which is a 250ish-page work on how to most expansively interpret a poem, using Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” as its guinea pig.  It’s a good time, and I think it helps get a seat at the table for “bad” interpretations.  I love me some bad interpretations.

An Excerpt from The Forgotten World