Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Nicole Terez Dutton: It feels like a very poignant moment where there’s a lot in the balance that is urgently necessary for us to address.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker, at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Nicole Terez Dutton. She is a poet, a teacher, and an editor. Welcome to our program today.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
Anita Walker: You know, I was reading some of the notes before you came on our program, and they talk a little bit about your interest in the power of the arts in social change and transformation, and it makes me think about we did a lot of work around the legacy of John F. Kennedy, our native-borne president, who’s legacy included the National Endowment for the Arts, but one of the things he said that always stuck with me is that, this is paraphrasing, that artists are particularly sensitive to injustice, and as a result, have a responsibility to speak out when they see it and really be leaders in social change, and we’ve seen this lately, recently, through history.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: Is that the way you think of it?
Nicole Terez Dutton: That is one way that I think of it. I think artists are sensitive, but I think that one of the things that folks are particularly aware of is just the power of observation and then that whole second, for poets anyway, the whole second kind of task of assigning language to the experience, and so assigning language is a way of thinking and it’s a way of kind of synthesizing that, the power of observation, and then also the thought, and so I think that it’s a natural kind of impulse too to speak truth to power, just by virtue of speaking truth itself.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Nicole Terez Dutton: And that is a really powerful act, and so my sense is that that kind of engagement with the world, that sensitivity with the world, is sort of manifest in the poems, and then the poems, of course, are meant to have an audience and meant to be sung and meant to be received by someone.
Anita Walker: You know, it makes me think of sometimes that things happen and you just sort of get numb and dull to what’s going on around you that might’ve, you know, generated a certain level of outrage at one point in time but we just plain get tired, and we run out of the right vocabulary. We run out a way to express it. Isn’t that what poetry is so particularly potent at doing?
Nicole Terez Dutton: I think it is, and I think that the– part of the project of each poem is to build language particular to the experience, so it’s a way to kind of reinvigorate our interaction with and our relationship to language itself, and if you look at poetry, you look at people, you know, making up words. I mean, the language is plastic, so it’s always building, it’s always expanding. It always can be made to accommodate new ideas, and so I think that there is always that aspect of play and there’s something generative just in kind of thinking about language as a way to convey experience.
Anita Walker: So you’re a poet but you’re also teaching poetry, and so you’re seeing the next generation come up through your classes–
Nicole Terez Dutton: Yeah.
Anita Walker: –and your students at Emerson and can you give us sort of a little insight into what the next generation of poetry is like, what you’re seeing and hearing from young, aspiring poets?
Nicole Terez Dutton: I’m so proud of the poets at Emerson. I also teach in the Solstice MFA program, so that’s a little bit of an older community. They’re still young and they’re still at the beginning of their careers, and I would say that one of the things that I’m most impressed by is their hopefulness and their willingness to be not only sensitive but vulnerable and to speak their own experience in a way that may help or be a brightness or be– to bear witness to really difficult personal kinds of experience for the sake of others. So there’s a real generosity of spirit that I would say that I see, and I can’t characterize the work itself as any one thing because I see people working in all different modes and some of them rowdy and some of them very sly and subtle.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Nicole Terez Dutton: But in general I just, I feel that they’re really– they’re very heartfelt and just so patently hopeful, in a moment where, you know, that’s an important kind of tool to have, hope. That’s necessary, because I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the negativity and als– not just negativity, just to be overwhelmed by the stakes right now. Like, we’ve– it feels like a very poignant moment where there’s a lot in the balance that is urgently necessary for us to address as a society, as a people, as a planet.
Nicole Terez Dutton: So it’s easy to become despairing, and I see that my students are willing and able to rise.
Anita Walker: You know, when you talk about the pressing issues that we read on the front page of the newspaper every day that has everybody worried, whether it’s climate change or issues around immigration, there’s probably people who would never connect poetry with overwhelming issues, and yet you spoke about them as if they’re such natural consequences of each other.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Well, I think that there’s a long history of poetry. You know, poetry carrying a people is– we have a long history of that in this country, but that’s a long international history, of the poets being the ones who actually are able to convey the story, communicate the history, provide a context for what’s happening right now, and so we have a long tradition of the poets being at the forefront of this kind of I want to call it like spirit holding, you know, so that people know that they’re not walking alone and that people are informed and armed, so I feel like this is old.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Nicole Terez Dutton: This is an old tradition that folks are carrying on.
