For poet Nick Norwood, a Texarkana-area upbringing has proven to be fertile territory to inspire his endeavors in verse.
Norwood, who teaches creative writing at Columbus State University in Georgia and also serves as director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, just had his fourth full book of poems published.
"Eagle & Phenix" is out now through Snake Nation Press. It's a follow-up to his "Gravel and Hawk." Both volumes put a more personal stamp on his poetry, and his new collection includes poems that revisit his childhood and the richness of those sights and associations to be found there.
His new volume opens with a poem named "Ronnie's," which imagines his mother's life at 27 or 28: "Dad dead, Mom—back in the bank, tellering—/ started dressing in cute skirts and pants suits/ she sewed herself from onionskin patterns/ and bright-colored knits picked up at Cloth World."
Norwood's poems have been published in The Oxford American, Shenandoah, Atlanta Review, Southern Poetry Review and "Pushcart Prize Anthology XLII."
We caught up with Norwood for a Q&A-style email interview, and here's what the poet had to say:
1. Your new book takes its name from a cotton mill in Columbus, Ga., the city where you now teach. Tell us a bit about the inspiration, the connection to this cotton mill and the title poem.
Just after my last book came out, I moved into the Eagle & Phenix, a cotton mill founded before the Civil War and converted to condominiums after it went defunct in the late 1990s. I loved the name and thought it would make a great book title, and moving into the E&P got me interested in the history and culture of the mill, which related to my own family back in East Texas. Like my grandfather and many other of my East Texas kinfolk, the people who went to work in the cotton mills were cotton farmers—sharecroppers, tenant cotton farmers, and so on, who left the uncertain misery of the cotton farm for the certain misery of the cotton mill. The only difference with my grandfather is that he never left the farm.
The poem "Eagle & Phenix Dam" is one that tries to encapsulate a lot of the history, culture, flora and fauna of the place, including the fact that they blew the dam about a year after I moved into the mill. They unstoppered the river after about 185 years to open it up for white water rafting, which they have done and completely revitalized Columbus's downtown area in the process. The third section of the poem has been permanently mounted as a public art piece, designed by sculptor Mike McFalls, in eight-inch Corten steel on the seawall of the riverwalk, just next to the original mill powerhouses, which have been converted into restaurant and special event spaces.
2. How has your vision for poetry changed and grown since your last volume, "Gravel and Hawk." Bird imagery in both titles: any significance to you?
I was definitely conscious of the fact that my title was continuing the bird theme, which has a long tradition in poetry. I'm a big fan of the British poet Ted Hughes, whose first book is called "Hawk in the Rain" and whose most famous book is called "Crow." I see the new book as a sort of expanding outward from the previous one, which focused almost exclusively on my family and childhood. The new book also contains a number of poems on those themes but also explores historical and cultural themes.
3. You've talked with us previously about how you eventually grew more comfortable talking about personal narrative in your poems. Where are you now with this as part of your poetry?
The personal lyric is still my primary outlet—poems about my own life and family. I've taken the approach that poets ought to focus on what's most important to them in their own lives. They ought to write poems with real pressure behind them, poems that are necessary for them to write, rather than poems that just try to show off how much they know or how clever they can be.
4. Your poetry in "Eagle & Phenix" certainly addresses your Texarkana-area roots and family. What did you find inspired these particular poems? What sorts of imagery and emotions came into play as you put these poems to the page?
I feel a need to make a record of the things that happen in my life and in the lives of those closest to me. You hear people talk about needing a "creative outlet," but for me it's more about a need to not let experience simply disappear in my wake. I'm also a believer in the idea that for a writer childhood is the well you draw from. A quote from the poet Louise Glck really resonates with me: she says, "We see the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory."
5. People who work for a living, how do they inspire your poetry and what do you strive to say about them? What's the connection for you?
I'm a first-generation college graduate. My grandfathers were a tenant cotton farmer and a road grader operator, respectively. My father was killed flying pipeline in the oilfield and afterwards my mother worked as a bank teller to support us. In high school I hauled hay, then worked at Eckerd Drugs on New Boston Road (now a flea market!), then worked for four years as a deliveryman for Lafferty's Appliance. Later, in college, I loaded and unloaded trucks at, first, a liquor distributorship, then W.W. Grainger, then, in graduate school, for UPS. All of that experience is part of this book, and in many cases the images and people are taken directly from the experience and put on the page. For instance, when I worked for Lafferty's I saw how people from all walks of life and socio-economic levels lived. I saw how much dirt was behind their old refrigerators! Likewise, the guys who repaired those refrigerators were my co-workers and daily companions. I wanted to try to put on the page the experiences I had with them. People working for a living, especially in work with heavy physical demands, inspires poems, because poems need details—imagery—from the concrete, physical world. I also worked in an advertising agency for three years after college, and I've taught in universities for the past thirty years, but those kinds of jobs don't inspire too many poems. I've spent a lot of time in conference rooms over the past several decades. Not one poem has come out of it!
6. What is your revision process like?
I get an idea for a poem and make a quick first draft—usually longhand on a legal pad, almost always completing it in that initial rush of inspiration. Then I type it out in a Word document, revising as I go, and fiddle with the language for several days. I often then type it out on an old IBM Selectric typewriter, then reenter it into the Word doc—again, revising as I go. I keep all previous drafts in that same document. Then I let it rest a while—maybe as long as a few months. Then I go back to it and, if it still seems promising, I fiddle with it some more. Rest. Fiddle. Rest. Fiddle. At some point, I decide it's finished. Often, I'm not satisfied, and the poem continues to rest. I've got, literally, hundreds resting in my digital files at any given moment.
7. Your work teaching and directing the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, how does it influence your poetry and vice-versa?
Carson McCullers is a writer I first read in graduate school at the University of North Texas, and she has been an influence—mostly in an indirect way—ever since. She dealt with universal human themes in the context of a small southern town, and though I also love Faulkner, Welty, O'Connor, and other southern writers, McCullers has always felt closer to me than the others. Likewise, my experience as a writer is put into my teaching on a daily basis, and the work I do for the McCullers Center is mostly about exposing my students and other people in my community, including high school students, to the literary life—in the form of readings by poets and visiting writers, for instance.
8. What else would you like readers to know about this collection of poems?
I like to focus on the single human life and on the immediate context of that life. I think people interested in such things might like my book—which they can find at Amazon, my website, or the Snake Nation Press website—even if they don't typically read poetry.
(On the Net: www.nick-norwood.com.)