Eliot White: Congrats on the debut collection. To get started, tell us a little bit about how you became a poet. What are some of your early influences? When was the lightbulb moment where you began to think of yourself as a writer?
Nathanael Tagg: Thanks, Eliot. Well, I definitely don’t fit the cliche of a writer as somebody who at a very young age started reading voraciously and writing. I spent a lot of time outside. I wanted to be in the NBA. Growing up, I was into sports more than literature. But in college I took literature courses and enjoyed reading that material. Eventually, I took a poetry writing class, and that’s where I started to see that I loved creative writing, especially poetry, since I was sensitive to the sound of language and tended to use images and metaphors.
EW: So you fell in love with the language and the experimentation of what language could do. Did you immediately begin working on publishing?
NT: After that poetry class, I stopped writing poems for a long time. I knew that publishing creative work was difficult. I could see myself as an English professor someday, but I knew becoming one was difficult. So I fell back on my plan B of becoming a high school English teacher. Right before I was about to student teach, I chickened out, and a few professors told me I should apply to grad school. I didn’t feel like a scholar, though. I didn’t know what my research focus would be.
It was about this time that I started to have what you could call a crisis of faith. I’d grown up in an evangelical Christian family, and I wasn’t going to church anymore. So two big issues were kind of plaguing me. What was my research going to be? Was I a religious or spiritual person anymore? Rather than find clear answers to those questions right away, I found myself writing poetry to process my emotions.
I distinctly remember one Easter morning. I saw a crow picking apart some rabbit carcasses. I thought, What an ironic thing to see on Easter morning. So I wrote a poem about that and sent it to a little magazine called Numinous, which published poetry that was spiritual, broadly defined. They published my poem, and I thought to myself, Okay, if I can publish something, maybe I should take my writing a little more seriously. And that’s what I did. During my free time, I wrote and published as much as I could. I had an MA in English, and I was teaching composition part time at several colleges. Slowly but surely, I realized I wanted to go back to grad school and earn an MFA in creative writing. I applied, got in to several programs, and decided on Rutgers. That’s where I wrote my thesis, which after years of revision, became my book.
EW: How formative was the MFA at Rutgers for you?
NT: Earning my MFA was a great experience, largely because of the excellent poetry faculty at Rutgers: Rigoberto Gonzalez, Rachel Hadas, Brenda Shaughnessy, Cynthia Cruz (all poets who had published several books and were active in the literary community). I went to their book release parties and hung out with them and other writers who are well known in New York City’s lit scene. I often crossed the Hudson River to attend events at Poet’s House, the KGB Bar, or one of the many universities there. Each professor encouraged me to try out various things in my writing, to discover what my poetry could be.
EW: How did you get from MFA student to author of Animal Virtue?
NT: The book’s cohesiveness didn’t come right away. For inspiration, I reread Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, Thomas Lux, and many other favorite poets of mine, whose work happens to contain a lot of nature imagery. That rubbed off on me. I also watched wildlife documentaries like Planet Earth. Learning about strange animal behavior gave me ideas for poems that would not only describe the animal behavior but turn it into a metaphor, sometimes to help me process my feelings about recent experiences. At some point, I realized there was already so much animal imagery in my poems that I could easily make the book more cohesive by putting animal imagery in every poem. So I did. Animal imagery is just one of many elements I use, partly as a means to an end. I usually try to pose significant questions. I’d rather not beat readers over the head with answers, which I don’t always have. But hinting, hinting toward several possibilities, is something I want to do.
EW: We live in a pretty jaded, cynical time. I think we like to pretend that literature isn’t always, in some way, about figuring out how to live. You could argue that much of literature is trying to explore that issue.
NT: Honestly, when I started writing poetry, I felt a little guilty that I was producing what seemed like pretty straightforward poems about wanting to live a better life. Sure, there’s meaningful ambiguity, but I appreciate when there’s at least one layer of meaning that any intelligent reader can find. I asked myself, Should I be more avant garde? Should this be more obscure? More influenced by language poetry? My professors at Rutgers told me I got into the program in part because they liked that I wrote to communicate, that I valued clarity, and that I was something of a seeker. I was given the green light to write stuff that had recognizable and soul-searching themes.
