OPA: Nancy, in this your 5th collection of poetry, do you notice any changes in your poetic, and if so in what ways?
AM: This particular collection is one written over a period of decades, poems I’ve been writing while living in Northwestern CT as a response to the seasons, thus there is a variance in voice and tone.
The earlier work is more about capturing an image, exploring it without a narrative. The poem “Sticky” is a good example of that. Of late, my work is more voice driven. I unpack the image metaphors more and incorporate them in a going narrative as in “Let’s Not Pretend.” This makes the poems less stiff and opens up the reach of the metaphors. They perform their duties more completely in the thrust of a story.
OPA: Are you a stargazer, and does the constellation affect you work?
NAM: Not at all, and I’m not even a horoscope girl although I came to America in the 60’s. However, I am always thinking of my sea captain ancestors out on the sea with the stars overhead to guide them. It is a permanent archetype in my psyche, one I am strengthened by.
OPA: This new collection is entitled, Star Map, how did you arrive at this title?
NAM: The book is about my interpretation of the seasons as a Bermudian, seeing my environs from the perspective of an islander. My writing about such is a way to locate myself, place my body in the landscape.
I had a grandfather who traveled a lot and kept a log of his everyday life much like former sea captains in my lineage. He sent these diaries around to the entire family. I think of my writing poems as keeping a log of sorts, as a place I locate my being like one might out at sea. The star map metaphor comes from the line “The frost on my windshield with/ connecting white stellar shapes/ is a star map to guide me.” Yes! To guide me in a new country, to guide my journey in my car (Such an American metaphor for being!), and to announce that my poems are the maps that make my journey happen, possible.
OPA: The last line of the title poem intrigues me, “its slit eye, a tongue slips through, speaks.” It’s vivid, revealing, yet mysterious. I am curious about the tongue that slips through and manages to speak. Sounds like a coup. Can you speak about the trajectory of this poem?
NAM: A coup is a good word here. I had to learn to speak about the loss of my island as when I first came to America the transition was an invisible one. I did not have to learn a new language for instance, and Bermuda was a known to the community I moved into. However, that knowledge was in a skewed context. It was the knowledge of a privileged tourist destination that postcolonial writers, myself included, write against.
There was no concept of the backstory of slavery in that perception, nor an awareness of the true complexities of colonial life because of the silence around my home country caused by a lack of island literature to bear witness to it. Thus, people would often say to me “I didn’t know anyone came from Bermuda.” It was such a dislocated and trivialized place in their minds –one that existed only for touristic exploitations by consumers. So when I began to write about Bermuda there was a lot to write against and for. And like many writers what I had to say, put down in poems was sometimes uncomfortable for my longstanding family there. In that sense I must say writing in exile from afar had its advantages.
OPA: The poems are primarily about winter and snow, with a few scant references to you home, Bermuda. What is the setting, and where does Bermuda reside in these poems, in your life away from Bermuda?
NAM: Bermuda is my North Star. The location all other locations are seen from. The Bermuda landscape is inside me. The New England landscape is outside of me, although my poems have mapped my way into it. Thus I, of course, see the bucolic environment around me through a semitropical one, and hence a comparison is always present. I’m employing contrast by what Coleridge referred to as “the likeness within the unlikeness.”
As a poet, I generally think of writing about the seasons as comparable to life drawing. It is a really good place to improve one’s skill as nature is so immense and already very daunting to approach. And in the case when I’m writing about Bermuda as a direct subject, winter itself provides a vacuum for memory, creates an almost sublime aesthetic distance, a removal from the lush island life which hones one’s skill to recall it, bring it back into being. Exile has its perks.
OPA: Is poetry your first and primary medium?
Yes! Although painting orders my mind and there is a way that my Semitropical Paint Huts bring the island environment stateside. Keeps it close so that it facilitates my writing poems about Bermuda. My poetic language is highly visual because photography taught me to observe the world, and painting to physically embody it. Both inform how I take it in and write about it.
OPA: How do you know when the poem is done?
When it is satisfying enough in carrying a narrative, an observation and also when the formal aspects of it, tone, diction, imagery, are doing the best job they can and are” bringing things together into a unity which is original, interesting and fruitful” to quote Schwartz.” The judgement that it is good enough, happens on an intuitive level when I am mostly satisfied, and hence can let it go.
I am an advocate for sending poems out because that final read before you send poems off to another editor will make you really hone the poem in the manner Wilde describes as “spending the morning putting the comma in the paragraph, and then spending the afternoon taking it out.”
OPA: Which of the senses would you say is strongest or more dominant in this collection?
NAM: I would definitely say the visual as I start poems from image metaphors that I log in my notebook. The sense of sight carries the weight of the poem. It is the cell that Rilke speaks of when he says: “Somehow I too must discover the smallest constituent element, the cell of my art, the tangible immaterial means of expressing everything.”
OPA: The poem, “Summer’s Beggars,” has a nostalgic tone, walking on the beach, collecting shells, idle and idyllic. But life is never that simple or is it?
It all points to going to the ocean at the end
of the season where wave by wave summer
is covered, buried taken into the deep. Shells
are scattered at the edge of the tide, loose
change falling out of the rim of a skirt
for me to pick up, summer’s beggar. I will
bring a large conch back, itself a whirl,
a turning. Place it on my shelf to stay still,
slow. A snail crawls endlessly through winter.
If it was that simple, there would be less art in the world!
NAM: To quote Cernuda: “The poet tries to fix the transitory spectacle that he perceives. Each day, every minute, the urge to arrest the course of life falls upon him, a course so full at times it would seem to merit an eternal continuation. “In “Summer’s Beggar” the collecting of shells, the hoarding of that which held something as the shell itself is imprinted with what it contained, all of this is a metaphor for writing poems, collecting the imprint of the world in language. The conch in my work (ever since my first chapbook titled Conch), is a container for the voice of the subconscious (i.e the ocean.) So bringing the conch back is bringing back the voice for my work which unfolds, unravels, spins, yields slowly through the absence of place as Simone Weil notes when she states: “We must be rooted in the absence of a place. We must take the feeling of being at home into exile.”
OPA: Are you currently working on a new collection?
NAM: I am sending around a collection to publishers titled Island Bound Mail with some interest so far. I am beginning to start another collection titled Boiling Hot. So yes, I am busy and am forever aware of what Eliot implied when he said: every attempt/ Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure/ because one has learnt to get the better of words/ For the one thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.