See You in Departures: Nick Thran in Conversation

Nick Thran photographed by Peter Sinclair
Shortly before he moved to Montreal, Nick and I -- strangers then -- exchanged emails about prospects for work in the city. By the time we met, several months later on a leafy green twilit evening at The Word Bookstore, it seemed he'd always been here. 

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry in the first place?

NICK THRAN: Two things: good teachers who enthusiastically introduced me to good work, and moving around a zillion times with my family. The latter seems more and more key to me in retrospect: growing up, any identity I was constructing about myself that was too attached to a specific place, situation or other person was quickly scuttled. I don’t say this to be maudlin. Starting out, I just gravitated to writing that was less reliant on a slow, intricately developed narrative. I sought out words that kicked up as much dust when they arrived as when they left. Poems had them.

SG: You’ve moved around a fair bit as an adult as well. Is it reasonable to say that your poetic practice springs from that deep well of arrival and departure? The poem "Three Trees" arises from time spent with your family at Al Purdy's place, a time of slowing down, of repeated looking and listening, and conveys (at least to me) a strong sense of place. Your time there was also temporary. Now that you are a father, are you seeing differences in your poetic practice in terms of this relation between arrival and departure?

NT: I’m happy to hear the poem conveys a strong sense of place for you. A lot of the poems I wrote over our three-month stay in Ameliasburgh are, like “Three Trees”, set at the A-frame and in the surrounding county. As far as it being “a time of slowing down,” that wasn’t really my experience: It was a dance to divide the day between two poets (myself and Sue Sinclair) who needed to work, and then to both put equal time into caring for our infant daughter. Add to this the obligation that I felt to delve into Purdy’s own work and life. I wanted to understand his early influence on me, to repay the hospitality of the residency itself, and to figure out how I may have been occupying his and Eurithe’s space differently—through my own work and by my own circumstances.

Broadly speaking, how to occupy someone else’s space differently is an idea that’s always had a pull on me. Some of that has to do with moving around a lot in my life. Some of that also comes from consciously trying to situate myself in a poetic tradition. There are so many places to move around in that tradition! And, both physically and in poetry, I feel compelled to move. I’ll say that I think I now have a much clearer understanding of the ways Purdy’s poems succeeded for me, as well as a more nuanced understanding of where I think they failed. And to sit in Al’s chair and look out his window as I read his Collected Poems was a bizarre and intimate experience. I loved it. But reading and writing have always been, for me, activities that promise guiltless, even encouraged, departures. I think that the most destructive works of literature are probably the ones that insist we don’t leave. 

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?
NT: Music: Charlie Parr and Angel Olsen. Books: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, [sharps] by Stevie Howell. I also seem to digest a lot of stand-up comedy these days. And three men died recently whose work has been very important to me: Mark Strand, whose poems are my best company during melancholy; Philip Levine, whose poems first explained to me that work isn’t money (and vice versa); and Tomaž Šalamun, whose poems teach me to have a good laugh – between sighs – at the absurdity of ambitions to power. It’s inspiring to me that they all wrote well into their twilight years. Rereading their books. 

Nick Thran’s new collection of poetry, Mayor Snow, will appear in 2015 with Nightwood Editions. His previous collection, Earworm, won the 2012 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Read his poem "Three Trees" here.