An Interview with Daniel Nester
Daniel Nester’s writing has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Open City, Nerve, Daily Beast, Best American Poetry, Time Out New York, The Morning News, Bloomsbury Review, Poets & Writers, and Bookslut. He most recently wrote How to Be Inappropriate, a collection of personal essays. In November 2009, Elizabeth Hildreth interviewed Daniel Nester for Bookslut. They discussed, among other things, finger weenies, why it ain’t easy being a clown, variations of moon/moon as an act, the Outfield song “Your Love,” leaving New York City, why poetry makes us sick, and “the reverse-cowgirl” compared to “in vitro” as a process of conception (not a conceptual process).
This morning I was at the doctor's in the exam room, reading my copy of How to Be Inappropriate. I found myself nervously glancing up at the door every few seconds, hoping she wouldn't walk in and catch me with my finger weenie out. I actually skipped reading the book altogether in the communal waiting room, not wanting to scare my neighbors by pulling it out and letting everybody see the front of it. Did you think about the effect the cover would have on your readers' ability to read it and maintain some level of appropriateness? Have you read this book or carried it around, cover fully exposed to strangers? Who thought of the art? What were your second choices? And most importantly: Is that or is that not your finger?
First, it is not my finger. It is, as far as I know, the thumb of Alvaro Villeneuva, the designer of the cover and best known for his design work for The Believer. Some people who play the finger-weenie prank as a regular practice have pointed out to me that the thumb isn’t the usual wiener stand-in; it’s usually the index finger. This might change according to region.
Second, I had no second choices, as far as I was concerned. As soon as I saw the finger-out-the-pants cover prototype, I was all about it. I thought it was fabulous. Villeneuva thought of the art, and he presented several prototypes at first. All of them were pretty great: a moon sticking out of a pair of pants, an Atari 2600 joystick as a phallus, zippers unzipped. One thing that struck me is that the designer read the book and got the high-low concept, the broad humor and also the (at least I hope) intelligence of the book.
Me, I carry around my book quite proudly, although I avoid public contact as a rule these days. I didn’t think about how someone reading the book in public on a bus or train might present an issue for people. I don’t think the cover is that, you know, out there, although I must tell you that since the book was placed in the glass window of my college’s bookstore, there have been some requests to take it down. Nothing too crazy.
That being said, I think the cover, like its author, is trying to attract attention, and then when attention is given, goes, “What? It’s no big deal!”
You do teach at a Catholic school, right? I guess there are a few people who may not like the "finger" waving at them from out of its trousers on the way to class. But why write this book anyway? -- a collection of stories that could have come from a series of "Most Embarrassing Experience" writing exercises. Is this the "You Can't Get To Me If I Get to Me First" strategy that Rabbit (Eminem) uses in his freestyle battle in 8 Mile when he's all,
I am white
I am a fuckin' bum
I do live in a trailer park with my mom
My boy Future is an Uncle Tom
I do got a dumb friend named Cheddar Bomb
who shoots himself in the leg with his own gun
I did get jumped by all 6 of you chumps
And Wink did fuck my girl
I am a piece of fucking white trash
I say it proudly
And fuck this battle
I don't wanna win, I'm outty,
Here, tell these people something
they don't know about me
I guess I could have quoted less of that. I really love that movie though.
I don’t think people are trying to “get to me,” as I guess Rabbit/Eminem does. To think that assumes people are (a) thinking about me, at all, and (b) strategizing on how to get to me. It’s useful I guess in a rap persona?
For me, writing-wise, I believe there is revelation in embarrassing situations, embarrassing stories. I think it’s a way to establish human connections, a window into other people’s true nature: embarrassment and doing wrong things is a feeling and impulse everyone has had. I wouldn’t put myself in the same category as, say, Spalding Gray, but the way in his monologues he provides all neurotic information and then some while telling a story is something I aspire to do.
The Eminem lyrics you quote just breeze right past me. I’m not a fan. I think his use of the term “white trash” in that quote is lazy at best, offensive at worst. I equate it with the n-word, and no rapper calls him- or herself that the way he uses white trash here. I’ve never seen the movie, though. The only time I really appreciated him is when Queen and Paul Rodgers played the intro to “Lose Yourself” for their live concerts. I’m more of a Kool Keith/MC Paul Barman kinda guy.