Anita Walker: I want to talk about you a little bit. When did you know you were a poet?
Nicole Terez Dutton: I started writing poetry when I was really young. My mother loves poetry, so it’s all her fault, you know, it’s–
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Nicole Terez Dutton: She–
Anita Walker: It’s always the mother’s fault.
Nicole Terez Dutton: It is.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Nicole Terez Dutton: And so she brought Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and, you know, she brought so much poetry into our house and that was a part of our lives, and she also always gave us the sense– I have two siblings– that of course we could participate. Of course poetry was accessible and a part of a conversation that we could include ourselves in, having read other poetry. We could, of course, create poetry, we could write our own, and of course, there was a need for the poetry that only we could produce. So I think that that’s something from a very young age that I had a sense of.
Anita Walker: This was you. This was your voice, poetry.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Sure. Sure, and that was encouraged. When I– I was the poet laureate for Somerville, the first poet laureate for Somerville, and one of the things that I was really impressed by when I was doing that work was when I would go into the community and I would talk to folks, and people never felt like they had agency to write poetry. They never felt like they could really understand poetry. They felt that poetry was one thing, and so it was really wonderful to say, you know, to provide them with examples of poetry. First of all, this is really diverse. There’s a thousand different kinds of poetry. There’s all– as many different people there are, there are voices there as, you know, poetry to convey their particular truth, but then also, a lot of folks didn’t feel like their stories were worthy of poetry, that they had something to add, and so when we started having the conversation about who they were and who their families were and, you know, the community, Somerville itself, we had a couple workshops just on place, and the city of Somerville, the way that it’s transformed over the years, and people found that they had a lot to say, and then they had these, they had all these memories, and then they found like, “Oh, yes. This is something that I can put into a poem,” and then when they tried it they recognized, like, that their ability to build a poem was, you know, it was more than they had anticipated and they were pleasantly surprised with that. So that was a beautiful thing to see, that people really could recognize that this is something for everything, for everyone. Poetry is something, and has something, for everyone.
Anita Walker: And you don’t have to buy an instrument or have equipment or–
Nicole Terez Dutton: No.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Nicole Terez Dutton: And most people have language and, you know, multiple languages, and so we can– you just tap into who you are and what you already have, and that is enough to bring to the table.
Anita Walker: In your classes with, again, young, aspiring poets, you talk a lot about the creative process. What do you mean by that?
Nicole Terez Dutton: You know, essentially, it’s two things. First is it developing that capacity to observe, and so that requires that one, you know, you have to acquire, you know, develop a sense of stillness in order to be able to even just look and take in information, and then the second thing is to be able to translate into language whatever that is you are observing, and to practice that. I guess the third part of that is to read widely and wildly, because again, you– we’re not really trying to build poems that just live in our sock drawer and in our journals and in the back. You know, like, that’s fine if that’s– that’s fine that that happens, but ultimately, we’re building poems because we want to connect with each other. First with ourselves, then with each other, and so we do want to read and understand what has– conversations have happened around us before and then also think of the ways that we can add to that, in a way that only we can, our unique and individual way.
Anita Walker: I hate to ask this question, because there’s such a lovely quality about this conversation about poetry and making poetry and what it means, but there’s this little evil bird on one shoulder saying, “How do you make a living at that?” I mean, people are going to school and paying tuition to learn how to write poetry and then what?
Nicole Terez Dutton: That’s a great question.