EW: And that’s the pursuit of an ageless task, right? The pursuit of innovation, new and experimental forms. It’s good to push those boundaries and stretch the limits of language. That’s part of poetry’s job. But the poet’s job is also to communicate what’s in a human heart at the same time.
I want to shift gears and talk about restraint in your work. I agree that you communicate clearly, openly. But there is a strong sense of restraint too. You’re from the Midwest, and there’s the stereotype of the Midwestern reservedness. Don’t over-emote, over-communicate. What do you think about that stereotype? How does it impact, if at all, the formal restraints that operate within your poetry?
NT: Yeah. I am from Iowa, and I have hard-working parents and siblings who can be a little stoic, and maybe we sometimes fit that stereotype of restrained Midwesterners. Like anything else, that can be a blessing or a curse. When it comes to writing, you do have to make decisions. If you compulsively go all over the place with your emotion or with the form, you can fail to communicate or can create other problems.
But I’ve had to remind myself, at times, that poetry is a form of expression. It’s a form of exploration, and I want to write from the full range of human emotion. You can do so, ironically, by using formal restraint to open up the poem. Maybe by writing the poem as a pantoum or by imposing a less traditional structure on it, you can better express intense emotion or generate surprising content. I learned this from Rachel Hadas, my thesis advisor and mentor, one of the best contemporary formalist poets.
I’ve heard many other writers say that by imposing formal restrictions, they end up saying things that they otherwise wouldn’t. They discover language. Plenty of my favorite writers, including George Saunders, emphasize the importance of making discoveries throughout the writing process. That’s part of why I always write with quite a bit of restraint. It’s generative.
EW: You mentioned earlier that you’ve always been attracted to the music of language, to what I sometimes refer to as sonic play.
NT: Yes. I come from a musical family. I have three sisters, and they all play piano. My mom taught all four of us to play piano. I’m a drummer too, and I’ve played in bands. I’ve always been instinctively drawn to music, and I see poetry not as music per se but closely related to it. Many poets, myself included, aspire to achieve what musicians have, to make sounds that can generate a heightened state of consciousness, even ecstasy, which may be a quiet ecstasy only experienced by writer and reader in private.
EW: That’s so true. I recently heard the poet David Whyte being interviewed, and he said that “Music is what poetry would be if it could.” Poetry reaches toward the purity of music even though it usually strives to mean something at the same time.
So, another really interesting element of your work is your level of self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness. Your tone ranges from detached observation to more intense hyper subjectivity where the “self” shows up in the work and intrudes to make a quiet revelation, a quiet self-discovery.
NT: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I’m always conscious of it, partly because I am a somewhat restrained person from the Midwest, who doesn’t want to be pretentious or narcissistic or solipsistic or too confessional. I don’t want to wear my self, my head, or my heart on my sleeve. I’m trying to create a work of art, a poem with a speaker, and the speaker is a composite of me and others, real and imagined. The speaker has certain exaggerated traits.
Many times, the self that shows up in the poem is there partly because I’m experimenting. For instance, I might be writing a dramatic monologue, a speech delivered by a persona, like my poem “Billboard Jesus.” The speaker of that poem is a highway billboard of Jesus. The billboard itself is speaking. It’s a composite of an object, the biblical Jesus, an imagined Jesus, and an ideal father. That poem is one of the most personal pieces in the book because the billboard is addressing a boy who’s a lot like the kid I was. The boy is kind of shy and reluctant to speak his feelings in his dad’s presence. He feels a little hurt because he’s a budding artist, and his dad is too worried about finances or whatever to take notice. So that poem shows how formal experimentation allows me to bring out some sense of self. I don’t look in the mirror and record what I see. I shape form and content and tone, and they inevitably become a mirror, among other things.
I’ve heard so many great writers say it’s about finding your voice. But what does that mean? I think it has to do with getting form and content and especially tone just right. That’s one of the most exciting challenges of crafting a poem, answering certain questions. What if the poem has this structure? What if this happens in the poem? What if the speaker says this, in this voice? How would this change the way the poem’s world works? One function of poetry is indirect self-exploration that expands your sense of possible realities. I’m always playing that worthwhile game.