The idea of mining for revelation through embarrassment is interesting. Though I would argue that people probably ARE out to get you. Like Eminem once he reads this. Funny you should mention Gray. I was obsessed with him about a year ago, listening to his monologues at work. They made me so uncomfortable and squirmy, I wanted to take off my headphones and walk away. Yet, hours later, there I sat. Like Gray, you lay bare all your worst flaws, and, yet, the reader/listener walks away rooting for you. Your establishing human contacts by doing “wrong things” idea reminds me: This summer I was in the mountains outside of Barcelona with a Spanish poet, lying on the ground, looking at the stars, when she confessed to me, “For a while I was in love with a clown. It didn’t go anywhere; he left me -- for another clown, actually. Most people don’t understand: becoming a clown is one of the hardest things one can do; to do it well can take an entire lifetime. But the more you embrace failure, the more human you become -- and the more human, the more open to love and be loved.” I wanted to ask her more, but we had had a lot of whiskey, so all I could think was, “You mean, clowns clowns?”
Now that I’m sober, let me ask you this: Do you think your next book will be cut from the same clown cloth, i.e., be “humorous”? I hate that word. I read a review of your book in Time Out. Even though the reviewer thought your book was hilarious, he thought your strongest essays were the more serious ones. I agree. Though I wonder if the combination is part of what’s at work here. Is, for instance, “Goodbye to All Them” all the more touching because it’s butted up to, say, “Mooning: A Short Cultural History”?
I think I will always “go for the funny” in everything I write. I have a couple of projects on the burners, and one I plan on returning to is a memoir about my father. He’s a pivotal person on my life, even though he left my family when I was 17. Maybe that’s why he’s pivotal. I don’t know. Anyway, I wrote a full-on first draft of the thing, all 300 pages of it, and it came out very dark, very serious and sad. I suffer from depression and all kinds of anxiety, and there are connections I wanted to explore in my past, and my stories about father inevitably came up. The “Garden Path Paragraphs” chapter at the end of my book, the one about my wife and I trying to get pregnant and in vitro fertilization and teaching, that used to be part of this “father memoir”; it was the narrative framing device. Then we got pregnant again, without outside assistance, and that sort of took out the drama from the framing device. So I reworked it a bit, put in a couple funny stories in there, and it became a standalone piece. I did it sort of on a whim near completion of the book, to tell you the truth. But I am glad I did. And people’s reception of that chapter, as well as the “Goodbye to All Them,” gives me confidence that maybe I can go back to the father memoir, see if I can get the whole emotional spectrum in there. My father had a lot of problems, so do I, but I got my strange-ass sense of humor from him, too. There are happy memories there, too.
I like writing about dumb shit, too. I wore skinny jeans for a couple of weeks and wrote about it. I just wrote something about my love for the Outfield song “Your Love.” That stuff is going to have humor, sure. And if there’s some pattern to the stuff I am writing along those lines, some way to make a cohesive collection, I’d like to collect them. Whichever comes out first!
Yesterday I listened to “Your Love” so I could refresh my memory, and now it’s on a running loop. This morning, I almost busted out to the older-ish woman standing next to me: “You know I like my girls a little bit older!” So thanks for that. What makes you love that song? Speaking of doing dumb shit and writing about it, your essay about entering the world of fake tanning was enlightening. My husband, an artist, doesn’t like words, so there’s no way he’s reading your book. He read a page and said, “Well. I tried.” But he was looking over my shoulder at the tanning photos and was quite excited for you: “He’s really getting a lot tanner!” Maybe you could call your next book The Nester Experiments. Maybe expand the tanning experiment to an entire year of tanning/tingle cream use? Include a month of skinny jeans. A close reading of “Your Love.” Maybe try to see if it’s possible to survive for three months on an apple and three walnuts a day -- like my friend John Tabone. According to John, “I read it was possible, and now I know it is. But I was in bed, almost the entire time. Too weak to do anything but lie down.”
I do like doing those experiments, although I feel like I have a limited amount of ideas to make it work. I love George Plimpton’s accounts of playing for the Detroit Lions and the Boston Bruins, boxing Sugar Ray Robinson. A.J. Jacobs has sort of taken up that torch with The Know-It-All and The Guinea Pig Diaries. I’d like to think mine carve out their strange, high-concept territory. I could see me doing an immersion journalism-style book someday, but it would have to a really good idea; Jacobs’s old intern, Kevin Roose, has a book about spending a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University called The Unlikely Disciple, which sounds interesting. Maybe I could teach there for a semester.
