“In epic waters”: A Conversation with Nathaniel Rosenthalis on The Leniad” – curated by Wendy Chen

Nathaniel Rosenthalis’ second collection of poems, The Leniad (Broken Sleep Books, 2023) is a revelatory exploration of intimacy, sexuality, and the self. Described as “nothing short of remarkable” by Mary Jo Bang, The Leniad pays homage to Virgil’s Aeneid as well as Dante’s Inferno in stylistically innovative and poignant ways. The intertextuality of this collection is a delight, offering up unexpected connections that deepen the audience’s understanding of what it means to be in conversation with other greats like Shakespeare, Sappho, or Ovid. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Nathaniel some questions about how this work came together and the art of reinvention.

Nathaniel Rosenthalis is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Works and Days (Broken Sleep Books, March 2024) and The Leniad (Broken Sleep Books, August 2023). He is a member of Actors Equity and lives in New York City, where he works as an actor and singer and teaches at NYU. Follow along on Instagram at @nrosenthalis

Nathaniel Rosenthalis’ second collection of poems, The Leniad (Broken Sleep Books, 2023) is a revelatory exploration of intimacy, sexuality, and the self. Described as “nothing short of remarkable” by Mary Jo Bang, The Leniad pays homage to Virgil’s Aeneid as well as Dante’s Inferno in stylistically innovative and poignant ways. The intertextuality of this collection is a delight, offering up unexpected connections that deepen the audience’s understanding of what it means to be in conversation with other greats like Shakespeare, Sappho, or Ovid. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Nathaniel some questions about how this work came together and the art of reinvention.

Wendy Chen: I’m so interested in the ways that you structure this collection, which is composed of two sections of poems divided by “The Leniad” and “Machoville.” “The Leniad” is a riff off of the Aeneid, while “Machoville” plays with the narrative of Dante’s Inferno. How did you decide on this kind of overall organizational structure for the collection? Were there other structures that you considered for this collection? Can you speak a little on how this collection came together?

Nathaniel Rosenthalis: When I initially submitted it to the publisher, it was a three-part book. “The Leniad” was in the middle so that the one-page lyric poems could set it up and keep echoing its melody afterwards. The three sections fell in place quite easily; I had in mind the triptych structure of one of my first favorite collections of poetry, Ann Lauterbach’s Or to Begin Again, which has “Alice in the Wasteland” in the middle, a long landscaped poem. For the one-page poems, I was inspired by Caroline Knox’s latest titles from Wave, which offer these interesting, provocative short terse poems that don’t repeat forms, each a spry, jagged shape.

After the publisher accepted The Leniad, though, I realized that this “Machoville” series that I’d written belonged in this book, too; I’d been thinking of developing “Machoville” into an entire book of its own. Instead, I put this 34-part prose poem last to round out the collection; with its extended narrative arc and recurring characters, “Machoville” is a monumental composition that carries through many of the ideas in the previous part of the book but in a more explicit story mode. The working title of “Machoville” was “Deleted Scenes from an Epic I Won’t Write.” And that’s more or less what it is; an epic with many parts cut out. This allowed me to focus on only the most dramatic story beats of this one man’s relationships.

WC: So much of this work is in conversation or interested in incorporating dialogue or quotes within the poems. In your opinion, what is the role of conversation or dialogue in poetry? What kind of energy or dynamic do they add? 

NR: Quotations and dialogue keep a speaker real. The speaker has to stay real if the wild language is going to stay credible. That was the idea for many poems in the book, like “The Second He,” published originally in Granta. However wild my poems become, I want it clear to the reader that at the center is a real, dimensional person.

WC: This is your second collection of poems, after your debut work I Won’t Begin Again (Burnside Review, 2023). You also have a third collection of poems that was just released in March titled Words and Days (Broken Sleep Books, 2024). What I particularly admire about your work is how you are able to reinvent yourself as a poet across and within your projects. How have you changed as a writer across these collections?

NR: I think I have become more flexible in form and open-hearted in my insights. I Won’t Begin Again, my first book, has a more austere energy in some ways, and tries to make sure the reader is always oriented in space and time in a very accessible way; one way it does so is to repeat forms a lot, so that the reader doesn’t have to adjust when turning a page and seeing a new poem. The Leniad is even less apologetic about its idiosyncrasies, and foregoes some of the repetition of form and lets many poems exist in their own unique shape, though there’s a lot of repetition within the title poem that is designed to keep things simple and familiar for a reader. Works and Days is probably the most joyous, energetic, and simple of books that I’ve ever written. It is the most shameless about my reading and writing life, very intertextual, and goes so far as to namedrop celebrities, porn actors, singers, alongside the likes of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. Reading and writing were expressly off-limits in my first book as subjects of poems. I had exiled a good deal of my own natural interests because I believed that poems about poetry are not going to interest many people. That may still be true! But especially with Works and Days, I came to sort of accept what life materials I was really drawn to at that moment. And that was, simply put, sex, reading, and history. Across all three books, simplicity and tautness of language still matter. But each book takes a risk that the book before didn’t think was possible, at the level of form but also at the level of personhood.