EW: There are a couple poems, especially at the beginning of the collection, that deal with that father-son tension, like “Unloading.” It’s about a father and son running a load of stuff to the dump. Nothing’s really said, but a lot is said at the same time. You have some other poems that hint at relational tension, sexual or otherwise. And in “Unloading” you use the word “cost.” Do you explore the cost of human relationships intentionally?
NT: Not the cost of human connection but the cost of failing to strengthen that connection, the cost of letting things slide, you know, when maybe something should be said or gestured toward, when maybe there’s an opportunity to connect with a family member or significant other. Too often, we have the opportunity to deepen our relationships and choose not to do it. There’s definitely a cost to that. I was thinking about that, but I wasn’t consciously repeating the word “cost.” It’s cool that it happened organically. Ideally, literature takes on a life of its own beyond the author’s conscious intentions. I’m glad you noticed this and found it meaningful.
EW: I was thinking of the cost of any intimate relationship is like you have to give something to get something, and that’s sort of like the exchange and weighing of who’s giving and receiving what. Does that exchange have equal weight? Or is it imbalanced?
Another relational word that you use, in a number of poems, is “truce.” It’s such a simple, clean word. Are you using that intentionally throughout the collection?
NT: I’m glad you picked up on that repetition too, which was conscious and intentional. I actually had titled one iteration of this book Truce, partly because I’m thinking about what it means to live well within relationships. I’m also thinking about better ways of approaching religion or spirituality, nature or the environment. Also art. Some of the poems are ekphrastic; they function as art commentary. All this involves a kind of truce: navigating differences, finding common ground, compromising, and agreeing to disagree. It’s a give and take.
EW: Right? So there’s both a kind of calm and peace in the idea of a truce, but there’s also a sort of underbelly of unease. It makes me think of matter and antimatter. If they touch each other, they’re both destroyed.
NT: There is a violence to it. You could potentially kill a part of yourself or your agenda. And there is such a thing as too much compromise. There’s a kind of going with the flow for no good reason, and I think my personality causes me to do that more than I’m proud of. So I wouldn’t say “truce” is always a positive word, though it might be positive more often than not in my book.
EW: Earlier, you talked about religion a little bit and your upbringing. In the book, there are a number of poems that explore religious themes. It seems to me that the tone of a lot of these religious poems is really bemused, like you’re just having a good time exploring these ideas. And then other times it feels really uneasy or irreverent. Like it has some barb to it. And I think some of the poems go well beyond mere religion and toward a really rich yearning for a sense of wonder. So, my question is: How has both religion and a desire for a sense of wonder informed your work?
NT: That’s a big question. What’s the difference between those two things? Wonder is one of the best emotions you can feel. It’s a shame if anybody’s missing out on that. And religion is definitely a vehicle for engaging in wonder, or it should be. Oftentimes, it’s not, especially if you’re too worried about getting your dogma “right” rather than experiencing more of the world, nature, community, yourself. You start closing things down when you should be opening them up. Boundaries have their purpose. But so do openness and transcendence. Maybe some of my poems are kind of cynical and subtly or overtly critiquing some aspect of Christianity or fundamentalism in general that prevents openness or transcendence. But I think even in those poems, there’s some amusement, a kind of surprised joy that I can deconstruct the faith system I was given and nothing falls apart. I’m still me. The world hasn’t changed all that much, and maybe as a result of doing that deconstruction, I can be a little more at peace and functional. I can engage in a sort of reconstruction through reading and writing and other activities, many of which, oddly enough, often resemble what I gave up, minus the undue certainty. Maybe I can even inspire other people to do the same.
I also just like the idea of using Biblical allusions in a surprising, irreverent, but deeply spiritual way. I don’t know how well I’ve achieved that goal. I was afraid to approach the topic of my religious upbringing too directly in this book. For my next book, which I’m working on, I’m trying to go there a little more. For some reason, I’m not as afraid of it anymore. Maybe it has to do with having my first book under my belt and seeing that my family and others didn’t have a really negative reaction to it. I guess I’m trying to debunk the idea that an agnostic and poetic viewpoint is necessarily devoid of meaning and purpose and wonder. If you just look at the crazy facts that we glean from science or everyday experience, if you really pay attention, if you’re mindful, you’re going to feel wonder at some point.