What makes me love “Your Love”? Are you freaking kidding me? That song is the fucking jam. It’s got the hook, the drums, the power-pop guitar; it’s like a new standard. Everyone covers it now. I’m waiting for it to appear in cabaret shows at the Café Carlyle, like when my wife and I saw Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell. That was awesome. They did our wedding song, “Wichita Lineman,” but also “Up, Up, And Away,” “Galveston,” even “MacArthur Park.” It was epic. Anyway, I would love to hear everyone sing “Your Love.”
You think all those go together? Skinny jeans and “Your Love”? I’d love if all those and other things I have been writing come together into a book. We’ll see. Maybe eating nuts is the missing link.
Nothing goes with "Your Love" like skinny jeans, are you kidding me? Except maybe nuts. Eating nuts + “Your Love”? Look up “missing link” in the dictionary; that’s the def, I’m pretty sure. Speaking of nuts, let’s talk about their neighbors: The Moons. Though I said above that I actually preferred the more serious stuff in your book, I make an exception for “Mooning: A Short Cultural History Essay” -- specifically the section “Variations of moon/moon as act.” [Note: The variations I’m about to list are just a few; in the book the list is like 5 pages long.]
Banana Split, male handstand with legs spread
Black and Blue Moon, bruised moon
Blue Moon, a.k.a. Sexually Frustrated Moon
Chocolate Moon, mooning following by defecation on floor, lawn, bottom of pool
Cruise Moon, a.k.a. Tom Cruise Moon, mooning with sunglasses atop buttocks
Double Hogback Growler, a.k.a. Full Moon Stick-Out plus Salad-Tuck Under
Fried Eggs, a.k.a. Boobs on Glass
Fruit Bowl, moon with penis and testicles visible
Gobbling Turkey, same as Double Hogback Growler, except with jumping
Hanging Brains, a handstand in moving car, with mooners lower naked half, e.g., buttocks, genitals, sticking out of sunroof
Humpback Whale, a.k.a. Free Willy Moon, resurfacing pants-less in a pool, lake, or ocean
Paper Moon, moon with toilet paper still stuck to self or underwear
Pooning, any variety of legs-apart mooning by a woman
Pressed Ham, a.k.a., Ass on Glass
Shaking Moon, a.k.a., Shakira Moon
Turtle Head Poker, moon with a bit of poop coming out
Walking Away While Pulling Down Pants Moon
Why mooning, a short cultural history? And in the acknowledgments, you thank Operation Moon. How’d that work? How’d you choose your team? What was the editing process? Where there any close contender variations that didn’t make the final cut. Like, say, “Boon”: Somebody mooning while simultaneously booing, e.g., a referee, a local politician, that guy from Creed.
The initial impulse to write about mooning came from reading, rather randomly, an article on JSTOR, a scholarly database. I forget what I was researching, but when I came across Jeffrey S. Ravel “The Coachman’s Bare Rump: An Eighteenth-Century French Cover-up” (Eighteenth-Century Studies, Winter 2007: 279-308), an account of how, on on January 21, 1763, a coachman for a French nobleman mooned the audience after an opera performance, I just got lost in the whole mooning business. And I liked the idea of an essay being a collection of Real Knowledge, the whole notion of authorship really being that of a collector of other’s thoughts, not just personal musing yadda yadda yadda. I knew there were several nicknames for varieties of mooning -- the pressed ham, for example, or the plumber’s crack -- I sent out an email asking for different kinds of moons. I got a whole bunch from several corners of my life. Some passed along the email to people whom they knew would have names for different moons. Thank god for email, no matter what that John Freeman says. I wanted to give them all credit, so Team Moon it is!
There was a surprising amount of research that went into that Moon essay; I noticed that. So, Dan, I gave a poetry reading last night for the first time in TWENTY YEARS. Which made me think of you -- specifically your essay “Goodbye to All Them” in which you describe the circumstances that led you to leave NYC and, more importantly, poetry. That essay... I’ve read it like five times already -- I keep going back to it, it’s so comforting to me. Let’s put it this way: when I first read it, I was so blown away that I immediately read it out loud in its entirety to my husband -- to whom I’ve been trying to explain this “Poetry as ‘Self-licking Ice Cream Cone'” phenomenon for years. The essay hit me hard because, like you, I left NYC, and then poetry for a long time. Part of it was, as you describe, slowly becoming disgusted with the pack mentality and being trapped in a circular world the size of a marble. And then once I had a baby who was critically ill, I was totally out, completely underground. Everyone always says that in times of uncertainty or struggle or grief people turn to poetry. To me, it couldn’t have seemed more small and stupid.
