“In effect, war is the sound of zero-making, an erasure of our connection to other people—their names, the places they live, the cultures they produce and are produced by, their singular and distant lives no longer present in the ambient cacophony. “
Orient (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2018)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I grew up in Eau Claire, WI, a mid-sized city in the Midwest. The older I get, the clearer it becomes how much this mattered. Privilege matters and I had it. I had it in the ways a person typically thinks of it, like race and class and all the other things that folks don’t earn when they get born. Granted, I’m not white and my parents most certainly weren’t rich, but we lived and breathed among folks who were, and I reaped the residue of that. Like all my friend’s parents had been to college; education was an environmental given, a path that we, too, were expected to take, that was available to us. My family lived less than one block from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where my dad worked designing sets and sound and lighting for the theatre department. My neighbors were professors, librarians, politicians, and policemen. When my dad died, the city manager of Eau Claire was with us in the room, standing with our family around the bed, being there with him, with us. If you’re foolish (brave?) enough decide to be an artist at an early age, it helps who your folks know and if they aren’t like, “Sorry, kid, but you’ve got to get a job and help us pay the bills, otherwise we’re fucked.” You get my point. It matters—socially and economically—and I had most of all that going for me.
But I also reaped a whole world of cultural privileges. I grew up with kids whose parents actually valued art, music, literature, and who encouraged them to be creative and follow their hearts and dreams, and so we did. We started punk bands in our parent’s garages, wrote songs, and photocopied angsty poetry zines at Kinko’s. Our parents bought us instruments for our birthdays, and amps and four-tracks for Christmas, and records and computers and microphones and books, everything we needed. So that’s how and why I started writing. Because I wanted to and I was able to, because making art was what the other kids were doing—it was cool—and because people of means encouraged us and helped us along the way.
A lot of us are still doing this, making music and writing books, still following and making good on the grown-into, more matured versions of the aspirations we had when we were younger. Twenty years later, the kids from Eau Claire with whom I grew up with are touring Europe, winning Grammys, and buying houses in the countryside with the money off their internationally best-selling first novels. That’s not normal, not by any measure. My sense is that if you look at the majority of artists who succeed in the world today, making a living off their art, winning awards, getting the “good” jobs at universities, the ones which give them time and money to work creatively, you’ll find they come from means. Yes, folks work hard, like really really hard, but this work has to also exist in a context which encourages it and nurtures it, which makes it possible. There are exceptions, of course. I’d like to see the numbers.
How do you decorate your writing space?
The two recurring presences in my writing space are a sheet of paper made by Timothy Barrett and an old photograph of my mom. Mr. Barrett is a paper maker from Iowa City. He’s also a MacArthur Genius Award winner, which I love. That a person can be recognized at the national level as a “genius” for making paper is something the United States gets right. There’s a lot of things we don’t get right, but that’s not one of them. The first day of Jim Galvin’s workshop—spring 2008—he handed a blank page to each of the kids in the class and explained the process by which Mr. Barrett made it. According to Jim, the procedure dated back like a million years to some long-gone civilization I can’t remember. Mr. Barrett, he explained, was the only living person on the planet who knew how to make this paper, so the minute any of us thought we’d written something more interesting than what this empty page already was without us, we should let him know. I’ve kept that paper, blank as the day I got it, tacked to the wall of every writing space I’ve worked in since. Sometimes, though, I’ll stick a photograph of someone to it, folks I lionize like Muhammad Ali or Dolly Parton or Serena Williams. Today, Will Oldham’s on there, singing folks songs at a punk bar in Missoula.
The other presence, as I said, is my mom, a photograph taken when she was just 19, right before she left Thailand to come to the United States for school. In it, she’s super serious, almost scowling, and beautiful. I love this picture because it marks the boundary between the life she had always known in Bangkok and the one in Wisconsin she would eventually come to know. My sister and I are the product of this border, of the decision to cross it which my mom was brave enough to make.
What’s your book about?
Like most books, Orient’s about a lot of things: deserts, refugees, religion, conflict, culture, orientalism, violence, pornography, art, music, binary thinking, noise, politics, identity, empire and the way we speak of it, language and the way we speak of it. The list goes on. It’s a real cacophony, a total cluster-fuck. And my dad, too, he’s in there, as a character, first and foremost, as someone who used to be alive, but he’s also there as a kind of moral compass. He was, by all accounts, a good person, like strangely good. His ethics weren’t complicated, they weren’t theoretical, but they were deeply present nonetheless. His ethics shaped the way he moved through the world, the way he treated people, a quiet, almost invisible kindness which made everyone around him feel at home. At his funeral, his friend Charlie gave a brief eulogy that started, “Art had a code. I didn’t know it, but I knew that it was there.” The more I read the book as I was editing, the more I felt his ghost alive and working, moving across the pages, moving me, informing my decisions. As an artist who is also a son, I wanted to do right by him, keep him living somehow in the ethics of the poems. Thus, the last photograph in the book is of a shoreline in Ontario. We placed his ashes there the summer that he died, and so he’s in the book in that way, too, an absence which helps me navigate the ghosts of others, a loss whose presence in my life has helped to bring me closer to lives of folks I’ll never know.