A poem of mine that I wrote recently, which isn’t in this book, talks about how there’s a funny resemblance between natural phenomena documented by science and some of the miracles described in the New Testament. Jesus walks on water, and there’s an oceanographer, Sylvia Earle, who walks under water. She has worn a wetsuit and walked the ocean floor to study the life down there. Mary gives birth to Jesus. That’s the virgin birth. And there are documented cases of Komodo dragons giving birth without having sex. In the poem, I connect these births, which seem miraculous, to the recent birth of my infant daughter Jane, the most awe-inspiring experience of my life. “Miraculous” is almost too weak a word to describe it. And I could hardly contain my joy that my book and my daughter, both my babies, appeared at the same time, spring of 2018.
Making such connections between science and religion and personal experience keeps me interested in each part of that trinity, and I never feel the need to grasp for theology or any form of dogmatic thinking. That’s one thing I appreciate most about poetry. To do it well, you need negative capability. You have to sit with mystery and confusion without grasping for an easy answer. Poetry is a mechanism for inhabiting a viewpoint, or a state of consciousness, or an identity, or a personality that I didn’t feel allowed to inhabit as a fundamentalist Christian. In this way, my poetry is about individuation, self-actualization. The poet Rigoberto Gonzalez has called my writing a coming of age story in verse.
EW: Which poem starts with the line about science and religion?
NT: “Stained Glass.”
EW: Yes, page 59. In thinking about science and religion, both afford you opportunity to experience wonder, and that is the most important thing. The first line here is “science and religion struck a truce.” The poem considers how science and engineering is holding up this beautiful cathedral structure and making the religious experience possible.
To pivot off of this idea, this collection explores the relationship of humanity to the rest of the animal world. If we are we animals, primates, aren’t we therefore subject to the forces of nature? Or are we in some ways special, set apart in some way that elevates us? How do the answers to these questions impact the way we live? In the book you explore the ethical, philosophical, and theological implications to those questions. How does poetry provide you the tools to excavate beneath the surface of those questions?
NT: Great question. We are animals. We’re part of nature just like any other organism. We can seem to have more power and permanence than we actually do. We’re crumbling cathedrals that need reinforcement. We can think too highly of ourselves. We should take ourselves off our pedestal as much as possible. But at the same time, you have to acknowledge that we have huge brains and that we can create technology, which dramatically alters reality. And language is one of the things that sets us apart. Of course, other animals have what you could call language, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t allow them to manipulate reality as much. At least archetypally, the idea of humans being made in God’s image, able to make or speak things into existence (or out of it) makes a lot of sense.
One of the best things about poetry is that it’s an intense exploration of language that can help us see ourselves for who we really are. It can reflect our creative and destructive potential, unmatched by any other creature. When we’re more aware of that, we can become better stewards of nature, heal our relationships, and do a lot of other amazing things. Or at least better understand why we so consistently don’t do them.
EW: Once you mentioned to me that one thing that bothers you is when educated people feel like they know everything and they forget that knowledge is provisional. It’s contingent. It’s fleeting.
NT: Yeah, it’s frustrating to read the news, or have a conversation, or even read literature and see that people feel as though they have all the information and all the answers. There’s too much knee-jerk self-righteousness and outrage out there, not enough depth of thought and grace. There’s a big difference between virtue signaling and true virtue. My book’s title “Animal Virtue” alludes to both, our fake virtue as well as the real deal, which we might just be able to achieve. To do so, we have to bear in mind that knowledge is constantly evolving, and as you implied earlier, language does fail us. And we fail ourselves. And we fail each other. So it’s important to consider the idea of truce, but also humility. That’s crucial. If you want to write a good poem or improve yourself, and us, and the world, you need a lot of humility to do it effectively. So I try to keep my feet on the ground.