Still, I remember this aching loss, for years, that I couldn’t really express to non-poets -- who would say, who cares? -- or to other poets -- who would say, who cares? too, but for different reasons.
I remember when I saw you at AWP last year, the first thing you said to me was, “I quit the poetry stuff! I’m writing nonfiction now, gonna see if I can really do it.” Does nonfiction seem more legit to you -- because of its wider reach or its roots in journalism or because there may be more objective measures in place with which to assess quality and judge merit? And do you still miss poetry? Do you still write poetry? Do you miss New York City? Thanks for writing that essay -- as noted and noted and noted above, it kicks serious ass. And I didn’t think it was bitchy, as was noted in the sub-description in the book.
The pat answer I have been giving, or maybe the Pollyanna one, is that I walked away from poetry, and maybe someday I’ll go back to it.
The answer I feel comfortable telling you, now that you’ve told me your story and framed the question in a way that sounds like you understand where I am coming from, is that poetry makes me sick. When I think about all the effort I put into writing poems, being a poet, reading contemporary poetry, it just makes me sick. These days, if I read a poem now of a certain kind -- one that avoids feeling, a speaker, or making any connection with the reader, of which there are many -- I feel sick. I think I called it “aloof disengagement” in the book. My pet theory is that kind of disengagement comes from people thinking being a poet is some offshoot of being an indie rock person or some shit. When it comes to, say, punk rock or alternative or whatever, aloof disengagement works. As an artifice. But that kind of personae doesn’t translate well, both interpersonally or in the work, in the world of poetry. The trouble is, no one can tell it doesn’t work. No one can really measure if a poem is good or not. It’s all a voucher system based on mutual fear; it depends on the previous generation bringing people into the fold. Whole books of poets publishing other poets, poets going to see other poets read. It’s an unsustainable system. Even the most niche of niche art forms have an audience. Not so with contemporary poetry.
Shortly after I told everyone I was leaving New York to teach nonfiction writing, I realized that whatever community of nonfiction-type writers there exists out there, I’d much rather be part of that than a poetry one. Like, I don’t know if this story will translate, but when I told one poet person I was going to teach nonfiction writing, the first thing she asked was whether I had read William Gass’s On Being Blue. I hadn’t by then, and when I told her, she was taken aback and all know-it-all about it. Instead of just giving me a tip on a book -- and a very good one, I’d add, and one I teach now and love -- she used it as a yardstick to determine if I was worthy, in her eyes, to go off and teach nonfiction. Now, I could have counter-rattled off some books that she hadn’t read, and we would have had one of those Have-You-Read-Offs like countless other nights in New York, but I just let it go. I let New York go. There is nothing else at stake in a poetry scene, and particularly in a New York poetry scene, than feeling superior to the other people with whom you are poetry-scenestering.
I know that this is all largely reactionary to my own situation, and it springs from my own neuroses. Sure. And no one wants to admit that what he or she had been doing for 20 years was all for naught. For me, it was an utterly liberating experience, both writing about leaving poetry and actually doing it.
But did you go through that kind of sadness that I mention? I wrote while I was off the map -- a novella, hundreds of dirty greeting cards, part of a screenplay, tons of journalism stuff -- but I just missed sculpting words in that particular way. Working on a poem gives me something, a feeling, that, for me, doesn’t come from other kinds of writing. I’ve never been a heavy scene-ster; I’m a head-down clickety clacker, so I’m glad it’s back; it’s serving me well. Still, like you, it makes me sick when I think about it too hard. So does eating meat when I think about it too hard. But, in the end, I like my charred flesh and my Rilke -- sometimes together. It seems we’re leading parallel lives. First our abandoning NYC and poetry, then our IVF experience. Remember when I read your IVF essay, and I wrote you this email last February?:
BTW, read your IVF nonfiction piece. Unapologetically had IVF. I hear you. When people would ask me, all snotty, "Why wouldn't you just ADOPT?" I would tell them, "Medical records, you know? Adoption agencies want them. And they don’t want them to look like mine. "Oh, well, then, why not be a FOSTER parent, there are tons of kids who need foster homes?” And I would explain, “Well, most agencies require that foster parents have at least a few years of experience with parenting before they take abused, abandoned, disabled and/or antisocial children into their home and out of the state's care,” thinking to myself: “And I don't have experience with kids, you see. Because, as I’ve explained, I'm infertile and can't have kids, you fucking nutjob." Anyway, really liked your essay.
