Interview with Nathaniel Hunt
1. Your poem, “Perhaps the Earth Has Only Dreamt of New York City” reminds me of the documentary The Cruise which is about a New York City tour guide who waxes philosophically about NYC as a metaphor for life. In what ways is this poem about you?
Ha! It’s interesting that you bring that up. The Cruise is one of my favorite films, and I was just re-watching it two days ago. Twice in the film Speed begins his tour by quoting H.G. Wells; “But to tell the story of New York would be to write a social history of the world.” I think that’s true, and I’m fascinated by that idea. New York City is so romanticized and so mythologized—because humanity mythologizes and romanticizes itself. In another poem, called “Thaw Comes to New York City,” I wrote “I was becoming nostalgic/for other people’s memories”; I seem to always get caught up in the ideas of things even while the things themselves are happening around me. So, yes, New York City is a metaphor for life, and the conflicts and territories and greed and love that come with that. In The Cruise, Speed talks about the sheer unprecedented-ness of Manhattan, and closes his thought with “this cannot last.” As for how this poem is specifically about me, it’s about consumption and life. I was in the city, visiting my brother, and both my parents were there. This was early October, and for my parents it was a vacation, a time to let loose and buy things and eat things. We took a short break from a whirlwind tour of pizza joints to wander through Central Park for a few minutes, and I looked at the plants a long time. Even in Frederick Law Olmstead’s artificial topography they were living wild. And I thought about how plants consume to survive, but they consume very little and out of it they create oxygen and beauty. And I was very uncomfortable with how I was getting caught up in the consumption of New York City. What oxygen are we making through all of it?
2. When was the last time you were in Manhattan and what did you do there?
I was just there two weekends ago, and I’m going again tomorrow. My brother lives in Brooklyn, so I go visit him from time to time. The last time I was there (President’s Day) my brother had to work, so I spent some time wandering around. That’s one of my favorite ways to experience cities. I’ve traveled a lot but I never get over the energizing feeling of getting to know a city by stamping my footprints all over its streets. I walked uptown through Hell’s Kitchen, then accidentally found myself in Midtown and tried to escape. So I ended up sitting in a park near the Hudson up in the 50s somewhere talking to my friends on the phone.
3. I’ve heard you quote James Wright. Who are some of your other poetic influences?
Yes, James Wright is one of my personal heroes. Everything he writes is touched with a huge sympathy. His son, Franz Wright, is heartbreakingly beautiful as well. But I have many heroes. Bashō once wrote, “don’t follow in the footsteps of old poets, seek what they sought.” In any case, Bashō and Kobayashi Issa, Po Chü-i, Sappho, and Li Po are all old poets I find myself reading frequently. In more modern times, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Jane Hirschfield, Frank O’Hara, Robert Bly, William Stafford, and many others. I find myself increasingly inspired by artists in other mediums. Erik Satie’s piano suites, for example. Edward Hopper—he did such amazing things with light. There was a man who knew what color loneliness is. I listen to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians very frequently, especially when writing. And, especially, Arvo Pärt. Charles Bukowski (not a very reverent man) once wrote that “Bach is the hardest to play badly because he makes so few spiritual mistakes,” and I think the same could be said of Pärt. I find myself drawn to his simplicity, his plainspokenness, and his lyricism. The Berliner Mass is one of my favorite pieces of music.
4. If New York is earth’s dream state, where might be some examples of earth’s more lucid moments?
Ha! What a great question. One that occurs to me is Manhattan—not the city built on top of it, but the island itself. I read recently that before the Europeans showed up, it had the most diversity of any place in North America. It was a garden, and we know how that turned out… I’m not interested in setting up false dichotomies between nature and humanity, but I sure think we can do better than what we’ve done. We are a part of nature, after all.
5. I found your poem to be very contemplative. Was this the mood you were going for?
This is a tricky question. I think so. It seems to be that all my work is born out of contemplation in one way or another. But I wonder, too, if all art must come from contemplation. The act of creation seems to want to take over a person’s entire attention.