And this, I think, is what Orient ultimately attempts to navigate, the potential violence of the distance between ourselves and other abstract lives. In the most literal sense, the poems in this collection speak to what it means to watch a war on your computer, one that lasts your entire life but that happens somewhere else to people you’ll never meet, but who you imagine and feel nonetheless. And this is a different type of violence, I think, the making up and imposing of made-up narratives onto others, even when these narratives are sympathetic or well-intentioned. So, Orient is also about watching the suffering of others from far away and feeling helpless, feeling distant, and then, at the same time, watching within this want the image of yourself committing a parallel form of violence in the act of your attempt to empathize. I wrote the book and in doing so I implicated myself, my art, the work itself, and now I have to live with that. I hope that whoever is in a position to forgive me will. The only ones who can, I think, are two people I first saw on television however many years ago when I first began to work, the woman and the girl to whom the book is dedicated. They were standing at the edge of the desert. I do not know their names.
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?
I wish I could answer this question directly, simply, but I can’t. So far, I’ve needed three books to answer this question, and even then, I don’t think I’ve even started to engage the question in any kind of satisfying way. Orient, for example, lives as the latest of many attempts to think through the layers of these intersections. In the end, I think I landed right back where I started, which is super humbling, frustrating. Although the book opens in an oasis where everyone is safe, the last poem in the collection concludes in stark acknowledgment of the speaker’s own complicity with the systems of capital and culture that pervade nearly every corner and community on the planet. Some days I get to the end of my book and feel like it’s really important (necessary!) to articulate the extent to which I’m connected, directly and indirectly, to all the heavy awful shit that lives out there. But on other days I get to the end of my book and all I can see is how little actual progress was made over the course of the four years it took to make. I mean, didn’t I already know all this when I first sat down to write? If so, then what’s the point? Why’d I write this book? What good has come of it?
Part of the reason is that early in the writing of Orient I saw the woman to whom the book is dedicated interviewed on my brand-new television set. She was standing on the edge of the Syrian Desert with her daughter, fleeing the war there. She looked strong, but also tired, and she was frustrated and scared and angry. Holding her daughter, she asked the reporter how it could possibly be so difficult for people watching to imagine why she needed to leave her home, why, at the same time, she also needed someone brave enough to offer her a new one. I say “brave” here, not because I saw/see her and her daughter as a political or cultural threat, but because I think love is brave, and empathy; I think empathy is brave. And trust. And selflessness, which is the root word of compassion, a willingness to say unflinchingly: “I want for you to be.” In almost every way Orient is dedicated to them, an attempt to open the borders of my aesthetics, of my community, and “imagine love for those I do not know” by returning to the love for those I do. Within these borders I tried to make good on the woman’s imperative to envision what I knew I lacked the means to see and feel directly, which is its own kind of ethical risk, as I mentioned, but it’s one I took.
Ultimately, I wish I could’ve done a better job, that the book was more perfect somehow. Like maybe if I could’ve written better she and her daughter might have somehow had a better chance of crossing out of Syria, that the people on the other side might welcome her more willingly, might put themselves aside and help—that I, too, on the other side of the poem, might find a way to put myself aside and help. For a long while I spent a lot of time trying to understand a line of thought which argued why this woman and her daughter shouldn’t be allowed to enter Europe, why the fences were cruel but necessary, why multi-culturalism had failed, why pluralistic societies so often struggled to integrate folks from other cultures, etc. But in the end, I put that literature away. I asked myself what felt right to me, what I would hope that someone would do for me and my own daughter, what my dad would do if he were still alive to ask. And I know what he would do, what he would tell me. And so I went ahead and wrote the book.
What songs soundtrack your making of your book?
Throughout Orient I listened almost solely to minimalist composers Brian Eno, Harold Budd, and William Basinski. In particular: Eno’s Ambient series, Budd’s Jane 1-11 and 12-21, and Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. In fact, Eno’s linear notes on “Ambient Music” in Music for Airports proved a central grounding point of Orient’s concerns. Eno wanted to create an “environmental music” for and of “particular times and situations,” an atmosphere of influences made of subtle, fluctuating noises that could “accommodate many levels of listening and attention without enforcing one in particular.” Said differently, ambience occurs as drone, as static, the sound of that which constantly surrounds and fills and enters, the noise of “is” so there it almost “isn’t,” which permeates and penetrates and holds the listener within its weather.