This essay “Garden Path Paragraphs,” your IVF essay, it’s ALL nitty gritty, so many details. I was reading it, and it started coming back -- the physical process, the desperately trying not to be desperate, the creepy vocabulary (IUI, HCG trigger shots, corpus luteum) that you could have never anticipated having a use for. Did you just take really detailed notes while it was happening, and then refer back to them, or were you writing this while it was actually happening, or are you some kind of an IVF savant or what? Was your wife okay with you writing this? Warning to readers: This essay is sad. I cried. Not just because I had IVF; I’m pretty sure I would have anyway. You know the part that struck me as really sad, Dan? When you’re basically ready to have a nervous breakdown and then you say, “Still, the students didn’t want to have a faith crisis. […] one student asks, ‘Why is it we just can’t have our own beliefs and live with that? The authors we are reading, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Isaac Asimov, are people, just like us. So why is it okay for them to put ideas in our head that completely rearrange the way we have been thinking?’ In the classroom I start to feel shaky, like the onset of a migraine. ‘I feel like a father to these children,’ I say to myself.”
I think a lot of what happens in a classroom echoes a parent-kid dynamic. I try to avoid engaging in that as much as possible and just talk about what they need to know to get something out of a class. But there is that mentality, more pervasive that I’d like to think, that the purpose of college, or liberal education, is supposed to reinforce, rather than question, one’s core beliefs. It depresses me, and makes me think that college has turned into a trade school. Which it has, I guess. Never mind that students don’t even know what kind of jobs will exist by the time they graduate.
Funny. I am now writing this answer to you after coming home from Chicago, where you live. You put me up in your apartment in the middle of the city, which you share with your husband and twin daughters. We hung out in all those years ago in New York, and now I’ve gotten to see you as this responsible adult as a mom of two supercute munchkin daughters -- the product, as it were, of your IVF -- and your husband. We talked a lot about these and other subjects when we were hanging out and I was reading the funnier parts from my book at my two readings there. So it’s a little strange to revisit this stuff on email.
I did have a nervous breakdown during this period. Several, actually. I was trying to succeed at my new job, which in my eyes wasn’t going so well, and my wife and I were going through all these trials to start a family. They were all related in my mind: the job for which we moved away, the family we were trying to start, all made me face my own demons. And I felt pretty helpless and depressed. All I could do was pay attention in a way that made me feel really tired and really useless. And during this time, poetry offered no relief. All that aloof disengagement and forced wittiness made me feel more sad than enlightened. I listened to Joni Mitchell and watched sitcoms.
Writing about it after it was all over with was therapeutic. I wrote really fast so I wouldn’t overthink it; I wanted to write about it as dispassionately, with the least sentimentality. I included it in the book, in the end, because when I wrote about IVF before, in The Daily Beast, many of the comments said how it’s somehow inappropriate or oversharing to talk about infertility or the trials people go through to start a family. One libertarian blogger douchebag wrote this big post, which he in turn pasted into the comments on the story; something along the lines of, Well, nobody is really interested in how your wife got pregnant, the same way no one wants to hear about the reverse-cowgirl Britney Spears used to get pregnant the first time. Setting aside that I myself might be interested in how Spears got pregnant, there are no support groups for people who get pregnant in the reverse-cowgirl position. His point, I think, was that nobody was interested in how people get pregnant. Which is, of course, complete bullshit. And to make it taboo or shameful is bullshit, too. My wife had a complete online community that helped her through our ordeal. And although she’s not the most vocal person in the world, she completely supports me talking about what we went through. She drew the line at me taking penis enhancement pills, however; that’s when I got 10 of my old friends to take it and wrote about it that way.
I like your decision to include it -- glad you went that way; thank God for libertarian blogger douchebags. I also like that this interview in itself could be considered inappropriate. Thanks for helping me make it so -- reverse-cowgirl style. (I have to go look that up now.)
Elizabeth Hildreth met Daniel Nester many moons ago at NYU’s creative writing graduate program. She works as an instructional designer and writer in Chicago.