TreeHouse recently chatted with writer and performance artist Nate Maxson about his history writing poetry and what the art genre means to him. Maxson is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Age of Jive and The Whisper Gallery. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, discovered poetry as a youth the way other people find religion or drugs, and hasn’t looked back since.
TreeHouse: When did you start writing poetry and how has your work evolved over the years?
Nate Maxson: I started writing poetry as a teenager, a combination of really angsty stuff and then for a while I wrote poems that worshiped the ground the Beats walked on (this is in the early to mid 2000s) and as far as my work’s evolution I’d say that it took me a number of years to find my own voice to, but on a more concrete level: length; I used to write much longer poems and now they rarely go over a page or two. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that I don’t HAVE to bludgeon the reader into submission (a desire distinct to the very young), partly because when somebody is reading a 12 page poem that very desperately wants to be “The Wasteland” but is clearly not, they’re probably gonna stop reading after the first page or two.
TH: Do you have specific subjects you tend to explore more than others in your writing or are they more a reflection on your surroundings and emotions?
NM: I have my own set of stock images and themes that pop up again and again throughout my work with such frequency that every so often I say to myself,“nope I already used that concept once this week, let’s try something different.” But I also tend to hammer at a single object in a number of poems for long periods of time. For a while I was writing these cryptic poems about catholic saints (even though I’m Jewish, but that does seem to be a thing) and then I was writing poem after poem about birds and classical music. I write on a subject, ideally until I’ve just about exhausted my interested in it. As to emotion in a poem, every once in a while I’ll write a poem that comes out of how I’m feeling but it’s not something that occurs all the time. Not to say that how I’m feeling doesn’t seep into what I’m writing but it’s rarely ever a process of “I’m sad, here’s a sad poem.” They’re mostly all sad poems, but that’s neither here nor there.
TH: You not only write poetry, but also perform it. Do you write all of your poems with the intention of them being performed as a monologue or does it depend on the situation and/or work?
NM: I used to perform more than I do, when I was in college I was performing between three to five times a week for over three years straight around Albuquerque so during that time period I was writing exclusively for the stage but now it’s a little bit different. I’m confident enough in my work that I can make most of it happen on stage if I put my mind to it but it’s only every so often that I have a piece that screams to be done live like that. At the same time I think one of my goals has been to reduce the difference between my stage voice and my page voice and I think I’ve at least gotten closer to that balance since I stopped focusing exclusively on live shows.
TH: You describe poetry as “the space between being awake and being asleep: a deliberate hypnogogic state where dreams and what we assume is the real world ebb and flow into one another.” Talk to us more about this meditative balance–do you think the dream-like state of this intermingling can serve as a filter from the harsher aspects of the realism it also contains?
NM: “The stuff that dreams are made of,” as Dashiell Hammett by way of Shakespeare once put it. I put a lot of stock in dreams and the writing process is, for me, a way of attempting to conjure up the states of dreaming or create a permanent record of liminal objects. As to it filtering out the harsher aspects of realism… that’s a complex question. My real life does filter through into my poems, just like it does in dreams, but I don’t go for it deliberately. I’m not a big fan of heavy handed “message” poetry which isn’t the same thing as straight up realism but they are connected. I view poetry almost in terms of alchemy, like I’m working towards some unknown or unknowable factor that I’m never quite going to get. There are ingredients from what’s going on out in the world and sometimes they’re very obvious but I never intend to put them there. As for poetry as an escape from reality… I don’t know if it is that so much as it is a an alternate view of reality, a funhouse mirror or even a view of an alternate reality, as sci fi/ crackpot-esque as that might sound.
TH: Any creativity advice for other artists?
NM: I don’t believe in art as a hobby, or if it is treated as a hobby it’s always going to come out half-baked and subpar. Embrace your delusions and rush headlong at them until you die. I think that you have to let art be the difference between yourself and annihilation. That’s my equivalent of an uplifting message.