WC: As a follow-up question, what advice would you give to poets who are interested in putting together their first collection? What do you wish you had known? Or what advice was invaluable to you as you were writing your first collection?

NR: I wish I’d had more stories about how poets got their first book published! But now there are more resources out, such as the anthology that came out recently, Marbles on the Floor.

Mine was a rocky road; I submitted I Won’t Begin Again for five years before it finally got picked up for publication. Early on, FSG and Knopf expressed interest in the manuscript at different points, which was encouraging, and the manuscript was a runner-up or a finalist in two or three reading periods for different presses, like the Song Cave and the Cleveland State University Press poetry reading period. But no one ultimately was taking on this manuscript. And submitting for five years adds up, both financially and psychically. I was in my final round of sending it out when it finally won a prize.

I hope that my rocky road can be of comfort to someone perhaps mid-climb as well. I feel lucky to have a home with my UK publisher, Broken Sleep, and hope that more equitable presses continue to emerge that take chances on daring work.

WC: Thank you for sharing your journey toward publication. I agree it’s so important for poets to learn about how to get a first book out in the world; it’s a topic I am always talking about with my own students. So often, these journeys are long, full of rejection, and have an element of chance to them. I’m glad you were persistent with I Won’t Begin Again, which is such a stunning collection.

In “The Leniad,” the figure of Leni is framed as a kind of Aeneas as he goes on a wandering journey by bus and train and explores various cities. As he does so, Leni makes records in his journal, an act that frames him as a poet figure as well. In many ways, the work functions as an ars poetica describing the poet’s journey in search of meaning. What interests you about the figure of Aeneas, and how does Aeneas’ journey intertwine with the poet’s journey?

NR: I’m interested in Aeneas and the figure of the epic lead character in broader strokes, as part of a tradition of commenting on and passing on communal values to a group of committed listeners. There’s something very attractive to me about that. When writing this book, I was very much disconnected from others and had a real bone to pick with myself and the way I’d consented to seeing myself as small and marginal. So I took a cue from Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Anniad in creating a character and brashly putting it in epic waters, to see how the character would swim. At first this epic-ing was almost a joke and a dare at the same time — could I make a figure that to my mind was so anti-heroic, so small and daily and disconnected from others, a sort of hero in the traditional sense of a figure who is connected to a larger group of people through public deed and word? The correspondences only came into focus later, after the fact. I sort of trusted that there would be correspondences between the figures.

WC: The most playful sections in “The Leniad” are what you call the “prose blocks [that] . . . catalog each appearance of the eyes, the heart, grief, men, the mind, night, sleep, wind, and words as metaphors in Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey.” By layering metaphors, these prose blocks demonstrate the elasticity and power of metaphor to shape our understanding of a particular subject such as the eyes, the heart, etc. How did these prose blocks come about? What draws you to these metaphors in Wilson’s work? 

NR: My mom bought me the beautiful hardcover of Wilson’s translation as a gift. As I read the opening line, my heart started to race: “Tell me about a complicated man.” What! The language was so simple and direct. I started noticing the quick similes as well; the eyes of one god were flashing and someone else’s words were winged. I felt like I was reading a magical picture book. I was drawn to the immediacy and simplicity of the metaphors in Homer’s text as Wilson translated them. They mostly come from the orality of the work. As someone who has always written primarily for the page, I wanted to get some of that orality into my work in a new way.

So I got to work, trying to figure out how to absorb some of that magical immediacy into my work. I sat down in a Starbucks in Park Slope, in 2017, and for four or five hours, I paraphrased each metaphor in Wilson’s translation, starting from Book One; initially, I tried to be plain and simple; eventually, though, I started wanting to get as elaborate as possible, just to see what would happen. That’s how I got this one: “the mind is a bodybuilder who has his push-pull routines and thinks he doesn’t need rest days.” Or this one: “A man is the in-taking of a breath by a god; when the god gives him mouth to mouth, the man gets good at words.” Suffice it to say that Wilson’s translation doesn’t use “bodybuilder” or “mouth to mouth.” But I saw hints enough to run with it, horsing around on the page.

A few years later, in the spring of 2021, I was in my hometown during the pandemic. I found the catalog in my Google docs. The title: “A List of Every Metaphor in the Odyssey In My Own Words.” I decided to finish reading the book, hunting for this particular part of Homer’s honey.

But when I finished, I didn’t know what to do with the catalog. I had generated something thorough yet obtuse, grand yet odd. What use could I have of a list of every metaphor and simile in the Odyssey? I had no idea. I set it aside again.