Nicole Terez Dutton: That’s a good question. My sense as a writer is the commitment to the work is different than the commitment to making money and making a living from the work. Those are two totally different projects. If they can overlap, beautiful, wonderful. But I don’t feel that they have to, and I feel like if I tasked writing poetry with supporting my family, then that would inevitably affect the kind of poetry I was building, and I, you know, I love writing poetry and I love what it affords me personally in terms of like the peace of mind and the practice of it and the community around it, and so I wouldn’t really want to have to infuse that with this other kind of obligation, but also I think that poets, this kind of training, this reading, this critical thinking, this meditative practice, this observation, this considering other people, the cultivation of compassion and empathy and patience, because any writer or any craftsman will tell you that you have to practice and practice and fail and keep failing and fail and fail and fail and continue, you know, your work in just kind of practicing your tools and how to use them and even deciding what merits your attention as a project. You know, those are all things you have to work on, and those are skills that I do think are really transferable. So these are people who are able to go and sit in a room and learn all different kinds of critical thinking skills and all other kinds of writing and, you know, these are people who do make good lawyers, because they have a beautiful relationship with language and the specificity of language and how language can be deployed and what the connotative and denotative heft of all of the words might be. So these are people who do have skills that they have developed or let’s say there’s other occupations that these skills can lend themselves very handily toward that may have higher salaries attached to them than just a poet.
Anita Walker: <laughs> You mentioned the poems in the sock drawer. What abou– I mean, accessibility. It’s a conversation with people who read the poems. How do poets engage the conversation through their poetry with others?
Nicole Terez Dutton: Well, you know, I feel like I don’t want to say something that is prescriptive, because I think everyone has their own relationship with what they are trying to accomplish with each poem and each project of the poem and how they want that to enter the world. Because I do think, you know, because Emily Dickinson wrote some beautiful poems that she kept in her drawers, you know, and she wasn’t necessarily interested in where and how the poems would travel after she received some very negative feedback on the poems, and so it was really important to her for her process that she keep writing those poems and that they not be burdened with the expectation that other people may put on them when they’re received. So that is– I think that’s valid, that’s totally valid. But I think that there’s all different ways to answer into the conversation. I think I’ve seen really commonly that people will respond to a specific piece of art or respond, like, have a response to a particular poem or event and that will be acknowledged, and so that’s an easy way for a reader to track where the moment of this poem or the inspiration of this poem or the specific– map it to the specific conversation that it intends to be part of. So those are really direct ways to respond in ways that your reader can follow, and then in terms of accessibility in general, I feel like I– for creative folks I– well, I tell students not to worry so much about that. Because my sense is that if you can be clear and if you can be– if you can write something that’s honest, then people will be able to– it will resonate. You know, people will be able to hear that, and then, you know, there’s a lot to do with taste, and if it’s not someone’s taste then maybe that’s not the poem they’ll gravitate toward. Maybe it’s something else, but that can’t be your– that can’t be a thing to be preoccupied with while you’re in the process of building the poem.
Anita Walker: Would you be willing to share some of your work with us? We would love to hear a poem.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Absolutely. Absolutely.
EVERY ANSWER IS YES
And guitars burning us up, quick
as malaria, strapped into the hind bucket
of second hand Buicks, speeding
away, always, and always dumbstruck
by the drums trundled in our bones
the whole interstate home. We love
the basement band drenching us
cottoneared. We love our pomade
and polyester bodies smashing
their atoms against other bodies,
our habit of becoming massive
bumper crops of noise. Sharpened
with sweat and honeyglaze, we are
kindling, snake hips swerved to
iced Ohio hairpins, we are tucked chins
and tuned limbs set for everywhere
past curfew, past subdivision tree lawns
crackling black grackle like alarm clocks.
This blood hollers all the linking verbs
by heart, the joules inscribed within
congruent and uprising integers, the many
ways in which we are not small and not sleepy,
but born of a pure velocity. We are burning
through cassettes and frost-stunted
tulips. We love the way we carry
powerchords in our teeth and wind loops
around the block with time to kill, we love
and we love, and it doesn’t ever matter
if we get there.
Anita Walker: That’s beautiful.
Nicole Terez Dutton: Thank you.
Anita Walker: <music begins> Nicole Terez Dutton, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit creativemindsoutloud.org.