Nick Courtright’s poems are definitely earworms (brainworms?). After hearing him read at Paging Columbus this past summer, I couldn’t get certain lines out of my head (the final line of “What I Have to Say to You” is a good example, even out of context: “day, night, awake, asleep, dead, alive, alive, alive, alive.”). The poems in his book, Punchline, are memorable and brave in that they explore Big Ideas (philosophy, science, God, the afterlife) in diction that is precise and vivid. But what makes me recommend this book so heartily is Courtright’s voice, which resonates with sincerity, humor, empathy, and curiosity.
After the interview below, read “Regret” and “What I Have to Say to
You,” which appear with permission of the author. To purchase Punchline,
Q: In so many of your poems in Punchline
(such as “Regret”), you address a being/presence that cannot answer
you. Your book is full of ghosts. Maybe this is what all poetry
does--intimately addresses a reader who can’t talk back. I’m curious--do
you envision a reader when you write? Who do you feel you are speaking
to, and why? How does communication work in your poems?
This is a great and frustrating question, mostly because it makes me
reflect on the fact that all writers are shouting “Hello!” into the
void, and only sometimes does an echo return. We are forced by the
nature of the medium—the phone call made to an answering machine who no
one listens to, or, a bit better, listens to but does not return the
call—to send out our ideas and hope someone hears, and I suppose the
poems in which I address someone, whether it be a “you” or the “ghost”
of the poem “Regret,” it is tacit recognition of this. Or maybe it’s a
manifestation of the plight of all existential and philosophical
inquiry, that wanting to know the truth even though nothing ever comes
down to say what the meaning of life is, or where we are from, or what
will happen to us in the end. That aloneness is always there in poetry,
and in our lives, but it’s our job to be happy with it, because there is
no other choice.
See, I told you that was a great and frustrating question!
for whether I envision a reader, I don’t, necessarily. I do envision
what my inspiration would think, though: would Kabir or Rumi or Solomon
or Mirabai or insert wise folk here be okay with this? Would they
approve of my attempt to be wise like they were wise? Solomon would
probably call it “vanity,” so I have to watch out for that. And if there
is a modern day reader, I imagine her or him as someone not necessarily
looking for entertainment, but looking for enlightenment, for a better
way to live, to be shaken up spiritually and come out better for it.
Whether they will find it in my work is not for me to decide, but that’s
the reader I want, and who I imagine may be on the other side of my
In the end, I do want to communicate to people,
and I hope to help people find beauty. They don’t have to find that
beauty in my poems, but I do want my poems to encourage them to seek
beauty in their everyday lives. Because beauty is everywhere. If
there’s anything I want to communicate, it’s that.
Two poems from Punchline
To call a fire alive, to call a ghost awake,
to call a ghost asleep, or to call it on the phone,
pressing redial one two three
four twelve twenty-one times
and always being sent to voicemail. It’s your first love
again, and it lives.
At what point does the fire die,
does the ghost pick up the phone and whisper
I knew you’d keep calling
until I answered, so now I’ve answered, what is it you
have to say to me?
What I Have to Say to You
We are bound to this earth, and no matter how
we try to leave
we still are bound.
No rocketship spiraling into the thin openness of time
changes that, no bootstrap shenanigans
hightailing their rubberpeeling
path into history
where the future rests on an old desk
like an apple.
One apple who is just that,
core, seeds, stem, meat, skin, in many ways the apple
causing the fall of us
from the ideal and into this:
day, night, awake, asleep, dead, alive, alive, alive, alive.