A few weeks later, I was rereading a different project that I had started in 2019, a three-month journaling project that I had cut drastically down, writing small portions of the project onto notecards and alphabetizing these portions, into a sequence of abecedarius sonnets. These abecedarian sonnets were zingy but skimpy. They didn’t feel enough on their own, though I’d already discovered a cohesiveness by putting them into third-person point of view and making a character recur throughout them.

Rereading these skimpy yet cohesive sonnets, I recognized that some images kept repeating: the mind, night, and wind, for example. The bell had been rung, and I pulled out the catalog. I noticed that “mind,” “night,” and “wind” over and over in my catalog. I then identified six other metaphors that recurred as images in my sonnets; I chose nine because that’s how old I was when my dad died, which is part of what “The Leniad” is about, and what drew me actually to Telemachus, in search of his father, Odysseus. In that sense, the ‘iad’ is more a nod to the convention of titling a work after a central character in Greek rather than a particular preoccupation with The Iliad per se.

WC: It’s so wonderful to learn about the beginnings of this project, and what an insight into your writing process! Your work is of particular interest to me at this time, as I’ve also been experimenting these last few years with writing a long epic loosely using the structure of the Odyssey. I’m interested in the form of the epic and the Odyssey as a way to explore grief in relation to my father’s deterioration due to dementia. The figure of Telemachus is such a rich figure to explore, in exactly the ways that you point out!

There’s such a wonderful narrative propulsion in “Machoville,” as the speaker (and reader) is guided through the landscape of the work by a figure named “Dan,” a nod to Dante. The movement of the work as a whole evokes a spiraling descent, as objects and images recur or return transformed across sections. The lens of a camera on a smartphone in one section is an echo of a mirror in another. A lake at a park comes back as a pond. How did you think about setting and landscape while writing this longer piece?   

NR: I can’t wait to read what you do with the Odyssey! It sounds like such a potent text for you.

Setting and landscape were massively important to developing this longer piece; “Machoville” was a challenge to me because I was used to writing in the time of the single dramatic, lyric moment. Narrative arc: that was an adjustment.

The settings actually helped me adjust. I first put my eyes on where the characters kept occurring in these interactions with Dan. The speaker’s never named but yes his primary love interest is Dan, and Dan is in a coffee shop, a hike through a forest, and a boating outing, plus walking around the city, bumping into a film set and crew on a street corner. But there’s also Dario, who comes in vis-à-vis an island that the speaker visits; Dennis, the older friend, hangs out with the speaker in a gayborhood that is situated by a harbor.

So different characters have their different settings, and I think that’s one way “Machoville” makes a sort of map and a world.

WC: Were there poems that were particularly difficult to revise in this collection? What did your revision process look like for these poems?

NR: “Machoville” was the most difficult.

The first draft of the entire poem was about 200 pages. Generating the 200 pages was easy, because I invented a system where I copied quotations onto notecards. The quotations came from three different sorts of sources that I loved—nonfiction books, artist interviews, and pre-modern poetic texts. Once I had several hundred notecards, I made a game: I’d draw, at random, one notecard for each kind of text, for a total of three notecards. Then I’d improvise a long poem responding to the language from those notecards, using tercets as my guiding formal shape.

The individual sections stayed in tercets for a long time, because I was so enthralled by Dante’s tercets. I tried on many shapes as revision exercises: chiseling the tercets to be super terse tercets, and then making them very long-lined tercets, and then I tried six-line stanzas, and so on, all trying to see what made the poem snap into place.

But then I realized that I didn’t need line breaks, that the breakneck speed at which I wrote these poems, and the more prosaic quality I sometimes fell into for longer stretches, meant that these were basically prose poems that I had written originally, with line breaks as a kind of metronome, helping me keep a steady rate of energetic perception. Those line breaks had served a rhythmic purpose and kept me inspired – how delicious to feel one is writing tercets so quickly and so well!

But they didn’t hold together with the economy that a great tercet has. But as prose poems, they worked just fine and there was more than enough alliteration, rhyme, imagery, comparisons, and other typical maneuvers of poetry happening in the language. I’d also been diving into the Penguin Prose Poem Anthology too, inspired by all the different speeds and density of a prose poem, so that gave me some permission just to allow the poems to live in prose form.

WC: What projects are you working on next? What writers do you want to be in conversation with for your next project?

NR: I am working on a book of poetry that is told from Orpheus’ point of view. It’s shaping up to be a very, very different book than anything I’ve written before, although there is still the use of a Greek figure to serve as a mask for me. I am working most of the time these days as a singer, so this book is informed by the journey I’ve been on, going from auditions to stages to gigs to writing music to collaborating with other musicians. It’s a wild book so far, and I’m excited to see where it takes me!

Wendy Chen is the author of the novel Their Divine Fires (out May 7, 2024 from Algonquin Books) and the poetry collection Unearthings (Tavern Books). Her translations of Song-dynasty woman writer Li Qingzhao are forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2025 in a collection titled The Magpie at Night.