Essay / Assay: Acceptance, Perhaps
Os Collaborator Nik De Dominic talks about his new book, Goodbye Wolf, available now from The Operating System.
Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
My name is Nik De Dominic. I am a poet and essayist. I am an editor of poetry for the New Orleans Review. I am originally from Los Angeles, California. I spent some time in Alabama, then New Orleans, Louisiana, and am now back in Los Angeles. I imagine there’s some deeper significance in that: LA->AL->NOLA->LA. Or at least a chorus, a song.
I teach writing at the University of Southern California where I also co-direct the university’s Prison Education Project. We offer faculty and student led courses at three correctional facilities in the region, as well as classes where USC students and students who are incarcerated are co-enrolled. We are also working towards creating re-entry resources at the university, a prison-to-college pipeline.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
This is a tough question. The whole questionnaire is. I either come off self-important or flip. Or, wait, what if I do approach the thing earnestly and people think I’m an idiot? Is now when I talk about generalized anxiety disorder?
Simplest answer — circular, I know — because I am. Here’s where we play the Popeye theme.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I drew as a kid. I still do but not well enough to actually do anything with it. Just well enough so when people see drawings, they go, oh, wow, that kind of looks like my dog; didn’t know you could do that. But as a kid, I certainly thought I was going to be an artist. But today, I wouldn’t call myself one.
I hesitate too to say I am a poet. Not because I don’t think I am (it’s different than the art thing; I actually publish this shit) but because when you call yourself a poet, meet someone at a party, people look at you like you’re a wizard — some mystical other of a forgotten fantasy world. That or they think Def Poetry Jam (RIP Kanye): a stage, rhyme, rhythm. Stages I don’t do and rhyme and rhythm, I don’t have.
So, I say a writer. I’m ok with that. It invites the least interrogation.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
I don’t have those definitions and I think it up to the writer to define that for herself. Here, it’s probably best to talk about my own shit. Many a wonderful poet and artist effect change with their work. I don’t think of my work doing that: I write bad jokes.
What the work does allow me to do and its larger and social role is to keep a job at the university. The university then in turn grants me access to spaces and populations I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I get to work with students who are incarcerated; high school students; college students from all around Los Angeles, this country and this world, and others, and they in turn get to then go out and define those roles for themselves, as writers and artists and community members. I am incredibly grateful and humbled for that.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle? Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
I’m a terrible worker. And I need mechanisms to get things done, both in practice (actual writing of the things) and in content (horoscopes/wolf poems — the exhaustion of that conceit drives the conceit).
I started the horoscope poems in ’14 as a result of Poem-A-Day thing I do with a group of poets where we write (or at least try to) a poem a day for April and November. It was initially started to combat NaNoWriMo (why let fiction writers have all the fun). In ’16 I began the Wolf poems in that same group.
I appreciate this archive project because if anyone were to anthologize my work say in 200 years, they’d have to footnote the shit out of it (what’s BEJEWELED? Who’s Miss Jackson?). Often I read contemporaries at like the big slicks (Poetry, NYer and the like) and there’s a wonderful timeless time to the language (The tree blossomed/hands cupped a blossom/blossom blossomed blossoms — the pieces could’ve been written today, thirty years ago, or three hundred years ago). And I’m endlessly envious of those who can strip the today out of the work.
But in both the Wolf poems and the Horoscopes, my interest is the contemporary and a larger critique on consumption (perhaps even self-indictment: I’m chest deep in this shit). I consume. I work through news, Facebook feeds, my phone pings, and those things are central to the book. The theme is that — that and sickness. Disease is the other driver.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
The poem-a-day stuff mentioned above. Also, I studied with Michael Martone at Alabama and fuck, can that guy exhaust a thing. In fact, one of the classes he teaches is a ‘hypoxic workshop’ where the goal is to produce, produce and then produce some more. The final poem of the book is a result of that workshop. I was cheating his instruction: if the goal was to produce as many pages as possible, how can I do that w/out actually writing, I thought to myself. BOOM, tiny prose blocks! There are other writers, too, ones that live in the ear. Too many to count. Probably you.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The title is about saying goodbye to disease. Letting go. Both in a sort of ‘fuck it’ but also in coming to terms with our mortality and failing bodies. Acceptance, perhaps.
I was diagnosed with Lupus in my late teens, early 20s. Cystic lung disease around 35. About two months ago I had open heart surgery to replace a failing aortic valve. And just yesterday, got word that the pulmonic valve replacement is faulty, that the fuckers have to go back in. OPEN HEART SURGERY II: THE RECKONING. It’s a litany of sickness. All before 40.
But the thing is, I’m not really that sick. I’ve been lucky there. The wolf, here, then is the representation of that sickness — in all its terror. And, too, everydayness, its banality.
I see 4–6 doctors every 3 months. My wife, Janna, likes to say no news is good news. But blowing an hour at the cardiologist for her to say, shit’s fine is frustrating. And then to do it again. And again.
The alternative however is the Saturday morning call when she’s on call, “Mr. Demonic, I want to discuss the findings of your recent echo. I’m a bit concerned…”
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
I think of poems as essays, or in the Montaigne sense, an assay; an attempt at understanding. These poems attempt to understand a contemporary condition — to find humor in it and to further explore the self.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
Someone finds it funny.
About the Author
Nik De Dominic is an essayist and poet. Work has appeared in Guernica, Los Angeles Review, DIAGRAM, Fairy Tale Review, Verse Daily and elsewhere. De Dominic teaches writing at the University of Southern California where he also co-directs the university’s Prison Education Program. He is the poetry editor of New Orleans Review and lives in Los Angeles.