As I listened to these musicians I began to hear that the world too created a kind of ambience, that part of what living in the age of information demands of us is that we live and breathe within the strange persistence of a thousand information cycles happening at once. Sitting at my computer, I could feel the news drone over me from all directions, and often the news was made of war. In effect, war is the sound of zero-making, an erasure of our connection to other people—their names, the places they live, the cultures they produce and are produced by, their singular and distant lives no longer present in the ambient cacophony. Orient takes this static on in an effort to reorganize the noises that negate our sense of a shared fate, an attempt to translate static-death into a living music capable of thriving in the “doubt and uncertainty” which Eno so passionately valued. In this sense, he has a lot to do with Keats whose insistence on negative capability (the ability to thrive in mystery and doubt) lives for me as a kind of ghost poetics, an argument against identity, an invocation of our inherent otherness, always otherness, always drift.
Now that the book is finished and I’m no longer mumbling the poems across the background drone of Music for Airports or the Disintegration Loops, the words feel naked without them. My goal, soon, someday, is to work with musicians in my community to return the poems in Orient to some new version of the orchestrated static from which they first emerged, to continue the work’s concerns with noise and name in conversation with other people who also, in their own way, in their own mediums, have other names and noises to contribute.
Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?
An Image of the Book in Which I Hear You
If there is standing water in the desert. If there is water and I am standing
over it. Staring down into the murk
or mirror of the pool.
If I am breathing. If I can see myself in the oasis.
If I am speaking and there is water
and you are there.
If you are also speaking. If we can hear across
the water, our voices
carrying in opposite directions,
our voices carrying. If our languages unspool in blue drifts
against the distance, escaping reticence.
If the distance of our reticence
is false. If it isn’t crossable.
If we cross it anyway.
Who will carry us? If our narratives erase us.
If our histories return to us
as names. If we are living
in the error of our alphabets. If the centers of the letters
hurt. Master, Stranger. What is water,
where is water safe
if solitude displaces us? If we are homeless, finally,
each of us. If we wander past
each other, our faces moored
to their reflections,
the edges wrecked. Is it imaginary?
If the images we make
remake us. If there is mercy
in us. If our speaking
changes, and we, ourselves,
are changing, making. If we are made
in the image of the other. In ambiguity and contradiction.
If we consent
to not be solitary. If we imagine we are somewhere.
If there is shore
What are some of your favorite books and writers? Or what are some books and writers who have influenced you?
I’ve got a rotating cast of books and writers who move through me on an almost daily basis, most of whom are friends and/or contemporaries. So please forgive my nepotism. Sarah Nicholson, Jane Gregory, Kevin Holden, and Cody-Rose Clevidence are all poets I live in awe of and who I lump together somehow, though they’re radically different. Cody-Rose especially. They’ve got a book called Beast Feast which is ear-drugs. And they’ve got another coming out, I think, like now, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Sara Deniz Akant is another poet who I wish that I could write like, but I can’t. No one can. She’s has a book called Babette which is truly one of the strangest, most deeply interesting works of English I’ve ever held. I give it to my students sometimes and they’re like “what the fuck is this?” and then they look at me like I’ve punched them with a soft pink fist.
Beyond my immediate contemporaries, if there’s any single poet, like from the canon or whatever, who has stuck around and made his presence felt, it’s George Oppen. Of Being Numerous is a lifeline of mine, a holding center to which I turn when nothing else is working. I’d be nothing without that book. It’s so completely beautiful and intelligent and wrought and gentle and scared, and it’s also completely and utterly in love. This is to say, in other words, that the book is also selfless. If there’s anything I think poetry is good for, it’s that, getting over yourself, reaching through yourself, for others and for the space in which we move in the direction of other, less isolated lives. Of Being Numerous—the poem, not the book—ends quite literally in another’s voice, an excerpt from Whitman’s journal (April 19th, 1864). In it, Whitman is attempting to allow the capitol to grow on him—maybe it was new then and he didn’t like it yet?—and so he goes out each night at sundown to look at the Genius of Liberty, the statue standing at the top. There, the sunlight turns her to a star, a sun to which he’s drawn, evening after evening, an orienting light which guides his curiosity. The poem ends there, in the word “curious…,” which isn’t Oppen’s, but someone else’s, followed by an ellipsis. I love this word, this gesture. There’s so much awe in it, and selflessness, a hesitant but ever-broadening bewilderment, a wondering, a wandering away from the world and self that one is used to. The poets to whom I owe the most have always helped me do this. “What I like more than anything,” writes Oppen at the very end of the collection, “is to visit other islands.”
Nicholas Gulig is a Thai-American poet from Wisconsin. The author of North of Order and Book of Lake, his most recent collection, Orient, won the 2018 Open Book Award from the University of Cleveland State Poetry Center. Currently he lives in Fort Atkinson, WI with his wife and daughter and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.